Quick Reviews on Video: October 2017

I am so busy with my two new jobs that I haven’t had time to write any reviews, so I have taken what is laughingly known as the ‘easy way out’ by filming myself talking about some books I have recently read and ones I am currently reading. 5 crime novels, one Israeli apartment block in Tel Aviv, an Argentinian in France and a sweeping Hungarian family saga. Pretty much par for the course…

[I should stop apologising for my awkwardness while filming – static camera and a very movable person do not mix well.]

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September Really Was the Start of New Things

When I wrote the August reading summary post, little did I know that September was going to be a month of such considerable changes in my life and reading. It is still early days to fully assess the impact of these changes upon my reading and writing life, but it is clear that my blogging and tweeting will have to take more of a back seat for the time being.

Personal changes

The first major change was that I finally got a full-time job with my professional HR hat, and a much more interesting one than I had dared hope for in this era where immigration law and payroll specialists reign supreme. The job is in Central London, so that adds a couple of hours to my working day. I hope to learn to use my commuting time and lunch hour productively, but it’s still work in progress.

The second piece of extraordinarily good news is that I have been accepted to work as a Marketing Manager for the ambitious and lively international literary journal Asymptote. Since embarking upon my online literary life in 2012, I had always admired the work it does in the field of translations and bringing the world closer together via literature and the arts, but I hadn’t dared to hope that some day I might be involved with it myself. If you haven’t heard of it and if you have any interest in world literature, I would strongly encourage you to take a look. [Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I, now that it’s part of my job!] It includes fiction, poetry, non-fiction, essays, critical reviews, drama and visual arts. It will be challenging to dedicate a few hours each week to this on top of my job, but it will make up for my disappointment in not being able to find a job in publishing. My sanity saver, in a way.

Please remind me I said this when I start complaining I’m going insane with all the work I have to do!

Reading summary

The number of books is not that high but somewhat misleading. I only wrote down one Margaret Millar novel Beast in View, when in actual fact I reread about 5 of them so I could decide which to include in my reassessment of her work for the Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September feature.

Other than spending time in the company of the queen of domestic tensions and noir moods, I also read other mostly equally ‘cheerful’ books set in Sardinia, the English countryside, the Bordeaux wine regions, Colombia and Madrid, Bristol, Finland and Australia. A nearly perfect balance this month: 9 books in total, 4 women writers, 5 men, 5 translated.

Margaret Millar: 2 volumes of her complete works in the Syndicate books new edition.

Grazia Deledda: After the Divorce, transl. Susan Ashe – to be reviewed for #EU27Project, even if she was ages before the EU

Laura Kaye: English Animals

Santiago Gamboa: Return to the Dark Valley

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen: Requiem in Yquem (Winemaker Detective), transl. Sally Pane

Antti Tuomainen: The Man Who Died, transl. David Hackston – review to come on Crime Fiction Lover, noir slapstick with a poignant undercurrent, also to review for #EU27Project

Richard Flanagan: First Person – review to come on Crime Fiction Lover, although this is not a crime fiction novel by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a haunting psychological cat and mouse game

Eshkol Nevo: Three Floors Up, transl. Sondra Silverston – life in a contemporary Tel Aviv apartment block, to be reviewed for Necessary Fiction

Gratuitous October picture from last year in Geneva

As for my Goodreads challenge to read 120 books this year (I deliberately set it lower than usual, knowing that I would be busy with job hunting and possibly work), I have now read 110 of 120, so am on track to complete it possibly this coming month.

Hello, October, welcome – I look forward to all the challenges you might bring!

 

Quick Reviews: Santiago Gamboa, Laura Kaye and Helen Dunmore

Sadly, I have little time to write leisurely reviews, so I thought I’d better write these short impressions, before too much time lapses since I read the books.

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk

Having previously enjoyed Dunmore’s novels and having mourned her death earlier this year, I read her last novel with a rather biased view and excessive attention to detail. The strange, uncomfortable marriage of John Diner and Lizzie Fawkes seems to me to be a metaphor for death, and our own twisted relationship with it: longing for it, fearing it, trying to make sense of it, blinding ourselves deliberately to it at times. Above all, there is the dread of being forgotten, of leaving nothing behind – like the unmarked headstone of John’s first wife or the lost works of Lizzie’s writer mother Julia.

This is a slow-moving novel, far too slow perhaps for many readers. It relies upon gradual building of layer upon layer of atmosphere and characterisation. Sometimes the reader jumps ahead with conclusions (certainly in one scene, if they can read French), but the author won’t be rushed along. I won’t lie: initially it was a book that I returned to willingly but not with particular impatience. By the end, however, I grew to love it and it left me with a sense of uncertain chill but also profound satisfaction. If we slow down to the pace of the narrator, we can more fully appreciate the poetic language and allow ourselves to be fully attuned to the story. I enjoyed the beginning of The Essex Serpent more, but I enjoyed the ending of this one more.

Santiago Gamboa: Return to the Dark Valley (transl. Howard Curtis)

I haven’t read Colombian author Gamboa’s previous novel Night Prayers, where two of the characters in this novel first make their appearance. But the novel stands up very well on its own: if you can accept a rather zany stop-and-start beginning, where we move from one point of view to the next. It’s like putting your eye to an old-fashioned kaleidoscopic tube and waiting for the bright colours to resolve themselves into a pattern, but then they morph into something different. We meet troubled Manuela trying to make her way out of poverty and abuse into a life of poetry and love – and being thoroughly let down along the way. A fastidious consul searching for his beloved Juana, whom he wants to rescue from a life of prostitution. Tertuliano, a fiery Argentinian preacher with pronounced racist tendencies. Last but not least, and somewhat surprisingly, the poet Rimbaud, restless lifelong seeker, a devil with the face of an angel. Somehow, all these stories mingle against a backdrop of terrorists holding hostages in the Irish Embassy in Madrid and a newly prosperous Colombia trying to forget its vicious paramilitary past. This tale of learning how to hate and demand revenge is often surprising and has some memorable scenes set in a rather cruel (and uncomfortably familiar) world. It has conviction, but lacks coherence, to my mind.

Laura Kaye: English Animals

At times satirical, at times sad, this is a fearsome and fierce, but not savage depiction of cultural differences. Mirka is a young Slovakian girl who takes on a job as a housekeeper/trainee taxidermist in an English country home. Her bosses Richard and Sophie are by turns generous, chaotic and self-absorbed. Their marriage is a bit of an unknowable mess and puzzles Mirka, and she gets involved more than she should. Some of the secondary characters are completely outrageous, but Richard and Sophie are more like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby: ‘careless people, who smash up things and creatures’ – only in this case they hunt and stuff them. It’s the carelessness which grates more than anything. I suspect that if this book had been written by a non-English person, it would have been far more vicious, and perhaps all the worse for it (but perhaps also better for it, it’s  hard to know). I’m thinking of A.M. Bakalar’s corrosive depiction of cultural differences in Madame Mephisto.

 

When Poetry Meets Essay Meets Memoir

Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which I recently read for the first time and am already rereading, puzzled me. It’s a memoir mourning the death of a relationship. It’s also a series of numbered mini-essays, meditations and aphorisms linked to the colour blue, in its literal and metaphorical manifestation. At times, it reaches poetic intensity, but this is not what we would usually describe as poetry. (Foyles had it displayed in the poetry section, however.) It is the prose-poem mix and research-intensive, allusive type of poetry which has become fashionable in recent years:  practised by Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Ariana Reines and Bhanu Kapil. (There are plenty of earlier examples of it, but it seems to be much more mainstream now.)

I like each of the above-mentioned poets and I liked this book too, if we think of it as poetry, as sudden illuminations of a dark area of the human heart and mind. Vignettes about loss and pain, where the anguished cry of hurt and anger is kept at bay through careful selection of information, data points, quotations. Mediated through this semblance of rationality, the unruly emotions can be filtered for public consumption, unlike the angry, self-pitying outpouring on a blog for instance (just talking about myself here). So a very useful device for passionate writers who want to avoid descending into self-pitying bathos .

135. Of course one can have ‘the blues’ and stay alive, at least for a time. ‘Productive,’ even (the perennial consolation!). See, for example, ‘Lady Sings the Blues’: ‘She’s got them bad/ She feels so sad/ Wants the world to know/ Just what her blues is all about.’ Nonetheless, as Billie Holiday knew, it remains the case that to see blue in deeper and deeper saturation is to eventually move towards darkness.

138. But perhaps there is no real mystery here at all. ‘Life is usually stronger than people’s love for it’ (Adam Phillips): this is what Holiday’s voice makes audible. To hear it is to understand why suicide is both so easy and so difficult: to commit it one has to stamp out this native triumphance, either by training oneself, over time, to dehabilitate or disbelieve it (drugs help here), or by force of ambush.

The author acknowledges this distancing effect. By writing things down, by finding words to share certain moments or feelings with others, she is robbing those moments or feelings of their mystical power. Which can be both good and bad. It might work as a way of overcoming sorrow and loss, but at other times it feels like you’re giving up something too precious:

193. I will admit, however… that writing does do something to one’s memory- that at times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve. Perhaps this is why I am avoiding writing about too many blue things – I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.

Maggie Nelson, from Goodreads author picture.

However, there are two objections or hesitations that I have with this kind of writing. First, if it is poetry, it is too much ‘telling’ and not enough showing. I don’t think rationality and emotion have to be at odds with each other, but when I read or hear poetry I like to feel as if the poet is reaching directly inside my chest and pulling at my heart, or has seen directly into my head and made me aware of things that I’d previously hardly dared to voice. It’s very much like Emily Dickinson said: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ There has to be something unspoken and ungraspable about it. It encompasses all of the poet’s feelings, plus mine, plus so much more.

Secondly, when this type of book is supposed to be a novel, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculationit feels to me like an incredibly lazy way of handling a story arc. Vignettes, no matter how well written, avoid the connective tissue and real plot development. Perhaps it’s a trick writers use to hide their lack of ideas for plotting. It’s as if I were writing the exciting scenes of a novel but leaving out all the links between them, anything which might explain character development (other than the narrator), or running away from the saggy middle because I can’t think how to improve it, or chickening out of a proper ending because I’m afraid I can’t handle it.

This is not the case with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, but I now feel the urge to read her The Argonauts, which has a clearer narrative structure, to see how she handled that. While I agree that modern life is messy and oddly dislocated, it is:

a) Not a new thing: Modernist literature is entirely predicated on this loss of innocence and decline of society.

b) I don’t see why coherence has to be sacrificed to describe messiness in fiction. Perhaps in a time of confusion, we need the boon of structure more than ever, supporting us just enough so that we can play freely within it.

The Last of the Holiday Reading – August 2017

September is still full of ‘back to school’ vibes for me, not just because of the children. I always make my resolutions at the start of September and look back on my holiday thoughts and reading, even if I don’t always have a holiday in summer.

It’s hard to estimate how many books I read in August, because for the last week I’ve been diving into endless amounts of poetry books and some slim Japanese novellas which I am not counting as full-sized books. Aside from that, however, I’ve read 12: 3 for #WITMonth, 3 other translations or foreign language books, 4 review books and 2 library books. 7 books were by women, 5 by men. One thing is clear: I have had the privilege of reading some outstanding and memorable books this past month.

Women in Translation

Elena Varvello: Can You Hear Me? – coming of age, spooky atmosphere, spare prose style, participant in #EU27Project

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War – gripping, heartbreaking, unforgettable

Ileana Vulpescu: Arta compromisului – trying too hard, too polemical and cerebral

Other Translations

Pascal Garnier: Low Heights – one of his more attractive offerings, mordantly funny in parts

Dumitru Tsepeneag: Hotel Europa – ambitious, interesting concept, not quite right in execution

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet – a book to brood over for the rest of my life, entry to the #EU27Project

Reviews or Features

Lin Anderson: Follow the Dead – mountain climbing, blizzards and North Sea Oil – very atmospheric

Chris Whitaker: All the Wicked Girls – judicious combination of laughter, tension and tears set in small-town Alabama

Attica Locke: Bluebird Bluebird – more personal less political, but simmering with racial tension, review to come on Crime Fiction Lover

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle – disturbing classic to be featured on Crime Fiction Lover

Library Books

Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – joyful and elegant like a Fred Astaire dance

Mohsin Hamid: Exit West – great premise but a bit disappointing in execution

 

 

Summer Update on #EU27Project

What is lovely about the #EU27Project and its easy-going nature is that it bubbles along nicely even if I somewhat neglect it occasionally. And that is thanks to all of your contributions, dear readers and bloggers. Let me try to summarise, however, what has been added to the bouquet of links over the past 3 months. We now have a total of 70 reviews up there (although I have to exclude 4 which are either duplicates or errors) and, for the stats fiends amongst you:

From Urbanexpression.org.uk
  • France leads the way with 12 reviews
  • Austria is punching well above its size with 9
  • Germany and The Netherlands have 6 each
  • Denmark and Italy are next, with 5 each
  • Ireland and Finland have 4
  • Poland and Belgium are on 3
  • Portugal, Croatia and Czechia are on just 2 each
  • And poor Spain only has 1 review – thank you Lizzy!

We have had the good fortune of attracting some new contributors. Marcelle is a Norwegian booklover who blogs at Lesser Known Gems. As the name indicates, she likes finding the less obvious classical authors and books which deserve to be more widely read, and she does so from a very international perspective. She has added some Portuguese, Italian, Austrian  Belgian and Dutch gems to our links page. In fact, her puzzled review of Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce made me seek it out to read and make up my own mind.

Emma from Book Around the Corner has also joined us with a review of short stories by 1920s Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz.  And I’m delighted to say that Maphead has come back after a long absence with a Croatian entry.

Elsewhere, we have plentiful and excellent reviews from Jonathan, Susan Osborne, Lizzy’s Literary Life, The Book Satchel and Booker Talk. Some of our earlier contributors have taken a wee bit of a rest (as I have myself, so who’s to blame them?), but I hope they will remember to link some more of their reviews in the future. In the meantime, there is plenty catch up on here, if you just click on the Mister Linky button at the bottom of the page, you will see all of the countries, books and blogger names. Please feel free to add your own links, even if they are books you’ve read a few months ago. The more the merrier!

European Union flags outside EU headquarters in Brussels

So my conscience is now telling me it is high time to pay some attention to previously unreviewed countries. I still have that collection of poetry from Malta. I have recently acquired a Latvian book High Tide by Inga Abele. I’ve kept mentioning Miklos Banffy (Hungary) and Javier Marias (Spain). On my ereader, I’ve got mainly German and French authors, so I will leave that aside for the time being.   Above all, I keep meaning to review Romanian authors – and have indeed read quite a few in preparation, but then decided that they weren’t quite right for this project. Maybe I’m being too fussy.

What countries from the EU27 would you like to know more about? What have you read recently which opened your eyes to a whole new culture?

 

 

 

Books I Expected to Love, But…

There are plenty of mediocre or badly written books, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Instead, these are books with an interesting concept, well written, but which somehow missed the mark with me. Perhaps I was expecting too much. Perhaps I am suffering from a comparison disease (‘I would have written this differently’). Or perhaps the writer’s style just didn’t click with me. So these are three recently read books which disappointed me, sad to say. They won’t be featuring on my #EU27Project page.

Dumitru Tsepeneag: Hotel Europa

This was going to be precisely my cup of tea: a sarcastic, world-weary Romanian writer who has emigrated to France, is suffering from writer’s block, and is tracing the path of a young student (and his mates) during and after the fall of Communism in Romania and through an increasingly hostile Western Europe. We transition abruptly from past to present, imaginary to ‘real’ as the writer communes with his fictional characters, amalgamates them, invents new stories for them, identifies with them, makes himself part of the story. It’s a playful metafiction as well as a road trip with many memorable moments and plenty of nasty characters.

And yet it lacks universal appeal: there is something there that will be comprehensible or relatable only to those who have a very intimate understanding of recent Romanian history. And even those readers (like myself) might get a little bored towards the end. The events described are often shocking, occasionally funny, but above all repetitive. Simply too long and confusing.

Mohsin Hamid: Exit West

Another one I really wanted to like, but the rather cold omniscient narrator did not work for me. I believe this is intended to be a sort of modern fable. In that case, I would have preferred it to have more magical or surrealist elements, while still depicting the harsh realities of being caught up in a town under siege or being unwelcome refugees. A sort of universal parable of being unwanted. If it was intended to be a moving depiction of refugee plight, then the tone was too detached and it could have done without the appearance of mysterious doors as shortcuts to other parts of the world. 

The parallels between the gradual disintegration of the home town and the unravelling of the relationship between the two young lovers was the most interesting part, but I felt insufficiently invested in them emotionally. It seemed more a relationship of convenience or because of the lack of other opportunities rather than real love (and that is perhaps what the author intended, but it was a missed opportunity to make us feel more on their behalf). Above all, I found the alternate random events happening simultaneously in other parts of the world a distraction which added very little to the story. Or perhaps I am too dim to understand its metaphorical import.

Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului

This book simply tries to fit in too much. It tries to be a fresco of Romanian society during and after the fall of Communism, how so many people are compromising their ideals and values in order to survive, while others clearly have very little moral scruples to compromise at all. Yet there are simply too many people, names, stories. The whole book becomes a series of conversations about the events and about other people, with everyone making speeches which sound rather preachy and political. It almost feels like the author would have been better off writing a series of essays to express her disappointment with the way Romanian society was developing at the time. Or else she should have stuck to a much narrower canvas, the story of just a few people, with more actual show than tell.

[Oh, and this is not the author’s fault, but the cover is truly awful, what do you think?]

Do you have any books like that? Which you liked in theory or on the blurb and then just didn’t get along with them in real life?

P.S. I will be on my poetry retreat all of this week, and I’ve heard the WiFi and mobile phone reception is pretty dire there (that was one of the reasons I was keen to go). So I may not be able to respond to your comments right away. But do leave one, because I will be in touch when I get back.