August and #20BooksofSummer Summary

I did really well with my August reading – perhaps a combination of less busy period at work and the boys spending the second half of August in Greece. So I did no cooking and the bare minimum of cleaning or gardening, and instead just read a lot and watched films.

So this month I read no less than 14 books, of which the majority (eight) were for #WITMonth, and seven of them also fell into the original #20BooksofSummer plan. Eleven of the books were by women writers, four were crime or crime-adjacent genres and three were non-fiction (this last is probably a record for me, as I tend to read very little non-fiction).

In case you missed any of the #WITMonth review posts, here they are again:

In addition to the #WITMonth reading, I also read and reviewed Stamboul Train by Graham Greene and a memoir of Eton College.

However, it was very disappointing to realise that although I did get to read all of my 20 Books of Summer (with a couple of last-minute swaps), all of them on Kindle (which I still see as very much a second-rate kind of reading experience) in an effort to bring down my formidable TBR amount on Netgalley… my feedback ratio has only gone up two percentage points – from 53% to 55%. So I would say it was definitely not worth it! I also made it more difficult on myself by sticking to a different theme each month: the latest releases for June, the oldest on my Netgalley pile for July, and Women in Translation for August.

This strictly regimented approach over the past three months had me very nearly losing my pleasure of reading. There were two books I abandoned, which is still a rare occurrence for me. Throughout this predominantly Kindly experience (22 out of the total of 34 books read since the start of June), I had to alternate with some physical books, either from my own bookshelves, or more frequently random ones picked up from the library, to ease my restlessness and mounting rebellion.

Therefore, September will be a month of rest and relaxation, reading whatever I please, at whim. If the library books I fancied when seeing them on the shelves there fail to grip my imagination once I get home, I will return them unread, without a guilty conscience. My beautiful new edition of the Cazalet Chronicles is winking at me from the bookshelf in the hallway, so I might plunge into that. But am I ready for six books in a row? There are a couple of books I want to read (in the original languages) for Corylus purposes, but other than that, I’ll be free to roam…

Well, I say that, but I will be reading Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees for the London Reads the World Book Club (@LdnReadstheWorld on Twitter) and Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River for the Virtual Crime Book Club run by @RebeccaJBradley, plus I want to read a lighter book set in Durham, as if in preparation for my older son going there to university… etc etc. Or, as the French would call it, et patati et patata!

#WITMonth: Minae Mizumura and Mireille Gansel

Also #20BooksofSummer No. 18 and 19 (with a bit of cheating – I did not have the Gansel originally on my list, as it is not an e-book, but after attending the BCLT Summer School, I had to get it)

Now that I’ve written at length about all the soul searching these two books provoked in me, it’s time to actually engage with them as a reviewer. I am a bit sorry that they don’t get a review each, but I have left it too late to get all the reviews done for #WITMonth.

Minae Mizumura: An I-Novel, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter (in collaboration with the author), Columbia University Press.

It helps that Juliet Winters Carpenter is one of my favourite translators from Japanese currently working; it also helps that I had already fallen in love with Mizumura via her longer, later work A True Novel. Add to that the very relatable subject matter, and this has the potential to become a classic on my shelves. The author is a linguist and academic, and shares much of the biographical detail with the protagonist (also called Minae Mizumura) in this novel. Of course, ‘I-novels’, where it is difficult to disentangle what is fiction and what is memoir, have a long tradition in Japan, and this was published in Japanese in 1995, long before the current crop of popular ‘autofiction’ titles in English.

The story takes place over the course of a day, mostly through telephone conversations between two Japanese sisters, Nanae and Minae, sparked by the realisation that it’s the twentieth anniversary since they first arrived in the United States with their parents as 14 and 10 year olds respectively. The older sister Nanae did her best to become Americanised and blend in, while Minae mythologised the country she left behind, reading only Japanese literature, never quite mastering the English language, longing to return for more than a holiday at some point.

The format of the book was revolutionary at the time: it was printed in the style of the Latin alphabet (horizontally and from left to right), as well as being liberally sprinkled with English words and expressions, to the point where it was even considered a ‘bilingual novel’. In the English translation, these English originals are highlighted in the text by using a different typeface.

As the sisters talk, they discover new things about each other, beyond the assumptions they had about how they felt between two cultures and their relationship with their parents. Aside from the personal search for cultural identity, however, the book is also full of sharp and very candid obervations of cultural differences and racism. The Japanese tend to think of themselves as culturally and materially superior to the other East Asian nations, so it is a huge shock to the girls to discover that they are simply mistaken for other Asians.

I was forced to realize something that had never before entered my mind: I was Asian. In this country, a Japanese girl of privilege was above all Asian. To remain a Japanese girl of privilege, I would have had to stay at home on the Japanese archipelago, insulated from the rest of the world. In the wider world, only white people could be truly privileged – people who, if they were thoughtful, might bear a sense of guilt over their unearned privilege or at least feel it to be a burden.

The gradual discovery that I was Asian wasn’t shocking in and of itself. The shock I felt came from being lumped together with people whom Westerners regarded as Others – as did I… To be lumped together with those whom in some hidden corner of my mind I had always blithely congratulated myself on being distinct from was worse than shocking. It was humiliating.

There are likewise some thought-provoking scenes about what the West expects from other cultures (i.e. stereotpes, most frequently). For example, in one of her English classes with a very supportive teacher, Minae writes an essay about her favourite autumn moments, in which she relies heavily not so much on her personal experience of Japan (which she can barely remember, and which was more urban than rural), but on what she has gleaned from reading Japanese literature:

That compostion Mr Keith praised so highly might well have been a mere string of Japanese platitudes. Could commonplace emotions and unoriginal expressions… transform into something more remarkable when rendered in a different language?

Is this what is appreciated in the Western world because this is what we expect and want to see of Japan, rather than messiness, a variety of styles, Western influences and so on?

At some point, Minae starts wondering about her own almost perverse stubbornness in wanting to write in Japanese, a much less significant language than English on a global scale. You cannot help but think the author herself is expressing her own surprise at her choice, but also reiterating her commitment to her mothertongue.

The book was written at the time of Japanese economic boom, when many young Japanese were studying or living abroad. As the sisters discuss Minae’s ‘need’ to return to a Japan which may be nothing like what she remembers or desires, it felt at times like the author was laying out the pros and cons of moving back to the country for all of those young people. She points out the irony that the Japanese word for ‘hometown’ (furusato) evokes old temples and picturesque rural landscapes, but that in fact the rice paddies have been paved over and converted into cheap housing in rapid urbanisation.

Before my eyes there emerged a vision of ugly cities all alike and small towns dismal in their sameness. A nation that as it rose to become a major economic power had become more and more stunted in spirit; a nation without a soul; a nation of little people… or was my negativity toward Japan only defensive, a hedge against the predictable anticlimax of my return?

Mireille Gansel: Translation as Transhumance, transl. Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives.

Gansel grew up in France, in a family of Jewish refugees who spoke many languages and had experienced many shifts in borders over their lifetime: German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Hebrew and of course French. The German she instinctively gravitated towards was a global sort of German of the 19th and early 20th centuries, rather like the global English of today. The German of a world that is no more – word of warning perhaps to those who think that English will be the world language forever.

This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through the generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and wasy of speaking. This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language. If I were to hold on to just one word, it would be innig – profound, intense, fervent.

In the 1960s and 70s, Gansel translated poets from East Germany and Vietnam, to help the world to understand what was going behind walls or behind reports of war. She spent two years learning Vietnamese and went to Vietnam to immerse herself in the culture, as well as working with a Vietnamese poet to fully absorb the subtexts. I was just so impressed by her humility as a translator, by her willingness to always learn more, her ability to admit to making mistakes in the effort to be as truthful and loyal to the original as possible.

At that moment, I understood translation both as risk-taking and continual re-examination, of even a single word – a delicate seismograph at the heart of time.

Translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between the lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.

The third experience she writes about in this far too brief work is her attempt to retrace the steps of Eugenie Goldstern, an Austrian-Jewish anthropologist who conducted research into Alpine cultures, centred mainly on Switzerland, but in fact transcending borders and cross-pollinating, being open to all sorts of different interpretations and complementary knowledge. This is where she has her most profound insight into what it means to be a translator:

… it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other. That was perhaps my most essential lesson in translation.

I wonder if both Mizumura and Gansel demonstrate (through their biographies and their works) that the best kind of translator or cultural bridge-builder is someone who never quite fits into any of the cultural skins that they might put on. There is always a slight gap, a slight feeling of otherness and strangeness. Is it possible that, when you cease to be uncomfortable, when the skin fits too snugly, you become somewhat insensitive to nuance, blinded, and unable to convey that inner core where both similarity and difference reside?

#WITMonth: The Two Violets – One Abandoned, One Success

Also my #20BooksofSummer Nos. 16 and 17. I can count the abandoned one, can’t I, since I gave up on it about two thirds of the way through? By complete coincidence, the main protagonist in each of these novels is called Violette or Violeta.

Valérie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers, transl. Hildegarde Serle

There was something rather endearing about the Violette in this novel, a much put-upon woman with a good-for-nothing husband, who suffers that most unbearable of losses, the death of her young daughter. With her patience and openness to helping others (even when they take advantage of her), she reminded me of Felicité in Flaubert’s Un cœur simple. Yet the author has to give the protagonist a chance at remaking her life, learning to love and live again, because the story is set in the present-day (or thereabouts – with talk of the automation of the barrier at the train crossing, which Violette was originally operating).

This is the second book about a cemetery that I’ve read in the last year, after The Field by Robert Seethaler. Although I complained that one was a little overlong, it was certainly more interesting in format, with the voices of the dead speaking to us directly. Here, the story is resolutely Violette’s, although we do get the occasional chapter from the perspective of some of the people around her.

Although I enjoyed parts of the book, I simply did not feel the urge to pick it up, and really struggled to read more than a few pages at a time. It felt predictable, the characters simply refused to come to life for me (with the exception of Violette herself) and the little philosophical observations often felt trite. I had read so many good reviews from bloggers I love that I probably stuck with it for far longer than I should have, and it impinged upon my ability to read and enjoy other books for about a week. I felt relieved when I finally gave myself permission to leave it behind.

Dulce Maria Cardoso: Violeta Among the Stars, transl. Ángel Gurría Quintan

This is more familiar territory for me: a dark, sardonic, unlikeable main character, an uncompromising experimental style that pulls you right in if you are in the right mood. I guess I just don’t do well as a reader on the more ‘charming’ side of the spectrum!

Much has been made of this being yet another example of a novel in one sentence… except that there is a reason for it in this case , for these are the jumbled up thoughts of Violeta, who has just overturned her car in an accident and sees her life flash before her eyes. Trains of thoughts come and stop abruptly, going nowhere; there are certain verbal tics and repetitions; we circle further and further back to unpick Violeta’s past and how she ended up driving so fast and recklessly. We discover that recklessness is part of Violeta’s nature, as if to counteract the image people might have of her as an overweight, plain, middle-aged woman. She is a travelling saleswoman, hawking all sorts of depilatory waxes to beauty salons (nobody wants to buy the much more expensive eco-friendly brand). She gets her kicks with lorry drivers or other strangers in the service station car parks or toilets. She is bored to death of Angelo, her dull husband ‘who never did anything exciting in his life’; she has a fiery relationship with her daughter Dora who doesn’t seem to want anything that her mother wants for her.

Alcohol and preying on strangers dull her pain momentarily, but she is all too soon brought back to earth by the disdain of others. She is regarded as a freak, but it’s not the laughter of strangers that fills her with self-revulsion and hatred of others. As we delve deeper into her family history, we find a troubled relationship with her own mother, the dreams she had to compromise early on in life, the patterns of abuse that she herself perpetuates. And throughout it all, we have Violeta, larger than life in all sense of the word, with her refusal to apologise for her sexual appetites, her relentless candour, her inability to sugarcoat anything. Yet, if we listen closely, beneath her justifications and patter, we discover all the things she is not telling us – the things she refuses to acknowledge even to herself.

There are references too to revolution and changes in the social order, as well as children out of wedlock with black men. This refers to Portugal’s not that distant past, when Angola was a Portuguese colony (until 1975) and Portugal itself was in the grip of the Estado Novo dictatorship of Salazar and his followers (which collapsed in 1974).

A breathless tour de force, which must have posed serious translation challenges. This book won’t be to everyone’s taste, but to this particular fan of dysunctional mother/daughter relationships, it rang very true.

#WITMonth: Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien

After Greenlandic youth culture and middle-school Japan, we move to a more mature milieu and slightly more touristy destination. This is also #20BooksofSummer no. 15.

Daniela Krien: Love in Five Acts (Die Liebe im Ernstfall), transl. Jamie Bulloch

Five women in their forties in post-reunification Leipzig muse about their lives and choices, and learn how to face their future in a series of linked stories.

Paula is friends with Judith, Brida is Judith’s patient, Malika is the ex-girlfriend of Brida’s ex-husband, and Jorinde is Malika’s sister. Their stories are full of the difficulties and sorrows that many women experience in their lives. They soldier on, because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Paula is mourning the death of one of her children, her marriage has broken down as a result, and she hardly dares to allow herself to be happy again. Judith distrusts men and makes fun of those she meets via online dating. She pities her friends who have to put up with disobliging husbands:

Unhappiness makes you ill, it’s as simple as that. Sometimes she’s flabbergasted by the generosity of other women. How mild they are in their judgements, how gently they devote themselves to their husbands, how magnanimously they accept and overlook their weaknesses.

And yet she has moments when she realises it is difficult to be alone and regrets her decision not to have any children.

Meanwhile, Brida rather regrets her decision to have children, because she is a writer and struggles to combine motherhood with her art. She has left her husband, but still is sexually attracted to him and suffers pangs of jealousy seeing him with his new partner. She also discovers that it’s not just the children who are affecting her creativity and this passage in particular resonated with me:

Write in peace. For years that was all she wanted. Now that she has the children only half the time, only gets half of the children’s lives, half of their joys, half of their worries, the words won’t flow. Now that joint custody… has given her the freedom to work undisturbed, the source has dried up.

Malika still mourns the end of her relationship, and feels she would have been a much more suitable wife to Brida’s ex – and a better mother. She cannot help feeling second-best in everyone’s affections, and that includes her parents, who always seem to prefer her sister Jorinde to herself. However, Jorinde, who had moved to Berlin to pursue an acting career, is far from being as successful or happy as she seems.

In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could quite easily have descended into a bit of a soap opera – and in fact, I have read novels where this is precisely what happened (e.g., Katherine Pancol may be a huge bestseller in France but I just could not get on with her work at all). However, Daniela Krien has a sober, restrained way with words and, although these are all women of similar age and background, they were very different in character and voice. You may be incensed at the ‘drippiness’ or ‘stroppiness’ of some of the women or roll your eyes at their bad choices, but this is not high melodrama or cloying sentimentality.

What this book: one that a whole swathe of readers will dismiss as ‘not interesting or relatable’, because it is about middle-aged women and mostly mothers (or those who wish to become mothers). However, we’ve been led to believe that men’s middle-aged crises are riveting to read about or watch on film. I am sure we can endure a little bit of a female perspective on that. I think it presents quite a kaleidoscope of female experience, and demonstrates that even in recent years and in developed countries, women’s choices are still not as easy or as wide-ranging as one might believe, even when they think they’ve made them of their own free will.

Her freedom had only ever been imaginary, time-restricted. Lke a sweet she was permitted to taste before it was taken away from her for good. For generations of women before her, life paths had been narrower, more fixed. Suddenly Brida imagined these women must have been happier, as they would never have lived under the illusion that they could shape their own lives, never felt the disappointment when all the open doors slammed shut at once. None of the constraints on their lives were their own responsibility. The circumstances hadn’t allowed for anything different. Brida, however, had made the choices herself.

The book not only looks at the gap between expectation and reality in the case of women’s lives, but there is also an undercurrent of the gap between hopes/promises and reality regarding the reunification of Germany. Did all the possibilities open up for those women in the new Germany? Not sure. This disenchantment is sometimes expressed in the conflict between the older and younger generation (for instance, between Malika and Jorinde and their parents) or between spouses, with Wessi husbands expecting housewives and stay-at-home-mothers far more than their Ossi wives.

A solid, interesting read. It didn’t quite wow the socks off me, like Julia Franck or Jenny Erpenback (or even Judith Schalansky), but it had depth beneath its easy reading surface.

P.S. The translation of the title is a bit unimaginative but does the job. The literal translation would be something like: ‘Love, Seriously’ or ‘Love in Case of Emergency’ – and ‘fall’ of course, although it means ‘case’, can also mean ‘fall’ (which explains the diver on the cover far better, since swimming features far less in the book than horseriding).

Two Tough Reads: Endless and Very Much Numbered Days

I’m not sure how wise it was to read these two books over the past week or so, as they were both quite harrowing in terms of subject matter. Luckily, both of them were well written and very much worth my while… but I think I will be relaxing now with some less demanding, frivolous reads.

Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days #20BooksofSummer No. 8

This is probably the oldest book I have on my Netgalley shelf (2015). It was Claire Fuller’s debut novel and in the meantime she has published three others (of which I read one, Bitter Orange) and her latest, Unsettled Ground, is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It is the story of Peggy, an eight-year-old only child of eccentric parents – a concert pianist German mother and a survivalist English father – who is abducted by her father after a family quarrel and taken to a remote cabin in the German woods. For the next nine years, her father manages to convince her that the world has ended and all the people they know have died. They have to fend for themselves – and those descriptions of the seasons and living that close to nature, with no back-up whatsoever, is miles removed from the lyrical nature writing we might have come across in recent years. This is nature at its harshest – and Peggy is completely at the mercy of her tyrannical father, whom she adores… but very gradually starts to question.

The narrative switches between two time frames. We start with the present-day, when seventeen-year-old Peggy tries to reintegrate into society and re-establish a connection with her mother and the younger brother born after she disappeared. Then we move to the child’s view of the world, the limited understanding and naivety of eight-year-old Peggy. There are hints of the shocking denouement of the novel throughout, but – call me a far too trusting reader, or else wanting to believe the best of everyone – I was completely misled by the author, believed everything she was saying, and was caught by surprise at the ending. Yet, unlike so many recent psychological thrillers that deliberately withhold information, simply to create that much-publicised ‘twist’, it felt very organic in this case and central to the story. Peggy is not an unreliable narrator because she wants to mislead us or justify her bad actions or run away from the police (as would be typical in crime fiction). It feels psychologically spot on: she is disassociating from her own experiences and still trying to figure out her own past and how she feels about it.

Quite a tour de force for a debut, and an uncompromising tale. Brutal at times, yet also hinting that so much more could have been said, that whole swathes of story or characterisation have been left out, that each character has a shady hinterland (yes, even the nine-year-old brother).

Hervé Le Corre: In the Shadow of the Fire, transl. Tina Kover

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I remain fascinated by the Paris Commune and its failures, and have read a whole array of books, both fictional and non-fictional treatments of those few months in the spring of 1871. Le Corre’s ambitious (and lengthy – 509 pages) account of the last ten days of the Commune, the so-called Bloody Week at the end of May, is soaked in blood, sweat and despair, a gruelling continuation of Zola’s Debacle, picking up just where Zola’s work tapers off.

There are so many deaths in this book, so many relentless descriptions of poverty, hunger, exploitation and killing that you need to stop every now and then and catch your breath. I admire translator Tina Kover for being able to stomach it and render Le Corre’s dense prose and vast cast of characters into something coherent. I am also really grateful that I could read it in translation, as reading it in the original French would probably have taken me a couple of months (like the Zola did).

Some of the individual stories worked better than others – the enigmatic Clovis, who has lost all belief in society and people; the loyal lovers Nicolas and Caroline who spend most of the book undergoing horrific experiences but never giving up hope that they might find each other; the brotherhood between the three comrades-in-arms Nicolas, Red and Adrien. However, that whole thread about the photographer of pornographic images and girls being kidnapped by a man with a half-destroyed face (very Phantom of the Opera, that!) felt a bit gratuitous. I suppose the intention was to add a criminal investigation to a narrative that would otherwise have been extremely depressing and predictable: we all know that the Communards got thoroughly thrashed and killed en masse (or else imprisoned and sent into exile).

Although I love crime fiction in general, I didn’t really need that particular strand in this book, as I was quite happy to read about all of the other personal and collective stories. And yet the author clearly knows what he’s doing, because in many ways, Antoine Roques, the investigator, is the most interesting character of them all.

They put the sash on him before he left the police station, assuring him that his way, his authority, conferred by the people, would be clear to all… Elected police delegate to the Sûreté only a month ago. A bookbinder by trade. He hadn’t wanted the job, given his longstanding, deep-seated loathing of anything to do with the police. But the assemly had judged him the most sensible, the most astute.

Yet this accidental policeman becomes devoted to the idea of justice and saving people, even in the mess and confusion of the last few days of the Commune. When he hears about the abducted woman, the latest in a series to disappear from the streets of Paris, he makes it his mission to find her. What does one more dead woman matter in a landscape littered with corpses and dying ideals? That is perhaps the whole crux of the story – that kindness and respect for the individual has to matter, even in the new revolutionary world order.

Although we see events almost exclusively through the eyes of those fighting for the Commune, the author does not idealise the revolutionaries. There are profiteers and opportunistis on both sides, cowards and empty idealists as well, and we get to hear different points of view from secondary characters who have become disenchanted with the whole process. In the words of a doctor trying to deal with vast numbers of fatal injuries:

I’m afraid we’ve proclaimed a republic of words that will soon be a repbulic of he dead… It’s a bit like we doctors tried to heal injuries simply by shouting obscenities, or to cure disease using magic spells. They talk and talk at the Hotel de Ville, they gossip on the barricades; they hem and haw about what reinforcements to send against Versailles, and in the mentime Monsieur Thiers is planning his onslaught… Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken more care of the dead than the living, because at least I don’t have to lie to them about what’s coming and my inability to stop it.

The research that Le Corre has done for his book is fantastic; having myself read several history books about the Commune, I am impressed with how effortlessly he blends all that (and more) into an exciting narrative. The individual stories are less important than the vast fresco of a city in turmoil. The crowds are unruly, not everyone is truly committed to the cause, there are far too many people willing to betray them, but there are also others who put their own lives at risk to help them.

At times, some of the passages and speeches verge onto the unrealistic and didactic, but there are others where the character’s idealism and courage even in the face of defeat shines through as rather beautiful and inspiring. Here is Roques wondering if he should sneak off, leave Paris behind and join his wife and children in the countryside:

He knows the insurrection will be crushed, that this undreamt-of moment will soon come to an end. Still… This city has a unique genius for revolt and revolution. It has been starved, bombarded, humiliated, and when the powerful ones thought it was dead, it rose up, rebellious and generous, defying the old world and calling, beyond the besieged ramparts, for public well-being and a universal republic… There’s no question of leaving this city of infinite tomorrows, especially now… Paris, teh city-world where anything will always be possible.

The book is at once a eulogy to ideals whose time had not yet come, and a love story to the city of Paris, a mistress who may be old and wrinkled, full of dirt, blood and grime, but remains defiant and unbowed. Impossible to tame permanently, even if you can defeat her temporarily.

#20Books of Summer: An Entertaining Start

 Kōtarō Isaka: Bullet Train, transl. Sam Malissa

Former assassin Kimura embarks upon the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka (one of the longest direct lines in Japan, over 670 km) with a personal mission of revenge: he wants to shoot schoolboy Satoshi, who bullied his son and made him fall off the rooftop of a building, putting him into a coma in hospital. But the train is full of other paid gangsters, who all seem to be after a suitcase full of money and trying to avoid getting punished by the man mobster boss who hired them. Nanao is the unluckiest criminal in the world, and all too aware of it. Meanwhile, Tangerine and Lemon operate as a pair, look like twins, but are in fact very different, with Tangerine reading serious Russian novels, while Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. When things go wrong, they all have to readjust their plans and end up stalking each other.

The plot is utterly ludicrous and the black comedy is over the top, and you can’t help feeling that the book has been written with an eye firmly on a film adaptation (which, sure enough, the filming for an American action thriller based on the book has just wrapped, starring Brad Pitt and creating a few more feminine roles, which the book sadly lacks). At first, I struggled with the translation, which felt too ‘American’, but then I realised that the Japanese original is probably quite Americanised too, heavily influenced by American film-makers such as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers. Not forgetting, of course, the Thomas the Tank Engine animated series. For those familiar with Japanese popular culture, however, there are also references to the yakuza and to Naoki Urasawa’s manga (later turned into an anime series) Monster, with the angelic-looking teenage master criminal.

With its fast pace and constant switching of points of view, plus a few unexpected twists, this is sheer entertainment, if you don’t examine the far-fetched plot too closely. Perfect for a train ride!

John Boyne: The Echo Chamber

The Cleverleys are privileged and self-obsessed media addicts: George is an Alan Partridge kind of TV chat show host, who has interviewed everyone who is anyone, consider himself a ‘national treasure’ and is angling for a peerage. His wife Beverley writes soppy, predictable bodice-rippers – or rather, she provides the ‘ideas’ and gets ghostwriters to actually write them. Their three children are all still living at home. Nelson (named after Mandela) suffers from social anxiety and only feels slightly more comfortable if he is wearing a uniform. The daughter Elizabeth is an internet troll but dreams of becoming a media influencer. The youngest, Achilles, is still a schoolboy and uses his good looks to seduce and then blackmail older men.

Through this thoroughly unlikable family, there is a lot of satirising of our obsession with media, but Boyne also takes swipes at ‘wokeness’ and ‘anti-wokeness’, implicit and explicit racism, gender identities, fake news and fake outrage, engaging in charity purely as a way to increase your public profile, media pile-ons and cancel culture… and the Ukrainian outlaw and folk hero Ustym Karmaliuk, believe it or not (who is the name of a tortoise consigned into Beverley’s care).

It is all quite hilarious, although the humour is more farce than subtle. It made me snort with laughter a few times, but about halfway in, it starts to feel like a joke that has gone on for too long. Or perhaps the author is trying to hit too many targets at once with his satire, so it ends up looking and sounding like a long Twitter rant or op-ed. Many of the jokes rely on repetition to be funny, and this also gets monotonous (and predictable) after a while. Still, it’s a quick, fun beach read, a great antidote to checking your social media accounts.

In addition to the two above, which were on my planned list of most recent Netgalley reads, I also read an additional (non-list) book with the same sort of dark humour.

Benoit Philippon: Mamie Luger

This French book features an unpredictable 104-year-old woman who is arrested by the police for trying to shoot her neighbour with a Luger dating from the Second World War. In actual fact, she was creating a diversion, to enable a young couple to escape by stealing the neighbour’s car. However, the frail old lady is by no means a saint, as the police inspector discovers while interviewing her. In fact, she turns out to be a serial killer, with a number of corpses buried in her cellar. Of course, she had perfectly good reasons for murdering each of those men, and is not at all filled with remorse. A rollicking feminist yarn, although at times it descends into stereotypical characters or predictable and repetitive situations.

None of the books above are memorable, but they certainly put me in the holiday mood and proved a welcome distraction at a time when work is very, very demanding.

#20BooksofSummer – the Planning Starts Now!

Cathy is once again encouraging us to blast through our TBR piles with her annual 20 Books of Summer Challenge (winter if you are in the southern hemisphere). Her rules are fairly relaxed, so it should be do-able for anyone. You can find out more about it on Cathy’s blog. The challenge runs from 1st June to 1st September, and I always try to incorporate the Women in Translation Month (August) into the challenge as well.

However, I have to admit that each year I succeed (if I suceed) only thanks to some very creative accounting, i.e. cheating. I pick a huge list of books to choose from, or I swap halfway through. This year I have set myself the additional challenge of clearing my very large pile of Netgalley requests. So all of my 20 books will be e-books. Bear in mind that I don’t like reading on a Kindle very much, so I may intersperse the 20 books with other physical books.

Anyway, here is the plan (I give myself roughly 10 per month, so I have plenty to choose from):

June – the oldest books on my list

A lot of crime fiction that I thought I couldn’t live without at the time, as well as books everyone was talking about back in 2014/15.

  • Miljenko Jergovic: The Walnut Mansion
  • Jean Teule: The Poisoning Angel
  • Sarah Jasmon: The Summer of Secrets
  • Sarah Leipciger: The Mountain Can Wait
  • Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days
  • Karl Kraus: The Last Days of Mankind
  • Maxime Chattam: Carnage
  • Stuart Neville: Those We Left Behind
  • Caro Ramsay: The Tears of Angels
  • John Banville: The Blue Guitar

July – most quirky books on the list

Well, they might not be quirky for anybody else, but they are not my usual reading matter (or, in the case of poetry, not the sort of thing I would read on a Kindle). This could be a bit of a hit or miss month of reading, but at least I have plenty to choose from.

  • Essential Poems (10 American poets, including May Sarton, Nancy Willard, Alice Walker)
  • Joyce Carol Oates: The Doll Master and Other Tales of Terror (unusual for me, because I don’t usually read horror)
  • Rudyard Kipling: Brazilian Sketches (travelogue)
  • Odafe Atogun: Taduno’s Song (because I don’t read enough fiction from the African continent)
  • Zana Fraillon: The Bone Sparrow (children’s book, about refugees)
  • Melissa Lee Houghton: Sunshine (poetry)
  • Jeffrey Sweet: What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing
  • Petina Gappah: Rotten Row (short stories, which I don’t read very often, and set in Zimbabwe)
  • Rachael Lucas: The State of Grace (children’s books, about autism)
  • Sue Moorcroft: Just for the Holidays (romance)

August – Women in Translation

  • Minae Mizumura: An I Novel (Japan)
  • Mieko Kawakami: Heaven (Japan)
  • Daniela Krien: Love in Five Acts (Germany)
  • Dulce Maria Cardoso: Violeta Among the Stars (Portugal)
  • Marie NDiaye: The Cheffe (France)
  • Valérie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers (France)
  • Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream (Argentina)
  • Şebnem İşigüzel: The Girl in the Tree (Turkey)
  • Niviaq Korneliussen: Crimson (Greenland)

Will I stick to this plan? I can already see some books on my shelves really tempting me for the Women in Translation Month especially. However, if I can make at least a bit of an inroad in my 215 Netgalley collection (don’t you just hate how easy they are to count – at least with my shelved books I live in blissful ignorance of the true number of unread ones).

#WITMonth and #20BooksofSummer: Teffi

Teffi: Subtly Worded, transl. Anne Marie Jackson et al. (Pushkin Press, 2014)

Imagine Dorothy Parker combined with Marina Hyde, with a dash of Chekhov and a sprinkling of Anna Seghers – and you might have something like Teffi, a Russian journalist and short story writer from the early 20th century. Had she lived today, she would no doubt be a star of social media, an influencer with her pithy, succinct and witty comments. She was a star twice over in her lifetime – first in her homeland (admired first by the Tsar and then by Lenin), then in exile in Paris in the 1920s, had perfumes and chocolates named after her, was the toast of political and cultural circles in several European cities. Towards the end of her life and after her death, her star waned somewhat, but she has now been rediscovered both in Russia and abroad.

Subtly Worded is a selection of her literary work from 1910 to 1952 and, although Teffi was celebrated primarily as a humorist and satirist during her lifetime, this collection certainly proves that she was not a one trick pony. Some of her shortest early pieces are slight, laugh-out-loud funny and hugely relatable – such as ‘Will-Power’ (about a man whose doctor has told him to give up the booze). There is gentle mockery of vanity in ‘The Hat’, in which a young woman believes she is irresistable to her poet boyfriend (‘who had not yet written any poems, he was still trying to come up with a pen name, but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious’), but only when she is wearing her new hat… and then she realises she was wearing the wrong one all along. The stories told from the point of view of children (‘The Lifeless Beast’ or ‘Jealousy’) ring very true and are made up of equal parts of innocence, humour and heartbreak. She does not sentimentalise childhood, nor old age. Her characters are infuriating as well as touching.

The sting in her humour becomes more noticeable during and just after the Russian Revolution. These stories may have just one string to their bow, so they feel more like satirical newspaper articles, but they certainly hit the mark. She observes how ideals get derailed by famine in ‘Petrograd Monologue’, narrated by someone determined not to mention ‘food’, yet thinking of nothing else. She recounts the indiscriminate persecution of the cultural elites and suspicion of education in ‘One Day in the Future’ – an exaggeration that was not too far from the truth in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe in the 1950s and during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

On his return journey he overtook several carts loaded with firewood. Their drivers had the most improbable backgrounds: one had been a tenor with the Mariinsky Theatre, another an academician, the third a staff captain, the fourth a gynaecologist. […] At home, he had an unpleasant surprise. In the dining room his ten-year-old son was studiously learning the alphabet. Terenty tore the book out of the boy’s hands and ripped it to shreds.

‘You mangy pup!’ he yelled. ‘So you thought you’d start reading books, eh? Learn the sciences, eh? So you wanna end up a goatherd?’

Yet she is equally scathing about the airs of misplaced superiority and nostalgia for the glories of the past of Russian aristocracy. She lampoons them in ‘One of Us’, in which Mrs Kudakina, wife of a general, laments the disappearance of les nôtres (people like us) and their replacement by les autres (people not at all like us), yet proves incapable of truly distinguishing between the two.

Teffi is a keen political observer, and the description of her encounter with Rasputin is eye-opening. He tries his hypnotic powers on her, and, although she doesn’t succumb to them, she can understand how others might. However, she is careful to distinguish between personal charisma and the charisma of power. All those ‘sucking up’ to Rasputin for the hope of political advancement or at least for being spared severe punishment – their behaviour is reprehensible yet what other choice have they got? Teffi seems like a precursor of the Me Too movement when she says:

… there was something in the atmosphere around Rasputin I found deeply revolting. The grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark and beyond our knowledge. One could get sucked into this filthy mire – and never be able to climb out of it. It was revolting and joyless… The pitiful, distressed face of the young woman who was being thrust so shamelessly by her lawyer husband at a drunken peasant – it was the stuff of nightmares, I was seeing it in my dreams. But he must have had many such women – women about whom he shouted, banging his fist on the table, that ‘they wouldn’t dare’, and they were ‘happy with everything.’

Once in exile, she casts her lucid eyes on the emigrant community and they don’t escape unscathed, as in ‘Que Faire?’, perhaps one of her best-known and most-quoted pieces.

We – les russes, as they call us – live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people’s. We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion. Every lesrusse hates all the others – hates them just as fervently as the others hate him.

This lack of solidarity in exile has been observed by other ethnic communities – especially when they are escaping from a country in political turmoil, because they are never quite sure on which side their new acquaintance might be (or might have been in the past). Add to that the envy of someone else’s success abroad, a success that would have been inferior to yours if you had still been experiencing the ‘normal’ (i.e. long gone) state of affairs in the ‘motherland’…

This is an impressive collection, showing a full range of emotions – from flighty to serious, from mockery to genuine compassion, from sharp insight to sentimentality. There is depth and sadness here too, a lot of reading between the lines, but also sheer impish humour. Something for everyone in fact – her ‘idol-like’ status becomes more understandable.

This was my 20th book of the #20BooksofSummer challenge and my third review for #WITMonth.

 

 

Plans for August Reading: #WIT and #20BooksofSummer

August is obviously Women in Translation Month, and I’ve been taking part since 2014, which I believe is the year it was initiated by that indefatigable supporter of women writers from all parts of the world, Meytal Radzinski. Last year I had a bit of a Brazilian theme going on; this year, it’s going to be more of a free for all. I cheated a little by starting my reading in July, to comply with Stu’s initiative of #SpanishLitMonth. So I have reviews for Lina Meruane, Margarita Garcia Robayo and Liliana Colanzi. I am still planning to read Ariana Harwicz’s Feebleminded, but I also have a very tempting stack of books by women writers from other countries.

I’ve recently finished Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and also am nearing the end of Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall. There are definite similarities between the two books (middle aged woman living alone, loving animals, philosophising about the world), aside from the fact that I really enjoyed both of them. But I still have to write the reviews. They will also constitute Books 18 and 19 of my #20BooksofSummer challenge.

I have one more book remaining then for the 20 books challenge, and I think it will be Teffi’s Subtly Worded, which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. After that, I am free to roam wildly, so I may add Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs to the mix, although she wasn’t on my original list of possible summer reads. Then again, I recently bought a couple of Yuko Tsushima books, so I may choose those instead (or additionally). I’ll also dip into Tove Jansson’s letters, but I suspect that, like Virginia Woolf’s diaries, it will be the kind of book that I want to read every day over a long period of time, in small gulps, and ponder over the creative life and what might apply to me.

I’ve also borrowed quite a few books from the library, so will prioritise those, even if they don’t fall into the WIT category.

Polly Sansom’s A Theatre for Dreamers will transport me to the Greek islands, which are very precious to me, although a bit less accessible to me during and after my divorce. The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet and Come Again by Robert Webb look like light-hearted, fun holiday reads. And of course I will continue with my exploration of Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests are beckoning, each in their own creepy way. I have also bought the most recent Susie Steiner, which I’ve been awaiting with impatience, so I doubt I’ll be able to resist that one for too long!

If you are looking for inspiration for Women in Translation Month, here are some of my favourites from the past few years, all of them good fun, not too dark:

(This last one is coming out in translation in September via V&Q Books.)

#20BooksofSummer and #SpanishLitMonth: Lina Meruane

Lina Meruane: Seeing Red, transl. Megan McDowell (Atlantic Books, 2017)

I managed to sneak in one more review for #SpanishLitMonth, initiated by Stu Jallen – although I will probably continue reading Latin Americans for the Women in Translation month coming up. It is also Book No. 17 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, so great satisfaction all round!

When I saw Lina Meruane speak at Hay Festival in 2018, I was horrified to find out that Seeing Red is actually based on her own experience. She was doing her doctoral studies in the US when her eyes really did begin to bleed and she was in danger of losing her eyesight forever (but she has recovered now). To add to the confusion whether this is an autobiographical account, the main protagonist in the novel is also called Lina (or Lucina), a Chilean doctoral student in New York, who is trying to write a novel.

But Meruane is merely toying with our expectations. Her fictional Lina is much tougher and nastier, perhaps, than the author – or else she is one possible side of the author when facing blindness. She resolutely refuses to be a victim: ‘But I’m not going to just sit in a chair and wait for it to pass.’ She is loud and brash and dominant – with her boyfriend Ignacio (even when she is afraid of losing him), with her parents (both doctors in Santiago de Chile who think initially they might be able to advise her), with doctors, friends and tutors who ask about her writing. She is increasingly cruel. She has to create a new identity for herself as everything she used to be or do is in danger of disappearing. She is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, living in mortal fear, yet doing her best to pep herself up and almost daring anyone to feel sorry for her. Almost punishing the others for not suffering as she does.

The sentences are short, staccato, sometimes ending mid-sentence – the kind of incoherence that fear or anger often produce. Just look at this first paragraph, describing the moment when Lina’s eyes suddenly cloud over at a party:

It was happening. Right then, happening. They’d been warning me for a long time, and yet. I was paralyzed, my sweaty hands clutching at the air while the people in the living room went on talking, roaring with laughter – even their whispers were exaggerated, while I.

You soon get used to the breathless style – and even to the lack of speech marks, which I find deeply tedious in contemporary fiction (making things unnecessarily difficult for readers without adding much to the style). The story barrels along with its long paragraphs, lack of punctuation, quick changes of people speaking. As Lina adjusts to a dark world, all of her other senses become hypersensitive, and she becomes incredibly touchy in her conversations with others. As a reader, you are thrown, like Lina, into a frenetic melee of sounds, impressions, exchange of words and have to try to make sense of it all.

I think the author is also trying to draw some parallels between the fictional Lina’s blindness and the fate of her home country, Chile, and the temporary blindness (or amnesia) of the people about Pinochet. A body collapsing also bears similarities with a country or political system collapsing. She visits her parents while waiting for an operation in the States, and her hometown is both familiar and strange to her. Meanwhile, Ignacio (who is Spanish) has gone to Argentina and spent far too much money there following the economic collapse of 2001 (but really it could be any number of collapses and defaults). Lina mocks him, of course:

… he had done it all with the stupid idea of stopping the collapse. You alone, with just some dollars? Like a second-rate conquistador with glass beads?

There are some disturbing, surely surreal little touches, of Lina actually taking over her/touching/sucking her parents’ or her boyfriend’s eyeballs. I found that a bit shocking and hard going, I have to admit. Overall, I can’t claim that I enjoyed the book, but I appreciated what Lina Meruane was trying to do and would certainly like to see more of her in translation. I understand that her books are often about bodily frailty, and how that resembles family ties.