#20Booksof Summer: Nos. 6 and 7 – Holidays Abroad

Since we cannot holiday abroad for the time being, what better escapism than to travel via a couple of my 20 Books of Summer? These two books seem to work well as a compare and contrast: the first is a portrait of German holidaymakers coming to Britain in summer, while the other is of British holidaymakers going to a German-speaking country (Austria) in winter. The shadow of war hangs over both of these stories, although they are different wars, and never quite make it to the forefront. Still, I cannot help but wonder if there is a bit of political propaganda quietly involved in these books.

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Caravaners

The insufferable, pompous and completely self-absorbed Baron Otto von Ottringel, who is a major in the Prussian army, has decided to make the trip of a lifetime to celebrate his silver wedding anniversary. Actually, his first wife has died and he has only been married to his second wife for five years – but the overall number would be 25 years of married life for him, which is what counts. The plan was to go to Switzerland, but the baron is a bit stingy and cannot resist the temptation to go on a caravanning holiday in Kent instead. He finds the English contingent of his travel companions somewhat puzzling, and even the German ladies in the party seem to be succumbing to the spirit of freedom and frivolity. Otto heartily disapproves, of course, and is quite surprised to find that everyone cuts their month-long holiday short at the end of a week.

The Baron is a caricature of course, and, while some of this was probably a bit of a personal dig against the author’s aristocratic German ex-husband, it needs to be set in context. The novel was first published in 1909, when anti-German sentiment was running rampant in British society, for fear of Prussian militarism on the rise. Otto clearly feels superior to the ‘weak’ English, but soon proves himself incapable of helping out, finding wood, lighting a fire or even leading the horse-drawn caravan, and he very soon tires of the endless diet of boiled potatoes, as they struggle to find or cook anything edible outside, during one of the wettest summers on record.

Anyone who has struggled to enjoy camping or caravanning will delight in the comedy of the situation, perhaps even feel slightly sorry for the Baron. Of course, he will very quickly dispel any modicum of pity with his breathtaking lack of self-awareness and cruelty towards others, particularly his poor wife Edelgard.

Take away annoyances and worry, and I am as good-natured a man as you will find. More, I can enjoy anything, and am ready with a jest about almost anything. It is the knowledge that I am really so good-humoured that upsets me when Edelgard or other circumstances force me into a condition of vexation unnatural to me. I do not wish to be vexed. I do not wish ever to be disagreeable. And it is, I think downright wrong of people to force a human being who does not wish it to be so.

Carol Carnac: Crossed Skis

This book shows two countries that were once at war with each other now trying to repair the scars of the past. The narrative alternates between the ski resort of Lech in Austria and London in the early 1950s. A body is found burnt beyond recognition in a boarding house in London and there seem to be clues linking it to a merry ski party of eight men and eight women holidaying in the Austrian Alps. The Cold War was in full swing and the first of the Cambridge spies had defected to the Soviet Union just before the book was published in 1952. So it’s not surprising that there is a certain level of political paranoia in this book, as well as the brutally honest depiction of London as a city that is still struggling to return to normal after the war.

This contrasts with the beautiful, tranquil landscapes of Arlberg, the good humour of the holidaymakers and their light-hearted skiing and dancing exploits – until their holiday gets somewhat spoilt by some thievery. The author was clearly quite passionate about skiing, as are quite a few of her characters. Needless to say, this was the part of the book that I enjoyed most:

To the west and south the sky was blue behind the snow peaks, and the visibility had an intense quality, so that Kate felt helplessly that here was something you could not express in terms of paint. There was no gradation, no near and far, just a vast, crystalline clarity. To the east the sky was grey and great cloud banks were piling behind the mountains… Once again Kate realised that there was an element of terror in this mountain loveliness: the massing clouds and the snow slopes made the wooden houses seem puny.

So, if it’s escapism, holiday reading and vicarious travel that you are after, both of these books fit the bill: a comedy of manners and a neat little murder mystery, and in both cows and/or horses play a surprising key role. Two lesser known works by authors who were very popular in their time, but very much worth rediscovering.

#20BooksofSummer No. 5 – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve never been one to NOT read reviews about a book just because I haven’t read it yet. On the contrary, I like to read both positive and negative reviews and then plunge right in, hopefully without bias, and make up my own mind. In the case of Hamnet, I’d been hearing lots of praise about the evocative language and the refreshing perspective of the Bard from the point of view of his family. But I’ve also heard some of my favourite bloggers such as Eric from Lonesome Reader or Rebecca Foster at Bookish Beck that it falls short, either in terms of Maggie O’Farrell’s other work or compared to other recent historical fiction such as Hilary Mantel’s.

So let me lay out my wares perfectly candidly. I really enjoyed the book, but I haven’t read any other novels by Maggie O’Farrell, nor do I read much historical fiction in general. So perhaps I am not best placed to make these comparisons. Although I do have some reservations about the present tense and jarringly modern language at times, I allowed myself to be swept away by the beauty of the sentences, the appeal to the senses, and the way the author conjures up the atmosphere of village life in the late 16th century. I should also add that I was reading it while I was battling migraine and nausea, so I felt I was there in the sick-bed with Judith and Hamnet. Last but not least, I am such a Shakespeare fan, so I enjoyed this additional insight into how other people might have viewed him.

I allowed myself to be swept along in a current of emotion and drama, as a mother wanting to protect her children, as a wife who has grown apart from her husband, as someone who felt stifled by family and small-town life, as someone living through a pandemic currently. On that visceral level the book works extremely well. If I stop to analyse it too carefully, I might find some repetitions and flaws, perhaps an over-emphasis on description and manipulation of our sorrow gland. I might find that there is no real analysis of Shakespeare’s psychology, little hint of his depth in how he handles the grief at the loss of his son. But, as Agnes finds out when she goes to London to watch the play named after her dead son, there is a chasm between life as it is lived and life as it is portrayed in the arts.

As she rode to London, she had thought that perhaps now she might understand his distance, his silence, since their son’s death. She has the sense now that there is nothing in her husband’s heart to understand. It is filled only with this: a wooden stage, declaiming players, memorised speeches, adoring crowds, costumed fools. She has been chasing a phantasm, a will-o’-the-wisp all this time.

This is clearly a book that Maggie O’Farrell has wanted to write for a long time, a subject that she has been obsessed with. I really enjoyed hearing her talk about it as part of the online Hay Festival. It really worked for me, since I am probably equally obsessed with the topic, and I don’t regret getting a Waterstones signed edition hardback. It’s a keeper for me. But for those who tell me that I should read her other novels, that they are better, I wonder if sometimes when you feel too strongly about something, you cannot fully capture what you really want.

#20Books of Summer: No. 3 – Lydia Davis

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, published by Penguin Books.

Lydia Davis is a law unto herself. Her short stories are sometimes so short – no more than a title and a line – that you struggle to give them a name. They are often fleeting observations, like a flash on a camera, momentarily drowning everything in its brightness, leaving you slighly blinded. Not all of them work, but when they do, they make you wince, groan, laugh and shiver in recognition. Some of them linger long after you read them. Davis wrote mainly poetry at college, and this shows in her prose, that ability to choose the perfect word at the perfect time. The deliberate choice of punctuation and line breaks.

I can’t say I read this book from cover to cover. Instead, what I do is periodically dip into it and see which stories attract me. For instance, when I first bought the book in 2017 and was struggling with divorce and trying to find a job, I found the earlier, more explicitly gender battle stories spoke to me more. There is a certain unravelling chattiness in her earlier stories which looks like the effortless transcription of a particularly breathless kind of self-torment, but which is in fact beautifully controlled. The only other writer I’ve known who can do this beautifully, combining the funny with the tragic, is Dorothy Parker.

The fact that he does not tell me the truth all the time makes me not sure of this truth at certain times, and then I work to figure out for myself if what he is telling me is the truth or not, and sometimes I can figure out that it’s not the truth and sometimes I don’t know and never know, and sometimes just because he says it to me over and over again I am convinced it is the truth because I don’t believe he would repeat a lie so often.

Picking up the book three years later, in very different circumstances, I was more attracted to the stories, which seem to experiment more with form and language or give voice to other literary influences. The very funny bilingual story French Lesson I: Le Meurtre, which starts off as a description of a farm pastoral for learners of French, including grammar and pronunciation hints, and then gets progressively more sinister. The simple description of trying to read Foucault and take notes on public transport in Foucault and Pencil. The manic energy and endless self-doubts and second-guessing as Kafka Cooks Dinner for Milena. Lydia Davis excels at mimicry and dead-pan humour.

I also enjoyed the very brief, less artfully constructed, more fugitive pieces. Simple observations that make you say: ‘Yes, why has no one every expressed that before?!’ They are very slight, but both amusing and often thought-provoking. For example:

Like a tropical storm,

I, too, may one day become ‘better organised’.

Or the one entitled Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room, in which the ‘story’ is shorter than the title.

Your housekeeper has been Shelly.

Many of the later stories seem to be more observational and feel more like non-fiction, such as What You Learn About the Baby, which anyone who has looked after a baby for any period of time will understand. One of them almost feels like a sociological study. Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality compares the lives of two elderly women, both born and raised in the US, one of African-American parents and the other the daughter of Swedish immigrants. The humour becomes more biting, and perhaps this time round I was more disposed to see the social satire in her work, such as in the perfectly paced and impeccably voiced Mrs. D and Her Maids.

I’m not yet done with Lydia Davis, I will no doubt return to her stories again and again. Who knows what aspect of them I will focus on next time? It is proof of the variety and depth of her short fiction that you never come away empty-handed. It is certainly a wonderful source of inspiration for any writer of flash fiction – although she remains inimitable.

#20BooksofSummer: No. 2 – Ludovic Bruckstein (transl. Alastair Ian Blyth)

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap, transl. Alastair Ian Blyth, published by Istros Books

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only just now read this book, although I attended the book launch back in September. I was very impressed by the author’s son and his efforts to get his father’s work published in English, as well as the timeliness of these two novellas and what they have to say to a present-day readership. So I am not quite sure why I tarried for so long – except that I always tend to hoard those books that I am pretty sure I will like… for a rainy day.

Both novellas explore life in a small town in the region of Maramures in the north of Romania. At least, it is in Romania nowadays, but over the past 200 years or so the borders have shifted many, many times. This is a part of the country where Romanians, Germans, Hungarians and Jews used to live together cheek by jowl, although the dominant ethnic group changed over the course of history. One thing you can be sure of, however, is that the Jewish community (and probably the Roma, although they don’t get mentioned in this book) were always among the most oppressed.

It seems an idyllic location. Although the land is mountainous and the soil poor, the people who live there are attached to their land. One of the anecdotes in the book states that the peasants from that area were given the choice to move to the far more fertile plains of Banat to the west of Romania, but they refused. However, as the Second World War descends upon this beautiful landscape, some will no longer be given the choice to remain there.

The Trap is the story of Ernst Blumenthal, a young man who had been studying architecture in Vienna before the Anschluss but has now rejoined his family in Sighet. Life is getting harder and harder for Jews and the order has come for them to stitch yellow stars to their clothes.

To Ernst… the law seemed not only humiliating, not only insulting, but also stupid and ridiculous. It was a small town and everybody knew everybody else… Nobody tried to hide what he was. The law was quite simply idiotic. If a person knows you, what is the point of his making you wear a sign to say you are who you are? And if a person doesn’t know you, what is it to him what race you are?… But if the law demanded a distinguishing mark for Jews, why should it not demand a different mark for all the other races? Each with his own star or cross… it would be only right for Hungarians to wear a green star, their favourite colour… and for Romanians to wear a blue star, and for Zipser Germans to wear a black star… and Ukrainians a pink star… and so on and so forth.

All of a sudden, on a peaceful Saturday, thirty Jewish men are rounded up as they are about to head home for the Sabbath meal and kept for hours by the SS at the Palace of Culture. Personally humiliated by one of the young SS commanders, in fear of being enlisted to serve in labour brigades (Jews were not considered trustworthy enough to serve in the army), Ernst is persuaded by his family to hide in the mountains. He finds shelter with a Romanian peasant family, but soon realises that he poses a real danger to them, so he spends most of his time wandering through the forests and hills with a view of his home town. And he can’t help but notice that things are changing down there.

Just yesterday, the prison was as big as the whole country… Now, the town was a prison, surrounded by invisible walls and guarded by soldiers. And tomorrow? What would tomorrow bring? The streets and then the houses would become prisons. And the walls would close in more and more narrowly, and every person would be a prison unto himself. And a prison guard unto himself…

Bruckstein is so good at capturing the gradual encroachment of dictatorship and racism in an average community, where people are neither better nor worse than anywhere else. It is far too easy to be a bystander – and there is no such thing as neutrality when evil starts to dominate.

That is also the case in the second, longer novella entitled The Rag Doll. Here we have nearly an entire life story, rather than just a brief moment in time. Hanna is the much-loved only child of a Jewish watch-maker, whose skills are hugely appreciated in their small (unnamed) town – probably Sighet once more. She falls in love with a Romanian man, Theodor, whose family are considerably wealthier. Despite their families’ objections to their marriage, they elope and settle in a village far away. Even as war comes knocking at their doors, they continue with their regular tea parties and mild gossip spread about by the village midwife. Because Hanna accompanies her husband to church on Sunday, everyone assumes she is a Christian and not a Jew. Although she had not set out to deliberately deceive them, she is forced into hiding more and more as the discriminatory rules against Jews proliferate. Especially when she sees the reaction of the other villagers when it is revealed that their pharmacist might be a Jew:

The notary felt personally offended, the same as if he had caught Maturinski cheating at cards – the same Maturinski with whom he had sat at table so many times, playing poker or rummy or sixty-six or eight-nine, drinking tea laced with rum and neat rum without tea. Worse still, he felt insulted, as if he had caught him stealing from his pocket… Even though Mr Maturinski had never been asked who he was and consequently had never denied it. Nobody had ever seen him set foot in either the church or the synagogue. And he had never been asked who he was because everybody knew that Mr Edvard Maturinski was the village pharmacist, the proprietor of the Hypocrates, an excellent apothecary, always ready to lend a hand… a polite, courteous man, the village ‘gallant’. And hitherto that had been quite sufficient for everybody…

Not everybody is indignant or complicit. The doctor refuses to give up one of his Jewish patients. The village priest faces a real crisis of faith when he is told to tone down his rhetoric to be more compliant with the SS troops whom he regards as the Antichrist. Sadly, although Hanna is spared the worst of the war, she discovers that the end of the war doesn’t mean the end of anti-semitic rhetoric.

The stories of ordinary people caught up in hate-mongering and treating others as subhumans during war-time may seem familiar, but clearly, given our inability to learn from history, these stories need to be told again and again. I may be biased because of the setting – there was so much loving description of the natural surroundings there – but I felt these stories were fresh and added a new historical perspective.  The translation did feel a bit old-fashioned in parts but perhaps that reflects the period and the author’s style.

 

Addendum to the #20BooksofSummer

I admit it: I am a terrible cheat! But no sooner had I listed my 41 choices for the 20 books of summer, when I received a couple of new books in the post and a few more jumped out at me from the bookshelves. Positively assaulted me and clung to me, I’m telling you! So I’ve added to the inchoate pile on the carpet, ready for me to honour them with my final selection. I feel quite excited about this latest bunch, so I’m more likely to start with them than with some of the ones mentioned earlier.

 

The reason I like them is because, with two crime fiction exceptions, they are all pushing me a little outside my comfort zone. City of Stairs is a sci-fi/fantasy novel, a genre I very rarely read (although many of my favourite films are in that genre). Petit Pays and Evening Is the Whole Day are about the immigrant experience but from cultures that I know very little about (Burundi, India and Malaysia).

David Peace is always challenging stylistically and never more so to me than when he is talking about Japan in the immedate aftermath of the Second World War. Marian Engel’s Bear is more talked about (in prurient fashion) than read, since it talks about a woman having sexual fantasies about a bear. Shirley Hazzard is excellent at making expats squirm in recognition, while Olga Tokarczuk may have won the Nobel but has not endeared herself to the Polish government for her outspoken stance against right-wing views. Her book (and the film based on it) has been denounced as ‘deeply anti-Christian film… promoting eco-terrorism’ and I’ve been saving it for far too long for ‘a rainy day’.

That rainy day is now.

Bookish Summary for July 2018, Plans for August

Only 10 books this month (of which two were flash fiction collections, so much easier to read in bits and pieces). I’ve really struggled to read, and I’m not quite sure if it was because I was busy and tired, or going out too much, or just too hot to be able to concentrate properly.

6 written by women, one anthology, and 3 written by men. 3 in translation.  Penance and Vernon Subutex were the only two of #20booksofsummer which I read this month, which means that I am only up to 6 out of 20. It’s not going to happen, is it?

 

I don’t know if my lack of reading enthusiasm influenced my appreciation of the books, or whether the lack of brilliant books led to a slump in my reading, but I have a confession to make. Quite a few of the books were not particularly exciting – mildly disappointing, in fact. I expected more, for instance, from Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends but overall I thought it pretty average, while Home Fire was reasonably good but didn’t bowl me over for all its prize winning. Vernon Subutex was the most disappointing, simply because I have high expectations of Virginie Despentes and have enjoyed her provocative, satirical writing in the past.

However, there were also some successes. I really liked Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Tidings of the Trees and Hometown, Carrie Etter’s collection of flash fiction dedicated to typical small-town America and life lived at its more precarious margins. I discovered the first thanks to Asymptote Book Club and the latter thanks to the Flash Fiction Festival. Which just goes to show that sometimes you need to allow someone knowledgeable to guide you into a new reading direction rather than rely on your favourite genres or media recommendations. American by Day was a fun crime read, contrasting Norwegian and American cultures and policing styles, although the mystery part of it was perhaps not really all that mysterious or satisfactory.

I’ve got some excellent books lined up for Women in Translation month though,  all of which I have just recently received in the post:

  1. Gine Cornelia Pedersen: Zero, transl. Rosie Hedger (which the translator very kindly sent to me) is the story of a young girl with mental health problems and has been described as ‘punk rock’
  2. Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, transl. Peter Bush – a collection of dark, crime-seeped stories set in Solana’s native Barcelona (thanks to publisher Bitter Lemon Press)
  3. Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates – 2nd book in the series about a single mother trying to escape her drug-mule past (thank you to Orenda Books)
  4. Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris – powerful story about people caught up in Brazil’s military dictatorship (Asymptote Book Club’s July title)
  5. Marina Tsvetaeva: Moscow Diaries 1917-1922, transl. Jamey Gambrell – diaries and essays written by one of my favourite poets during one of the most turbulent periods in Russian history (taking advantage of NYRB book sale)
  6. Lucy Fricke: Töchter (Daughters) – two middle-aged friends take the seriously ill father of one of them to a Swiss clinic, but things don’t quite turn out as planned. Described as a sort of Thelma and Louise road trip, it’s supposed to be both hilarious and thoughtful, and was recommended by a couple of my favourite German book bloggers.

Other books for August will be all the ones I have to review (a long, long list, as I’ve been even more lax in my reviewing than in my reading): Michael Stanley: Dead of Night; Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland; Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources; Roberto Saviano: The Piranhas. I also have three library books that I would really like to finally get around to reading, although I’ve renewed them repeatedly: Romain Gary; Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats; Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility (Essays on Exile and Language).

Virginie Despentes: Vernon Subutex 1 – ennui and more ennui

This book fits into no less than four categories of hashtags: #TranslationThurs, #EU27Project, #WomeninTranslation and #20BooksofSummer. However, it didn’t do much else for me! Which is a shame, because I’ve had a good experience, on the whole, with Despentes’ writing.

This time, however, she focuses on such a narrow category of arty-farty pretentious Parisians that it’s difficult to care about any of them. Vernon is a middle-aged loser, former record shop owner now sofa-surfing from one dubious acquaintance to the next. Besides, haven’t we had enough of French male midlife crisis, portrayed in so many French novels and films? I wouldn’t have expected a woman to write about it – although she supposedly makes fun of it. But for a figure of fun, we simply get too many details about Vernon and the people he mingles with.

Everyone is neurotic, narcissistic, racist, drugged to the eyeballs or all of the above. You switch quite rapidly from one point of view to the next, which does allow for comic effect (what people believe about themselves and how they are perceived by others vs. how people are actually perceived by others), but rarely digs beneath the surface of a character. Despentes has created unlikable narrators before, but then gradually revealed many more layers to them. No time for that in this rather futile, repetitive and overly long novel (and there are two more volumes of this!)

There are some good social observations, as you might expect of Despentes, but it’s simply not political enough, witty enough or engaging enough to sustain my interest. It must have been a bit of a challenge for the translator as well to use so much bad language – Trainspotting for the chi-chi media set and those funding them.

The cultural habits of the poor make him want to spew. He imagines being reduced to such a life – over-salted food, public transport, taking home less than 5000 euros a month and buying clothes in a shopping mall. Taking commercial flights and having to wait around in airports sitting on hard seats with nothing to drink, no newspapers, being treated like shit and having to travel in steerage, being a second-class scumbag… Screwing ageing cellulite-riddled meat. Finishing the working week and having to do the housework and the shopping. Checking the prices of things to see if you can afford them. Kiko couldn’t live like that… Guys like him never act like slaves…

Kiko’s job? Trader on the stock markets.

DNF

P.S. A French friend who works in publishing says it’s a ‘roman à clef’ with recognisable characters from the Parisian media world, but that is too narrow a satirical premise to appeal to me.

June 2018 Reading Summary

I’ve been a little naughty about tagging my books with Goodreads lately, plus they seem to have changed their way of showing what you have read, so I hope I haven’t forgotten any here. It seems that June was an opulent reading month: 16 books finished, only 1 abandoned. Lots of lighter reading too. 7 male authors, 9 women, 5 translations. And I even got to review some of these, so bravo bravissimo me!

#20BooksofSummer Challenge

I’ve done reasonably well, reading 5 books this month, which is not bad considering that I started nearly a week late.

Zygmunt Miłoszewski: Priceless, transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones – an adventure and crime story about tracking down art treasures stolen from Poland during the Nazi occupation. Described as ‘reminiscent of Dan Brown’, I actually enjoyed it much more than Dan Brown – maybe because it is Europe NOT seen through the eyes of an American. Well researched, but the author also dares to go off on flights of (plausible) fantasy. This also fits in with my nearly forgotten #EU27Project, as an entry for Poland.

Belinda Bauer: Snap – gripping and sad by turns, another pageturner by Bauer, who is so good at creating believable children’s voices. Some implausible coincidences slightly marred it, thereby not making it one of my favourite books by her, but still a good read.

And then the three I reviewed earlierAuntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, The Single Mums’ Mansion and Bookworm.

For review on Crime Fiction Lover site:

Pol Koutsakis: Baby Blue – realistic and sombre portrait of present-day Athens and its homeless population

Eliot Pattison: Savage Liberty – historical crime set on the eve of the American Revolution, somewhat long but absolutely fascinating

Bob Van Laerhoven: Return to Hiroshima (review to come) – the after-effects of the atomic bomb, Japanese cults, expats in Japan – this one ticked all the boxes for me on paper, but did it live up to my expectations? You’ll have to check on CFL to find out.

Carol Fenlon: Mere – although it’s an atmospheric tale set in the meres of Lancashire, it’s not crimey enough, so I won’t be reviewing it for the site, although I might still do it on my blog

Then there was another book in this category which I did not finish. I had actually asked CFL to allow me to review it, as it was written by an acquaintance, but I didn’t like it. Tricky situation, telling my acquaintance that I wouldn’t be reviewing it after all.

Non-fiction

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason  – hard to believe how out-of-date this book already is, given all that has happened since it was published in 2008. It really opened my eyes to things about American education, culture and public debates that I didn’t know or couldn’t believe. Although it is quite dense on scholarship and evidence, the prose is remarkably deft and accessible.

Blake Bailey: A Tragic Honesty – this biography of Richard Yates depressed me no end – because it seems his themes and nihilistic writing are a result of personal experience. I guess it really pays not to know too much about your favourite authors! He made all the mistakes, displayed all the boorish behaviours, was a dreadful husband and friend – and yet had the ability to notice, analyse and mock all of these characteristics in his writing.

Others

Joanna Walsh: Break.up – this one got me pondering, because whilst I welcome non-plot driven novels (and loved Tokarczuk’s Flights, which is in a similar vein), this one exasperated me in parts. Perhaps because the topic of lost love irritated me – it is a strange relationship anyway that the narrator is recovering from – a bit of a non-relationship really. However there were many enchanting and pertinent observations too.

Ali Smith: Autumn – I appreciated it but did not love it; the relationship between young and old is interesting and often underrepresented in fiction, and the description of post-Brexit Britain is necessary, but perhaps it’s too soon to produce masterpieces on that topic

Marian Keyes: The Break – an impulse library loan, it was funny, occasionally painful but a little too long

John Berger: G.  – watch out next week for Shiny New Books’ special Golden Man Booker Prize features, where I briefly analyse this by now largely forgotten winner

My favourite book of the month

is actually the first one I read this month: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover. Brilliant story of an Iranian family who suffer political disillusionment, go into exile and never quite find themselves again thereafter, seen through the eyes of the daughter who is trying to continue the family line through IVF treatment. Full review to come soon on Shiny New Books. This also counts as a French entry to #EU27Project, like I don’t have enough French entries anyway!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#20BooksofSummer: Sicilian Lions, Single Mums and Lots of Books

It’s been a very busy, tiring and emotionally draining start to June, so I eased myself into the #20booksofsummer with some lighter reads.

Mario Giordano: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, transl. John Brownjohn

Not perhaps the most exciting or coherent of investigations, a lot of the detective work relies on coincidence or sheer nosiness, and there is something rather implausible and artificial about the whole story within a story set-up (narrated by the Auntie’s nephew, but as it is told to him by the woman herself). Nevertheless, this is a charming cosy crime caper set on the beautiful island of Sicily, stuffed to the gills with comic characters, some of them loud and obnoxious ones, others more than a little shady. And Auntie Poldi bridges the gap between Italian and German culture beautifully: an independent, candid woman with a passion for uniform and a lust for life that I can only hope I will have when I get to her age.

Janet Hoggarth: The Single Mums’ Mansion

This was not quite the fun read I was expecting and when I heard about the origin of the book as a blog about a difficult divorce, it made perfect sense. There is a lot of bitterness and genuine sadness mixed in amongst the obligatory chick lit references: drinking and taking some recreational drugs, lusting after men, supportive female friends and some silly mistakes as they finally move on from the broken wreckage. There were at least two things that annoyed me about this book: the unrealistic way in which these women didn’t seem to have to worry about money, feeding and clothing their children or losing their houses (OK, one of them moves in with the main character for a while, but few of my friends have houses big enough to take anyone else in). And yet they all seemed to have freelance jobs that don’t pay that well: photographer, writer, yoga instructor…

Secondly, none of them seemed to have any other interests other than getting drunk or laid.  Granted, it’s not easy to go out when you have three small children – so why not make the going out count? Or am I the only one who’d far rather have gone to a show or exhibition or a salsa class instead of drowning my sorrows in some expensive bar? Or is that the age difference talking?

Lucy Mangan: Bookworm

Not a systematic discussion of children’s literature, but simply an idiosyncratic and very personal memoir of the books she grew up with. I seem to be of a similar generation to her, as there is a considerable overlap of our books. Lucy Mangan is witty and charming, but you can’t help but notice quite a gap in her reading culture (probably not through any fault of her own, but simply a reflection of how little else was available in English at the time). She mentions Struwelpeter (giving her nightmares) and the colonial excesses of Babar, but no Moomins, no Asterix and Obelix, no Little Prince, no Pippi Longstocking, no Robber Hotzenplotz… It makes me realise how lucky I was to grow up with 3-4 languages and cultures all around me (and many more influences). She admits she was not a very adventurous reader, that she liked her world to be contained and safe, but there was something just ever so slightly too nostalgic about Enid Blyton and P. G. Wodehouse which didn’t sit comfortably with me. And yet there was so much about her account of growing up bookish that I could relate to…

I think for the next batch of #20books I might need to turn my attention to those that have been on my Netgalley shelf for a long, long time.

 

Reading, Borrowing and Buying Update

You might think that after my splurge last week at Hay on Wye, I would be more careful about buying books. Well, you would think wrong, although that’s only because I received an Amazon voucher which made Homer’s Odyssey in the translation of Emily Wilson affordable (I’d been waiting for it to come out in paperback but was really, really keen to read it.) And, once that purchase was made, the dam was broken and a lot more books starting gushing out.

You may have seen Salt Publishing’s appeal on Twitter #JustOneBook, asking their fans to buy just one book from them as they were on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, however you feel about their sudden closure of their poetry section (I have a few poet friends who were upset about the way they did it), I still want independent publishers to survive, as they are the ones who give us that much-needed variety and more experimental works. So I bought The Black Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce – anything but cheery. Then that pesky Anthony from Times Flow Stemmed mentioned Jane Bowles, so I had to track down a second-hand copy of Two Serious Ladies. I also happened to pop into the vintage Penguin section of Waterstones Gower Street and found one of my favourite Ngaio Marshes Artists in Crime, plus The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson. This latter author had been mentioned and reviewed recently by Ali, and you know what a weakling I am when it comes to your recommendations.

Other books arrived by prior appointment. Asymptote Book Club’s May offer was Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan from China – I’m a great fan of both Chinese literature and families (and bean paste, although I prefer it in my desserts usually), so this is a must-read-next. For review, I received a Greek book (perfect description of the surreal post-crisis Athens and homeless lifestyle) Baby Blue by Pol Koutsakis from Bitter Lemon Press. By way of contrast, I also received a noir novel set in rural Lancashire, Mere by Carol Fenlon, from Thunderpoint Publishing. In electronic format I received two jet-setter books (crime with an international setting) Return to Hiroshima by Belgian author Bob van Laerhoven and Dead in the Water by Simon Bower. Last but by no means least, I couldn’t resist getting Roxanne Bouchard’s We were the Salt of the Sea, because: Quebec, Orenda Books, special offer on Kindle!

In terms of borrowing, I’ve reserved Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot at my local library, but will only get to read them after the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner has been announced.

And for my #20booksofsummer update, I’ve taken just 2 days to read the delightfully sunny Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by German author (of Italian origin) Mario Giordano. It’s like an expat version of Camilleri’s Montalbano, but with a feisty middle-aged woman as the main protagonist. 1 down, 19 to go! Next one I am already halfway through is The Single Mums’ Mansion, which I thought would also be lovely comedic escapism. But alas, it’s a little too much about divorce and bad behaviours, so may not be the best escapism in my current situation!