Half Year Mark: Favourite Books So Far

We are halfway through the calendar (well, a little bit over, but who’s counting) and I wanted to take a look back at all I have read and jot down some favourites before I forget them in the end of year scramble. [Instead of the book covers, which I have already used in previous posts about those books, I thought I would include pictures of my two favourite libraries in London instead.]

A noirish picture of Senate House which seems to have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel.

According to my Goodreads counter, I’ve read 75 books so far this year. There have been some periods when I could barely concentrate on reading, when I was too het up with work and personal matters, but on the whole it’s not a bad number, an average of 12.5 books a month. It feels like it’s been a good mix of male and female authors, translated or foreign language books and English language ones, and a broad mix of genres. Here are the books which really stayed with me long after I read them (in chronological order of reading):

César Aira: The Lime Tree

The first Asymptote Book Club title, which I read just in time to ring in the New Year, and gave me a hunger to read more by this author. I love his slapdash style and the way he zooms in on the fine detail, then telescopes out to describe the historical and social issues of his country.

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson – A Rather Haunted Life

This gave me so much insight into the life of one of my favourite authors. Suddenly, a lot of things became clear to me, and, although it was sad, it was somehow not as depressing as the Blake Bailey biography of Richard Yates. P.S. Why do so many writers I admire have difficult relationships with their mothers?

Senate House Library

Michelle McNamara: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Not usually a fan of true crime, which I always feel slightly icky about because of its voyeuristic qualities and because it focuses so much on the criminal instead of the victims. But this book (which has now deservedly achieved higher visibility because of the finding of the killer she describes) gets the balance just right. Yes, it is the story of a woman’s – and a group’s – obsession with a killer who made life in California hell for several years in the 1970s, but it also is compassionate and respectful towards the victims.

Bibhutibhushan Bopadhyandyaya: Aranyak

Another Asymptote Book Club title, an immersive experience of a lost world. It may not be the most flawless book from the storytelling point of view – in fact, it often feels more like anthropological field notes rather than a novel (and I know not everyone finds the two equally fascinating). But there are beautifully nuanced observations (as well as blind spots) and lyrical descriptions of the forests which I loved.

Senate House Library, the Periodicals room.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love

OK, you’re going to think I’m just doing one long advertisement for the Asymptote Book Club, but I’ve honestly been blown away by their selection of books, most of which have pushed me a little beyond my comfort zone (which I like to think is plenty spacious enough already, but there is always room for more). This quietly devastating story about looking for love in all the wrong places had my heart in my throat all the time while reading it.

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters

As a crime novel this may not be quite perfect (I guessed the perpetrator fairly early on, although the author does its best to create a list of suspicious characters), but it is a hard-hitting description of rural life in South Africa, the life that so few tourists get to see. It really helps us to understand the Afrikaner mentality a bit better, and tries not to take sides in the tricky matter of land ownership and race in that beautiful but troubled country. It got me doing more research on ‘plaasmord’ and South African history.

My beloved old British Library reading room, back when it was housed in the British Museum

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

So grateful the David Bowie Book Club made me reread this one, as it seems to be ever more appropriate to the present-day.

Fiona Mozley: Elmet

A debut novel that is the reverse of Cold Comfort Farm, in many ways. Instead of parody of the gloomy, dramatic portrayals of country life, we have a modern take on life in the countryside which seems to not have changed much for the better. Like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, this is both a family story and the description of a very tough way of life, which is being encroached upon by big agriculture and developers. The prose was so poetic and accurate, that I was completely won over.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

I started reading this under the impression that it was a collection of essays rather than a novel, and I’m still not quite sure what it is. But it doesn’t matter. This constellation novel is a jazz improvisation on the subject of travelling, escaping, finding freedom, and it’s the flights of fancy which charmed me.

What books have inveigled their way into your heart this year? And do you think they will continue to claim their spot in your heart until the end of the year?

The modern British Library

 

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The Tidings of the Trees: #AsymptoteBookClub No. 7

The Asymptote Book Club selection for June is a slim volume by (East) German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. In the original German, this novella appeared in a collection together with other stories such as Old Rendering Plant, but Two Lines Press decided to publish the translations individually. It is also the first Book Club selection which is translated from a language that I read myself, so I was in two minds about it.

But what this book lacks in number of pages or in unknown language quality, it certainly makes up for in terms of depth, with a style that pushes you along to the finale. There is something to be said about allowing the wave of prose and ideas to crash over you in one sitting. I read it in one day, in three distinct gulps, but I also want to return to it and reread at leisure, to observe the nuances.

Although written in 1991-92, after the fall of the Wall, the book reminded me very much of literature written under the threat of censorship: you write about one thing, but in fact what you are really writing about is something completely different. The subject of the book is ostensibly a worker-writer Waller talking about his writer’s block, bemoaning the chopping down of the cherry trees in his home town and describing his childish stand-off with the garbage collectors. In fact, we could interpret this story in several different ways.

One would be the destruction of nature in the brown-coal industrial area of Germany where the author originally came from. Ash and dust seem to permeate every page of the book, threatening to engulf the town, the narrator, the reader. But the ash quickly turns into something else: historical ash, layer after layer, covering the world in the silence of complicity or self-censorship. For there is undoubtedly an overt political message to this book. A whole country and political system is being relegated to the rubbish heap, a whole population has had its thoughts infiltrated ‘by the ghastly substance of the ash, which is nothing but gray stuff, dry and thundery, hard and unfeeling and burned-out’.

Then there are the garbagemen, unknowable, sinister beings, although Waller tries a game of one-man-upship with them. But are they really sinister, or are they the equivalent of the Trümmerfrauen, those almost mythical women who sorted through the rubble after the Second World War and helped to rebuild it? In the meantime, of course, we know that the Trümmerfrauen image is a bit of a myth, that the rubble was in fact cleared by prisoners both during and after the war. To what extent are those mysterious garbagemen themselves prisoners, or are they the guards of the prison camp? Or are they the ones who get to sift through the past, perhaps even seek to preserve it, while governments erase history and people are only too eager to forget. But what is worth preserving – and who gets to decide it?

Hilbig in the beer garden in Leipzig., 1985. From the Wolfgang Hilbig Society website.

Hilbig describes perfectly the claustrophobic sense of stagnation of living in a country closed off from the outside world, a soundproof room,  and passages such as the one below resonated profoundly with me and explains the sense of ‘protection from the unknown’ that Communism also brought to many:

We lived in a country, cut off, walled in, where we had to end up thinking that time had no real relevance for us. Time was outside, the future was outside… outside everything rushed to its doom.

A book which resurfaced many old memories through its half-hinting, half-deliberate metaphors, and perhaps explains the drive for joining the EU, so I shall add it to the #EU27Project. Hilbig was a vocal critic of the GDR regime, and only got to publish one book there before he was forced to move abroad in 1985. He has, however, won every German literature prize worth having since then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Is Love? #AsymptoteBookClub No. 3

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

A single mother arrives home tired but quietly triumphant after doing her first presentation at her new workplace. Her eight-year-old son is waiting for her, listening to every step as she walks in and starts cooking. They have dinner and some conversation, but each is wrapped up in their own thoughts and dreams. They only have each other, since they moved away from town, from the boy’s father. The mother settles down with a book and dozes off, the boy goes out to sell raffle tickets. The mother wakes up and decides to slip out to the library herself, believing her son is safely tucked in bed. And so they narrowly miss each other on this winter night in a village in Northern Norway.

It’s difficult and probably unwise not to read Hanne Ørstavik’s slim novel all in one gulp. You need to go somewhere with that sense of foreboding, the crescendo of compassion, pity and dread, the certainty that something bad will happen to Vibeke and her young son Jon as they wander about their village that evening like lost souls. Every mention of the birthday cake that the little boy keeps hoping that his mother will bake for him pierced my heart. Every time Vibeke looks at herself in the mirror, dreams of being admired and loved, is almost desperate to become visible in some way, my skin tingled in recognition and pity. I doubt I would have been able to keep on reading with such physical discomfort if the book had been any longer, or if I’d had to go back to it in dribs and drabs.

Both the title and the character of Vibeke have provoked debate on the Asymptote Book Club discussion thread. Why ‘love’ when the book shows us such an imperfect example of it, perhaps almost the absence of it? To my mind, both Jon and Vibeke are searching for love, desperate for it to the point of naivety and reckless endangerment. The love that they get from one another is not quite enough to fill this deep hole in the centre of their lives. The father would not have filled the hole either. They are both dreamers, they both desire something that they have never experienced but that they haven’t quite lost hope of finding, despite countless disappointments. The tragedy is that they are not quite aware of this hunger in themselves, so they cannot talk to each other about it, and not just because of the age gap.

I remember an instructor at a poetry workshop saying that we should never talk about love, hearts and the moon, as it is far too easy to descend into sentimentality and cliché. This book talks about all three but manages to avoid that dishonourable fate. How does it do that? Firstly, the style is unadorned and kept deliberately detached. Third person, moving swiftly from Jon to Vibeke’s point of view, but without dwelling on their emotions. Everything is implied in their reactions and gestures rather than through authorial intervention or judgement. At first I thought that the style alternated between long and short sentences, but in fact even the long sentences are often made up of short, coordinated clauses, loosely linked through commas. This, together with the use of the present tense, gives a breathless quality to the narration which contrasts with the cold observation. This really helps in the build-up of suspense, plus author selects just the right amount of telling details to give us a precise, almost step-by-step description of events which never feels repetitive.

I’ve read some great reviews of the book already by Asymptote Book Club subscribers. Ali comments on how love can be both good and terrible. Old Books Abe describes the feeling of helplessly watching the characters fall into peril behind a layer of ice, unable to stop it. Enrico Cioni is fascinated by Vibeke and compares the book to other two recent translations Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin and Die, My Love by Ariana Harwitz. I also found a resemblance to Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment – that same almost animal instinct for surviving pain, of blessed temporary selfishness, but set in a tighter-lipped, colder climate. For another powerful example of Ørstavik’s understated and elliptical style, see The Blue Room.

What Book Clubs Mean to Me #AsymptoteBookClub

This is not a promotional post to encourage you all to take part in a competition to win a 3 month subscription for the Asymptote Book Club – although it would be great if you would! It is an explanation of why I have become so wed to the idea of an international virtual book club. But first, here is the information you need to take part:

The first book club I joined formed organically amongst friends. When I returned to Romania as a fourteen year old, I suddenly found many of my favourite authors were banned, sometimes simply for being from a certain country. (Those evil capitalist bastards etc.) At first, I tried to borrow books from the libraries set up by foreign embassies – until my father was told at his workplace that I should stop doing it, I was endangering the family. I persevered, underground. I went on to study Foreign Languages, and we all had our sneaky ways of getting hold of forbidden books (which might include the Metaphysical poets – we skipped from Shakespeare straight to Wordsworth in English literature, for instance): smuggled copies, photocopies, forgotten family inheritance, passing through all our hands. We spent long afternoons and nights debating them at parties (whilst listening to bootlegged Western music). It certainly made us value books for more than just their physical scarcity – they were the glimpse of a world beyond our own, the doorway to infinite possibilities when we felt we were walled in.

My second book club was more deliberate. I had developed a bit of a reputation amongst friends as the person who could always recommend a good book. After the birth of my first child, I was no longer able to go out to cultural events so frequently, so when I was invited to a book club run by local mums, which was meeting just a few houses down on my street, I jumped at the opportunity. I remember the first book we discussed was Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the meeting consisting mostly of wine and snacks, 10 minutes of chatting about Oxford (the setting of the book) and then the rest about babies, sleep patterns, potty training etc.

So I swore off book clubs for a while, although I kept hoping I would meet like-minded people. The Geneva Writers’ Group proved a good forum for some reading discussions, but we were mostly about the writing.

I then discovered my reading family online, via blogs and Twitter. First I developed a crime reading community, then I moved onto translated literature. I’m not giving up either any time soon. These are all people who are as passionate as me about reading, thinking about the reading, debating, listening to other points of view. But of course we all read books at different times, so the conversation sometimes takes a long while to develop. ‘Ah,’ I find myself saying after reading someone’s post, ‘I used to love that book in my teens, but I haven’t read it since.’ Can I really contribute to the conversation, when I can barely remember it, probably overestimate my reaction to it at the time, and would almost certainly feel differently to it now?

All of this is a long-winded way of saying how wonderful it is to be part of the Asymptote Book Club, which I would be supporting even if I weren’t helping out at Asymptote. Books from independent publishers from all over the world, books that don’t have the publicity budgets of the big hitters and risk being overlooked, books that are translated with much care and thought, the opportunity to discuss the same book with an international group of book lovers, to ask the translator questions, to find out more about the culture behind the book… And something that I can join in whenever I am free, without the risk of missing a meeting. Sounds pretty much ideal to me.

 

The Darling Buds of March – Reading Plans

I can’t wait for the tender shoots of March to nudge their way out of the snow – my reading buds are certainly coming along nicely and getting me very excited this month!

I have somehow found myself with a number of reading challenges – or opportunities (because I find them a great deal of fun), plus quite a few books to review. More than enough to keep me busy this month. In fact, I am somewhat envious of Bookish Beck’s formidable shelf organising skills and am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I may need a better TBR filing system than an overflowing armchair or night-table.

Asymptote Book Club:

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

I read her first book to be translated into English The Blue Room published by Pereine, Love is the story of a single mother, Vibeke, and her son Jon, who have just moved to a remote small town in the north of Norway. It’s the day before Jon’s birthday, but with concerns of her own, Vibeke has forgotten this. With a man on her mind, she ventures to the local library while Jon goes out to sell lottery tickets for his sports club. As a newly single mother (albeit uninterested in new men), this one may hit me hard, but I’m prepared…

David Bowie Book Club

Spike Milligan: Puckoon

Very topical indeed – a comic novel about set in 1924, it details the troubles brought to the fictional Irish village of Puckoon by the Partition of Ireland. Because of government indecision and incompetence (wow, is that possible?) the new border passes directly through the middle of the village. I’ve managed to find a copy of this in the reserve fiction section (i.e. buried in the  basement) of my local library and I hear there’s a film as well.

Muriel Spark #readingMuriel2018

I still have to review Symposium for Ali’s Reading Muriel initiative , but also planning to read The Comforters – her first novel but already showing a very unusual mind at work. The heroine, Caroline Rose, is plagued by a Typing Ghost and realises she is a character in a novel.

#EU27Project

Enough shilly-shallying with this one, I need to get cracking and have also got some non-fiction and poetry planned for a change.

Dubravka Ugresic: Europe in Sepia

Tangerine Sky: Poems from Malta

Film poster for the book

Dan Lungu: Sînt o babă comunistă! (I’m an Old Communist Biddy) – a Romanian satirical book, which has also been adapted for a play and a film, in which the author tackles all that inertia and nostalgia for everyday Communism which some of the older generation inexplicably have (or perhaps not that inexplicable after all)

For Review:

Stuart Turton: The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (71/2 in the US)  – Golden crime meets the film Memento, in a complicated, brain-melting story about trying to prevent a murder and living with guilt.

Death Notice by Zhou Haohui – Chinese crime fiction written, unusually, by a contemporary thriller writer residing in China. Set in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province, this promises to be a gritty series, which has also been turned into a very popular TV crime drama.

Victor del Arbol: A Million Drops – an ambitious political thriller dissecting the heritage of Communism and Fascism in Spain, and how the past still impacts the present

Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji, transl. Dennis Washburn – having a quick read through to compare and contrast different translations of one of my favourite books for an essay to appear in Asymptote

Still reading from February:

The Welsh book The Caves of Alienation by Stuart Evans

Tom Hanks: Uncommon Type – a short story collection, and although Hanks is actually quite good with words, the stories themselves are slight slices of life, tolerably amusing, but leaving me with a yawnish ‘so what?’ Probably will not finish or try again later.

 

 

 

No. 2 #AsymptoteBookClub : Aranyak

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay: Aranyak (transl. Rimli Bhattacharya)

This is why I am grateful to have other sage people choose books for me on occasion: because they unearth things that I would never have come across on my own. Aranyak is one such gem of Bengali literature. Written in the 1930s, translated here for the first time in English, it talks of a lost world, the rapid sale of land for farming and consequent deforestation of large swathes of the Bihar forests in the north-east of India, neighbouring Nepal. The narrator contributes to what we would now consider an ecological devastation, but which at the time was considered completely appropriate.

The story is loosely autobiographical, a series of vignettes about the life of an earnest young man from Calcutta who works for a few years as an estate manager in Bihar. In a way, he is as much a victim of the greedy landowners as the poor farmers are: unable to find a job in the city, he takes this poorly compensated job in a remote location, suffers homesickness initially, is transformed by the people and the landscape, but then has to bear the guilt that he took part in its downfall. This is why the whole book is designed to be the confession of an old man looking back on his youth.

But those memories do not give me pleasure; they are filled with sorrow. By my hands was destroyed an unfettered playground of nature. I know too, that for this act the forest gods will never forgive me. I have heard that to confess a crime in one’s own words lightens somewhat the burden of the crime. Therefore, this story.

There is no real plot to the novel, merely a chronological description of events and characters. The narrator tries to give voice to the many people he meets, many of whom are so poor that he cannot believe what they are willing to do to survive. This is why the book feels more like the field notes of an anthropologist. And, just like an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th century, he cannot resist adding himself to the narration, interpreting, casting judgement, expressing love and concern for the people he meets, but still considering them ‘subjects of enquiry’, with a paternalistic attitude. Malinowski’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders (1922) and Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Azande (1937) fall firmly within this category. Yet the impotent sadness at the social injustice paves the way to the more self-conscious anthropological memoir of Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1955).

It is a fascinating book, full of vivid character studies and life stories, some of them desperately sad, some of them a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. The author warns us how important it is to understand the context within which these stories arise, to leave our own world behind:

These stories of Ganu that sounded so mysterious and so delicious in the environs of the lonely forest would certainly, I know, sound absurd and false if one were to listen to them in Calcutta. One may not listen to stories anywhere and everywhere. Nor are stories to be recounted carelessly. A story lover will know how much the pleasure of a story depends on the immediate environment of its telling and the receptivity of its listeners.

I also love the lyrical descriptions of nature (even though they are probably soaked in a nostalgic haze). The narrator gradually succumbs to the magical beauty of the landscape. In anthropological terms, he ‘goes native’ and may find it hard to ever return to his home town.

It is better for those who have to live within the strictures of domesticity never to catch sight of this beauty. In this bewitching guise, nature makes men abandon their homes, fills them with wanderlust… He who has heard the call of the wild and has once glimpsed the unveiled face of nature will find it impossible to settle down to to playing the householder.

I have to admit that I found the narrator’s open admiration for the humble, sweet women he meets in the forests a trifle creepy. It sounds like he was taking advantage of his halo as the powerful outsider, although he exalts their beauty and gentleness. The ‘angel in the house’ mentality of Victorian Britain shines through, even more potent because of the infantilisation of women and of this ethnic group, this less deserving ‘caste’ (although the narrator also mentions instances when he ignores the caste system):

I have noted that like the open and generous countryside – the forests, the clouds, the range of hills, free and untrammelled – Bhanmati was unencumbered, innocent and free in how she conducted herself. So were Manchi and the poet’s wife… The forests and hills had liberated their minds, expanded their vision with generosity; in like maner, their love was deep, generous and liberating. They could love greatly because of the greatness of their hearts… The dictates of refinement and the pressures of the civilized world had erased in her sisters the eternal woman that resided in Bhanmati.

Whether creepy admiration or not, you cannot doubt the narrator’s sincere love for life in the jungle, despite his initial reservations. In fact, one of the amusing passages in the book occurs when he stumbles across a group of Bengali tourists having a picnic in the jungle, woefully unprepared and blind to all the beauty around them.

By a stroke of rare fortune, they had landed in this extraordinary kingdom of nature, but they lacked vision to appreciate what they saw. In fact, they had come with the sole purpose of hunting, as though birds, rabbits and deer were all awaiting them by the roadside, waiting patiently to be shot.

The book ends rather abruptly with the narrator sitting under a tree fifteen years later and musing about what might have befallen the people he knew there in the meantime. I would have liked to hear about his difficulties in fitting back into the society he had left behind, the reverse culture shock, that sense of never quite belonging there anymore, because his eyes have been opened. But that is probably another story.

I think this is a book that we certainly have to read bearing in mind the attitudes, perspectives, policies and politics of the time. There are elements in it which will feel uncomfortable to a modern reader, but in many ways Bandyopadhyay was ahead of his time. It also raises many interesting questions about ‘fashions’ in nature writing and anthropology, about our espoused values vs. our behaviours in the present day. Yes, we are more ecologically aware, but vast areas of jungles are still lost every day in the name of economic progress. Yes, we claim to be less paternalistic about other cultures, but we still systematically represent them as ‘token exotic exceptions’ in popular culture. It must also have been fiendishly difficult to translate, to decide how much of the original names and expressions to leave in, one different culture talking about yet another different culture. You can find an interview with the translator on the Asymptote blog and you can read another review of the book on Ali’s blog.

WWWednesday What Are You Reading? 7 February 2018

It has been a few months since I last joined in with this weekly meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Current:

Muriel Spark was born on the 1st of February 1918, so what better time to celebrate the #murielspark100 than this month? I have embarked the brief Symposium, one of her later novels – one that I hadn’t read before. It seems to be tour de force of characterisation through dialogue, something Spark does so well.

Just read:

The Asymptote Book Club’s January title Aranyak by the incredibly beautifully named writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, one of the greatest writers of modern Bengali literature. It is truly ahead of its time: a 1930s ecological novel, although it seems to stem from an older man’s regret for the events which he has witnessed and played a part in bringing about (the deforestation of Bihar to make way for agriculture and the disappearance of a traditional way of life).

To be read:

I will read two simultaneously, as is my wont. The two I’ve got my eyes on are from Croatia and Wales, respectively. Dubravka Ugresic’s Europe in Sepia is a collection of what one might call travel essays (not just about Europe), full of sharp observations about populism and the hunger for imagined past glories. Meanwhile, Stuart Evans’ The Caves of Alienation has been waiting for me since I reached Chapter 3 during my residence at Ty Newydd, but couldn’t  find the book anywhere outside Wales. I’ve got a rather mangled former library copy at long last and will probably have to restart it.

So, what are you reading this week? Anything that might tempt me? (Luckily, you know I have a will of iron, don’t you?)