Week in Review with a Book Haul

Honestly, sincerely, believe me I meant it… when I said I would start digging into my TBR pile and stop buying books this year. But accidents do happen! And this is how my week panned out…

First of all, I realised that it has been weeks since I last saw my Kindle. I have searched for it everywhere but cannot locate it. So this means no more acquisitions via Netgalley, but also no more reading of the long, long list of books I have there, including some rather pressing reviews. I would buy a new one, but I am fairly sure that the instant I order it, the old one will resurface from some cavernous depth of my house (I don’t often take it out unless I am travelling, and I have already searched my suitcase).

Secondly, I have enjoyed reviewing my first Asymptote Book Club read, Cesar Aira. A new author to me, but I enjoyed him so much that I read two other novellas by him in quick succession. He is remarkably prolific, so he might be a bit hit and miss, but so far I really like him.

Thirdly, I had a busy week at work, but it was creative, strategic work which I enjoyed, made all the better by listening to Hamilton, which I now have uploaded onto my laptop. Initially I loved all the big, obvious songs like My Shot or The Room Where It Happens, but now I am more drawn to Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story and the optimism of The Story of Tonight. ‘Raise a glass to the four of us, tomorrow there will be more of us.’

Finally, yes, OK, I admit I did get some new books this week. What?! You expect me to pile ashes on my head and put the hair shirt on? I only bought three, of which two were second-hand, and I received two more for review.

Alison Lurie: Women and Ghosts

Collection of short stories, sometimes comic, sometimes, haunting, where people’s lives are disrupted by supernatural occurrences. Not normally a fan of ghost stories, but I know that Lurie is such a keen observer of human foibles, so I think this could be good.

Jodie Hollander: My Dark Horses

A debut poetry collection that traces the troubled relationship of the poet with her mother, as well as the charms and vicissitudes of growing up in a family of obsessive musicians. I have to admit to a selfish reason for ordering this one via Waterstones: it was recommended to me by a fellow poet after she read my poems about my mother.

Nice cover, but isn’t that dress from post WW2?

Paula McLain: The Paris Wife

I’ve been meaning to read this forever, ever since it came out in 2010. I really enjoyed Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, with its portrait of bohemian expat artist life in Paris in the 1920s, but that is just Hemingway’s side of the story. And, as we all know, he wasn’t really good to the women in his life.

 

Thomas Enger: Killed

Orenda Books shares my passion for Norway and has kindly sent me the dark, suspenseful finale of this series about crime reporter Henning Juul.

Kate Rhodes: Hell Bay

This is the start of a new series by Kate Rhodes, set on the Scilly Islands (which I now want to visit). I read a sample of it after going to the Simon & Schuster launch evening last year and have been eagerly awaiting the rest of the story ever since.

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No. 1 #AsymptoteBookClub – César Aira: The Lime Tree

César Aira: The Lime Tree (transl. Chris Andrews)

The first title for the just launched Asymptote Book Club arrived shortly before Christmas and it was no hardship to read it during the holidays. Argentinian writer Aira’s novels are fairly slim – this one has only 106 pages – so it is quite easy to wolf it one down in one morning. This is exactly what I did, but then (just as Roberto Bolaño predicted) I found it such an exhilarating and addictive experience that I quickly followed suit with two further Aira novels The Literary Conference and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.

What this author misses in length (of each manuscript), he more than makes up for by sheer prolificity. He publishes on average two books a year, plus translation work, plus literary criticism. Since he started his literary career in  published 70 novels, 3 short story collections and numerous essays.  To quote from my current obsession, the musical Hamilton: ‘Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Why do you write like it’s going out of style?’

Author photo. EFE/Acero

Well, Aira has an answer for that in his interviews. He is using the forward propulsion motion of ‘flight forward’, because he believes that helps him to get out of the corners into which he tends to write himself. Having experienced his ‘flights of fancy’ and tangential observations, the effortless way he moves from one subject to the next unrelated one, he can only achieve that with elegance by being a butterfly. In other words, he does not go back and edit much. He prefers to allow himself to be guided by instinct. One might almost argue that he thinks aloud through his writing. He doesn’t care if the audience can follow or not, he is merely trying to clarify his own memories and impressions. There is a certain arrogance about that attitude; some critics have said that Aira is a great showman rather than a great talent.

Of course, when one is so absurdly prolific and unedited, the standard can drop at times. He has produced average books as well as outstanding ones, and sometimes you can see this uneven style within the same book: a pedestrian sentence followed by one which really stands out and makes you ponder. As soon as I finished reading The Lime Tree, I started it over again, to find my favourite stories, pages and sentences. There are so many wonderful quotes. As everyone knows, memories are notoriously unreliable and open to reinterpretation. This is a theme constantly addressed in Aira’s work, which prances playfully on a fine line between autobiography, fiction and dream-like surreal fantasy.

Are they memories or inventions? You can never really know.

It’s not the first time the author talks about his childhood in his hometown of Coronel Pringles (yes, really – this bit is not made up) near Buenos Aires. We cannot be sure how much of this is true, however, but what an enticing story he weaves! Not that there is much to describe in the way of plot: instead we have a torrent merrily rushing through the mountain landscape, finding its own parallel routes and occasionally overwhelming the inattentive reader. Those winding side-routes are sometimes far more exciting to explore than the straight ones.

I have strayed from my theme, but not too far. One never really strays beyond the possibility of return.

Aerial view of the Plaza, with the lime trees.

Despite the lack of clear narrative arc (although this book does have a shape, as it starts and finishes with the lime trees in the Plaza), the readers will never be bored if they allow themselves to follow the meandering monologue of the narrator, who manages to cover so much ground.

We find out about Argentine society during and after the Peronist era. We meet the narrator’s handsome, possibly bigamous father, who rose with Peron’s government (after his demise, Peron’s name is prohibited by decree, even in their house). He is the one who collects the flowers from the lime tree (better known in Europe as the linden tree) to make tea to cure his insomnia. His mother is small, dwarf-like and apparently grotesquely deformed, but stately and well-respected in town. He reminisces about childhood misdemeanours and silly games – many of these will make you smile. For instance, he helps out at the office of the local accountant and uses liquid chalk to write things on the shop window.  The child and his parents live in a massive building, a former hotel or inn, but they only occupy one room. In fact, his father goes so far as to store his ladder under their bed, ‘as if there weren’t twenty-four empty rooms in which he could have stored it.’

Translating these verbal fireworks must be a nightmare, but Chris Andrews seems to be a seasoned hand. He has translated eleven of Aira’s works into English (the other two translators are Nick Caistor and Katherine Silver). Although I cannot read in Spanish so I cannot comment on the quality of the translation, I feel that he has done justice to the author’s rich mix of genres, styles and jargon, his linguistic virtuosity and punning.

I could go on, but I’m in danger of writing a review which is longer than the book itself. This book was unusual, charming, witty, like a late night conversation with a slightly rambling friend, who nevertheless utters some profound truths that will make you rethink your life and interpret your own childhood memories differently.

Ali has also reviewed this book on her blog, and you can read a review of another work by Aira in Asymptote Journal.  Like Javier Marias, this is a writer that I want to explore in more detail.

So a real winner from the Book Club and I am looking forward to my January read (which hasn’t arrived yet). If you think you might like to join the Book Club before the next book goes out, here are the details.