Summary of November Reading

It’s a dark, dank month and we’ve been plagued by fog and migraines. Thank goodness the reading has made up for it! I’ve read a total of 14 books this month, of which 5 crime fiction, 6 foreign books, 6 by women authors (plus a collection of short stories which contains both men and women authors, of course). Three short story collections this month, which is quite out of character – I’m developing a love for the form. Quite a lot of memorable reads and only one turkey – rather appropriately, in a month in which American Thanksgiving is celebrated.

GermanLitThe best idea was participating in the German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I’ve discovered so many new authors by reading the reviews of the other participants, remembered old favourites that I hadn’t touched since childhood and had the opportunity to explore some books of my own. I didn’t quite get to read everything I intended (Dürrenmatt will have to wait until another month), but I did reasonably well:

Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time – collection of surreal short stories

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten – another short story collection, but more rooted in reality

Vienna Tales – the third short story collection, all with Vienna as a setting, although I only discuss the Joseph Roth stories in this review

Hester Vaizey: Born in the GDR – fantastic set of interviews with the Unification Generation in Germany

I also read some French authors to balance this out:

A young Modiano, in the 1970s.
A young Modiano, in the 1970s.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir – jetlagged escapade in China

Patrick Modiano: Un Pedigree – memoirs of the Nobel prize-winner’s childhood: born into a highly unconventional family, his parents separated quite early on and he was sent away to boarding-school and generally ignored/forgotten about until he published his first novel at the age of 22. Not a masterpiece of style, but a sad story which explains perhaps his literary search for identity and meaning.

TrucOlivier Truc: Forty Days without Shadow – intriguing debut crime novel about the Reindeer Police in Lapland

There were some memorable reads about women feeling out of place, trapped in their marriage… and about so much more:

Jill Alexander Essbaum: Hausfrau

Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You

There were quite a few fun, quick reads, which I heartily recommend in the run-up to Christmas:

SilkwormMarian Keyes: Angels – another woman running away from her marriage,but with Keyes’ humorous take on the subject and sly observations about Hollywood

Robert Galbraith: The Silkworm – she knows how to spin a good yarn, even if it’s somewhat wordy, and I love her sharp digs at writers’ egos and the publishing industry

Philip Kerr: Research – a break from the Bernie Gunther series, this is a helter-skelter of a funny thriller, again needling writers and publishers – are we discovering a new trend here?

Janet O’Kane: No Stranger to Death – shall we call this ‘tartan cosy’ – a new genre which mixes amateur detection and village gossip with some dark subject matter

Finally, the promised turkey, which I dutifully read to the end because it was a Book Club choice for November (although I felt like abandoning it many, many times):

C. J. Sansom: Dominion – it felt too bulky, repetitive, unedited, although I enjoyed the premise of an alternative past in which England was occupied by the Nazis. However, it’s been done so much more successfully and thrillingly in Robert Harris’ ‘Fatherland’, without the rather intrusive explanations and political discussions. And this one’s about 700 pages long to Harris’ 400. Shame, as I enjoy Sansom’s other books.

 

 

 

 

 

Family Secrets, Racism and Unfulfillment

Everything+I+Never+Told+You+-+Celeste+NgCeleste Ng’s ‘Everything I Never Told You’ is a quiet, gentle novel, which relies more on style than plotting, on gentle nudges rather than fireworks. It’s the kind of novel that first-time writers are told: ‘It won’t get published nowadays.’ But it did. It would probably have had a modest success and sunk with barely a ripple in the great ocean of books published every year in the US alone. But then the Amazon editorial team chose it as their top read of the year – heading a surprising list of lesser-known titles which the cynical amongst you might interpret as an attempt to boost sales for books which have not done so well – or an attempt to prove that they are sensitive souls after all.

To be honest, Amazon lists have little impact on me. If anything, they probably put me off a book rather than endear it to me (because I like to be counter-flow rather than following the herd). However, I had already requested and downloaded this book from Netgalley and it had been sitting for a while on my tablet (which is not a Kindle, incidentally). I have Chinese friends who grew up in the UK and experienced some discrimination in their childhood back in the 1980s, so I wanted to see what it would have been like in small-town America.

As you can imagine, not pretty! For this mixed race Chinese-American family, living in 1970s New York or Boston would have been … not easy, exactly, but acceptable at least. Living in a small college town in Ohio, however, makes life much more difficult and the author describes tribulations both large and small in a factual reporting style which makes it all the more heartbreaking.

Once a woman stopped the two of them in the grocery store and asked, ‘Chinese?’ and when they said yes, not wanting to get into halves and wholes, she’d nodded sagely. ‘I knew it,’ she said. ‘By the eyes.’ She’d tugged the corner of each eye outward with a fingertip.

No amount of teaching about American cowboys (the father’s specialist subject) is going to make them blend in.

Celeste Ng, from her website. Credit: Kevin Day Photography
Celeste Ng, from her website. Credit: Kevin Day Photography

The book opens with the chilling sentences: ‘Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.’ And there we are, bang in the middle of something sinister wrapped up in the mundane packaging of daily life.

Lydia is undoubtedly the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular, well-integrated and accepted by everyone. Lydia tries so hard to live up to their expectations: her fears about failing physics, her disappointment with the science books her mother constantly gives her, her fake telephone conversations are all described with aching precision. Meanwhile, her older brother Nath feels protective towards her, but also stifled in his own ambitions by his parent’s lack of interest in his own future. [That was the one false note, incidentally, in the book: I cannot imagine a Chinese-American family being so disinterested in a son’s career.] Her younger sister Hannah is frequently forgotten by the family – a real after-thought in terms of family planning – and has therefore become more observant than most. She is the one who comes closest to untangling the poisonous web of misunderstandings, lies, wish fulfillment and belated efforts to repair matters.

This is not a mystery or crime story. It is very much a family tragedy, but it never descends into sheer melodrama. The story itself does not feel completely fresh and original, but it’s all in the telling. Beautiful, poignant, lyrically written, building up layer upon layer of insight into each of the characters (and making us feel so much empathy for each one of them), it is a tale to savour and remember.