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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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.