Wrapping Up November 2018

The Romanian holiday has receded in the mists of time, as November proved implacable in terms of work load and ‘fun’ events that involved mainly my older son’s GCSE exams and life after those exams.

All this is the lead-in to explain why my reading has not been hugely varied this month. I managed to finish just 11 books (and others have been dragging on forever). 7 of those were written in English, 8 women authors (well, 7 in fact, for one of those authors featured twice – namely Tana French). I’ve also been very bad about reviewing the books.

Broken Harbour is missing from this selection, but it was a great reread.

Books I Loved

Tana French: Broken Harbour – this was the first book of hers that I read but did not review a few years ago, so this is a reread and it moved me all over again. Possibly my favourite among her books. Those ghost town developments, I wonder if they are beginning to recover as the Dublin property market picks up.

Simone Buchholz: Beton Rouge, transl. Rachel Ward – another writer who takes the crime fiction trope and runs away with it. The crime plays second fiddle to a hugely atmospheric portrayal of Hamburg (and Bavaria), and a cool jazzy riff on language and style.

 Books That Surprised Me

Prabda Yoon: Moving Parts – Surreal, fantastical, sly and witty stories from Thailand, with lots of word play and mind games and lateral thinking. An unusual delight, showing us a very contemporary and urban world, far removed from the exoticism we might associate with that country. Must have been sooo tricky to translate – and you can read an interview with the translator Mui Poopoksakul here.

Kathy Acker: Essential Writings – I’d read short bits and pieces by Kathy Acker before, but never a selection of what the editors consider her best stuff. Not sure if it does justice to the variety of her work, but she certainly still has the power to shock, jolt, anger and make you think!

Ahmet Altan: Like a Sword Wound, transl. Brendan Freely & Yelda Turedi – historical family sagas are not my cup of tea, but the initial soap opera quality of the book soon gives way to a fresco of a society, a certain time and way of life, much like the Transylvanian Trilogy. Another great Asymptote Book Club choice, just like the Prabda Yoon.

Books I Wish I Hadn’t Bothered With

Not necessarily bad, but just not as interesting or scary or crime-fictiony or funny as I expected. Sadly, quite a few of them this month, which perhaps put me off reading a bit.

Hanna Jameson: The Last – can’t make up its mind if it’s a mystery or a dystopian novel

Lucy Foley: The Hunting Party – giving all those who went to Oxford Uni a bad name

Tana French: The Wych Elm – a character who just dragged on and on and on

Noel Langley: There’s a Porpoise Close Behind Us – a few chapters of this could have been charming and funny, a whole book was just too much

Meh

Louise Penny: Kingdom of the Blind – normally this author can do no wrong in my eyes, but although it was nice to revisit Three Pines, I felt this one was a tad repetitive. Maybe it’s time to move on to another subject, another character.

Eva Menasse; Quasikristalle – good in parts, but not quite as clever or innovative as it tried to be

German Literature Month

I only managed to take part with two reviews (although Simone Buchholz fits in this category as well): Eva Menasse and Fred Uhlman’s Reunion, which I read just on the cusp of November. The latter was certainly far more memorable than the former.

Big Plans for Next Few Months

I’ve let my #EU27Project languish for far too long and there are only a few months until they really do become just 27. I was shocked to discover how many French and German books I’ve read, but how few from other countries. So I’ve used my last bit of money to buy some elusive ones, tracked others down from the library and will be focusing mainly on the 13 (thirteen!!!) countries I still have left to read. I’m still searching for books from Cyprus and Luxembourg, so do let me know if you have any recommendations.

Advertisements

German Lit Month: Eva Menasse


I was going to do far, far better for German Literature Month, which is always one of the reading highlights of my year. But alas, this is only the second book I get to review, after stretching the definition a bit for Fred Uhlman’s Reunion.

I first came across Eva Menasse in an anthology of Austrian literature entitled Vienna Tales. I wanted to read more but her massive family saga about a Viennese family (entitled Vienna) seemed a bit too long. So I was delighted to find the slightly less intimidating book Quasikristalle when I visited Berlin, where Menasse now lives. 

Quasicrystals are structures which are ordered but not periodic. They fill all available space but lack translational symmetry – in other words, the patterns do not match if reproduced or rotated. If we use this as a metaphor for a fictional character, we can say that this book allows us to see a woman, Xane Molin, from all angles, enabling us to get a composite but confused picture of her, since all of the different viewpoints contradict each other. Perhaps that is all we can ever hope to understand of ourselves and others – an incomplete picture, an approximation of identity, or guesswork? Or perhaps over time our characteristics change so much, that we can never fully grasp ourselves entirely, can only offer a snapshot at a certain point in time?

Xane seems to share some biographical elements with Menasse herself: a Viennese transplanted abroad, marriage to an older man, living in a blended family, successful career. Yet there is little attempt to present her in a favourable light. Instead, we see a complicated, contradictory, difficult and garrulous woman. There are 14 different points of view ordered chronologically, but only one of them is Xane herself, right in the middle, soon after she has given birth to her son after several miscarriages. Before and after that moment in time, we see Xane as a schoolchild, a student on a trip to Auschwitz, a tenant, a sister’s friend, a patient, a helpful chance encounter on the street that might lead to infidelity, a stepmother, a boss, a daughter, an old friend, a person glimpsed from a window and finally an ageing mother who refuses to conform to expectations.

What is striking about the book, however, is that Xane is most often not the heroine of each of these vignettes. Each character telling the story is so preoccupied with their own life that they often don’t have the time or the inclination to think deeply about Xane (unless they are falling in love with her or fighting with her over something). In several of the vignettes she makes such a tangential appearance that you might miss her if you blink.

But that’s OK, because she is not the most interesting thing about this book. Her life is scattered with the usual vicissitudes and triumphs as anyone else’s. She is as prone to jump to conclusions about people as others are to misjudge her. What I enjoyed far more were the descriptions of all the other people whose lives have come within Xane’s orbit, however briefly. Their petty concerns, their selfish pursuits, their idealism giving way to pragmatism, their disappointments – it all felt very relatable. Above all, I enjoyed the sly digs at the age-old rivalry between Austrians and Germans. A disgruntled German employee muses about the ‘all mouth and no content’ Austrian style and considers himself marginalised by the ‘Viennese mafia’ in the workplace. Meanwhile, the Austrians consider the ‘Piefke’ (nickname for the Germans) too staid, ambitious, corporate.

All in all, a fun, easy read, giving some pause for thought, but not a particularly memorable masterpiece. Still, I think it would do quite well if it were translated into English and certainly thought it was better than the exceedingly popular French writers such as Guillaume Musso or Katherine Pancol.  

WWWednesday 21 November, 2018

What are you currently reading? A lovely meme to help us catch up with ourselves and others, as hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

You may know by now that I have several books on the go. I’m still rereading The Master and Margarita, a chapter here and there, because it’s amusing and doesn’t demand much effort when you know it well. I’m also reading The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley as a crime fiction light read in the background (which usually ends up with me finishing it off in a frenzy late at night). But my main current read is Ahmet Altan’s Like a Sword Wound, an Asymptote Book Club title that I am really looking forward to reading, about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire seen through the eyes of a disintegrating family.

Just finished:

I’ve just finished reading Eva Menasse’s Quasikristalle for German Literature Month. It could be described as 13 different perspectives on Xane Molin, and not just from the point of view of family and friends, but also casual acquaintances, landlords and doctors. Each story tells you far more about the narrator than it does about Xane, and yet they all add up to tell you the story of this Viennese woman without destroying her mystery. I’ll be reviewing it in more depth shortly.

Coming up next:

I’ve borrowed these two books from the library, so I’d better get cracking on them soon. First, a series of interviews with and essays by Robert Bly Talking All Morning. The list of contents alone seems fascinating: government support for the arts, universal vs. political art, how poetry is a dream that is shared with others, the masculine vs the feminine in poetry and infantilism and adult swiftness (surrealism and automatic writing and the rational mind). The second book is The Essential Acker, selected writings of American firebrand Kathy Acker, whom I know mostly from literary gossip rather than through reading her work. So, time to change that!

Birthday, Berlin and Books

Or ‘The Three Bs that made me very happy this weekend’.

Can heartily recommend: celebrating with your two oldest and kindest friends who have also just turned the same age and still have pictures of you giggling together from your youth, feeling loved, dancing to 99 Luftballons and Falco’s Der Kommissar (songs from our childhood), watching football with German friends unhappy about the way their team played but relieved that they won nevertheless, home-cooked party food, lots of dancing, partying with former Olympic rowers, walk along the banks of the Tegeler See at sunset, walk through the tourist-thronged streets of pretty much anywhere in Museumsinsel area and not feel like a tourist, stop at the biggest bookshop in the city with a friend who has the same literary tastes as you do, not mind the rain, discover your friend lives just opposite the house where Christopher Isherwood stayed during his year in Berlin.

To be honest, the Berliners didn’t understand much of the song lyrics either – it’s very Viennese dialect and humour.

Not so good: forgetting your mobile phone at home, so I couldn’t take any pictures [but I have the memories!] And having your flight delayed by two hours on the way home.

Wonderful book haul, though, especially for hand luggage only standards.

And great reasons for acquiring each one of them. From top to bottom:

  1. Pascal Mercier: Perlmann’s Silence – Swiss writer who was professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg where I spent a year during my Ph.D. The topic of the novel is also one that is perpetually fascinating to me: academic conference, plagiarism, professional identity and murder…
  2. Daniel Kehlmann: Measuring the World – not as well known as more recent works by Kehlmann which have been translated since, this story of German scientists Humboldt and Gauss, and their obsession with time/space displacement.
  3. Ilinca Florian: When We Learnt to Lie – Romanian film director and writer, this is her debut novel, about a Romanian family during the last few years of Communism, a society about to transform profoundly.
  4. Joachim Riedl: The Genius the Meanness – Austrian writer, who studied in Cambridge and has written a lot about Jewish life in Vienna. This book, originally published in 1992, was one of the first to question the golden shimmer of fin de siecle Vienna and show its tarnished side as well. This was a present from my Viennese friend, who shares my critical love relationship with that city.
  5. Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall – have wanted to read this one for ages, but not in translation. I don’t know why I wasn’t aware of its existence before, since it was first published in 1963 (and so has nothing to do with the Berlin Wall), well before I was born, but I only started hearing about it about 4-5 years ago. Perhaps the ultimate dystopian novel about human isolation.
  6. Julia Franck: The Midday Woman – I was impressed by Franck’s book West and when I asked my friend what else I could read by her, she said that this novel is perhaps one of her favourite novels of the past decade or more. This one has apparently also been translated into English by the much-missed Anthea Bell as The Blind Side of the Heart.
  7. Eva Menasse: Quasi-Crystals – Another author I really liked (having read some short stories by her). I was thinking of acquiring her prize-winning historical novel about a Jewish-Catholic mixed family in Vienna (entitled Vienna), but then I found this book about a woman at 13 different stages in life. Turns out my friend knows the author personally (not just because Vienna is a small town and she is of the same age as we are, but their sons went to the same school in Berlin too).