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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6 Degrees of Separation – June 2018

A non-fiction title as the starting point to this month’s 6 Degrees of Separation run by the lovely Kate.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point has become part of the modern business and sociological vocabulary, although I suspect that more people have read reviews about it rather than actually read it. Perhaps more have read another book of his, Outliers, which became notorious for bursting the myth about creative genius. Success is not just about innate ability, but a combination of hard work (those oft-quoted 10,000 hours to gain mastery), your cultural legacy (what you are born into) and sheer dumb luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My second book in the link is also non-fiction, but also relies on sweeping generalisations, although it also includes some close anthropological observation. This is Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox and it is full of very funny observations. Here is something that I notice at the train station every single morning.

There is something quintessentially English about ‘Typical!’ It manages simultaneously to convey huffy indignation and a sense of passive, resigned acceptance, an acknowledgement that things will invariably go wrong, that life is full of little frustrations and difficulties (and wars and terrorists) and that one must simply put up with it… a sort of grumpy, cynical stoicism.

The idealised image of the English and their countryside is the link for the next book, one in the popular Miss Read series: Thrush Green. Set in the Cotswolds in the 1950s, before the influx of commuters and second homers, this is the Little Britain that Brexiters perhaps believe they can revert to, but charming nevertheless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, only a small proportion of people ever lived in this rural bliss and for much more realistic and horrifying look at the rape of the countryside you only need to read Fiona Mozley’s Elmet. The harshness of life on the land, albeit a hundred years or so ago and in a different country, is also very much present in Romanian author Liviu Rebreanu’s Răscoala (The Revolt), which describes the circumstances leading to the Peasants’ Revolts of 1907 in Romania and its aftermath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, and this is a bit of weird side-jump, but the word ‘răscoala’ reminds me of Raskolnikov, so my last link is to Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, one of the books that got me hooked on the kind of writing that comfortably straddles the border between crime and literary genres, and which shows that labelling really doesn’t matter.

So from what is essentially a self-help book for businesses and marketers to urban poverty and despair, via a detour in the countryside… I really do know how to keep things cheery and relaxed, don’t I? Where will your six links take you?

Two Books Tipped for Prizes

I seldom follow closely the longlisted or even shortlisted books for any of the International Literary Prizes. I might pick up a winner if it sounds interesting to me anyway, or I might pick up the one that other people think should have won (or been shortlisted). However, there is one advantage with shortlisted titles (at least for the UK) – they raise the profile of the author and usually make it to the shelves of my local library.

That is where I found Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and I can see I’m only the fourth person to borrow it, with the other three all taking it out around the time of the Man Booker Prize 2017 announcement. This is a shame, because it is a beautifully written book, which deserves a wider readership. But it will never be popular – the subject is too grim, the pace is too slow. Above all, it contradicts the established canon of British nature writing as a nostalgic retreat into a rural fairyland. Nature as fond mother cradling and redeeming the sinners (sorry, Amy Liptrot) or close observation of natural phenomenon as if to document its universal appeal (Melissa Harrison, whose work I enjoy a lot). Mozley writes sensitively about the tranquility and beauty of the countryside, but this is a landscape under siege from the brutality of developers, large-scale farmers, supermarkets and progress more generally.

This is unvarnished countryside, with rough and unlikable people being shaped by it. Daniel, his sister Cathy and their father are outsiders and rather disturbingly eccentric, to be perfectly frank. They do not automatically become good people because they co-exist harmoniously with nature. This is the view of the countryside that my peasant family would recognise: a hard, unforgiving life. Nature is not all nice and pretty-pretty, something to be admired and set aside when we’ve had enough of it. Land has been (and still is) the thing most fought over, as countless wars testify.

Let me share two contrasting passages with you, both from the beginning of the book, but at different moments of time. Before and after the rape of the land, if you will:

We arrived in summer when the landscape was in full bloom and the days were long and hot and the light was soft. I roamed shirtless and sweated cleanly and enjoyed the hug of the thick air. In those months I picked up freckles on my bony shoulders and the sun set slowly and the evenings were pewter before they were black, before the mornings seeped through again. Rabbits gambolled in the fields and when we were lucky, when the wind was still and a veil settled on the hills, we saw a hare.

The long, run-on sentences and lack of punctuation mimic the unity of human and nature, of the family who has arrived in these places, as well as the lazy, hazy summer days. Contrast that with:

I still smell embers. The charred outline of a sinuous wreck. I hear those voices again: the men, and the girl. The rage. The fear. The resolve. Then those ruinous vibrations coursing through the wood. And the lick of the flames. The hot, dry spit. The sister with blood on her skin and that land put to waste.

How fragmented, spiky, rough those short, sharp phrases are now! It is the pant of someone enraged, scared and running away. Leaving nothing behind. It reminded me somewhat of Fiona Melrose’s book Midwinter (and not just because the authors share a first name) – the same timeless quality to the prose and the story. The main characters exist on a different, unrushed timescale to the rest of us – the rhythm of nature perhaps – until they are forced to submit to our cruel contemporary world.

Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has recently been shortlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize and is therefore more readily available. When I first heard of it from Naomi Frizby’s blog, it was much harder to get hold of it and I had to order it from abroad. I was fascinated by the (somewhat autobiographical) premise: a well-educated woman who wants to become a writer is trapped in an unhappy and violent marriage with a well-educated but very controlling professor. I suppose I sought out the book for parallels to my own life, although I never experienced physical violence. Yet it is much more than a simple account on a topic which is still somewhat taboo (particularly in India, I would imagine). If it had been just a straightforward memoir of domestic violence, I might have avoided it, as the topic is too painful.

The scenes of violence are certainly difficult to read, but this book is also about trying to emerge as a creator when you feel you are having all creativity thrashed out of you. The narrator is reframing and taking back control of her story after months of feeling powerless, that agency had been taken away from her. And she does so in fun, experimental ways, making lists, bringing in quotes, finding a soundtrack and becoming the director of the film of her life.

And cut! I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing out the role of a dutiful wife watching my husband pretend to be the hero of the everyday. I play the role with flair. The longer I stretch the act of the happily married couple, the more I dodge his anger. It’s not a test of talent alone. My life depends upon it.

It’s not just the acting that I have to consider, though. I’m responsible for the whole, flattened film that has become my life. I think of camera angles.  think of how I should preserve the intricacies of the set. I must manage to capture what it means for a once-nomad to be confined to the four walls of a house. I must figure out a way to show on screen how even a small space of confinement begins to grow in the mind of the woman who inhabits it with her sorrows, how the walk from the bedroom to the door of the house becomes a Herculean task, or how the thought of checking on the slow-cooking chicken Chettinad curry when she is busy reading a book becomes an impossible chore.

I’m now curious to see what else both of these authors have written or are going to write. They certainly fill my heart with hope that the future of feminine writing is in good hands.

April Has Ended: Reading Summary

12 books, 8 countries, 5 women writers, 4 translated books – that is the summary for April 2018. It’s been a good month, with only 1 DNF (Brian Aldiss in non sci-fi mode) and no average reads at all! Perhaps I am getting better at picking books, thanks to all the great recommendations I get from your blogs.

I’ve already mentioned five thrilling crime novels that I read in a row and I had another excellent one to add to that list, although I don’t really consider it crime fiction, namely Sébastien Japrisot’s One Deadly Summer, transl. Alan Sheridan. This last one builds tension up gradually but is quite explosive in subject matter and characterisation. The textbook shifts in points of view show us how much more complex everything is than it first appears. A masterclass in slow-burn, simmering, sultry drama, like the land before a thunderstorm.

The other two books in translation I read were Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, transl. Geraldine Harcourt, and Domenico Starnone’s Trick, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (courtesy of Asymptote Book Club). There are some similarities between the two books: both are narrated by a reasonably self-centred person who is somehow stuck in a groove or on the brink of an abyss and is trying to find themselves again, partly with the help (sometimes with the hindrance) of a child. Of course, in Territory of Light it is a young mother on the cusp of divorce, while in Trick it is an elderly artistic grandfather. Both of these deserve a more detailed review – if I get round to it.

Two other books were at least partially set abroad, although written in English. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London still sounds uncomfortably current, while Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You sounds like it should be set in the 19th century, but is unfortunately something which can be seen in contemporary India still (and not only there). A well-educated, artistic and academic young woman is seduced by the intellect of a university professor and marries him, but gradually has all ambition, hope and trust crushed out of her through physical and mental violence. He also seeks to justify his brutality through his socialist ideology, which leads to some horrifying yet funny statements. It is a story which has been told before, but the style is original and the emotions raw. I’ve had this book for a long time, since Naomi Frisby recommended it, but it is now shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in Fiction.

The final book also deserves a more extensive review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Perhaps I will have time to do a vlog review soon for those I haven’t reviewed yet.

If you promise not to laugh, I promise to turn a new leaf in May and not leave it so long after reading a book before I review it. Also, to restart the submission game. Also, to revitalise my #EU27Project, as time is running out…

 

Latest Book Haul – and One Book Abandoned

Libraries and bookshops are my downfall. Despite the numerous ARCs I receive for review, I cannot resist adding to my TBR pile every time I enter one or the other building containing books. While it’s understandable that I try to save my already quite depleted wallet by going less frequently to bookshops (I’ve managed to reduce it to no more than 1-2 times a week!), I’ve recently changed my policy about library loans. I was trying to be realistic and not borrow more than I could consume in three weeks, but my local librarian told me that if a book hasn’t been on loan for a year, it gets sent down to the basement of gloom known as ‘Reserve Stacks’. After a few years of gathering mould there, they are killed off. [I’m not sure if they get given to charity shops or pulped, everyone seems coy about that.] Besides, PLR are a source of author revenue. So I now borrow books merrily, try to renew them when I can, or return them unread and borrow them later again.

What have I acquired this week?

I bought Kate Briggs’ This Little Art, a long essay about the art of translation, with many revelatory examples. All of the readers of translated literature in my timeline have been raving about this book, and as an occasional dabbler in translation myself, I had to have a personal copy, so I could underline passages of interest.

I finally acquired Sebald’s The Emigrants (transl. Michael Hulse), which (it won’t surprise those long-term readers of my blog to hear) is one of my favourite books. Exile and loss, displacement and nostalgia – yes, please! I should have got it in German of course (yes, I’m still snobbish about preferring to read books in the original where I possibly can), and I probably will at some point when I am next in Germany. The last book I got is not a translation from German but written by a German who emigrated to England. It was an impulse buy: Fred Uhlman’s Reunion. I’d vaguely heard of Uhlman, but have never read anything by him and I am always, always fascinated by stories about the personal experience of the rise of totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s.

At my local library, I was pleased to find Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, which I have already devoured. The sentences and the landscape and atmosphere are so perfect, I found myself seething with envy on every page. I also picked up Marina Lewycka’s The Lubetkin Legacy, for a comedic change of pace. I’ve read one or two of her novels in the past and enjoyed the voice of the outsider gently mocking life in England. Last but not least, I got A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, because American dysfunctional families are so much weirder and deadlier and more fun to read about than European ones.

However, I’ve had to abandon one of the books I recently borrowed from the Senate House Library. I am patient and usually give books a good 50-100 page chance before reluctantly putting it aside, and normally the setting of an international conference would appeal to me. But alas, Brian Aldiss starts off his novel Life in the West far too slowly, with details which not only seem irrelevant, but also of horizontally reclining platitude. For example:

By each place was a name card, a microphone, a folder and pencil, a shining drinking glass with a sanitary paper lid, and a bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water still beaded from the refrigerator. Thomas Squire found his name looking up at him, and sat down, laying his briefcase before him… He opened his folder. In it was a ballpoint pen, clipped to a timetable of the sessions of the conference with a list of speakers. Tucked into the pocket of the folder were some foilwrapped perfumed tissues for refreshing the face and hands, and a map of the city of Ermalpa and surroundings, presented by courtesy of the local  tourist board.

As a former conference convenor, this feels to me more like a checklist for event organisers. Would you read any further? This was a serendipitous pick from the library, but hey ho, you can’t win them all.