Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good fair few. Today we’re heading over to Germany. I read this book in the original, but it has been translated very skillfully into English by Shaun Whiteside, published by Bloomsbury.
Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (The Neck of the Giraffe)
Inge Lohmark is a biology and sports teacher in a ‘Gymnasium’ (selective state school, grammar school equivalent) in a provincial town in what was once East Germany. The town is dying, as is the school, forced to close soon because of lack of pupils. Everyone dreams of escaping from that claustrophobic place to search for jobs or a better life, including Inge’s own daughter, who has been living in the States for the past 10-12 years.
Inge, however, is inflexible and judgemental. She believes in the survival of the fittest and refuses to intervene in bullying incidents. Although she teaches biological adaptation, she is unwilling to alter any of her principles and firmly-held beliefs herself. Short shrift, military in style, believing any display of emotion or affection to be a weakness, her style is perfectly captured with the short, staccato sentences, often without verbs, like barked orders. She is the teacher we all feared and loved to hate or mock at school.
Her story is in many ways the story of my parents’ generation, for whom the fall of Communism came too late and who will never be able to adapt to a new world they do not understand nor like very much. Because of my own experience with recalcitrant relatives who live in a nostalgia of a life that never really was the way they remember it, I have more patience for Inge than most readers would. Many of her acerbic observations of modern life and young students will strike a chord, perhaps provoke a wry smile of recognition. She is also a profoundly lonely person, barely sharing a word with her husband – who is immersed in his ostrich farm – and rarely engaging in conversations with her colleagues or neighbours, unless they become arguments or point-scoring exercises.
The book is presented entirely from Inge’s point of view and I have to admit that I would have liked to see her through the eyes of others at some point. There are also plenty of digressions about the animal kingdom and evolution theory, with some beautiful illustrations. These digressions are quite interesting and (of course) symbolical, albeit not always in the way Inge thinks of them, but they do become repetitive after a while. Nor is there much in the way of a plot, other than being a witness to Inge’s increasingly disturbing thought processes, which do not really translate into any major action. Finally, my main bone of contention is that Inge has not really learnt or changed as a character, there has been no development as such (and we learn next to nothing of the other characters). For a Bildungsroman, there was remarkably little ‘Bildung’ (learning).
I thought it was well-written and an interesting love-hate elegy for a lost world. Inge is remarkably clear-eyed about the GDR society and ideology as well. I thought it did a great job of giving voice to a thoroughly difficult, unlikeable and yet pitiable character. But, blame my shrinking attention span or my love for crime fiction, I did feel this book was too long at 200 pages. I think all the points would have come across, the character would have been fully described in a novella half that length.
I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.
The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.
I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.
So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with C denote crime fiction titles, W is for woman writer)
1) Books in French:
All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.
Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C
Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit – the alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues C
Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz – Ukrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain C
Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories
Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil – finally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade – plus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid. C W
2) Books in German:
Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord – third case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude C
Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland
Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe – the dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species W
Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation W
Friederike Schmöe: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events C W
3) Books on ereader
Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?
Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale
John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet – the return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa C
Sara Novic: Girl at War – child survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later W
Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel – debut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize W
Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)
Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship
Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night – the first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W
Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America W
Wendy Cope: The Funny Side – 101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope) W
Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).
The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?
Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night’; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?
Something has gone badly wrong. The fear of mortality has struck (so many books, so little time…). The book publishing figures around the world haunts my sleep. The urge to compare and contrast, to reassure myself that mine is not the only flawed writing. The heavy burden of the impossibility of telling a new story. My way of responding to all that: going back to my old acquisitive habits. I’m not the only one: read this post about how the online world has changed our reading habits.
So, yes, this month, this week especially, I have fallen off the TBR Double Dog dare in spectacular fashion. And I reacted in typical addictive personality fashion: if I make one mistake, I might as well go the whole hog (i.e. eat the whole chocolate bar).
I didn’t just buy one or two new books. I added no less than 10 new books to my shelves this week, none of which were ‘professional’ review copies. I name the culprits below. It is interesting how word of mouth recommendation (via blogs or Twitter) from people whose opinion I trust (even though I don’t always concur with them) seems to be the way I acquire most of my books nowadays.
First up, two of the five German books on the IFFP longlist, which I got really interested in thanks to bloggers such as Stu Jallen, Tony Malone, Dolce Bellezza and Emma at Words and Peace. I couldn’t order them all and I ordered them in the original German rather than in translation (German being one of the few languages other than English that I find relatively easy to read):
1) Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch (Tiger Milk)
That’s the name of the milk spiced with juice and alcohol that the two 14-year-old girls make and drink, as they set off in a quest to get rid of their virginity. Family conflicts, big-city blues and teenage angst abound in this picture of modern, ethnically mixed Berlin. Berlin is one of my favourite European cities, two of my dearest and oldest friends live there, and cross-cultural topics are my passion: so a no-brainer for me to try this book. Plus I want to compare it with the film/book that defined teenage Berlin life when I was a child ‘Christiane F: Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo’.
2) Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (The Neck of the Giraffe)
A shrinking town in East Germany, a school with hardly any pupils left, an old-fashioned biology teacher, who can’t believe that times have moved on… ‘Adaptation is everything’ is her scientific belief but how easily can she accept that principle in her own belief system and behaviour?
Next is the book we will be reading in April for the Online Crime Book Club, an initiative started and organised by Rebecca Bradley.
3) Dan Smith: Big Game
A book described as Percy Jackson in the wilds of Finland’s Arctic circle, saving the American President from wild animals and assassins. Dan Smith was asked to write the book based on a story idea by Jalmary Helander and Petri Jokiranta, which is also being released as a major film starring Samuel L. Jackson. Rebecca has organised a Q&A session with the author for us for April, so exciting! It’s the kind of book that both my older son and I will enjoy reading (and will no doubt have many, many questions).
The next book was prompted by reviews of another book by the same author in The Paris Review and 3 a.m. Magazine, namely Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality.
4) Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts
This young Romanian Jewish writer died at the age of just 28 of tuberculosis and I have to admit I haven’t read anything by him. I’m planning to get hold of the reviewed book in the original Romanian, but I couldn’t resist a second-hand ex-charity shop edition of his first novel. A young man named Emanuel lies ill in a French sanatorium on the sea-coast… and discovers all of human life and nature in his narrow, confined environment. The Magic Mountain meets Emil Cioran is what it sounds like to me…
Then there are all the books I downloaded in the blinking of the eye from Netgalley, Edelweiss, Amazon or other online sources:
5) Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins
When crime writers Eva Dolan and Stav Sherez start waxing lyrical about a book they’ve just read, my ears perk up. I’ve read books recommended by them before, and they’ve never disappointed. Adapted from the blurb: A charismatic cult leader is dead. One by one his followers are being assassinated. Sawn in half, beheaded, skinned alive. Enter Gallio, counter-insurgent and detective of sorts. An alternative view of biblical events set in the present. Sounds mad, intriguing and potentially very entertaining.
6) T. R. Richmond: What She Left
Liz Wilkins and Carlie Lee both reviewed this one enthusiastically. I like the premise of reconstituting someone’s life from the documents they leave behind. From the blurb:
When Alice Salmon died last year, the ripples were felt in the news, on the internet, and in the hearts of those who knew her best. But the person who knows her most intimately isn’t family or a friend. Dr Jeremy Cook is an academic whose life has become about piecing together Alice’s existence in all its flawed and truthful reality. For Cooke, faithfully recreating Alice’s life – through her diaries, emails and anything using her voice – is all-consuming. He does not know how deep his search will take him, or the shocking nature of what he will uncover…
7) Denise Mina: Blood, Salt, Water
Because the latest book by Denise Mina is definitely worth getting your hands on. One of those authors whose voice really stands out and that I’m always keen to read. Doesn’t require more explanation than that, does it?
8) SJI Holliday: Black Wood
Just came out last week with great reviews. Susi is a cheery, supportive and very active presence on Twitter. So I just had to check out her debut novel, didn’t I? From the blurb:
Something happened to Claire and Jo in Black Wood: something that left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars. But with Claire suffering memory loss and no evidence to be found, nobody believes Jo’s story. Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for vengeance. And at the same time, Sergeant Davie Gray is investigating a balaclava-clad man who is attacking women on a disused railway, shocking the sleepy village of Banktoun.
9) Karin Alvtegen: Betrayal
Margot Kinberg is to blame for this one, which she casually mentioned in a blog post about pubs and bars in crime fiction. Just earlier that day, John Grant had also mentioned how good this author was. Plus, the subject matter (marital infidelity, dodgy characters and revenge) is close to my own current WIP.
10) Helen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women
When I reviewed three books with ‘unlikeable’ female narrators recently, including Dead Lovely by Helen Fitzgerald, so many commented or tweeted that they had loved Bloody Women by the same author that I had to go out and get it. The blurb, I’ve been told, does not do the book justice, but it does give you an idea of Fitzgerald’s unusual mind and blend of styles:
Returning to Scotland to organise her wedding, Catriona is overcome with the jitters. She decides to tie up loose ends before settling permanently in Tuscany, and seeks out her ex-boyfriends. Only problem is, they’re all dead.
I know for a fact that next weekend it’s going to be impossible to be good at the Crime Festival in Lyon. So in for a penny, in for a pound… How are you doing with your buying bans? Or have you given up on such self-imposed limitations?