When I made reading plans for the first six months of the year, I have to admit I wasn’t aware that in the US May is Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders heritage month. So it is a happy coincidence that I was planning to read literature from Asia and Pacific region anyway, although my definition of Asian may be far broader (and at times even slightly tenuous).
I’m not sure I’ll actually get to read all of them, as three of these are chunksters. Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw is all about the Chinese economic miracle, a sort of Silicon Valley set in Shanghai. Drusilla Modjeska is an Australian writer lived for a long time in Papua New Guinea and her novel The Mountain is set in that country on the brink of independence in 1968. Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day is a family saga set in postcolonial Malaysia, a country I know very little about.
The remaining two novels are both set in Japan, but the authors are from elsewhere: Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesia-born Singaporean writer, while Florentyna Leow was born in Malaysia and lived for a while in London before moving to Kyoto.
Not pictured above is the Korean therapy memoir made famous by BTS I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokpokki by Baek Se-hee, translated by Anton Hur. I was hesitating about reading it, as it feels aimed at a younger audience than me, but I bought it in the wake of my niece’s death, as if it might help me to understand her state of mind more. Plus, I really like Anton!
I’m also hoping to get to read some or all of the above:
The Cartographers is our Crime Fiction Book Club’s choice for May (the theme was art crime), and it’s another chunky book, so I’d better get cracking with it!
Lost for Words is a feel-good read (a cosy crime novel) from the library, which I badly need after the second half of April
Kaska Bryla’s Die Eistaucher (The Ice Divers) was a book that we talked about at the launch of the Austrian Riveter and I had it signed by the author herself, who is a cross-culture kid like myself (Poland and Austria in her case)
Carlota Gurt’s Alone is a Catalan novel and was sent to me by the ever-lovely Daniela Petracco at Europa Editions, and it sounds just my cup of tea…
I also have three more books to read and report back on for Corylus, but, of course, those are all top secret until we make up our minds and then acquire any of the titles.
When my credit card bill came in mid-October, I realised I might have exaggerated with my book purchases – but of course they managed to hide quite comfortably behind the major purchases such as the sofa and the mattress. Nevertheless, I have continued my merry bookish dissolute ways!
The #1976Club is to blame for the impulse buy of The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore – several of the participants read and reviewed this book about… well a woman’s mid-life crisis, I suppose. I initially looked for it at my local library and they didn’t have it, but they had another book with the same title by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, published in 1864. This also talks about adultery, death and the ‘spectacle of female recrimination and suffering’, so I thought it might be interesting to compare the two. Another library reservation also showed up at last: Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes, a satire of the literary festival world. I can never resist a book gently mocking the writing and publishing world, so as soon as I heard what it was about, it went on my wishlist. I hope it won’t be as disappointing as that other reservation I had to wait for, Magpie.
I am a big fan of tiny but innovative Emma Press, especially of its poetry books (now that my children are too old to enjoy their children’s literature). They work with local illustrators as well, and send everything with much love and care. This small poetry pamphlet by Julia Bird has just come out and promises to be full of childish reminiscence about growing up in a small English seaside town – with a tinge of the surreal.
One single online event led to three book purchases, such is the strength of my willpower. The event was part of the Durham Book Festival and it featured two American authors: Willy Vlautin in conversation with Nickolas Butler. They were not only on the same wavelength with their own writing and world views, but they both expressed admiration for Sara Gran (whom I also admire), so I ended up buying Vlautin’s latest The Night Always Comes, Butler’s Godspeed (the author is new to me, but the theme of impossible deadlines in building works just intrigued me) and Come Closer, one of the non Clara DeWitt books by Sara Gran, which makes for perfect Halloween reading.
The next batch of three books were all recommended on Twitter and blogs: Janet Emson reviewed The Writer’s Cats by Muriel Barbery, while Lisa of ANZ LitLovers waxed lyrical about Frank Moorhouse when we were still speculating about the Nobel Prize winners, so I ordered the first in his ‘Edith’ trilogy, Grand Days, because I cannot resist books about working for international organisations (as my own father did) and because I am woefully ignorant about Australian literature. I cannot remember who was the triggering person who made me order Men to Avoid in Art and Life, but I had enjoyed Nicole Tersigni’s satire on Twitter for quite a while. Here is an example of what she does below. Several of my friends have already asked to borrow it.
I hardly ever get review copies anymore, but Europa Editions is still good enough to have me on their list, and Shukri Mabkhout’s The Italian, transl. from the Arabic by Karen McNeil and Miled Faiza, sounds fascinating, about trying to love and live amid the dangers and political/social turmoil of late 1980s Tunisia. I also support Nordisk Books, so get sent every new book that they publish, and I love this bilingual edition of Danish poetry by Michael Strunge, Speed of Life.
I couldn’t go out on Independent Bookshop Day on the 9th of October, but I ordered a book from my nearest independent shop, the lovely, very well-stocked Marlow Bookshop, namely Simon Armitage’s collected public lectures from when he was Oxford University Professor of Poetry, A Vertical Art. Of course, immediately after they told me they had received the book, I entered a period of self-isolation, so I have only been able to pick it up a few days ago. Naturally, since I happened to be in a bookshop, I stumbled across The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, which I’ve heard so many good things about, so… another impulse buy, I’m afraid.
At times I feel that there is no more room for me at the table of literary translation from Romanian, because a) so little gets translated from that language anyway; b) there are much more qualified/highly regarded people doing it. Jozefina Komporaly falls into the second category: she lectures at the University of the Arts in London and is very well known in theatrical circles for her translations of plays from Romanian and Hungarian. I have only just started theatre translation, so when I heard Methuen Drama has just brought out this collection of contemporary Romanian plays, I had to get it, even though the prices are more ‘academic’ rather than ‘literary’.
Lovely though it is to join the translation community, one victim of this is my bank account. As I get to know and appreciate more translators, I am tempted to buy all of the books that they translate. I have some favourites I will follow pretty much anywhere, such as Alison Anderson and Tina Kover (from French), Katy Derbyshire, Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (from German), Polly Barton and Ginny Tapley Takemori (from Japanese). One such translator is Anton Hur from Korean and hits translation of Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City has just come out from Tilted Axis Press, so I preordered it a few weeks back, and it’s just arrived in time to take its place amongst my bumper crop of books.
A couple of years ago I discovered that there is a trend now to promote ‘mood-boosting books’ in our local libraries (and perhaps nationally). Perhaps this is to counteract the trauma caused by the daily, weekly, monthly news cycle, or perhaps it’s a bread and circuses distraction so that the population stays calm and carries on. Whatever the reason behind it, it was something I welcomed, even as an inveterate and unrepentant reader of noir literature.
However, the selection is somewhat controversial, to say the least. No disrespect to the librarians who made the selection from what were probably limited resources, but I cannot resist suggesting some alternatives to the more blatant discrepancies between stated purpose and actual effect on the reader.
The choice of the Poldark series may have more to do with the phwoar appeal of Aidan Turner’s torso than with the actual storyline, which is often full of cruelty, grim poverty and sadness. If you were aiming for a family saga in which you can sink in, forgetting about your own worries for a minute, then I would recommend Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance or the Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche.
I recently borrowed The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, which was also on that mood-boosting shelf, expecting a book about a cat adopting a youngish couple to be charming and tender. Well, yes it was, but also rather wistful and sad, connected to the end of an era (Showa) and perhaps an end of a certain way of life in Japan. For a cheerier account of cats as saviours, try A Streetcat Named Bob or The Good, the Bad and the Furry. And if you want a satire of a changing Japan, then Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat is a classic.
I’ve laughed before how Alice Munro was mysteriously shelved under Happiness with her stark and unflinching short stories. I could say the same about The Miniaturist, or Chekhov’s short stories, or Louis Sachar’s Holes or A Month in the Country or even The Camomile Lawn. I suppose the idea is to read something about triumph in the face of adversity, but some of the titles seem to wilfully misinterpret what could make people happy. Maybe reading about other people’s suffering makes us more content with our own life?
There are, of course, some excellent choices that I cannot help but agree with: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, the irrepressible Adrian Mole, The Enchanted April, Matt Haig’s The Humans and even Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (aka These Foolish Things, although I have problems at times with the ‘white tourists going to exotic locations and poking gentle fun at them’.
What other books would you recommend to people who need escapism or cheering up? Top of my list would be Pippi Longstocking, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, Paul Berna’s A Hundred Million Francs. What would be top of your list?
This is a continuation of yesterday’s weekly summary, which was threatening to become far too long. I’ve been trying to curb my book buying, but I cannot quite boast of unalloyed success in this matter. I have borrowed more from the library as well. Netgalley has also reared its ugly (I mean beautiful, tempting) head, although my feedback ratio is still only 60%.
Sent for review:
Jean-Claude Izzo: Chourmo
This was my introduction to Izzo and remains my favourite of his Marseille trilogy. Something which really shouts out in all its dark, joyous, dirty, tasty, messy glory ‘Mediterranean noir’. I have it in the French original edition and now I have it in a rather beautiful reissued edition from Europa. And it reminds me that I need to have a holiday in Marseille and Provence with my boys soon.
Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf started an extremely valuable thread about Malaysian writers on Twitter (and this is where Twitter’s power for the good is evident). You can catch the whole thread on her website. It inspired me to order at least a couple of the books she mentioned, as this is a part of the world I know very little about. I bought Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day, a family saga in gorgeous prose, and Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, with its links to Japan and the Second World War. Both are chunky books, which should keep me busy for a while. I also finally gave in and got myself another translation of The Brothers Karamazov, so this will be the fifth summer in which I attempt to read it…
Keeping in trend with the #WITMonth, I borrowed Norwegian crime writer Anne Holt’s Dead Joker (transl. Anne Bruce). Hanne Wilhelmsen is grumpy and exasperating at times, but ahead of the field in so many ways. I’m not going to have time to write a separate review of this book, but I read it in 2 days. Suffice it to say that it’s one of those ‘impossible’ crimes committed by a dead person, and that Hanne’s personal life also takes a turn for the worse.
I also got two very different books, one for a quick read and one because I admire the author’s willingness to experiment: Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer (bonus: location of Austria) and Nicola Barker’s Happy, which is a triumph of typography and graphic publishing.
I couldn’t resist the Swiss mountaintop hotel location and the And Then There Were None plot similarities, so I downloaded Hanna Jameson’s The Last. The other novel I downloaded is also kind of apocalyptical, but fits in perhaps better with my fascination for ‘dictatorship literature’: The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke, one of the foremost contemporary Chinese writers.
I have reviewed three books for #WITMonth already, which is a proud achievement in just over a third of the month. Two are on my blog: the dark Norwegian tale of descent into mental hell Zero and a Brazilian attempt to reconstruct memories and reconcile oneself with the past I Didn’t Talk. The third review is of Teresa Solana’s irreverent and utterly zany collection of short stories The First Prehistoric Serial Killer on Crime Fiction Lover.
I still need to review Lucy Fricke, but I have three more books lined up for Women in Translation, so am doing better than I had hoped (I think I planned about 5 overall for the month of August, and now it looks like I might have 8). I’m in the midst of Tsvetaeva’s diary, and will embark soon upon Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir and Veronique Olmi La Nuit en vérité (untranslated).
You might think that after my splurge last week at Hay on Wye, I would be more careful about buying books. Well, you would think wrong, although that’s only because I received an Amazon voucher which made Homer’s Odyssey in the translation of Emily Wilson affordable (I’d been waiting for it to come out in paperback but was really, really keen to read it.) And, once that purchase was made, the dam was broken and a lot more books starting gushing out.
You may have seen Salt Publishing’s appeal on Twitter #JustOneBook, asking their fans to buy just one book from them as they were on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, however you feel about their sudden closure of their poetry section (I have a few poet friends who were upset about the way they did it), I still want independent publishers to survive, as they are the ones who give us that much-needed variety and more experimental works. So I bought The Black Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce – anything but cheery. Then that pesky Anthony from Times Flow Stemmed mentioned Jane Bowles, so I had to track down a second-hand copy of Two Serious Ladies. I also happened to pop into the vintage Penguin section of Waterstones Gower Street and found one of my favourite Ngaio Marshes Artists in Crime, plus The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson. This latter author had been mentioned and reviewed recently by Ali, and you know what a weakling I am when it comes to your recommendations.
Other books arrived by prior appointment. Asymptote Book Club’s May offer was Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan from China – I’m a great fan of both Chinese literature and families (and bean paste, although I prefer it in my desserts usually), so this is a must-read-next. For review, I received a Greek book (perfect description of the surreal post-crisis Athens and homeless lifestyle) Baby Blue by Pol Koutsakis from Bitter Lemon Press. By way of contrast, I also received a noir novel set in rural Lancashire, Mere by Carol Fenlon, from Thunderpoint Publishing. In electronic format I received two jet-setter books (crime with an international setting) Return to Hiroshima by Belgian author Bob van Laerhoven and Dead in the Water by Simon Bower. Last but by no means least, I couldn’t resist getting Roxanne Bouchard’s We were the Salt of the Sea, because: Quebec, Orenda Books, special offer on Kindle!
In terms of borrowing, I’ve reserved Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot at my local library, but will only get to read them after the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner has been announced.
And for my #20booksofsummer update, I’ve taken just 2 days to read the delightfully sunny Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by German author (of Italian origin) Mario Giordano. It’s like an expat version of Camilleri’s Montalbano, but with a feisty middle-aged woman as the main protagonist. 1 down, 19 to go! Next one I am already halfway through is The Single Mums’ Mansion, which I thought would also be lovely comedic escapism. But alas, it’s a little too much about divorce and bad behaviours, so may not be the best escapism in my current situation!
My iron willpower may not match that of the legendary Fiction Fan, but I have tried to limit my spending on books, since I realised that my income is now a stable monthly affair, and cannot be supplemented by a few extra days of work.
So this week most of the books I’ve acquired have been sent for review or borrowed from the library. So there, ye doubters! I did have one momentary lapse of reason when I entered that fatal Waterstone’s near work and found their second-hand vintage Penguin section. I spent many a happy minute (hour?) in the sea of orange and emerged victorious with High Rising by Angela Thirkell. I’ve never read anything by this author, who was very popular in the 1930s/40s, but this book in particular has been discussed by several bloggers whose opinion I value, including Jacqui, Heaven Ali and Booker Talk (the last not very complimentary).
Plus, you can see why the premise of a single mother trying to make a living as a novelist in order to educate her sons might appeal to me…
Although I’m trying to pretend Christmas is still miles away, I was sent a Christmas anthology Murder on Christmas Eve by Profile Books. Classic Christmas-themed mysteries always make for popular presents for booklovers whose tastes you don’t quite know, so this should do a roaring trade. It includes stories by Ian Rankin, Ellis Peters, G. K. Chesterton, Val McDermid, Margery Allingham and many more. And you can’t fault the cover either for what it promises!
One I received this week and have already read (gasp! yes, I am occasionally speedy!) was Jenny Quintana’s The Missing Girl. I was very touched by the fact that Emma Draude, the publicist for the book, actually sent me her own personal copy, as she had just run out of preview copies. So it’s a much-loved proof! And I found it very compelling – although perhaps the label of crime fiction does it an injustice. This is not the kind of book which you read for unfathomable twists (in fact, I figured out what was going on pretty early on). Instead, I enjoyed it for the pitch-perfect evocation of the 1980s, excellent writing and the psychological depth of sisterly love, family secrets and the lonely surliness of growing up.
My local library finally found a book I had reserved as soon as I heard that Kazuo Ishiguro had won the Nobel Prize, namely The Unconsoled, one of the few which I haven’t read. I can feel another bout of Artist of the Floating World coming along, that is my favourite book by him, probably because of the obvious Japanese connection.
Last but not least, I ‘happened’ to pass by the Senate House Library at lunchtime and got lost in the Latin American section. I couldn’t resist Vlad by Carlos Fuentes, translated by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger. A Mexican take on the Romanian Vlad the Impaler? Yes, please! In this book, Vlad is upset by the shortage of blood in modern-day Eastern Europe and is looking for a new place to establish his kingdom. What country or city on earth could offer him a lot of people crowded in one place, where a few human disappearances wouldn’t even be noticed? Well, Mexico City, of course! And so begins this satire of the Mexican bourgeoisie…
I notice that, by some strange coincidence, all of the cover pictures above seem to be going for the monochrome look tinged with red. Luckily, the bright orange Penguin spoils that sober elegance!
So what lovely reads have you begged, borrowed, stolen or bought this week? Do tempt me if you can…
September is still full of ‘back to school’ vibes for me, not just because of the children. I always make my resolutions at the start of September and look back on my holiday thoughts and reading, even if I don’t always have a holiday in summer.
It’s hard to estimate how many books I read in August, because for the last week I’ve been diving into endless amounts of poetry books and some slim Japanese novellas which I am not counting as full-sized books. Aside from that, however, I’ve read 12: 3 for #WITMonth, 3 other translations or foreign language books, 4 review books and 2 library books. 7 books were by women, 5 by men. One thing is clear: I have had the privilege of reading some outstanding and memorable books this past month.
Women in Translation
Elena Varvello: Can You Hear Me? – coming of age, spooky atmosphere, spare prose style, participant in #EU27Project
Not for me a timid manor-house, a larger-than-average barn:
Towers, sculptures, crenellations are things I yearn.
A place where my imagination and I can gallop unfettered,
where no one has tethered my quiver so impatient.
Castles in Spain? Pah! I scorn!
It’s the chateaux in France that I adore!
It’s Friday, it’s been a crazy week, so I felt like having a silly little ditty to accompany the pictures below. I am also responding to the prompt over at dVerse Poets, where we are asked to experiment with slant rhymes: the ones that sound nearly but not quite right, and are so much more interesting than perfection!
They probably have libraries already, but just in case you are looking for the perfect one… (I may have posted this picture before, but it’s just the most romantic chateau library I have ever seen).
Today I was late returning books to one of the multiple libraries in our area. Yes, late again and once more (this never used to happen to me pre-children, I assure you!). After apologising profusely and being excused my fine (French librarians are kind like that), I eyed the shelves greedily for my next ‘fix’. Reading is a heavy addiction, and I did find something new to try out and experiment.
When I got home, though, I began to wonder why I borrow more and more books from the library, which I never have a hope in heaven, earth and hell to finish on time (especially when it’s in French)… when I have a pile of books at home, on my shelves and on my Kindle, patiently waiting to be noticed.
When I started counting them, I was shocked. What have I been up to? While I’ve been busy receiving books for review from publishers (I’m not counting those at all for now), I’ve also been steadily adding to my To Be Read list. Eight paperbacks, six on my tablet, 14 on my husband’s Kindle and one on my laptop. That’s 29 books in all – enough to see me through till the end of the year, pretty much. And I’m not even looking at the massive tomes of Maigret and Proust, which fall officially into the ‘would like to reread’ bucket.
Right, that’s me sorted for the next year or so. Pray excuse me, while I see a man about a new pair of glasses… and a better reading light… mutter… mutter…
And, just to be contrary, here are some inspirational libraries, both public and private, just for the joy of it. Not that I plan visiting any of them any time soon. Promise!
Not sure what is going to happen with this wonderful building, as the Business University of Vienna has just moved to a new campus over the summer.
Edna did a quick check of his appearance: uncombed, bare feet, dressed in a nightgown that had seen better days, no wings (thank goodness for small mercies!) and a sort of shimmer radiating from his hair. That was strange, as was the fact that, although he seemed a grown man, he had extremely smooth cheeks and the voice of a choir boy. What kind of trick was this?
She took the proffered cards and put them willy-nilly in a drawer, while trying to think how to best handle the situation. Should she call the police? The man seemed harmless enough, positively helpful. Perhaps an ambulance, then? She looked around. No one else seemed to be in the library at this time. Where were all the dreary old codgers when you needed them?
Finally, when all the cards had been picked up and stuffed into drawers, the angel gave an awkward smile and said, ‘Maybe you could help me, actually.’
Uh-oh, here it comes. Can’t be a request for money, no one is ever over-due at this library, so we don’t even have a fine box.
‘I- I don’t quite remember how I got here.’
Aaah, well, no surprise there!
‘And I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing here either.’
That was honest, at least. Maybe the attack or seizure, or whatever it was, was beginning to wear off.
‘OK, first things first,’ she said, feeling marvellously in control and ever so understanding, ‘What’s your name?’
But of course! It must be some delusional mania. Edna had read about a case like this only a couple of weeks ago in the Britannica 1997 edition.
‘Hello, Gabriel. My name is Edna. How can I help you?’
‘I’m not sure. I feel a bit…. As if a cold wind is blowing all around me… and my stomach hurts…’
‘Well, you’re probably cold and no wonder, in those clothes. Do you have a coat or something? What about shoes? No? It’s only early spring, you know, still rather chilly outside.’
The man merely gawped at her, so, heaving a dramatic little sigh, she tap-tapped her way to the lost property box and found a long woollen cardigan that had collected dust there for many months.
‘Here, have this.’
The angel seemed to have some difficulty putting it on, as if he didn’t quite know what buttons were for. If the library had been busy, or if the man had seemed at all sleazy, Edna would have shown him the way out at this point. But he seemed so innocent, so lost, that she felt sorry for him, so she offered him the best remedy for any ill known to mankind. A cup of tea. And she even opened her secret stash of biscuits, for she thought he looked a bit peaky.