I have read over 150 books this year, and there is no way I am going to be able to select just ten for a ‘Best Of’ list, especially since I enjoy so many different genres of books. So I am dividing it into categories and this second category consists of modern classics (written in the last 1`00 years or so but before I was born). They have been among my favourite reads this year. No ifs, no buts. I love older classics too, but the 20th century is where my heart lies.
Wonderful opportunity to read this book for the #1936Club. I was by turns amused and disturbed by this book. The satire, to my mind, is fierce – so accurate, so funny, even though it tries to attack too many targets at once. At the same time, the book left me quite despondent, because it still sounds remarkably current. We humans have not resolved any of these issues, we still behave like that, and we still don’t seem able to take a good long critical look at ourselves.
I compared three English translations of this book to the original in Romanian, which I also read for the #1936Club. Although I took issue with some of the translations, I loved Blecher’s impossible to define work.
Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty.
Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny
The kind of family saga that I adore, as it also contains political and social issues, a portrait of a country at a time of great changes.
The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists… Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.
A disquieting, beautifully paced book, which could have been written by Shirley Jackson (no higher praise, in my eyes), although the thriller and detection part of it does rely on a spot of coincidence that feels implausible. One of the best descriptions of unequal domestic division of labour that I’ve ever read, and, as the author says herself:
Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.
How could I not love this book, with its references to my favourite composer and opera (Mozart and Don Giovanni), as well as a masked ball, and a very sexy battle of the wits? A polyphony of joy, yet with a tinge of melancholy, like all the best things in life.
Max Blecher published the short novel Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată in 1936 and in this post I will be referring to the Romanian language version of it via the Open Access library, as well as three English language translations: Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Michael Henry Heim, published by New Directions in 2015; Occurence in the Immediate Unreality by Alistair Ian Blyth, published University of Plymouth Press, 2009; Adventures in Immediate Unreality by Jeanie Han, dating from 2007, which is freely available online.
I discovered Romanian author Max Blecher a few years back with his best-known work Scarred Hearts, a shorter, funnier but also much more visceral version of The Magic Mountain. Unfortunately, because of his early death at the age of 28 from spinal tuberculosis, and being bedridden for the last ten years of his life, he only produced a small but memorable body of work over a very short period of time between 1930 and 1938. He was not at all well-known in Romania when I was growing up. He certainly was not as well known as his contemporaries Camil Petrescu, Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionescu or Mihail Sebastian, and was largely ignored even when his novels were reissued in 1970 during a brief cultural thaw in Communist Romania.
He is only now starting to be recognised for his unique modernist style in his home country, and perhaps this is only thanks to the reaction of readers in the West (he has been translated into French, German and English, among others), where he has been compared to Kafka, Robert Walser or Bruno Schulz. It still didn’t prevent his house in the town of Roman from being torn down in 2013, although there had been campaigns to preserve it as a museum.
This novel reads like a memoir, but it is an indefinable work, hovering somewhere between a prose poem, a memoir and a novel. In terms of subject matter, it reminds me a little of Barbellion‘s Diary, but it is less about day to day life, with less ego involved. This last may seem like a strange statement, since we have a first person narrator who gives us a detailed account of his childhood in a small provincial town, his encounters with women, his bodily sensations, his reaction to the small objects he picks up and the people he observes. And yet this is not the author worrying about his legacy, or how his contemporaries may perceive him. Instead, we have a devastatingly honest and detailed account of living with the spectre of death in front of you all the time. His reactions are very physical, immediate, powerful, occasionally excessive – it’s as though the narrator is trying to plunge himself into life, determined to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it. Or perhaps he is trying to determine which of the worlds he feels he inhabits is more real. The narrator has always hovered on the threshold between two worlds. As he tells us, he has suffered from early childhood from something he calls ‘crises’, which tend to occur in certain particular spaces in his home town, spaces he calls ‘cursed’. During these crises, which sound a bit like a fugue state, he feels his identity dissolve, he is no longer sure of what is real or not, and when he recovers from them, he has a profound sense of futility and disappointment with the world. At those times, he seems to suffer from an overabundance of clear sight and awareness, and it’s telling him that he is in the wrong place, that his real self and life are somewhere else. This is the rather poignant ending of the book (in the translation of Michael Henry Heim).
Now I am struggling with reality. I scream, I beg to be awoken, to awaken into another life, my true life… I know I am alive, but there is something missing, as there was in my nightmare.
I struggle. I scream. I flail. Who will awaken me?
That precise reality around me is dragging me down, trying to sink me. Who will awaken me?
It has always been like this. Always. Always.
It is very difficult to describe the book in any more detail, other than to say that, although it bears some resemblance to the stream of consciousness techniques developed by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, it is not just introverted musing. Instead, it is also a description of a town, a way of life, a family and a certain time period. It is full of anecdotes, full of scenes which take place against unusual backdrops: a waxwork museum, a cinema that goes up in flames, the props room at the local theatre, the August funfair, junk-filled attics, a sewing machine shop, all filtered through the consciousness of an over-sensitive child and then young man. I had the feeling I was watching a Jean Cocteau film (more specifically, Testament of Orpheus) while reading this, although it would be unfair to call the book surrealist, given how firmly it is anchored in the body.
However, I have to admit that I struggled with the book at first. This is because I had bought a copy of it in translation from the University of Plymouth Press, a bulk buy of beautifully illustrated translations of modern or contemporary Romanian literature (which has ceased, because of lack of funding). I could not resist the high production values, and the British translator is a prolific translator from Romanian, of philosophers like Constantin Noica and Catalin Avramescu, as well as novelists like Filip Florian and Stelian Tanase. So when I resolved to read the book for the #1936Club, this is where I started. But I soon hit a wall: I found the style pompous, pretentious, needlessly complicated, which was not at all how I remembered Blecher from Scarred Hearts.
So I turned to the Romanian original. And indeed, in spite of the modernist style, the language is simple and everyday, perfectly comprehensible to the average Romanian, not at all high falutin. I’d noticed this discrepancy before when reading English translations of Romanian works – but, in the case of Cartarescu at least, I thought maybe that was a fair reflection of his own style. However, in the case of Mihail Sebastian or others, it felt like these translations (which are mostly by men, by the way, and I honestly don’t know if that makes a difference) are pointlessly over-egging the language and giving people the wrong impression about Romanian literature. One possible explanation could be that words of Latin origin are perfectly common in Romanian but sound more sophisticated and erudite in English. Still, there are plenty of perfectly acceptable non-Latin choices in English that could convey the meaning in a way closer to the Romanian intention and spirit.
I have said before that, when there is only a small amount being translated from a certain language, publishers and readers are prone to put labels on the literature of that country. For Romania this might be ‘abstract, difficult, philosophical, traumatic’, and anything that doesn’t fit into that stereotype won’t be considered. But that was in terms of content; I didn’t expect it to be the case also in terms of language. It’s not often, of course, that you have multiple translations of the same text from Romanian, but I have seen Max Easterman puzzling over two very different translations of Mihail Sebastian’s Women. In this case, I found three translations of Blecher’s text. I don’t know anything about the earliest translator, Jeanie Han, other than that she received funding to visit Romania and was mentored by Romanian professors there while translating this work. I do know, however, that Michael Henry Heim’s translation appeared posthumously. This award-winning multilingual translator (specialist in Slavic languages in particular) was terminally ill himself when he translated Blecher’s work. However, he felt such a strong affinity for this project that he learnt Romanian especially for it. However, I didn’t allow myself to be influenced by the back story when I decided that I preferred his version, which reads far less like a treatise in philosophy. Jeanie Han also comes closer to the more colloquial language of the original, while Alistair Ian Blyth sounds the most academic.
Even in the following passage, which is more objectively difficult even in the original Romanian, you can see that Heim’s version is the one that sounds most natural in English, although he has subtly altered the meaning in the first sentence. In the original, there is no hint that the narrator was waiting for the light to change before leaving the cinema. However, in the second version the translator has suddenly made it sound like the narrator was going to the cinema with a larger group, which seems highly unlikely in that context.
In the summer I would go to the matinee early and come out when it began to get dark. The light outside was changed; the day, nearly over, was waning. I observed that in my absence an immense and essential event had taken place in the world like a kind of sad obligation to carry on the ceaseless work – night falling, for instance – regular, diaphanous and spectacular. Thus, I would once again enter into the middle of a certainty, which through its daily rigor seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatric effects and obliged every evening to produce a correct sunset, the people around me seemed like poor pitiful beings with their seriousness and their naive belief in what they did and what they felt.
In summer, we would go into the matinee early and leave in the evening, as night was falling. The light outside was altered; the remnants of the day had been extinguished. It was thus I ascertained that in my absence there had occurred in the world an event immense and essential, its sad obligation of always having to continue – by means of nightfall, for example – its repetitive, diaphanous and spectacular labour. In this way we would enter once more into the midst of a certitude that in its daily rigorousness seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatrical effects and obligated every evening to perform a proper sunset, the people around me appeared like poor creatures to be commiserated for the seriousness with which they always busied themselves, the seriousness with which they believed so naively in whatever they did or felt.
In summer I would go to the matinee and emerge only at nightfall: I was waiting for the light outside to change, for the day to end. I would thus ascertain that in my absence an important thing, an essential thing had taken place: the world had assumed the sad responsibility of carrying on – by growing dark, for example – its regular, intricate, theatrical obligations. Again I had to accept a certainty whose rigorous daily return made me infinitely melancholy. In a world subject to the most theatrical of effects, a world obliged every evening to produce an acceptable sunset, the poor creatures around me seemed pitiful in their determination to keep themselves busy and maintain their naive belief in what they did and felt.
The literal translation of the Romanian title, by the way, is Happenings in the Immediate Non-Reality
There are many more such examples, but I will spare myself the delights of typing them all up in the WordPress blocks (and spare you the delights of ploughing through very similar texts). In my comparison of the translations of Genji, I was probably the only one who preferred Seidensticker’s translation for making things smoother and easier for the English reader. However, in that case, we had a style of language that was no longer in use in present-day Japan, so I can understand why other readers preferred the translations that were closer to the spirit of the original. In this case, however, Max Blecher’s Romanian is still instantly recognisable, only very occasionally using slightly outdated verb forms etc. We all still speak like that and write like that, and, even though we share with the other Romance languages a predilection for three or four syllable words, that does not make us any more thoughtful or highly literary than others!
Aside from my quibbles about the various translations, I would agree with Herta Müller, who described this novel as a masterpiece of sheer literary intensity. Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty. ‘Exasperating as it was, I was forced to admit that I lived in the world I saw around me; there was nothing else.’
I read these books such a long time ago (July, August and September). Initially, I wanted to spend time writing a detailed review for each one: each one of them deserves it. But the more time passes, the more I risk not being able to write anything about them anymore. So here are some jumbled and brief impressions of each one.
Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver (transl. Thomas Teal)
This was a book I read for Women in Translation Month in August. Jansson is one of my favourite authors and this story of two women circling each other like bloodhounds in a snowy Northern village does not disappoint. It reminded me of another Scandinavian book I read recently, Gøhril Gabrielsen’s The Looking Glass Sisters. The style is spare, sombre, almost transparent in its simplicity – yet with so many hidden layers. Nothing is quite what it seems and there is no one we can fully believe, but are the characters also deceiving themselves, as well as each other? At first I was firmly on Anna’s side – the artist who likes to think well of everybody and stay a little aloof from things happening in the village – but I found myself sympathising more with the ‘intruder’ Katri by the end. There are no easy allegiances or answers to be had in this book.
Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts (transl. Henry Howard)
A book that sucks you in, rather like the sanatorium sucking in its patients. A real Hotel California: you can never leave, or at least not without profound scars. The story is deceptively simple: a young man with spinal tuberculosis enters a sanatorium somewhere on the French coast, and discovers that he and his fellow patients have to make the most of their short lives, while bits and pieces of their body (and their full-body cast) fall off. This is not for the squeamish or hypocritical: description of love-making attempts in full-body casts, anyone? Or the dirt and grime that can seep into your cast when you get it wet? It is a real burst of candour and poignancy, a pulsating, urgent love of life, from a character (and an author) doomed to die. Such a modern feel to this one: Blecher does not shy away from the good, the bad, the ugly, the things we would rather not acknowledge. I now want to read it in the original Romanian, because although the translation is quite poetic, I feel there is a rhythm to the prose which I am missing in English.
Christos Tsiolkas: Barracuda
A very different style here, much more deliberate about shocking and forcing issues out into the open (as opposed to the more veiled, allusive style of the other two authors). Danny the would-be swimming champion is a self-absorbed, obsessive hero with a huge chip on his shoulder about class, money and ethnic origin. But he is typical perhaps of a teenager, and even of his generation, so it becomes forgivable, if a little annoying at times. But the main question of the book is: is it possible to be ‘a good man’ and what exactly does it mean nowadays? Danny’s journey of self-discovery and redemption, of coming to terms with his own background, is ambitious and poignant, if a little overlong.
I was planning longer reviews for each of these books, but the risk is that the longer I leave it, the less I’ll be in the mood for reviewing them, or the more I’ll have forgotten the first impressions.
So here are some quick-fire reviews of recently read crime novels. Two are by authors I’ve already read and admired, so I know what I’m getting. The remaining two are debut authors. And when I say ‘quick-fire’, it still has somehow added up to a very long post, so I apologise in advance.
Denise Mina: Blood, Salt, Water
A woman suspected by the police of major drug-smuggling and money laundering disappears. Has that got anything to do with the death of a woman, something confused criminal Iain Fraser is struggling with? And why is a middle-aged former Scout leader, Miss Grierson, back in town? Alex Morrow and her team struggle to make sense of all these disparate elements, as do the readers.
I’m a big Denise Mina fan – she always captures a particular Scottish setting impeccably. This time it’s a smaller town and a posh golf course gated environment, as well as the gritty streets of Glasgow. But this is perhaps not the most memorable one in the series: some of the motivations seem a little forced to me. Still, Mina’s ‘good/OK’ is a notch above most other writers, so I’d still recommend this book.There were some characters who had the potential to become interesting but were not given quite enough room to develop. I also missed hearing more about Alex Morrow’s family life – while I don’t like it to overwhelm the plot, it was just noticeable in its complete absence.
Lucy Atkins: The Other Child
Tess, single mother to nine-year-old Joe, falls in love with American pediatric surgeon Greg and gets pregnant. When he is offered the job of a lifetime back on the East Coast of the US, they marry and relocate. But life in an affluent American suburb proves anything but straightforward. Unsettling things keep happening in the large rented house, Joe is distressed, the next-door neighbours are in crisis, and Tess is sure that someone is watching her. Greg’s work is all-consuming and, as the baby’s birth looms, he grows more and more unreachable. Something is very wrong.
Confession: I read this one mostly because of the ‘moving to the US as a trailing spouse’ storyline. I just love those fish out of water suffering culture shock stories! I read this book very quickly, as it had plenty of mystery and some interesting characters to engage me. It does feel slightly déjà vu – the marriage that you jump in all too quickly, the man with secrets, the suspicions and gradual unravelling of relationships, the ‘who can be trusted, who’s telling the truth’ scenario are all well trodden ground. This book certainly won’t stay with me for a very long time. But the author has a fresh, engaging style, it’s got a nice sense of menace to it without getting too gory, it’s an entertaining beach read.
Sylvie Granotier: Personne n’en saura rien (No One Will Know a Thing)
Isabelle is the latest in a series of kidnappings and rapes of young girls from the beaches of Normandy. Except that, unlike the other victims, she does not end up dead. Instead, she is taking her aggressor to court on the count of rape. The accused, Jean Chardin, certainly seems to fit the profile of a rapist, but, as we find out more about the background of each of the people involved, we begin to wonder just what revenge Isabelle is planning.
For those who don’t like serial killer tropes or graphic descriptions of women suffering, rest assured there is not much of that here. Instead, it’s a thrilling and psychologically subtle read. Effortlessly moving between points of view and timelines, the author makes us question ourselves about the nature of justice, the ways in which we justify our own behaviour, and the role of families. This hasn’t been translated into English yet, but Le French Book has translated one of Granotier’s other novels, The Paris Lawyer.
Sarah Ward: In Bitter Chill
The Peak District as winter approaches is a chilling place, especially when a thirty-year-old crime is reopened following a suicide apparently related to it. Back in 1978 two young schoolgirls were abducted by a woman driving a car. One of them, Rachel, made it back home later that day, but could remember little of what had happened. The other girl, Sophie, was never found. It’s Sophie’s mother who has committed suicide in a hotel in the area. But why now, so many years after the event? Another death soon after also seems to be linked to the tragic event in 1978. Rachel and the police are equally committed to finding out the truth about events both past and present, uncovering some very dark secrets in the process.
This is a very promising debut indeed and just the kind of police procedural I enjoy: satisfying, logical, with interesting characters throughout (I especially liked Rachel’s grandma). The writing is of a consistently high quality and very precise, and the location is so well described I felt as if I was there (although I’ve never visited the area myself). But all this does not come at the detriment of the plot. Yes, I guessed part of the solution, but by no means all of the ramifications. I’m really glad that, although Ward intended this to be a standalone crime novel, she will write another novel featuring these detectives, as I got quite attached to ambitious Connie, about-to-get-married Palmer and their boss Sadler.
I’ve also read Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless (which will be reviewed shortly on Crime Fiction Lover), the cracking follow-up to The Hummingbird, and Sophie Hannah’s quirky, unexpected standalone psychological thrillerA Game for All the Family.
The remaining four reviews (I hope to have more time to spend on them this coming week, but I’m also trying to write another 20,000 words on my novel, so guess where my priorities lie?) are for:
Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – a surprisingly modern feel, very candid, not for the squeamish, heartbreaking and yet full of an urgent love of life. Emmanuel Carrère: L’Adversaire– a fascinating study of evil and the power of deception, including self-deception – whether we believe evil exists in all of us, or whether we see some people as being born evil. Particularly heart-wrenching and disturbing since I know the places and some of the people involved.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Night – no longer quite the ultimate story of marital and individual breakdown that I believed it to be when I was 18 – Rosemary’s age – and fell in love with Dick Diver myself. Still an unsettling portrait of inner demons and dysfunctional families, but this time I particularly admired the locations and descriptions of the expat experience (yes, I have a one-track mind).
Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd – unlike other ‘vignette’ type novels, I really liked this one, although I don’t think it could be sustained over a much longer book. I liked it because it really is experimental, not just pretending to be so, and there is a warm, funny, fearless and erudite imagination at work there, blending fantasy, philosophy, literature and everyday experiences so well together.
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?