Paul Auster: Winter Journal

Late for the memoir February, late for the Auster reading week, but I’d borrowed this from the library and was intrigued enough to continue reading. It’s a rather lovely continuation of The Invention of Solitude, this time the mother’s side of the story, as well as more about both his first and second marriage. He certainly seems smitten with his second wife, a companionship and meeting of minds which sounds very appealing – although clearly there was a lot of friendship with the first wife too, but perhaps not quite so much love.

I’m not really in the mood for reviewing, so I’ll just list below a few quotes which stayed with me.

[about his mother] There were three of her, three separate women who seemed unconnected to one another… you never knew which mask she would be wearing on any given day. At one end, there was the diva, the sumptuously decked-out charmer who dazzled the world in public, the young woman with the obtuse, distracted husband who craved having the eyes of others upon her and would not allow herself – not anymore – to be boxed into the role of traditional housewife. In the middle, which was far and away the largest space she occupied, there was a solid and responsible being, a person of intelligence and compassion, the woman who took care of you… competent, genberous, observant of the world around her… At the other end… there was the frightened and debilitated neurotic, the helpless creature prey to blistering assaults of anxiety, the phobic whose incapacities grew as the years advanced

Aren’t we all made up of such contradictory multitudes? He is far less critical of his wife, however:

Little by little… you discovered that you saw eye to eye on nearly everything of any importance… Much to your relief, your personalities were nothing alike. She laughed more than you did, she was freer and more outgoing than you were, she was warmer than you were… you felt that you had met another version of yourself – but one that was more fully evolved than you were, better able to express what you kept bottled up inside you, a saner being.

And his description of their celebration of the 30th anniversary of when they first met sounds like my ideal relationship: they go to a hotel, eat the restaurant, drink champagne and talk and talk and talk ‘the long uninterrupted conversation that started the day you met’. Sharing ideas and feelings, especially about personal and cultural things, are what makes me dreamy… But I was most amused by his rant about the dangers of nostalgia.

You have no use for the good old days. Whenever you find yourself slipping into a nostalgic frame of mind, mourning the loss of the things that seemed to make life better then than it is now, you tell yourself to stop and think carefully, to look back at Then with the same crutiny you apply to looking at Now… Of course you have manifold grievances against the evils and stupidities of contemporary American life… the sacendency of the right, the injustices of the economy, the neglect of the environment, the collapsing infrastructure, the senselss wars, the barabarism of legalized torture and extraordinary renditions, the disintegration of impoversihed cities like Buffalo and Detroit… the ever-gorwing crevasse that divides the rich from the poor, not to speak of the junk films we are making, the junk food we are eating, the junk thoughts we are thinking…And yet, go back to the year of your birth and try and remember what America looked like in its golden age of postwar prosperity: Jim Crow laws in full force throughout the South, anti-Semitic quota restrictions, back-alley abortions… the trials of the Hollywood Ten, the Cold War, the Red Scare, the Bomb… Every moment in history is fraught with its own problems, its own injustices, and every period manufactures its own legends and pieties.

Best of the Year Books (Classics and Non-Fiction)

Perhaps it says something that many of my most memorable classics were read as part of my ‘geographical exploration’ challenges: either the #EU27Project or the One Country per Month option. The non-fiction books appeared as additional reading for many of my fictional interests this past year, although Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living was recommended by somebody on Twitter.

Two of the books (Montaigne and Travellers in the Third Reich) were library loans, but the rest are here.

Classics:

Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, transl. Michelle Bailat-Jones – reads like a long prose-poem, with all the looming menace of a devastating storm about to break out

Strugatsky Brothers – started off with the story Monday Starts on Saturday, transl. Andrew Bromfield, dripping with sarcasm and surrealism, then the book Roadside Picnic, transl. Olena Bormashenko, which formed the basis for that strange Tarkovsky film Stalker

Miklos Banffy, transl. Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen – I started the first in the Transylvanian trilogy back in 2018 and then couldn’t wait to get back to that lost world, recreated with all its magic but also its flaws

Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years – memorable fictionalised account of living as a Jew in Romania in the period between the two world wars

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution – a book of stories with several translators; the title story a particular standout tale of love, politics, self-interest and betrayal

Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Persephone and a truly heartbreaking story of a dying marriage

Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare – highly recommended by everyone who had read it. I thought that this additional story of betrayal and loss in a marriage would kill me off completely, but it was exquisitely written, so well observed

Non-Fiction:

Sarah Bakewell: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer – really made Montaigne come to life for me and ignited my interest in his essays and philosophy

Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living – rediscovering your self and your creativity after marital breakdown, the right book at the right time

Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich – wonderful collection of contemporary narratives from those travelling in the Weimar Republic and early years of Nazi power, demonstrating how easy it is to believe in propaganda

Mihail Sebastian: Journal – even more heartbreaking than his novel, his diary describes life just before and during WW2 in Bucharest, and the compromises and excuses his friends make in order to survive

Rupert Christiansen: Paris Babylon – very readable account of the lead-up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, in which the city of Paris becomes a main character in all its infuriating, incomprehensible beauty and chaos

Most Obscure on My Shelves – Non-Fiction

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I have always found more comfort in fiction and poetry than in self-help books or true stories. Most of the non-fiction books I own are professional books used during university or business days. If I ever do have a craving for a biography or a memoir, I borrow it from a library. However, since I started book blogging, I have made more of a conscious effort to read at least the occasional non-fiction book. Some of them have been so enlightening and have completely changed my way of thinking about the world.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die (published in US under the title of Bright-Sided)

A lucid analysis and full-frontal attack on the reductionist thinking that has taken over not just the US but most of the Western world in recent years. Ehrenreich looks at the myth of ‘thinking yourself well’ when you have cancer, the Puritan work ethic which has led to the American dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps if only you want it badly enough, the ‘attraction’ philosophy of books like The Secret and so on. As someone who has both given and received coaching, I have seen first hand the real power of placebo (which is what positive thinking is to a certain extent), but also the ways in which it can be misinterpreted and lead to a downward spiral when the world refuses to live up to your personal hopes and values. Or how it can be used to justify someone’s unfortunate circumstances (‘he brought his misfortune upon himself, she can’t see the silver lining’).

Above all, this book (published in 2009) shows that critical thinking and reasoned debate have been demoted in the media, which has led to the vicious popularist rhetoric and partisanship which we all deplore at present.

James Davidson: Courtesans and Fishcakes

First of all: how can anyone resist this intriguing title? It’s about the culture of consumption of Ancient Athens: food, drink, sex, gambling and political manoeuvring. It makes the ancient world really come to life and it’s the book I always recommend to people who want an ‘anthropological study’ of Classical Greece. It’s a book about gossip, written in an accessible style, but based on careful research. It also shows what remarkably advanced thinkers those Athenians really were (despite some inevitable shortcomings regarding gender and slavery). We could learn something from them today.

This view of wealth as something changeable and fragile and rather separate from the men who owned it and this view of consumption as a warning of an individual’s dangerous appetites rather than as a sign of elite membership… is clearly related to Athens’ peculiar democratic system with its horror of internal division, its symbolic appropriations, its suspicion of riches, its weakened sense of family or clan identity… In Athens politics effectively was society.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

I’ve written about this before and I’ve said it before: this is the book I am most jealous of as an anthropologist, the book I wish I had written. It gives voice to the residents of Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai Airport, and it is written in language so vivid, with so much empathy, that it feels like fiction. It does not reduce people to numbers and facts, but neither does it romanticise their virtues and dreams. It is a story of those left behind by India’s economic boom, the exploitation of the weak by those slightly less weak. Much has been made of Boo’s status as an outsider (although she lived with the people she describes for three years), but this seems like a very fair, powerful and morally thoughtful book. Perhaps my favourite non-fiction book of the last decade or more.

 

Yet Another Best of 2016 Reading List

I’ll stick to the books this time and make no comments about other aspects of 2016. But even so, I have to admit it’s been a bit of an atypical year. I’ve read 167 books, Goodreads tells me, and have a couple more weeks to reach 170 or so.

But it’s not a race.

I’ve had moments of furious reading, and some months of disruption, when reading was in scarce supply. The proportion of crime fiction seems to be lower than in other years. My Top 5 Reviewed Crime Reads will appear as usual on the Crime Fiction Lover site, so I thought I would look at other books here on my blog, particularly those which were released before 2016.

I wonder if the format for reading them also added to their memorability: most of the ones featured were physical books (only four were e-books).

A few of my favourites... and the challenges of English vs. Continental book spines.
A few of my favourites… and the challenges of English vs. Continental book spines.

 

My overall percentage of translated fiction was perhaps roughly 40%, and the books in this category have proved memorable and contributed considerably to my ‘best of’ list (8 out of 17). Likewise, I may feel that I don’t read as much poetry and non-fiction as I would like to, but they tend to stick with me and so appear quite a bit on the list. 10 out of the 17 books were written by women, 10 of these were published before 2016.

It’s been an emotional year, so I’ve gone for visceral response rather than careful analysis of literary merits.  However, most of the books below show evidence of both. Sadly, not all of them have been given the review they deserve. I’ve found that I often struggle to review those books which have meant most to me and which I want to reread. For those I haven’t reviewed, I just give a short quote from the book itself.

Poetry:

Tiphanie Yanique: Wife

Laura Kasischke author photo from Babelio.fr
Laura Kasischke author photo from Babelio.fr

Laura Kasischke: The Infinitesimals

Small boy running through the center of the park, un-

zipping summer straight down the middle as he runs until

all the small boys come tumbling out.

 

wigboxDorothy Nimmo: The Wigbox

My voice is strangled. I’m awake. I shout

I know there’s something I must do today

and I can’t do it. You must write me out.

It’s not my part and this is not my play.

Sharon Olds: The Wellspring

Non-Fiction:

Antoine Leiris: You Will Not Have My Hate

Asne Seierstad: One of Us

Elif Shafak: Black Milk

Olivia Laing: The Lonely City

uninvitedCrime Fiction:

Colin Niel: Ce qui reste en foret

Liz Jensen: The Uninvited

Pascal Garnier: Too Close to the Edge

Other Fiction:

Sarah Moss: Signs for Lost Children

Romain Gary: Promesse de l’aube

Romain Gary with his mother, from the Lithuanian State Archive
Romain Gary with his mother, from the Lithuanian State Archive

I had no right to refuse her help. The myth of my future was what kept her alive. For the time being, I had to swallow my pride and continue my race against time, to try and keep my promise towards her, to give her absurd and tender dreams some reason for being… I don’t feel guilty about that. But if you find that my books are cries for dignity and justice, if they all talk to such an extent about human decency, it’s perhaps because until the age of 22, I lived off the back of an exhausted and ill woman. I owe her so much.

Knausgaard: Some Rain Must Fall

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen ging gegangen

Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time

Patrick Ness: A Monster Calls

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Memories of Provence, with Inspirational Quotes

I’m still milking all those lovely pictures that I took during my five days in Provence. I was going to say that this is because ‘I don’t get out much’, but I think I may have complained in the past about my work involving too much travel, so it won’t be plausible. Also, I seem to be attending an awful lot of cultural events since moving back to the UK.

So my only excuse is: it’s the misery of November, we’ve got to compensate somehow. You can see why artists are so attracted to that region – the lights and colours are unbelievable (all are taken without any filters, simply with my phone, which sometimes suffers in poor light conditions).

A welcoming front door...
A welcoming front door…

A house gleaming in the afternoon sun...
A house gleaming in the afternoon sun…

A room with an autumnal view...
A room with an autumnal view…

I didn’t mind the gloomy weather – besides, the Luberon needed some rain after an exceptionally dry summer. I just curled up in my cosy room and read and wrote. One of the books I stumbled across was Hugh Prather’s Notes to Myself. The author was a counsellor and lay minister, who wrote this slim volume of New Age/Christian wisdom, aphorisms, inspirational thoughts, which became a huge hit in the 1970s. It perfectly captured the spirit of the time.

I cannot ‘make my mark’ for all time. Nothing will have meaning ultimately. Nothing will even mean tomorrow what it did today. Meaning changes with the context. It is enough that I am of value to someone today. It is enough that I make a difference now.

A place for the weary of heart to rest and write both indoors...
A place for the weary of heart to rest and write…

Why do I judge my day by how much I have ‘accomplished’? I am holding this cat in my arms so it can sleep, and what more is there. [This consoled me as I realised that I would not finish my first draft.]

... and read tons of poetry, both indoors...
… and read tons of poetry, both indoors.

Perfectionism is slow death, If everything were to turn out just like I would want it to, just like I would plan for it to, then I would never experience anything new; my life would be an endless repetition of stale successes. When I make a mistake, I experience something unexpected.

... and outdoors.
… and outdoors.

A faithful friend to keep you company...
A faithful friend to keep you company…

A sure way for me to have a disastrous experience is to do something because ‘it will be good for me.’

... a fellow creative in her atelier to inspire you...
… a fellow creative in her atelier to inspire you…

There may be a natural, healthy kind of fear, but the fear I don’t like and want not the obey is the fear that urges me to act contrary to my own feelings or to act before I know what my feeling are. It is usually a fear of displeasing other people.

Interesting little houses to explore...
Interesting little houses to explore…

Lavender fields (subdued in their winter sleep)
Lavender fields (subdued in their winter sleep)

If the desire to write is not accompanied by actual writing, then the desire is not to write. Standing before the refrigerator. If I have to ask myself if I’m hungry, I’m not. [Ouch! This one stung a little!]

Quirky window decorations...
Quirky window decorations…

If someone criticizes me I am not any less because of that. It is not a criticism of me but critical thinking from him.. He is expressing his thoughts and feelings, not my being. Before, I thought I was actually fighting for my own self-worth, that is why I so desperately wanted people to like me. I thought their liking me was a comment on me, but it was a comment on them.

Another door, another paradise awaits
Another door, another paradise awaits

 

 

#TranslationThursday: Favourite books in translation so far

Of the 101 books I’ve read so far in 2016, 23 have been translated books. I’m not counting the books I read in the original language, because I’m curious just how much gets translated and how far I stray beyond my obvious comfort zones of French/German/Romanian literature.  Here are my favourites so far:

The Young, the Aimless, the Self-Absorbed (by turns funny and poignant):

  1. Knausgard: Some Rain Must Fall 
  2. Mircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent
  3. Olja Savicevic: Adios, Cowboy – to be reviewed on Necessary Fiction
  4. Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna

Those Who Qualified for Next Round of the Euro:

  1. Pascal Garnier: Too Close to the Edge (France)
  2. Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow (Part 1) (Spain) – infuriatingly, still not up to date with a review for this one. I might as well read the whole trilogy and review it afterwards.
  3. Peter Gardos: Fever at Dawn (Hungary)

Non-Fiction Which Really Made Me Think:

  • Asne Seierstad: One of Us – about Norway’s most notorious mass shooting
  • Elif Shafak: Black Milk – about motherhood and creativity

Do you notice one big omission on this list? Elena Ferrante. Yes, because although I devoured her Neapolitan tetralogy and enjoyed it, it did not capture my heart and mind as much as some of her other work.

Huge thanks to Hande Zapsu, Alison Entrekin, Don Bartlett, Sarah Death, Emily Boyce, Elizabeth Szász, Margaret Jull Costa, Christopher Moncrieff, Celia Hawkesworth and all the other translators who labour in the shadows (still), so we can have access to a wider world out there.

 

Reading Bingo 2015

reading-bingo-small (1)

Thank you, Cleo, for making me spend far too long on this – but hey, it’s my day off and if I choose to spend it reviewing my year’s reading, then so be it!

More than 500 pages

Genji
Not the edition mentioned in the text, but the translation I prefer, by Seidensticker.

Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (transl. Royall Tyler)

Masterpiece of Japanese literature, world literature, medieval literature and anything else you can think of. Poetry, romance, heartbreak and sumptuous description of clothes, festivals and the Imperial Court. I did struggle with this far too literal translation (and footnotes), though, and it took me about 6 weeks to read its 1000+ pages.

Forgotten Classic

Jean-Patrick Manchette: Fatale (transl. Donald Nicholson-Smith)

Violent, twisted, hardcore, with a compassionate streak. Not for fans of poetic descriptions or deep psychological insights – it’s all very dark and externalised.

Became a Movie

Film poster from imdb.com
Film poster from imdb.com

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Read the book, met the author and saw the movie within a few weeks of each other. I liked all three: the book had far more filmworthy scenes which never made it to the screen; the film did not have the preposterous coincidence at the end. And the author ain’t bad-looking either! (He’s also written the screenplay for the current TV mystery series ‘London Spy’).

Published This Year

Girl at War by Sara Novic

Quite a bit of jostling in this category, although less than last year. I’ve stuck to my plan for reading beyond the obvious latest releases. This is a touching, if somewhat uneven description of life during and after the Yugoslav war.

Number in Title

De zece ori pe buze (10 Times on the Lips) by Adina Rosetti

Since Child 44 was already taken for another category, this was all I could come up with – a collection of stories about life in Romania before and after the fall of Communism.

GuezAuthor Under 30

Paris la Nuit by Jeremie Guez

At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to find anything in this category, but then I realised that Jeremie (who has written 5 novels by now) is still only 27 years old. This, his debut novel, was published in 2010, when he was just 22.

Non-Human Characters

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Again, a difficult category, but I think this counts:  a sentient sea on a strange planet, who makes all the characters revisit all the things they fear most or feel most guilty about counts as a very unusual.

Funny

Wendy Cope (editor): The Funny Side

Poems that challenge our perception of poetry as far too serious, elitist and abstract. A delight – and it’s not just limericks!

Female Author

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

And a topic that goes straight to the heart of women’s suffering – just so powerful and emotionally draining. I’ve read a lot by female authors this year, but this is the one that I automatically think of when I hear ‘women’s writing’, whatever that might mean.

Mystery

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I read so many crime novels, yet I was really stumped for this category, as I felt I wanted to include a writer that wouldn’t fit in any of the other categories. In the end, I will dispense with originality and go with a classic that has been so influential in film and writing since its publication.

From babelio.com
From babelio.com

One-Word Title

Silences by Tillie Olsen

A book that has been so influential on me as a woman and a writer – talking about all the artists who have been silenced by history, circumstances, gender or jobs, written by one of the first generation of American feminists.

Short Stories

Meisternovellen by Stefan Zweig

I haven’t read many short stories this year, but Zweig’s novellas and short stories are always worth a reread- thank you German Literature Month for making me revisit them.

Joker – Poetry

When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard by Megan Beech

Outspoken, hopeful and charmingly humorous as only young people can be: my first volume of spoken word poetry (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms).

Different Continent

Ru by Kim Thuy

Not just one, but two different continents: Vietnam, Malaysia and Canada.

Non-Fiction

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl

For anyone who has ever been overwhelmed by motherhood and artistic impulse, To Do lists and reality, and whose creativity has to take the back seat on occasion.

First Book by Favourite Author

lullabiesLullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

Or is it too much to claim a favourite author if this is the only book I have read by her? I have just bought her latest book, though, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, and hope to read it over the holidays.

Heard About Online

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

This one had so many lovely reviews from bloggers whose opinion I trust, such as Stu, Jacqui, Bibliobio, Tony, Naomi Frisby, Poppy Peacock, that I just had to try it for myself.

Bestseller

Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

I’m pretty sure it’s a bestseller, as it’s been No. 1 on Amazon for ages and Orenda are busy doing a second print run. Well deserved, an intriguing blend of Icelandic chill and Agatha Christie puzzle.

True Story

L’Adversaire by Emmanuel Carrere

Made all the more chilling because it involves the death of children and took place 500 metres down my road.

Bottom of TBR

Morgue Drawer Four by Jutta Profijt

Free download when I first bought my husband a Kindle 4 years ago. I was clearing out the books I had on his Kindle and it fitted in well with German Literature Month. Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t have died if I’d forgotten about it.

Loved by a Friend

people-in-glass-houses-novel-shirley-hazzard-paperback-cover-artPeople in Glass Houses by Shirley Hazzard

Not sure I can claim Petina Gappah as a friend, but we do know each other from the Geneva Writers’ Group and she recommended this book when she spoke on a panel in Morges, saying it was the best portrayal of the UN and ‘organisation man’ that she’d ever come across.

Scary

The Woman Who Fed the Dogs by Kristien Hemmerechts

Blood-chilling portrayal of the accomplice of a serial killer of young girls – it gave me nightmares.

10+ Years

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

Still one of my favourite authors and books – this will break your heart, but oh, how well written.

2nd Book in a Series

The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto

This Finnish police procedural with a touch of immigrant blues about it is getting better and better – so looking forward to the next.

barracudaBlue Cover

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Actually, a lot of the books I read have blue covers – either it’s a publishing trend at the moment, or else I am subconsciously drawn to my favourite colour.