Half Year Mark: Favourite Books So Far

We are halfway through the calendar (well, a little bit over, but who’s counting) and I wanted to take a look back at all I have read and jot down some favourites before I forget them in the end of year scramble. [Instead of the book covers, which I have already used in previous posts about those books, I thought I would include pictures of my two favourite libraries in London instead.]

A noirish picture of Senate House which seems to have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel.

According to my Goodreads counter, I’ve read 75 books so far this year. There have been some periods when I could barely concentrate on reading, when I was too het up with work and personal matters, but on the whole it’s not a bad number, an average of 12.5 books a month. It feels like it’s been a good mix of male and female authors, translated or foreign language books and English language ones, and a broad mix of genres. Here are the books which really stayed with me long after I read them (in chronological order of reading):

César Aira: The Lime Tree

The first Asymptote Book Club title, which I read just in time to ring in the New Year, and gave me a hunger to read more by this author. I love his slapdash style and the way he zooms in on the fine detail, then telescopes out to describe the historical and social issues of his country.

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson – A Rather Haunted Life

This gave me so much insight into the life of one of my favourite authors. Suddenly, a lot of things became clear to me, and, although it was sad, it was somehow not as depressing as the Blake Bailey biography of Richard Yates. P.S. Why do so many writers I admire have difficult relationships with their mothers?

Senate House Library

Michelle McNamara: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Not usually a fan of true crime, which I always feel slightly icky about because of its voyeuristic qualities and because it focuses so much on the criminal instead of the victims. But this book (which has now deservedly achieved higher visibility because of the finding of the killer she describes) gets the balance just right. Yes, it is the story of a woman’s – and a group’s – obsession with a killer who made life in California hell for several years in the 1970s, but it also is compassionate and respectful towards the victims.

Bibhutibhushan Bopadhyandyaya: Aranyak

Another Asymptote Book Club title, an immersive experience of a lost world. It may not be the most flawless book from the storytelling point of view – in fact, it often feels more like anthropological field notes rather than a novel (and I know not everyone finds the two equally fascinating). But there are beautifully nuanced observations (as well as blind spots) and lyrical descriptions of the forests which I loved.

Senate House Library, the Periodicals room.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love

OK, you’re going to think I’m just doing one long advertisement for the Asymptote Book Club, but I’ve honestly been blown away by their selection of books, most of which have pushed me a little beyond my comfort zone (which I like to think is plenty spacious enough already, but there is always room for more). This quietly devastating story about looking for love in all the wrong places had my heart in my throat all the time while reading it.

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters

As a crime novel this may not be quite perfect (I guessed the perpetrator fairly early on, although the author does its best to create a list of suspicious characters), but it is a hard-hitting description of rural life in South Africa, the life that so few tourists get to see. It really helps us to understand the Afrikaner mentality a bit better, and tries not to take sides in the tricky matter of land ownership and race in that beautiful but troubled country. It got me doing more research on ‘plaasmord’ and South African history.

My beloved old British Library reading room, back when it was housed in the British Museum

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

So grateful the David Bowie Book Club made me reread this one, as it seems to be ever more appropriate to the present-day.

Fiona Mozley: Elmet

A debut novel that is the reverse of Cold Comfort Farm, in many ways. Instead of parody of the gloomy, dramatic portrayals of country life, we have a modern take on life in the countryside which seems to not have changed much for the better. Like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, this is both a family story and the description of a very tough way of life, which is being encroached upon by big agriculture and developers. The prose was so poetic and accurate, that I was completely won over.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

I started reading this under the impression that it was a collection of essays rather than a novel, and I’m still not quite sure what it is. But it doesn’t matter. This constellation novel is a jazz improvisation on the subject of travelling, escaping, finding freedom, and it’s the flights of fancy which charmed me.

What books have inveigled their way into your heart this year? And do you think they will continue to claim their spot in your heart until the end of the year?

The modern British Library

 

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Novel or Novelty Gimmick?

It was sheer coincidence, reading three novels with unconventional structures in quick succession. So uncoventional that one might question if they are even novels. They certainly felt more like essays or biographies or memoirs, but with fictional narrators and characters. You could say it’s a trend, but while two of the novels are recent, one was published in the 1970s. In fact, it might be safe to say that such novels have existed since the beginning of time: 1001 Nights, Tales of Genji, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote all mess up with our love of clear chronology and neat linear narratives. So why do I feel that perhaps there is more of an appetite for it now, and that some authors and publishers are deliberately jumping on the bandwagon? Is it indeed that, as our attention spans have shortened, as we get inundated with scraps of half-digested and unproven information, we find it difficult to believe in the authoritative author’s voice and unified narrative?

The three books that got me thinking about all this and more are: Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, Joanna Walsh’s Break.up and John Berger’s G. However, other recent publications also come to mind, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, Heidi Julavits’ The Folding Clock, Rachel Cusk’s recent trilogy (I’ve yet to read Kudos), Lisa Owens’ Not Working  and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I’ve loved some of these and not liked the others all that much, so I don’t think it’s a lack of willingness to engage with experimentation. (On the contrary, how often have you heard me complain that the author has an original concept but simply does not go far enough?) When done successfully, you can feel there is an underlying pattern and intent there, even if you are not sure that you understand it. At times, however, the lack of structure or ‘démontage’ of structure feels more like a lazy mess than deliberate experimentation.

The authors of these novels (not all of them describe their work as novels) justify what they do by saying they are ‘lassoing moments that were about to be lost’ (Julavitz) or they are emulating Heraclitus’ river (no matter where you step into the book, it is never the same book – Maggie Nelson). Tokarczuk speaks of the constellation novel, where each person detects their own pattern, based on their past experiences and present sensibilities. Cusk presents the flat, bland heroine who seems to reflect back the thoughts, desires and words of all the people she meets – what I would call the would-be objective anthropological narrator (although we all know that there is no such thing as complete objectivity). Joanna Walsh describes her work as ‘hybrid’, and her ‘novel’ is about the end of an affair (which seems to have existed largely in the narrator’s own mind), a travelogue and lots of internal monologue or attempted dialogue with the absent lover. John Berger’s retelling of the adventures of Giacomo Casanova during a troubled period of history is anything but a conventional biography, going off on substantial tangents and interspersed with secondary characters’ thoughts and back stories. Meanwhile, Jenny Offill argues that the broken structure of her novel reflects the narrator’s broken state of mind, with thoughts randomly coming into her head without too much context. Lisa Owens’s heroine is full of acerbic asides and amusing observations – a fragmented, post-modern Bridget Jones maybe.

I fall for the theoretical explanations of purpose every time, but I have to admit that not all the books are equally adept in the execution. I still think it is far harder to have an overarching theme that plays out through a perfect balance of characters and plot. The danger of fragmentation of course is that the novel becomes a kind of pick’n’mix. Readers will like certain parts and hate (or skip others). Perhaps it is not that different to how I read War and Peace, skipping over most of the battle scenes, unless they featured Napoleon or Prince Andrei? Or does it help if I think of them as poetry, like in the case of Bluets?

Perhaps that is why I enjoy the Spanish or Latin American novels way of storytelling? There are many, many tangential stories in those novels that seem to bear no relationship to the main story and yet you feel that you are progressing, that there is a purpose to the story. Of the books I mention above, I felt that same sense of ‘the author knows where she is going’ with Flights and Bluets, and they are the ones that stayed with me most. And a final point which puzzles me: why are most of these novels written by women in the English-speaking world (which is most certainly not the case in the Spanish-speaking one)?

 

 

 

Part 2 of #HayFestival: The Prize Winners

However we might feel about the subjectivity and inclusiveness of literary prizes, they certainly help to raise the profile of authors and books that a more general audience might not come across otherwise. So I’m all for this ‘democratisation’ of literature. In the queue for Olga Tokarczuk (and her translator Jennifer Croft, who share the Man Booker International Prize for 2018), most of the people I spoke to admitted they had neither read Flights nor heard anything about the author, but were curious to find out more. And after the very charismatic duet that the two of them gave with moderator Gaby Wood, almost everyone in the audience was charmed and rushed off to buy the book and get it signed by her. Hurrah!

Olga listens to Jennifer reading that wonderful passage about the English language (will refer to it later in my review, because I LOVED it).

I’d just recently read her book and was smitten with it and with the possibilities it offered for fiction (review forthcoming). And I am also very proud to say that Asymptote Journal was the first to publish an excerpt from it back in 2016, so we have a good eye for quality! (Actually, of the 6 authors and 9 translators featured on the Man Booker International Shortlist, we could count 3 authors and 5 translators amongst our contributors). And there was some satisfaction in Tokarczuk attending the prize-giving ceremony wearing the earrings she had bought with her paltry salary when she was working as a chambermaid in London 15 years ago. I will write a separate post on Iconoclasts (writers who go against the grain, do not fit into the established literary norms), but it would be fair to say that Olga fits into this category as well.

First of all, her approach to the novel is completely unconventional. I kept thinking Flights  was non-fiction, but the first person narrator is not Olga herself, although she shares certain characteristics. However, the narrator is the only solid base to cling to in this dazzling and dizzying array of stories, situations, reflections, sudden shifts of gear and locations. This is what the author herself calls a ‘constellation novel’: just like the human eye creates patterns in the night sky to orient themselves, this novel is full of disparate shapes and themes and stories, and each reader will create their own pattern, dependent on their past experience, mood, how they come to the reading of the book. She described how she assembled the book by printing it all out, putting the different sections on the floor and then rearranging visually from a high point within the room (very much how I approach a poetry collection), so that the tyranny of linearity of writing on a computer is destroyed. Why write like that? Because Olga believes that the traditional 19th century door-stopper novel no longer fits with the way we lead our lives now. Everything seems to be fragmentary perceptions, from many different sources (some often contradictory), with brief flashes of insight. Stories are a great way to perceive reality, but sometimes they are not quite enough, so it’s important to juxtapose them with facts, lecture-like discourse and other elements.

Meanwhile, it became clear just how crucial her translator Jennifer Croft was in bringing her work to the English-speaking audience. She encountered Tokarczuk’s work while on a study year in Poland and has been a champion for it ever since (approaching publishing houses on her behalf, running her English language Facebook page, touring with her etc.). Jennifer also pointed out that, although the novel is conceptually very ambitious and seems ‘difficult’, the language is very clear and accessible, making it a fun and easy read. I certainly look forward to reading more by Olga – and two of her books will be coming out later this year and in 2019 respectively. Meanwhile, back in Poland she is very well known, has published 10 novels, one of her books has been filmed by Agnieszka Holland and she has become political almost without intending to. She somewhat ruefully said that her generation thought that after the collapse of Communism politics was over in Poland and most of the writers switched to introverted style and inner-life topics. But now it appears that any personal opinions, such as feminism, animal rights, love of democracy, have become political in her home country.

The International Dylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi was the second event I attended and it is once again extremely gratifying to see the prize awarded to poetry at long last. Founded in 2006, this £30,000 Prize is awarded to the best published or produced literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under. Furthermore, Kayo is of Nigerian descent, growing up in the UK, and English was not his first language, so I will present his talk in more detail in the post on Iconoclasts, but suffice it to say he blew me away with the breadth and depth of his knowledge and his sensitivity to nuances and the world around him. (Well, most poets are like that!) Plus, he likes Douglas Dunn, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and other such poets that I admire!

I wasn’t planning to attend the 10 a.m. panel on Sunday morning on the Golden Man Booker Prize, but I’m glad I changed my mind, because the three panellists were thoughtful and funny and brilliant, as you might expect with Elif Shafak (I adore that woman and that writer!), Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Philippe Sands. All of them brought a distinctly international flavour to this celebration of English-speaking literature (mostly the former Empire and more recently opened to the US – which was once former Empire as well, let’s not forget). To celebrate 50 years of the Man Booker, five judges were each assigned a ‘decade’ and asked to select one winner. The shortlist was announced at they Hay Festival on the 26th of May and readers can vote for their favourite online. The panellists talked about their favourites, their surprises and disappointments in re-reading or reading the shortlist, with Philippe Sand admitting he found he had to work too hard for something he did not enjoy with Lincoln in the Bardo, while Vasquez admitted what a huge influence Naipaul’s book had been on him as a writer. Overall, it appears that Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, surprise winner over Kazuo Ishiguro or Salman Rushdie, were the favourites both with the panel and with the audience in the tent.

Forgot to take a picture of this panel, so you’ll have to make do with a gratuitous generic picture.

They pointed out of course just how different the novels are both thematically and stylistically. Yet in some way, they are all about ways of dealing with the past, how an individual gets swept up by the course of history, and they all demonstrate that there is no single truth but rather a multiplicity of versions of history. Perhaps because both Shafak and Vasquez come from very different storytelling traditions, they did not enjoy so much Hilary Mantel’s linearity, while Sands reminded the audience that Mantel criticised Ondaatje’s lack of linearity back in 1993.

‘The English language is very open and welcoming to new words in the vocabulary, unlike Turkish, but its literature is much more inflexible and not so open to new forms, to stories within stories, which are simply other traditional ways of telling stories that clash with linearity.’ (Shafak)

‘I’ve seen many a Spanish or French book destroyed in the British reviews because they contain multiple stories that have nothing to do with each other or contain digressions that shouldn’t really be there.’ (Vasquez)

Could it be that Tokarczuk’s win marks the start of a new era? That the inclusion of Lincoln in the Bardo on that list also means something? That English-language literature is opening itself up to less rigid consecutive structures and experimenting more with simultaneous stories with no unique interpretations or clear answers?

I loved the baaing of these sheep as I picked up my car in the evening.

 

WWWednesday 9th May 2018

I only get around to doing it once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Currently reading:

Negar Djavadi: Disoriental, transl. Tina Kover

A saga of 20th century Iran seen through the eyes of a young woman who came to France as a child.

… the truth of memory is strange, isn’t it? Our memories select, eliminate, exaggerate, minimize, glorify, denigrate. They create their own versions of events and serve up their own reality. Disparate, but cohesive, Imperfect yet sincere. In any case, my memory is so crammed with stories and lies and languages and illusions, and lives marked by exile and death, death and exile, that I don’t even really know how to untangle the threads anymore.

Just finished:

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights, transl. Jennifer Croft

Not quite a memoir or travel journal, more like a writer’s notebook crammed full of pithy observations, fragments of stories, snatches of ideas waiting to be developed, and beautiful phrases just made to be quoted.

Describing something is like using it – it destroys: the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. Enormous damage has been done by travel literature… Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet… they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours.

Next up:

Eliot Pattison: Savage Liberty

This is a book I’ve been sent on Kindle to review, a historical mystery set during the period of the American Revolutionary War. This is the fifth in a series, but I hope to be able to keep track of things. and find some good escapism along the way. The summary is as follows:

After a ship from London explodes in Boston Harbor, Duncan MacCallum, an exiled Scotsman living in Boston, discovers that the ship was deliberately sabotaged by two French agents who stole a secret ledger being sent to the Sons of Liberty. In his attempt to pursue the truth, Duncan winds up falsely charged with treason and murder and is left with no choice but to find the guilty men and the stolen document, in order to clear his name. Historical figures like Samuel Adams and John Hancock show up along the way.