Nearly forgot to do the monthly round-up of my reading, until I saw Tony’s meticulous accounting of his time. I cannot compete with that, of course. August has been haphazard and I’m frankly surprised I got any reading or reviewing done at all.
I participated (loosely, very loosely speaking) in two challenges this summer.
Women in Translation Month – failed
Although I tried to sneak in two books I read in July for this category (they also fit in the next category, so it is double cheating), I only truly read one book by a woman writer translated into English this month. And it was a reread.
I’ve just finished rereading The Moonstone, that famed ‘first ever detective novel’ and will be featuring it in Classics in September, together with another feature on ‘literary crime’ (I have my own list of obvious suspects there, but any suggestions you might have would be gratefully received).
Catching up with my long-inaccessible and neglected Netgalley shelves. I’ll be working in pairs of ‘recent/older’ titles. First up: Pascal Garnier’s The Eskimo Solution and Essential Poems by 10 American poets.
So yes, you may have noticed that I have fallen ever so slightly off the TBR Double Dare waggon this month (ahem! five books or so, without counting the ‘official review copies’). I am all for a combination of planning and serendipity, but this is ridiculous! I blame a conspiracy of libraries and reviewers/editors who are far too good at PR. So here is the summary:
Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson – Work and Love [Not reviewed because I want to write a feature on her, the Moomins, The Sculptor’s Daughter. She is one of my favourite writers and a great artist as well.]
Sherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
I don’t know why I don’t read YA literature more often – perhaps because a lot of it is derivative and too ready to jump onto bandwagons and second-guess the trends. This one rings so true and is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact. It also fulfills one of my North America slots for Global Reading Challenge, as I’d never looked at Native American culture before in a novel. The pain of living ‘between’ cultures, of never being fully accepted in either of them, the unsentimental view of the flaws of each type of lifestyle, yet plenty of humour and tenderness to temper it all: I loved it!
Twelve books, of which a third were from the TBR pile, a quarter for professional reviews and only a third snuck in unexpectedly… When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Seven of the books were by foreign writers, but six of those were by French writers. So perhaps I am swapping the comfort and familiarity of Anglo writers with Gallic ones?
Seven crime fiction novels. My top crime read of the month (which is linked up to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted by Mysteries in Paradise) was undoubtedly Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. A multi-layered story with real contemporary resonance. But Camille came close for the storytelling momentum, while Arab Jazz was excellent at showing us a less romaticised picture of Paris.
Anyway, next month will bring the huge, huge temptation that is Quais du Polar in Lyon. How can I possibly not impulse buy books and get them signed by so many wonderful authors? Wish me luck…
This is a bit early for a monthly reading update, but I seem to be currently stuck in three books which will take me through right to the end of January and beyond, so it is fair to say that the ten books below are the only ones I read through January.
My only New Year’s resolutions have been my reading challenges. I have signed up for three of them – how have I fared this month? Well, it’s a mixed picture, but I’m not quite ready to give up on my resolutions just yet.
1) Global Reading Challenge hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise: I’m making it easy on myself this year and opting for the Easy Level – one book from each of the 7 continents (Africa, Asia, Australasia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America, plus a new continent – Antarctica or a new threshold you are willing to pass – paranormal, historical, space, sea). The reason I have pulled back a little is because I want to choose really brand-new settings/authors, rather than falling back on my usual French/German/Scandinavian/South African staples. So, although I read 3 French books, 1 Japanese book, 1 German book, 1 Irish and 1 Swedish book and 1 ‘vampirish’ novel this month. I am reluctant to put any of them down as my European component. Because none of that would be new to me. Mission not accomplished. Have to do better next month!
2) January in Japan Challenge hosted by Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List. Not quite good enough. I only managed to finish one book: Kanae Minato’s Confessionsand am still in the midst of reading Natsume Sōseki’s last, unfinished novel Light and Dark. As for my ambition to read the new(ish) translation of Tales of Genji (Royall Tyler version): well, this will have to wait, but will hopefully be my epic undertaking for the year.
3) TBR Double Dog Dare hosted by James at James Reads Books. This is a last-ditch attempt to bring some order into the chaos which is my TBR pile – overflowing on shelves, on the floor and threatening to inundate my laptop and tablet as well. The aim is to not buy any new books until I have made a sizeable dent in my pile of ready and waiting books. With a little cheating. i.e. borrowing from libraries just before the holidays and last minute purchasing of books in 2014, I managed to do quite well with this challenge – victory!
The three library books I borrowed were all in French, so they don’t count, because it’s like work (improving my vocabulary, making the most of my current location etc. etc.) They were:
Patrick Modiano: L’Herbe des nuits
Given the blurb on the back, I was expecting more of a crime fiction type mystery, but it’s the usual Modiano fare about the reliability of memory, how well we really know people, trying to recapture the past and whether nostalgia really lives up to its name.
Jeanne Desaubry: Poubelle’s Girls
A touching Thelma and Louise type story of two women living on the margins of French society and the unlikely friendship which arises between them. A depressingly realistic story of the poor and downtrodden, but also quite funny, with fascinating, well-rounded characters and juicy dialogue.
Daniel Pennac: Comme un roman
An essay about the joys of reading and how schools, parents, teachers and book snobs are in danger of killing off the joys of reading for young people. Contains the famous Ten Comandments of Reading (or the Rights of the Reader)
1. Le droit de ne pas lire. The right to not read.
2. Le droit de sauter des pages. The right to skip pages
3. Le droit de ne pas finir un livre. The right to not finish a book.
4. Le droit de relire. The right to reread.
5. Le droit de lire n’importe quoi. The right to read whatever you please.
6. Le droit au bovarysme (maladie textuellement transmissible). The right to Bovaryism (textually transmitted disease).
7. Le droit de lire n’importe où. The right to read wherever you please.
8. Le droit de grappiller. The right to dip into books.
9. Le droit de lire à haute voix. The right to read out loud.
10. Le droit de se taire. The right to shut up.
The other books have all been from my existing shelves and most of them have been reviewed elsewhere:
Tana French: The Likeness – bought second-hand last year . My first, but certainly not my last Tana French book. Although the plot did seem implausible in places, I really enjoyed the engaging writing, poetic at times, and the genuine sadness of the failure of any idealistic community.
Lynn Shepherd: The Pierced Heart – ebook sent to me by the author in exchange for an honest review (having reviewed a previous book of hers). The vampire story for those who do not like vampire stories (which I don’t).
Jonas Karlsson: The Room – Netgalley ebook sent by publisher way back in November. A perfect modern fable about corporate life and the death of the imagination.
Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train – downloaded from Netgalley several months ago. The life of others always seems more attractive when we are making a mess of our own… and when we see them from a distance. A psychological thriller full of unreliable narrators and domestic claustrophobia.
Ferdinand von Schirach: The Girl Who Wasn’t There – copy sent by publisher for review on CFL. Not really a crime novel, more of a ‘coming of age’ story, plus a courtroom drama debating issues of justice, art, trial by media and much more – beautifully written.
The final book I read this month was Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I bought in the last few weeks of 2014 following the review by Jacqui. I had previously read the reviews by Tony and Bibliobio, but kept putting it off as far too depressing a subject. Then Jacqui gave me the final nudge. A very emotional read, engaging all your senses – abandon all rationality ye who enter this maelstrom! Will review in more depth shortly.
I’ve started the year in style and have done more reading than I would have thought possible. All the rain and darkness is paying off!
23 books – nearly as much as my best ever month, August 2013. Only this time I did have the children around. I must have locked them in a cupboard! (Only kidding: we often spent a cosy moment, all three of us on a sofa reading our separate books.)
Brenda Shaughnessy: Our Andromeda From playful to profound and moving, this book has it all. Additional claim to fame: had me in floods of tears while queuing at immigration counter in US.
Mahmoud Darwish: A River Dies of Thirst More of a diary and notebook rather than finished poems, this is one to savour, full of beautiful quotes and thoughts.
(Why do I not do book reviews of poetry? And why do I read so little poetry in book form? I do read lots of it on the internet, though.)
2 Non Fiction:
Christian McEwen: World Enough and Time On the importance of slowing down for the creative process – a must-have for my ‘Hurry Up’ and extreme multitasker personality.
Rachel Cusk: A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother Polemical, brutally honest, perhaps limited First World and middle class experience, but eminently relate-able. And, unexpectedly, very funny!
Claude Ragon: Du bois pour les cerceuils To such lows do we sink when we are on holiday and have run out of books! Picked it up because it was set in the Jura mountains (where I live), but it was tedious.
Phil Hogan: A Pleasure and a Calling Forthcoming. In one word: creepy.
Travelled to Boston, Bruges, the North Sea island of Sylt, Sarajevo, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Cambridge, the Dordogne, Somalia, Russia, Canada and Cuba, Kazakhstan, Glasgow, Palestine and several small fictional towns in South-East England. Oh, and the constellation of Andromeda!
However, although the lives of the four women working at a bento factory seemed grim and cheerless, that novel was saved by a certain degree of empathy that we could feel for the protagonists. ‘Grotesque’ is more challenging in that respect, because the characters are uniformly unlikable.
This has been advertised as a crime novel, but crime fiction lovers will barely recognise it as such. It follows none of the conventions of the genre, although it certainly shows a bleak outlook on life as a Japanese woman, so perhaps it could be called a noir of sorts. The novel is structured in eight parts and features four narrators, all equally unreliable. The comparison with Kurosawa’s Rashomon is perhaps inevitable, and, just like in the film, there are no clear answers as to whose account of events is to be trusted or whether the truth will ever be fully known.
The story revolves around the murder of two prostitutes in Tokyo less than a year apart. There is not much focus, however, on finding out who killed them. The murderer, a Chinese labourer called Zhang, has already been arrested and is about to go on trial. He has confessed to killing Yuriko but denies killing Kazue. There is a bit of a mystery about what happened to Kazue, but the main focus of the story is why these two women, who had attended an elite secondary school in Tokyo and seemed destined for promising futures, would end up as the lowliest of prostitutes on the streets of Shibuya.
The unnamed main narrator also attended the same school as the murdered women. In fact, she is a classmate of classmate of Kazue and the older sister of the glamorous Yuriko. Yuriko and her sister are ‘halfs’, i.e. the product of a mixed marriage. Their father is a Swiss importer of cheap sweets, their mother a Japanese who felt compelled to pander to her husband’s desire for a Polish sauerkraut specialty called bigos, although she hated making it. Yuriko was blessed with almost eerily good looks, but her sister is average at best. Sibling rivalry is a factor in this disturbing psychological study of envy and bitterness, but it is about much more than that. The snobbishness and bullying at the girls’ school and the excessive competitiveness of the Japanese educational system are described with an immediacy which made my stomach turn. The scene with the hand-embroidered Ralph Lauren logo on the socks will stick in my mind for a long time.
While the book offers no explanation for the women’s descent into prostitution, there are numerous chilling descriptions of discrimination against women both in the workplace, as well as the callousness of relationships between men and women (not only the predilection of Japanese men, as the author shows us by introducing a number of domineering and ruthless foreign male characters). The women in the novel have resorted to manipulating their bodies, men and each other in an effort to regain control over their lives, in an effort to become or at least feel important and real.
The results are perhaps too painful and grotesque for this reader to sympathise with: I could feel only horrified pity, rather like watching a Greek tragedy or a traffic accident unfold. Yet the author has a deliberately unemphatic style of cold, factual description. Even the graphic scenes of violence or sex do not display colourful fireworks, but instead hint at the profound bitterness of human emotion. This makes the story perhaps even more devastating, and I can see why her ‘flat’ style has been described as feminist noir. It is difficult to make judgements about her style, however, based on translations, especially when much of her novel has been edited and cut for the purposes of Western consumption (and to allow it to be marketed as crime fiction). For a detailed discussion of the problems of translation, I found this thesis by a student at the University of Oslo truly enlightening.
So, all in all, a bleak novel, with very little hope or humour to redeem it, but a fascinating insight into the darkness beneath the picture-book prettiness of Japan. I would recommend reading it when you have a very strong stomach and/or nerves.
Or maybe it should be called Trying to Bring Some Order to the Madness. With all of these inspiring end of year book lists, I just keep adding and adding to my TBR pile. More frighteningly, I keep adding to my purchases for both the physical and the virtual bookshelves, which will make next year’s challenge of reading them all soooo much harder.
Still, I am trying to combine the 3 main challenges I have set myself: I am buying or have already bought lots of German and Japanese books. So here are some of the delights currently waiting patiently for me or flying on wings of Christmas joy towards me:
Keigo Higashino: The Devotion of Suspect X
Ryu Murakami: Audition
Natsuo Kirino: Grotesque
Haruki Murakami: Kafka on the Shore
Fuminori Nakamura: The Thief
Fumiko Enchi: The Waiting Years
Minae Mizumura: A True Novel
I miss those days when I would be able to read Japanese novels in the original. [Although always with a Kanji dictionary to hand. I remember our colleagues studying English, French, Italian or Spanish at university would laugh at us for having to use a dictionary to read even the shortest novel.] I now have to rely on translations and there are very few available, even of the classics. I miss my collection of Kawabata, Mishima, Dazai Osamu etc. They are all safely boxed up in an attic in the Thames Valley. Maybe rereading them could be my challenge for 2016 or whenever we move back to the UK?
Stefan Zweig: Meisternovellen
Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten
Irena Brezna: Die undankbare Fremde
Edda Ziegler: Verboten Verfemt Vertrieben
Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink
Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time
I also have a few crime novels in the mix. I’ll be rereading Jakob Arjouni and hope to read his last novel ‘Brother Kemal’, published posthumously this year. I also want to explore the writer Sebastian Fitzek, who writes breathtaking psychological thrillers, and is beginning to make a name for himself beyond the German-speaking world.
I would love to ask for more suggestions, but am afraid that I might succumb to temptation… The Calvinist spirit of self-denial does not enter my soul when it comes to books (or desserts).
Instead, I will ask if you have read any of the Japanese or German writers on my list and what you think of them. And, if you haven’t, maybe you want to join me in the challenge and we can discuss them together?
Just to put you in the mood for Japan and its literature, I have included some pictures of the Christmas/New Year lights in Tokyo.
2013 was the first year I joined in any online challenges and I am very pleased I did so. You sometimes need that extra little push or public commitment to go beyond the borders of your little world (or at least, I do).
So, how did I do?
I completed Kerrie’s Global Reading Challenge, which this year was still hosted on her Mysteries in Paradise website. Kerrie herself is a fantastic resource of information about crime fiction not just from Down Under, but worldwide, and I have learnt so much from the enthusiastic fellow participants in the challenge.
I completed the Medium Level of the Challenge, which meant two books from each of the six geographical continents, plus a seventh continent which could be a realm of fantasy or Antarctica or something you haven’t tried before. Here are the books I chose (quite different from the list I had originally planned, subject to availability and mood).
All in all, a fantastic challenge: it may sound cliché, but it really opened up a whole new world to me. I’ve always enjoyed travelling and reading about local atmosphere and customs in books, so these took me to places I may not have visited otherwise. There was only one book I really didn’t like (The Historian) and one which I found average (Mean Woman Blues). All of the others were good to excellent. I discovered writers that I am most certainly going to read more of (Louise Penny, John Burdett, Garcia-Roza, Michael Stanley).
My favourite discovery was the unparalleled king of the Mediterranean Noir: Jean-Claude Izzo, who completely transported me to the world of Marseille and got me listening to its music.
Until recently, I did not believe I had completed the Reading in Translation Challenge – or rather, I felt I had not reviewed enough books for it. Of course, I could have entered the same books for both challenges: Deon Meyer, Ōsaka Gō, Garcia-Roza and Padura would all have qualified. And I did read and review some other excellent works, such as The Mussel Feast, A Man in Love, A Crack in the Wall or Pietr the Latvian. So, in the end, I think I will consider that challenge complete too. Thank you, Curiosity Killed the Bookworm for enticing me to do it!
What challenges am I participating in for 2014? I would like to continue with both of the above challenges, but this time limit it to 1 book for each continent for the Global Reading Challenge and 6 books of translated literary fiction (rather than crime fiction, however much I love it). The reason I am being modest in this respect is because I am introducing two major challenges of my own:
1) The Clear My Physical and Virtual Bookshelves Challenge (CMPVBC – catchy title!) – as of today, I have 56 books on my Kindle, 21 on my shelves, and 8 on my laptop, all waiting for me. So that brings my target up to 85 before I have even taken a step.
2) The ‘My Favourite Countries’ Focus – I used to love reading books in German and Japanese, while Brazil is my favourite country. I want to reignite that passion and catch up with the best of contemporary writing from these countries. I have no upper target, but I would like to read at least 3 books from each of these countries). I already have a few on my shelves: Arjouni, Zweig, Bernhard Schlink, but am constantly coming up with great new suggestions from outstanding bloggers such as Tony Malone, Simon Savidge, Dolce Bellezza, Words and Peace and Jackie at Farm Lane Books, to name but a few who inspire me.
It’s not yet that time of year to make my ‘definitive book list’. I like to leave it until the last 2-3 days of the year, just in case that world-shattering read comes along at the last minute. However, Goodreads is congratulating me that I have reached my (upwardly revised) reading goal of 140 books for the year, so I had to celebrate.
Statistics: Want cold hard figures? Look no further. 140 read and a few more to squeeze in before December 31st (not enough to claim 150, though). 10 books a month on average (childless and workless August was the personal record with 27, but there were quite a few months with just 5-6). A respectable reading speed of 2.5 days per book, with some devoured in a single day (or night).
Challenges Completed: The Global Reading Challenge (for crime fiction), with two books for each continent, including a wildcard 7th continent – excellent for broadening my palate. Sadly, I was unable to complete the Translation Challenge – which sounds crazy when you look at the 27 translated titles on my list. However, most of them were crime fiction for review, and of the remaining there was only a small handful I reviewed or mentioned in any detail. So that doesn’t count. I did manage to read roughly one French book per month (in French) – my personal Holy Grail, as I try to improve my vocabulary. Sadly, literary works do not seem to equip you with the right words for dealing with tax offices or other bureaucracy. Perhaps I should stick to the swear words in the BD?
Lessons Learnt: What would I forget, borrow and learn from this year’s reading and take forward to next year’s reading?
1) When you set yourself such a high target, re-reading goes out the window. I would like more time to revisit old favourites.
2) You become cynical and less patient about clichés – and you have no qualms about abandoning a book if it still doesn’t move you after 50 pages.
3) Whether you sign up for a challenge formally or not, it is such a good idea to broaden your horizons and try out new things in literature. Some won’t work, but some will and then you have the pleasure of entering a whole new realm you had previously sealed off.
4) Although I always have 4-5 books on the go at any point in time, this simultaneity is a bit of a myth. I cannot enter, exit and parachute into other worlds quite so easily. I may not be in the mood for the same book during the day or in the evening, though, so having a couple on your bedside table makes sense. I usually alternate between a paperback and an e-book.
5) I must NOT buy any more books until I read all those I bought this past year. In 2014 I need to be ruthless about reading the books I have, instead of always reaching out for new ones at the library. I have 50 on my Kindle, 20 on my shelf and 8 on my laptop waiting to be read. And I suspect there will be many more ARC to review for Crime Fiction Lover too. Plus I have a few challenges of my own up my sleeve (am thinking of reigniting my passion for Japanese and German literature).
And now I have a goal of 140 to beat in the New Year…
Hello again, everyone, and thank you for not forgetting about me completely during my looooong absence, reinforced by lack of internet, laptop, place or time to call my own (writing time giving way to family time).
2013 is announcing itself as a very busy year professionally and personally, so finding the time to write will be even more of a challenge than usual. Yet, despite that, reading must and will happen. And not just random reading – I do believe in challenging myself and going beyond my old comfort friends. So I am signing up to the Global Reading Challenge as outlined by the avid reader and fantastic host Kerri of Mysteries in Paradise.
I am signing up for the Medium Challenge, which means reading two books from each of the continents, defined here as Africa, Asia, Australasia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America and a Seventh Continent, which could be Antarctica, or an unfamiliar setting, such as the sea, space, a supernatural/paranormal world, history, the future etc. So fourteen books for the year – doesn’t sound like much, but when you add all the familiar reading, rereading, ARC for reviews and all that, it becomes a little less of a sure winner…
So that is my challenge, instead of New Year’s Resolutions. What goals are you setting yourself, either for your reading or your writing? Or personally? And what is your opinion of New Year resolutions?