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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It’s my party and I’ll buy if I want to…

My birthday month, my right to buy books!

In fact, they’ve been creeping up on me for a while now and the ones I got in Berlin (pretext: much cheaper to get them directly there than to pay for P&P) were just one of many slippery slopes. First there was a slip of the foot as I entered the Waterstones Gower Street on the way home.

Second hand bijou:

I remember my mother’s generation (all of my friends’ mothers too) were reading (alongside The Thorn Birds) the Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche (who, it turns out, is a woman rather than a man). A bit of Canadian history and family saga, something very unlike what I would usually read, so why not push the boundaries and see what all the fuss was about?

Jessa Crispin is perhaps better known as the Bookslut (although that book blog has closed down now). I’m somewhat ambiguous about her most recent book against what she calls ‘lifestyle feminism’, which has become indistinguishable from white capitalist privilege. I agree with many of her points, but find it strangely de-contextualised, as if she hasn’t read any other feminist texts which address many similar issues. However, this book The Dead Ladies Project sounds interesting, even though I’m not usually of the self-discovery as a book project school of thinking, because the author travels through Europe in the footsteps of women writers as exiles, expats, and exploring ex-countries.

New acquisitions:

I picked up Breton’s Nadja, which I read in my teens, to see how I might feel about it nowadays, and because it was quoted by Joanna Walsh in Break.Up. I’d meant to get The Sorrows of Mexico at Hay Festival, because I saw the editor speaking there, but better late than never. I couldn’t resist the last instalment of Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, which somehow resonates with me, forever the anthropological observer. I heard so much about Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers and am never immune to that subject. Last but not least, I’m still not over my Hamilton fixation, so I thought I’d attempt to read the biography that started it all.

Arrived too late for a group photo: Rhode Island Red by Charlotte Carter, an almost forgotten book about a young black woman playing jazz saxophone on the streets of New York and casually solving crimes alongside. Two late additions which have not arrived yet but will also fall in my birthday indulgence (and after that I stop! I promise!): Josephine Corcoran’s debut poetry collection What Are You After from Nine Arches Press and Lucy Fricke’s Töchter (Daughters) about taking a terminally father to Switzerland and then travelling on, trying to make sense of life, loss, middle-age and female friendships. It came highly recommended by a German blogger I trust, Cafehaussitzer (Uwe Kalkowski), but I only read it after my trip to Berlin, so had to order online…

 

WWWednesday: What are you reading on 13 June 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.

Current:

For review:

Carol Fenlon: Mere

Not ‘mere’ as in ‘mother’ but as in Windermere, it is a cross-genre novel set in rural Lancashire. Part family story, part crime, with elements of ghost story, it is about the destruction of the landscape, death of farming and the revenge of nature as well as about the human beings living there.

For leisure:

Ali Smith: Autumn – progress on this one has been slow, as I put it down to read something else and haven’t really returned to it. I rather like it, but clearly it does not grip me.

Finished:

For review:

John Berger: G.

Winner of the Booker Prize in 1972, I’ll be doing a brief write-up of it for Shiny New Books Golden Booker special. It will never be a popular or highly readable book, but I found this retelling of Casanova or Don Juan set at the turn of the 19th to 20th century a lot more fun than I expected.

For leisure:

Marian Keyes: The Break

I was in the mood for a little mid-life crisis and man-bashing, and Keyes is always brilliant at observing couples or parent-child dynamics. However, it did feel rather long and unedited, a bit self-indulgent for both the writer and the reader.

Next:

For David Bowie Book Club:

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason – halfway through June and I still haven’t read the choice for May – don’t know why I hesitate about picking up this book, perhaps fear that it will make me rant about politics once more?

For leisure (and next on my #20booksofsummer list):

Belinda Bauer: Snap

Not sure if maternal abandonment is a subject that will cheer me up, but at least this book should have me reading well into the night, knowing the author. Not many books have done that lately!

 

#20BooksofSummer: Sicilian Lions, Single Mums and Lots of Books

It’s been a very busy, tiring and emotionally draining start to June, so I eased myself into the #20booksofsummer with some lighter reads.

Mario Giordano: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, transl. John Brownjohn

Not perhaps the most exciting or coherent of investigations, a lot of the detective work relies on coincidence or sheer nosiness, and there is something rather implausible and artificial about the whole story within a story set-up (narrated by the Auntie’s nephew, but as it is told to him by the woman herself). Nevertheless, this is a charming cosy crime caper set on the beautiful island of Sicily, stuffed to the gills with comic characters, some of them loud and obnoxious ones, others more than a little shady. And Auntie Poldi bridges the gap between Italian and German culture beautifully: an independent, candid woman with a passion for uniform and a lust for life that I can only hope I will have when I get to her age.

Janet Hoggarth: The Single Mums’ Mansion

This was not quite the fun read I was expecting and when I heard about the origin of the book as a blog about a difficult divorce, it made perfect sense. There is a lot of bitterness and genuine sadness mixed in amongst the obligatory chick lit references: drinking and taking some recreational drugs, lusting after men, supportive female friends and some silly mistakes as they finally move on from the broken wreckage. There were at least two things that annoyed me about this book: the unrealistic way in which these women didn’t seem to have to worry about money, feeding and clothing their children or losing their houses (OK, one of them moves in with the main character for a while, but few of my friends have houses big enough to take anyone else in). And yet they all seemed to have freelance jobs that don’t pay that well: photographer, writer, yoga instructor…

Secondly, none of them seemed to have any other interests other than getting drunk or laid.  Granted, it’s not easy to go out when you have three small children – so why not make the going out count? Or am I the only one who’d far rather have gone to a show or exhibition or a salsa class instead of drowning my sorrows in some expensive bar? Or is that the age difference talking?

Lucy Mangan: Bookworm

Not a systematic discussion of children’s literature, but simply an idiosyncratic and very personal memoir of the books she grew up with. I seem to be of a similar generation to her, as there is a considerable overlap of our books. Lucy Mangan is witty and charming, but you can’t help but notice quite a gap in her reading culture (probably not through any fault of her own, but simply a reflection of how little else was available in English at the time). She mentions Struwelpeter (giving her nightmares) and the colonial excesses of Babar, but no Moomins, no Asterix and Obelix, no Little Prince, no Pippi Longstocking, no Robber Hotzenplotz… It makes me realise how lucky I was to grow up with 3-4 languages and cultures all around me (and many more influences). She admits she was not a very adventurous reader, that she liked her world to be contained and safe, but there was something just ever so slightly too nostalgic about Enid Blyton and P. G. Wodehouse which didn’t sit comfortably with me. And yet there was so much about her account of growing up bookish that I could relate to…

I think for the next batch of #20books I might need to turn my attention to those that have been on my Netgalley shelf for a long, long time.

 

Reading, Borrowing and Buying Update

You might think that after my splurge last week at Hay on Wye, I would be more careful about buying books. Well, you would think wrong, although that’s only because I received an Amazon voucher which made Homer’s Odyssey in the translation of Emily Wilson affordable (I’d been waiting for it to come out in paperback but was really, really keen to read it.) And, once that purchase was made, the dam was broken and a lot more books starting gushing out.

You may have seen Salt Publishing’s appeal on Twitter #JustOneBook, asking their fans to buy just one book from them as they were on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, however you feel about their sudden closure of their poetry section (I have a few poet friends who were upset about the way they did it), I still want independent publishers to survive, as they are the ones who give us that much-needed variety and more experimental works. So I bought The Black Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce – anything but cheery. Then that pesky Anthony from Times Flow Stemmed mentioned Jane Bowles, so I had to track down a second-hand copy of Two Serious Ladies. I also happened to pop into the vintage Penguin section of Waterstones Gower Street and found one of my favourite Ngaio Marshes Artists in Crime, plus The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson. This latter author had been mentioned and reviewed recently by Ali, and you know what a weakling I am when it comes to your recommendations.

Other books arrived by prior appointment. Asymptote Book Club’s May offer was Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan from China – I’m a great fan of both Chinese literature and families (and bean paste, although I prefer it in my desserts usually), so this is a must-read-next. For review, I received a Greek book (perfect description of the surreal post-crisis Athens and homeless lifestyle) Baby Blue by Pol Koutsakis from Bitter Lemon Press. By way of contrast, I also received a noir novel set in rural Lancashire, Mere by Carol Fenlon, from Thunderpoint Publishing. In electronic format I received two jet-setter books (crime with an international setting) Return to Hiroshima by Belgian author Bob van Laerhoven and Dead in the Water by Simon Bower. Last but by no means least, I couldn’t resist getting Roxanne Bouchard’s We were the Salt of the Sea, because: Quebec, Orenda Books, special offer on Kindle!

In terms of borrowing, I’ve reserved Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot at my local library, but will only get to read them after the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner has been announced.

And for my #20booksofsummer update, I’ve taken just 2 days to read the delightfully sunny Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by German author (of Italian origin) Mario Giordano. It’s like an expat version of Camilleri’s Montalbano, but with a feisty middle-aged woman as the main protagonist. 1 down, 19 to go! Next one I am already halfway through is The Single Mums’ Mansion, which I thought would also be lovely comedic escapism. But alas, it’s a little too much about divorce and bad behaviours, so may not be the best escapism in my current situation!

Joining in #20BooksofSummer

It’s not the first time I join in the 20 Books of Summer challenge hosted by Cathy. But I may have slipped and not been 100% successful in the past, as it’s so hard to commit to books, when there are so many other exciting ones peeking at you. (My book monogamy is a movable feast.) Still, in theory, it’s possible to read those 20 plus a few others. After all, it’s 94 days, so exactly 3 months.

I am going to attempt something unusual this year: namely, to have all 20 books from my Netgalley list, because I am only at 59% review rate and it’s embarrassing! I do have an excuse for that, as I received so many physical copies to review lately, plus my previous Kindle broke down and then I lost the other one, so it took a while to replace. So I have a mix of old and new books, some have been lingering on my shelf (now archive) for years. Besides, it’s easier to carry the light Kindle in my backpack on the train alongside my laptop and packed lunch!

Here are my mountain of 20 books to be climbed:

Crime (because I have a lot of those and these look fun and summery)

  1. Mario Giordano: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
  2. Belinda Bauer: Snap
  3. Zygmunt Miloszewski: Priceless
  4. Derek B. Miller: American by Day
  5. Rachel Rhys: A Dangerous Crossing

Women in Translation Month (because there aren’t nearly enough of these on Netgalley)

  1. Muriel Barbery: Life of Elves
  2. Virginie Despentes: Vernon Subutex
  3. Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream
  4. Kanae Minato: Penance
  5. Xialu Guo: Once Upon a Time in the East

More Women Writers (and across different genres)

  1. Aminatta Forna: Happiness
  2. Janet Hogarth: The Single Mums’ Mansion
  3. Lucy Mangan: Bookworm
  4. Louise O’Neill: Asking for It
  5. Nell Zink: Nicotine

The Oldest on My Netgalley Shelf 

  1. Philip Hensher: The Emperor Waltz (2014)
  2. Essential Poems by 10 American Poets (2015)
  3. Malcolm Mackay: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter (2015)
  4. Sarah Leipciger: The Mountain Can Wait (2015)
  5. Patrick Modiano: After the Circus (2016)

 

You bought HOW many books at #HayFestival?

Call it ostrich behaviour or making hay before the financial crisis beckons, but I bought quite a large number of books at the Hay Festival. This is what comes of not having any second-hand bookshops in our local area (most of the ones I bought were second-hand, a bargain at £3 apiece). Of course, that shimmering, glimmering possibility of getting books signed also influenced my new book purchases. And I would have bought more, if the authors would have been available in translation (maybe next year).

The shiny new signed books.

The Bogota 39 panels heavily influenced me and my buying, and opened me up completely to Spanish Language literature (of which I sadly know all too little): Carlos Fonseca, Liliana Colanzi, Laia Jufresa, Lina Meruane and Juan Gabriel Vasquez are all associated with Bogota 39 past or present, while Javier Cercas was already known to me via The Soldiers of Salamis. I was also very impressed with the very candid assessments of contemporary British society via memoir/essays and poetry of Akala and Kayo Chingonyi respectively. I also bought Joanna Walsh’s first novel, although she was not there (yet) to sign it.

The second-hand buys were more impulse buys of authors that I’d previously enjoyed or books that I wanted to try but didn’t feel I could afford the full price.

In the first category, we have:

  • Lauren Beukes: Zoo City – a delicious mash-up of genres, Lauren writes books that always leave me feeling breathless and exhilarated
  • W. G. Sebald: Austerlitz – although his The Emigrants is probably one of my favourite books, I haven’t actually read this one
  • Carol Shields: Mary Swann – I was familiar with her poetry and The Stone Diaries, but this obscure little book is one I’ve never heard of
  • Bohumil Hrabal: The Little Town Where Time Stood Still – less well known than his two short masterpieces Too Loud a Solitude and  Closely Observed Trains, this portrayal of small-town Bohemia between the two world wars certainly promises to be witty, satirical and brilliantly observed by a writer who never bores me
  • Penelope Fitzgerald – a collection of three of her novels, two of my favourites plus one I haven’t read yet: The Bookshop, The Blue Flower and The Gate of Angels.
  • Laura Kasischke: Be Mine – I love Laura as a poet and thought her novel Mind of Winter was very unsettling and atmospheric
  • Mario Vargas Llosa: The Bad Girl – I’ve loved many of his works and disliked others, but I thought it would be fun to compare the older generation of Latin American writers with the younger generation
  • Stevie Smith: Over the Frontier – another novel by a poet (do I detect a theme her?). From the blurb, it sounds quite unlike her usual stuff.

For my children I bought The Three Musketeers (although I hope they will also read it in the original) and Holes by Louis Sachar – an old and a new classic.

As for books I thought I would give a whirl, given the cheap price:

  • Mary Shelley: Frankenstein 1818 text with critical notes. A must after attending the Living Frankenstein event last week.
  • Meg Wolitzer: The Interestings
  • Kent Haruf: Plainsong
  • Radclyffe Hall: The Unlit Lamp
  • Elizabeth von Arnim: Love – I’ve read of course her two best-known books, but this story of an older woman and a younger man has passed me by – plus it’s a Virago Green cover!
  • Alaa Al Aswany: The Yacoubian Building – always comes highly recommended when I ask about Egyptian literature
  • Carlos Ruis Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind – because it features a library, what more could you want?

Now the big question is: how to get these books off the floor and onto my already double-packed shelves?