13 books this month. Not surprising that a certain proportion of them were women in translation, given that it is #WITMonth, but I also felt tempted to read more women in general, which is reflected in the ratio of women to men: 8 women, 5 men this month. I was also keen to read more foreign authors in general: 11 are either in another language or in translation. My favourite genre remains crime fiction, obviously, with no less than 7 books in this area, but I have also read short stories, diaries and essays this month.
Women in Translation – done a good job of reviewing nearly everything
I only get around to doing it approximately 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.
From being a very dark, existentialist writer, Finnish author Tuomainen has evolved to become one of the funniest noir writers around – yes, black humour, sometimes even slapstick. The thought of Finland’s beaches becoming the next hot tourist destination doesn’t seem so far-fetched this long hot summer, the writing is sharp and there are plenty of dead bodies, but also inept criminals, entrepreneurs who’ve seen too much Baywatch and groaningly recognisable house renovation situations to keep you entertained along the way.
Marina Tsvetaeva: Moscow Diaries 1917-22
How do you stay sane when the world you knew is collapsing around you, when you are struggling to survive and feed your children, when there seems to be no point in producing literature anymore?
Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk
Asymptote Book Club title for July was perfectly timed to arrive just before #WITMonth. Gustavo, a former school principal and university lecturer, is ‘downsizing’. The family house is being sold and he is moving out of Sao Paolo. As he goes through the paperwork, old memories resurface: of his family, his friendships, his pedagogical beliefs and how all of these fared under the military junta in Brazil. I’m planning to review this one very shortly, perhaps tomorrow.
I’ve got a craving to read something in a different language. I’ve recently finished reading a German book (which will also be reviewed shortly for #WITMonth), but I’d like to settle down with a French one. I’ve got a Veronique Olmi that I haven’t touched yet, or some Swiss Romande authors.
And Melissa Beck, classicist and avid reader, who blogs as The Bookbinder’s Daughter, has very nearly convinced me I should The Brothers Karamazov another go. This is my lasting shame: I love Dostoevsky and yet I’ve never been able to finish this book. Perhaps a different translation might do the trick. Fifth time lucky? It really gets going after the first 500 pages or so, I understand.
Only 10 books this month (of which two were flash fiction collections, so much easier to read in bits and pieces). I’ve really struggled to read, and I’m not quite sure if it was because I was busy and tired, or going out too much, or just too hot to be able to concentrate properly.
6 written by women, one anthology, and 3 written by men. 3 in translation. Penance and Vernon Subutex were the only two of #20booksofsummer which I read this month, which means that I am only up to 6 out of 20. It’s not going to happen, is it?
I don’t know if my lack of reading enthusiasm influenced my appreciation of the books, or whether the lack of brilliant books led to a slump in my reading, but I have a confession to make. Quite a few of the books were not particularly exciting – mildly disappointing, in fact. I expected more, for instance, from Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends but overall I thought it pretty average, while Home Fire was reasonably good but didn’t bowl me over for all its prize winning.Vernon Subutexwas the most disappointing, simply because I have high expectations of Virginie Despentes and have enjoyed her provocative, satirical writing in the past.
However, there were also some successes. I really liked Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Tidings of the Treesand Hometown, Carrie Etter’s collection of flash fiction dedicated to typical small-town America and life lived at its more precarious margins. I discovered the first thanks to Asymptote Book Club and the latter thanks to the Flash Fiction Festival. Which just goes to show that sometimes you need to allow someone knowledgeable to guide you into a new reading direction rather than rely on your favourite genres or media recommendations. American by Day was a fun crime read, contrasting Norwegian and American cultures and policing styles, although the mystery part of it was perhaps not really all that mysterious or satisfactory.
I’ve got some excellent books lined up for Women in Translation month though, all of which I have just recently received in the post:
Gine Cornelia Pedersen: Zero, transl. Rosie Hedger (which the translator very kindly sent to me) is the story of a young girl with mental health problems and has been described as ‘punk rock’
Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, transl. Peter Bush – a collection of dark, crime-seeped stories set in Solana’s native Barcelona (thanks to publisher Bitter Lemon Press)
Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates – 2nd book in the series about a single mother trying to escape her drug-mule past (thank you to Orenda Books)
Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris – powerful story about people caught up in Brazil’s military dictatorship (Asymptote Book Club’s July title)
Marina Tsvetaeva: Moscow Diaries 1917-1922, transl. Jamey Gambrell – diaries and essays written by one of my favourite poets during one of the most turbulent periods in Russian history (taking advantage of NYRB book sale)
Lucy Fricke: Töchter (Daughters) – two middle-aged friends take the seriously ill father of one of them to a Swiss clinic, but things don’t quite turn out as planned. Described as a sort of Thelma and Louise road trip, it’s supposed to be both hilarious and thoughtful, and was recommended by a couple of my favourite German book bloggers.
Other books for August will be all the ones I have to review (a long, long list, as I’ve been even more lax in my reviewing than in my reading): Michael Stanley: Dead of Night; Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland; Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources; Roberto Saviano: The Piranhas. I also have three library books that I would really like to finally get around to reading, although I’ve renewed them repeatedly: Romain Gary; Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats; Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility (Essays on Exile and Language).
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.]
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):
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.