Time to Read What I’ve Got

Today I was  late returning books to one of the multiple libraries in our area.  Yes, late again and once more (this never used to happen to me pre-children, I assure you!).  After apologising profusely and being excused my fine (French librarians are kind like that), I eyed the shelves greedily for my next ‘fix’.  Reading is a heavy addiction, and I did find something new to try out and experiment.

When I got home, though, I began to wonder why I borrow more and more books from the library, which I never have a hope in heaven, earth and hell to finish on time (especially when it’s in French)… when I have a pile of books at home, on my shelves and on my Kindle, patiently waiting to be noticed.

When I started counting them, I was shocked.  What have I been up to?  While I’ve been busy receiving books for review from publishers (I’m not counting those at all for now), I’ve also been steadily adding to my To Be Read list. Eight paperbacks, six on my tablet, 14 on my husband’s Kindle and one on my laptop.  That’s 29 books in all – enough to see me through till the end of the year, pretty much.  And I’m not even looking at the massive tomes of Maigret and Proust, which fall officially into the ‘would like to reread’ bucket.

Right, that’s me sorted for the next year or so.  Pray excuse me, while I see a man about a new pair of glasses…  and a better reading light… mutter… mutter…

And, just to be contrary, here are some inspirational libraries, both public and private, just for the joy of it.  Not that I plan visiting any of them any time soon. Promise! 

University of Aberdeen Library, Photo credit: Gordon M. Robertson
University of Aberdeen Library, Photo credit: Gordon M. Robertson
Chateau de Groussay. Bookmania.me
Chateau de Groussay. Bookmania.me
Peabody Library, Baltimore. Funonthenet.in
Peabody Library, Baltimore. Funonthenet.in
Wirtschaftsuni, Wien. Photo credit: Paulo Budroni.
Wirtschaftsuni, Wien. Photo credit: Paulo Budroni.

Not sure what is going to happen with this wonderful building, as the Business University of Vienna has just moved to a new campus over the summer.

Best Read of the Month: May

This past month has been  more diverse than most in terms of reading.  I have managed to finish 12 books, of which only 7 were officially crime fiction, 4 were love stories (of a sort) and one was non-fiction but proved to be a more exciting and unbelievable read than any fiction.  Two of them were in French, which makes me want to do a little dance of joy.  My goal has been to read at least one book in French every month, preferably two, so as to improve my language skills, but I am sure there have been many, many times when I have failed in this mission.  Finally, three of them were translations: one from Danish and two from Hebrew.

1) Sophie Hannah: The Carrier.  Some of Sophie Hannah’s earlier books gripped me completely: it felt as though the author had been in my head and uncovered my most hidden thoughts.  She always seems to set the reader up with an impossible puzzle, yet solves them with flourish, keen psychological finesse and not a little poetic vision.  Although this was not my favourite of Hannah’s novels, it is still a good read, although perhaps not at an airport when your flight is delayed…  For my full review on Crime Fiction Lover, see here.

Dicker2) Joel Dicker: La Verite sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert.   Having seen and heard the author at the Lyon Crime Festival, and having seen how many awards and accolades have been heaped upon this book in the French-speaking world, I was naturally curious to read it. Well, it’s an easy-to-read, quite exciting story, with reasonable plot twists along the way, but I am puzzled as to why it has won all those awards, since it feels good but not outstanding to me. The setting is a small town in the United States, and there is nothing remotely French or Swiss about this book.  There are a few cliche situations and characters, but the simple, even pedestrian language appealed to me as a non-native speaker of French.

3) Amos Oz: To Know a Woman.   Perhaps not my favourite book by Oz, but he still is such a magnificent writer. He takes a widower’s story of loss and grieving, and turns it into a universal tale of love, reassessment of one’s life, trying to truly understand another person, moving on. He piles on detail after detail (about Yoel’s daily routines, his gardening, his cooking, his thoughts, his travels) and each adds a layer, but you feel that the depth really lies in what is unsaid.

Tokyo host4) Jonelle Patrick: Fallen Angel: An Only in Tokyo Mystery

Once again, the full review is here, but this is an intriguing insight into the world of Japanese nightlife and host clubs, written by someone who knows Tokyo rather well but still brings an external perspective to things.

5) Alan Glynn: Graveland.    Not quite as enthralling as his previous novel Bloodland, perhaps because this one takes place all in the US, rather than Ireland or the Congo. It certainly feels very topical, dealing with unemployment, young protesters and the shadowy world of finance and corporations. I found the excessive amounts of web searching a little tedious, and the investigative journalist Ellen never quite grabbed my attention.  However, the character of Frank, former architect now working as a sales assistant in an electronics store, and worried about his daughter in college, was quite moving.

6) Benjamin Tammuz: Minotaur.    The principle of the story is similar to Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’: you get to see an unusual love story from multiple points of view, until you are able to discern what really happened and how each player in the drama justifies matters. I read this in one breathless go, but it is actually a book to be savoured slowly. It has so many beautiful passages and philosophical meditations on love, passion in life, music and fear of the unknown. It is a thriller, a love story, a history of Palestine, a hymn to the Levantine spirit, a noir.

7) Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers.     This book deserves an entry of its own: it is the book I wish I could have written, as an anthropologist, yet it reads like a novel.  Except that all of the events described are real.  It is the heartbreaking story of everyday life, hopes, fears and disappointments of slum life in Mumbai.  One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.

Cover of "The Concrete Blonde (Harry Bosc...
Cover of The Concrete Blonde (Harry Bosch)

8) Michael Connelly: The Concrete Blonde.      A mix of courtroom drama, police procedural and serial killer novel, this is a solid entry in the Harry Bosch series, with an interesting backdrop of LA after the racial riots.

9) Meg Wolitzer: The Uncoupling.     I actually left this book behind me (once I finished it) in a hotel room.  I was that sure that I would never want to read it again. Although I found this story of disintegrating love and familiarity breeding contempt quite compelling.  I think all of us women have experienced some of those sentiments at one time or another.  However, the fable element of the story and the supposedly magic spells that descends upon all the women in the New Jersey suburbs was a little annoying and artificial, especially the ending. When it stuck to the mundane, there were many funny moments in the book. It is all at once a sharply observed, witty look at modern life in the suburbs, and a universal statement about the relationship between men and women, the way they misunderstand each other and mistreat each other, even unintentionally.

10) Massimo Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day – to be reviewed next week

11) Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard – to be reviewed next week

Français : L'auteur danois Jens Christian Grøn...
Français : L’auteur danois Jens Christian Grøndahl au Salon du livre de Paris lors de la conférence La société, source d’inspiration. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

12) Jens Christian Grondahl: Piazza Bucarest

This was an impulse loan from the library, as I stumbled across it while searching for something else, and I couldn’t resist the blurb.  The narrator tries to find Elena, a young Romanian woman who married his stepfather to escape from Communism and then abandoned him.  Sadly, the book was a disappointment, and not just because the woman was unsympathetic (or because we Romanian women cannot take a bit of criticism).  I was never quite sure what the author was trying to say or what the point of the whole thing was.  Maybe the fact that I read a French translation of the original Danish didn’t help much either – it’s like trying to see a landscape through a doubly opaque window.

My top read of this month (and many other months) is undoubtedly ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’, and my favourite crime fiction pick?  Hmmm, that’s a tricky choice, as there were quite a few good ones, although nothing exceptional.  I think it’s a tie between ‘The Concrete Blonde’ and ‘At the End of a Dull Day’.  Both rather macho reads, though, so I need something more feminine next month to compensate.

So I have covered quite a few of my reading challenge requirements.  Although, don’t you find that, as soon as you near the goalposts of a challenge you set for yourself, you start moving them about? Taking them just a little further? Demanding just a tad more of yourself? Fearful of missing out on something?  

All the Possibilities in the World…

San Diego City College Learing Recource City r...
San Diego City College Learing Recource City retrieve a book (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It doesn’t happen often anymore.  Yet I need it, it’s like a tonic.

I now read so many books for reviewing purposes, or for my reading challenges, that I don’t often have this luxury.  But I should occasionally escape the tyranny of my TBR list and do this more often.

Besides, I usually have two or three books on the go at the same time, so it’s not possible.  But why not?

What am I talking about?

The hiatus.  The pause.  That wonderful moment when you finish the pile of books on your night-table and stop.  To breathe.  To ponder.  To contemplate that world of endless possibilities.  What am I in the mood for next?  What new treasure will I discover, what old favourite will I pursue?  Everything is within our grasp…

O brave new world, that has such writers in it!

Time to Read for Fun

I log all of my reading and TBR now on Goodreads, as it helps to keep a semblance of order.  (Although I know full well that chaos lurks underneath!)  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that 7 of the last 10 books I read (and certainly all of the books that I’ve read so far in March) have been books sent to me by publishers for book reviews.

Not that I am complaining! It’s not that I don’t enjoy these books, and I am grateful to the publishers for exposing me to authors or translations which I may not have  come across otherwise.  But reading books for the purpose of reviewing is different: it’s WORK.  I have to read them with pen in hand, making notes of characters’ names, or a phrase that grabs my attention, or a thought which I need to explore further.  Also, because I review for a crime fiction website , the books I get to review all fall into this category.  Plus, I have signed up for the Global (crime fiction) Reading Challenge, so even my ‘spare time’ reading has turned completely mysterious.

Now, you may know I absolutely love crime fiction, but I do also need a break from it every now and then.  I need a gentler read (or a demanding, experimental, pretentious literary read) by way of contrast.  To keep me fresh and eager to return to my old love.  So, although I still have a pile of books to review, I also want to make sure I plan in some time to read more widely.

SosekiThe last non-crime book I read (back in February) was ‘Kokoro’ by Natsume Soseki, a writer so well-known in Japan that he is pictured on the 1000 Yen note.  I had read this as a student – supposedly in Japanese, but I seem to remember cheating and reading the translation alongside the original.  This was a new translation, much more colloquial and lively than the previous one, perhaps even a bit too chatty for the rather serious, contemplative nature of the story.  It is so interesting comparing different translations, though, that I wish I had the time to do this more frequently.  I also want to spend some time reading books in the original and then comparing them with their translations into English.

CarsonMcCullersSo, what am I going to attempt this month? First of all, a true classic: Carson McCullers’ ‘The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter’.  I have a weak spot for misfits and outcasts, and this is full of such characters.  Plus, I find it amazing that such a young writer could write so accurately and eloquently about life on the margins of society.

Just in case I get too depressed, I also have a lighter read up my sleeve, which should have me laughing out loud in recognition: Peter Mayle’s ‘Toujours Provence’.

Do you prefer to read all in one genre, or do you feel the need to balance your reading with something completely different at times?  And what are your ‘go to’ reads in such a situation?

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Global Reading Challenge 2013

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?

Newly Discovered…

This is the joy of reading: that there is such a vast world out there waiting to be discovered… And you find new authors, new books, new genres, new countries to fall in love with.

This is the anguish of reading: that there is such a vast world out there, which you can never hope to explore in its entirety.

It feels at times like the explorers of two-three centuries ago faced with a rather blank map of Africa.  Where to go first?  What part of this vast continent was truly deserving of your time and attention?  Since you could never hope to cover it all.

For the time being, I continue to be somewhat haphazard in my meanderings.  I have not completely ruled out any genre, nor any country or time period.  But I do try to stick to what is easily accessible at present, hence my discovery of contemporary French literature (I had read mainly the classics, and mostly for schoolwork before).

So here are some of my new favourite things:

1) Veronique Olmi: Beside the Sea

Completely shattered after reading this – and yet I could not set it aside. Not the easiest of reads, especially if you are a mother yourself, but it exerted a powerful fascination. A language at once simple, unadorned, conversational and yet poetic. The back story is merely hinted at, never overtly stated. You are never in any doubt about the outcome, but what is remarkable is how the book shows just how fragile the barriers between ‘normal’ and ‘depressed’, between ‘normal’ and ‘dysfunctional’ families are. There are no easy distinctions and that very dangerous slippery slope is there for any one of us…

2) Pascal Garnier: The Panda Theory

This very dark, yet also quite funny and odd little book is the story of Gabriel, who shows up unexpectedly in a completely nondescript Breton town on a Sunday in October.  He seems taciturn yet amiable, maybe a little odd, and he gradually insinuates himself into the lives of disparate members of the local community.  He is an excellent listener and he offers to cook for people, with no ulterior motive whatsoever as far as they can tell.  While cooking a shoulder of lamb for the Portuguese bar-owner, José, he listens to the latter’s anxieties about his wife, sick in hospital. He gently turns down the flattering attentions of the pretty hotel receptionist, even as he cooks calves’ livers for her. He buys a saxophone off a couple desperate for money, although he does not play the instrument, and becomes involved in their sordid lives as well.  He wins a giant cuddly Panda at the funfair and gives it to José for his children.

Yet all is not as it seems.  Occasional flashbacks suggest a more troubled past life for Gabriel, who seems less and less cuddly as the story unfolds.

This is also the story of a small group of outsiders, people drifting at the periphery of society. These loners and no-hopers have somehow found each other and created an artificial family, clinging to each other and to some last shred of humanity.  Gabriel brings this group together, watches them reach their peak of happiness and knows from experience that life for them can only be a disappointment hereafter.

If I say that this is a novel about ‘existential angst’, it will probably put off any would-be reader.  Yet this world-weariness and anxiety are conveyed beautifully through an intriguing storyline, limpid prose and a dialogue of searing sincerity.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

3) And four new crime fiction series that I look forward to reading in more depth. You know me and my love for exotic locations!  Alison Bruce’s DC Gary Goodhew series (set in Cambridge, UK), Adrian Magson’s Inspector Lucas Rocco (set in France) , Jeffrey Siger’s Inspector Kaldis (Greece) and Leighton Gage’s Chief Inspector Mario Silva (Brazil).

What have you recently discovered that made you want to get up and do a jig?  What do you want to share with everybody (or – hush! so good you want to keep it all to yourself)?

 

My Father

I was never Daddy’s girl –

I was his only seed.

He’d come so far: cow’s tail to ambassadorial sash,

always the sparkler, never the rein.

He taught me all I knew:

cheering Maclaren on TV, explaining the finer points of rugby,

testing me on African country names, world flags, capital cities,

he never once faltered, he had all the answers.

He dared me dream better, spurred me shoot higher.

We were explorers; I lived for those days

when the car’s nose would choose our final destination,

perhaps climbing up to the fortress where Richard lay prisoner,

my own Lionheart all roar and fun bluster, streaming ahead, always the one to catch.

 

No hiding of his light under bushel, repetition is his manna, boasting his flow.

Nicotine breath exploding in laughter, the world rejoiced in his fireworks,

the teasing, the wordplay, the invented words.

At times the scintillation broke my lesser spirit.

I stormed away, blinded, to be sought out and hugged,

brought back in the fold with boxing and play.

‘Of course I did not let you win that game!’ His reassuring fib.

Swirls of his humour, like chocolate, like warm custard,

would treacle forward to sturdy up the shore after the storm.

 

Spent in passion, united, against all odds so similar,

we’d sit in peaceful duality on the sofa and read.