Sara Novic: Girl at War

GirlatWarTBR2 from #TBR20

This debut novel is really three distinct stories meshed into one: a child’s eye view of the war in Croatia, the displacement that comes from being adopted and growing up in the US (and having to hide one’s heritage for fear you won’t be understood or accepted), then finally returning to your home country after a traumatic period in its history, trying to reconnect with friends and family and make your peace with your past.

The problem is that the book addresses predominantly an American audience who may be less familiar with the war in Yugoslavia – or perhaps a younger generation who has forgotten about the war. (The author herself was very small when those events were happening, so may not have much personal recollection of them, although she has interviewed friends and family to ask about their own experiences.) So there is perhaps more telling than is strictly necessary.

For those of us of a certain age living close-by to the former Yugoslav republic, the trauma of a war that we had believed was impossible in modern-day Europe is still sufficiently fresh. We’ve all seen friends and their families torn apart and made homeless by this war, the bullet-riddled buildings, the often toothless War Tribunal at The Hague, the deep scars of distrust that will take a few generations to recover from… and all of these are hinted at in this book.

The story is, of course, interesting, often harrowing and almost unbelievable. The observations of people’s reactions in Croatia and outside it, the contrasts between cultures and countries, the dilemmas of international adoption are spot on. The novel may not be wildly original in format or style, but it’s a good read, emotionally wrenching and very informative, with not a hint of a dry lecture.

The recreation of childhood in Zagreb and the seaside in the summer is the most successful part to my mind. This is when the book feels less ‘educational’ and more evocative. It’s mourning a lost way of life, a loss of childhood innocence, the loss of the innocence of a nation… Think Le Grand Meaulnes with a Croatian accent. ¬†The encroaching war and its horrors are things that the adults still try to protect the children from, but they end up incorporating their increasingly dire reality into their games.

By the end of the week we’d absorbed the sandbags into our playscape. War quickly became our favourite game and soon we had given up the park altogether. If we could convince enough people to be Serbs we’d play teams… which meant you only got one life, and when you died you had to stay dead… Other times, we played every-man-for-himself war, in which you got three lives and everyone got to kill everybody else indiscriminately. In both versions, the idea was to kill a person by shooting him with your imaginary gun… There were also two subcontests within each game. One was who could make the most realistic machine-gun sound effects; top players could distinguish between a Thompson, a Kalashnikov, and a Zbrojovka…. The second was who could act out the best death.

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Author picture from LA Review of Books.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare this passage, written with a detachment and humour that belies its underlying horror, with ‘Tigermilk’, a story of deprived childhood in present-day Berlin. This book felt much more genuine and shocking, without deliberately trying to shock.

Sara Novic is not just a very promising young writer, she is also a deaf writer. Although her hearing loss was gradual, she has some very interesting things to say in this Guardian article about how to feel language in your head and on paper when you cannot actually hear it. To get a feel for Sara’s clear and distinctive writing voice, as well as her unique experiences as a child between cultures, here is a piece by her entitled ‘Notes on a War-Torn Childhood‘.

Reading in the Merry Month of May

It’s been a changeable old month weather-wise, this May, and that has been reflected in my choice of books. I’ve read 12 books, and only 4 of those were by male writers (and two of those were for review). I finally managed to tackle 4 from my Netgalley pile (sinking under the greed there…), 5 from my bookshelves (although two of those may have been VERY recent purchases), plus one random purchase while being stuck at the airport. 7 of the books above may be classified as crime, one was spoken word poetry and there was no non-fiction this month.

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Gotta love the cloudy days of May… Lake Geneva from Vevey.

 

Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members

Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In – dare I count this as the first of my TBR20?

Helen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

Clare Mackintosh: I Let You Go

Daniel Quiros: Eté rouge Рthis one counts for my Global Reading Challenge РCentral and South America

Kristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs

Quentin Bates: Summerchill – reviewed on CFL website; you can read my interview with the author here

Ragnar Jonasson: Snowblind – reviewed on CFL website; I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing Ragnar here¬†

Megan Beech: When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard (poetry)

Ursula Poznanski: Blinde Vögel Рa Facebook poetry group turns deadly in Salzburg Рhow could I resist?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – philosophical fable – I thereby declare this #TBR1

Sara Novic: Girl at War – survivor of the war in Croatia returns ten years later to her home country – #TBR2

These last four were all memorable in quite different ways, so I want to write more thorough reviews of them soon, so watch this space.

Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).
Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).

Crime fiction pick of the month is going to be a tie between Snowblind and How the Light Gets In. But I also have my eye on this Austrian writer Poznanski now and hope she gets translated more into English (she also writes YA and children’s fiction and is known as Ursula P. Archer in the English-speaking world).

Finally, how has writing fared this month? Some rough handwritten drafting has taken place, but it’s been another tough month, with business trips, lots of holidays and parental visits. Must do better next month (famous last words?)… The good news is that poetry has started to flow again after a long period of feeling stuck.

 

 

 

 

 

New TBR Reading Challenge – and Rereading

I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.

The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.

I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.

So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with C denote crime fiction titles, W is for woman writer)

1) Books in French:

P1030248All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.

Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C

Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit Рthe alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues  C

Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz РUkrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain  C

Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories

Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil Рfinally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade Рplus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid.   C W

2) Books in German: 

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Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord  Рthird case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude   C

Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland

Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe Рthe dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species  W

Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation ¬†W

Friederike Schm√∂e: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events ¬† C ¬†W

3) Books on ereader

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Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale

John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet Рthe return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa  C

Sara Novic: Girl at War Рchild survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later  W

Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel Рdebut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize  W

4) Other:

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Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)

Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship

Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night Рthe first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America ¬†W

Wendy Cope: The Funny Side Р101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope)  W

Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).

The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?

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Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night’; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?