All the Summer Reading Challenges

I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite three weeks of ‘holidays’, it’s been a difficult summer personally, and this has been reflected in my reading. I have failed in virtually all my reading challenges (not that I take the word ‘failure’ terribly seriously in this context). I’ve read more than #20BooksofSummer, but few of them were on my original list. I read a couple of books in July for Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month, but never got around to reviewing them. I’ve also read quite a few #WomeninTranlation books in August (and generally – this is probably one of my favourite themes in reading) but I have no intention to provide carefully considered, deep reviews of any of them.

I just can’t. I don’t have the mental or physical capacity at the moment. It’s a shame, there will be a gap when I look back on my reading and wish I’d done more. In the meantime, here are some very brief and hopefully pithy remarks (I hesitate to call them reviews) about each of them. I have already shared my escapist reading with you, here are the more ‘serious’ reads.

July Reading

I read 12 books that month, of which three escapist crime novels and four for work purposes (two books in German and two translations from the Catalan). I skimmed through two very interesting but simply far too long ones (for my levels of concentration and busy-ness that month): The Shadowy Third about one of Elizabeth Bowen’s love affairs and the letters exchanged and Devil-Land about 17th century Britain. Which leaves only three books, two of which fit into the Spanish/Portuguese language reading challenge.

Maria Judite de Carvalho: Empty Wardrobes, transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Two Lines Press, 2021.

I interpret the title as the emptiness that many women feel when they realise that the people or the love that they held dear have let them down, that sentiments and trust were illusory, and that they have no one but themselves to rely on. It’s a sombre yet depressingly accurate view of heterosexual relationships, shared by three generations of women in the same family, although not necessarily from a position of solidarity. Written in 1966, in a very Catholic and patriarchal Portugal where women had few choices outside the domestic sphere, there is nevertheless much that is still recognisable today. It also reminds me of Enchi Fumiko’s work, particularly The Waiting Years, although that refers to even more demeaning conditions for women in Meiji Japan.

He would arrive home, give me a peck on the cheek, drink his usual glass of whisky, then tell me all about his day in great detail, and so I thought he really loved and needed me. In fact, I was merely a convenient body beside him, an ever-attentive audience always ready to express unconditional admiration when he told me of yet another professional triumph… he needed that applause at home as well, in order to feel he was lord of a little tailor-made world all his own.

For far more detailed and sensitive reading of this book, do read Jacqui’s blog.

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara: Slum Virgin, transl. Frances Riddle, Charco Press, 2017.

This one is the exact opposite of the quieter, more restrained style of Empty Wardrobes. It is a riot of events, characters, stories and style, with elements of tragedy, melodrama, comedy and farce all jostling for attention within its pages. Cleopatra is a trans prostitute in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, but renounces her work once she has a revelation from the Virgin Mary. Quity is an ambitious journalist keen to cover the story, but ends up falling for Cleo instead. Told in short chapters alternating between the highly individualistic voices of these two characters, filled with colourful slang, replete with religious references and superstition, we encounter a seamy, corrupt but energetic world reminiscent of Jorge Amado’s The War of the Saints.

In the extract below, Cleo is receiving all sorts of gifts from people in the flooded slum who are hoping for miracle cures:

Then with a practicality that surprised me and continues to surprise me in a person who speaks with celestial beings, Cleo told us that God loved us, that through God we could love each other, and that we should have breakfast. It was time and it was freezing cold, and first things first. We could always pray later.

Shirley Jackson: The Sundial, Penguin Modern Classics (first published in 1958)

No one can portray the suffocating qualities of a family and a house better than Shirley Jackson, a real antithesis to the wholesome image of home and hearth projected in the United States in the 1950s. This novel portrays a very strange family, all living in a sinister home with surrealist traits (like being in an Escher drawing), an ‘end of the world’ prophecy which binds them and excludes everyone outside their property. But are the dangers truly in the outside world or within their ‘safe’ house and ‘in-group’? We know that Jackson was agoraphobic at various points in her life, but we also know that she considered the family home to be the most perilous and vicious place too. I don’t want to put you off by the rather serious subject matter and the magical realism style – it is also very sharp, witty and downright funny.

Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite authors, and occupies pride of place on my bedside table: go and read her, pronto, if you haven’t already done so, whether you start with this or with her more famous (but less funny) novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House.

August Reading

This month was less busy but far worse in terms of health, worries and need for distraction. Of the 16 books I read, 13 were escapist literature. Two of the crime novels fitted into the #WITMonth category (one from Turkey, one from Romania), as did two of the more ‘serious’ reads. One was a chunkster, the International Booker Prize Winner Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated (and perhaps annotated/interpreted, as she freely admits) by Daisy Rockwell. I still hope to give it a proper review at some point, and we have a Book Club meeting about it next Monday, so I will leave it for later.

Kawakami Mieko: Ms Ice Sandwich, transl. Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press, 2013.

This is an early work by Kawakami, a slight novella about an adolescent boy starting to learn more about life and people and empathy, through his harmless crush on the unusual looking lady who makes and sells sandwiches at the local supermarket. It is an understated story of loneliness, being ‘different’, feeling unable to stand by your convictions or support the people you love. Far more restrained than Heaven, but conveys a lot in just a few pages. And, it’s a personal preference, but I really like the way Louise Heal Kawai translates Kawakami and wish that we had more of her books featuring this translator! For a more thorough review, please see Tony’s. I do love the cover, though!

Tanya Shadrick: The Cure for Sleep

I picked this one rather randomly, after some recommendations on Twitter. It is the memoir of a woman who nearly died after the birth of her son and resolved thereafter to lead a braver and more creative life, to stop shrinking away from opportunity and hide in routine. It is the most devastatingly honest memoir I have read that does not feature any descriptions of addiction or debilitating health issues. It lays bare all the ambiguities of married life and motherhood, and the eternal conflict between the anchored ‘real’ life and the creative life. I don’t think I could ever be so frank, but that is why I prefer to write fiction rather than memoir.

As someone who constantly feels that I have buried myself too much in domesticity and looking after others, I found this book quite inspiring, although just a tad overwritten at times.

20 Books of Summer

So how did I do in my fabled (and very flexible) 20 Books of Summer challenge? Thanks to my discipline in June, I managed to read 13 books overall (8 in French in June, 2 Spanish/Portuguese ones in July, 3 from the random choices in August). I am currently reading the 14th one from the list, the Berlin-set Schäfchen im Trockenen, but I doubt I will finish it by the 1st of September. Not quite as bad as I expected!