#6Degrees July: From Tales of the City…

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. I had to take part in this month’s chain, because it starts with one of the formative books of my student days.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is about a group of people living on Barbary Lane in San Francisco, and features a mix of gay and straight characters. Revolutionary for the time and decidedly too hot to handle for Romanian censorship. Who would want to read about those decadent, vice-riddled Imperialist swine? Well, of course, all my classmates and me! So we read bootlegged versions of it in 1988 or so, long after the first book in the series was first published, and after AIDS had started decimating the gay community.

Another banned book in 1980s Romania was Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, presumably because it had been embarrassing for the Soviet Union when Pasternak had been awarded the Nobel Prize for a manuscript which had been smuggled out the country. Yet everyone I knew had read this book, translated into French or English or by some other means.

 

 

The second book in the link is The Accusation, a short story collection written by an anonymous North Korean writer known only as Bandi, because this manuscript was also smuggled out of that secretive country. I haven’t read it yet, and I don’t think it will contain many surprises for anyone who has lived in a dictatorship, and I have heard conflicting reports about its literary qualities. So perhaps more of a book to bear witness than one that creates great literature. Equally important, though, in this case.

My third book has also been pooh-poohed regarding its literary merits, namely The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Its popularity is so huge, that I’m sure the author couldn’t care less if people think she is not entirely original or extremely sophisticated. I’ve tried to read it, but possibly came across it too late to enjoy it, plus I read too many YA novels with a similar premise (well, not too many, it’s a genre that I don’t read that much, but as many as I can take).

One YA book which I recently read and was very much moved by was Sarah Crossan’s Moonrise. Written as a prose-poem, it’s the story of Joe, whose brother is on death row and the summer they get to spend ‘together’ once the date of execution has been announced. It is a searing condemnation of the death penalty, as well as a poignant story of sibling love. Not gimmicky at all, just believable emotions and characters to which you’ll get really attached.

I tried to get my children to read Moonrise as well, but they never pay the slightest attention to my recommendations. Even reverse psychology doesn’t work. Back in the days when they were younger and listened more to me, we read together for bedtime stories the whole Moomin series by Tove Jannson, and they still like revisiting some of those stories now, and saying things like ‘Bless my tail!’ or pointing out that certain mushrooms look like Hattifatteners and so on. The first story we ever read together was Finn Family Moomintroll with the Hobgoblin’s sinister hat.

The final link also features hats and is actually a Spanish children’s title which has not been translated into English yet, as far as I’m aware. 7 hombres con bombin (7 Men in Bowler Hats) by Alex Nogués (illustrated by Silvia Cabestany) was published in 2015. I haven’t read it but the blurb sounds intriguing and it was part of the UK panel’s choice of books for Spanish books to be recommended to publishers for translation in 2017:

‘In my city there were seven men who wore bowler hats. They always went about together. They were serious, stuffy, wore only black and twirled their moustaches. Until one day the wind swept one of the hats far, far away and showed them something new.’ Seven Men in Bowler Hats is a story to make us think, laugh and reflect. It takes us to that place where all of us should go from time to time: to the unknown…

San Francisco, Russia, North Korea, Dystopia, Texas, Finland and Spain – what a journey we’ve been on this month! Where will your links take you?

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Long Overdue Reviews

I read these books such a long time ago (July, August and September). Initially, I wanted to spend time writing a detailed review for each one: each one of them deserves it. But the more time passes, the more I risk not being able to write anything about them anymore. So here are some jumbled and brief impressions of each one.

truedeceiverTove Jansson: The True Deceiver (transl. Thomas Teal)

This was a book I read for Women in Translation Month in August. Jansson is one of my favourite authors and this story of two women circling each other like bloodhounds in a snowy Northern village does not disappoint. It reminded me of another Scandinavian book I read recently, Gøhril Gabrielsen’s The Looking Glass Sisters. The style is spare, sombre, almost transparent in its simplicity – yet with so many hidden layers. Nothing is quite what it seems and there is no one we can fully believe, but are the characters also deceiving themselves, as well as each other? At first I was firmly on Anna’s side – the artist who likes to think well of everybody and stay a little aloof from things happening in the village – but I found myself sympathising more with the ‘intruder’ Katri by the end. There are no easy allegiances or answers to be had in this book.

blecherMax Blecher: Scarred Hearts (transl. Henry Howard)

A book that sucks you in, rather like the sanatorium sucking in its patients. A real Hotel California: you can never leave, or at least not without profound scars. The story is deceptively simple: a young man with spinal tuberculosis enters a sanatorium somewhere on the French coast, and discovers that he and his fellow patients have to make the most of their short lives, while bits and pieces of their body (and their full-body cast) fall off. This is not for the squeamish or hypocritical: description of love-making attempts in full-body casts, anyone? Or the dirt and grime that can seep into your cast when you get it wet? It is a real burst of candour and poignancy, a pulsating, urgent love of life, from a character (and an author) doomed to die. Such a modern feel to this one: Blecher does not shy away from the good, the bad, the ugly, the things we would rather not acknowledge.  I now want to read it in the original Romanian, because although the translation is quite poetic, I feel there is a rhythm to the prose which I am missing in English.

barracudaChristos Tsiolkas: Barracuda

A very different style here, much more deliberate about shocking and forcing issues out into the open (as opposed to the more veiled, allusive style of the other two authors). Danny the would-be swimming champion is a self-absorbed, obsessive hero with a huge chip on his shoulder about class, money and ethnic origin. But he is typical perhaps of a teenager, and even of his generation, so it becomes forgivable, if a little annoying at times. But the main question of the book is: is it possible to be ‘a good man’ and what exactly does it mean nowadays? Danny’s journey of self-discovery and redemption, of coming to terms with his own background, is ambitious and poignant, if a little overlong.

 

 

 

 

In the meantime, something’s growing in the jungle…

… while I’ve been busy deciding upon my #TBR20 darlings, sneaky old book orders I’d nearly forgotten about, new review copies and well-intentioned parents have added to my TBR pile. I will pretend I don’t have them and won’t dive into them yet, but I thought it might be fun to have a quick peek in the undergrowth…

epochtimes-romania.com
Picture from epochtimes-romania.com. No, my own TBR pile doesn’t look quite that bad yet!

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver [Oh, all right then, also the only two Moomin books still missing from our collection – Moominvalley in November – which always makes me cry – and The Exploits of Moominpappa – which always makes me laugh, but these all count as re-reads and it’s just to complete my Jansson collection]

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd – recommended by so many of my fellow book bloggers: Tony Malone, Stu Jallen, Caroline at Beauty is a sleeping cat, to name just a few.

Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin – because I love Anya’s writing and her East European connection… and she knows it!

Gunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind – because Orenda Books knows I can never resist a Scandinavian author

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star – because Naomi Frisby was so enthusiastic about it, she sent it to me, bless her!

A few imports from Romania:

Mircea Cartarescu: Fata de la marginea vietii (The Girl from the Edge of Life) – a short story collection from one of the best-known (though difficult) contemporary Romanian writers

Adina Rosetti: De zece ori pe buze (Ten Times on the Lips) – short story collection from a former journalist for Time Out and Elle in Romania, now turned fiction author

Alex Stefanescu: Barbat adormit in fotoliu (Man, Sleeping in an Armchair) – essay collection from this essayist, editor and literary critic

Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu (1939-2002):  three novels by the grande dame of Romanian crime fiction. I’ve never tried her before and am curious to see if the comparisons to Agatha Christie are justified…

The good news is, I’m still on track with my TBR20 challenge. I’m on book no. 8 from that pile now. So I won’t get started with the above-mentioned ones immediately…

Tove Jansson: Daughter, Artist, Writer

I was rummaging around on my blog and found the beginning of this post. For some reason I never finished it. It’s about two books that I got for myself as Christmas presents, that I read and loved throughout the winter holidays, and yet I never managed to review them. These two beautifully bound books (collectors’ items) are by and about one of my favourite writers, Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of my beloved Moomins.

Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.
Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.

sculptorsdaughterTove Jansson: Sculptor’s Daughter (transl. Kingsley Hart)

These are semi-autobiographical pieces describing Tove’s childhood, her artistic parents and the great parties they gave, holidays at the seaside, being snowbound in a strange house, being ill with German measles. But in actual fact they are slightly surreal prose poems, exploring the big questions of life, death, beauty and truth, danger and safety, and the importance of art. And all is described through a child’s eyes, with limpid clarity, elegance and understatement. Jansson is a sophisticated stylist, leaving out so much in both her painting and her writing, implying more than saying outright.

tovejanssonTuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love (transl. David McDuff)

Although I had read somewhere that Moominpappa and Moominmamma were based on Jansson’s own parents, I hadn’t realised just how close she was to her family, nor how many personal difficulties and disappointments she had to face in her own life. She was very versatile: painter, illustrator, writer, stage designer, playwright, poet, political caricaturist, cartoonist – and although she occasionally complained of writer’s block (especially during the war), her output was prodigious. But her biographer can speak much more eloquently on her behalf:

‘Work and love were the things that mattered most to her throughout her life – and in that order. Tove’s life was fascinating. She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices … maintained a strict hold. She was a revolutionary, but never a preacher or a demaogogue. She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices…. When she was still a little girl she wrote that “freedom is the best thing”. It remained of utmost importance throughout her life.’

I cannot explain just how much this book meant to me. At times inspiring, at times sad and haunting, it is not only the biography of an exceptional woman and artist, but also a powerful meditation on the choices we constantly have to make as daughters, friends, lovers and creators. How to be human. She deserves to be better known for all of her work: above all, for her pared down prose and great sensitivity. But I’ll end with the inevitable:  my favourite characters in her Moomin series.

Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com
Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net

 

 

February Reading and Challenges Update

So yes, you may have noticed that I have fallen ever so slightly off the TBR Double Dare waggon this month (ahem! five books or so, without counting the ‘official review copies’). I am all for a combination of planning and serendipity, but this is ridiculous! I blame a conspiracy of libraries and reviewers/editors who are far too good at PR. So here is the summary:

Books from the TBR Pile:

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Eva Dolan: Long Way Home

Eva Dolan: Tell No Tales

Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson – Work and Love   [Not reviewed because I want to write a feature on her, the Moomins, The Sculptor’s Daughter. She is one of my favourite writers and a great artist as well.]

avionbussiRead for Reviews:

Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen: Cognac Conspiracies (transl. by Sally Pane)

Pierre Lemaitre: Camille – the last in the Verhoeven trilogy, to be reviewed shortly on CFL

Michel Bussi: After the Crash – coming out next week, to be reviewed on CFL

Book Club Read:

Fred Vargas: The Chalk Circle Man (reread) – not my favourite of the Adamsberg series, as it’s the first one and has a lot of set-up, but still a quirky notch above the rest

Library Impulse Loans:

Karim Miske: Arab Jazz

partttimeindianSherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I don’t know why I don’t read YA literature more often – perhaps because a  lot of it is derivative and too ready to jump onto bandwagons and second-guess the trends. This one rings so true and is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact. It also fulfills one of my North America slots for Global Reading Challenge, as I’d never looked at Native American culture before in a novel. The pain of living ‘between’ cultures, of never being fully accepted in either of them, the unsentimental view of the flaws of each type of lifestyle, yet plenty of humour and tenderness to temper it all: I loved it!

Hubert Mingarelli: La route de Beit Zara

Another book that meets my Global Reading Challenge requirements – this time for Israel/Middle East/Asia. Despite the fact that it’s written by a Frenchman.

Sold to me via word of mouth:

Kate Hamer: The Girl in the Red Coat

Twelve books, of which a third were from the TBR pile, a quarter for professional reviews and only a third snuck in unexpectedly… When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Seven of the books were by foreign writers, but six of those were by French writers. So perhaps I am swapping the comfort and familiarity of Anglo writers with Gallic ones?

Seven crime fiction novels. My top crime read of the month (which is linked up to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted by Mysteries in Paradise) was undoubtedly Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. A multi-layered story with real contemporary resonance. But Camille came close for the storytelling momentum, while Arab Jazz was excellent at showing us a less romaticised picture of Paris.

Anyway, next month will bring the huge, huge temptation that is Quais du Polar in Lyon. How can I possibly not impulse buy books and get them signed by so many wonderful authors? Wish me luck…

Room for Yet Another Book List?

It’s been a year of excessive reading. Define excess? I suspect 189 books (even if a handful of those were graphic novels) fit the criteria. This has not always been reflected in the amount of reviewing I’ve done. Perhaps I used reading as therapy, to blunt the senses, stop thinking too deeply – always safer to divert your thinking to fictional problems or other people’s plight. It also keeps you snug and warm, away from writing and exposing your clumsy way with words and your fear of failing … yet again.

But I am grateful for all the books that kept me sane and balanced this year. Here are my top reads by category (not all of them were published in 2014, needless to say):

niton999.co.uk
niton999.co.uk

1) Poetry:

Mihaela Moscaliuc: Father Dirt  – for teaching me to push boundaries and be truly fearless in my writing

2) Non-fiction:

Andrew Solomon: Far from the Tree – for redefining parenting and commitment to the family

3) Crime fiction:

I’m going to cheat a bit in this category and refer you to my Top 5 Crime Picks from Crime Fiction Lover. One additional book that would make the list, but which I read too late to include there was Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters.

4) Short Story Collection:

Vienna Tales – selected and translated by Deborah Holmes – for sheer variety, its unbeatable location and nostalgia value

5) Rereads:

With thanks to Tony Malone for challenging me to turn to my old love of Japanese literature once more:

Murakami Haruki: Kafka on the Shore – dream-like sequences, a library, a coming of age story and talking cats – need I say more?

Enchi Fumiko: The Waiting Years – almost unbearable depiction of the lack of choice of Japanese women during the years of modernisation and opening up to the West

6) Non-Crime Novels:

What do two sweeping, panoramic, ambitious novels, trying to encompass a multitude of voices and experiences, and a much more intimate love story between desperate people from different cultures have in common? Unforgettable voices and characters.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

Kerry Hudson: Thirst

Tore Renberg: See You Tomorrow

I also owe you a few reviews of books which I’ve only recently read :

  • ‘Euphoria’ by Lily King – a story of anthropologists doing fieldwork in the 1920s; I want to write a longer review, comparing fiction to reality to Margaret Mead’s own account of events in ‘Blackberry Winter’
  • Pascal Garnier’s ‘The Islanders’ – the anti-Christmas family gathering
  • Tove Jansson books I gifted myself for Christmas – comparing biography to her own memoirs

but I’ve run out of year to…

 

 

Most Underrated Authors (Personal Selection)

Well, of course I owe it to everyone (and myself) to put a more positive spin on things.  It’s easy to vent about overrated books. It’s easy to be harsh with authors, especially when we cannot replicate their success.  But which books deserve a wider audience?  Because this is how I choose to define ‘underrated’ -not in terms of critical appreciation, but which should be better known. I try to stick to books which were either written in English or are easily available in translation. The issue of how little foreign literature is translated into English (although crime fiction seems to be the exception here) is a separate rant, which I will leave for another day.

1) Patricia Highsmith:

Yes, everyone has heard of The Talented Mr. Ripley (or at least lusted over Jude Law at his most gorgeous as Dickie Greenleaf in the Anthony Minghella film).  But Patricia Highsmith has written some of the most chilling psychological thrillers in the world.  So of course she is underrated, because she is usually shunted into the ‘just another crime fiction writer’ category.  What is perhaps most unsettling about her work is that her criminals/murderers are not evil monsters: instead, they are portrayed as confused, vulnerable humans, who find ways to justify even their most vile actions.  Very much like you and me, in fact.

2) Dorothy Parker:

Everybody quotes her witticisms, most people have heard of her ‘Men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses’, she was the most acerbic critic.  But how many have read her short stories?  They are funny and brilliantly observed, as you might expect. Her first-person monologues are as true-to-life and fresh (and as good an insight into tortured female psyche) as the day they were written (try ‘The Telephone Call’ or ‘The Little Hours’).  But they are also poignant and terribly painful at times.

3) Jean Rhys:

Speaking of poignant stories of no-hope, grim exploitation and cynicism, nobody does it better than Jean Rhys, especially in her short stories.  Like Barbara Pym (another underrated writer) she was forgotten and out of print for nearly two decades.  She is still largely unknown, with the exception of  ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife.

4) Tove Jansson:

I adored the Moomins when I was a child, but only now, when I am rereading them with my children, do I realise just how much of a craftswoman the Finnish artist and writer really is.  The books work on many levels – they are absurd, funny, highly imaginative, yet also tinged with melancholy and asking profound questions.  And she has written books for adults too!  ‘The Summer Book’ brings back so many memories of childhood, a beautiful and unsentimental description of the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.

5) Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ:

I’ve written about them before but they really are one of the earliest and best, most influential writers of crime fiction (of the police procedural type).  Whether you care for their Marxist leanings or not, you have to appreciate their realism, their deceptively simple prose, their subtlety and their questioning of all the values and treasured beliefs of society.

Looking at this list, I notice that my underrated authors are virtually all female (or a husband-and-wife team).  I wonder if there is something subconscious at work there, that I feel women’s literature (or the so-called women’s topics) are still regarded as somehow second-class.

What is your opinion?  Which authors have I missed out?  Is it easier to neglect women authors?  Thank you all so much for your honest and illuminating comments on the overrated books post.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on books and authors we should know better.