August Reading, Events and Book Haul

There I was thinking I hadn’t done all that much reading in August, because my #WITMonth contributions have been a miserly five. However, when I counted them all up, I realised I’ve read 16 books, 7 of them in translation (5 of them Brazilian, to fit in with my August in Brazil reading). 10 books were by women, and I even read two non-fiction books (Sylvia Plath’s diaries and The Secret Barrister’s rather terrifying descriptions of the shortcomings of the English legal system).

I have reviewed The Head of the Saint, Middle England, The End, Lost World, The Tortoise and the Hare, The Pine Islands and Clarice, so only about half of what I read. I still intend to review some of the above, but don’t hold your breath, as out of sight tends to be out of mind! I will not be reviewing Plan B or Guilty Not Guilty, which were quick fun reads but nothing to get worked up about, while Platform Seven is the kind of novel that started out very eerily and got my hopes up, but became a bit too much of a bog-standard thriller about a psychologically abusive relationship. Fatechanger is a YA novel about a Dickensian Boston of thieves and newspaper boys during the First World War and a time-travelling girl who has to pretend to be a boy in order to survive.

Next month I will be focusing on China – and I have a good haul of women writers, including Eileen Chang, Wei Hui, Xiaolu Guo and Yan Ge, so my #WITMonth is set to continue!

It’s been a good month of events as well: a powerful play about immigrants, a writing retreat at my house, a Russian film about life after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an exibition on writing at the British Library, a triumphant GCSE results day, a day trip to Oxford and, last but by no means least, an extremely inspiring conversation between Ali Smith and Nicola Barker, two of the most innovative and daring and poetic writers at work today.

With all of the back to school preparations, we’ve been going shopping and therefore ‘accidentally’ ending up in bookshops (my older son is nearly as addicted to them as I am – hurrah for him, but boo-hoo for my wallet). So this month has been the scene of another massacre of my book-buying ban (it hasn’t really been in place since April).

These two are actually for the boys: one is required for the GCSE (for younger son), the other was older son’s choice as he pursues his plans for world domination. They liked the tactile covers and wordcloud/ quotations on the front.

Speaking of beautiful editions, I just had to get these two favourite Murdochs in the new Vintage editions. Yes, I like stories about cult-like communities and dodgy patriarchal leaders.

Some politically prescient novels and another edition of To the Lighthouse. When I first came to the UK, I only had two medium-sized suitcases but I brought my battered editions of Virginia Woolf’s diaries (5 volumes), A Room of One’s Own and 5 of her novels. I left this particular one at my parents’ house and haven’t been able to find it since, so it was high time I got myself a new copy.

Last night’s haul from the London Review of Books bookshop. The Ali Smith and Nicola Barker ones are now signed, of course, while the very slim Korean novella was devoured in the train on the way home. I so hope I will get to see George Szirtes again to have him sign this book for me – a moving account of his mother and her journey into exile. Last but not least, Deborah Levy’s story of starting over as a middle-aged divorcee, mother and writer.

Nominations for #WIT Top 100

Women in Translation Month is coming up very soon, and for this year, the founder and host of #WITMonth Meytal at Biblibio has decided to curate a list of the top 100 women in translation. You are all invited to take part, if you follow some basic rules:

I’ve selected ten books that instantly came to mind, without me having to go through my bookshelves in detail. I could have chosen so many more, but these are ones that have really changed my world, shaken my foundations, taught me what it means to be a woman and an artist and other such fundamental things. And, instead of telling you what the book is ‘about’, I will just give you a 3 word (or thereabouts) summary and a quote from each.

Looking at the list, I guess none of them are really cheerful, happy books, are they?

Simone de Beauvoir: Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) – bourgeois turns bohemian

 I had wanted myself to be boundless, and I had become as shapeless as the infinite. The paradox was that I became aware of this deficiency at the very moment when I discovered my individuality; my universal aspiration had seemed to me until then to exist in its own right; but now it had become a character trait: ‘Simone is interested in everything.’ I found myself limited by my refusal to be limited.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Go, Went, Gone) – meeting, connecting, empathy

Have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? Must living in peace – so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world – inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?

Veronique Olmi: Bord de mer (Beside the Sea) – depressed mother, heartbreak

You force yourself to live as best you can, but everything keeps fading away. You wake up in the morning but that morning no longer exists, just like the evening preceding it, forgotten by everyone. You inch forward on a cliff edge, I’ve known that for a while. One step forward. One step in the abyss. Then you start over again. To go where? No one knows. No one cares.

Ingeborg Bachmann: Malina – victim of imagination or men?

Some people live and some people contemplate others living. I am amongst those who contemplate. And you?

Murasaki Shikibu: Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) – shining prince ages

You that in far-off countries of the sky can dwell secure, look back upon me here; for I am weary of this frail world’s decay.

Yosano Akiko: Midaregami (Tangled Hair) – poetry of female desire

A star who once

Within night’s velvet whispered

All the words of love

Is now a mortal in the world below —

Look on this untamed hair!

Clarice Lispector: Complete Short Stories – capricious, scintillating, sad

Mama, before she got married… was a firecracker, a tempestuous redhead, with thoughts of her own about liberty and equality for women. But then along came Papa, very serious and tall, with thoughts of his own too, about… liberty and equality for women. The trouble was in the coinciding subject matter.

Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu: Drumul acuns (The Hidden Way) – social critique of inter-war Romania

The snobbery of Papadat-Bengescu’s protagonists is a defining trait of the Romanian bourgeoisie, of humble and precarious origin, without any aristocratic ancestry, and therefore keen to integrate into top-tier society at any price, either by falsifying their family history or by making unjustifiable moral compromises.

Critique from Autorii.com

Gabriela Adamesteanu: Dimineata pierduta (Lost Morning) – political family saga

How little of what lies within us we are able to convey through words! And how few of those words are received by others. And yet we keep on talking, firm in the belief that the sun of rationality will light up our souls… Otherwise, what would our lives be like if we view conversations as being as complicated as blood transfusions? It’s only when we’re at our lowest ebb that we are haunted by this suspicion, but we cast this suspicion aside as soon as we possibly can.

Marina Tsvetaeva: In the Inmost Hour of the Soul (or any other of her poetry) – quirky, passionate, ruthless

I have no need of holes

for ears, nor prophetic eyes:

to your mad world there is

one answer: to refuse!

Joining in #20BooksofSummer

It’s not the first time I join in the 20 Books of Summer challenge hosted by Cathy. But I may have slipped and not been 100% successful in the past, as it’s so hard to commit to books, when there are so many other exciting ones peeking at you. (My book monogamy is a movable feast.) Still, in theory, it’s possible to read those 20 plus a few others. After all, it’s 94 days, so exactly 3 months.

I am going to attempt something unusual this year: namely, to have all 20 books from my Netgalley list, because I am only at 59% review rate and it’s embarrassing! I do have an excuse for that, as I received so many physical copies to review lately, plus my previous Kindle broke down and then I lost the other one, so it took a while to replace. So I have a mix of old and new books, some have been lingering on my shelf (now archive) for years. Besides, it’s easier to carry the light Kindle in my backpack on the train alongside my laptop and packed lunch!

Here are my mountain of 20 books to be climbed:

Crime (because I have a lot of those and these look fun and summery)

  1. Mario Giordano: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
  2. Belinda Bauer: Snap
  3. Zygmunt Miloszewski: Priceless
  4. Derek B. Miller: American by Day
  5. Rachel Rhys: A Dangerous Crossing

Women in Translation Month (because there aren’t nearly enough of these on Netgalley)

  1. Muriel Barbery: Life of Elves
  2. Virginie Despentes: Vernon Subutex
  3. Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream
  4. Kanae Minato: Penance
  5. Xialu Guo: Once Upon a Time in the East

More Women Writers (and across different genres)

  1. Aminatta Forna: Happiness
  2. Janet Hogarth: The Single Mums’ Mansion
  3. Lucy Mangan: Bookworm
  4. Louise O’Neill: Asking for It
  5. Nell Zink: Nicotine

The Oldest on My Netgalley Shelf 

  1. Philip Hensher: The Emperor Waltz (2014)
  2. Essential Poems by 10 American Poets (2015)
  3. Malcolm Mackay: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter (2015)
  4. Sarah Leipciger: The Mountain Can Wait (2015)
  5. Patrick Modiano: After the Circus (2016)

 

The Last of the Holiday Reading – August 2017

September is still full of ‘back to school’ vibes for me, not just because of the children. I always make my resolutions at the start of September and look back on my holiday thoughts and reading, even if I don’t always have a holiday in summer.

It’s hard to estimate how many books I read in August, because for the last week I’ve been diving into endless amounts of poetry books and some slim Japanese novellas which I am not counting as full-sized books. Aside from that, however, I’ve read 12: 3 for #WITMonth, 3 other translations or foreign language books, 4 review books and 2 library books. 7 books were by women, 5 by men. One thing is clear: I have had the privilege of reading some outstanding and memorable books this past month.

Women in Translation

Elena Varvello: Can You Hear Me? – coming of age, spooky atmosphere, spare prose style, participant in #EU27Project

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War – gripping, heartbreaking, unforgettable

Ileana Vulpescu: Arta compromisului – trying too hard, too polemical and cerebral

Other Translations

Pascal Garnier: Low Heights – one of his more attractive offerings, mordantly funny in parts

Dumitru Tsepeneag: Hotel Europa – ambitious, interesting concept, not quite right in execution

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet – a book to brood over for the rest of my life, entry to the #EU27Project

Reviews or Features

Lin Anderson: Follow the Dead – mountain climbing, blizzards and North Sea Oil – very atmospheric

Chris Whitaker: All the Wicked Girls – judicious combination of laughter, tension and tears set in small-town Alabama

Attica Locke: Bluebird Bluebird – more personal less political, but simmering with racial tension, review to come on Crime Fiction Lover

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle – disturbing classic to be featured on Crime Fiction Lover

Library Books

Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – joyful and elegant like a Fred Astaire dance

Mohsin Hamid: Exit West – great premise but a bit disappointing in execution

 

 

#WITMonth: Svetlana Alexievich and Women’s War

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky)

This oral history of Soviet women’s experience of WW2 was compiled with sensitivity, patience and emotion by Svetlana Alexievich in the 1980s, updated in 2000 and has finally been translated into English by that indefatigable duo that is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

And what a surprising, moving and often shocking story it is! It provides an alternative view of war, from the point of view of women on the front line, as well as the lesser known point of view (in the Western world) of the terrible human cost of war amongst the Soviet army. It is an unforgettable virtuoso piece of storytelling and it left me in goosebumps, although I’d heard a few (much milder) stories from my own grandmothers.

Author picture from The Independent.

Alexievich explains her mission in the foreword (and it was revolutionary back then, in the days before perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet empire): history is ‘in the street, in the crowd, in each of us there is a small piece of history’. She wants to give voice to those who have been ignored, forgotten, whitewashed out of history, who have been silenced or simply never been listened to. Not all of the women wanted to speak to her at first: for some, the memories were too painful, for others it was like opening up a dam. On the whole, she is received with warmth, made up of equal parts eagerness to share the untold stories, and reluctance to dwell too much on the details. They explain in simple terms, in language so stark and unadorned, yet with such vivid detail, what it means to survive such darkness.

Although few women veterans suffered the fate of the men who returned to war only to be sent to gulags by Stalin, it is quite shocking to read of the less than triumphant reception many of them experienced. There was no counselling, no treatment for post-traumatic stress after the war. Many of them received nothing except for a few medals – not even adequate housing which they should have been entitled to as war veterans. The state ignored or downplayed their contribution (perhaps out of a sense of shame that they had to resort to using women in their war effort), there was little support for these heroines and little effort to reintegrate them into society. In contrast to the protective and gallant way they had been treated by their male comrades at the front, many women had to pretend afterwards that they had never been in battle, because the men feared these women and longed to marry someone more feminine and untarnished by violence.

Unsurprisingly, women felt that the Great Victory came at a terrible human cost and sacrifice, and they are more aware of this and more willing to acknowledge it, while men were disposed to wax more nostalgic about heroic deeds and former Soviet greatness. And yet, one of the women says:

Life is hard… not because our pensions are small and humiliating. What wounds us most of all is that we have been driven from a great past into an unbearably small present.

In other words, they are beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. Yet, at the time, no one questioned the ideology. It was not just that their country was attacked, nor that they unquestioningly followed Stalin. They just felt they had to do something to help, they did not stop to think of themselves (or of their families or even their children) – they felt they were cornered and had no choice other than fighting the enemy as best they could. These women were not just nurses, doctors, bakers, laundrywomen, but also engineers, telecommunication experts, tank commanders, snipers, artillery and cavalry soldiers etc. They were everywhere and each one of them saw things that are almost unbelievable and unbearable. And, unlike men, they struggled far more with killing the enemy or watching their comrades die. One married couple reminisce about the war together and the husband says at one point that the grandchildren don’t want to hear his tales about historical detail, generals, facts, figures. They want to listen to her stories, which are all about feelings and momentary impressions.

War is first of all murder, and then hard work. And then simply ordinary life… how unbearable and unthinkable it is to die and to kill…

It’s the small details which make all the difference: the shoes which were several sizes too big and caused blisters; how they all had to chop off their braids; how uncomfortable it was to pee when they were in the tank with all the men; how they would kiss dying soldiers to soothe their pain; how there was no material to stop the flow of menstrual blood; how they could never bear the colour red after the war or buy meat from the shops.

There is a section on the mixed feelings the army had when they reached Germany. How tidy and wealthy the country seemed to them, to the extent where they couldn’t understand why these Germans had wanted to attack other countries. How they felt they would never be able to forgive them, yet they fed the frightened German children. The women whisper (in fear) about how their male colleagues did in many cases kill in revenge, rape and pillage, things which had been left out of the official history books – ‘are we allowed to mention that now?’.

There is bittersweet recognition that human nature did not learn from the past:

We dreamed: ‘If only we survive… People will be so happy after the war. People who’ve been through so much will feel sorry for each other. They’ll be changed people… We never doubted it. Not a bit.

Some of the girls were as young as 16 when they joined up and only 18-19 by the time the war ended.

Yet there were also instances of compassion and I want to finish on one of those, with the simple, unfiltered words of someone who has witnessed it herself. The last interviewee in the book tells the story of when she was carrying two wounded soldiers on her back, in turns, from the battlefield around Stalingrad. At some point, she realises that one of them was a German and starts getting angry with herself for making a mistake.

Should I go back for the German or not? I knew that if I left him he would die soon… And I crawled back for him… There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one…

Pictures are from Sputnik International and Global Research websites.

Can You Hear Me by Elena Varvello #EU27Project #WITMonth

How nice to find a book which fits in perfectly with two reading challenges! A contemporary entry for Women in Translation Month and for Italy in #EU27Project.

Elena Varvello is an Italian author from Turin and this is her first novel to be translated into English by Alex Valente. It has been described as a coming of age story and a thriller, but it is far more of the first, although it does have its suspenseful moments. It is also the story of the fissures tearing apart a family (or even two families) and a description of an individual mental breakdown and its effect on others.

The narrator is sixteen-year-old Elia Furenti, who lives with his mother and father on the outskirts of a small town in northern Italy, in a valley with a river, surrounded by forests. Despite its seemingly idyllic location, the town has fallen on hard times. The local factory has closed down and his father has lost his job. His father could be humorous and lively, but also a bit odd, yet the relationship between his parents has always been very loving. Yet after the closure of the factory, his father’s eccentricities have taken a turn for the worse. He seems to think there is a conspiracy against him and disappears for hours at a time. When a local boy goes missing, Elia can’t help but feel his father is somehow involved. And there is worse to follow…

If I have made this sound like a thriller, I am misleading you. Yes, there is a sense of foreboding and ‘what will happen next’. Especially in that part of the book which alternates chapters between Elia’s experience – how he befriends a boy his own age Stefano and his mother Anna, who have also been let down by a man – and his father’s attempt at kidnapping the girl who minds their neighbour’s daughter. (I am not giving away anything, as the author baldly states it in the very first sentence.)

But overall, it is far more about the unspoken, about all the things that crack open a facade and leave people broken, even though they pretend to be resilient. It is about people hiding the truth even from themselves. It is clear that Elia’s father suffers from some form of schizophrenia and/or paranoia, but everyone refuses to acknowledge it or seek help. This might seem infuriatingly obvious to readers, but from personal experience of friends with schizophrenia, I have seen families denying the fact for years, even decades.

Valley around Turin. From Tripsavvy.

With its ability to capture the tormented adolescent soul, it reminded me of Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but this is far less idyllic and nostalgic. The tense, moody atmosphere, conveyed not through purple prose, but through a very restrained, economical style, is more reminiscent of Alberto Moravia. There are also hints of that author’s disenchantment with human nature, modern life and that elusive myth of finding happiness.

The book cover of Can You Hear Me captures that one moment of unalloyed happiness in the whole story. Yet even that is tinged by the discovery of some squashed beer cans in his one place of freedom and happiness. The idyllic valley becomes claustrophobic and Elia can’t wait to grow and move away… to another valley, another river, another forest just like the one he can’t quite leave behind.

#WITMonth – Japanese short stories

This is one of my favourite times of year in terms of reading challenges, namely the wonderful Women in Translation Month created and championed by the ebullient force of nature which is Meytal Radzinski (aka as Biblibio on Twitter). I’m not always good at matching August to translated women writers, but I do try to read a good proportion of them throughout the year.

This month, courtesy of the slim volumes of short stories/novellas published by Strangers Press, a University of East Anglia publishing venture, I have discovered three new Japanese women authors.

Misumi Kubo: Mikumari (transl. Polly Barton)

A bit of a scandalous subject this: the story of a high school student (under age), who meets a married cosplayer Anzu, more than ten years his senior at a comic convention in Tokyo and embarks upon an intense affair, which at once thrills and disgusts him. During the summer, the boy is working as a lifeguard at the pool and gets to spend time with his classmate and more appropriate crush, Nana. As he tries to distance himself from Anzu, he realizes that desires are never straightforward and not always as pleasant as we like to think they are.

There is a matter-of-fact description of sex in all its wet, glistening, slippery glory and repulsiveness which I have only ever found in Japanese authors. None of the sentimental rosy-cheeked intoxication with our own words which you might find in Romance languages, nor the timid self-consciousness so prevalent in Anglo-Saxon literature. The subject matter is deliberately designed to shock, and yet the narrator is no stranger to women’s bodies and all the bodily fluids: his mother is a midwife who works from home and he often helps out with the births. By the end of this brief story, he begins to realize something about himself and about the continuity of life, although it might take a while until he comes to term with the unbreakable mix of purity and dirt which lies in all of us. The sentence which really stuck out in my mind was:

…it seemed unbelievable that water so clear could be connected with the filthy river flowing near our house.

This has all the shock factor, darkness and yet underlying tenderness of Natsuo Kirino.

Nao-Cola Yamazaki: Friendship for Grown-Ups (transl. Polly Barton)

There are three loosely linked stories in this volume, connected more through the names of the characters than through any storyline. There is an odd, timeless tale of human development called ‘A Genealogy’. A (still) young woman named Kandagawa tries to recapture a moment in her past with her former lover on the site of their former apartment in ‘The Untouchable Apartment’. A relatively new author Terumi Yano dithers between her art and love, when she attracts the attention of a young music scholar at an author event. There is a wonderful sense of confusion and yearning about each of these stories, that hesitation about which path to take, that mourning about ‘what ifs’, that need to justify one’s decisions a posteriori, which will sound very familiar to women in their thirties. A delicate, melancholy description of the life of Japanese women reminiscent of Fumiko Enchi.

Aoko Matsuda: The Girl Who Is Getting Married (transl. Angus Turvill)

This was perhaps my favourite of the three: a very strange story which feels like an Escher woodcut. Just when you think you’ve grasped it, the point of view is all changed, turned upside down and you question everything you know.

An unnamed narrator visits her friend, the girl who is getting married. As she climbs up the stairs to the fifth floor, where the girl who is getting married lives, she recalls fragments of their life together and their friendship. But each account differs: they met when they were children, they met at secondary school or at work, on the train or at a cookery school. As the story shifts like quicksand under our feet, we understand more and more about the deepest needs and constraints of the narrator and we begin to question just whose eyes we are looking through. There is an almost obsessive repetition of the expression ‘the girl who is getting married’ (there are no names at all in this story) – and in the original Japanese it is even more emphatic: ‘moo sugu kekkon suru onna’ – the woman who is getting married imminently/very soon. Why does that sound so threatening? Whose fears are being projected here? The very plain, unadorned, clear prose belies the surrealism of the scene, where any interpretation is possible (and most likely wrong). There is a hint of Haruki Murakami’s short stories here.