Reading & Events Summary July 2019

Not a lot of summer holidays for me this year, so my reading hasn’t been copious this month. [This may change over the next 3 weeks, when the boys are with their father in Greece.] Only 9 books completed, but most of them have been quite outstanding – and that is all thanks to the Russians. Their political leaders may be problematic, but boy, can their authors write!

I started off with a short, sharp satire Envy by Yuri (Yury?) Olesha. Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories were a rambunctious delight, but with a disquieting undercurrent running throughout. The Strugatskys were in top form with Roadside Picnic, while Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov captured a moment of tremendous change in recent history with great poignancy and lyricism. I haven’t yet reviewed Light-Headed by Olga Slavnikova (which I read in the French translation), but it’s another great piece of satire, although perhaps it could have been a bit shorter without losing any of its punch.

The Russians were excellent company. I will miss them and, yes, there were some communalities to all these authors (or perhaps I sub-consciously chose works that were of similar nature). Their humour is always rather dark and biting, their stories a mix of laugh-out-loud absurdity and profound sadness. The big questions of life are addressed, even though mostly in a roundabout way that decades if not centuries of censorship have cultivated to perfection. And I find their dash of surrealism not just tolerable but necessary and fun, unlike some works in the magical realism tradition.

In-between these hard-hitting books, I found my brain craved less demanding fare. I was either rereading either old favourites like the second book in the Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith (the one with the art forgeries) or else Adrian Mole (however, the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged Mole made me shudder rather than laugh). I also read two contemporary books focused on friendships, marriages, gender expectations and growing older.

I will probably compare and contrast Anna Hope’s Expectation with William Nicholson’s Adventures in Modern Marriage at some point, but although they were fun and easy to read (I deliberately avoided making too many comparisons with my own marriage or ageing), they were rather underwhelming. In any other month of reading, they might have scored higher, but when I put them up against the Russians, they seemed rather anemic.

5 women authors, 4 books in translation (Olga Grushin wrote her book directly in English). Next month will be all about women in translation and I am heading off to Brazil. My selection includes: Clarice Lispector’s short stories, Patricia Melo’s tale of revenge Lost World, Fernanda Torres’ account of old macho beach bums The End and, to balance things out, The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli.

If I get a chance to read any other women in translation, it will be Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (set in my beloved Japan but written in German) and History. A Mess. by Sigrun Palsdottir (the latest Asymptote Book Club title, from Iceland). I might also read some Brazilian men, for balance. And, of course, I should read the books I borrowed from the library: Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage and Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, as well as dip in and out of Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Diaries.

Beyond the reading, this month has been quite tiring: a lot of deadlines at work, both boys doing their Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, plus a lot of visiting of universities (which has its fun moments but involves a lot of driving and organising). I’ve done three things that go beyond the routine: went to the opera, attended an immersive theatre experience of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Oxford and sat in the public gallery at a criminal trial at the Old Bailey.

How has your month been? Do tell me about your holiday plans! I’m not going anywhere on holiday just yet, but this song always puts me in a holiday mood. Thank you, Caroline, for sharing your flash fiction based on this song with me. Do check it out here.

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!

#20booksofsummer: Books 8 and 9 (Poland and Switzerland)

My timing is all messed up, but luckily I can kill two birds with one stone here. These two books within my #20booksofsummer also fit in with the Women in Translation Month. So, just imagine this is August already, as I will be out of action for most of that month.

illegalliaisonsGrażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. Danusia Stok)

This is perfect grist to the mill of anti-EU sentiment: so this is what EU bureaucrats get up to with our money! Affairs, serial affairs and gossiping, jobs with meaningless titles where nobody knows what it is they do exactly… Add to that the fact that the main character is Polish (as his wife, while his mistress is Swedish of Czech origin), and you can add a ‘those darn corrupt foreigners’ to this impression.

Of course, that is not at all what the Polish author intended in this, her fourth novel (and her first to be translated into English). It was first published in 2010 and translated in 2012, but it appears to have caused very few ripples so far, despite its potentially explosive subject matter.

Jonathan decides to become a stay-at-home Dad and pursue his writing ambitions when his wife Megi gets a well-paid position as a lawyer at the European Commission. However, although he enjoys the advantages of expat life, he mocks the self-important and meaningless eurocrats. Bored and perhaps feeling slightly disenfranchised, he embarks upon a torrid affair with the voluptuous journalist Andrea, wife of his wife’s boss.

The sex scenes are frank, as is the description of a man’s growing obsession with the ‘wrong kind of woman’, and the author is frighteningly good at putting herself into a man’s shoes. Of course, the whole concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ kind of woman is debatable. Although his wife Megi seems to be exceedingly reasonable and charming, and although he is periodically wracked by guilt, Jonathan just cannot stay away from Andrea.

I enjoyed some of the cross-cultural observations, but overall the book seemed repetitive and confused to me. Perhaps that was the intention: giving us a bit of insight into the male psyche. Compared with the affair described in Isabel Costello’s book Paris Mon Amour (in many ways the mirror image of this, but described from a woman’s point of view), this felt much messier and pointless.

GILLIARD_1E_COUVValerie Gilliard: Le Canal (The Canal) – sadly, not yet translated

This slim volume proves the point that sometimes the simplest of stories can be extremely effective, if well told.

It’s a Friday in October in the small Swiss spa town of Yverdon. The weather is nice once more after a bout of rain, and people are out and about by the side of the canals which feed into the Lake of Neuchatel. An idyllic, peaceful moment, so easy to imagine. Then a little girl starts running after a dog by the side of the canal. Her mother is momentarily distracted by a phone call and the girl falls in. These facts are described quite dryly in the Prologue, and then we see the event (as well as what led up to it and what happened afterwards) from the point of view of several of the witnesses: the mother, Almina; the old fisherman who jumps in to rescue the girl; Steve, a young graduate with right-wing tendencies; Berivan, a Kurdish woman holding a baby; and an old lady who saw everything from her window and called the ambulance.

Yes, it has been done before, most famously in the ‘Rashomon’ film based on the Akutagawa story. But what I liked here is what the different points of view reveal about Swiss society today. Both Almina and Berivan are ‘foreigners’, refugees who fled to this country as children. Although they grew up in that very town, they are still regarded with suspicion. The press is quick to condemn the mother’s carelessness and doubts are soon cast upon her parenting abilities. In the end, it’s the older generation, the fisherman and the old woman with her own tragic past, who are able to reach out a helping hand. And the ending is just beautiful, without being cloyingly sentimental.

yverdon-jpg-crop_display
One of the canals in Yverdon, from mapio.net

 

Holiday Reading and Women in Translation

Instead of my July round-up, this is more of a July and August holiday reading list. Since August is WIT month, I decided to take it one step further and focus predominantly on women writers for both months. So here are the plans and what I’ve read to date (marked with a bold R at the start of the line). Completely gratuitous holiday pictures from previous years included, just to put myself in the mood. Please don’t mention how far behind I am with the reviews…

Fake beach at Vevey.
Fake beach at Vevey.

Crime fiction:

Kati Hiekkapelto: The Defenceless (Interview with the author and review to come on Crime Fiction Lover)

Fred Vargas: Temps glaciaires – was snatched away from my loving arms by another reader who had requested it at the library (I was overdue, to be fair, should have started reading it earlier), but I’ll try to find it again

Karin Fossum: The Drowned Boy

Ancient plane tree in Crete.
Ancient plane tree in Crete.

Other fiction:

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Alice Quinn: Queen of Trailer Park

Therese Bohman: Drowned

Judith Schalansky: The Giraffe’s Neck

Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Baby

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

Renate Dorrestein: The Darkness that Divides Us

To complete this diet of women in translation, I’m also adding this category:

Nikki de Saint Phalle sculpture, Paris
Nikki de Saint Phalle sculpture, Paris

English-speaking Women Writers

Sophie Hannah: A Game for all the Family

Lucy Atkins: The Other Child

Denise Mina: Blood Salt Water

Sarah Ward: In Bitter Chill

Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove

Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin

Men Who Snuck in There:

Reread: F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Night

Emmanuel Carrere: L’Adversaire

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Botanical Garden, Geneva
Botanical Garden, Geneva

I abandoned the book about Isadora Duncan, as it was flitting about too much from scene to scene, country to country, without a coherent structure or mood.

 

Just to do a brief round-up: I read 14 books, of which only 3 by men, abandoned one. Half of them were in translation or in a different language.

In case you are wondering, my two crime fiction picks for the month of July are: Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill and Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless. For Overall Book of the Month, I’ve read so many good books this month, it is really hard to choose a favourite. One that whacked me on the head and took me for a ride, leaving me slightly breathless and laughing with exhilaration: Apocalypse Baby. But the one that has stayed with me, slightly haunting my dreams, is Valeria Luiselli.

MontmartreView
View from Montmartre, Paris.

After the holiday, I need to focus on getting my Netgalley request shelf in manageable order. I am back up to 31 books now and soooo out of date (not that I care, but the publishers probably do!). Here are some that really tempt me for September:

Simon Unsworth: The Devil’s Detective

Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

David Lagercrantz: Fall of Man in Wilmslow

Johan Theorin: The Voices Behind

Don Winslow: The Cartel

Malcolm Mackay: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

What do you think, too much testosterone after two months of predominantly female authors or a necessary redressing of the balance?

Japanese Women Writers: Fumiko Enchi ‘The Waiting Years’

The-Waiting-YearsFumiko Enchi was a very interesting and iconoclastic woman writer in 1950s-1970s Japan. Her background was quite conventional for the time and place. She was the daughter of a distinguished scholar and was mostly home-schooled. She had some early success as a playwright, married a journalist, had children. Her health, however, had always been frail and it deteriorated during the Second World War, round about the time she lost all of her property in air raids. There are speculations that her domestic life was not entirely happy (certainly in her novels there are a lot of oppressed, unhappy or revengeful women). Perhaps all of this put together enabled Enchi to abandon all caution and become one of the most verbal and realistic writers about the plight of women in a patriarchal society.

This is a book I read in August but left too late to review for ‘Women in Translation’ month. However, in my opinion, ‘Women in Translation’ works equally well all year round! ‘The Waiting Years’ could also have been included in my post about bad marriages, as it’s the very grim and sad story of a Japanese wife at the turn of the 20th century. Tomo Shirakawa is the wife of an ambitious government official who has been tasked to find:

‘… a maid  to take back with me. Aged somewhere between fifteen and, say, seventeen or eighteen. From a respectable family, if possible… but she must be good-looking.’

In other words, a concubine. Tomo is still in love with her womanising husband, but she feels she has no choice but to accept his request to have a live-in mistress. She was born in a low-ranking samurai family, was married off early and had no proper education or social accomplishments, but ‘all the love and wisdom of which she was capable were devoted to the daily lives of her husband and the rest of the Shirakawa family.’ So she finds Suga, brings her home, has to endure her husband’s infatuation with her. Then, a few years later, her husband demands a second concubine and eventually even starts an affair with his daughter-in-law. Under this domestic tyrant, the women in the house have to find a way to accommodate each other, to hide their feelings, not to let the simmering resentments explode. None of them feel they have a choice and the wife’s story is not the only sad one. In fact, over time, Tomo – who has maintained an amazing self-control and stiff upper lip throughout-  begins to feel that the other women are to be pitied rather than envied or resented.

Written over a period of eight years, this novel covers 30-40 years of marriage during one of the most dramatic periods of modernisation and Westernisation in Japanese history. Yet those dramatic external changes do not seem to impact family life as much as one might hope. The author uses a telescopic effect in her narrative: leaping over years, even a decade, between chapter, but then stopping to examine the minutiae of daily life, the barely perceptible gestures and nuanced conversations, where more is left unsaid rather than said.

Unafraid to explore the need for sensuality in the older woman, or sexual manipulation as a weapon of the downtrodden, Enchi is a brave author who continues to feel very modern. This book was a reread – but I’d previously read it when I was 19 and unmarried, so it is with very different eyes that I return to it now. The translator is John Bester – who also translated Black Rain by Ibuse Masuji, one of my favourite Japanese books about the WW2 –   and my copy is a Kodansha International edition from 1980 (bought second-hand). Two other books by Enchi have been translated into English: the bizarre tale of female manipulation and revenge ‘Masks’ and an alternative version of an eleventh century historical romance ‘A Tale of False Fortunes’.