As my post’s heading indicates, I’m covering two topics today: a brief recap of my Nordic reads for January (I did read a few other things but didn’t bother posting about them) and a series of murderously entertaining short stories featuring Maud, a most unusual protagonist. I’ll be covering these in reverse order, so if you’re interested in one but not the other, you may want to skip.
As #NordicFinds month draws to a close, I find that I can’t quite leave Scandinavia without saying a word or two about Maud, an octogenarian resident of Gothenburg, Sweden. If you like twisty tales laced with black humor and mayhem, well, she’s definitely worth checking out. Because I actually read these books last fall (Up To No Good was a re-read to refresh my memory before indulging in Must Not be Crossed) they aren’t eligible for my Reading Europe Challenge. They do, however, fit nicely into the #NordicFinds and #ReadIndies months. Although I read them last year, I couldn’t resist including them on the final lap of this year’s Scandi-journey, particularly as I haven’t previously reviewed them and they provide such a perfect finish for my idiosyncratic little survey of contemporary Scandinavian fiction. Aside from their content, which provided me with some very happy reading hours, you can see that both books are handsome little volumes, with interesting artwork. One has a brief but interesting afterword by the author, the other two recipes, one naughty and one nice, for gingerbread cookies. A word to the wise — if you’re allergic to nuts, don’t eat any of Maud’s baked goods!
Both these little volumes (Marlaine Delargy tr.) are short story collections by the Swedish crime writer Helene Tursten, perhaps best known for her franchise detective Irene Huss, a detective inspector in Gothenburg’s Special Crimes Unit. If you’re a fan of Irene Huss or Embla Nyström (the protagonist in another Tursten series) you’ll be pleased to learn that both make most entertaining appearances in a few of these stories (first and most notably in “The Antique Dealer’s Death” from Up To No Good).
The collection of stories featuring Maud was born when Tursten, facing a deadline for a Christmas story for one of Sweden’s largest publications, began to panic. As she explains in her afterword to Up To No Good:
then, she came to me: Maud. She was 88 years old and looked like most old grannies. But inside she was quite special. Her age was a perfect disguise for a criminal! Even . . . a murderer. I wrote the first story, “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmas,” in just three hours, and I enjoyed every minute of her company. But let’s just say I would not like to have her for a neighbor or a relative!”
Although Tursten knows Maud best, I think she’s a little hard on her creation. I’d feel perfectly safe living next door as long as I minded my own business, didn’t make too much noise (particularly at Christmas) and kept my animals under control.
Although the books are independent of each other and the stories are still quite enjoyable if you skip around (my usual method for reading a collection), you’ll get the most out of them by beginning with Up To No Good and reading the stories in the given order, as Tursten discloses Maud’s character and background in bits and pieces as the stories proceed. This slow reveal is in fact a very clever and effective way of tying the collections together. Maud’s habits are another connecting thread. She loves to travel & has been “virtually all over the world” (Up To No Good, page 44); is an avid surfer of the net (she considers her laptop, which she ripped off from a Silver Surfers IT course, “indispensable”) and really, really likes to be left alone. When Maud was eighteen her father died of a sudden heart attack and her once wealthy family discovered the money was gone. Although Maud’s widowed mother was forced to sell the apartment building that was the sole remaining asset, a clause in the contract gave her and her two daughters the right to live rent free in the nicest set of rooms as long as they wished. Seventy years later mother and sister are dead, the building is now an ultra fashionable address and Maud, to the frustration of the housing board (its lawsuit to dislodge her was unsuccessful), continues to enjoy her rent free life style.
Maud’s unusual living arrangement is at the center of the plot in “An Elderly Lady Has Accommodations Problems,” the first of Up To No Good’s five stories. Life has been peaceful for Maud until the advent of Jasmine Schimmerhof, celebrity child of famous parents (the subjects of Jasmine’s tell-all bestseller), a would-be sculptor and the latest new tenant in Maud’s building. As Jasmine explains in her blog, Me, Jasmine:
I despise sovereignty and the patriarchy. I have grown up under that kind of oppression, and I know how terrible it is. I want to give the finger to all oppressors and tell them to go to hell. In October, I will be putting on an exhibition at the Hell Gallery. At the moment I am working on Phallus, Hanging. It’s going to be a kick in the balls for all those bastard men!
When Jasmine begins a sustained campaign to woo Maud and win the seemingly senile old lady’s good will, Maud becomes suspicious and turns to the internet to discover that Jasmine is rather unwisely hinting on her blog that she may soon be moving into a much larger apartment that currently belongs to an elderly neighbor. What’s that elderly lady to do, except protect her home? I won’t say anything more, except to note that Maud helps the patriarchy to strike back in a most unusual way. The book’s other four stories, in which Maud deals most efficiently with noisy neighbors, a thieving antique dealer and a gold-digging soft porn actress with designs on Maud’s former finance (Maud retains fond memories despite being jilted when her family went broke) are equally entertaining. Who could imagine that murder could be so funny?
An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed follows a similar format but is not quite more of the same. Deciding that it’s best to clear out of Gothenburg for a bit after the antique dealer, Maud embarks on a luxury safari to South Africa, financed by the sale of a family heirloom or two. Tursten skillfully uses the exotic setting to broaden the stories, and to deepen and soften Maud’s character as we learn more of her backstory. Although I enjoyed Must Not Be Crossed and would definitely recommend it for an enjoyable afternoon of reading, I preferred Up To No Good. I suspect it doesn’t speak well for my character that I prefer my murders undiluted by humanitarian impulses.
Midnight approaches here in Gulf Coast Florida and that’s enough of Maud. As I noted above, these books are part of my Scandinavian journey, undertaken as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds month. They are also eligible for Lizzy & Kaggsy’s #ReadIndies month, as they are published by Soho Press, an independent publisher located in Manhattan. Soho Crime specializes in atmospheric international fiction and has an impressive backlist of authors.
Proceeding to the second part of my post, I’d like to do a wrap-up of the books I read for #NordicFinds.
In participating in the read-along, I tried very hard to push my boundaries by reading books that were, to varying degrees, outside my comfort zone either because of genre (memoirs, for example), style or subject. As a result, I think my journey through Scandinavia was enlivened by books that were quite different from each other. I also chose books written by authors from the countries where the books were set, rather than books by English speakers about the various countries, if that makes any sense. By a happy coincidence, #NordicFinds overlapped with the beginning of the Reading Europe Challenge and #ReadIndies, so most of my books were twofers and a couple, oh happy day, qualified for all three events. In addition to Tursten’s Elderly Lady collections, my choices included:
Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy, a beautifully written and intense set of memoirs by the noted Danish writer;
Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18, a piece of avant-garde fiction from Norway in which a very ordinary man experiences an existential crisis and decides that he, rather than chance, will control his fate;
Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart, where the king of Helsinki Noir tells the dark story of a decades long search for justice;
Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins, a genre-defying, autobiographical novel set in Iceland and mixing philosophy, eroticism, history, archaeology and bird watching.
And then, of course, there’s the one that got (temporarily) away:
So that’s it for Scandinavia, folks! Now on to the next adventure:
For the last leg of my Nordic journey I’m again reading slightly outside my comfort zone, having just finished Land of Love and Ruins (tr. Philip Roughton) by the Icelandic author and activist Oddny Eir. I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Iceland (I lived on a treeless, arctic island myself for a brief period, albeit one on the other side of the world), drawn at first by its history and culture, and later by its great natural wonders. For Annabel’s #NordicFinds month, which gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge my interest, I wanted to read a contemporary work addressing current issues, so no Halldór Laxness! Because I had just read a Scandi-Noir by the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen (and have another lined up for my stopover in Sweden) I also decided to avoid mysteries and thrillers. Land of Love and Ruins seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Eir’s debut novel, written in the form of journal or diary entries, has won both the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize (2012) and the EU Prize for Literature (2014). It is the only one of her works to date that has been translated into English
Given the strongly autobiographical tilt of her work, knowing a little about Eir’s life is a bit more helpful than usual. Something of a renaissance woman, Eir was born in Iceland in 1972, and educated there and at the Sorbonne, where she received an advanced degree in political philosophy. In addition to writing poetry, essays and four novels (including Love and Ruins), Eir is known for her environmental activism and has also worked at various times as a museum lecturer, a promoter of art events and a gallerist (according to Wiki, she and her archaeologist brother currently run a publishing company). Prominently mentioned in all of Eir’s biographical information is her work as a lyricist for the pop star Bjórk on two of the latter’s albums; the keen-eyed among you may have noticed in the photo beginning my post that the front cover of Love and Ruins displays Björk’s endorsement.
Love and Ruins (LAR), as I previously mentioned, is the journal of an ostensibly unnamed young woman returning to Iceland after some time abroad. Although its publisher refers to LAR as an “autobiographical novel” rather than a memoir, it was hard for me to shake the impression that I was reading an actual journal rather than even a lightly fictionalized account; for this reason and for sheer convenience, I’m going to refer to the first person narrator simply as Eir. The journal begins on notes of personal and national uncertainty — returning home, Eir is tentatively beginning a new romantic relationship against the backdrop of Iceland’s economic crisis created by the collapse of its banking system in 2008. In the course of this quasi-novel, Eir spends time with her birth family, especially her archaeologist brother (nickname “Owlie”); details her developing relationship with her new lover, an ornithologist she refers to as “Birdy;” and travels. And travels some more. From one apartment or house in Reykjavik to another; from Reykjavik to outlying villages, towns and historic spots around Iceland; to and around England (primarily the Lake District but also London, Manchester & Worsley); and to Basel, Strasbourg and Paris. The numerous house moves and journeys, which are largely undetailed, are merely triggers for Eir’s personal memories or the framework on which she hangs her thoughts on questions large and small. These range, for example, from questioning the nature of family structures, to proposing sustainable ways to adapt old traditions to a changing environment, to wondering whether the neighbor she observes shopping at the same time every day is buying all that popcorn for herself “or for everyone else back at her retirement home.” (page 98)
I faced a number of barriers in reading this novel, some due to my own idiosyncrasies and some to Eir’s. Just as I’ve never been a big reader of memoirs and autobiographies (not to mention letter collections), I’ve also largely avoided diaries or journals. Given my prejudice towards the format, it’s obvious that a work of fiction written in the form of a journal was going to be challenging for me. In keeping with its journalistic structure, LAR moved rapidly from thought to thought, incident to incident, place to place, with few transitions or explanations, leaving me a little behind at times or at least wishing for a few notes beyond the scant four-page glossary provided at the end of the book. Eir is obviously a poet and writes with a poet’s sensibility; this can be very beautiful but also a little confusing at times, especially when combined with her penchant for assigning nicknames of animal or ornithological origin to practically everyone in her account (in London, for example, Eir (page 166) goes “to say hello to a porcupine, sharpening its snout in doubts” before visiting the bookshops). Because Eir is interested in how Icelandic traditions can provide a model for a new, environmentally sustainable life she delves into the history of her own family, particularly her grandmother’s; while a pilgrimage to the areas in which they lived and the land they had farmed provided a lovely structure for raising questions about Iceland’s transition from an agrarian culture to a tourist playground, I became lost at times in the welter of Eir’s family relationships. Eir begins each short section of her novel with a heading that is some combination of the Old Icelandic and Church Calendars, a geographic location or indication of the section’s content; for example (page 105):
Start of Góa or is it Skerpla?
Being mildly obsessive-compulsive, I experienced a certain amount of stress trying to determine the exact dates of particular “journal” entries and with trying to impose a chronological structure on Eir’s observations and memories.
Between one thing and another, I seriously considered abandoning Love and Ruins somewhere between pages forty and fifty. But then, gentle readers, I just — relaxed. I began to enjoy the humor, whimsy and sometimes history in the chapter headings; and realized it didn’t matter very much if I confused her friends Eyowl & the squirrel or got the grandmothers mixed up. In short, I simply started to listen to what Eir had to say and to appreciate the frequently beautiful way in which she said it. It’s hard to select one example from among the many contained in the novel, but I found the following (page 52) to be profoundly moving, although I’m not at all conventionally religious:
I think that in the housing of the future, there needs to be a little healing nook where you can lie down as if under the grass or down in the ground and let the earth restore you. Then rise up. Christianity is perhaps first and foremost an admonition to ground yourself so well that the light can play around you without burning you up, an admonition to connect with nature, turn to the dust each day and rise up from the dust, transcend the laws of nature with help from the laws of nature. You mustn’t bury yourself alive, forget to rise up, or bind yourself to the dust in melancholy surrender.
Love and Ruins is a physically small book containing big themes, reflected upon by an original mind and expressed in intuitive and poetic language. What constitutes a family? Is it possible to be in a loving relationship while maintaining one’s personal autonomy? If so, how can it be structured? What happens when a country no longer can sustain growth or the earth support the burdens we humans place on it? How do we honor our history while moving to the future? Although Eir raises these questions in the context of an Iceland in transition, they apply universally. If you are a reader who needs a conventional plot and/or character development, or demands clear and unambiguous answers to profound questions, then you should look elsewhere, Love and Ruins is not the book for you. But if you’re willing to bend a little bit with the details and go where the current carries you, it has much to offer.
Before departing, I should say a bit about the publisher, since I also read Love and Ruins in conjunction with #ReadIndies month. Restless Books is a U.S. independent publisher physically located in Gowanus, Brooklyn (a borough of New York City). Beginning in 2013 as a digital only publisher of international literature, by 2014 Restless Books had expanded into print by partnering with Simon & Schuster for international distribution. Dedicated to publishing work that speaks across “linguistic and cultural borders,” its publications include practically every genre from an equally wide array of countries. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of Restless Books before this year, I was a little surprised to discover I actually have a couple of their other publications among my towering stack of unread books.
Although I have a dismal completion rate, I adore book challenges! There are few joys to compare with lovingly pawing through my stacks (and I really do have stacks. And stacks) of unread books, searching for just the combination that will inspire me (for once) to finish whatever challenge it is that I’ve decided to undertake. I think I basically love book challenges for the sense of possibility they offer, the lure that this will be the year I read Ulysses; or five 19th century classics by unfamiliar authors; or a pre-1970 novel that has an animal in the title! Of course, my January exuberance is counter-balanced by my December reality check, when I (again) sadly acknowledge that most of these wonderful accomplishments didn’t materialize (even so, however, I always discover at least a few great new books/authors). But away with the pessimism because — it’s the beginning of January! The possibilities are endless! Reverting to my southern, down-home roots, I tell you, dear readers, that January, with its plethora of fresh, shiny new challenges, is a month when I’m in hog heaven!
One of my favorite challenges from last year was Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, which focuses on reading books by European writers or set in European countries. Given my dismal completion rate for such things, I was sensibly doubtful about participating. The Challenge looked so much fun, however, and was such a painless way to read more translated literature, I decided to go for it. I had only discovered the challenge, however, very late in January and lingered just a bit too long over my selections. Then, with my utter lack of technical ability, I was unable to satisfy Mr. Linky in time to sign up officially. Quel désastre! There was clearly only one solution — I would be a shadow participant! Although I ultimately didn’t review any of my selections, I actually read quite a number of them and, most importantly, really enjoyed the experience. After a few substitutions for my original choices and a false start or two (my apologies to Linda Olsson’s Astrid and Veronica, but the time just wasn’t ripe for you), I read eight books I selected specifically for this challenge.
After shadowing in 2021, I decided that in 2022 I’d do the real thing and officially sign up for this year’s Challenge (besides, I now have almost a month to outwit Mr. Linky!). The Challenge simply requires participants to read books set in a European country or by a European writer; each book must be by a different writer and set in a different country. It’s very flexible in that participants decide how many books they want to read, from Pensione Weekender (one qualifying book in 2022) to a Deluxe Entourage (five). This year, as I did as a shadow participant, I will also observe a couple of my own idiosyncratic rules in choosing my selections. Because my reading is so overwhelmingly slanted towards books originally written in English, I will choose novels by non-Anglophone writers set, where possible, in their native or adopted countries. For the same reason I also won’t select any works by writers from the U.K. or Ireland; at least half of my reading comes from British and Irish writers, and for this Challenge I’d like to continue learning more about books from other European countries. Because I’m full of January optimism, and given that last year I read eight books that met the Challenge’s requirements, I’ve decided in 2022 to sign up for the deluxe package!
One result from a year of massive self-indulgence in acquiring books is that I’ve managed, with very little effort, to compile a list of some very enticing possibilities. This has been aided enormously by the fact that I’d already decided to participate in Annabookbel’s Reading Nordic Literature month; in effect, I’ve already had a lot of fun looking for reading possibilities from Scandinavia. As the reading year develops, my precise itinerary may change, i.e., I may add or eliminate countries and/or books; what you see below is simply the rough pool from which I plan to draw my selections. Although my goal is a minimum of five, I hope to read at least a few more. Because Scandinavia is a very much anticipated part of my tour, I’m starting my European journey with:
After Denmark, I’m on to
It’s now time to head south for to visit the German speaking lands:
It’s finally on to a very interesting tour through France, Belgium, Italy and Spain:
If I’m not totally exhausted by this point, I may take brief side trip:
I’ve had a copy of the great Hungarian writer Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy gathering dust on my shelves for several years now. I won’t say I’ve totally ignored it; every year or two I read a few pages, scratch my head and decide that, next summer will be the perfect time to dive in! You can imagine my delight when I discovered The Enchanted Night, Pushkin Press’s collection of Bánffy’s short stories. At last, something that fits my attention span and is (I hope) an accessible introduction to Bánffy’s work. Lana Bastašić is a contemporary Serbian writer whose debut novel, Catch The Rabbit, won the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature. Having been in a few myself, I love stories about complicated friendships; Bastašić’s tale of two semi-estranged childhood friends on a road trip through post-war Bosnia looks really interesting.
Well, that’s it for my 2022 trip through Europe. Has anyone read any of my choices? If so, please share your opinion!
About halfway through June I discovered the very amusing “Six In Six” Challenge sponsored by Jo at Book Jotter. Since I’ve posted so very little this year while reading more than I have in quite some time, I decided this was an excellent way to share at least a little of the many great books that have come my way in what is shaping up to be a banner year for reading. Besides, isn’t quantifying one’s journey almost as much fun as undertaking the trip in the first place?
The challenge is to pick six categories and, having done so, to list six books that you’ve read by the end of June within each chosen category (as I understand it, the selections should be posted by the end of July. Since I just wouldn’t be me if I actually posted on time, I’m shooting for August 1!) In addition to supplying a multitude of categories from which to choose, Jo has very cleverly left room for participants to exercise their creativity by adding something new. I’ve taken advantage of her leniency by adding two categories of my own, “Short Reads,” which is self-explanatory, and my “Shelf of Shame,” a list of six books that I’ve had on my shelves unread for over six years! Can you, dear readers, match my brave honesty? If so, please share in a comment!
SIX AUTHORS I HAVE READ BEFORE
As a reader I am both loyal and tenacious, i.e., when I find a writer I like, I’m automatically “in” for her next novel and will frequently start working on that writer’s backlist as well. As a result, my yearly list almost always includes at least a few writers from prior years, although the particular combination of names may vary. Six of this year’s repeaters (there have actually been more but hey — we’re doing a “six in six” roundup here!) include:
Beryl Bainbridge (BB).Although I’ve always enormously enjoyed BB’s work, I took a rather extended break from it after reading a novel or two that didn’t quite do it for me.This year, however, Tony’s excellent review of BB’s The Bottle Factory Outing reminded me of just how much I enjoyed Bainbridge’s elegant prose and her unique view of the world. Resisting the temptation to re-read an old favorite or two (since I’m big on re-reading, this was difficult) I opted to tryEvery Man for Himself, in which a very privileged young man (he’s a nephew of J.P. Morgan) thinks it’s a great idea to book a homeward voyage on the Titanic. Well, we know how at least one part of the story is going to end, don’t we? Bainbridge, being Bainbridge, however, never fails to throw her readers a curve ball or two and this particular luxury ship as a metaphor is a perfect vehicle for her gimlet gaze at Edwardian Society at its height. Because I tend to avoid fiction (and movies ) invoking the Titanic (frequently too sentimental and/or melodramatic, don’t you think?) I was very skeptical the novel would work for me. Another of my egregious literary misjudgments, I’m afraid, as it was a fabulous read. If you share my phobia about things Titanic (Titanophobia?), fear not, gentle reader. This coming-of-age tale conjoined with the sinking of a very large ship is Bainbridge at her best.
Sylvia Townsend Warner. A favorite writer of mine, so much so that I actually summoned the energy last year to write a real review of one of her wonderful books. Since that time I’ve been hoarding The Flint Anchor to read for Gallimaufry’s annual STW week. Although Anchor is classified as historical fiction, it’s leagues above what’s included in this genre. Warner’s combination of realism and imagination is equaled IMO only by Hilary Mantel’s; both writers have the ability to convince me that I’m reading an actual account of an era while at the same time enriching their stories with modern flashes of insight and imagination. If you haven’t read Warner before I wouldn’t recommend that you begin with Anchor, which does start a bit slowly; if you need sympathetic characters with which you’re able to identify, I’d probably skip Warner altogether. If you’re looking, however, for an unforgettable reading experience from a master of English prose, then head for this novel about a 19th century Norfolk merchant and his tyrannized family. Despite my intense enjoyment of Flint Anchor, I didn’t manage a review for STW week. Not to worry, gentle readers, as Gallimaufry’s excellent review says it all. (Note to Gallimaufry: typepad frequently gives me technical problems, so I wasn’t able to leave any comments.)
Valerie Martin.A prolific and wonderfully skilled author that I’ve somewhat lost track of in recent years (if you haven’t read Property, put it on your TBR list immediately!).I was happy to renew our acquaintance this year with Martin’s latest, I Give It To You, a wonderful novel involving a writer’s use, and sometimes misuse, of fiction to interpret another’s life.Set in a beautifully described Tuscan countryside, with an interwoven plot strand involving Mussolini’s Italy, what’s not to like?
Joe Abercrombie: No one does dark fantasy better than Joe A.Why read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones when Abercrombie’s novels are available? And better? Unlike Martin, Abercrombie does tight plots, has a wicked sense of humor and can actually finish a story line (is it obvious, dear reader, that I’m a disgruntled fan of George R.R.?)From December 2020 to mid-February 2021, Abercrombie’s novels were calling my name; I totally immersed myself in his deliciously cynical world. Abercrombie’s realpolitik, tricky plots and flawed characters were such a perfect escape from pandemic and moving-to-a-new-house stress. When the dust cleared, shortly after my eyesight gave out, my total was two complete trilogies and the first two volumes of a third (last volume’s due out this September.Guess what I’ll be doing then?).Readers, what can I say?That’s a lot of trilogies.If you’d like to sample Abercrombie’s work on a less immersive basis, I’d recommend Best Served Cold, which can easily be read as a standalone novel.
Elizabeth Bowen.As I’ve noted before, Bowen is one of those writers with whom I have long had a problematical relationship.She’s one of the greats, no doubt about it, and her prose can be absolutely gorgeous but . . . at times she’s just a bit too nuanced and elliptical for little old me, who dearly loves an unambiguous story told in a straightforward manner (yes, dear reader, some of us never quite leave our childhood behind).Yet Bowen is one of those writers to whom I keep returning and I’ve slowly but steadily whittled away at her novels after discovering her work a decade or so ago. (I think Hotel and A World of Love are the only ones I haven’t yet read.)This year’s Bowen was Eva Trout, a wonderful novel involving a socially challenged and very rich young woman, a gun that goes off at a most unexpected time and the inability of humans in general to communicate anything important to each other. As if Bowen’s wonderful prose and the very interesting questions she raises aren’t enough to make it one of the best things I’ve read this year, the novel is also very, very funny in spots (there’s a luncheon scene I’d rank with some of Saki’s finer sketches).
Anita Brookner.After being a rabid (if one may use such a word in connection with such a genteel writer) fan for many years, I drifted away from Brookner’s work when she was slightly past mid-career.Undeterred by my desertion, the wonderful Ms. B just kept turning out her elegant, psychologically insightful novels.I hadn’t intended to read anything by Brookner this year, but Jacquiwine’s reviews of Brookner’s novels (she’s working her way through them in publication order) have been so much fun to read I was inspired last spring to re-read Misalliance, one of my favorites.This time around, I enjoyed Brookner’s tale of the intelligent, lonely Blanche and her nemesis, a husband stealer named Mousey, every bit as much as before.
SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE READ IN AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION AND SIX WRITERS WHO ARE NEW TO ME
Until I started blogging, I really avoided translated literature for a variety of reasons, none of them good. One of the great joys of the last year (and, face it, weren’t we all seizing on the teeniest little bit of joy in that awful pandemic year?) was letting go, or at least beginning to let go, of that irrational prejudice, with some very happy results as a reward (the only downside has been an exponential explosion in my TBR list). Since I’m new to reading translated fiction, practically every translated novel that I read in the early part of this year (exception noted below) was by a writer who was new to me. Taking advantage of Jo’s invitation to be creative, I’ve decided to combine these two categories.
Aoko Matsuda. Placed at the bottom of my pile only for convenience (the other books stack up nicely on top of it), Matsuda was one of this year’s wonderful discoveries. Humor! A feminist slant! A great translator (Polly Barton)! Great characters and clever plots! Matsuda’s collection of short stories inspired by Japanese folk & fairy tales has everything. Although I read it back in January, thus beginning 2021 on a really high note, I’m afraid Abercrombie’s fantasy novels and my move to a new house got in the way of a proper review (I’m somewhat optimistic that I’ll manage this for #WIT month which begins, my heavens, can it really be tomorrow????)
Amélie Nothomb. I’ve been intending for (literally) years to read something, anything by this very interesting French/Belgian/grew-up-in-Asia novelist. Since she’s amazingly prolific (think Joyce Carol Oates) I had quite a lot to choose from. Because I’m drawn to mother-daughter tales, I decided on Strike Your Heart, the story of an unloved daughter and the effects of that maternal deprivation on her life. Since I’ve not read any of Nothomb’s previous work, I wasn’t sure what to expect; I must admit I was surprised by her terse style and the almost mythic nature of her story. This short and disturbing novel (the mother’s psychological brutality in the opening pages made me mildly queasy) can be read in an afternoon. Its effects, however, linger for quite some time afterward.
Magda Szabo. Including Szabo’s Katalin Street in this twofer category is a bit of a cheat, since I’ve previously read her wonderful novel The Door. But, hey — this is my list and if adding it here causes any of you to read it I’m sure you’ll forgive me for you’ll be reading a marvelous novel. Szabo’s tale of three interlocked Budapest families whose lives are torn apart by the German occupation of 1944 is quite different from The Door (aside from a more complex story arc, Szabo plays with a touch of magical realism by making one of her many characters a ghost) but is almost as good. Absolutely not to be missed.
Jens Christian Grøndahl. Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy was another great discovery from the earlier months of the year. I must admit that a somewhat prurient curiosity drew me to this novel in which the narrator addresses her dead best friend, who just happens to have stolen the narrator’s husband (I’m addicted to tales of marital betrayal. Don’t ask why). You can imagine my surprise in finding a spare, poetic meditation on grief, friendship and marriage. I absolutely loved this book and have now added to my TBR list everything of Grøndahl’s that’s been translated into English.
Margarita Liberaki. Do you, dear readers, enjoy coming of age novels written in beautifully sensual prose? Are interesting female characers and a sense of atmosphere high on your requirements for an ideal reading experience? Are you less exacting with respect to plot and action sequences? If so, Liberaki’s Three Summers, which charts the lives and relationships of three young sisters growing up in a suburb of Athens shortly before WWII, should be your next novel. Regardless of the time and place in which you read it, Liberaki will instantly transport you to the Greek countryside of the mid-1940s, in which you’ll almost smell those red poppies and hear the bees in the garden.
Eileen Chang. Languages as well as a universe of emotional difference separates Liberaki’s novel from the beautiful, brutal short stories contained in Love In a Fallen City (oddly, I think the two women are roughly contemporaries). If you’re seeking gentle tales of romantic love, well, Chang is not your writer. Despite the title, her stories are about anything but love; rather, they center on power, exploitation and raw sexual politics, all told against the exotic setting of mid-20th century Hong Kong. I loved this collection of stories, originally published separately in the 1930s-1940s, and put together by NYRB Classics. Next on my reading for Chang will be her Little Reunions, also an NYRB Classic.
SIX BOOKS I’VE ENJOYED THE MOST
As I noted above, 2021 has been an exceptionally good year for me as far as my reading selections are concerned, with scarcely a dud among the lot. Although it’s difficult to limit my choice to six (for one thing, I keep changing my mind) my current selection is as follows (those who bother to count will notice that I’ve sneaked in a seventh novel):
Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel. Another take on a love triangle, combined with a sensitively rendered portrait of childhood, told in beautiful prose by a marvelous, and marvelously underrated, American writer. Stafford was a journalist and writer of short stories, with only three novels to her name. Of these, only one, The Mountain Lion, seems to have remained continuously in print. Thankfully, NYRB Classics has recently republished Stafford’s Boston Adventure (very high on my TBR list) and the Library of America has taken up her work as well.
Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout.
Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton. A year without a Henry James novel is a sad year indeed. As much as I adore James, one has to be realistic about one’s available time and attention span, so I chose a shorter work to squeeze in this spring, keeping in mind that “short” does not equate to simple when reading HJ. Being a material girl myself, I was eager to see how this duel to death over the family heirlooms would play out. As usual, HJ did not do the expected but then — that’s why he’s The Master.
Paula Fox’s The God of Nightmares. This is the year that I’ve finally gotten to Paula Fox, a very interesting American writer whom I’ve been intending to read for years and years. This novel of a young woman, her fading actress-aunt and their bohemian circle of friends in 1940s New Orleans is told beautifully and with a complete lack of sentimentality (always welcome in novels with New Orleans’ settings). I am now an avid fan of Paula Fox and expect to read many more of her novels.
Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind. One of my “rescued from the back shelf” books; that it remained unread for so many years speaks very poorly of my judgment. I loved this novel, for all the reasons I discussed in one of my few reviews this year.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’sThe Flint Anchor.
Jane Austen’sPersuasion. An impulse choice, but can one ever go wrong with Austen? Because I first read Persuasion at a particularly low point in my life, when facing the results of several very bad choices, this novel has a special place in my affection. Don’t we all need to be reminded at times that a bad choice can be redeemed? Aside from a wonderful heroine in Anne Elliot, Sir Walter is one of Austen’s great comic creations.
SIX SHORT READS
This is one of my “invented” categories, i.e., it’s not on Jo’s “Six in Six” list.Although I’ve never been a big reader of short stories or novellas, I found myself turning increasingly to both in 2020, when I (like many others) found it so difficult to concentrate on novels.The willingness to try shorter works has carried over to 2021, when I’ve finally started to read some of those many Melville House and Penguin novellas that have been sitting, neglected, on the shelf. So far this year I’ve managed:
Willa Cather’s “Alexander’s Bridge.” A very early work, with an uncharacteristically urban setting (Boston and London, no less), this is a satisfying if flawed introduction to Cather’s work. A love triangle in which two strong and very interesting women are being strung along by the same guy, who can’t quite make up his mind between the two. Considered by critics to be not among Cather’s best, it’s still very much worth reading.
Edith Wharton’s “The Touchstone.” Not quite first rank Wharton IMO but still better than almost anything else written during that period. A brilliant, famous woman bestows her love on an unworthy object, who ultimately betrays her trust in a particularly dishonorable fashion. Wharton’s style and signature irony save this novella from being a tad sentimental and melodramatic.
Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love.” Another coming of age tale, with a twist. Although I guessed the plot well in advance, this novella was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. It’s the first thing I’ve read by Turgernev; now I’m eager to read his Fathers and Sons.
Joseph Conrad’s “The Duelist.” After watching Ridley Scot’s great movie of the same name for the umpteenth time, I finally read the source material. Although I’m not a big Conrad fan, this story of mad obsession, in which the irrational rancor of the duelists reflects the insanity of Napoleonic Europe, was a gripping and very satisfying read.
Stefan Zweig’s “Fear.” Ah, the carnal lust lurking beneath the respectable facade of the Viennese bourgeoisie! Adultery, guilt and blackmail! No one does this type of thing better than Zweig.
James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I’ve read it before, but what does that matter? A work to re-read, as many times as possible during one’s life.
SIX BOOK COVERS THAT I LOVE
MY SHELF OF SHAME: SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE HAD FOR MORE THAN SIX YEARS WITHOUT READING THEM
As I indicated at the beginning of this post, I devised this category largely because I have so very many unread books. The above, a mere bump on the iceberg, were chosen purely at random:
Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down: this one belonged to Mr. Janakay’s grandmother, who was quite a reader. In my possession, unread, since 1985. I love West’s novels, but just can’t seem to get to this one.
Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies: In my possession since shortly after its publication in 2008 (note: I have the other two volumes of the trilogy as well, also unread). Not to worry, dear readers! I’ll get to all three. Sometime.
Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights: sitting on my shelf since 2015; I can’t understand why, as I’ve always wanted to read it.
Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare. I’ve been dying to read this one since 2009. One day.
Ursula Holden’s The Tin Toys. I don’t know the precise date I acquired this, but it’s been warming the shelf for at least a decade. I actually took it with me on a long overseas birding trip, but ended up reading several of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels instead.
Esther Freud’s The Wild. Again, no precise date of acquisition, but this one’s looking pretty foxed. It was published in 2000, and I’m guessing I acquired it in 2011, when I first discovered Freud’s novels and went on a massive Esther Freud binge. I love her work, so I’ll definitely read it. At some point.
One of my consolations in this strange and troubling year is discovering the pleasures of translated fiction. My pre-blog reading life (as I’ve noted before) was largely confined to the anglophone world, with a mild tilt towards British authors thanks to my devotion to The Guardian’s book section. Oh, I did read a translated novel here and there over the years, but when I did so it was almost always something from a European country; my two categories were either works that made a huge splash on my side of the Atlantic (Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and Herman Koch’s The Dinner spring to mind) or one of those big, sprawling 19th century chunksters that so impress one’s colleagues during those stimulating Monday morning conversations around the water cooler. (“Did I happen to mention that I read War and Peace last weekend? Tolstoy has such a penetrating view of history, don’t you think?”) I very rarely read any contemporary fiction in translation and I almost never read anything, contemporary or classical, from a non-European country.
My, how things did change, once I started traveling through the blogosphere! It didn’t take long for me to see the riches I had been missing and to add a great many new titles to my ever expanding TBR mountain (thank you very much, dear Kaggsy, for your excellent recommendations!) And then, there was the fun of discovering new publishers, such as the Pushkin Press, the Fitzcarraldo and the Europa Editions (if any of you dear readers have other publisher recommendations, do please share). After dipping my toe into non-western waters last winter thanks to Dolce Bellezza Japanese Literature Challenge, I decided the time was ripe for a mild exploration of a few more translated works.
And what better time to start my adventure than in August, which is both Spanish literature and Women in Translation (WIT) month? In honor of both occasions, I’ve been having a lot of fun reading several works that fit into either category, with at least two novels (Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dreams and Maria Graina’s The Optic Nerve) that fit both. In addition to the thrill of discovering these new (to me) writers, I’m very much looking forward to reading all the great reviews that are currently popping up on some of my favorite blogs. Hopefully I’ll be sharing a few of my own thoughts on my discoveries in the upcoming weeks as well.
Because I’ve traveled fairly extensively in certain parts of Latin America (but have never, alas, visited Spain), I rather arbitrarily decided to focus on the former area in selecting my translated-from-Spanish novel. I also wanted to read a very contemporary writer who’s currently publishing rather than an established giant of the canon such as Borges, Llosa or Marquez. Earlier this summer I became interested in Andrés Neuman, an Argentinian novelist with strong ties to Spain, when I read a recent Guardian review of Fractures, his latest novel translated into English. In keeping with my general ignorance of international literature, I was amazed to discover just how much Neuman has written (he has over twenty works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt), the wide range of his talent (Neuman is a poet and essayist as well as a novelist) and just how highly he’s regarded by those who should know (Roberto Bolaño, no less, proclaimed that 21st century literature would belong to this guy and as if that wasn’t enough, Granta included him in Volume 113, its selection of the best young Spanish language writers). Despite this renown, however, only three of Neuman’s novels have currently been translated into English. A copy of the earliest of these, The Traveler of the Century, wasn’t readily available to me; between the two that were, I decided to begin with Talking To Ourselves based largely on whim (also, I must confess, I loved the cover photo, despite the insertion of those stupid conversation “balloons”).
Talking to Ourselves is one of those novels whose brevity is disproportionate to its impact. Clocking in at a mere 160 pages or so, it can be finished in an afternoon, but its reverberations continue long after you’ve read the last word. I found myself puzzling for days over various aspects of the story and finding new layers of (possible) meaning in various incidents or characters. I don’t want to suggest that Talking is a difficult read — it isn’t; there isn’t much external action and the number of characters is primarily limited to the eternal triangle of man, woman and child. Rather, like the great artist he is, Neuman works on many levels and leaves it up to to the reader to decide how deeply he or she wants to delve.
The novel opens with a quarrel between Mario and his wife Elena; Mario, it seems, wants to borrow his brother’s truck and take Lito, the couple’s ten year old son, on a road trip to deliver an unspecified cargo to a small, remote town far from the family home in Buenos Aires. Lito is very excited at the propect of this long-promised treat while Elena is very much opposed. We shortly learn that Mario is dying (almost certainly from cancer, although the cause is never specified); when the novel opens his disease is in (temporary) remission and he desperately wants to create a lasting memory for Lito to cherish after his father’s death. Mario and Lito embark on their journey while Elena, who remains behind, commences her own very different odyssey.
Lito, Mario and Elena each tell the unfolding story through his or her point of view (POV). This limited view point not only keeps the reader guessing but also deepens our understanding of certain incidents. Lito, for example, thinks his father reacts rudely to a “magician” they encounter on their road trip; Mario’s puzzling actions become clear later on when he narrates his own section and indicates his opinion that the “magician” is most probably a pedophile who’s hitting on his son. The shifting POV also imparts suspense into what might otherwise be a rather claustrophobic domestic drama by allowing the reader access to information Elena and Mario withhold from each other and from Lito (both parents, for example, lie to their son about the extent and nature of Mario’s illness and death).
Although Mario does the dying (he is, so to speak, the novel’s guest of honor), the novel really belongs to Elena, an academic manqué whose lack of conviction and desire to get married led her to abandon graduate study. Far more intellectual than Mario, Elena attempts to understand her grief by reading and reflecting on great works of literature. We know her thoughts through her journal entries, as we know Mario’s from the recordings he makes (after his death, these will ultimately be given to Lito) and Lito’s through his texts and stream of consciousness narration (it’s a mark of Neuman’s skill that he makes each character communicate in a way that reflects his or her personality). As Elena looks to literature to make sense of herself and her disintegrating world, the novel interweaves her thoughts about what she is reading with actual quotes from the works themselves. As Elena explains:
When a book tells me something I was trying to say, I feel the right to appropriate its words, as if they had once belonged to me and I was taking them back.
“She has already started to wear sunglasses indoors, like a celebrity widow,” I was startled to read in a short story by Lorrie Moore, sometimes I do the same, using my photophobia as an excuse, so that Lito won’t see my eyes. “From where will her own strength come? From some philosophy? From some frigid little philosophy?” Actually, I don’t get my strength from reading, but I do understand my weakness.
Although Neuman overdoes this device a bit, it’s a very interesting stream of consciousness technique that gives a real sense of immediacy to Elena’s reading (the novel contains a bibliography listing the works that Elena cites, which range from César Aira and Margaret Atwood to Hebe Uhart and Justo Navarro).
A major portion of Elena’s journal entries deal with a clandestine affair that begins shortly after Mario and Lito depart on their road trip. Despite feeling increasingly guilty about her actions, Elena responds to her husband’s approaching death by engaging in an intense, very physical affair that has heavy sadomasochistic overtones. As Elena explains (Talking at 44-45) in her journal, the physical and psychological pain she gives, and receives, from this affair resurrects and awakens her; she and her lover (who is experiencing a loss of his own) “cause each other pain in order to make sure we are still here.” I’m less morally repulsed than somewhat unconvinced by Elena’s actions, which strike me as a bit contrived (I found myself thinking that this novel was written by a man, after all, but then perhaps I’m being naive). It’s perhaps significant, perhaps not, that Elena’s lover is the one important character we see only from the outside; he alone has no voice. Although this may simply emphasize his relative unimportance vis-à-vis the bond between Elena and the dying Mario, for me at least his silence and the opacity of his emotions and motives increased my inclination to regard him as a rather artificial plot device.
Unsurprisingly for such a short novel, there’s a dearth of secondary characters. Elena’s parents and older sister, and Mario’s brothers, make brief, fleeting appearances or are referred to in passing. When they do appear, however, Neuman can bring them alive with a line or two. My favorite of these is Elena’s older sister. Never given a proper name, she quarrels with Elena and leaves her house in a huff after she learns of Elena’s affair; polite, dignified and insufferable, she informs Elena of her departure by text message. A subsequent exchange between the sisters conveys the essence of many sibling relationships:
Do you need money? my sister asked in that responsible tone my dad admires so much. No, I pretended, why do you ask? No reason, she replied, how much do you need? When I said the amount I felt odd, grateful, younger.
I’m afraid that my bare summary may leave you with the impression that the novel is melodramatic and emotionally bleak. If so, I’ve done a severe disservice to Neuman’s skill and subtlety. Talking is surprisingly funny in spots, an effect Neuman achieves in part by making Lito the narrator for part of the road trip with his father. I usually become pretty wary when a child protagonist appears, as all too often s/he is either too cute, unrealistically precocious or both. In Lito, however, Neuman finds the realistic (and very funny) balance between the awareness and the innocence of a ten year old, as this exchange between Lito and his father (Talking at 32) makes clear:
I send a text from Dad’s phone:
hi ma hw r u? we r awsm! saw ++s of grt plcs 2day dt worry dad nt drvg fst 🙂 xxxs luv u
Thank you my darling for your delicious message. Your mom is fine but she misses you loads. Be careful climbing in and out of Pedro [the truck]. I went swimming today. You are my angel, kiss Daddy for me.
Mom doesn’t know how to use the phone, I laugh. What do you mean? Dad says, she uses it every day. And she had one before you were born * * * Sure I say, but she doesn’t know. Her messages always have twenty or thirty letters too many. It’s more expensive. And she wastes about a hundred letters. * * * And you, I go on, don’t know how to use it either. Oh, heck, pardon me, he says, why? Let’s see, I say, where in the menu do you find the games? That’s unfair, he complains. Ask me about something I might have a use for. Okay, okay, I say. How do you copy your contacts list? He doesn’t say anything. You see? I say. Then I raise my arms and whoop like I’ve just scored a goal.