Category Archives: Reading The World – A Personal Challenge

2013 European Reading Challenge

2013.ERC

January 1, 2012 – January 31, 2014

It has been a long time since I have jumped into the reading challenge fervor, but I’m feeling like Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge will be just the thing to prompt me to read from my stacks this year.

The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country – it’s supposed to be a tour.

The challenge requires readers to choose from  the list of 50 sovereign states that fall (at least partially) within the geographic territory of the continent of Europe and/or enjoy membership in international European organizations such as the Council of Europe: These include: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.

Read more about the challenge and sign up here.

Links to book reviews may be found here.

I’m committing to the top level for this challenge which is the Five Star (Deluxe Entourage): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries. I’ll be listing my books below as I read them, and I will also highlight the country in red in the list above.

  1. The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton (United Kingdom) – Completed January 8, 2013; rated 4/5; read my review.
  2. All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky (France) – Completed January 12, 2013; rated 4/5; read my review.
  3. The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (Germany) – Completed February 23, 2013; rated 4.5/5; read my review.
  4. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (Russia) – Completed May 1, 2013; rated 5/5; read my review.
  5. The Dinner by Herman Koch (Netherlands) – Completed June 21, 2013; rated 4/5; read my review.
  6. Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson (Finland) – Completed June 29, 2013; rated 5/5; read my review.

 

 

Schoolgirl – Book Review

We have a vague notion of the best place we should go, or the beautiful places we should like to see, or the kinds of places that would make us grow as a person. We yearn for a good life. We have real hopes and ambitions. We feel impatient for an unshakable faith that we can rely on. But it would require considerable effort to express such things in our typical life as a girl. – from Schoolgirl, page 31 –

A young, Japanese girl wakes up fighting sadness, and missing her father who has died. She dresses, has breakfast and plucks some weeds from the garden before heading for school. As the day unfolds, she muses about life, arranged marriages, the struggles of growing up and being misunderstood; she wrestles with ambivalent feelings about her mother. She returns home from school and visits with her family and visitors, has dinner, bathes. It is all but an ordinary day in the life of a young schoolgirl. But it is less the actions of the protagonist and more her adolescent ruminations which draw the reader into Osamu Dazai’a slim novella.

This is a universal story about what it is like to grow from childhood into adulthood. The angst, moodiness, and introspection are all typical of adolescents who feel largely misunderstood.

Nobody in the world understood our suffering. In time, when we became adults, we might look back on this pain and loneliness as a funny thing, perfectly ordinary, but – but how were we expected to get by, to get through this interminable period of time until that point when we were adults? – from Schoolgirl, page 89 –

In Schoolgirl, the protagonist longs to grow up, but clings to childhood. She has the added burden of dealing with the death of her father, and her feelings toward her mother range from irritation to love.

I felt ashamed about the earlier resentment I had harbored towards Mother when Imaida had been here. I’m sorry, I formed the words softly. I only ever think of myself, I thought, I let myself be coddled by her to my heart’s content, and then take such a reckless attitude with her. – from Schoolgirl, page 83  –

Schoolgirl was the work which brought Dazai’s writing to the forefront of the literary world in post-war Japan. Within its pages can be found the cultural mores of this period in history, where girls in Japan were still finding themselves in arranged marriages. The young girl in the story worries about being forced into marriage to an older man who she does not love.

Across from me four or five salarymen who looked about the same age were just sitting there.  They must have been around 30. I didn’t like any of them. Their eyes were empty and dull. They had no vigor. But now, if I so much as grinned at them, I could very well be dragged off by one of these men, falling into the chasm of compulsory marriage. – from Schoolgirl, page 35 –

Dazai’s style is like a long, narrative poem – observant, simple and oddly compelling. I read this book in less than two hours, but found it haunting me for several days. Dazai does not name his narrator, and so she becomes symbolic of all young girls growing up and trying to define their identities against their families and society at large. Despite an underlying sadness there is also a great deal of optimism in this novella. When the young girl drops off to sleep at the end the tone is decidedly hopeful.

Schoolgirl is a literary work which appears simple on the surface, but explores themes of identity, family and grief. Readers who enjoy literary fiction will find this an interesting read.

Recommended.

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This book was read in translation from the Japanese (translated by Allison Markin Powell)

FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to One Peace Books who sent me this novella for review on my blog.

 

 

Solitaria – Book Review

Revisiting my childhood is like standing on the shores of a turbulent sea: achingly beautiful and dangerous – the thunderclap of breakers, the foamlicks of crests, the way swells undulate, graceful as pregnant women, the boil of froth through sand in a rip tide. And I, who never learned to swim, long to submerge myself in those pristine days when miracles were possible, when everyone still loved me. – from Solitaria, page 107 –

Vito Santoro’s body is unearthed at an Italian villa and this discovery sends shock waves through his large, extended family. For decades, Vito’s sister, Piera, has been telling the family Vito was sending her letters from Argentina – so what is the truth about his death? Piera seems to be the only one with answers, but she is refusing to talk to anyone except her Canadian nephew, David. Eager to solve the mystery, Vito’s siblings, wife, nephews and nieces converge on Piera’s villa in Italy where long ago secrets are revealed, rivalries are re-established, and the answers to Vito’s apparent murder become murkier than ever.

Genni Gunn’s novel, Solitaria, is told primarily during the 1940s in the first person voice of Piera, a solitary and intractable woman who is the matriarch of her family.

Donna Piera – La Solitaria, as she is referred to by the townspeople – is not docile or senile, ill or still. She rarely goes out of her house, yet people of her generation cross themselves when they hear her name – either as a protection against her or as a benediction towards her. She is not bedridden, penniless, or feeble. She interacts with the world outside her house through the telephone, with a tongue so sharp and barbed, people inspect their ears after a call, looking for puncture marks. – from Solitaria, page 136-7

Piera is controlling, manipulative and weaves tales from her childhood which at times seem hardly believable. In fact, Piera as narrator is unreliable. Her sisters and brothers have different memories of the same events and her sister-in-law (Vito’s wife, Teresa, who barely tolerates Piera) remembers Vito as a dedicated and devoted husband. The reason for the conflict between Piera and Teresa becomes more clear as the story unspools. Through Piera’s voice, Gunn explores the unreliability of memory, creating an uneasy novel where the truth is always a little out of reach.

Piera’s story is not the only thread which weaves through this literary novel. David, her nephew, is revealed in alternating chapters which take place in modern times. David is a man unsettled. He carries on a long-distance relationship with a woman named Bernette who is still a mystery to him. David seems to be as solitary in nature as Piera.

Two marvelous years of nothing. They hardly know each other. Three times this past year, they’ve met in a city mid-way between their homes and fucked for a weekend. Weak. Weak. End. – from Solitaria, page 10 –

Gunn meshes the lives of David and Piera to reveal the underpinnings of a complicated family. Vito’s murder becomes the lynchpin around which the lives of the characters spin. Through the memories of Vito, the reader begins to get a glimpse of the convoluted family relationships. If the characters cannot agree as to what happened to Vito, they can agree that he was the catalyst for the drama and dysfunction in a family whose lives were dictated by tradition, family secrets, and political and social upheaval in 1940s Italy.

The children were all seated in a circle around Vito. He was the stranger they feared and wanted to become. He was their black sheep, the disgraced one, their brother, their hero. – from Solitaria, page 95-

Gunn’s novel is an elaborate narrative which is quite literary in style. The pace of the book is slow at times, especially those chapters which deal with the modern day relationships. The sections where the reader gets to hear Piera’s unique voice are more compelling. Despite an ending which I could see coming, the novel manages to keep the reader engaged until the final page.

Readers interested in Italian history during the 1940s, and those who enjoy family sagas and literary fiction will find Gunn’s novel an interesting look at the complexities of human behavior within a family.

Solitaria was long-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize this year.

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Are you a book blogger who has read and reviewed this book? Leave me a link in the comments to your review and I’ll add it to the list above.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Genni Gunn is a writer, musician and translator. Born in Trieste, she came to Canada  when she was eleven. She has published nine books: three novels—Solitaria, Tracing Iris and Thrice Upon a Time; two short story collections—Hungers and On The Road; two poetry collections— Faceless and Mating in Captivity. As well, she has translated from Italian two collections of poems—Devour Me Too and Traveling in the Gait of a Fox by renowned Italian author, Dacia Maraini. One of Genni’s books, Mating in Captivity, has been translated into Italian. Two more are forthcoming next year. Read more about Gunn and her work by visiting the author’s website.

FTC Disclosure: Many thinks to the publisher who provided me a copy of this book through Diane Saarinen for a blog tour of the novel.

 

 

The Marriage Artist – Book Review (and Giveaway)

When he thought of Wind, when he thought of Aleksandra, when he thought of his father – when Daniel thought of anyone he had known who was now dead – what survived of them was not only love. What survived also were the echoes of all the resistance they had thrown up to life (and therefore to death). Sure the love, but also the rage, the refusal, the running, the shouting, the punching, the probing, the flailing, the crying, the sprint of sex, the furious hunger to be. When Aleksandra and Wind had hit the pavement, it was the releasing of resistance. – from The Marriage Artist, page 148-9

Daniel Lichtmann is a New York art critic married to a beautiful Russian immigrant and photographer named Aleksandra. When Aleksandra plunges to her death from a rooftop, she does not go alone. The body of Benjamin Wind, an artist who has taken the world by storm and received accolades from Daniel, is found next to her. Their deaths are sudden and unexplainable. Although it seems apparent that the two committed suicide in some lover’s pact, Daniel cannot accept his wife’s death at face value.

Josef Pick is only ten years old and living in pre-WWII  Austria, the son of Jewish parents who deny their faith, when he discovers a hidden talent: the ability to draw ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts which are an integral part of the Jewish faith). Josef’s contracts are so astonishingly beautiful and intricate that they belie his lack of artistic training. His gift draws him to his maternal grandfather, a Rabbi living in the Jewish section of Vienna. Josef will come to manhood as Hitler’s troops invade the city – forced to reconcile his confused view of marriage, his faith and belief in God, and what it means to love another.

These two characters – Daniel and Josef – are separated by half a century, but are astonishingly connected. As Daniel searches for truth in the death of his wife, he will discover the answers hidden in history, religious belief, and the elusive threads of family.

Andrew Winer has written a multi-layered, brilliant novel about identity, marriage, love, and our connections to each other through our shared histories. The book is narrated through the parallel stories of Daniel and Josef, moving back and forth from the present to the past. Winer’s characters are richly developed – real, flawed, complex, and wholly believable. The result is a stunning and haunting novel which pulls the reader through its pages and doesn’t let her go until the emotional ending.

Winer weaves the historical elements seamlessly through the novel, setting the reader down in Vienna during the terror of Nazi invasion. But, Winer does more than just give us history…he uses history to show us the importance of identity ( a strong theme in the novel). When Hitler’s troops rounded up Jewish people, forced them into cattle cars and murdered them in mass numbers, he essentially stole the identities of individuals. By shaving their captives’ heads, the Nazis neutralized their gender. They tore families apart, disconnecting individuals from their shared pasts. They used mass graves to dispose of remains. They stole people’s futures. They even negated their names by labeling them with the letter “J”.

The officer examines her child’s documents first, meticulously transcribing HERMAN JOHANNES PICK in his notebook, along with the rest of the two-year-old’s particulars. As she watches the officer finish with a practiced flourish by setting down in bold ink the letter “J” beside her son’s information (just like he did for the other Jews registered by his hand on the same page), she is stirred by everything that is annihilating about identification…the reek of human inventory, the chilling exactitude of a street address, the futurelessness of any single person’s name. – from The Marriage Artist, page 226 –

But it is perhaps the examination of life’s meaning intertwined with the connections we have with others which elevates this novel to something extraordinary. The Marriage Artist makes salient and honest observations of marriage, love, death, and the binds that connect families from generation to generation.

Perhaps the boy was seeking instructions of a much weightier kind, answers to questions for which there are no easy answers: What does one do with a life? Which path should one take? How might one live each moment? What will happen to us? – from The Marriage Artist, page 53 –

And so it is, that Josef experiences his first conscious recognition of the deep, the thorny, the bizarre pull between family members that most people call love but, more often than they would care to admit, resembles tolerance. – from The Marriage Artist, page 101 –

Aleksandra may have married him, but she had died with Benjamin Wind. Could he accept that death was the stronger bond, or worse, that his marriage had not been what he had believed it to be – not necessarily a lie, but something narrower than love? – from The Marriage Artist, page 14 –

As Daniel struggles to reconcile the affair between his wife and Benjamin – that then led to their demise – he begins to question why people are drawn together. What are we looking for when we choose another person with whom to share our life? Are we perhaps, only looking for ourselves reflected through another person’s eyes?

[…] if there was any truth to the notion that when we love we are not really looking to see something new, but rather our own ideas embodied in the other person – qualities that awaken echoes already resounding in us. – from The Marriage Artist, page 256 –

Winer was formerly an artist who wrote art criticism, and he is clearly in his element when he explores how art forms our impressions not only of the external world, but as also a reflection of who we are. Some of the most moving passages in the novel show art as self-expression and a means to touch others.

The Marriage Artist is so beautifully rendered that I found myself moved almost to tears at its conclusion. What Andrew Winer does with his words is paint a portrait of his characters’ lives against the backdrop of history. And yet, although history is certainly important in the novel, it does not define it. Winer’s gift is his ability to demonstrate the timeless nature of our ruminations about life, death and faith.

I was blown away by this novel. Very few authors are able to explore such complex themes with such brilliance. I was carried away by the prose, enraptured by the characters, and felt compelled to keep turning the pages. The Marriage Artist is a must read for those readers who love literary fiction. It will certainly be one of the best books I have read this year.

Highly recommended.

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View images of Ketubot

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FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to Picador for sending me a copy of this book as part of BOOK CLUB (this book will be discussed on Nicole’s blog on October 25, 2011).

  BOOK GIVEAWAY

I am really excited to have an extra copy of this book to give away to one lucky reader of my blog. When I read a book I love as much as this one, I just want to share it with others. To enter, follow the instructions below:

  • Contest is open through October 31st at 5:00 pm PST.
  • Contest is open INTERNATIONALLY.
  • Click here to take survey
  • One entry per person.
  • One winner will be chosen randomly and announced on my blog on November 1st, 2011.

Good luck!

State of Wonder – Book Review

She knew the story of Orpheus, but it wasn’t until the singing began that she realized it was the story of her life. She was Orfeo, and there was no question that Anders was Euridice, dead from a snake bite. Marina had been sent to hell to bring him back. – from State of Wonder, page 124 –

Dr. Marina Singh has turned away from her chosen field of obstetrics after a terrible tragedy, and immersed herself in the safe world of research science with a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company. She carries on a clandestine affair with her boss, Mr. Fox, a man much older than she whose first priority is the financial health of the company. So when the news that Marina’s co-worker, Anders, has apparently perished in the wilds of the Amazon while on a fact-finding mission, the last thing Marina expects is to find herself on a plane to the jungle. Marina is tasked with tracking down the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, a former professor of Marina’s, who is being funded to manufacture a fertility drug. Dr. Swenson has spent years in the Amazon jungle, living with the Lakashi tribe, a group of natives who are exceptionally fertile well past menopause. But, Dr. Swenson answers to no one but herself. Well into her seventies and with a ruthless lack of emotion, Dr. Swenson is incomprehensible and fearless. And Marina is terrified of the woman.

It strikes Marina as odd that all these years later she still remembers Dr. Swenson in the lecture hall. In her mind’s eye she never sees her in surgery or on the floor making rounds, but at a safe, physical distance. – from State of Wonder, page 11 –

State of Wonder begins slowly, but gains momentum as Marina enters the feral world of Dr. Swenson. Plunged into the jungle with its venomous snakes, biting insects, unrelenting heat, and a culture foreign to her, Marina is forced to face her past and re-think her future. She has nightmares of losing her father, and begins to question her relationship with Mr. Fox. She struggles to reconcile the mistakes of her past, and wonders about her own capacity to be a mother.

Ann Patchett’s writing draws the reader fully into the world of the Amazon where morality and ethics have been abandoned by a team of scientists who are determined to make scientific breakthroughs at all costs. Thematically the book takes a look at the divide between cultures, the interference of others in the lives of native populations, and the harm that is often done in the quest for knowledge. Easter, a native boy who Dr. Swenson appears to have adopted, becomes symbolic of innocence lost in the face of “civilizing” native cultures. Easter, the most sympathetic of the characters, is also the most tragic.

Patchett’s novel also asks the question: How old is too old to become a parent? Although on its surface, there is a strong theme centering around motherhood, I was most moved by the examination of the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. Fathers in State of Wonder have either abandoned their families (through death or choice) or are simply non-existent. Dr. Swenson’s opinion is that fathers are inconsequential, not to be considered. In this sense, the novel takes a modern look at the role of fathers in the lives of their children.

Patchett writes with authority and a beauty which belies the darkness in State of Wonder. There are lovely passages and breathtaking descriptions. When Marina attends an opera in the city of Manaus, a depressing place full of squalor and heat and sudden downpours, the reader finds herself slipping beneath the skin of the character through the magnificent prose of the author:

Suddenly every insect in Manaus was forgotten. The chicken heads that cluttered the tables in the market place and the starving dogs that waited in the hopes that one might fall were forgotten. The children with fans that waved the flies away from the baskets of fish were forgotten even as she knew she was not supposed to forget the children. She longed to forget them. She managed to forget the smells, the traffic, the sticky pools of blood. The doors sealed them in with the music and sealed the world out and suddenly it was clear that building an opera house was a basic act of human survival. It kept them all from rotting in the unendurable heat. It saved their souls in ways those murdering Christian missionaries could never have envisioned. – from State of Wonder, page 123 –

Despite my overall favorable view of the novel, it is not without its weaknesses. The end of the book felt contrived to me and Marina’s decisions as the novel wound down felt out of character. I wish that Patchett had not wrapped things up so neatly, nor chosen to burden her main character with a cliched choice that demeaned her.  Had it not been for this disappointing finish, I would have rated State of Wonder much higher.

That said, this is a novel that I can recommend if only for its tension, setting, and Patchett’s alluring prose. Readers who enjoy literary fiction and want to be transported to the Amazon, will want to read State of Wonder. This is an excellent book for a book club read because of its multiple themes and moral questions.

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FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

The True Memoirs of Little K – Book Review

We girls at the Imperial Theater Schools were no exception. From our ranks, the emperors and the grand dukes, the counts and the officers of guards, chose their mistresses, kept an eye out for a shapely leg or a pretty face. Why, one of them described the ballet as an exhibit of beautiful women, a flower bed in which everyone can pick the flowers of pleasure. – from The True Memoirs of Little K, page 8 –

Mathilde Kschessinska was a petite Russian ballerina whose father and brother both danced in St. Petersburg. Although considered quite gifted as a dancer, she eventually attained the highest rank of prima ballerina assoluta of the Russian Imperial Ballet, due largely to her connections with the Imperial family. It was well-known that she sustained an affair with Nicholas II who succeeded to the throne following his father’s death from liver disease in 1894. Mathilde also had sexual relationships with two Grand Dukes of the Romanov family. She eventually gave birth to a son, Vova, whose paternity has never been determined.

The True Memoirs of Little K is a fictional account of Kschessinska’s life beginning with her dalliance with Nicholas II in the years before he became Tsar, and continuing through 1918 when Nicholas II and his entire family were executed by the Bolsheviks. Little K is dictating her memoirs as a 100 year old woman looking back on her life with a cynical eye. As a narrator, Little K is far from reliable – she is self-centered, manipulative, and bitter that “Niki” has thrown her over to marry Alexandra.

I could see that what Niki wanted at sixteen, at twenty-one, at twenty-six, he still wanted, and that something was not me. I was not solemn and reserved, I was not educated, I spoke only Russian, a child’s version of Polish, and a smattering of French ballet terms, and none of those was the language of the court. I had read few books, my religion mattered little to me, I was trivial, I adored cards and parties, and worst of all, I appeared half-naked on the stage. Everything I was was wrong, everything I lacked he desired. What had been for me a passion had been for him a diversion, or worse, a dress rehearsal. – from The True Memoirs of Little K, page 63 –

The actual history of Nicholas II shows that after coming to power he quickly married Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, a German princess. Alexandra delivered four daughters before finally being able to birth a son, Alexis, who was a hemophiliac. Nicholas II became Tsar when Russia was at the height of her powers, but watched her tumble into economic and political decline. He was known for the unpopular Russo-Japanese War, repeated military failures, Bloody Sunday (where over 100 workers were killed by the Tsar’s soldiers) which sparked the 1905 Revolution, and industrial unrest. In Sharp’s well-researched novel, the facts surrounding Nicholas II’s reign as Tsar are well captured through the voice of his mistress.

Sharp does take some liberties with history, however, in the lesser known aspects of the Tsar’s life – including the paternity of Little K’s son, Vova. Through Little K’s eyes the reader learns about Niki’s dissatisfaction with his marriage and Alix’s inability to conceive an heir, which brings him back into the bed of Mathilde. It is this part of the novel which veers sharply away from history as we know it. Despite Sharp’s imaginative twists to historical facts, I found this part of the novel to be the most enjoyable. Sharp never presents Mathilde as someone we can completely trust – and tells the reader right up front that this is Mathilde’s version of the truth.

Yes, if I don’t tell, certain things will never be known, and when my memory is completely lost, even I will not know them. All will be rumor, which is nothing but the tail end of a vanishing truth. – from The True Memoirs of Little K, page 32 –

The True Memoirs of Little K is filled with lush descriptions of late nineteenth-early twentieth century Russia. Not only does Sharp capture the flavor of the Russian Imperial family, but she melds it beautifully with the world of the ballet. Her descriptions of place are wonderfully wrought as well.

The lights from the palace lit up a white and black world – brittle ice and flakes and drifts of snow, the steaming black breath from the horses and the waiting men. – from The True Memoirs of Little K, page 14 –

Ironically, what makes the novel so appealing (its amazing description), also has a tendency to bog down the plot. I found myself reading this book in spurts – being sucked in and unable to stop reading, and then finding myself lulled by the prose and wanting to take a break from it. There are many characters in the novel, all seen through Mathilde’s eyes, and sometimes it was hard to keep them all straight. On the other hand, Sharp presents the political and social history of the times with a light hand – introducing important parts in a way which was easy to grasp and retain.

Mathilde Kschessinska comes alive in Sharp’s fantastically imagined novel. Although initially I disliked her, eventually I grew to understand the mind and emotions of a woman who would do almost anything not only to survive, but to live well. Kschessinska is a strong woman who used her charm and sexual appeal to climb through the ranks of the Imperial ballet and secure a future for her son. In the end, she does not get all she wishes for, but she does achieve a measure of satisfaction. Still, I could not help but wonder what it must have been like to be Kschessinska.

The peasants believed heaven existed in some faraway cleft of the Russian steppe, where long green grass swayed and rivers of milk bubbled and foamed unseen by the living. And what kind of heaven did dancers believe in? An abandoned theater where their souls amused themselves all day in face paint and magnificent costume, perpetually playing the parts they had played here on earth to a decaying house? – from The True Memoirs of Little K, page 200 –

The True Memoirs of Little K is an absorbing read for those who enjoy historical fiction. Several readers in our discussion group for this book disliked Sharp’s inaccuracy of history involving Kschessinska’s son. This didn’t bother me much because Sharp never claims to be recording history in this work of fiction. In fact, in the author’s notes she writes:

[…] I have used excerpts from the letters and journals of the principal characters when so indicated, with the exception of Little K herself, who, when it comes to her epistles, as with everything else, serves mostly  at the pleasure of my imagination.

Recommended.

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Beachreader
Devourer of Books

Reviews by Lola

Have YOU read this book? Leave me a link to your review in the comments and I’ll add you to the list above.

FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to the publisher who sent me this book for participation in BOOK CLUB and for review on my blog.

 

Maybe This Time – Book Review

Outwardly normal events slip into drama before they tip into horror. These oblique tales exert a fascinating hold over the reader. – Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press –

Maybe This Time is a translated collection of short stories by Alois Hotschnig, who is considered to be one of Austria’s most talented writers. The collection includes nine stories, some as short as two pages long, which are surreal and dreamlike and often baffling. In The Same Silence, the Same Noise a man obsessively watches his neighbors as they sit, day in and day out, on a pier overlooking the water. What begins as an obsession, begins to become paranoia with a touch of narcissism.

My attitude clearly had to change. But I didn’t know how to get away from these two. I simply didn’t exist for them, and that is how they hooked me. They refused contact, yet they willingly exposed themselves to me. I had caught the scent of their lives, which obviously had reached some sort of premature end. I had fed on them, devoured them, and now I wanted more. I couldn’t resist absorbing their most fleeting emotions as my own, and so I carried them inside me and I lived out their disquiet, which was also my disquiet. – from The Same Silence, the Same Noise –

Perhaps the oddest story in the collection is Then A Door Opens and Swings Shut. In this dreamlike narrative, a man is invited into an old lady’s home where he discovers a doll which looks like him – actually, there are several dolls which resemble him at various times in his life. The man continues to return to the woman’s house, drawn there by the visions he is able to see from his past. The story becomes less of a dream, and more like a nightmare when the woman begins to consume the doll – essentially consuming the man. This is clearly a symbolic tale of losing oneself to another.

I had surrendered myself to her and continued to abandon myself to her and to the images she showed me of myself. And so I returned to her every day, and before long it was as if I lived with her. – from Then A Door Opens and Swings Shut –

The publisher compares Hotschnig’s writing to Kafka whose themes of alienation and persecution seem to fit many of the stories in Hotschnig’s collection. With the exception of two stories, none of the characters have names and are referred to as “the man” or “the woman” which creates a feeling of disconnection. Names are so important to our uniqueness as human beings, and in Hotschnig’s world characters have lost that essential part of their identity. Despite this feeling of alienation, the characters are drawn to others, seeking something in other people which they do not have within themselves. In the title story Maybe This Time, Maybe Now, a family comes together for special occasions and waits for an uncle who never arrives. Despite the frustration of always waiting but never having any resolution, they continue to play out the same scene time after time.

It happens time after time. And time after time while I am with my family at my parents’ house, sitting in the garden or at the dinner table, my mind wanders to my front door where someone might perhaps be waiting. Then I look at each member of my family in turn and think how impossible it is to escape these family ties. No one has managed it except Walter, and for him there was a price which we all must pay. – from Maybe This Time, Maybe Now –

I found this collection to be decidedly odd and often confusing. The stories feel as though we are wading through very thick mud which sucks us in, yet makes us want to escape. Often I felt as though I were in a dream where things start out making sense, but soon devolve into confusion. I think it might have been helpful to read this book as part of a literature class or book group where symbolism and underlying meaning could have been teased out. To be truthful, I am not even sure how to rate this slim book. It was not something I enjoyed, and yet it is strangely compelling. So, I am doing something here I have never done before – I am leaving this book as “unrated.”

Readers who enjoy literary short fiction, and authors like Kafka, may want to pick up a copy of this collection.

Other reviews of the book:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alois Hotschnig, born in 1959, is one of Austria’s most critically acclaimed authors, eliciting comparison with Franz Kafka and Thomas Bernhard. He has written novels, short stories and plays. His books have won major Austrian and International honours, such as the Italo-Svevo award and the Erich-Fried nomination. Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht was first published in German in 2006.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Tess Lewis has been translating from German and French for two decades. For her translations of Peter Handke, Alois Hotschnig, Pascale Bruckner and Philippe Sollers she has been awarded PEN Translation Fund grants and an NEA Translation Fellowship.

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

The Paperbark Shoe – Book Review

The sky over Wyalkatchem is hotter and bluer than any other place, and the winds are stronger, the thermals rising tens of thousands of feet straight up, lifting the litter of the desert in its embrace: shards of quartz and shale and flakes of limestone, spinifex, the lost tails of geckoes, scraps of paperbark, the hot smell of the red dirt, the taste of the sky like salt from the sea, cracked pieces of pottery, parrot eyes, wedge-tailed eagles looking for prey, the broken hearts of men and women, the souls of the children who died in that great isolation, sadness, unwillingness, anger, strands of horse hair, nuts and bolts, chicken feathers, sand. – from The Paperbark Shoe, page 24 –

Gin Boyle, an albino woman, has been saved from a life in a mental hospital by marrying Toad and moving to Wyalkatchem, a small town in Australia on the edge of the desert. Gin’s past is muddy and sad, and her future is not that much better. She and Toad eek out their existence among the rabbits and dust, raising their two young children and living side by side in a loveless marriage. But then, in the middle of World War II, eighteen thousand Italian prisoners of war arrive in Australia – men who are imprisoned by their nationality even though Mussolini has surrendered and they are technically no longer the enemy. Antonio and John arrive on the Toad’s farm, exiles and oddities, and everything will change.

We had depended on one another. Nothing more. He had bred the sheep, found the water, lifted the things too heavy to bear. I had prepared food for him, strips of wrinkled bacon, the folded grey nodules of sweetbreads. I had made his clothes, his children, his bed. It wasn’t happiness. It wasn’t love. But it had been tolerable, so long as there was nothing else. – from The Paperbark Shoe, page 241 –

Goldie Goldbloom’s breathtaking first novel  is narrated in the cynical, observant and damaged voice of Gin, a woman who has lived with rejection her entire life due to her albino condition. She is swamped by poor self worth, and feels ugly and unlovable until Antonio turns his foreign eyes upon her. The Paperbark Shoe is a love story, but it is also a story of what it means to be isolated and searching for identity. It is a story of war, of disconnected lives, of the division between cultures and countries, of bigotry, of loss, and of survival. This novel is remarkable for its depth and for its vivid and striking language.

We are isolated, but we do not invite isolation; every stretch of road has its markers for the lost. And the roads themselves have local names, friendlier than the ones given them by government workers who have never seen a fly-blown sheep. There’s the Pig Slurry Stretch and Metholated Mavis’s Gully and Kickastickalong. Every farm has its kerosene tin wedged between two stumps, or its Coolgardie safe on top of a Model T, and the people here say swing left at the kero tin or turn in at the motor and everyone knows what they mean. Antonio has hung a green milking stool from a stringy-bark at our turn-off. Toad’s stool. Toad’s tool. Toadstool. – from The Paperbark Shoe, page 180 –

Goldbloom’s imagery is disturbing and at times grotesque. Like watching a train wreck, I found myself unable to look away even while wanting to cover my eyes. Goldbloom’s prose cuts deep, exposing alienation and the far-reaching impact of war. Her characters are survivors. They are largely unlikable. Even the children are deeply flawed. And yet, despite its grim observations and bizarre characters, The Paperbark Shoe is extraordinary.

Perhaps most striking, are the characters who people the book. These are misfits, oddities, and outcasts. Toad is short-statured, and struggles with his sexuality while collecting women’s corsets. Despite his weirdness, he is an oddly sympathetic character. Antonio is perhaps the most complex character even though he initially appears one-dimensional. I found myself wondering, does he love Gin? Or is she simply a plaything to make his life in captivity more bearable? Gin’s desire for acceptance is palpable. Her albinism sets her apart from others and she endures ridicule with a hard-edged cynicism.

Jouncing past the scalloped fences and the sheep’s skulls nailed to stretcher posts and the long lines of trees planted by the first settlers, I remind myself that God made the land and men made the cities but the devil made small country towns. – from The Paperbark Shoe, page 220 –

Goldbloom uses these characters to symbolize those who are different and misunderstood in our society. It is perhaps this theme, of fitting into society vs. being rejected from it, which resonates the loudest in The Paperback Shoe.

[…] we are trained from the time we are small to hate the things that are different from us. – from The Paperbark Shoe, page 240 –

I found myself deeply entrenched in this novel. It is sad, disturbing and strange…and yet it is beautifully wrought. Goldbloom’s writing in The Paperback Shoe is nearly flawless. Her language is original and imaginative. I challenge anyone to read this novel and not be moved. I turned the final page and audibly sighed. I found myself thinking of the story, mulling over the characters, hours after I finished reading. Many readers will wonder where the beauty is in this novel among the scarred and damaged characters, and the dry and desolate countryside, but I think those most observant will discover that the beauty lies in how the story is told – its honesty and its acute examination of what it means to be different in a society where uniqueness is often perceived as negative.

I loved this book. It is one which will stay with me. Goldie Goldbloom is a young author to watch.

Highly recommended.

  • Quality of Writing:
  • Plot:
  • Characters:

Overall Rating:

Visit the author’s website.

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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Lost in Translation Challenge – 2009

January 1 – December 31, 2009

I am very carefully choosing my time-limited challenges for 2009. Frances from Nonsuch Book is hosting Lost in Translation – a challenge designed for participants to read six (6) books in translation. Frances has created a dedicated page for this challenge here.

I found a couple of interesting articles with ideas for books:

I will be posting my book list as I go – I have learned that to be successful I must be flexible! Below is a sampling of some books in translation already on my TBR shelf:

  1. Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson (translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born) – COMPLETED January 6, 2009; rated 5/5; read my review.
  2. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (translated from the French by Alison Anderson) – COMPLETED July 18, 2009; rated 4.5/5; read my review.
  3. The Passport, by Herta Muller (translated from the German by Martin Chalmers) – COMPLETED November 24, 2009; rated 5/5; read my review.
  4. Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset (translated from the Norwegian by Tina Nunnally) – COMPLETED December 20, 2009; rated 4.5/5; read my review of The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross.
  5. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi (translated from the French) – COMPLETED December 27, 2009; rated 4/5; read my review.
  6. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, by Marjane Satrapi (translated from the French) – COMPLETED December 28, 2009; rated 4.5/5; read my review.
  7. Fire in the Blood, by Irene Nemirovsky (translated from the French by Sandra Smith) – COMPLETED December 29, 2009; rated 5/5; read my review.

SOUTH AMERICA – Reading The World

 

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South America
Countries read are in bold blue

Potential books to be read are listed below each country. Books read are in red. An asterisk (*) indicates books I own but have not read yet.

1. Argentina (Buenos Aires)

  • A Secret for Julia, by Patricia Sagastizabal

2. Bolivia (Sucre)

  • The Fat Man From La Paz: Contemporary Fiction from Bolivia, by Rosario Santos

3. Brazil (Brasilia)

  • The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo (finished 15 June 2007; rated 5/5; read my review)
  • The War of the End of the World, by Mario Vargas Llosa

4. Chile (Santiago)

  • Memoirs, by Pablo Neruda
  • The House of Spirits, by Isabel Allende

5. Colombia (Bogota)

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez*

6. Ecuador (Quito)

  • The Amnesia Clinic, by James Scudamore
  • Huasipungo (aka: The Villagers), by Jorge Icaza

7. Guyana (Georgetown)

  • Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo

8. Paraguay (Asuncion)

  • At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, by John Gimlette

9. Peru (Lima)

  • Conversation in the Cathedral, by Mario Vargas Llosa*
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder (finished 23 December 2007; rated 3/5; read my review)

10. Suriname (Paramaribo)

  • Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, by Mark Plotkin

11. Uruguay (Montevideo)

  • Let the Wind Speak, by Juan Carlos Onetti

12. Venezuela (Caracas)

  • The Lady, The Chef, and The Courtesan, by Marisol