Thursday, 29 September 2011

Murakami in Small Doses

It's been a very long wait for 1Q84 to be translated into English, but the moment is almost here when Haruki Murakami's latest work finally becomes available to those of us who are less than fluent in Japanese.  A reason why I am particularly looking forward to this event is that I have now completed my second full circle of the Japanese maestro's fiction.  That's right, I have now read all of Mr. Murakami's novels, novellas and short stories (at least) twice, with today's offering being the last one to receive this distinction...

The final step in this journey was Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a book which has no equivalent in Japanese.  It is actually a collection of various short stories which hadn't previously been published in English in any kind of collection.  The tales here vary in length from a few pages to mini-novellas, and represent all stages of Murakami's writing career, from early efforts to a twenty-first century collection of stories.

Within the large array of randomly-assorted stories, there are some noticeable similarities.  A number of them (e.g. A Perfect Day for Kangaroos, The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes) are brief, fantastic and (some might say) confusing vignettes, gone almost before they have really arrived.  Others (like Firefly and Man-Eating Cats) are stories which wouldn't leave the writer alone and which Murakami eventually expanded into novels.  A third group is formed by the final five stories in the collection, which were originally published as a separate collection in Japanese, entitled Tokyo Kitanshu (Strange Tales from Tokyo).

The stories abound with the usual Murakami themes.  We see multiple examples of the extraordinary in the ordinary, strange things happening to perfectly normal people.  A good example of this is A Poor Aunt Story, one of the first stories Murakami ever wrote, where one day a man realises he has a poor aunt permanently attached to his back - and goes about his life with her in tow...

In The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes, we are introduced to a successful snack food, whose quality is checked by some very unorthodox feathery workers, the first-person narrator being the only one who sees anything strange in these proceedings.  Another tale, The Seventh Man, puts us in the middle of a kind of group therapy session, where a man wearily recounts a haunting tale of a traumatic event from his childhood.  This frame narrative approach is actually quite common in this collection, and many of the stories are filtered through two or three voices.

Another common thread running through the stories is unexplainable ennui, where the writers describes with great care and attention the loneliness and unhappiness of people who shouldn't be unhappy.  In The Year of Spaghetti, a man cooks and eats a pasta-based meal every day for a year, in what turns out to be a sign of some deeper mental issue.  At the end of the tale, he tells the reader:
"Can you imagine how astonished the Italians would be if they knew that what they were exporting in 1971 was really loneliness?" p.223, Vintage (2007)
Another example of this is The Ice Man, a strange tale of a mixed marriage between a normal woman and... well, an ice man, which takes us all the way from Tokyo to the South Pole.  This allegory of a mistaken marriage shows the wife regretting her decision to marry a man whose heart is (literally) made of ice...

Murakami continually focuses on this kind of petty suburban tragedy, and many of his better stories have women as the main protagonists (unsurprising when you consider the relatively fixed gender roles that can exist in Japanese society).  In the final story in the collection,  A Shinagawa Monkey, another unhappy woman realises that:
"If her life were a movie, it would be one of those low-budget environmental documentaries guaranteed to put you to sleep." p.411
The stories in this collection are translated by Phillip Gabriel and the incomparable Jay Rubin.  As you can probably tell, my preference is for Rubin's style - although I really couldn't explain why (it may even have more to do with the stories they are translating than with the translators themselves).  Nevertheless, I always felt that Rubin did a better job of creating a seamless story, and (with the translator's name always coming at the very end of the story), I was surprisingly accurate at guessing who was on duty each time.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a great read and, of course, a must for any true Murakami fan.  However, I would have to say that I prefer afterthequake and The Elephant Vanishes.  This is partly owing to a slight lack of cohesion which the collection shows; there are, perhaps, too many stories for one collection, and they don't all gel.  This feeling is confirmed by the way the final five stories (all from Tokyo Kitanshu), which take up around 135 pages, appear much more cohesive, and do form a book within a book, even though Murakami claims in the introduction that:
"...they do not form a clear-cut, single unit as did the stories in afterthequake." pX (introduction)
Despite these small misgivings though, I enjoyed my brief journey around the great man's collection of odds and ends.  All that remains is to wait a few weeks until I can finally immerse myself in his latest work, which may, quite possibly, be the final convincing entry in his CV for a Nobel Prize.  Stranger things have happened (many of them in this collection!).

All that remains to be said is thank you for reading this review...

...and if anyone with an Advance Review Copy is looking for a Murakami fan to read and review 1Q84, you know where to find me ;)

Monday, 26 September 2011

The Music of Migration

After reviewing my second Arnold Zable book recently, I was very keen to read his latest work, Violin Lessons, and I was lucky enough to receive a review copy from Text Publishing.  Unlike Scraps of Heaven (but similar to Café Scheherazade), Violin Lessons is less of a novel and more of a reworking of fact, a blending of real life events and fiction.

Over close to two-hundred pages, Zable travels around the world, exploring the themes of music, migration, suffering and hope, uncovering incredible stories in unlikely places.  In each section, the writer takes elements from stories he has been told and weaves them into a brief, poignant tale, one part of the tapestry of words culminating with the tragic, yet exultant, finale of the fate of Amal Basry and the SIEVX, a boat carrying asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia.  From Carlton to Baghdad, Saigon to Berlin, Ithaca to Warsaw, we learn of the repeated fate of the displaced and the strength they show in moving on.

Violin Lessons, while consisting of stories, is also about stories, and the importance of telling them and keeping them alive.  Zable has a unique style of writing, episodic and circular, darting off on tangents and giving the reader time to digest what is being said before moving on.  He also has a habit of slipping out of the role of narrator, leaving the story to its owner through the liberal use of direct speech.  Each character has their own recognisable style of telling their story, from Amal Basry's repeated claims that she has been spared to tell the tale, or Phillip Maisel's constant remarks to the listener, telling them that the next part is interesting or important.  In effect, Zable is letting the affected speak, giving them a voice - and an opportunity to have their story heard.

A theme running through most of the tales is war and the effect it has on ordinary people.  The author's background seems to compel him to seek out people who have been affected by the past, not only in his ancestral homelands in Eastern Poland and Lithuania, but also in South-East Asia and the Middle East.  While the details may vary, there are several chilling similarities: the repeated ghettoisation of minorities, whether it be in Venice or Woomera; the inability of many sufferers to exorcise the ghosts of the past; and the difficulty of forgetting about a place you once called home.  As Andrei, a Pole in exile on a visit home says:
"Words conceal more than they reveal... They cannot convey how I longed to get away, yet how, within days of leaving I long to return - the curse of nostalgia." p.74, (Text Publishing, 2011)
However, the further you get into the book, the more you realise that it is just as much about the writer as it is about the people he interviews.  Zable paints himself as a restless wanderer, never satisfied, always needing to penetrate to the source of a story in an attempt to find out one thing: why?  His travels to various conflict-ridden countries are both an attempt to understand the past and to return to his roots, to uncover more about his family and himself.  In a book like this one, it is apt that one of the chapters centres on the Greek island of Ithaca, home of another famous wanderer...

The other major issue the reader must confront when reading Violin Lessons is to understand just what it is they are reading.  The collection reads, at times, like a work of fiction, a series of loosely-connected stories, yet they are all based on true stories and interviews Zable has had with the protagonists.  Just when you have adapted to the idea of a work of non-fiction though, you see the author's notes at the end of the book, where he explains how he has, in some cases, combined several characters and events into one composite story.

So which is it, fiction or non-fiction?  And does it actually matter?  Perhaps the binary split is a misleading one anyway.  Stories have their own weight, their own momentum, and it is the essence, the core of the story that is vital.  The important question is whether we can trust the writer to keep the essential information while adapting certain elements of the tales to enable readers to get to the core truth more easily.  It's a matter of trust, and a decision each reader must make for themself - having read several of Zable's books now (and read up a little on his literary and journalistic background), I am willing to suspend my disbelief and allow myself to be drawn into the stories without any feelings of suspicion.

Violin Lessons is a wonderful book, a series of vignettes, each of which is fascinating and thought-provoking in its own right.  Together though, they build up to a fitting climax, The Ancient Mariner, the story of Amal Basry and the sinking of the SIEVX.  It is clear that this is the story closest to Zable's heart, and one he is determined to get right.  He promises Amal that he will tell her story:
"Yet each time I sit down to write, anxiety rises for fear I will not do the story justice, will not find the words that convey the terror and beauty of Amal's telling, the fire in her eyes, the look of incredulity and wonder she retained..." p.146-7  
Now more than ever, in a time when the Prime Minister is attempting to make deals to avoid having to handle the messy problem of boats arriving on Australia's shores, it is important to hear stories like these, stories which help us to remember the past and avoid repeating our mistakes in the future.  As for the writer's fears above... I, for one, am sure that Amal would be very happy indeed with the way Zable brought her story - and the way she told it - to life.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Back to Japan

Two months of overly-planned reading, firstly my Victorian-slanted Rereading July, then my August German Literature Month, have led to my neglecting another of my favourite areas, the genre commonly known as J-Lit.  Fear not though, oh reader (not that you were, I'm sure), for today marks the return of Japanese literature to my little blog; and in this post, we will catch up with an old friend...

Natsume Soseki is the most famous and popular modern Japanese writer (Haruki Murakami says so, and I am not inclined to argue), and I've read a few of his works over the past couple of years, so when I saw a copy of Sorekara (And Then) advertised for pre-sale on The Book Depository earlier this year, it was the small matter of two minutes before the transaction was finalised - apart from having to wait six months, that is...  I received the book just in time for my birthday and was able to settle down last week and read what I had already begun to describe as my birthday book - and very good it was too :)

Sorekara (translated - a good while back - by Norma Moore Field) is a sequel of sorts to Sanshiro, Soseki's coming-of-age novel, despite the different characters.  Whereas Sanshiro dealt with a university student coming to grips with life and love, Sorekara introduces us to Daisuke, a thirty-year-old graduate with a cynical outlook on life and no plans for the future beyond sitting, thinking and continuing to live off his father's purse.  The intellectual and (to be perfectly honest) somewhat lazy Daisuke is forced to deviate from his path of least resistance by two unrelated events.  The first is an attempt by his family to arrange a marriage for him with a woman from a family to whom Daisuke's father owes a debt of honour.  The second is the return to Tokyo of a friend from Daisuke's university days - along with his wife, Michiyo...

In Sorekara, the reader is bound to the figure of Daisuke, but this does not mean that we are meant to sympathise fully with him.  In fact, he is a very difficult character to get a grasp of, and while we can, at times, understand his motives and his aversion to the future his family wants for him, at others it is difficult to see him as anything other than a good-for-nothing, indecisive daddy's boy.  Daisuke obviously considers himself to be an intellectual, and encourages this manner of thinking in those who surround him.  However, there are numerous occasions in the book where his supposedly-superior intellect founders in discussions with his family.  As his reasoning goes around in circles, and he blames his inability to make himself understood on the people who outsmart him, we begin to feel that Daisuke is not such a sympathetic character after all...

While Daisuke is initially an interesting recluse, the more we get to know him, the more pompous and irritating he becomes.  He looks down on his family (and at one point admits as much), yet he is, in truth, far inferior to them in many ways While ostensibly free, he is actually trapped in a gilded prison partially of his own making, at the beck and call of his father and brother, unable to even scrape a small amount of money together when his friend needs it.  His constant philosophising can grate, and his strained nerves, aggravated by certain colours (reminding me of the ludicrous Frederick Fairlie from Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White), do not exactly endear him to the reader.

It is not until Daisuke's self-assured persona begins to show cracks, and his facade starts to crumble, that the reader begins to feel more sympathetic towards him.  The catalyst for this is the return of Michiyo, a woman for whom Daisuke still has feelings, and who originally preferred our hero to his friend.  With all this going on in the background, it's certainly a bad time for Daisuke's father to start pushing his son into an arranged marriage...

Of course, with a writer such as Natsume Soseki at the helm, there is a lot more to Sorekara than just the tale of a spoilt rich boy.  It's actually a reflection of the clash of conflicts between traditional Japanese culture and the newly-arrived western influences (which the author had, shall we say, certain reservations about).  While the university-educated Daisuke rejects the constraints of the old system, he is equally disenchanted by the rush towards a free society, with capitalism and all this entails.  He accuses his father of being stuck between the two systems and eras - in fact, it is Daisuke himself who is an unfortunate casualty of the shift from old to new.

Sorekara is probably not the best book for people to begin their acquaintance with Natsume Soseki.  While it is an absorbing story, it doesn't have the humorous touches of I am a Cat and Botchan, and it is not as accessible as casual, airy works such as Sanshiro and Kusamakura.  Those who have already fallen under the spell of the "Japanese Dickens" though will enjoy the book immensely, whether they identify with the protagonist or not.

Where next with Natsume Soseki?  Well, apparently Sorekara, as well as being a companion book to Sanshiro, is the second in a loose trilogy, of which the third part is The Gate (Mon), a book which takes us into the next stage of the Japanese man's life.  So, if you'll excuse me, I'm just off to see a man about a dog gate...

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Streets of Melbourne

When taking on Booklover Book Reviews' Aussie Author Challenge for the second straight year, I had the feeling that the devil was, once again, in the fine print.  To complete the challenge (or, at least, the higher True Blue level), you needed to read twelve books by an Australian writer.  Sadly, as I prepared to celebrate after completing my previous Aussie novels, I remembered the second condition of the challenge - the twelve books had to be by at least nine different writers, and I'd only managed to knock off eight...

Luckily, I've finally managed to rectify that with my fourteenth Australian work for the year, Scraps of Heaven by Arnold Zable, whose Café Scheherazade was one of my favourite books of 2010.  This novel takes us back in time to 1958, to the Inner-City Melbourne suburb of Carlton, where Josh, a young Jewish boy, roams the familiar streets of his neighbourhood in search of something to do and a reason to belong.  Meanwhile, his parents Romek and Zofia, Polish Jews and survivors of the dreaded concentration camps, carry on their stuttering marriage, a partnership overshadowed by the ghosts of what they have seen.

Scraps of Heaven is split into four parts, one for each season of the (southern) year, and as we start off roaming the roads and laneways of Carlton, I found myself constantly referring to the Melway (Melbourne's ubiquitous A-Z).  The idea of the compactness of the setting is emphasised by the daily walks of another of the main characters, Bloomfield, a fellow veteran of the wartime terrors who literally is a wandering Jew.  In rain and shine, Bloomfield ambles around the streets, always returning to his favourite park, content to soak in the sunshine and the silence - when he can get it.

The first part of the book, with its nostalgic look back at life in the late 1950s, eventually moves on into a more serious examination of the memories haunting the lives of those who escaped Europe.  The longer the book goes on, the more the reader is shown of what happened before CarltonIn fact, the writer divides time into three distinct periods - before, after and during the horrors of the war and the holocaust -, and some of the characters have trouble communicating with those who were (or weren't) there.  As the past continues to seep into the future, the homeliness and comfort of the small suburb, for many of the characters a welcoming environment, eventually become stifling.  It's no wonder that by the end of the book the younger generation is dreaming of escape - both from the over-familiar streets and the constant battles with the past at home.

Scraps of Heaven is an enjoyable book, and the style is just as effortless as in Café Scheherazade.  There are also many parallels with Steven Carroll's tales of suburban Melbourne (Glenroy is just a few kilometres up the road, and Scraps of Heaven is set half-way between the settings for The Art of the Engine Driver and The Gift of Speed).  However, it wasn't a perfect read by any means.  The constant introduction (and subsequent translation into English) of Yiddish expressions grated after a while, and there were a few too many migrant clichés for my liking.

The most off-putting part for me though was the introduction of a fantasy, older love interest for Josh, which culminated in a rather unlikely moment towards the end of the novel.  I won't go into details, but I'll just say that beautiful Swedish teenagers rarely stumble into one's life in this way outside Hollywood movies...  I mentioned The Gift of Speed above, and Carroll's handling of Michael and Kathleen's blossoming relationship in the second of The Glenroy Trilogy books is light years ahead of Zable's clumsy handling of what is essentially a bit of a male fantasy.  Perhaps I'm overreacting, but this one small sub-sub-plot detracted from my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

Still, don't let me persuade you that this is not worth reading because it certainly is.  I love Zable's languid, poetic style of writing, and anyone who (like me) enjoys learning more about Melbourne's past, even if (especially if) they didn't grow up here, will get a lot out of Scraps of Heaven.  Its slowly evolving story shows us all that home, while it may be where the heart is, can also hide some dark, disturbing remnants of the past...

Friday, 16 September 2011

BBAW 2011 (Friday) - My Blogging Advice

My key to a successful blogging career?  You've got to know when to hold them, and when to fold them...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

BBAW 2011 (Thursday) - Blogging and Reading

Once upon a time, there was a little boy called Tony who enjoyed reading very much.  He used to go to the library, situated just a hundred metres from his house, on a regular basis and occasionally went back the same day after devouring all of his books in just a few hours (not literally, of course - that would be most unfortunate...)When Tony grew up, he continued to read a lot, and he eventually moved into the world of book blogging...

So far, so good :)  Obviously, I started writing a book blog because I wanted to think about the books I was reading in more detail, and putting my thoughts down on paper (or pixels) forces me to consider the books I read in a lot greater depth.  However, as I started to hone my writing style (a process, as you will notice, which is far from complete), I began to experience something unusual and, to be perfectly honest, quite disturbing.  You see, the more I blogged, the more I realised that my blogging was eating me alive subtly influencing what I read (less interesting but slightly more factual than the crossed-out answer).

How (you may, or may not, ask)?  Well, back in 2009, the first year of Tony's Reading List, I actually reviewed each book I read individually, usually within twelve hours of completing it, and sometimes at great (some might say excruciating) length.  As a result, I found myself choosing hefty tomes such as Ulysses and A Suitable Boy, which would give me a little breathing space between reviews, over slim novellas and quickly-skimmed lad-lit fare.  Even if I wanted to read something shorter, I had to carefully consider the likelihood of finishing the book early and have something meatier in store for after the slighter repast.

In 2010, I decided that this was all a bit too difficult, so I opted to make my reviews a little shorter and try to write more multiple reviews, with most posts presenting two or three books.  Although this did initially give me a little more freedom, what seemed a good idea in theory turned out to have a few snags in practice.  What actually happened was that instead of writing three long posts, I usually ended up publishing one super-long post instead...

This year, after the return of my extremely unpleasant RSI issues, I finally came to the hard, heart-breaking, but inescapable conclusion that I simply wasn't able to review everything to the extent I wanted to.  Some books, especially those from my favourite areas, would be reviewed; others, lamentably, would not.  This worked alright until about the middle of the year - then I noticed that I had started reviewing everything again because I was only reading books from my favourite eras and genres :(

So much for my own internal problems.  When to these you add the wealth of information and advice I receive on a daily basis from those bloggers I interact with, either in the blogosphere or on Twitter (@tony_malone, nice to meet you), it's plain to see that I have absolutely no free will when it comes to reading - or blogging -, and that I am driven by random, constantly-changing rules of engagement.  Challenges, recommendations, the odd, rare advance copy, library acquisitions which can't be renewed... it's all getting a bit much for me in my old age.

My name's Tony, and I am a bookaholic.  Please pity me.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

BBAW 2011 (Tuesday) - Interview Swap

Today's topic is the interview, and to that end, I recently fired off some questions to Cecelia from The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia.  Enough from me, here is what she had to say :)

Tell me your life story (in about three sentences!).
I'm from a large family in the Seattle area, and I grew up swimming and camping and reading (it was pretty freaking idyllic, if you must know).  I went East for college, and after many moves and travels abroad, I've grown up a tad and now make my home in Washington, DC.  I still read, camp, and swim, and travel slightly less - but I try to make up for it on the internets.

Why did you start your blog?
I started my blog to keep up with my sister, and to journal my daily adventures.  Then I realized I was talking a lot about books.  So... it kind of morphed into a book blog.  My first blog post was about coffee.

What kind of books do you enjoy reading and why?
I enjoy reading (and do read) almost everything.  Ketchup bottles, the Sports section of the newspaper, medical brochures - you name it.  On the blog, though, I mostly stick to young adult fiction, middle grade fiction, and science fiction/fantasy.  Why?  Long-standing addiction.  Also: the YA blog world is very welcoming and comment-happy, so I feel validated.  True story.

What do you really hate about blogging?
Hate is a strong word.  What I dislike about blogging is that if I hit a reading slump, I'm out of luck.  The blogging world doesn't stop for anyone.  When I return, I inevitably feel like I've missed out.  Thankfully, there are some really lovely people who welcome you back each time.  That's the thing I love about blogging.

Should blog giveaways require people to follow to enter (or to get bonus chances)?
I do not have firm thoughts either way.  I personally no longer require a 'follow' to enter giveaways, nor offer bonus entries.  But in the past I've done this, and still do enter an occasional contest that requires me to follow the blog.

The bricks-and-mortar bookshop - at death's door or alive and kicking?
Physical bookshops are a little bit closer to alive and kicking than dead.  While people are still reading and still excited to meet the authors of the books they're reading, I think there'll be space for bookstores.

Do you read a lot of books from outside your home country?  Why (not)?
A majority of the books I read are from American authors, simply because they dominate the shelf space and internet space here.  BUT.  I am quite, quite fond of several British and Commonwealth authors, and of my absolute favorite authors (who I'll pick up anything by), the breakdown is as follows: 3 Brits, 1 Australian, 1 Kiwi, 4 Americans.  I'm equal opportunity country-wise as long as the writing is fabulous.

Do you see yourself blogging in ten years' time?  If so, how different do you think your blog will be from now?
I'm not sure I'll be blogging in ten years' time - in fact, I'm inclined to say I won't be.  I WILL still be writing, though.  It's become a sort of therapy, and I'd eventually like to make it profitable therapy.  How that will work, I'm not sure.  Whatever happens, though, I think I've got writing pretty fairly worked into my soul.

Thank you for the great questions, Tony!

Always happy to meet new people :)  A big thank you to Cecelia for answering my rather tetchy questions, and if you want to see what she asked me (and what I answered...), why not visit the other half of the conversation on Cecelia's blog?

Monday, 12 September 2011

BBAW 2011 (Monday) - These Are A Few Of My Favourite Blogs

Welcome, one and all, to another round of BBAW themed posts.  If you've dropped by this way before, nice to see you again - if you're a newcomer around these parts, thanks for stopping by!  Today, it's our chance to spread the love and tell the world (or, at least, the blogosphere) all about those bloggers who make our online existence just that little bit sweeter :)

My blog is not one of the most popular blogs out there, and the type of books I prefer to blather on about are not everyone's cup of tea.  It's no surprise then that the bloggers I want to talk about today might also be described in this way - which is not to say that they're not popular (they are), or that they're not excellent (because they definitely are).  It's just that they're, well, a little different.  In a good way.  So, without further ado, let's go and meet my wonderful choices...

The first person I'd like to introduce you to is Violet from Still Life With BooksViolet is a Kiwi living in Australia, and her blog, as well as presenting occasional reviews of literary fiction, is focused heavily on non-fiction.  Personally, I'm not a big fan of reading about things that have actually happened, preferring instead to immerse myself in someone else's imagination, but Violet does a wonderful job of making her choices (often biographies of writers, painters and other notables of times past) sound enticing, even to someone like me.  One particular area of interest is the Bloomsbury group of writers, so if you have a hankering for knowing more about the lives and loves of Woolf and her contemporaries, this is a great blog to peruse at your leisure :)

Next, we'll move on from a diet of biographies and memoirs to one of (mostly) fictional delights - but mainly from the nineteenth century.  The enigmatically named Amateur Reader, from the aptly-named Wuthering Expectations, is one of my favourite sources for new avenues to explore when it comes to all things classical.  In addition to the obvious wealth of knowledge concentrated in one person, the other feature of this blog is the intense focus on literary works which is displayed.  Where the majority of blogs will devour, digest, review and move on in a very short time-frame, Wuthering Expectations is a forum for a prolonged, detailed discussion of aspects of a particular work of fiction.  Now if five consecutive posts on dialogue in one of Trollope's Barchester Chronicles doesn't appeal, I will understand.  If, however, that sounds perfect for you, well, you know where to go...

My third choice today tends towards the (slightly) more contemporary, but still opts for more than his fair share of left-of-centre choices.  Gary, from The Parrish Lantern, produces an eclectic range of reviews on all manner of literary delights, with a growing preference for translated fiction and (especially) poetry.  He has been very active with the Japanese Literature Challenge and has tempted me into thinking about giving certain writers (e.g. Bolano, Borges) a go - writers I really should have looked at by now :(  It's always good to have people like Gary to give you a bit of a shove when you need it...

...and when it comes to people giving you a friendly tap on the shoulder, reminding you to take a peek outside your own little corner of the world, there are none better than the incomparable, and inimitable, Stu Allen - or, as he is otherwise known, Winston's Dad.  The owner of the most famous bulldog in the blogosphere is a fierce champion of translated fiction, devouring dozens of novels, novellas and short-story collections originally written in a language other than English, whilst also promoting the publishers who are game enough to venture into this area.  With his idiosyncratic style, his frequent posting and his unwavering resolve to get good foreign writing out there (to the extent that he recently apologised for posting about too many books from the U.K and U.S.!), Stu is a vital part of the blogging world, and one whom many would miss were he to decide to spend more time with his family - or his dog :)

I wish I had the time, the space and the energy to go on and mention several more special bloggers, but (bluntly speaking) I don't.  There are many other bloggers I could have mentioned here (Eva of A Striped Armchair and Iris of Iris on Books are two I may have chosen were they less popular!), but these are the ones I thought perhaps don't get a lot of press.  These four people produce wonderful work in niche areas and don't get the praise, and attention, they deserve.  Let's hope that changes today :)

Friday, 9 September 2011

Tony's Metamorphosis

As Tony Malone awoke one morning from uneasy sleep, caused partly by reading Kafka's Die Verwandlung, or The Metamorphosis, until far too late for someone with Tony's early-bedtime habits, he found himself changed into a monstrous bookworm.  He looked down at his body and saw a nothing but a long, worm-like torso, and, when he glanced over at the curtainless window, he thought he saw something resembling a puffy, oval face, with large eyes, more suitable for heavy reading than his usual small ones.  He fell back onto his bed, pondering the change which, for no reason he could think of at the moment, besides, of course, the incessant reading he had been undertaking of late, had come over him while he was sleeping or, to be more accurate, slipping in and out of consciousness.  What had happened?  What was he to do?  And, more importantly, what was he to read next?

As he mulled over the situation in his mind, he began, unconsciously, to think back to Kafka's novella, smiling wryly at the coincidental irony of undergoing such a transformation after reading that particular book - although, of course, perhaps it wasn't such a coincidence when you considered that, just like Gregor Samsa, and Kafka himself, he too was a family man, burdened by responsibility, subconsciously waiting for something to take matters out of his own hands and relieve him of his onerous task.  He reflected upon the possibility, perhaps the certainty? No, the possibility, that this rejection of social norms, the role of the man as worker and bread winner, was linked to a regression in Samsa's condition (and it was certainly possible, if not certain, that this was also a factor in Tony's own, recent - and maybe not entirely unexpected - unfortunate accident...), a regression which was nothing more, or less, than a rejection of the load his family was asking him to bear.

Tony was just about to follow this train of thought further, when, suddenly and abruptly, especially for that time of the morning (for, although it was light outside, the sun certainly hadn't risen much above the horizon yet), the door crashed open, and his elder daughter Emily ran into the room.  On seeing her father, or more accurately, the creature lying where her father was usually to be found, she stopped, silent, as if first weighing events and possible explanations up in her mind, before then deciding to speak after all, asking with an, understandably, quivering voice, "Is that you, Daddy?".  Now, this put Tony on the spot, firstly, because he wasn't sure if he would still be able to speak and, more importantly, be understood, but also because, if he was honest with himself, he wasn't quite sure of the answer to this question himself...  As he attempted to move himself into a more upright position, preparatory to responding to his daughter's unexpectedly metaphysical question, Emily, seeing only a creature shifting itself slightly in her direction, turned and fled from the room.

Tony now managed to turn himself over onto what might, or might not, have been his stomach, feeling all of a sudden, although the feeling may have been there for some time, masked by the aches caused by his uncomfortable position, that he was actually very hungry.  Some toast would be nice or... no.  The idea of food repelled him, but a book... a book would be good, preferably something old and long since ideologically rotten.  He paused for thought, wondering where that idea had come from, letting it slip away as quickly as it had entered his head.

Again he thought back to Die Verwandlung, marvelling at more parallels between his and the protagonist's plight, deciding this time to consider the possibility of a metaphor of terminal illness or disability, a theme that had already crossed his mind when reading another of Kafka's works, Der Prozeß.  Perhaps Samsa's transformation was a metaphor for a more mundane, but equally debilitating, disease, one which his family would struggle to accept and adapt to.  Possible...  Nevertheless, Tony couldn't really see his twinges of RSI in the same vein, and he was struggling to see how an inability to type for long periods of time could somehow evolve into a full-body mutation of the kind he was experiencing.  He paused, unsure, unable to understand the logic of the proceedings, cogitating, considering and clarifying events in his mind.  He still felt hungry too.

Just then, in the middle of his musings, he became aware of another intruder into his bookworm's lair, a figure he could just make out through his slightly altered, near-sighted vision.  He slowly recognised his wife as she crossed the threshold, looking around calmly, as if registering slight changes in the environment, before fixing her gaze calmly on the entity lying beneath the sheets.  Tony's heart began to beat faster, and his mouth, or what he still thought of as his mouth, being, as it was, in the place where he was accustomed to find that feature, opened and closed quickly, almost as if the creature, the bookworm, the husband wanted to say something.  The wife took a step forward, looked Tony in the eye, and calmly, but with a barely veiled hint of hostility, said:

"If you think this will get you out of mowing the lawn, you've got another think coming."

With that, she turned and left the room, and Tony, still cowering under the sheets, started thinking about getting dressed - and especially about how he was going to get his t-shirt over his over-sized head...

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

There's German, and then there's German...

We're off again, dear reader, but today we're visiting a new part of the country.  Put on your Lederhosen, and leave your phrase book back at the hotel - it's not going to help you much where we're going...

Bavaria, or Bayern in German, is one of the largest states in Germany, and one which is proud of its outsider status.  Differing in religion, politics and footballing allegiance to the rest of the country, the Bavarians also speak a dialect of German which is often accompanied on television in the rest of the country by sub-titles.  You can imagine then my trepidation upon picking up Lena Christ's autobiographical novel Erinnerungen einer Überflüssigen (Memoirs of a Superfluous Woman)...

Erinnerungen... is a rather tricky book to pigeon-hole: is it autobiographical fiction or a fictional autobiography?  In either case, it's a well-written description of a young woman's life in turn-of-the-(twentieth)century Bavaria, borrowing amply from Christ's own experiences, but altering and exaggerating in parts.  It begins with a few pastoral childhood memories, before the young Lena is torn from the loving arms of her grand-parents to rejoin her Münkara Muatta ('Munich mother') in the big city - and this is where her woes begin...

Lena is an illegitimate child, and her mother, who left her in the care of relatives until she had found a husband, is reminded of her shame every time she sees her daughter.  From the moment poor Lena arrives in the state capital, she is subjected to constant psychological and physical maltreatment, with certain scenes making me involuntarily flinch - or even lay the book down for a while.  Lena somehow survives this terrible ordeal, and after a series of dead ends, manages to escape her abusive parent to start a new life with a handsome young husband.  Any guesses how that turns out?

As mentioned above, it's extremely hard to tell where reality begins and fiction ends, and this makes it hard at times to really immerse oneself in the book.  Also, the style of writing, while pleasant, doesn't really seem to be going anywhere; the narrative can simply go on and on, leaving the reader wondering what exactly the book is about.  This feeling of disorientation is not exactly helped by the fact that while the description is written in Hochdeutsch, the dialogue is almost exclusively in Bayerisch.  To give you an example of what I mean, here is a sentence from the first few pages:

"I möcht aa amal wieda in d'Kirch geh'." - Bavarian
"Ich möchte auch einmal wieder in die Kirche gehen." - Standard German
"I'd also like to go to church for once." - My Translation
Rest assured, this is a comparatively easy sentence to translate...  If anyone has read anything by Irvine Welsh - and been dumbfounded by his Scots dialogue -, they'll have an idea of what we're facing here.

Despite the language problems and the fiction/non-fiction dilemma though, this is a very interesting book, and what makes it especially worth reading is the complex (and skilfully-depicted) relationship between Lena and her mother.  The writer has managed to create a fascinating character with deep-seated issues which prevent her from warming to her child, yet who struggles to show some affection to her daughter in spite of her antipathy towards the supposed source of her shame.  The fact that this character is actually a real person complicates issues somewhat...

***** I thought it might be a good idea to have a look at another of Christ's works before making any judgements - which leads me to today's second book, Mathias Bichler.  This is a later novel, again biographical (taking the life of Christ's grandfather as its inspiration), but slightly more plot driven than Erinnerungen...

Mathias is an orphan dumped on the doorstep of a religious family in the Bavarian countryside, and he grows up to be a slight, physically-weak young boy, content to watch the sheep and cows... and the clouds.  A short pilgrimage to a famous church is the spark which ignites the story, providing both the guiding ambition of his later life and the start of a series of events which will propel Mathias out into the big, bad world.  For on his return, Mathias is attacked and beaten, only waking up months later in a strange bed - attended by a beautiful young girl...

The first part of this novel has undertones of Great Expectations, with the orphan Mathias, his unattainable love Kathrein and his shadowy nemesis Ambros providing neat parallels with Dickens' novel (there's even a fiery end for his slightly unusual benefactress..).  However, as the story unfolds, and Mathias begins his wanderings among the stunning backdrop of the Tirol mountains, it is another classic, Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, which comes to mind.  Through a series of (mis)adventures and trials of character, the young boy comes through life's tests and becomes a man worthy of his ambitions, not to mention the woman he loves.  Not that it goes as smoothly as all that :)

After reading Mathias Bichler, I'm definitely interested in reading more of Christ's work.  There's a definite shift in voice and style from the earlier novel, and the reader is pulled along more by the narrative (which may be just the effect of having chapters instead of one long tale of woe).  Thankfully, there was also less bayerisch in this book too (which was just as well as my brain was about to go into meltdown after almost a month reading foreign tongues).  All in all, a good week's reading and a new addition to my list of German authors - and almost the end of my reading month reviews...

...I just have one more little morsel to share with you - next time :)

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Not All That Glitters...

We're off again!  Jump into the saddle, and we'll gallop off around Germany to have a look at a couple of places today, one in the west and one over in the east.  Don't forget to bring your packed lunch  ;)

Our first stop today is up in Westfalen in the north-west of Germany, very close to one of my old stomping grounds.  Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche (The Jew Beech), as well as being my first ever G-Lit classic written by a woman (insert shame face here), is a very well-known tale, thirty-odd pages of rural mystery and superstition.  Friedrich Mergel, a young man living in a small Westphalian village, does not have the best of starts in life, being the son of a rowdy alcoholic who died alone in the woods after a few too many drinks.  Therefore, when his uncle Simon decides to adopt him, his poor mother is extremely relieved, thinking that her son will finally be able to grow up to be an honest man.

However, Friedrich has bad blood in his veins, and after being cleared of any involvement in one serious crime, a second one (the murder of a Jewish moneylender) sees him fleeing the village, along with his friend - and lookalike - Johannes Niemand (Nobody).  Once the dust has settled (and the fugitives are nowhere to be found), the Jewish community of the surrounding villages ask to buy the tree under which the dead body was found.  After the wish is granted, they make it into a kind of memorial - with a prophetic Hebrew inscription carved into the tree...

It all sounds very interesting, and it is well written enough, but for me it falls between two stools in that there's too much there for a simple short story but nowhere near enough development for anything longer.  Some German novellas (like Goethe's Novelle) have this feel, and Die Judenbuche is definitely one where I found myself wanting a little more, either from the writer or the plot.  Don't get me wrong - it's well worth reading (especially when sourced for free for my Kindle!) - but as the one piece of writing preserving the writer's name for posterity, it doesn't quite measure up to expectations.  Still, that's what e-readers and copyright-free classics are for :)

Time to move on over to the eastern town of Halle, the starting point for Joseph von Eichendorff's amusing novella Die Glücksritter (The Adventurers).  We're back in the seventeenth century now, shortly after the end of the Thirty Years' War, and riding secretly on the back of a carriage with our stowaway hero, Klarinett.  When discovered by the coachman, he jumps off and (after stealing some cake and wine...) is pursued by a band of indignant men until he is cornered.  Luckily for him, a bear of a man appears in the street and gets rid of the whole group with a few swings of his sizable fists.  This man is the student Suppius, and together the two unlikely characters go on to have even more unlikely adventures.

The start of the story unfolds at a dizzying pace, and despite some gaps and an extremely rushed train of events, the reader is swept along with the dynamic duo and their humorous antics.  The secretive Klarinett, with his obvious pseudonym and a hidden past, fits well with the larger-than-life (and twice as clumsy) Suppius, going off on a quest to help the student serenade (and then rescue) the woman of his dreams - whom he has only ever seen on her balcony from the street below.  After a couple of chapters, Die Glücksritter is reminiscent of a Teutonic Don Quixote - or, more cruelly, a Germanic Asterix and Obelix ;)

Sadly, the story goes downhill from there.  Our focus is distracted in the third chapter, when the writer switches his attention to a new group of people and while he eventually ties the events together, the book never really reaches the heights promised by the beginning.  The whole story, from start to end, only takes up about thirty five to forty pages, and this is a tale which really could have gone somewhere, like the aforementioned Spanish classic, or even Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.  Instead, the few threads of the story are rattled through and tied up neatly within six chapters, almost as if this was an idea that the writer was really keen on for a few days but then rapidly lost interest in and finished just because it was there...

Unlike our first tale today though, this was not the crowning glory of Eichendorff's career.  He was more famous as a poet, but another of his prose works, Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing), is one of those works which crop up in conversation again and again (well, depending on the kind of conversation you're having anyway!).  Here's hoping that Taugenichts, which I have sitting waiting for me on my German-language bookshelf, is a longer, better version of Die Glücksritter, because I felt that this was an opportunity missed.

The moral of today's post then is that while there are a lot of great stories out there, sometimes (even in 19th-century German literature) they just don't work out for you.  Still, if you don't try, then you'll never know...

Thursday, 1 September 2011

August 2011 Wrap-Up - German Literature Month

After the rigours of my Victorian-themed Rereading July, I expected to slip into a more relaxed, leisurely month of reading, and reviewing, assorted odds and ends.  Instead, August turned into a near non-stop festival of fiction in the German tongue, in which I read just about as many German-language books as in the whole of 2010.  Totally unplanned as it was, my German Literature Month was great fun and a big success - and it went like this...

Total Books Read: 14
Year-to-date: 88

New: 13
Rereads: 1

From the Shelves: 5
From the Library: 2
On the Kindle: 7

Novels: 4
Novellas: 6
Short Stories: 2
Poetry: 1
Non-Fiction: 1

Non-English Language: 12 (12 German)
In Original Language: 12 (12 in German!)

Books read in August were:
1) Der Schimmelreiter by Theodor Storm
2) Die Leute von Seldwyla (Band 1) by Gottfried Keller
3) Selected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke
4) Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten by Johann von Goethe
5) Novelle by Johann von Goethe
6) The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
7) Literary Theory - A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler
8) Die Judenbuche by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff
9) Frau Jenny Treibel by Theodor Fontane
10) Leutnant Gustl & Fräulein Else by Arthur Schnitzler
11) Die Glücksritter by Joseph von Eichendorff
12) Erinnerungen einer Überflüssigen by Lena Christ
13) Mathias Bichler by Lena Christ
14) Die Verwandlung by Franz Kafka

Murakami Challenge: 0 (2/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (13/12)
Victorian Literature Challenge: 6 (26/15)
Japanese Literature Challenge 5: 0 (2/1)

Tony's Recommendations for August are:
Arthur Schnitzler's Leutnant Gustl & Fräulein Else 
and Franz Kafka's Die Verwandlung

Obviously, August was dominated by G-Lit classics, and I decided to split my vote between a very old friend (my copy of Die Verwandlung is a relic from my first year at university) and a rather newer one (one of my newly-beloved Hamburger Lesehefte!).  Honourable mentions to William Faulkner's classic - which may have benefited from Schnitzler's stream-of-consciousness work! -, Theodor Storm's stormy novella and Keller's collection of Swiss novellas.

It was a good experience to immerse myself in German for a month, but I think it's time to head back into English prose (and more modern times!).  What will September bring?  You'll just have to wait and see...