Sunday 30 December 2012

The 2012 Tony's Reading List Awards

Welcome to the fourth annual Tony's Reading List Awards, a time for me to look back at the year's reading and sort through the winners and the grinners, the dull and the dreary, the terrific and the terrible - you get the drift (if you'd like to look back at what happened in 2009, 2010 and 2011, be my guest!).

There are a number of awards to be handed out this evening, and I'll be commenting all the while on little interesting stats about my reading year, so let's get on with it, shall we?  Drum roll, please ;)

As always, the first prize up is 2012's Most-Read Author Award - and the winner is:

1) Anthony Trollope (4)
2) Sjón (3)

Trollope takes home the gong for the third consecutive year - well done, sir!
The lack of contenders here is because my cut-off point was three books by one writer, and only two managed to fit that criteria this year.  This is due to a much wider spread of reading this year and can also be seen in the results of my next category...

...which is the Most-Read Country Award!

1=) Germany (18)
1=) Japan (18)
3) England (17)
4) Iceland (9)
5) Australia (7)

In a hard-fought battle (with a much wider field of participants), Germany retains the crown it wrested from England last year - but only just.  Japan was very close, and if the year had included January 2013, we may have had a new champion :)  Stop the Press!  My reading in preparation for January in Japan since writing this post sent J-Lit surging up the charts to share equal billing at the top of the list!

Looking at my original language stats, it's clear to see that my focus shifted even more clearly to translated fiction this year.  Of the 125 books read, just 30 were originally published in English, meaning that a staggering 95 (of which I read 27 in the original language) were originally written in a foreign language.  I'm fairly sure that this is a trend which will continue into 2013 and beyond...

It's now time to hand out the individual honours, and one of the highlights of the literary calendar round these parts is the bestowal of the Golden Turkey Award.  This highly-coveted honour is given to the book which, in my very personal, most subjective opinion, was the biggest waste of my precious reading time over the past twelve months.  And the nominees are: 

The winner (of course) is the truly awful Please Look After Mother, one of the first books I read this year, and without doubt the one I really wish I hadn't bothered with... 

Let's move on now to more pleasant affairs, namely the year's good books.  Each month, in my wrap-up post, I nominate a book or two as my recommendation, and these books form my longlist for the Book of the Year.  This year's nominees (links to my reviews) are:

January - Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
February - In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts (In Times of Fading Light) by Eugen Ruge
March - The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
April - The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
May - Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) by Günter Grass
June - Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff
and Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
July - Petersburg by Andrei Bely
and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas
August - Independent People by Halldór Laxness
September - A l'ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs (Within a Budding Grove) by Marcel Proust
October - Stone Tree by Gyrðir Elíasson
November - Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin
DecemberThe Old Man and his Sons by Heðin Brú
and My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

The fifteen books on the list come from nine different countries, with Germany's three nominations topping the list.  Australia, England, Spain and Iceland all provided two nominees, while books from Russia, France, New Zealand and the Faroe Islands(!) round out the selection.

In the first three years of the blog, I cheated massively by choosing a series as my pick for the year, but this year I am determined to stick my neck out.  Of the fifteen books above, five stood out enough to make it onto my shortlist:

The Unconsoled
Independent People
Berlin Alexanderplatz

Finally, after lengthy deliberations (and some rather vicious exchanges) in the jury room, a winner was chosen.  The Tony's Reading List Book of the Year for 2012 is:

Andrei Bely's Petersburg

It was an extremely close-run race between Petersburg and Dublinesque, but in the end I had to go for the Russian classic over the Spanish modern classicCongratulations to publishers Pushkin Press for their excellent taste :)

And that's it for 2012, another great year in reading :)  Thanks to everyone who has visited and commented this year - I hope you'll continue to do so in 2013...

...and speaking of 2013, it's already shaping up to be a busy year.  I'm looking forward to taking part in the Shadow Panel again for next year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but before that, there's another event taking up my time.  I'll be spending the first month of 2013 with January in Japan, my first ever blog event.  If you'd like to join me, you know where to look :)

Friday 28 December 2012

The Magical Mystery Tour

A bit of Dickens is good at any time of year, but I agree that the end of the year, as we move towards the holidays, is a great time to settle down with one of his chunky novels.  While Christmas Down Under is a little different to how it is back home (not much chance of snow in Melbourne in December!), reading about winter delights from the Victorian era makes it feel a little more like home ;)

One of my favourite Dickens works is his first novel, The Pickwick Papers.  Like many of his books, it was serialised in a magazine, and it was so successful that readers clamoured to get the next instalment as soon as possible.  In fact, with people making their own Pickwick Club badges, it was something of a craze, the Harry Potter or Twilight of its day - not bad for a twenty-four-old writer...

The hero of the piece is Samuel Pickwick, a retired businessman and founder of the club which bears his name.   Deciding (in the interests of social science) that he would like to observe more of English society, he creates a small sub-group for the purpose, and along with Tracy Tupman (a portly admirer of the fairer sex), Augustus Snodgrass (a self-proclaimed poet) and Nathaniel Winkle (who is reputed to excel in all sporting matters) he sets off to see the delights of life outside London.  As you can imagine, many an adventure lies in store...

The Pickwick Papers starts off as a humorous, sketch-comedy romp through the English countryside, in a style which is reminiscent of various classic works of literature.  The episodic nature reminds the reader of The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron, but it's a certain Spanish novel from which Dickens appears to have taken his inspiration in part.  At times, poor Pickwick can appear very quixotic...

...and what would the noble Don be without his faithful Sancho Panza?  Luckily, Dickens provides us with one a little into the book, and he turns out to be the best character of all.  Sam Weller is a Cockney jack-of-all-trades who is chosen by Pickwick to be his manservant, and from the very start he steals most scenes he is in.  Unsure as to his actual role, the imperturbable Weller is nevertheless very happy that he has landed on his feet:
"Well," said that suddenly-transformed individual, as he took his seat on the outside of the Eatanswill coach next morning; "I wonder whether I'm meant to be a footman, or a groom, or a gamekeeper, or a seedsman.  I looks like a sort of compo of everyone on 'em.  Never mind; there's change of air, plenty to see, and little to do; and all this suits my complaint uncommon; so long life to the Pickwicks, says I!"
p.154 (Wordsworth Editions, 2000)
The surprisingly unworldly Pickwick will have many opportunities to be grateful for the assistance of his faithful offsider before the book is done.

As the novel progresses, the tone becomes a little more serious, and a plot does eventually emerge.  Pickwick, owing to a comical misunderstanding, is sued for breach of promise by a widow who believes he has agreed to marry her, and his refusal to bow to pressure to make the issue go away leads to his enforced stay in a debtor's prison.  By this point, the comical, portly buffoon of the first few chapters has developed into a kindly, virtuous character who has the reader firmly on his side - and when you've also got the cunning Sam Weller in your corner, things are bound to turn out well in the end :)

The Pickwick Papers is interesting reading for fans of Dickens' later work as there are glimpses of later creations in its pages.  The writer's skill in inventing comic characters is already in force, shown in the figure of the conman actor Alfred Jingle (and his servant, the sly Job Trotter) and the obese (and possibly narcoleptic) house boy Joe.  Echoes of later themes are also apparent, with Dicken's obsession with the law (later seen in Bleak House and Little Dorrit) already prominent here.

In the end though, The Pickwick Papers is an entertaining book in its own right, created by a writer who was having fun finding out how to write a novel.  In terms of greatness, it pales beside some of his later works; however, its characters remain among Dickens' most popular.  By the end of the book, we are happy to concur with Sam's opinion of his master:
"And now we're upon it, I'll let you into another secret besides that," said Sam, as he paid for the beer. "I never heerd, mind you, nor read of in story books, nor see in picters, any angel in tights and gaiters - not even in spectacles, as I remember, though that may ha' been done for anythin' I know to the contrairey - but mark my vords, Job Trotter, he's a reg'lar thoroughbred angel for all that, and let me see the man as wenturs to tell me he knows a better vun." pp.597-7

Tuesday 25 December 2012

A Very Merry (Bookish) Christmas :)

When Emma and Guy floated the idea of the Christmas Humbook event, I was very flattered to be chosen by Lisa of ANZ LitLovers LitBlog to be her 'copinaute'.  While I'm curious as to what she has picked out for me to read next year (I have my suspicions...), today it's time for me to unveil my two choices for Lisa to try in 2013.

So how did I come to my final choices?  Well, I had a few things in mind when selecting them.  Firstly, I decided that both my choices should come from my preferred area of literature, fiction in translation, and that they should reflect my special areas of interest, German and Japanese literature.  Secondly, the books were chosen for style over content as (hopefully) that's the kind of book, Lisa will like!  Thirdly, I had a quick check, and both are available in the wider library network that we both use.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they're both fairly short...

Without further ado, my picks for Lisa are (links are to my reviews):

I do hope that Lisa hasn't read them already :(

Sunday 23 December 2012

The Start of a Most Brilliant Career

I've had a copy of Miles Franklin's classic Australian novel My Brilliant Career on my shelves for about six months now, having previously failed to read a library copy and a free Kindle version, but a recent catalyst finally induced me to pick it up and give it a go.  Tom, the amateur reader behind the deceptively-professional Wuthering Expectations, posted twice on it a few weeks ago, and his comments persuaded me that it was time to head out into the bush.  Care to join me?  Bring a hat, don't forget the sunscreen - oh, and whatever you do, watch where you're walking...

My Brilliant Career is set in the 1890s and narrated by Sybylla Melvyn, a woman looking back at her formative years.  The first ten years of her life, spent in the Australian bush riding horses and splashing around in waterholes, turn her into a bit of a tomboy, and when her father decides to move his family and take on a new career as a dairy farmer, she struggles to adapt to her new, dull existence.

Luckily, after several years of drudgery, she is rescued by her grandmother, who brings her back to her home area of Caddagat to live a slightly more refined existence.  Here Sybylla once again encounters books, society and men - in particular, the rich, sun-beaten and taciturn landholder Harold Beecham.  With a male protagonist whose emotions run deep below his rugged exterior, you could be forgiven for having fleeting thoughts of a Darcy or a Rochester.  Sybylla though is no Lizzie or Jane...

Franklin wrote the first version of the book when she was just sixteen, but apart from the odd over-flowery expression it's hard to believe that this is the case.  My Brilliant Career is a superb depiction of life as a woman in the late 19th-century, a creature trapped by her gender in a stifling, unsuitable life.  The title is a sarcastic one, referring to Sybylla's thoughts on the agony of her lot in life, destined (like her mother) to wear herself to the bone for nothing.

Despite her fiery nature, poor Sybylla has virtually no choice in the direction of her future.  Trapped in a poor existence by her father's drunken ineptitude, she is shifted from house to house without ever having a say in matters.  If she could just resign herself to her fate, she knows she would be happier; however:
"...I am afflicted with the power of thought, which is a heavy curse.  The less a person thinks and inquires regarding the why and the wherefore and the justice of things, when dragging along through life, the happier it is for him, and doubly, trebly so, for her."
p.30 (Text Classics, 2012)
It's not as if she has any great prospect of escape.  If she needs any hints as to her probable future, the figures of her exhausted mother and her jilted spinster aunt should give her a glimpse of how she is likely to end up.

Sybylla, however, is not one to compromise.  She is a superb character, allegedly plain, but self-evidently intelligent, loving and very ambitious.  Like any Austen heroine, she loves her books and her dancing; unlike her English counterparts, she's not averse to more masculine pursuits.  She's just as at home on the back of a horse, or in the driver's seat of a carriage, as she is in the ballroom - just don't leave any whips hanging around... 

Anyone who enjoys classic English literature will find a lot to like in My Brilliant Career as there are a lot of similarities with novels from the mother country.  The daily life inside the houses of the more well-off families is remarkably similar to that in many English novels, and (as mentioned) the importance of literature is just as prominent.  A scene where the family holds a feast for all the workers to celebrate the Prince of Wales' birthday is also Hardyesque in its bringing together of all the social groups on the property.

However, this is not my home land, this is my adopted country, and My Brilliant Career, perhaps more than almost any other book I've read, really brings home the fact that Australia is a unique place.  Sybylla sets out on searing hot days, under impossibly blue skies, with magpies swooping on the unwary (which is a lot scarier than it sounds - trust me...).  Jackaroos abound - not small marsupials but men who work on gigantic cattle farms.  The temperature (still measured in fahrenheit in those days) is often over 100 degrees in the shade...

...and even sentences which could have been lifted directly from Austen are unable to escape their Australian influence.  If we look at a sentence (which Tom, again, got to first), a quick glance reveals a very Victorian scene:
"Several doors and windows of the long room opened into the garden, and [...] it was delightful to walk amid the flowers and cool oneself between dances." p.208
Austenesque?  Absolutely.  But the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed the square brackets in the middle of the sentence.  So, what exactly has been omitted?  Let's look at the full sentence...
"Several doors and windows of the long room opened into the garden, and, provided one had no fear of snakes, it was delightful to walk amid the flowers and cool oneself between dances." p.208
I think we can all agree that as wonderful as Saint Jane's writing can be, her novels really don't contain enough posionous snakes...

All in all, My Brilliant Career is worthy of the hype.  It's a great book, precocious but profound, a feminist classic in which the heroine follows her own desires against the expectations of society, her family and the man who loves her.  You should read this - you'll probably like it :)

Before I go, I'd just like to make a few notes on the text (no pun intended).  Text Publishing is a small press based in Melbourne, and in May this year they brought out a series called Text Classics.  The series comprises a few dozen famous Australian books, in a variety of genres, with introductions by celebrity fans of the books.  They have distinctive, yellow-based covers, and they cost just AU$12.95 each (with, as far as I can tell, free worldwide delivery).  In a country where you virtually need a mortgage to regularly buy books (and where life appears more Americanised every day...) providing affordable, quality, classic Aussie literature is a public service, and one I applaud them for - bravo :)  Anyone interested in literature Down Under could do a lot worse than checking out the Text Classics series as their starting point...

Thursday 20 December 2012

Accabadora - Not Such a Magic Word

My most recent surprise package from MacLehose Press was a paperback edition of Accabadora, a recent prize-winning novel by Italian writer Michela Murgia (translated by Silvester Mazzarella).  Despite reviews from several familiar bloggers, it's a book that had flown under my radar, and I decided to start it right away, knocking it off in less than a day.  A good thing or a bad thing?  Let's see...

Accabdora is set on Sardinia a few decades back.  As we start the book, we are introduced to an old lady, Bonaria Urrai, who has decided to informally adopt Maria Listru, the superfluous and little-regarded youngest daughter of a poverty-stricken villager.  Maria has no regrets about her change of scenery, quickly coming to treat her new guardian with love and respect, and the ever-nosy villagers eventually lose interest in the event.

However, the older Maria becomes, the more she wonders about Bonaria.  While she ostensibly earns her keep as a seamstress, her standing in society is much higher than that.  Why does she always wear black?  Why do people speak to her in hushed tones?  And why does she sometimes go out in the middle of the night...

Murgia's debut novel starts out wonderfully, painting a picture of a society which, due to its place away from the larger centres of civilisation, still retains strong links to its traditional values.  The reader is drawn into the story by the description of local customs, and while there are plenty of questions left unanswered, we (like Maria) are more than happy to wait for the right time:
"Maria had not understood anything at all but nodded all the same, because you cannot always expect to understand everything you hear the minute you hear it.  In any case, she was still under the impression that Tzia Bonaria worked as a seamstress"
p.20 (MacLehose Press, 2012)
The question, of course, is whether Maria will be as happy when she finds out exactly what Bonaria actually does...

I won't go into exactly what the role of an accabadora is (although there are plenty of reviews out there that do), but it's safe to say that it's a complex role and one that involves some serious ethical dilemmas.  About half-way through the novel, Bonaria is confronted with such a dilemma when a young man, whose leg was shot and then amputated, asks her for help she is unwilling to provide.  At which point...

...unfortunately, the story rapidly goes downhill.  You see, once we reach the dramatic turning point in Accabadora, it's as if the writer's spark is suddenly extinguished.  Where the first half of the novel is fascinating, pulling the reader along, what follows is dull, clichéd and, at times, ill conceived.  The inevitable revelation of Bonaria's identity (known to everyone - including the reader - but Maria for some time) and the subsequent breach it causes are lacking in any kind of emotion - curious for what was surely the whole point of the set up.

Murgia then sends Maria away into an entirely unrelated sub-plot in Turin, which adds very little to the story, before dragging her back to the island to finish the book off as quickly as possible.  It's as if the first part of the story almost wrote itself, but the rest just wouldn't come out right.  I couldn't help thinking that the book should either have been left as a novella, ending with Maria's departure, or a much longer novel with the episode in Turin expanded and more closely related to the rest of the book.

In the end, I was disappointed with Accabadora, not because of my expectations (I didn't have any) or because it is a bad book, but because the first half of the novel promised a lot which the second half failed to deliver.  In flicking through other reviews of the book (which, lest we forget, has won numerous prizes), I saw overwhelmingly-positive write-ups, but I did come across a few with similar reservations to my own.  A different reader may enjoy the way Murgia has structured Accabadora - sadly, I didn't...

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Dreams in a Cold Climate

A while back, when Peter Owen Publishers offered to send me a couple of Shusaku Endo novels to review, they also asked if I would be interested in a third Japanese book by a different writer, one on the topic of mountain climbing.  I was happy to have a look, so I accepted, and the book duly appeared a few weeks later.  However, it appears that I wasn't paying attention during the e-mail exchange as what I thought was a work of non-fiction was actually a novel - which was even better :)

Wahei Tatematsu's Frozen Dreams (translated by Philip Gabriel) is based on a true story but is very much a work of fiction.  It takes place in the mountains of the northernmost of Japan's four main islands, Hokkaido, and concerns a mountaineering expedition which goes horribly wrong.  Noboru, a final-year university student, is leading a six-strong team on an ascent of one the island's highest peaks.  After a few days of hard toil in sub-zero temperatures, the group digs out a snow cave to spend the night in, before recommencing their assault on the mountain the next day.  Unfortunately though, the mountain has other ideas - the assault (in the form of an avalanche) is on the climbers instead.

When Noboru wakes up, he finds himself trapped, tired and frozen in a little pocket of air.  Unable to move, he alternates between sweet dreams and painful consciousness - and in his dreams, he sees a future in which the avalanche is just a distant memory.  Having come close to Yuko, the only woman in the group, the delirious Noboru's imagination runs away with him, and he envisions a future in which he and Yuko return to the mountain, this time under a blazing sun.  Whether it will ever come true or not remains to be seen...

Frozen Dreams is an excellent glimpse into a world the majority of us will never see, the beauty and danger of mountains in the snow.  The great strength of the book is the insight into Noboru's world, a world I am more than happy to experience through Tatematsu's descriptive prose.  The writer takes us into the climbers' world, showing us how they clear the snow, dig out a snow cave, and cook in spartan conditions.  As Noboru and his group walk in the glistening snow, breathing in the crisp, clean air and gazing out over the Hokkaido landscape, it almost makes you envious.  Almost.

The climbers are well aware of the dangers they face, and in a way, this is part of the thrill.  As Noboru muses:
"But what point would there be to a climb without risk?  Even if you don't seek out danger, trying to avoid it entirely would make climbing impossible.  The more he pursued these thoughts, the more he arrived at one question: Why did one climb mountains?  It was a question nobody could answer."
p.126 (Peter Owen Publishers, 2012)
Part of the enjoyment of tackling the peaks in treacherous conditions is the knowledge that it is a gamble.  There is a lot to gain from the risk, but so much you could lose.

Naturally, Noboru's opinions are slightly altered by his experiences in the snow cave.  His dreams of a happy, married future are a far cry from his earlier feelings.
"Happiness meant monotony.  The same days one after another, time peacefully passing by, disappearing as soon as it passed.  Noboru knew he was living an ordinary life now and was happy." p.137
Unfortunately, this ordinary, happy life is all in his head...

While there's a lot to like about Frozen Dreams, it does have some drawbacks.  Despite the high profile of the translator, Murakami-renderer Philip Gabriel, there were some parts of the book which didn't impress me much.  The description of the Hokkaido landscape was beautiful, but some of the more mundane prose felt a little clunky (to use a technical term!).

I'd also have to say that the inclusion of Yuko in the group, and the resultant sexual tension with another of the climbers, seems a little forced and unnecessary.  In Noboru's series of dreams, his hopes become fantasy, culminating in some short, but slightly over-detailed, sex scenes which are completely out of place.  It's as if the writer felt a need to add another dimension to the story, one which detracts a little from Noboru's struggle for survival.

Away from bedroom matters though, it's an enjoyable read, contrasting descriptive passages of natural beauty with pages spent with Noboru in his claustrophobic bubble.  As his energy slowly dwindles (along with the batteries in his head-lamp), he is forced to face up to the worst - he (and his companions) might not make it back down the mountain alive.  And this is the motto of the story, repeated several times in its pages:
"Whenever you climb a mountain, you have to come back safe and sound.  Otherwise it's too sad for those you leave behind." p128

Sunday 16 December 2012

January in Japan Giveaway

Over at the January in Japan blog, I'm giving away a book to celebrate the fact that the event is getting ever closer - and a great book it is too!  What is it?  Well, you'll just have to pop over and find out for yourself ;)

Thursday 13 December 2012

Generations of Change

Back when I was in the middle of my Icelandic period, a suggestion from Mark for further reading sent me scurrying to Wikipedia for more information.  I was even more intrigued as the book was not from Iceland but from the Faroe Islands, a place of which my main image is a man in a bobble hat...  After a cheeky request to Telegram Books, I was sent an electronic review copy of the book - and when I finally got around to reading it, I was very glad I'd asked :)

Heðin Brú's The Old Man and his Sons (translated by John F. West) is a novella set in the Faroe Islands some time during the first half of the twentieth century.  It starts with a communal whale hunt in the bay of one of the islands, and Ketil and Kálvur, an aged father and his half-wit son, walk across their island to join in.

After the whales have been caught, the villagers auction off the surplus catch, and Ketil (after a drop or two of something a little harder than water) gets a mite carried away.  While he is pleased with the deal he has made, Kálvur is a little concerned:
"But when he came up to the stretch of grass where his son was, he blanched to see how staggered Kálvur was. 'Father', said Kálvur, 'a thirty-six hundredweight whale at seven and a half kroner a hundredweight - doesn't it come to a frightful lot of money all told?'
       'Yes, yes, it does...'.  The old man's head fell to his chest.  He lacked the strength to reckon up just how much it was.  Kálvur began to weep, and held his hands in front of his face so that folk would not see.  Ketil was completely sobered up by the enormity of what he had done."
p.27 (Telegram Books, 2011)
The debt Ketil runs up in his attempt to stock up on whale meat is the force behind the rest of the narrative.  The hard-working (and proud) Ketil spends the rest of the story trying different ways to save up enough money to pay the debt before the bill comes in...  While it may sound a little melodramatic though, The Old Man and his Sons is anything but.  Ketil soon recovers his composure and sets off to work out how to scrape together a little money, and as for Kálvur, well he's a wuss and is always crying anyway ;)

The book is an examination of a society in change, where the old values of hard work and an antipathy to debt are being edged aside in favour of a life of more ease and leisure.  Ketil is scornful of the fisherman who stand around doing nothing in the months when they are stuck on land, setting an example of the various ways they could be earning a crust while waiting for the fish to return.  The old man (with the occasional help of the reluctant Kálvur) scours the beaches for driftwood, takes his small, home-made boat fishing in the shallows and hunts birds with a net on the cliff tops.  He is a very busy man.

However, despite Ketil's hard-working nature, Brú is clever enough to show the reader that new is not always necessarily wrong - and that the old can be every bit as headstrong and stupid as the younger generations.  The older characters in the story struggle to come to terms with the change in their society and the breakdown of traditions and customs.  One character even flees his family as he believes they are planning to send him to the poor house; in fact, they just wanted him to fill out some forms to apply for a government pension...

Ketil is not immune to this, and when he tries to gut some fish, sending innards all over the floor of his house as he does so, his oldest son intervenes and gives him a lecture about hygiene.  Ketil sighs and says:
'I don't know how it all is.  Perhaps we're so foolish that we can't discuss these things properly.'
        'I don't know whether you're foolish or wise, but you are old.  So much has happened since you were young, that you hardly know where you stand - and then you go around prophesying hunger and ruination.  Stop it; nothing's out of order - it's just a swing of the tide.  Your tide has ebbed; now ours is flowing.' p.96
Anyone who has read the great Icelandic novel Independent People will see many similarities in Brú's work.  In a harsh climate, the natives are forced to work hard in brutal conditions to scrape out an existence.  It's a life-long struggle, one which often ends in death rather than success.  You could be forgiven for thinking that the underlying feeling of the work is one of sadness.

However, while there are many similarities with the much longer Independent People, one advantage The Old Man and his Sons has over its Icelandic counterpart is an ever-present sense of humour.  Whether it's the trials of Ketil's neighbour Klávus, a man who has found God (but more frequently property belonging to other people), or the courtship and romps between Kálvur and Klávus' daughter, laughter is never far from the surface.  The villager's (wildly mistaken) reactions to Ketil's latest schemes also bring a chuckle or two.

In the end though, The Old Man and his Sons performs a fine balancing act between humour and pathos, old and new, success and failure.  It was voted the Faroe Islands' book of the twentieth century, and it's easy to see why.  Brú's novella is a work that should be more widely read  - hopefully my little review is just another step towards its getting the recognition it deserves :)

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Around the World in 565 Pages

After a month of German-language reading (and before Japanese literature starts to dominate my blog again), it's time to catch up on a few books which were left stranded in November.  Today's book though is one that I've actually been reading on and off for a while now - with such a weighty topic, it's not a book you devour in one sitting...

Andrew Marr's A History of the World (review copy courtesy of Pan MacMillan Australia) is a companion book to a BBC television series about... well, you know.  Marr's ambitious task is to condense the history of modern humans into less than six-hundred pages, and while this is (obviously) an impossible task, he does make a good fist of it.  Like many history books, it's 'A' history, not 'The' history, and the content is necessarily selective.

We start in Africa as the first Homo Sapiens begin their journey of expansion and discovery, following our ancestors as they colonise the world, making use of natural resources (and eliminating rival human species...) wherever they end up.  From the first evolutionary jump, the rise of the hunter-gatherer society, to the industrial revolution and beyond, the reader is treated to a ring-side panoramic view of how we got to where we are today.  In the last few pages, we're also granted a glimpse into some possible futures...

Marr's focus is on people, events and places which changed the world, which means that there are some surprises in store for the casual reader.  The ancient Egyptians are virtually ignored as, according to the writer, their influence on the development  of the human race was actually fairly insignificant.  Australia barely warrants a mention, and until the rise of the modern American nation, North America is pretty much ignored.

However, A History of the World does have other surprises for us.  The most interesting feature of this book is the way in which it exposes the Euro-centric focus of pre-twentieth-century history as a bit of a lie.  While most of us Anglos have at least a passing knowledge of the Roman Empire and life in the Mediterranean, we are fairly ignorant of what was happening in China and the Middle East.  By focusing on the parallel development of cultures around the world, civilisations which were occasionally in indirect contact with each other, Marr opens up a whole new window on our history.

One example is the parallels drawn between the Roman Empire and the concurrent Han Chinese empire (with Marr concluding that the superior crossbows of the Chinese would have led them to victory in any conflict between the two superpowers).  Another is the story of the Islamic empires in the time referred to in Europe as the Dark Ages, where the Caliphates occupied land in Spain and south-eastern Europe.  There was a lot here that I was only vaguely aware of before reading Marr's analysis.

A History of the World is an excellent book, but (inevitably for this kind of book) it does have its drawbacks.  The vast scope of the book means that it needs to move along at a rapid pace, at times much too quickly for the reader to fully understand the situation.  The focus on the big movers and shakers of history was also problematic as whole regions were ignored for large stretches of the book, leaving us to speculate on what was happening between mentions.  Finally, and most importantly, there are no maps!  Thousands of years of history, constant wars, frequent name changes - and not a pictorial cheat sheet in sight :(

Despite these minor drawbacks though, A History of the World is well worth reading, a welcome addition to the small history section of my collection, and a book that most people will enjoy, no matter whether they are history buffs or newcomers to the subject.  It's a work that allows us to achieve a little perspective, showing us that as powerful as the Roman, British and Holy Roman Empires appeared (or as the current American era seems), in the light of history these periods are mere blips.  In a time when we can be forgiven for thinking that history has almost come to its conclusion, Marr's book reminds us that this is unlikely to be how the story ends...

Sunday 9 December 2012

More J-Lit Giants

Today, over on the January in Japan blog, you can see the second in my J-Lit Giants series, short introductions to some of the greats of Japanese literature.  This week's giant is Yukio Mishima, a great writer, and one with a very interesting background...

Don' forget - if you're interested in contributing a post on your own favourite J-Lit Giant, please let me know.  I'll be very happy to publish other people's ideas :)

Friday 7 December 2012

Long Days, Short Sentences

Earlier this week, I published my wrap-up post for this year's German Literature Month.  However, Lizzy (for a variety of reasons) decided to extend the event for a further week - leaving me with just enough time to sneak in another review :)

Unusually though, I actually read this one in English.  I'm rather hesitant to read German-language books in translation, but after receiving a surprise package from the nice people at Comma Press, I decided to make an exception...

Maike Wetzel's Long Days (translated by Lyn Marven) is a short collection of nine stories, primarily focused on turning points in life.  The stories mainly concern young people (teenagers, adolescents, young adults) dealing with important, life-changing events.  Time slows down from the usual frenetic pace, allowing the narrator (and the reader) to analyse matters in minute detail.

Some of the main characters are growing up against the backdrop of difficult circumstances.  In Sleep, a young girl gradually becomes aware of the custody battle raging between her mentally-ill mother and her grandmother, realising that she is a pawn in a game which started long before her birth.  Shadows shows us the effect a girl's battle with anorexia has on the rest of her family, primarily her younger, impressionable sister.  While both these stories end without disaster, the reader would find it difficult to be optimistic about the protagonists' futures...

Even when the characters are a little older, life doesn't become any easier.  The drama student in Frosted Glass struggles to cope with her move to the big city, especially after the recent loss of her father.  In Enlightenment, the main character is more of an observer, studying the theory of biology at school and on a field trip to the gynaecologist's, while fully aware of the practical applications of the subject from what is happening around her in the classroom.

Wetzel's creations are far from all being victims though; in fact, there are several stories in the collection which verge on creepy.  Witnesses, the first story (possibly my favourite), has a young woman telling her partner about the time she found a dead body.  Rather than simply relating the story though, details are added throughout several retellings, each time both adding to the whole picture and subtracting from the narrator's reliability.

When it comes to creepy though, Poor Knights takes the cake (or fried breakfast snack, as is the case).  At the start of the story, the reader is given the impression that two friends are talking about someone they once knew, wondering what she might be doing now.  By the end of the story, Wetzel has sketched out a picture of two sisters who turn up on their aunt's doorstep and simply refuse to leave...

The writer's style is very simple, with many of the stories consisting of sequences of simple sentences, statements of fact which somehow manage to obscure the truth rather than reveal it.  On the whole, the stories also consist of fairly short, loosely-connected paragraphs, brief snapshots from which the reader must assemble a bigger picture.  There is a sense of unease running through the collection, leaving you with the feeling that while life generally goes on, it would be best not to rely too much on anything - or anyone.

In fact, Long Days is a book built on pessimism.  There is a constant sense of foreboding, and lives are lived under permanent clouds.  In the final story of the collection, Other People's Windows, Wetzel writes a love story where a man and a woman get together.  So why does it feel anything but happy?  Perhaps it's sentences like these:
"At heart everything was very simple, they were floating on a steady stream.  They would be each other's assurance, trust each other, entwine like the ivy which envelops a house.  That's how their love would grow, dense and green, until no light could penetrate.  One or both of them would reach for the secateurs, and in the end all that would be left would be a pile of branches on the ground." p.109 (Comma Press, 2008)
It's not exactly "happy-ever-after" material, is it...

Long Days isn't quite the book you need if you're a little down in the dumps, but it is another good Comma Press offering.  Not all of the stories were of the same standard - the two I haven't mentioned, Two Voices and Overgrown, didn't really grab me -, but on the whole, reading Long Days is an enjoyable way to spend the evening.

Although I'm not sure that 'enjoyable' is quite the right word here...

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Just Great Novellas, In Any Language

The other day on Twitter, I saw a tweet with a link to a certain book-related site, where a contributor was promising to tell us what the top ten novellas of all time were.  I'm a fan of the not-so-long, not-so-short form of fiction (as long as I don't have to pay full price for it!), so I clicked through to have a look, and (as usual) wished I hadn't bothered.  Would you believe that of the top ten novellas ever, nine were originally written in English, five by Americans?  No, me neither ;)

So, instead of swearing and sulking - I've done that already -, I thought that I'd come up with a slightly wider, non-Anglophone selection (links go to my reviews).  I make absolutely no claim to their being the best of all time - these are just ten great novellas...

Gabriel García Márquez - Chronicle of a Death Foretold
A wonderful story where we know from the start exactly what will happen - the writer spends the rest of the book telling us how and why.  A man is going to die in a small village even though nobody, even the killer himself, really wants him to.  This would be an excellent first step into the Colombian master's magical fictional world for any reader curious about his work.

Albert Camus - L'étranger (The Stranger/The Outsider)
One of the few foreign books which don't really need the translated title.  Even people who have never read Camus will have heard of his bleak tale of a man who finds himself on a hot beach in North Africa facing a man with a knife.  An absolute classic of world literature.

Yasunari Kawabata - Snow Country
From the heat of Africa, we turn to the snowy mountains of winter Japan, as a Tokyo businessman takes a trip to a mountain resort to visit an attractive entertainer.  It's very much style over substance, with much of the action hidden beneath the surface - like much Japanese fiction, it's what is not said that is important...

Eça De Queiroz - Alves & Co.
While north-European classics of infidelity like Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Effi Briest are fated to end in disaster, these matters are not taken quite as seriously on the Iberian Peninsula if you believe Eça de Queiroz.  This classic Portuguese novella shows us that it's best to take your time when you suspect that your partner has been less than faithful.

Theodor Storm - Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse)
19th-century German writer Theodor Storm is well known for his short stories and novellas, and this is his masterpiece.  A frame-narrative story set on his home turf on the coast of the North Sea, Der Schimmelreiter combines bleak landscapes, impending tragedy and supernatural elements to create a memorable story about a headstrong man who tries to control both his fellow villagers and the tides.

Juan Pablo Villalobos - Down the Rabbit Hole
Once upon a time, there was a little boy who lived in a big, big house, somewhere far, far away.  Lots of fascinating people lived there, and the boy used his imagination to entertain himself when he was unable to go out.  Oh, did I mention that he is the son of a Mexican drug dealer?  And that he wants a pygmy hippopotamus?  Exactly as mad as it sounds (and a good deal darker...). 

Heðin Brú - The Old Man and his Sons
Next it's off to the Faroe Islands, where an old man tries his best to look after his half-wit son and pay off a debt he has incurred for whale meat.  A beautifully-written story of life on the edges of civilisation in a time of change, showing us that young and old both have a lot to learn from each other. 

Ivan Turgenev - First Love
I could have chosen any number of classic Russian novellas, but Turgenev is generally acknowledged as an expert in the form.  First Love is one of his most famous works, and it looks back at an early love in the life of its narrator.  While this may not be the most original premise for a novella, the writing ensures that the story is a memorable one. 

Andrzej Stasiuk - Dukla
Less a novella than an outpouring of emotions and sensations onto a cool, white page, Dukla is a description of several visits a writer pays to a country town in eastern Europe.  This is another novella where the plot takes a back seat to the prose, although the writing is at times more poetical than prosaic.  A paean to light in remembrance of past times :) 

Sjón - The Blue Fox
Another fable from the frozen north, a story with a hint of magic mixed in with the smell of blood, coffee and other less fragrant substances.  An arrogant priest hunts the rare blue fox across the Icelandic countryside, unaware that he is pursuing no ordinary animal.  This was the first of Sjón's books to appear in English, and it's a real treat.

So there you have it: ten great novellas, books I'd recommend to anyone.  I make no claims to their being the best ever, but I certainly enjoyed them :)

A short advisory note to finish this piece - I am well aware that my selections are just as arbitrary as the original post that sparked my decisions.  There are hundreds of books out there that could have been chosen, and there are areas of the world that aren't represented here (Africa is a big omission).  Of course, there is one other point that some readers might take issue with.  Both my ten and the original list fail to mention even one novella written by a woman...

Over to you!  What are your favourite non-Anglophone novellas?  I'd love to hear what you've enjoyed reading :)

Monday 3 December 2012

November 2012 Wrap-Up - German Literature Month

Well, it's been another great month of German literature in the blogosphere.  Once again, thanks are due to Lizzy and Caroline for organising the event - there's a lot of hard work involved behind the scenes, and we appreciate all the effort :)

What was I up to this month?  Glad you asked...

Total Books Read: 10

Year-to-Date: 111

New: 10

Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 5
Review Copies: 4
From the Library: 0
On the Kindle: 1

Novels: 3
Novellas: 2
Short Stories: 3
Non-Fiction: 2

Non-English Language: 9 (6 Germany, Romania, Netherlands, Japan)
In Original Language: 6 (6 German)

Murakami Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (6/12)
Australian Women Writers Challenge: 0 (5/10)
Japanese Literature Challenge 6: 1 (6/1) 

Books reviewed in November were:
1) Brigitta by Adalbert Stifter
2) Bergkristall (Mountain Crystal) by Adalbert Stifter
3) Kabale und Liebe (Love and Intrigue) by Friedrich von Schiller
4) Hermann und Dorothea by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
5) Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen (Germany. A Winter's Tale) by Heinrich Heine
6) Ungefähre Landschaft (Unformed Landscape) by Peter Stamm
7) L'Adultera by Theodor Fontane
8) Herztier (The Land of the Green Plums) by Herta Müller

Tony's Turkey for November is:
- Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea

Oh dear.  Goethe is undoubtedly a genius, but I have a habit of picking his weak stuff.  Turkey number three for the year it is...

Tony's Recommendation for November is:

- Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz

Although I read a lot of good books for German Literature Month, at times I was a little concerned that nothing was really standing out for me.  Luckily, my last minute ring-in, Berlin Alexanderplatz, saved the day - an excellent novel well worthy of its reputation :)

So, German Literature Month is done and dusted - time to start planning for the next event.  December should be quiet, but January in Japan is not far away.  It's time to brush up on my J-Lit...

Friday 30 November 2012

Grimm Times at the Fusion-Lit Bistro

Last year, the participants of the German Literature Month went on a virtual tour to a famous destination in a Germanic novel.  This year, the bloggers are back on the bus to celebrate the end of the trip with a meal - at a strange restaurant some readers of my blog may have encountered before.  You may like to peruse these earlier posts before you continue with today's offering - then again you may not.  Either way, what follows is unlikely to make much sense...  Guten Appetit!

[The camera fades in from black to reveal a large coach pulling up in a quiet street in a town somewhere in the north of Germany.  Through the gently falling snow, the words German Literature Month Tour Bus” can be seen on the side facing us.  After a few moments, a group of people slowly begin to get off the bus, stamping and shivering as they are reacquainted with the harsh, north-German winter.  Across the road, there is an old building, a strange mix of styles with a faded sign above the door, reading FUSION LIT BISTRO...]

Caroline: Nice of you to arrange a meal for the end of German Literature Month, Tony... [Glances at the restaurant] ...but are you sure this is the place?
Tony: Don't worry - I know it doesn't look much, but it specialises in literary diners.  Believe me, the food is great. [Under his breath] The service, however...  

[The bloggers cross the road and stoop to pass through a small, ancient-looking doorway... 
They enter a busy restaurant. It seems as if there is some kind of party going on, perhaps fancy dress.  Most of the women appear to be princesses with long, flowing hair, although some are wearing red cloaks and carrrying baskets.  A group of men dressed as animals are standing on a stage, pretending to play various musical instruments.  As the bloggers pass, they stop - the imaginary music goes quiet. Tony swiftly leads the group past the musicians to a collection of tables near the back of the restaurant, each of which has a sign with 'Reserved' written on it in Gothic script.  On each table, there are six burgundy, leather-bound menus with Fusion Lit Bistro written on them in gold script. As the newcomers begin to arrange themselves around the tables, a tall, gaunt waiter approaches unhurriedly and elegantly, allowing the new guests to sit down before he arrrives.]

Waiter: I see you made it - I must admit, I had my doubts.

Tony: [Smiling] As I said on the phone, the fairytale special for a party of thirty...

[The bloggers sit down at the table.  Tony is seated between Lizzy and Caroline, while the other places are filled by Gary, Stu and Tom.  Tony spots the usual blank name tag on The Waiter's jacket and appears to be about to say something, but obviously thinks better of it.]

Waiter: Let me just explain today's menu.  While we usually offer a wide selection of literary delights for your pleasure, today, in honour of the anniversary, our menu consists entirely of Grimm'sche tales, a little gem each and every one.  If you'd like to have a brief look at your menus...

[The diners pick up their menus.  As they open them, rolls of parchment cascade out of the binders, each with a long list of items written on it...]

Waiter:  A wonderful selection.  You can't really go wrong here... [Pauses] ...although I wouldn't try anything with apples.
Stu:  [Confused] There are hundreds here!  How are we supposed to choose...
Gary: A couple of everything maybe?
Waiter: [Coughs] Might I suggest the Reich-Ranicki special?
Caroline: What's that?
Waiter: It's a choice selection of the finest cuts, guaranteed to suit the pickiest of diners.  Perhaps you might like to order a few of those...
Tony: That sounds good.  OK, we'll have six of the Reich-Ranicki specials, with Rapunzel chasers please, Rumpelstiltskin.

[The Waiter takes the menus and turns on one heel to stalk off back to the kitchen, somehow indicating his complete disdain despite his silence.]

Tony: [Weakly] Sorry.  I thought it was worth a shot...

[The bloggers wait in silence while their order is being prepared.  As they look around the restaurant, they notice that the room is not quite as crowded as it was when they arrived.  A few waitresses in glass slippers are clearing up the mess diners have left behind.  A sudden scream pierces the air, causing the party to visibly jump.  Once the sound has died away, the guests examine their table more closely.]

Tom: Have you noticed the cutlery?
Lizzy: [Looking at the knife and fork in front of her] What about it?
Tom: Smell it...
Lizzy: [Picks up the fork and sniffs it uncertainly] Is it...
Tom: Yep - gingerbread.

[Silence again.  Caroline looks at the table's centrepiece, a beautiful metallic statue, and stretches out to touch it.]

Caroline: This is lovely - what do you think it's made from?
Waiter: [Returning with the order] Recycled spinning wheels.

[Caroline snatches back her hand as if she's just been bitten.]

Waiter: [Putting the order on the table] Guten Appetit - just let me know if you need anything else...

[The bloggers tuck into the assorted platter, and for a while there is little to be heard other than the digestion of the morsels and the occasional groan from the direction of the kitchens.  After a while, the diners start to discuss the meal...]

Stu: Great, I really enjoyed that.
Gary: Unusual, but a nice change from the rest of the month.
Caroline: They do slip down nicely, but I'm not sure... I'd have liked something a bit meatier.
Tony: [Speaking with his mouth full] I liked it, a bit sweet at times, but with a bitter aftertaste. [Sighs] You know what they say - A moment on the lips,...
Tom: ...a lifetime of waking up screaming with flashbacks.

[Tony smiles nervously, then grimaces, bending over the table.  He looks up and beckons The Waiter.]

Waiter: Yes?
Tony: I think something must have disagreed with me.  Could you remind me where the toilets are?
Waiter: Just look down.
Tony: Sorry?

[The Waiter looks down at the floor.  Tony follows his gaze and sees a trail of white breadcrumbs leading off into the distance.]

Waiter: Just follow the trail...
Tony: Oh, right.  Thanks.

[Tony hurries off in search of the toilets.  The Waiter casts a scrutinising glance at the remaining diners and moves off towards the kitchen.  The other five bloggers look at one another uneasily.]

Tom: [Looking around] Have you noticed that there are fewer people now?  I haven't seen anyone actually leave through the exit though.  And all those screams...
Lizzy: Come to think of it, it's getting pretty hot in here too.  [Nervously] Those ovens must be pretty big back there.
Stu: But the food wasn't particularly warm...
Gary: [Looking around] Is it just me, or does that waitress have a bit more facial hair than you'd expect? Although she does have very white teeth - very big white teeth...
Caroline: Perhaps we should...

[The five bloggers stand up as one and dash for the exit.  Stu bowls over a waitress in a red cloak, sending her basket flying.  As the other members of the group see them run, they panic, and flee the restaurant too, overturning tables and scattering gingerbread cutlery all over the floor.

The Waiter returns to a room empty of customers - the only sound is the groaning of various figures in costume getting up off the ground.  He sighs.

Tony returns from his untimely trip to the toilet.]

Tony: [Looks around, confused] Wh... where is everyone?

Waiter: [Smoothly] They'll be back soon, they're just on a guided tour of the kitchens.  It's a special feature of today's event.  Would you like to...
Tony: Of course!  Is there anything special to see?
Waiter: Well, there is a very big oven...

[Tony and the Waiter walk towards the kitchens.  In the background, you can hear the sound of a bus racing away into the distance...]