Saturday, July 23, 2016

Australia: The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane

I was back on familiar territory with this book, at least geographically, the setting being a beachside town somewhere in the region of Sydney. Ruth is an elderly widow living on her own. One of her sons is in New Zealand and the other in Hong Kong. One morning Ruth wakes believing a tiger has been prowling through her living room in the night. Later that day a woman called Frida arrives, announcing she has been sent by the government to care for Ruth.

This is a novel that is a convincing and suspenseful portrait of the unraveling of an aging mind. But its portrait of Ruth does not relegate her to senility, giving a fully rounded view of her life and loves. There is plenty of suspense in the book, with new twists just when the reader is convinced of the path the book is taking.

This book was long listed for the Guardian First Book Award and shortlisted for a number of other awards. Fiona McFarlane has also published a book of short stories. I look forward to seeing what she will come up with next.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Estonia: Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Aliide Truu, an elderly Estonian woman, lives alone on the outskirts of a forest in Western Estonia. One day a dishevelled Russian girl appears in her yard, on the run. Where and who she is running from, and her connection to Aliide, are gradually revealed. Short chapters give shifting viewpoints and build tension as the plot shifts from an independent Estonia in the 1930s, though German and then Soviet occupation, to a free Estonia of the early 1990s. Secret Russian intelligence documents at the end of the book give another viewpoint, casting doubt on some of what has gone before.

Sofi Oksanen is a Finnish writer born to a Finnish father and an Estonian mother. The book makes clear the reasons for the displacement of so many Estonians, forcibly removed to Siberia, others voluntarily to Russia fleeing the Germans, to Germany fleeing the Russians, to Finland and Sweden and further west fleeing both. Besides the devastation caused by war, sexual violence against woman is a strong theme.

The one thing I found annoying about the copy I read was that it is one of those editions designed for book clubs, with a set of "questions for discussion" at the end. I have never belonged to a book club though I might consider it given sufficient spare time - but would run a mile from any book club that felt obliged to follow the sort of inane and prescriptive questions that these books seem to feel are helpful.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Albania: The Fall of the Stone City, by Ismail Kadare

Although Ismail Kadare is an internationally renowned author, I had never read any of his work before and didn't know quite what to expect. At first, this book seemed like just another World War II story, and a rather quiet one at that, lacking in much action. Nazi troops enter the city. Someone fires shots on the advancing tanks and the citizens expect reprisals. Dr Gurameto, who trained in Germany, greets the colonel in charge in the town square and invites him to dinner - they were once old classmates. The next day, the Colonel and his army disappear from the city.

Gradually, however, the story becomes more intriguing. How is the dinner connected with the folk tale of the man who invited a corpse to dinner? I found myself drawn in, and definitely interested in reading more of the author's considerable body of work.

Ismail Kadare was born in 1936 and in 2005 was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for 'a body of work written by an author who has had a truly global impact'.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Pakistan: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, by Fatima Bhutto

This debut novel relates the events that unfold over the course of one morning in Mir Ali,a Pakistani town in a province near the Afghan border. It is the festival of Eid. Three brothers go their separate ways to pray, as it is not safe in these turbulent times for them all to gather in one mosque.

Aman Erum is a business man recently returned from study in America to be with his dying father. Sikander is a doctor in the vastly under-resourced local hospital. Hayat, the youngest, is an idealist student. Sikander's wife Mina is grieving the death of their son. And then there is the young girl Samarra, formerly expected to marry Anam Erum, but now estranged from him for reasons that gradually become revealed.

This book is well crafted and full of suspense as events unfold towards their conclusion - which is no less powerful for the understated conclusion, which leaves us wondering exactly what happens.

Fatima Bhutto is the daughter of a Pakistani father and Afghan mother. Her father was the brother of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated in 2007. It was politics that kept her father in exile for many years and the reason why she was born in Kabul and grew up in Damascus with her father and his second wife, a Lebanese ballet teacher. She now lives in Karachi.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Austria: A Whole Life, by Robert Seethaler

A Whole Life is the story of Andreas Egger, a man who lives a simple life in the mountains of Europe (exactly where is not quite specified). It is a lyrical and beautiful description of his life and his relationship to the mountains. His relationships are few, and his time away from the village in World War II brief. So, not an action packed book, and it is not a long book either, but it is delightful to read.

A taste - from the quote on the back of the dust jacket - "Sometimes, on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, like on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. and sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed."

The Irish Times has a longer account of the book here (contains spoilers).

Robert Seethaler was born in Vienna in 1966. The internet tells me he grew up in Berlin, so perhaps I should count this as a German book. The project is proving more difficult than I anticipated... (but I am getting to read some wonderful books, which I might not otherwise have read, which is the main idea after all).

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Denmark: The History of Danish Dreams, by Peter Høeg

Peter Høeg's best known novel is Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. I read this quite a few years back, and then read his next novel, The Woman and the Ape, which met with a rather lukewarm critical reception, and didn't particularly appeal to me.

However last year I came across The Elephant Keeper's Children in the public library and rather enjoyed it, so decided to try another of his novels for my Danish contribution to the around the world project.

I was somewhat misled by the blurb on the back of The History of Danish Dreams. This begins "Denmark is the centre of the world. Or, more precisely, the centre of the world is located on the estate of the Count of Mørkhøj,at a spot on the edge of the coach-house midden. Around his estate the Count has built a wall. He has stopped all the clocks so that time should simply go away and the entire household may live forever - until two hundred years later the twentieth century makes its violent entry." I thought I was in for something with a science fiction flavour to it, but the book turned out to be more of a family saga, albeit with some rather surreal elements and very eccentric characters.

I found it a bit hard to keep track of the story line perhaps because I read it in rather small chunks - twenty minutes or so at bedtime. I think it would repay more concentrated reading. And towards the end I became a bit irritated by the number of authorial insertions, pretending that the book is in fact non-fiction - a "history of Danish dreams" - rather than fiction. For instance "All things considered, we should all be grateful that this is not a novel, since Carsten is far too complex a character to figure in a novel". Nevertheless, it's an intriguing read. While certainly a promising start to the author's writing career, I would have to say I preferred The Elephant Keeper's Children (which I'm not going to review here as it is not fresh enough in my mind, since I read it last year before I decided to start this project). One thing is certain - his books are not predictable, so if I should choose to try any more - maybe later since I still have over 170 countries to go - none of them are likely to be similar to either of these two.

Reading My Way Around the World

The blog has been languishing since the wind up of the Tuesday Poem community - but now I have a new project that I thought was worthy of being shared. This is not original, I have been inspired by a number of others on the internet. The plan is to try and read a book (mostly fiction) from each of the 196 or thereabouts countries in the world. (Ann Morgan has 196 on her list, my daughter's list is 206 countries, some of which are not yet officially recognised).

I have been compiling lists of potential books to read that are available in our local library, or could be ordered on the internet. For some countries, it's a challenge. And I realise that I haven't quite managed to define for myself what is a book from a particular country. For instance, I have been reading a book by an author born in Kabul, brought up in Damascus, who now lives in Karachi - set in the border provinces of Pakistan, near the Afghan border. So is that a Pakistani book, or an Afghan book? And I am also reading a book by a "Finnish Estonian" author, set in Estonia. After a bit of research however, I found that the author is Finnish, with an Estonian mother. So it is as much an Estonian book as if my mother had written a book set in Scotland - which I would not have considered a Scottish book at all. Still, I haven't located anything else Estonian, so I think this one will probably have to do in the meantime.

Ideally of course each book would be written by an author both born and raised in the relevant country (leaving at the age of two hardly counts), and set in that country. But for many war torn countries, this is a pretty tall order. I am rapidly learning how many people have had to flee their birth countries over the years - something very relevant at the moment to the situation in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

I plan to review each book I read here - or describe it at least, I'm not sure what constitutes a "review". I'm close to twenty books already, so I have a bit of catching up to do. Look for the first one soon.

(Any suggestions for books to read, particularly from obscure countries, will be very welcome).

Friday, January 01, 2016

2015 Reading: Fiction

For most of 2015, I kept a list of books that I had read and found that the total was quite considerable. This hasn't always been the case. In some years, I've marvelled over blogs that post their "ten top books" from the previous year, given that if I posted my ten top books, it would be likely to nearly all the books that I'd read.

I'm not going to select my top ten, but I did find that there were almost twenty books on my fiction list for the year, so I am listing some of those that I particularly enjoyed or found notable for various reasons:

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

I've been a fan of David Mitchell since reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a historical novel set in Japan, specifically, on the island of Dejima. I also enjoyed the opportunity to hear him speak when he visited Christchurch. (David Mitchell, that is, not Jacob de Zoet). I love the many layered quality of his work, and the fact that each one is a surprise, and very different from the one before. The Bone Clocks is a sort of supernatural/dystopian/futuristic/realistic novel which spans a period from around the 1980s to several decades in the future. I both started and ended the year with David Mitchell as for Christmas I received a copy of his latest book Slade House. I found it a bit disappointing (even though I enjoyed it very much). I had the feeling that it was written because his publisher was pushing for another book, so that he recycled some of the ideas in The Bone Clocks and used them again, in what is much more a "one idea" book, something that I have not found with Mitchell's books up until now. It's the interweaving of ideas in his work that I find the most rewarding aspect - and the way that minor characters from previous books pop up in new roles in subsequent work is a small treat.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

An old man and his wife set off on a journey in post-Arthurian Britain. There is something important that they can't quite remember... There is a dreamlike quality to this novel, which is less a reworking of Arthurian legend (despite the setting), than a meditation on the nature of memory, and of how society deals with the aftermath of war, and heals old wounds.

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
This novel imagines a substantial back story for the life of Camille Pizzaro, known as the "father of impressionism". It focuses on his mother, Rachel Monsanto Petit Pizarro, a Jew of French and Portuguese ancestry born on the Caribbean island of St Thomas, at that time a Danish territory. The lush and exotic setting, and the story of a remarkable and unsual woman, made it a rewarding read.

The Chimes by Anna Smaill
Set in a futuristic London, where music is used to communicate in place of words, and memories reside only in physical objects. "The dystopian novel" can easily become cliched, but I found this stunningly original. The slow reveal of how things got to be the way they now are is fascinating. The fact that Smaill is musically trained herself shines through the book (and sent me in search of her 2005 collection of poetry, The Violinist in Spring - poetry, too, shines through the pages of The Chimes).

More in the next post.