Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

A fabulous collections of correspondence and essay like responses to interview questions over a period of twenty-five years since the publication of her first novel Troubling Love.

The title ‘Frantumaglia‘, a fabulous word left to her by her mother, in her Neapolitan dialect, a word she used to describe how she felt when racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart.

She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia depressed her. Sometimes it made her dizzy, sometimes it made her mouth taste like iron. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause…Often it made her weep, and since childhood the word has stayed in my mind to describe, in particular, a sudden fit of weeping for no evident reason: frantumaglia tears.

And so for her characters, this is what suffering is, looking onto the frantumaglia, the jumble of fragments inside.

The first half chiefly concerns communication around Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment, the latter written ten years after her debut, although other stories were written in between but never published, the author not happy with them as she so piercingly reveals:

I haven’t written two books in ten years, I’ve written and rewritten many. But Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment seemed to me the ones that most decisively stuck a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected, and did so without keeping a safe distance. At other times, I’ve written about clean or happily healed wounds with the obligatory detachment and the right words. But then I discovered that is not my path.

The second half implies a delay in the publication of the collection to include interviews and question-responses around the Neapolitan Quartet, beginning with the renowned My Brilliant Friend.

Readers ask poignant questions, while the media tend to obsess about her decision to remain absent (as opposed to anonymous) from promotional activity, to which she has many responses, one here in a letter to the journalist Goffredo Fofi:

In my experience, the difficulty-pleasure of writing touches every point of the body. When you’ve finished the book, it’s as if your innermost self had been ransacked, and all you want is to regain distance, return to being whole. I’ve discovered, by publishing, that there is a certain relief in the fact that the moment the text becomes a printed book it goes elsewhere. Before, it was the text that was pestering me; now I’d have to run after it. I decided not to.

Perhaps the old myths about inspiration spoke at least one truth: when one makes a creative work, one is inhabited by others-in some measure one becomes another. But when one stops writing one becomes oneself again.

…I wrote my book to free myself from it, not to be its prisoner.

She shares her literary influences (works of literature about abandoned women) from classic Greek myths, Ariadne to Medea, Dido to the more contemporary Simone de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed, referring to recurring themes of abandonment, separation and struggle. She mentions literary favourites, Elsa Morante’s House of Liars.

One interviewer asks why in her early novels, her characters depict women who suffer, to which she responds:

The suffering of Delia, Olga, Leda is the result of disappointment. What they expected from life – they are women who sought to break with the tradition of their mothers and grandmothers – does not arrive. Old ghosts arrive instead, the same ones with whom the women of the past had to reckon. The difference is that these women don’t submit to them passively. Instead, they fight, and they cope. They don’t win, but they simply come to an agreement with their own expectations and find new equilibriums. I feel them not as women who are suffering but as women who are struggling.

And on comparing Olga to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, who she sees as descendants of Dido and Medea, though they have lost the obscure force that pushed those heroines of the ancient world to such brutal forms of resistance and revenge, they instead experience their abandonment as a punishment for their sins.

Olga, on the other hand, is an educated woman of today, influenced by the battle against the patriarchy. She knows what can happen to her and tries not to be destroyed by abandonment. Hers is the story of how she resists, of how she touches bottom and returns, of how abandonment changes her without annihilating her.

In an interview, Stefania Scateni from the publication l’Unità, refers to Olga, the protagonist of The Days of Abandonment as destroyed by one love, seeking another with her neighbour. He asks what Ferrante thinks of love.

The need for love is the central experience of our existence. However foolish it may seem, we feel truly alive only when we have an arrow in our side and that we drag around night and day, everywhere we go. The need for love sweeps away every other need and, on the other hand, motivates all our actions.

She again refers to the Greek classics, to Book 4 of the Aeneid, where the construction of Carthage stops when Dido falls in love.

Individuals and cities without love are a danger to themselves and others.

The correspondence with the Director of Troubling Love (L’amore molesto), Mario Martone is illuminating, to read of Ferrante’s humble hesitancy in contributing to a form she confessed to know nothing about, followed by her exemplary input to the process and finally the unsent letter, many months later when she finally saw the film and was so affected by what he had created. It makes me want to read her debut novel and watch the original cult film now.

Frantumagli is an excellent accompaniment to the novels of Elena Ferrante and insight into this writer’s journey and process, in particular the inspiration behind her characters, settings and recurring themes.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me a copy of this beautiful book.

Buy a copy of any of Elena Ferrante’s novels via Book Depository here.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Tomorrow begins from another dawn,
when we will be fast asleep.
Remember what I say: not everything will pass.

I like the saying “this too shall pass”, it’s a way of being in the difficult moment, of realising that it will be replaced by something else, it represents a sliver of hope, a reminder of gratitude, that thoughts are not reality, they can be changed. So this quote that “not everything will pass” evokes a kind of heartfelt stab for me, for it pierces that hope and reminds us that some things stay, that they are not seeds of hope, they are reminders of a sadness that endures.

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ felt to me like a novel of ancestral DNA and how living through Chairman Mao’s and the subsequent communist regime imprinted its effect onto people behaviours forcing them to change, leaving its trace in their DNA which was passed on to subsequent generations, who despite living far from where those events took place, continue to live with a feeling they can’t explain, but which affects the way they live, or half-live, as something crucial to living a fulfilled life is missing. This reminds me of what Yaa Gyasi achieves so successfully in her extraordinary novel Homegoing, spanning an even longer historical trajectory of 300 years.

The novel is presented through dual narratives, in Canada today Marie lives alone with her mother, her father Ba, died in Hong Kong far from them both in circumstances they don’t understand, a kind of double abandonment. The alternate narrative is set in her father’s time, with his extended family during the time of and following China’s Cultural Revolution.

We will come to understand that mystery as the daughter of one of her father’s friends Ai-Ming, comes to stay with them and recognises the calligraphy of her father in a box of books under the kitchen table, the first encounter we have with a manuscript called ‘The Book of Records’ a narrative by an unknown author, one that has been added to and copied and left as a message for various characters who became lost over the years.

The title of the manuscript is an allusion to China’s most celebrated work of history, Sima Qian’s Historical Records, completed in 91BCE but kept hidden for fear of the wrath of an emperor who had its author castrated. The telling of history in China was always a dangerous occupation.

We are taken back to China to the home of Ai Ming’s father who is referred to as Sparrow, a composer at the music conservatory, one of his students Kai and his young cousin Zhuli, whose parents are the first to come under the harsh judgement of Mao’s philosophy, because they were landlords, denounced, beaten, thrown from their homes, accused and sent to labour camps for unsubstantiated crimes. The young daughter is deposited with her Aunt and Uncle miles away in the city, under the protection of her Uncle who works for the regime.

He Luting, Composer (1903 – 1999) China

The story follows these three musicians who are passionate about music (which will become the wrong kind of music) and to survive they must suppress their desires, their passion and compromise, the three of them each make different choices, that will affect those around them.

The narrative around the musicians and some of the characters closely mirrors actual events that occurred in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the main concert hall now renamed He Luting Concert Hall, after the Director who “in 1968, after two years of violence and humiliation, was dragged before television cameras by Red Guards to be threatened and physically abused”

In the following quote, Ai-ming listens to what she learns is her father’s music for the first time, music that was destroyed before it could ever be played, recalled from the recesses of the mind of the composer, after 20 years of silence.

“Ai-ming sat on a chair in the corner as her father played the piano, she had never heard him do so before, had not quite realised he was even capable. His entire body, the way he moved, changed. Most of the pieces she recognised from the records (Bach’s Partita No. 6, Couperin, Shostakovich) but there was another piece, a complex figure that seemed to disassemble as she listened, a rope of music,  a spool of wire. It seemed to rise even as it was falling, to lift in volume even as it diminished, a polyphony so unfathomably beautiful it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. When it stopped tears came abruptly to her eyes.”

This is a tragic novel whose characters spirits are oppressed by a philosophical regime, which mutates into something equally oppressive after the death of Chairman Mao, for a while the younger generation without the memory of the era their parents generation suffered under (and somewhat judging of their inability to challenge the circumstances forced upon them), appear to revolt against the lack of freedom to choose their paths, until they too are brutally crushed in the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, ensuring the new generation understand the power and reach of an authoritarian regime, that no-one is immune to.

Madeleine Thien had originally intended to write a novel about the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, events she vividly remembered watching unfold on television during her teenage years, however over time she began to ask herself more about what had motivated the one million Beijing citizens to come out onto the streets, especially the older generation.

“What gave them the courage to stand up to the government? And, what made them come into the streets to want to protect, in many ways, their children, and another generation? So I think that’s why it ended up going backwards into the Cultural Revolution. I’d been writing about Cambodia before that – the Cambodian genocide – and one thing I’d been thinking a lot about were the musicians. I started thinking about what was it about music that could be so threatening. We often know about the writers who are targeted by totalitarian regimes but looking at musicians is another way in to thinking about what’s threatening to this consolidation of power.” Madeleine Thien, Granta Conversation

Madeleine Thien

This is a must read novel if you wish to reflect on how recent Chinese history affects the present generations, how regimes affect generations of their populations and how even though subsequent generations may not have experienced the past, they continue to feel its effect in their lives today.

It was short listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017.


Further Reading:

Article by Madeleine Thien: After the Cultural Revolution: what western classical music means in China, The Guardian, 8 July 2016

Madeleine Thien Interview : on a solitary childhood in Canada and daring to question the Chinese regime, ‘In China, you learn a lot from what people don’t tell you’, The Guardian, 8 Oct 2016

Conversation with Madeleine Thien: On translating the sensation of music for a reader, the importance of writing about women of colour, and the Chinese conceptual framework of time, Granta Magazine, 3 Oct 2106

Buy a copy of ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ here

 

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2017 #BaileysPrize

Today the judges chose six novels for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 and had this to say:

““It has been a great privilege to Chair the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in a year which has proved exceptional for writing of both quality and originality. It was quite a challenge to whittle this fantastic longlist of 16 books down to only six… These were the six novels that stayed with all of us well beyond the final page.” Tessa Ross

The shortlisted books are as follows:

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (review)
The Power  Naomi Alderman
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (review)

In my earlier post on the Baileys Prize Longlist, I listed all the novels with a summary of what they are about, you can refer to that post linked here to know more about all the 16 longlisted books.

For three of the titles below, I have taken a few quotes from Q& A interviews done with the respective authors by the Prize team, to give you a flavour of their motivations in writing the book and their literary inspirations and where that isn’t available, a summary of the blurb.

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

– In 1990 Canada , 10-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-ming.
As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shangahi Conservatory in the 1960s and events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-ming – and for Marie.

On The Book

“I wanted the novel to unfold in a very specific time frame, the lifetime of an individual – the birth, life and death of a composer we know as Sparrow. He’s born at a historical crossroads: the fall of China’s Republican government and the birth of Communist China. History pulls his life apart, he’s at the mercy of so many forces, and yet he’s also free. In one sense, his life is taken from him; in another, it’s the only life he has and he must live it.”

Quotable Quote

“I’ve been troubled by language for a long time… How language can build meaning but also conceal or demean it.” Madeleine Thien

Literary Heroes

Alice Munro, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Shirley Hazzard, Yiyun Li, Dionne Brand, Hannah Arendt and so many more.

P.S. I have this on my shelf, so I will definitely be reading it next!

The Dark Circle, Linda Grant

– It’s 1949, the Second World War is over and a new decade of recovery is beginning, but for East End teenage twins who have been living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, they are sent away to a sanatorium in Kent to take the cure and submit to the authority of the doctors, learning the deferential way of the patient.

On The Book

“I did two long interviews with a woman who was x-rayed to take up her place at university in 1949. It was when she told me about the sanatorium going over to the NHS and a new influx off patients mixing with the middle-classes, that I knew that there was a story and a novel. I did read up on the history of the disease and its treatments and of course Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and other novels about TB. It has been a rich source for novelists because it involves so much lying around thinking morbid thoughts.” Linda Grant

Quotable Quote

“I became a journalist because it was a means of being paid to knock on the doors of strangers and ask them personal questions and then write about what they had told me, while I was waiting to have a novel to write.”

 

Naomi Alderman, The Power

– Suddenly – tomorrow or the day after – girls find that with a flick of their fingers they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of this extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed, and we look at the world in an entirely new light. What if the power were in women’s hands?

On The Book

“I didn’t start from the idea of making a matriarchal society. But the idea did come from a particular moment in my life. I was going through a really horrible breakup, one of those ones where you wake up every morning, have a cry and then get on with your day. And in the middle of all this emotional turmoil, I got onto the tube and saw a poster advertising a movie with a photograph of a beautiful woman crying, beautifully. And in that moment it felt like the whole of the society I live in saying to me “oh yes, we like it when you cry, we think it’s sexy”. And something just snapped in me and all I could think was: what would it take for me to be able to get onto this tube train and see a sexy photo of a *man* crying? What’s the smallest thing I could change? And this novel is the answer to that question, or at least an attempt to think it through for myself. …I just had this idea about women developing a strange new power.”

Quotable Quote

“Any woman who has made her living in writing is my hero and my friend; what a thing it is to be able to do, and how hard generations of women have fought so that I could be allowed it!” Naomi Alderman

Literary Heroes

Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Cavendish, Ursula Le Guin, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, Carol Shields, Mary Stewart, PD James, Marjane Satrapi, Alice Monroe, Amy Levy, Alison Bechdel, Han Kang.

Stay With Me, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (reviewed)

– Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 80s Nigeria, Stay With Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. A devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about our desperate attempts to save ourselves and those we love from heartbreak.

 

The Sport of Kings, C.E. Morgan

– Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred filly, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavour of raw obsession: to breed a champion.
But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled by fear, prejudice and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and power of Hellsmouth.

First Love, Gwendoline Riley

– Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties married to an older man. For now they are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars. As Neve recalls the decisions that led her to this marriage, she tells of other loves and other debts, from her bullying father and self-involved mother to a musician who played her and a series of lonely flights from place to place. Drawing the reader into the battleground of her relationship, Neve spins a story of helplessness and hostility, an ongoing conflict in which both husband and wife have played a part. But is this, nonetheless, also a story of love?

**************

So there is the shortlist! Easy to pick a favourite when I’ve only read one, I really recommend you read Stay With Me if you haven’t already, it’s a superb book and insight into the pressures of family expectations.

So, which is your favourite from the list, or which are you drawn to read? Any disappointments?

The winning novel will be announced on 7 June 2017!

Order any of the Books Via Book Depository via this link

Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list #MBI2017

The Man Booker International Prize used to appear every two years and the authors nominated were not just writers in translation, they were from outside the UK and a nomination was for their body of work, not for one recently published book. That prize, for a translated work of fiction was called, the IFFP (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize).

Now the two have joined together, with the format being the same as the IFFP prize and the name Man Booker International.

The judges for 2017  are Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, translator Daniel Hahn; award-winning poet Helen Mort; Turkish author and academic Elif Shafak and Nigerian-born writer Chika Unigwe.

“Fiction in translation is flourishing: in these times when walls are being built, this explosion of brilliant ideas from around the world arriving into the English language feels more important than ever.” Nick Barley, Chair

Last year the prize was won by the South Korean author Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith, for The Vegetarian.

MBI long list 2017

The 2017 longlist comprises 13 titles (from 126 submissions) translated into English from 11 languages: (summaries extracted from the Man Booker Prize website), the shortlist will be announced on April 20 and the winner on June 14th.

Title, Author (nationality), Translator

Compass by Mathias Enard (France), (tr. Charlotte Mandell) – As night falls over Vienna, Franz Ritter, an insomniac musicologist, takes to his sickbed with an unspecified illness and spends a restless night drifting between dreams and memories, revisiting important chapters of his life: his ongoing fascination with the Middle East and his numerous travels to Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran, and writers, artists, musicians, academics, orientalists, and explorers who populate this vast dreamscape. An immersive, nocturnal, musical novel, full of generous erudition and bittersweet humour, Compass is a journey and a declaration of admiration, a quest for the otherness inside us all and a hand reaching out.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (Poland), (tr.Eliza Marciniak) – Wiola lives in a close-knit agricultural community in 1980s Poland. Wiola’s father was a deserter but now he is a taxidermist. Wiola’s mother tells her that killing spiders brings on storms. Wiola must never enter the seamstresses’s ‘secret’ room. Wiola collects matchbox labels. Wiola is a good Catholic girl brought up with fables and nurtured on superstition. Wiola lives in a Poland both recent and lost in time. Swallowing Mercury is about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days. In vivid prose filled with texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s. From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel) (tr.Jessica Cohen) – In a comedy club in a small Israeli town, an audience arrives expecting an evening of amusement and see a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovale Gee, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), (tr.David McKay) – Shortly before his death, Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain gave his grandson a set of notebooks containing detailed memories of his life. He grew up in poverty around 1900, the son of a struggling church painter who died young, and went to work in an iron foundry at 13. Afternoons with his father working on a church fresco were heaven; the iron foundry an inferno. During WW1, Urbain was on the front line confronting the invading Germans, haunted by events he can’t forget. War ends, he marries, then tragedy. Urbain recovers and like the obedient soldier he is, dutifully fulfils the expectations of family. Observations of a marriage with a sad secret at its heart, consolation found in art and painting.

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Don Bartlett (tr.Don Shaw) – Ingrid Barrøy is born on a family owned island, her father dreams of a jetty to connect them to the mainland, but closer ties to the wider world come at a price. Her mother has her own dreams – and a question Ingrid must never ask. Island life is hard, so when Ingrid comes of age, she is sent to work for one of the wealthy families on the coast. But Norway too is waking up to a wider world, a modern world that is capricious and can be cruel. Tragedy strikes, and Ingrid must fight to protect the home she thought she had left behind.

The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (Albania), (tr.John Hodgson) – At the heart of the Ottoman Empire, in the main square of Constantinople, a niche is carved into ancient stone. Here, the sultan displays the severed heads of his adversaries. People flock to see the latest head and gossip about the state of the empire: the province of Albania is demanding independence again, and the niche awaits a new trophy. Tundj Hata, the imperial courier, is charged with transporting heads to the capital – a task he relishes and performs with fervour. But as he travels through obscure and impoverished territories, he makes money from illicit side-shows, offering villagers the spectacle of death. The head of the rebellious Albanian governor would fetch a very high price.

Fish Have No Feet by Jon Kalman Stefansson (Iceland), (tr.Phil Roughton) – Keflavik: a town that has been called the darkest place in Iceland, surrounded by black lava fields, hemmed in by a sea that may not be fished. Its livelihood depends entirely on a U.S. military base, a conduit for American influences that shaped Icelandic culture and ethics from the 1950s to the dawn of the new millennium. It is to Keflavik that Ari, a writer and publisher, returns from Copenhagen at the behest of his dying father, two years after walking out on his wife and children. He is beset by memories of his youth, spent or misspent listening to Pink Floyd and the Beatles, fraternising with American servicemen – who are regarded by the locals with a mixture of admiration and contempt – and discovering girls. There is one girl in particular he could never forget – her fate has stayed with him all his life.

The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke (China), (tr.Carlos Rojas)  – With the Yi River on one side and the Balou Mountains on the other, the village of Explosion was founded a thousand years ago by refugees fleeing a volcanic eruption. But in the post-Mao era, the name takes on a new significance as the rural community grows explosively from a small village to a town to a city to a vast megalopolis. Behind this rapid expansion, three rival clans linked together by a web of ambition, madness and greed,  transform their hometown into a Babylon of modern times – an unrivalled urban superpower built on lies, sex and thievery.

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (France), (tr.Helen Stevenson) – 1970 in the People’s Republic of Congo, a Marxist-Leninist revolution is ushering in a new age. Over at the orphanage on the outskirts of Pointe-Noire where young Moses has grown up, the revolution has strengthened the reign of terror of Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako, the institution’s corrupt director. So Moses escapes to Pointe-Noire, where he finds a home with a larcenous band of Congolese Merry Men and among the Zairean prostitutes of the Trois-Cents quarter. But the authorities won’t leave Moses in peace, and intervene to chase both the Merry Men and the Trois-Cents girls out of town. All this injustice pushes poor Moses over the edge. Could he really be the Robin Hood of the Congo? Or is he just losing his marbles?

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany), (tr.Katy Derbyshire) – Bricks and Mortar is the story of a city’s sex trade in the former GDR, from 1989 to the present day, charting the development of the industry from prohibition to legality in the 20 years following the reunification of Germany. It focuses on the rise and fall of one man from football hooligan to large-scale landlord and service-provider for prostitutes to, ultimately, a man persecuted by those he once trusted. And other voices: women who work in prostitution, their clients, small-time gangsters, an ex-jockey searching for his drug-addict daughter, a businessman from the West, a girl forced into child prostitution, a detective, a pirate radio presenter…

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), (tr.Misha Hoekstra) – Sonja is an intelligent single woman in her 40s whose life lacks focus. The situation must change – but where to start? By learning to drive, perhaps. After all, how hard can it be? Very, as it turns out. Six months in, Sonja is still baffled by the basics and her instructor is eccentric. Sonja is also struggling with an acute case of vertigo, a sister who won’t talk to her, and a masseuse who is determined to solve her spiritual problems. Frenetic city life is a constant reminder that every man (and woman) is an island: she misses her rural childhood where ceilings were high and the sky was endless. Shifting gears is not proving easy.

Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), (tr. Nicholas de Lange) – Set in the still-divided Jerusalem of 1959-60, Judas is a tragi-comic coming-of-age tale and a radical rethinking of the concept of treason. Shmuel, a young, idealistic student, is drawn to a strange house and its mysterious occupants within. As he starts to uncover the house’s tangled history, he reaches an understanding that harks back not only to the beginning of the Jewish-Arab conflict, but also to the beginning of Jerusalem itself – to Christianity, to Judaism, to Judas.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), (tr.Megan McDowell) – A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. The two seem anxious and, at David’s ever more insistent prompting, Amanda recounts a series of events from the apparently recent past. As David pushes her to recall whatever trauma has landed her in her terminal state, he unwittingly opens a chest of horrors, and suddenly the terrifying nature of their reality is brought into shocking focus.

*******

 I haven’t read any of these titles, I’m naturally drawn towards the French translations, since they give me an idea of what people here are reading and enjoying, Black Moses sounds like an entertaining read.
Eileen Battersby has written an excellent article discussing the nominations, giving her opinion on them and a few notable omissions, I’ll be rereading her views before deciding what I might read and checking out the Shadow Panel reviews, a group of bloggers who will be reading the list and making their own conclusions on a short list and winner, from the 13 chosen here.
Further Reading:

To buy any of the books listed Click Here

10 Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2017, Mirrors, Blooms, Wonder, War, Not Nothing

I’m not really into making reading lists, but I do make lots of reading piles of books I think I might read next, which often then get changed, as I’ll read a great review of a book I have on the shelf and be convinced I have to read it sooner, now it’s come to my attention.

So here are five books on my pile at the moment and five waiting on my kindle to start the year with, though don’t be surprised if you find me reading and reviewing something entirely different!

Five From The Shelf

2017-reads

thousand-mirrorsIsland of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka) – Last year I read her second novel What Lies Between Us and it made my top 5 fiction reads and this one is her debut which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Dublin Impac Prize and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. It’s about two families on either side of the conflict during the long civil war, told though the eyes of the eldest daughter of each family.

cereusCereus Blooms at Night, Shani Mootoo (Trinidad) – Part of my fascination with reading stories by women from the Caribbean culture, this one came to my attention last year and is said to be a fascinating narrative propelled by vivdly drawn characters, set on a fictional island, a mystery about a reclusive old woman accused of murder.

sense-of-wonderA Sense of Wonder, The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane, & the Ordinary, edited by Brian Doyle– a beautiful Christmas gift from a dear friend containing an anthology of powerful stories, essays and reflections from some of the world’s best writers including Pico Iyer, Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Helen Garner, Cynthia Ozick

foundlings-warThe Founding’s War, Michel Déon (France) #RIP – the French writer who lived in Ireland, with over 50 novels, plays and essays published, just passed away Dec 28 at the age of 97 years. Having read his novel The Foundling Boy, translated into English by Gallic Books, I’m going to read the sequel A Foundling’s War as a tribute to his lifetime of considerable achievement.

do-not-sayDo Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien (Canada/China) – no need to say much about this one, shortlisted for the Man Booker 2016 and I would say it was The People’s Choice, the book most people loved most from the list and one I picked to read when the longlist came out. Secrets from the revolution, a pianist and a composer, intimate and political.

5 on the Kindle

three-daughters-of-eveThree Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak (Turkey) – I’ve been a fan of Rumi scholar Elif Shafak since she wrote The Forty Rules of Love and have since read The Bastard of IstanbulHonour and her essay The Happiness of Blond People – A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity so I’m looking forward to her latest which she says tackles the confusion of Turkey, faith and God from Turkey to Oxford and back.

exit-westExit West, Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan) – literary novel of new love in a time of war which causes them to immigrate when the world is in crisis – by a renowned author, with a couple of rave reviews, time to get on the band wagon, a timely novel.

the-good-peopleThe Good People, Hannah Kent (Australia/Ireland) – well I missed Burial Rites, her debut historical novel set in Iceland, about a woman who was executed, so I’m going for her second novel, this one set in Country Kerry, Ireland in 1825 in a time of traditions and superstitions surrounding those born a little different, and women who are vilified for having anything to do with them. I hope it’s as good as her debut!

breaking-connectionsBreaking Connections, Albert Wendt (Samoa) – Reading around the world brings me down under to leading Pacific writer Albert Wendt’s new novel by the excellent Huia Publishers. A group whose members refer to themselves as the Tribe, mainly Polynesian grow up together, rise from poverty and become successful professionals, bound by love and fierce loyalty. When one of them is killed, they face an ensuing crisis.

train-to-pakistanTrain to PakistanKhushwant Singh (Pakistan/India) – a classic set in the partition, that was recommended me to me last year after reading Where The River Parts by Radhika Swarup.

 

 

Plenty to choose from there, I hope you are looking forward to some exciting reads to start the new year as well.

Let me know what you’re looking forward to!

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Top Reads 2016

In 2016, I read 55 books, just over my ongoing intention, to read a book a week.

I managed to read books by authors from 26 different countries and 19 of them, just over a third, were translations. My absolute favourite book of the year, was written by an author from Guadeloupe, translated from French into English, and 3 of my top 5 fiction reads were translated.

Outstanding Read of 2016
Bridge of Beyond

The book that has stayed with me, that I loved above all else was Simone Schwarz- Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, a novel that touched on the lives of three generations of women from the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, narrated by the granddaughter Telumee as she grows up on the island, learning from experience and the traditions of her culture, guided by the wisdom of her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’. A masterpiece of Caribbean literature, “an unforgettable hymn to the resilience and power of women,” translated from French, republished as a New York Review of Books (NYRB) classic.

Top 5 Fiction Reads

Human ActsHuman Acts, Han Kang (South Korea) tr. Deborah Smith

As much a work of art as novel, Human Acts is an attempt to understand a despicable act of humanity through story telling, Han Kang was one of the most thought provoking authors of 2016 for me, equally incredible was her novel The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

What Lies Between UsWhat Lies Between Us, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka)

Like The Bridge of Beyond, Munaweera’s work is evocative of place and she brings a childhood in the gardens of Sri Lanka alive. A woman remembers her past from behind the walls of a cell, and as she reveals her upbringing and the changes that brought her family to live in America, we wonder what went terribly wrong, that caused her to lose everything. And best book cover!

zoraTheir Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (USA)

I finally read this great American classic and it was absolutely fantastic, another story that touches on multiple generations of women and how the lives of each affects the other, as they all wish a different life for the future generation. Janie is determined to live her life differently, but some lessons have to be lived thought and not told. The prose is astounding, melodic and the whole reading experience one I’ll never forget.

FirdausWoman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) tr. Sherif Hetata

An internationally renowned feminist writer, activist, physician, psychiatrist and prolific writer, I’d been wanting to read her for some time and during August, reading books by Women authors in translation #WITMonth was the perfect opportunity. And what a novel! Inspired by real events, after she was given the opportunity to interview a woman who had been been imprisoned for killing a man and due to be executed, she retells this story of Firdous, too beautiful and poor to pass through life unscathed, who finds the desire to lift herself and others out of oppression and will pay the ultimate price. Haunting, beautiful, a must read author and book!

Days of AbandonmentDays of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante (Italy) tr. Ann Goldstein

The year wouldn’t be complete without Elena Ferrante, the reclusive Italian author whose identity was outed this year, although I didn’t read any of the reports, preferring she remain as unknown to me now as before. Days of Abandonment was published before her popular tetrology which began with My Brilliant Friend and is a compelling, searing account of one woman’s descent into semi madness following abandonment by her husband, in the days where the hurt prevents her from seeing things objectively and her rationality leaves her. It’s full of tension, as she has two young children and Ferrante uses her incredible talent to make the reader live through the entire uncomfortable experience of this roller coaster ride of temporary insanity.

Top Non Fiction Reads

Memoir

Brother Im DyingBrother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

A beautiful memoir of her father and his brother, alternating between Haiti and America, it is a tribute to a special relationship and an insight into the sacrifices people make to better the lives of others, whether its family or their community. I’ve read her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory she is a wonderful writer with a gift for compassionate storytelling.

why-be-happyWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (UK)

Wow, this is the adoption memoir that tops all others, a literary tour de force, an entertaining, horrifying account of a young girl’s childhood, survived by a strong passion for life and literature that gets her through some tough moments and develops an iron will to pursue the joy that appeals so much more than the conformity her mother sought. Brilliant.

woman-on-the-edgeA Woman on the Edge of Time by Jeremy Gavron (UK)

Less a memoir of the son, than one of his obsession to understand why his mother, when she appeared to have everything a young woman would ever want, decided to end it all. Having never asked questions about his mother’s suicide, Jeremy Gavron, now a father of two girls becomes obsessed with knowing who she was and what pressures lead her to her end. Early 1960’s insight.

The Blue Satin NightgownThe Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly (US)

A reading highlight of the year for me, I’ve seen Karin’s book go through many stages leading to publication this year, in my review you’ll read how I was involved a little in its development. I knew it would be a success, as we sipped champagne together in Aix after she won the Good Life in France short story competition for the first chapter, Scattered Dreams. Last seen, Karin and her friend Judy were in China continuing their adventures, which age will never hamper and there’s a mysterious new man appearing in her recent Facebook posts, suggesting she may be writing a sequel perhaps?

Soul Food

This year, in particular after the harrowing experience accompanying my 14-year-old daughter through back surgery to correct a curvature of the spine, I read a few books by authors published by Hay House, whose radio show I often  listen to. I’m already a fan and follower of Colette Baron-Reid and her book Uncharted came out this year, and through her I discovered, listened to and read What if This is Heaven by Anita Moorjani, Making Life Easy by Christiane Northrup and I’m still slow reading a few others. During challenging times, these authors are a soothing balm, reminding us of much we may already know, offering an alternative perspective on how we see things and tips for remaining grounded and healthy in body, mind and spirit.

Special Mentions

how-to-be-braveUnforgettable Reading Experience Ever: How to Be Brave, Louise Beech(UK)

I couldn’t let the year pass without mentioning the extraordinary reading experience of Louise Beech’s How to Be Brave. I read this book while I was in the hospital with my daughter and it was surreal, a captivating, incredible story, based partly on true events, both those of the author and her daughter, who are both coming to terms with a recent diagnosis of Type1 diabetes and a retelling of her grandfather’s epic journey lost at sea, after their ship was destroyed.

Bonjour TristesseBest Translations: Bonjour Tristesse(France) & The Whispering Muse (Iceland)

Two fabulous novellas, from Iceland, Sjón’s The Whispering Muse was my first read of the year for 2016 and I loved it, it’s a kind of parody of The Argonauts and had me looking up references to the Greek classic and enjoying both the story and its connections.

Bonjour Tristesse is an excellent, slim summer read, of a young woman’s regret, a heady summer on the French Riviera, engaging as she has a deft ability to portray her minds workings and see herself interacting with the others, aware of her own manipulative ability and yet unable to stop herself. Brilliant.

GeorgiaBest Fictional Biography: Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, Dawn Tripp (US)

I love the work of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, she’s probably my favourite artist in fact. And she was an incredible woman, who lived a long time and had an intriguing relationship with her husband, who discovered her as one of his protege, the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Steiglitz. Dawn Tripp has done an outstanding job of researching her life, bringing to this novel, insights from new material available and succeeds in doing what hasn’t really been done before, channelling the voice of the artist, providing a perspective that is loyal to the artist and how she may have thought.

Brief HistoryBiggest, Most Satisfying Challenge: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James (Jamaica)

Written a large part in Jamaican patois, with a wide array of characters, this 700+ page book won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and was my summer chunkster for 2016. I gave it 5 stars for sheer effort, even though it’s not really my style of book, I tend to prefer the stories by women writers from around the Caribbean, Marlon James is perhaps too modern for me, he moves his story out of generational tradition and into the cold, dark, masculine front lines of survival, jealousy and ambition in a trigger happy, drug induced frightening world that is far from sleepy villages I prefer to inhabit.

Biggest Disappointment: The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, Herta Muller (Romania)(DNF)

It wasn’t on my reading list and I should have listened to my instinct, but since I was reading books by women in translation and I’d been sent this by the publisher (unsolicited), and it was a novel by a Nobel Prize winning author I attempted it. Impossible. Incomprehensible. Stop. Prize winning authors and books should be looked at like any other book I tell myself, forget about what a committee of 18 Swedish writers, linguists, literary scholars, historians and a prominent jurist with life tenure think, they are not you.

Well that’s it for 2016, another great reading year!

What was your outstanding read for 2016?

 

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson

why-be-happyThis stylised memoir, set in the working-class north of England, is the book Jeanette Winterson wasn’t ready to write back in 1985 when at 25 years of age, she wrote the novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a book that plunged the reader into her universe, one that provided the author the liberty of narrating freely, without the confines of the story having to have been exactly as she had lived it – it was fiction, an imagined story, and she named the main character Jeanette, a provocative gesture for sure.

It was indeed inspired by her own experience, as we discover when she braved it and published this memoir nearly 30 years later (her adopted mother no longer living or able to be disapproving of her work), providing for the title, a quote from the mother who had been unable to shape the little human she acquired into her version of a normal daughter.

In her memoir she allows the real life characters to reveal parts of themselves, in particular Jeanette and the woman who raised her, whom she refers to as Mrs Winterson (her adoptive mother), a telling detail in itself, that she reserves the title of mother for the woman who is a shadowy illusion for most of the narrative; not there, not looked for, a vague presence in her psyche that she continuously rejects the thought of, her biological mother. I did wonder whether this was a literary invention or whether she actually did refer to her adoptive mother as Mrs W. It makes quite a statement.

‘I do not know why she didn’t/couldn’t have children. I know that she adopted me because she wanted a friend (she had none), and because I was like a flare sent out into the world – a way of saying  that she was here – a kind of X marks the spot.

She hated being a nobody, and like all children, adopted or not, I have had to live out some of her unlived life. We do that for our parents – we don’t really have any choice.’

Despite what was likely to have been a desperate desire for a child, Mrs W. dolled out punishments and criticisms more than any form of affection or love for her chosen child. When her mother was angry with her, Mrs W. often repeated one of her preferred biblical phrases “The Devil lead us to the wrong crib”. The Church was like family (though unsuccessful in helping them make friends) and the Bible one of only five books in the house, the one referred to most often. The most regular punishment however, was to lock her in the coal-scuttle or out on the door stoop – for the whole night.

‘Dad’s on the night shift, so she can go to bed, but she won’t sleep. She’ll read the Bible all night, and when Dad comes home, he’ll let me in, and he’ll say nothing, and she’ll say nothing, and we’ll act like it’s normal to leave your kid outside all night, and normal never to sleep with your husband. And normal to have two sets of false teeth, and a revolver in the duster drawer…’

It is a collection of anecdotes, written in a way to make the reader present, it’s not like reading an account of the past, it’s reliving days in the life of this fierce little battler, a girl who had a zest for life, who used her locked up time to invent imaginary characters, who made up stories, who forged her own personality through, who would not be tamed, who left home while still at school, taught herself to drive, lived in a car for a while and remarkably pushed herself forward as one of the ‘experimental’ working-class contenders for a place at Oxford University and succeeded.

Jeanette Winterson Photo by Sanhita SinhaRoy

Jeanette Winterson, Photo by Sanhita SinhaRoy

Jeanette Winterson writes her own story, forged over a past she didn’t know, that she tried to convince herself wasn’t important until driven almost mad and finally would follow through to unravel the missing link.

Her experience with Mrs Winterson is told with as much compassion as is possible, the facts related in a way that leaves the reader to judge and most will wonder why Mrs Winterson desired a child or was deemed fit to be given one at all.

It is an extraordinary account of childhood and growing up, of what home is, of how we perceive and learn love, of adoption, of how those formative years contribute into making us what we will become and that mysterious ‘other life’ that might have been, when you’ve been switched to alternative parentage post birth.

I never wanted to find my birth parents – if one set of parents felt like a misfortune, two sets would be self-destructive. I had no understanding of family life. I had no idea that you could like your parents, or that they could love you enough to be yourself.
I was a loner. I was self-invented. I didn’t believe in biology or biography. I believed in myself. Parents? What for? Except to hurt you.

It is also a tribute to literature and to the power of stories to influence lives, whether they are an escape for those who need refuge and to understand the world around them, or whether they are the occupation of the oppressed, a creative outlet for someone with nothing but their imagination to keep them entertained while enduring their struggle.

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