Country life& catching up

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I started the summer by reading a beloved book and finishing some half-read ones. Its been a hectic few months and my attention span hasn’t been the greatest, nor have I had the time for reading that I would have liked. Oh well, being stuck in the middle of nowhere and with weather that doesn’t allow for anything but sitting indoors (and necessitates getting a fire going because of 12 degrees Celsius outside) I had no more excuses. It feels good to start the summer reads with a clean slate. This is what I read and a few of my thoughts in no particular order.

The Summer book by  Tove Jansson 

No summer without reading this gem of a book. I have a hard time reviewing it as it is so dear to me and is interwoven with the memory of reading it. That is one of the joys of rereading; you grow with a book and see different things and become aware of how much of a book can actually be about your own perception. I know many other who love this bitter sweet collection of small stories that together form the narrative about Sophia and her grandmother, and the summer spent on a small island.

Butcher’s crossing by John Williams

With this I have read the three books available by Williams and Stoner remains my favorite, with Augustus as a second but that doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things. This is a very good read and Williams does here  what he “always” does ; tell the story of rather passive men that just let life happen to them (or in the case of Augustus half the book is that, then Octavian changes his name and begins his long reign). Anyways it was a solid book.

Short stories by Chekov

It’s Chekov but I think, having read a few bits and bobs of his, that I prefer him as playwright. In my head I can almost visualize all of this would look on stage (most of it very good of course) but it doesn’t really work as short stories. Too abrupt somehow. But it was a short book. Mostly it made me try to find a copy of The seagull which I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

Across the Big blue sea by Katja Meier

This was sent to me by the author herself as she saw on IG that have an interest in literature about on the refugee issue (in fact I have an interest in most issues). Meier has written about her time working with women from Nigeria to Italy. What is different with that group is that  it’s a group that has been coming for over 15 years and many of the women end up in prostitution. There seems to be a rather well-established network that sadly maintains itself in this, where some of the women who have been victims of trafficking end up tricking other women into the same trap. And just shaming the women or saying that it’s wrong doesn’t help. An insightful read of the joys and sorrows of trying to make the world a better place.

A place of greater safety by Hilary Mantel

Speaking of people who tried to make the world a better place, how about 870 pages about Robespierre and friends? This is Dickensian in length and level of detail, the shadow of A tale of two cities obviously looms over it (i.e. centered around the French Revolution). I will say that the beginning and end are the best, Mantel really could have cut out a fair bit in the middle. This was published in 1992 and she hadn’t yet reached that “Two times the Manbooker-winner” level of writing but absolutely had grasped the form of the historical novel. I read this to satisfy the craving from the last installment in the Cromwell-trilogy and if you haven’t read those; start there. I will also mention her memoirs Giving up the ghost that I adored last year. And then you could squeeze in The assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other stories. Then read this. It’s very good, but not great.

-Suss

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Adventures in autonomous regions

IMG_1599Where the jews aren’t-the sad and absurd story of Birobidzhan,Russias jewish autonomous region by Masha Gessen is just the kind of obscure book that I stumble across at the library and just have to read. Some things capture my imagination, immediately. But I’ve read Gessen before; notably her book about the Tsarevna brothers and thought that a well-written piece of reporting (though I wasn’t sure it was the whole story).

Birobidzhan meant nothing to me as I’m horrible with name but “Russia’s jewish autonomous region” rang a bell; I had read about it in passing in either Anya Von Bremen’s Mastering the art of Soviet cooking(or in one of her pieces about the cookbook she wrote about the food in Russia’s different autonomous regions, or in the actual cookbook) or in The possessed by Elif Batuman. If you have never heard about it that’s no surprise. It’s a story worth telling and Gessen does it well. A bit heavy on the details at times but as the books is around 150 pages it’s not an issue.

I had been to dozens of these small regional museums in the former Soviet Union, and I fancy myself something of a specialist in their many was of misapprehending history. All local museums begin with rocks. They are the ideal museum exhibit; rocks do not need to be rearranged in case of a regime shift. (p. 131)

Unlike the state of Birodidzhan that was rearranged many times. It started as a project, one of many, in the family of Soviet states, later became an enemy within according to Stalin, was so forgotten that they sent nazi-collaborateurs there from the Ukraine to punish them(with the awful climate; The Soviet union had then decided it was no longer a region full of jews, or didn’t care) but now there is a synagogue again, paid for my American Jews. Oy vei!

But its not about the actual place, it’s about the people who dreamed of it, worked to make it happen and ultimately were punished for their ideals. As were many people in the Soviet union I suppose. The point was to have a communist version of Israels, and one that didn’t invent a new identity and revive a dead language but let them be proud of who they already were and elevated yiddish to a national language. But what if there had been no Israel?

My interest in autonomous jewish regions isn’t new. One of my, let’s say 20, favorite books is The yiddish policemen’s union by Michael Chabon. It’s the story of a murder, a detective who has enough with his own problems, a partner that is opposite in almost everything, and a state in fervor as the contract is about to expire. As the negotiations for the creation of Israel have been basically put in a box, a large population are living in Sitka,Alaska but only until a certain date. As a crime story it has everything you didn’t know you wanted; an imagined version of what yiddish slang would sound like, some of the most unexpected heroes and villains and supposed sightings of the Messiah in the northern lights. Chabon likes Raymond Chandler and that’s the kind of thing we have here, it’s very much hommage to The big sleep. As Chabon point out in a interview,  a detective is a great device in a story as they have the reason and authority to visit all layers of society and tie in the different perspectives.

The yiddish policemen’s union, also called The frozen chosen, is a book a warmly recommend, and it’s readily available. If you are going to read a book by Gessen, I suggest you don’t start with this unless you have a special interest.

A few things mentioned in this post;

The Tsarevna brothers by Masha Gesshen

The yiddish policemen’s union by Michael Chabon

Birodidzhan

Mastering the art of Soviet cooking

-Suss

 

 

 

Weekend&Winterson

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And so it finally happened;I got around to reading Jeanette Winterson.

I’ve been meaning to read her for ages, so many people who’s taste in books I respect and admire(and to a certain degree try to emulate) rate her highly.

A combination of #readwomenmarch, some of her works being included in the annual Swedish book sales and an otherwise rather big book-heavy TBR-pile finally made it happen.

I started with The passion because @Life in a cold climate speaks highly of it and I wasn’t disappointed. In tone she reminds me of Swedish writer Eva-Maria Liffner who I love, and who’s works could well be influence by Winterson(or maybe not; correlation is not causation)

It’s that dreamy tone that draws me in, like there is something magical going on. An effervescence. Its been pointed out to me that she is a stylist but I think these translations have captured the essence of her. If a translation is bad I usually notice because I find it distracting.

The passion starts out as two stories that get connected later on; we meet the rather naive Henri who is part of Napoleons army and the march towards Moscow, and also a young girl by the name of Villanelle how lives in Venice(and Venice lives in her). I guess the plot is rather besides the point; for me this book was all about the mood and the reflections. They are young people living in dire times and their thoughts mirror that. It might have had a more profound impact on me had I been younger but I was enamored  by the prose and reading about Venice always gets me in a good mood; I’m willing to read crime in the form of books by Donna Leon just to relive the magic of that town. I’m not saying her books are bad, I’m just saying it’s not really my thing.

Oranges is not the only fruit is at this point I classic; when I asked for Winterson recommendations many people mentioned this but that’s also because I guess it’s the book by her that most have read. And then it was” half off the sales price” so that ended up being my second book by her, in the same week.

It has the same tone in many ways, amusedly detached, with a magical element. It’s a novel but one heavily based on Wintersons’s own life of growing up in a religious home but realizing she’s a lesbian and making a choice. In this one she does mix in fairy tale elements as an analogy for her own experiences and it works wonderfully. There is such warmth in it. It did also remind me of Giving up the ghost by Hilary Mantel which I read last year and loved, but again that was written much later.

In short; It’s been a good week of reading and I recommend both these books warmly although I’m probably the last person on earth to have read them. It’s kind of my thing now.

Things mentioned in this post;

Life in a cold Climate

The Passion

Donna Leon

Oranges are not the only fruit

Giving up the ghost

-Suss

 

Reading outside the comfort zone

img_9795I ended last year, and started this one, reading outside my comfort zone(more or less).

Like many I prefer to make up my own mind on what books to read, following my mood is always best. Which means a few books linger at the bottom of the TBR-pile for a long time. As it is my nature I decided to try to finish all the books in it and I got a few lovely surprises. A quick round-up;

Fifth Business by Roberston Davies;

This was a gift from my dear bookstagram-friend @drummingonthecover. I hadn’t heard of it before but I trusted the giver, and reasonably so: it’s a brilliant book.

When I posted it a lot of people commented that they loved it, and I do too. The protagonist Dunstan Ramsay tells the story of his life, and the lives of others, in a rambling and very charming way. I would like to think that Tristram Shandy is a bit like this although I haven’t read it. Fifth business refers to the vital role played by certain characters in a play, not the leading men or women, but the catalysts. Ramsay is fifth business in his life someone claims, I beg to differ. Will try to read the other two parts that make up the trilogy.

The Parrot’s theorem by Denis Guedj;

I found this in a little free library in Vienna and chose it mostly because it was one of the few books in english. Had I been younger I probably would have liked it more; it’s written for teens. Like a “Sophie’s world” by Jostein Gardener but with maths.

Home and the world by Rabindranath Tagore;

Another gift this one, sent to me by @celestial.reveries. Also left to linger too long. It’s a very elegant and understated novel, Tagore is first and foremost a poet, which is made up by the thoughts and the unsaid in the love triangel between Sandip,Nikhilesh and Bamala. A fair bit of it probably went over my head as there are many references to hindu gods and myths of which I am sadly rather ignorant. As much as I enjoyed reading this what it did make me want to read more is foremost Indian history not Tagore’s poetry.

Autumn by Ali Smith;

Beloved by many but I haven’t read Smith until now(but I have been meaning to). My loss really. Having seen this book with it’s wonderful cover(a painting by David Hockney) around bookstagram for a few weeks I caved and made a reservation at the library. Smith is so clever with her words, they ebb and flow with an almost hypnotic effect. Her non-linear storytelling suits me just fine and I’m even willing to accept dreams as a plot device. Great characters, a story with nerve and emotion; I devoured it and long for more by her.

-Suss

November reading round-up

img_9078I managed to read a lot in November. I don’t know how that happened. The month began with a difficulty to finish books and an ambivalence as to what I was in the mood for.

The so-called “reading slump” happened in part ,I think, because October was to regimented; I decided on to many reads with other people and had to many books that I had to get through as they needed to be returned to the library. That puts me off quite simply. I know that. It’s a combination of childlike joy to discuss books with other people and a lutheran stubbornness that doesn’t allow me to return books to the library unread very often that got me in trouble.

I did pick up the pace though; from this pile I will mention my favorites.

  • I’m really into Lian Hearn’s new series The tales of Shikanoko. I’ve read three of the four books and cannot wait for the last installment. They are similar to The tales of Otori but more mature and darker. The mythical feudal Japanese landscape has me running on all cylinders. Fantasy has a special place in my heart, always will. The books have also gotten better as the characters have grown up. The story is told from different perspectives and the protagonists end up crossing paths from time to time. It’s basically set up like a Tolstoy  novel and that is my other comfort zone so no surprise I’m happy with it.
  • The Essex serpent på Sarah Perry has been hyped but I think it lives up to it. It has that victorian setting without being verbose. The writing is airy and very modern so really it’s the best of two worlds. And there is a monster, maybe. Maybe people are the real monsters?
  • Speaking of monsters I did take on Beowulf. In the Seamus Heaney translation as it were. It was, as is often the case nowadays, an episode on BBC4 “In our time” that got me interested and that episode, which you can find where you find podcasts, is a very good introduction. I also got the tip about a Youtube clip of Heaney reading it that you can find here. Very atmospheric I must say. But the story told is great for this time of year and there are layers to explore. I forgot that I was reading poetry.
  • Gods and Kings by Dana Thomas I have already written about here but I have to say it has grown on me and I might go back and change my Goodreads rating to a 5.
  • The tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra was also brilliant. I’m so glad I stumbled upon it through #bookstagram. I had never heard of him or this book but now I’m on the hunt for his previous. The well researched and balanced writing about human lives in the Soviet and post-Soviet society caught hold of me. People, trying to get by, both the winners and the losers. Oh and the dark humour.
  • I have already written an ode to Dickens A Christmas Carol. I do love it and it gets me in the mood for the holidays.

The rest of them were OK; A bit disappointed in the Waugh but he isn’t always on top of his game, neither is Barnes but this was his debut so I’ll forgive him. Eileen wasn’t really my cup of tea despite the Manbooker nomination. I liked it fine when I had read it but it left very little impression in hindsight. I don’t think I get Sapho really but there is a great BBC4 “In our time” episode about her too and that’s worth listening to. The Pamuk was handy but I want more. His moods are just the best and I want to get comfortable there for hours on end. Although it might be a good literary appetizer for someone who isn’t familiar with his work.