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Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 5-1

Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.

The previous instalments of this series are available here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11, 10-6.

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Three reviews: Joncour, Pimwana, Iczkovits

Another trio of short reviews from my Instagram.

Serge Joncour, Wild Dog (2018)
Translated from the French by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh (2020)

In 1914, a German lion-tamer takes refuge in a house above the French mountain village of Orcières as World War I begins. The villagers are fearful of his lions and tigers, whose roars fill the night – and then sheep start to go missing. ⁣

A century later, Lise and Franck rent that same house. She wants to cut herself off from the modern world. He’s a film producer who can’t bear to be disconnected. Franck is far out of his comfort zone here, but he strikes up something of a friendship with a wild dog – and then he starts to act differently. ⁣

The relationship between humans and the natural world runs through this novel. In both plot strands, characters are challenged and changed by their encounters with wild animals. There’s the implication that a darker, more savage side of human lies just out of sight, capable of resurfacing in the right circumstances. The tension rises constantly in this quietly menacing book. ⁣

Published by Gallic Books.

Duanwad Pimwana, Arid Dreams
Translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (2019)

For me, Arid Dreams is a set of sharp character studies. One of my favourite stories is ‘The Attendant’, in which an elevator attendant compares his old life in the country with his current, largely static, existence. He feels that his current job has reduced him to little more than a head and an arm. The physicality really comes across in this story, the attendant’s frustration at having to stay still for so long.⁣⁣

In ‘Sandals’, a couple of children are being taken away from home by their parents to help with a job harvesting sugarcane. They don’t want to go, and what they’re willing to do makes this one of the most poignant stories in the collection. ⁣⁣

The narrator of ‘Kanda’s Eyebrows’ doesn’t like his wife’s looks, but there’s a sense that he is projecting his own insecurities about himself on to her. ‘Within These Walls’ seems a woman look around her bedroom while her husband is in hospital and wonder why the walls couldn’t be her preferred colour. This leads her to start thinking about other ways in which life might be different. ⁣⁣

Some of Pimwana’s characters reflect on their situations, while others have very little self-awareness. Time and again, I found them fascinating to read about. ⁣⁣

Published by Tilted Axis Press.

Yaniv Iczkovits, The Slaughterman’s Daughter (2015)
Translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf (2020)

In the Russian Empire towards the end of the 19th century, Fanny Keismann heads for Minsk in search of her brother-in-law, who left his family some months earlier. She is joined by Zizek Breshov, once a Jewish boy who was conscripted into the imperial army, now a silent boatman who lives apart from his old community. ⁣

Fanny is the daughter of a ritual slaughterman, who knows how to handle a knife. When she and Zizek are attacked on the road, Fanny defends herself – and the resulting deaths draw the attention of Colonel Piotr Novak of the secret police. ⁣

So begins a grand historical adventure, which winds together a number of stories (not just Fanny’s journey, but the histories of her and other characters as well) into a highly enjoyable tapestry. More than one character will find their preconceptions challenged along the way. ⁣

Published by MacLehose Press.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 10-6

Now we come to the top 10 books in my list of memorable reading moments. I wanted to say a bit more with these, so I’ve split the ten in half. The top 5 will be up next Sunday, but for now, please enjoy numbers 10 through to 6. These are all books I have never forgotten, and doubt I ever will.

You can also catch up on previous instalments of this project here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11.

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Three reviews: İşigüzel, Nors, Glaister

A trio of short reviews first posted on my Instagram.

Şebnem İşigüzel , The Girl in the Tree (2016)
Translated from the Turkish by Mark David Wyers (2020)

The narrator of this novel is about to turn 18 when she decides she’s had enough. She climbs the tallest tree in an Istanbul park, and determines to stay there. The text we read is her account of her past, present and future. ⁣

It’s the voice that strikes me most of all: a smart, articulate voice that loops back and forth between stories, able to command a world within the tree even as she’s trying to make sense of the world below. The girl’s reasons for wanting to escape her life gradually become clear, encompassing events in her family and broader violence. This is a poignant, engaging and ultimately hopeful book.

Published by AmazonCrossing.

Dorthe Nors, Wild Swims (2018)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2020)

I knew from reading Dorthe Nors’ previous collection, Karate Chop, that her stories tended towards character studies with a dark streak. So, when I saw there was a story called ‘Hygge’ in this new collection, I suspected that it wouldn’t be as cosy or convivial as the title suggested. ⁣

‘Hygge’ is narrated by a retired professor who views himself as something of a silver fox. He treats the attention of the ladies at the senior club with an air of bored amusement. At the moment he’s with Lilly, they’ve just had an argument, and she would like that to be put behind them. The narrator is reminded of his old Aunt Clara and his students in the 1970s – for different reasons, neither of them good. The ending is truly chilling.⁣

Elsewhere in Wild Swims, we find ‘The Fairground’, in which a woman compares the idealised version of love she imagined in childhood with the disappointing reality she has experienced as an adult, with an abandoned fairground serving as a metaphor for the difference. The protagonist of ‘On Narrow Paved Paths’ keeps herself busy helping out a terminally ill friend, but there’s a sense that she is also propping herself up. In ‘By Syndvest Station’, two friends collecting for charity encounter an old woman in deep poverty and distress – one is shaken, but the other has something else on her mind. It’s another fine collection of stories from Nors.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Lesley Glaister, Blasted Things (2020)

Every novel of Lesley Glaister’s that I’ve read – this is the third – has been atmospheric, Blasted Things perhaps most of all. ⁣

In 1917, Clementine is a nurse on the Western Front. She is about to elope with Powell, a Canadian medic, when he is blown up. Clem is reluctantly forced to return to life with Dennis (a doctor who stayed behind to treat people in the UK), which is where we find her again in 1920.⁣

A chance encounter leads Clem to meet Vincent, whose face was partially destroyed in war. He reminds her of Powell, and she falls for his well-spoken charm. But Vincent is really a grifter, who’s out to see what he can get from Clem. ⁣

There’s some really effective writing in Blasted Things such as when Glaister breaks up her usual style to convey the disorientation of wartime. I also found it a gripping story – you just sense that the tale of Clem and Vincent will not end well, but exactly how it plays out is another matter.

Published by Sandstone Press.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 20-11

Welcome to the fourth part of my countdown of reading memories from the 2010s. You can read the previous instalments here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21.

Something I’ve found interesting about this instalment in particular is that a couple of the books here (The Wake and Lightning Rods) just missed out on a place in my yearly list of favourites when I first read them. But they have stayed with me over the years, and their placing on my list reflects that.

This is one of my reasons for making this list: to see how my feelings about different books have (or haven’t) changed.

On to this week’s memories…

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Three reviews: Ogawa, Dusapin, Mesa

Today I’m rounding up three reviews that I’ve had published on other websites in the last few months. I would recommend all of these books…

First, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). It’s one of my favourite books from this year’s International Booker Prize, a tale of loss set on an island where things disappear from living memory without warning. I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

The second book is Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins). The narrator is a young woman working at a guest house in the South Korean tourist town of Sokcho, who’s ill at ease with her life. The novel is a quiet exploration of a moment when that might be about to change. I’ve reviewed Winter in Sokcho for Shiny New Books.

Finally, we have Four by Four by Sara Mesa (translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore). This is a novel about the use and abuse of power, set in an exclusive college. I’ve reviewed the book for European Literature Network.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 30-21

We’re now halfway through my list of reading highlights from the 2010s. I’ve really enjoyed compiling this list and reminiscing about some beloved books. Let me know if you’ve read any.

You can also read my previous instalments, nos. 50-41 and 40-31. Now, on to the next ten…

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Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 50-41

In 2009, the writer Stuart Evers posted his “50 best novels of the 2000s” on his blog. I wished I could have done the same, but I hadn’t kept track of my reading in enough detail.

Ten years on, it’s a different story: thanks to this blog, I have a record of what I read, so I decided to put something together. I’m not calling it a ‘best of’, or even a list of favourites – it’s not meant to be that kind of exercise. Instead, I’ve chosen 50 books that have inspired strong memories.

My guidelines are: novels and short story collections allowed. First published in English or English translation during the 2010s, and read by me in that time (so nothing I’ve read this year). One book per author, except in one instance where I couldn’t choose between two.

The plan is to post my list in weekly instalments every Sunday. Here are the first ten entries. It’s a coincidence – but quite appropriate – that the writer who inspired my list is the first to appear on it…

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The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas

“What can you do when everyone around you is strong and clever?”

Tarjei Vesaas, The Birds (1957)
Translated from the Norwegian by Tørbjorn Støverud and Michael Barnes (1968)

Cover of The Birds, novel by Tarjei Vesaas

Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace was one of the stand-out books I read a couple of years ago, so it was a pleasure to read another of his novels and find it similarly affecting.

Our viewpoint character this time is 37-year-old Mattis, who lives with his older sister Hege in a cottage by the lake. The locals call him ‘Simple Simon’, and he doesn’t have much luck – either with getting women to notice him, or finding work. At one point, we see him join in with thinning out the rows of turnips on a local farm, but he simply can’t keep up.

There’s always the possibility that things will change, though. Towards the beginning of the novel, Mattis sees a woodcock fly directly over the house. He’s never seen one do that before. Mattis’s world is reordered: “It seemed to be a different house now, you had to look at it with different eyes.” He is eager to tell Hege what’s happened, but her reaction is a weary, “go and get some sleep now, Mattis.”

This is the way life tends to go for Mattis: things that mean so much to him leave others indifferent, and he can’t understand why. As readers, we can share his delight and frustration, but we can also see how difficult Hege has found it living with him – even though she doesn’t want to let it show.

***

There are a couple of chapters in the middle of The Birds that I think will go down as one of my favourite sequences in fiction. Mattis has been out in his boat and become stranded. He is found by a couple of holidaying girls, Anna and Inger, who take him back to shore. I was stunned by the range of emotions covered with such subtlety in these scenes. You see so much all at once.

Mattis is innocently overjoyed that finally some girls have paid attention to him. What’s more, they don’t know him, so he can revel in the freedom of being someone else. At the same time, his wandering eye and emotional intensity make Anna and Inger uncomfortable. But they also feel it would be wrong to leave him there. The sense is that they know on one level that Mattis means no harm, but on another they are instinctively wary of him. Vesaas makes clear that all these emotional contradictions are bound up together, and the tension between them helps give these scenes their power.

***

Mattis later tries to earn a living as a ferryman, but ends up with only one passenger: Jørgen, a lumberjack. Jørgen needs a bed for the night, so Mattis invites him back to the cottage – and there the lumberjack stays, because Hege falls in love with him. Now the balance of Mattis’s life is upended, and he has to work out his place in the world anew.

The touchstones of Mattis’s world – small events in nature, Hege and her constant knitting – are not those of other people. This is what makes it so difficult for him to relate to others, and them to him. But there are still times when he wants to ask the big questions – “Why are things the way they are?” – if someone would only listen. Vesaas depicts Mattis and his life with piercing clarity.

The Birds is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics (in association with Peter Owen Publishers), and in the US by Archipelago Books.

Kaleidoscopes and building blocks: two novels by Gabriel Josipovici

I first came across Gabriel Josipovici’s name from blogs such as This Space. I read some of his critical work, and was particularly taken with his idea of art as a toy. Broadly speaking, I understand this to mean art that keeps its component parts in view, in the same way that a hobby horse can still obviously be a stick. Then we can take those component parts and make our own experience with them.

This idea struck a chord with me because it seemed to me that many of my favourite books worked that way. Well, now I’ve read a couple of Josipovici’s novels, and discovered that they work that way as well…

***

Infinity: the Story of a Moment (2012) is the account of an Italian composer, one Tancredo Pavone (inspired by the real-life figure Giacinto Scelsi), whose words are related by his manservant Massimo in interview. Pavone comes across as an absurd, pompous figure in many ways, with his vast collection of clothes that may be worn only minimally, and his strident opinions (“German composers have been so busy airing their souls, he said, that they forgot to air their clothes”).

But there’s something else in there: Pavone argues for a more primal sort of art than what he sees (or hears) around him. He sees music as “a vehicle for the body to express itself.” Pavone goes on: “The language of music is not the sonata and it is not the tone row…it is the same kind of language as weeping, sobbing, shrieking and laughing.” I can understand this by instinct: why I think about the art that I’ve responded to most strongly (books especially, but not only), it was a response that went through my whole body – a sense of being more intensely alive.

The most powerful aspect of Infinity for me is that it’s structured in a way that brings out the same feeling. Pavone’s personality fills the book, larger than life, but his vulnerability starts to show as time goes on. By the end, Massimo is telling of the period after Pavone had a stroke, shoring the composer up, giving him a voice in a way that Pavone himself couldn’t by then. The composer’s intense engagement with existence is what most stands out , and the circuitous way that Massimo tells Pavone’s tale creates a space which allows us to experience that intensity. To bring in a toy metaphor, Infinity is something of a kaleidoscope, turning to reveal different aspects of its subject’s world.

***

If Infinity is a kaleidoscope, The Cemetery in Barnes (2018) is a set of building blocks. It begins with the unnamed protagonist, a translator, describing his daily routine as a single man in Paris. After three pages, another voice interjects, that of his second wife – and suddenly we’re in Wales, where the couple are entertaining friends in their converted farmhouse.

There’s something quite startling about the way this is done: sketching his Parisian life vividly, then pulling us out of it into a vivid new life. The novel continues, sliding between Wales, Paris, and an earlier stage of the translator’s life, with his first wife in London. The rhythm of these switches is always uneven – it’s not something we’re allowed to take for granted.

Something that I found intriguing early on was the way Josipovici makes the very idea of there being different stages in one life seem strange – it just feels so improbable that the single man in Paris might become the married man bickering with his wife in Wales, for example. But then the novel goes further: “One sprouts so many selves,” comments the protagonist. There are glimpses of contradictory pasts and futures, some much darker than others.

The Cemetery in Barnes put me in mind of a rather different novel, Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation (1981). Priest’s novel has two versions of the same character, one living in what looks like the real world, and one in what looks like a fantasy world – but neither life has more reality than the other, so both have equal weight. Similarly, the question arises in Cemetery: are we reading about one imaginary life or many? The reader can choose which blocks to use to build meaning, but ultimately any meaning only lasts until the book is closed.

***

Infinity and The Cemetery in Barnes are both published by Carcanet.

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