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Petroglyph's 2018 Challenge

TBR Challenge

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Edited: Oct 12, 4:19am Top

Authors from countries I have not read (enough of)
  1. China:
    Currently reading: Love in a fallen city by Eileen Chang.
    Collection of reportedly great short stories by a highly acclaimed author. Having recently visited Shanghai (where I picked up this book), I’m keen to read stories set there.

  2. China:
    The invisibility cloak by Ge Fei. Finished: January 2018
    All I know is that this is supposed to be slightly surreal.

  3. Czechia:
    Cutting it short and The little town where time stood still by Bohumil Hrabal. Finished: April 2018
    A recommendation by a Romanian friend, who knows I was looking for good books from Central Europe.

  4. Romania:
    For two thousand years by Mihail Sebastian.
    A Romanian Jew comes of age during the Interbellum. I picked this one up on a trip to Romania.

  5. Guadeloupe:
    The bridge of beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart. Finished: July 2018
    My first Guadeloupean author. Litfic from the Caribbean.

  6. Soviet Russia:
    One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
    It’s one of those books I feel like I should have read.

  7. Zanzibar:
    Desertion by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Finished: May 2018
    My first Zanzibari / Tanzanian author. He is a recommendation by my SO; I just picked what Wikipedia claims is “one of Gurnah’s most acclaimed novels.” I have no idea what to expect.

  8. Kenya:
    One day I will write about this place by Binyavanga Wainaina. Finished: January 2018
    My first Kenyan author. A recommendation by my SO. A memoir.

  9. Italy:
    The castle of crossed destinies by Italo Calvino. Finished: January 2018
    This one has stood unread on my shelves since the early 2000s, and that needs to change.

  10. Pakistan:
    Basti by Intizar Husain. Finished: February 2018
    My first Pakistani author. A 2017 Santathing present.

  11. Argentina:
    Currently reading: Thus were their faces by Silvina Ocampo.
    Short stories. Written by someone from the same circle as Borges and Casares.

  12. Maya civilisation:
    Popol Vuh: the Mayan book of the dawn of life, edited by Dennis Tedlock.
    Mythology and history of a conquered people in a prize-winning translation.

Reading projects
  1. Der Winter tut den Fischen gut by Anna Weidenholzer. English title: Winter is good for the fishes. Finished: February 2018
    Part of an effort to read more in German. A recommendation by an Austrian friend. I know nothing about this one ahead of time.

  2. Currently reading: Histoire de la femme cannibale by Maryse Condé. English title: The story of the cannibal woman.
    Part of an effort to read more in French. A woman’s life in South Africa, written by a French-Caribbean woman. Sounds like an interesting mix of perspectives!

  3. Drosilla and Charikles, edited by Joan B. Burton. Finished: October 2018
    Part of an effort to read more by the Ancients. This is a 12thC Byzantine “novel”, patterned on Ancient Greek romances from the Roman era.

  4. Currently reading: Le rouge et le noir by Stendhal. English title: The red and the black.
    This year’s Big French Classic has stood unread on my shelves for eleven years.

  5. Lady Susan by Jane Austen. Finished: January 2018
    I’m working my way through Jane Austen’s bibliography, in chronological order of publication. This one is next and last on the list.

  6. Currently reading: Middlemarch by George Eliot.
    This year’s Big Doorstopper Book. Seven or so years ago I made it about a third through; this year I’m going to start over and make it to the end! (hopefully)

General Owned-but-Unread
  1. Vele hemels boven de zevende by Griet Op de beeck. English title: Many heavens above the seventh. Finished: August 2018
    A Belgian author’s debut novel. Reactions have been mixed.

  2. Currently reading: Sund by Tove Folkesson.
    An impulsive purchase, b/c I wanted to read more contemporary Swedish authors (I live in Sweden). No real idea what to expect. I haven’t even checked the reviews for this one.

  3. An artist of the floating world by Kazuo Ishiguro. Finished: June 2018
    Latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Also the final 2014 SantaThing present I have not yet read. The others included a great book (The song of Achilles), an ok book (The garden of evening mists), and one I loathed (The kite runner). Let’s see what I think about this one.

  4. The island of the day before by Umberto Eco. Finished: september 2018
    I’ve had a copy of this book on my shelves for sixteen years. And to think he’s an author who I’ve enjoyed before and who I think I would enjoy reading again.

  5. Dvärgen by Pär Lagerkvist. English title: The dwarf. Finished: February 2018
    My SO’s favourite from this Nobel Prize winning Swedish author.

  6. The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.
    A 2014 Christmas present from my SO. About an unhinged Anglo-Saxon sociopath’s resistance to the Norman conquest of England in the 11thC. Written in faux Old English, not intended to be accurate, but to make the language feel authentic to present-day English speakers. Sounds like it’s right up my street!

Dec 19, 2017, 11:12pm Top

This year I have set up three sets of books. The first set, aka the ‘main list’, contains twelve works by authors from countries un- or underrepresented in my catalogue; the second group covers a few “reading projects” (loosely speaking) I’ve got going on; and the third group is a more or less random selection of unread books from my shelves.

The latter two sets speak for themselves. The ‘main list’ is there because I like to think of myself as someone who reads widely (though not particularly deeply). But the condition of having read widely necessarily involves me actually working my way through books from all over the world, and I’ve been doing too little of that, really. So here’s a stab at rectifying that. Reading globally really should become a recurring category of at least six items on these yearly challenges.

This year I’ll also read the following books: They’re not on the list, they’re just a few of the other books I want to get to this year, usually for TBR-clearing purposes, and including them here is going to serve as a nudge to embark on them as well.

Dec 20, 2017, 4:59am Top

What a great idea for a list! I look forward to reading your reviews.

Dec 20, 2017, 9:25am Top

Neat themes for this year. Following along again.

Dec 20, 2017, 10:08am Top

Can't say I've ever targeted authors from other countries specifically. I'm knowingly guilty of reading a lot of historical fiction taking place in Eastern countries that's written by Western authors. I would like to read more Japanese authors, and I've been trying to compile a list of their canon.

Middlemarch is very worthwhile, though it didn't become a favourite of mine. Italo Calvino is an author I need to revisit. I have that Stendhal on TBR, but similar to your story it just never seems to float to the top. Ishiguro is another author I want to know. I read that Eco title in November, and I believe it's great if you're already a fan like me although it probably wouldn't make you one.

Little, Big is topping my primary list, probably a January read.

Jan 1, 3:51am Top

The Solzhenitsyn was on my list a couple years ago, it's a good one!

Lady Susan I just read a couple weeks ago. Initially I wasn't thrilled with the epistolary style of it, but once I got a handful of letters in I started to get caught up in it and didn't mind anymore. I mean, it is Austen, after all, it's not like it can be bad! :P

Oooooh you loathed Kite Runner too? Man that is one of very few books I literally wanted to destroy once I got through it. UCK!! Hahaha

I will have to watch your list closely, lots of intriguing stuff on it! :D

Edited: Jan 2, 4:51pm Top

And we're off: I started One day I will write about this place on the train to work this morning. I'm about one tenth in, and so far Wainaina's writing is lovely.

>6 .Monkey.:
Let me point you to my review of that shoddy melodrama last year. Man, a few times I was close to throwing the blasted thing at the wall and abandoning it. I kept hate-reading it, just so I could look people in the eye and tell them that, no, I really, honestly, did finish the thing, and yes, I do know what I'm talking about.

If we move to a larger place where there's a spare room to be turned into a library, I am so dedicating a shelf to "hate-reads" or "Shiterature". I've collected a few of those now, and I already know where in the bookcase that shelf is going to be: at the bottom.

Jan 2, 5:34pm Top

LOL! I never get rid of books, but honestly I want that one gone. But my husband hasn't read it yet and he, for some reason, says he wants to ...eventually. So for now it sits. I glare at it every time I notice it, lmao. Yeah, I totally wanted to chuck it at the wall, repeatedly. But it was one of those huge things, I had to finish it (plus I almost never abandon anything, I prefer to get the full picture and all that). Blech.

Jan 7, 2:17pm Top

One down, twenty-three to go! I finished One day I will write about this place on the commute back home. Up next: The invisibility cloak by Ge Fei.

Jan 8, 4:06am Top


Jan 8, 8:11am Top

I really have to make it part of the annual planning to start off with an easy hit. It lends a lot of momentum to tackling the list.

Jan 8, 9:46pm Top

One day I will write about this place by Binyavanga Wainaina

Why did I choose to read this?
My first Kenyan author. A recommendation by my SO. A memoir.

Review (Also posted here.)
In a style of writing that I cannot but call absorbing, Wainaina talks about growing up in Kenya in the 70s and 80s, his addiction to fiction, about his booze- and cigarette-fueled attempts at studying in South Africa, about his early days as a writer, about his travels around the continent and the world. Over the course of his personal story, he adds in just enough politics and historical background to keep things firmly in memoir territory (as opposed to general history or international relations).

Some of the chapters were published as magazine articles before, and much of the book reads like that: a skilled writer using personal stories to talk about his world of intertribal distrust, colonial legacies, hesitant African democracies, Lagos cityscapes, Togo markets, and how to chart Kenya’s development through a succession of music styles. The best vignettes in the book, though, are the personal ones: this is where Wainaina’s less-is-more writing style does its most evocative work; his sparse sentences and carefully picked details are more artificial and less effective when it comes to more general topics.

That said, One day I will write about this place was an immersive read that I was eager to pick up and looking forward to read. I would very much like to read more by Wainaina.

Edited: Jan 8, 10:21pm Top

The invisibility cloak by Ge Fei

Why did I choose to read this?
All I know is that this is supposed to be slightly surreal.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was indeed slightly surreal. A Beijing audiophile limps from commission to commision, navigating poverty as he builds high-end, high-quality sound systems for various wealthy amateurs. His wife has divorced him after her infidelities, his sister is ejecting him from her spare flat, his only friend is increasingly remote, and his work assignments are unavoidably drying up. And then a final, all-in job presents itself, for a shadowy, instinctively unpleasant client.

The surreal tone of the novel is due to characters’ unexplained motivations, inscrutable inner worlds that have become inaccessible due to social distancing and a distinct dispreference for really getting to know their fellow human beings. There’s no magical realism, just alienation, but that is surreal enough.

This may sound weird (and potentially off-putting), but The invisibility cloak felt to me as a successful version of Tommy Wiseau’s The room -- if that film had been competent, insightful, professional and emotionally intelligent. As in The room, the main character is a forty-something semi-recluse who is betrayed by his wife, his family and his friends while he does not understand why. But whereas Wiseau’s version is just some emotionally stunted weirdo’s transparently self-aggrandizing martyrdom whose preferred method of audience interaction is cheap melodrama, Fei’s short novel is thoughtful, full of empathy, well done, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and knows exactly how far it can push its premise. There’s a lovely idea at the centre of the book, namely that using alienation itself as a good-enough counter to alienation, and it ties the whole thing together beautifully.

Jan 9, 9:23am Top

The idea behind it sounds interesting. And I like when I can do comparisons like that to similar stories, it often offers additional insight.

Two already! Now I'm a slacker ... :)

Jan 9, 10:40am Top

Don't be hard on yourself: Fei's book, at 126 pages, barely qualifies as a novel. I'm rushing through a few short items on my list and expect to slow down considerably soon. I'm already taking a break by reading something else! (The beginning of spring by Penelope Fitzgerald)

Jan 9, 12:58pm Top

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Why did I choose to read this?
I’m working my way through Jane Austen’s bibliography, in chronological order of publication. This one is next and last on the list.

Review (Also posted here.)
Not Austen’s usual fare, this short, posthumously published novella features Lady Susan Vernon, a narcissist attempting to rule her social circle through deceit, manipulation and emotional blackmail. As her fortunes change and people grow wise to her character, her goals shift back and forth between making her puppets dance for her, marrying herself off favourably, preventing her daughter from marrying favourably, and spitefully marrying off her daughter unfavourably. All that matters to Lady Susan are her self-importance and swift and excessive punishment for any resistance.

I understand why this was never published during Austen’s lifetime: it is clearly unfinished. The ending is undoubtedly rushed, breaking with the epistolary form of the rest of the novel, and the whole thing is more straightforward than her other works. Still, even minor Austen is fun to read.

What I especially liked was the spot-on description of the narcissist at the centre: acutely observed and very accurate.

Jan 9, 1:01pm Top

And that wraps up my read-through of Austen's novels in publication order. I wonder who will be next. Penelope Fitzgerald? Another 19thC writer? I'll have to think about it...

Jan 9, 2:45pm Top

There's not too many authors I'm personally intent on reading every work by, but I can understand finding Austen worthy. I usually sample and move on, but probably a consequence of being a slower reader than you - obviously, the score now being 3-to-1!

Jan 9, 2:54pm Top

I also read the last 6 of Austen's chronologically last year, finishing up with Lady Susan about a month ago (the first I'd read back in 2016). Indeed, it wasn't quite up to snuff for her, and the first couple of letters I wasn't sure what to make of it, but then I started getting invested, lol. Even her not-mindblowing stuff is still more enjoyable than most other authors' best works! :P

Jan 31, 6:22pm Top

The castle of crossed destinies by Italo Calvino

Why did I choose to read this?
This one has stood unread on my shelves since the early 2000s, and that needs to change.

Review (Also posted here.)
This one was a great deal of fun: I was absolutely delighted by this exuberantly postmodern game with literary tropes and retellings.

The castle of the title is located at the centre of a vast forest, where it serves as an inn for a host of inexplicably voiceless guests -- suddenly none of them are able to use their voice. And so they resort to using a pack of tarot cards to tell each other their adventures and the events that led them to this place. This is, of course, a flimsy excuse for Calvino to indulge in a multi-levelled game of connect-the-dots: the stories that he spins off sequences of tarot cards are spurred on by associations, hints, creative liberty, literary allusions and an impish eagerness to take visual details on the card out of context (the symmetrical ten of swords, for instance, is called on to represent opposing armies in one story and a barrier of archangels in another; the ace of cups stands for a forest spring, the fountain of youth, and a magic-beanstalk-type tree). One story’s sequence of cards will, when read the other way, yield a completely different story. And so, as he first builds and then explores his square of cards, Calvino presents a lovely array of stories built around late-medieval, and renaissance-era tropes: retellings of Roland, Faust, Parsifal (among others), even Oedipus in the spirit of courtly romances, Boccaccio and Chaucer.

The second half of the book is similar in setup, but serves as a basis for a retelling of Shakespeare plays, coupled with a few passages of musings on Art and Life that are decidedly Literary Criticism.

It is all a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek game: Calvino only took things seriously enough to adhere to his square of cards to be read in all possible directions. But other than that, it’s sheer indulgence: an erudite, playful writer enthusiastically exploring the worlds of literature and the mechanisms of story construction. More than once Calvino’s boundless enthusiasm reminded me of Borges and his extravagant literary funhouse.

The book must have been an absolute riot to write, and I found it infectious as anything: it made me giggle with delight, repeatedly.

Feb 1, 3:38am Top

>20 Petroglyph: That does indeed sound fun! :)

Feb 1, 4:32am Top

>20 Petroglyph: I just looked up Italo Calvino in the county library catalogue after reading your review and made a note to self to check out some of his writings soon. Some of his books, like Invisible Cities, Numbers in the Dark, Under the Jaguar Sun, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and The Nonexistent Knight & The Cloven Viscount, sound very intriguing, if not downright bizarre. They've even got The Castle of Crossed Destinies!

Feb 1, 5:41am Top

>22 passion4reading: I think If on a winter's night... is probably his most well-known. I didn't superduper love it, but it was an interesting style and I'm glad I read it, and am curious about reading more of his work. I totally added >20 Petroglyph: to my want-to-read list, lol.

Edited: Feb 1, 6:26am Top

>22 passion4reading:
Calvino is definitely best known for If on a winter's night a traveller, which is entertaining (and, I think, one of the Big 20thC Classics), and was my gateway drug for more of his stuff. I thought it worked, even though the central premise becomes clear quite soon, and then there's the whole rest of the book to get through, but that is engaging enough to keep you going. (Still, Calvino is best in short form, and If on a ... is basically a collection of stories.) Under the Jaguar Sun was published posthumously and was left unfinished -- I wouldn't recommend it. The others I haven't read (but I've been making eyes at Invisible cities as my next read by him). So I'd recommend you start with his best known book, like >23 .Monkey.:.

The fun in both If on a... and Castle is not so much rooting for the main character -- those are barely there. Plot level, Person vs Society, Person vs Themselves etc -- all of that is hardly relevant in those books. Instead you're rooting for the author: once you see what they're trying to do, how they're trying to build up their book, you start rooting for them to actually pull it off and bring things to a satisfactory conclusion. To me, both worked.

Feb 1, 8:08am Top

All I've read is If On a Winter's Night a Traveller and that was enough to plunk him on my list of favourite authors. Still haven't circled back to him, although I've Cosmicomics in the TBR pile somewhere.

Feb 1, 8:37am Top

>23 .Monkey.: >24 Petroglyph: Funnily enough, I haven't come across his name before, or maybe just in passing when it didn't register. Must read something by him soon as this seems a grave omission (says she, when her TBR tower is currently numbering over 180).

Feb 1, 9:23am Top

>26 passion4reading: lmao, I have more than 536 books (because a bunch aren't entered on LT and are mixed among the rest so a pain trying to figure out what's unadded) on my shelves still waiting to be read, a number of which have 2-7 books within their covers even. And that's not including the bazillion on my haven't-yet-acquired or want-to-read-sometime lists! :P

Feb 1, 11:22am Top

>27 .Monkey.: I'd love to spend some time browsing your shelves. Sounds like heaven!

Feb 1, 11:28am Top

>28 passion4reading: Hahaha, yeah, there's plenty of good stuff (at least, imho :P). But on the other hand, it drives me crazy trying to keep things properly sorted! Lol.

Feb 17, 6:57pm Top

And that's Basti and The Dwarf finished! Reviews are on the way.

Feb 18, 3:06am Top


Feb 23, 11:50am Top

This year's German-language book, Der Winter tut den Fischen gut, has also been wrapped up.

Better watch out, .Monkey.! I'll catch up to you yet!

Feb 23, 12:01pm Top

Hahaha, the race is on!

Apr 13, 6:22pm Top

I've just finished reading Cutting it short. It was okay.

Gotta catch some sleep now: a 22-hour shift is coming up! There'll be a lot of downtime after about 1 am, though, and I hope to strike at least one more of the ones I'm currently reading off this list by the end of it.

Edited: Apr 17, 8:34am Top

Der Winter tut den Fischen gut by Anna Weidenholzer

Why did I choose to read this?
Part of an effort to read more in German. A recommendation by an Austrian friend. I know nothing about this one ahead of time, so I’ll be going in cold.

Review (Also posted here)
This is the story of a woman descending into depression: she loses her husband, loses her job, and stays away from family, friends and neighbours. A person succumbing to a lifelong sense of inadequacy.

None of that is a spoiler, by the way: the novel is also told backwards. It starts at chapter 54 and ends with chapter 1, and so we find out she’s depressed and powerlessly alone in the first few pages. The rest of the book fleshes out individual humiliations, shortcomings, and episodes of inhibition. As the book progresses (regresses?), the chapters get shorter: we already know what is going to happen, and exposition can be done away with. Perhaps unexpectedly, the book gets more engrossing as it moves along and events hinted at or events surmisable from context are brought to the fore.

This book, I think, did the reverse ordering right. In the past, I’ve criticized similarly structured books for mishandling that aspect, in particular Sarah Waters’ WWII novel The night watch, which which treats all the things readers are able to figure out in the earlier (though chronologically later) portions as surprise revelations once we get to them in later (though chronologically earlier) chapters. Der Winter tut den Fischen gut has a little more respect for its readers: it fully expects us to keep track, and merely elaborates on what we have worked out on our own.

Well-told, restrained, not overwritten. I recommend it (if you read German).

Apr 17, 2:24pm Top

Very interesting review. I am German but have never heard of either the novel or the author. May have to get my mum to send it to me - if I ever find the time to finish my TBR towerpile.

Apr 24, 9:08pm Top

>37 passion4reading:
She's Austrian, perhaps that's why you've never heard of her. I've also heard good things about her Weshalb die Herren Seesterne tragen.

Her writing style is quiet yet full with razor-sharp observations. She says a lot in few words. Recommended!

Apr 25, 8:47am Top

>38 Petroglyph: Sounds like it could be right up my street. I've made a note of her name.

Oh dear - the aim was to reduce my TBR pile with this challenge, not pick up more recommendations! :-)

Apr 25, 9:38am Top

>39 passion4reading:, I know right? There's almost no helping it. Begs the question, are we really supporting one another in this group or just enabling? lol

Edited: Apr 25, 10:22am Top

Apr 25, 11:38am Top

>40 Cecrow: A bit of both I think :)

Edited: Jun 21, 6:29am Top

Basti by Intizar Husain

Why did I choose to read this?
My first Pakistani author. A 2017 Santathing present. No idea what to expect.

Review (Also posted here)

Basti is a fictionalized retelling of much of the history of Pakistan in the twentieth century through the eyes of a teacher who, as a child, lived through the Partition of India and Pakistan in the 1950s, and who experiences the secession of Bangladesh in the 1970s as an adult. The word basti in Urdu means something like “settlement”, and it is through a sequence of villages and towns and cities and the sometimes coerced transitions between them that Husain builds up the plot to his fictionalized history of Pakistan.

On a more abstract level, much of the novel deals with questions of home, of belonging to a land (or the land), and it follows its narrator and his family and friends as they uproot themselves and are forced to move to new places where the tough and intricate business of creating a new home can always be disrupted as the political and religious winds change. Family ties weaken and friendships dissolve across sudden national borders, and the town that became so familiar when your own wave of immigration moved in may change again as the next one is forced through.

That is not to say that the book is not readable: it speeds along at a crisp enough pace, slowing down where necessary and moving towards associatively-connected dream time passages when that is called for. One of the things I’ll remember best about this novel, though, is just how densely the prose is spiced with quotes from and allusions to various poets and religious and mythological texts, from several languages and traditions (Urdu, Persian, Arabic) – references which the footnotes take pains to elucidate. The ending, particularly, appears to be Husain’s reworking of an intense amalgam of poems and lines from other sources (akin, I believe, to how Umberto Eco blent the Song of Solomon, among others, into his own prose for the sex scene in The name of the Rose). Knowing about the references, and especially knowing how frequent they are, adds to the sense that this novel is solidly anchored in a rich and interconnected literary tradition with tropes and techniques of its own.

There were things that did not work for me. For one thing, Husain didn’t always juggle the two timelines (1950s and 1970s) as smoothly as he could have. This was particularly noticeable towards the beginning of the novel, where a few brief cutaways to the later timeline were especially inelegant – nothing happened in them, they merely repeated prior cutaways, and they served quite transparently to signal to the reader that the later timeline was going to be important, just not at that moment. I don’t think the gears and joints of writing should be showing this much. For another, I don’t think the characterization worked out all that well: several of the narrator’s friends ended up too similar to each other and could easily have substituted for each other.

Reading Basti on its own is a bit of a challenge: unfamiliar as I am with Urdu literature, the dense allusions and the assumed familiarity with the history of Pakistan and Bangladesh threw me for a bit. But once I got into the movement of the prose, I was more than happy to be along for the ride. I now feel much better prepared to tackle more literary fiction from Pakistan!

Edited: Jun 21, 8:10am Top

>43 Petroglyph:, wow, nice branching out. I only finally learned about Pakistan's early history through fiction myself, first in A Division of the Spoils and then later in Midnight's Children (although those were both India-centric). I can see how the India/Pakistan split and then the founding of Bangladesh lends itself to some back-and-forth parallels.

That's an interesting insight into that scene from The Name of the Rose, I didn't know that.

Jun 21, 8:44am Top

>44 Cecrow:
Midnight's children is buried somewhere in the mountain titled "perhaps some day", though Rushdie is certainly on my tbr. (The satanic verses, of course, probably for next year's challenge.) I'll see then how I feel about more Rushdie.

Several books I've read in recent years were literary comments on 20thC history that I was not really familiar with before picking them up (to name a few, a book of Estonian short stories for last year's challenge, this year's Desertion, and probably a few others on this year's list, too). I enjoy learning new things! And it's always good to discover new authors who are really good at what they do. Double win.

Re: The name of the Rose: I am sometimes embarrassingly familiar with the KJV and with judeo-christian mythology, so those passages jumped out at me. That, and Star Wars is another thing I'm entirely too au courant with. It's frustrating: I don't think much of either universe is really any good, but given my related interests and given the people I hang out with, it's hard not to absorb encyclopedic minutiae. I could really use that mental storage space for other things, though.

Jun 21, 11:55am Top

Dvärgen / The Dwarf by Pär Lagerkvist

Why did I choose to read this?
My SO’s favourite from this Nobel Prize winning Swedish author.

Review (Also posted here.)
I really liked this one!

Historical fiction, set in Renaissance-era Italy, with squabbling city-states and courtly intrigues as the backdrop. The narrator, a dwarf kept as a curiosity by a local lord, has rejected all connections to humanity, and views everything and everyone else with barely-concealed hatred and disgust. Absolutely no-one he’s ever met has treated him in any other way than as a despicable non-human, and so he keeps himself aloof, separate from the accursed human race.

The narrator is unapologetically and just so delightfully evil. Early on in the book, to establish his character, Lagerkvist has him kill a kitten, just to hurt the child whose pet it is. As the novel progresses, and his lord’s ambitions soar, he delights in wreaking underhanded havoc, revels vicariously in crude bloodshed, and spews his indiscriminate revulsion at any and all.

It’s one of those books where the main character would be an awesome villain in someone else’s story, and where the story is one of things going from bad to worse for a fascinatingly evil main character, such that you enjoy the destruction while at the same time kinda rooting for and admiring them.

Jun 22, 7:24pm Top

Cutting it short & The little town where time stood still by Bohumil Hrabal

Why did I choose to read this?
A recommendation by a Romanian friend, who knows I was looking for good books from Central Europe.

Review (Also posted here.)
This book contained two sets of short stories -- well, anecdotes -- set in the same village and centring around the same family, but about ten years or so apart. The first cycle deals with the exploits of Maryska, the village’s brewer’s wife, whose unconventional (for the time) and unencumbered approach to the joys of life make her quite the character in pre-war Bohemia. The second set of stories/anecdotes deals with her son, age ten or so, who wanders around the village and sees it slowly adjusting as the Soviet occupation and the associated power structure changes intensify and leave ever clearer marks.

I wouldn’t call this a novel -- the structure is too loose for that. These are collections of bar yarns, stories of the do-you-know-what-so-and-so-did-the-other-day variety. As such, they are very good at drawing you in and making you feel as though you are one of the locals gossiping about a neighbour. The yarns also abide by the adage that a joke is not funny unless someone gets hurt. Case in point, one of the stories features a ten-year-old boy who wants a chest tattoo of a little boat when he sees dockworkers’ manly chests full of ships, anchors, mermaids and the like. Because the kid is an altar boy, he has the opportunity to steal money from the collection plate to pay the local tattoo artist, who promptly inks a big-breasted mermaid onto him.

These were enjoyable tales of family life in a sleepy village, against a background of post-war Czechia undergoing societal changes that slowly take their toll.

Jun 22, 7:26pm Top

An artist of the floating world by Kazuo Ishiguro

Why did I choose to read this?
Latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Also the final 2014 SantaThing present I have not yet read. The others included a great book (The song of Achilles), an ok book (The garden of evening mists), and one I loathed (The kite runner). Let’s see what I think about this one.

Review (Also posted here.)
An artist of the floating world is a pretty languid book: it deals with an ageing painter, Ono, who spends most of his time thinking about his past and feeling abstractly confused about the present, particularly about why his family and his former friends keep their emotional distance.

His past is Imperial Japan before and during the second World War, when he was a talented mid-level artist working within the system and supporting his country. The present is a post-war, American-dominated Japan eager to do away with its past, actively establishing a new self-image that rejects and de-emphasizes uncomfortable elements of the old one.

Ono, as supporter of the status-quo, did rather well for himself in Imperial times; his former friends and students, who sometimes chose more counter-cultural paths, generally did not. Ono, of course, fails to see where he went wrong: he never did anything wrong, never engaged in objectionable behaviour; he merely fit into society and its expectations of him, and is now vaguely annoyed at people who seem to blame him for having earned a comfortable living and a fêted career. Having retired, he no longer needs to worry about things like a roof over his head (he managed to find a lovely traditional villa that was sold dirt cheap after the war), establishing a career, or finding a spouse. And so, from his comfortable position, he’s benignly oblivious to how he comes across to others.

I read this book surprisingly quickly: it flows along quite speedily, as large sections of the book consist of the narrator reminiscing meanderingly, and fairly pleasantly, about episodes of his past. Incidents in the present, interactions with his family, and visits to former friends are quite transparently occasions where Ono’s unthinking acceptance clashes with others’ perspectives. Ishiguro has an engaging way with words, and the prose offers no obstacles. An artist of the floating world is a straightforward, guileless, smooth read.

Jun 24, 10:00am Top

Desertion by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Why did I choose to read this?
My first Zanzibari / Tanzanian author. He is a recommendation by my SO; I just picked what Wikipedia claims is “one of Gurnah’s most acclaimed novels.” I have no idea what to expect.

Review (Also posted here.)
Much of this book is historical fiction: the first part is set in the 1890s, as a Zanzibari village shopkeeper takes in an Englishman found wandering the desert, which leads to an interracial love affair. The second part is set in the 1950s and deals with a schoolboy secretly falling in love with an older divorcee as Zanzibar/Tanzania moves towards Independence. This part turns into a fictionalized autobiography of sorts, with the narrator moving to England and detailing his experiences there. This, too, includes a romantic attraction that contemporary society and the narrator’s family might not be all that fond of.

The transition between the 1890s and the 1950s sections is deliberately sudden, and while I did get a sense that the characters were related in some way to the ones 60 years earlier, Gurnah chooses not to tell us until quite late into the second part.

I really enjoyed reading this book: it was very well written, the prose flowed neatly and very deliberately. I liked how Gurnah used the jarring transition between storylines to reinforce the thread of abandonment and, well, desertion that permeates the relationships portrayed in the novel -- not just in the various illicit or taboo romantic attractions, but in the way family ties change over time and drift apart as various members change their minds and/or respond to society’s changing mores. No high-stakes melodrama, merely people dealing with trying to fit in with others’ ideas of proper behaviour, even when those ideas change, or when multiple conflicting in-groups demand to be satisfied.

A very powerful book. Possibly one of the best I’ll read this year.

Jun 24, 3:40pm Top

Taking stock:

  • Read: 10
  • Currently reading, almost done: 2
  • Currently reading, less than halfway through: 3
  • To be cracked open: 9

I take that to mean that I'm over halfway by the end of June. Good prospects for finishing the challenge this year, in other words!

Jun 25, 7:48am Top

>50 Petroglyph:, you're about where I was each time that I finished, so that does sound promising.

I've not read any Ishiguro yet but he is definitely on my do-that-someday list.

Jun 25, 11:41am Top

Congrats on being right on track for the year!

Jun 29, 11:32am Top

You are really zooming along! I'm a fan of Ishiguro, and would like to read the one you reviewed.

Jun 29, 1:00pm Top

This one would not be a bad Ishiguro to read, I think: it's written very smoothly and is a breeze to read.

Friends tell me that this book sounds very similar to The remains of the day, though, so it's not an unqualified recommendation: ugh, more of the same, or more? Of the same? Yes please!. Myself, I'm less likely to pick up that one, but I'm totally on board for another Ishiguro.

Jul 5, 7:09pm Top

Earlier today I finished Simone Schwarz-Bart's powerful The bridge of beyond. Next up: either Eco or Kingsnorth. I'm saving Middlemarch until I'm finished with that other Big 19thC book, Le rouge et le noir.

Jul 6, 11:47pm Top

>55 Petroglyph: Middlemarch is a favorite of mine; I've read it at least twice and listened to it on audio twice. If you enjoy audiobooks, Juliet Stevenson does an outstanding reading. She's also done most of Austen.

Jul 8, 1:37am Top

The Red and the Black is another book I've been meaning to get to.

Jul 9, 3:49am Top

>57 billiejean:
I'm struggling with The red and the black. It's not that I don't think it's good, because it is, objectively speaking. Still, I find myself eagerly reaching for other books instead.

It's a very good 19thC psychological novel, in which a well-rounded character with believable issues and tendencies is confronted with various challenges and their mental world is explored skilfully and with great insight in the human condition. So far, so professional. Most characters, though, including the main one, are selfish arseholes, which leaves me with precious little patience to tolerate their antics. But I'm having an especially hard time, though, engaging with 19thC small-town concerns: the nobility's sensibilities of what is proper behaviour; everyone's callousness towards class- and political opponents; petty squabbles over things that seem ridiculously quaint (the cost of a servant's uniform, or whether or not they get to stand in a crowd to see a king). I just can't find it in me to care.

Jul 9, 9:48am Top

>58 Petroglyph:, I'm having similar issues with Vanity Fair right now, although at least Thackeray acknowledges his characters are lousy people and he's having fun with it. Don't think I'll rush Stendhal to the top of my TBR pile just yet, lol.

Jul 15, 8:05pm Top

Yes, I might put it off a little longer, too.

Aug 19, 3:53pm Top

Vele hemels boven de zevende by Griet op de Beeck

Why did I choose to read this?
A Belgian author’s debut novel. Reactions have been mixed.


I posted my review in Dutch here, but here’s the gist:

I quite liked this book, even though it fell short of greatness. Many heavens higher than the seventh is a slice-of-life family drama, as told by five members of one family (well, four, plus one of their lovers), spread over three generations. That’s a nice setup for a diverse bundle of everyday litfic, and it allows Op de Beeck to cover a lot of ground in just a few pages.

The book is noticeably a debut, though, in that the author is trying so hard to write a novel that that effort becomes visible. In all the diversity of life that is on display here, the selection of character worries that the book chooses to focus on is just a tad too lit-ficcy: alcoholism, adultery and suicide. As a result, the effort involved in writing a novel becomes noticeable, the constructed narrative becomes conspicuously so. Also, while all five characters are given distinctive voices and concerns, they all share the author’s knack for well-chosen words and phrases, and here, too, the writer’s tools and techniques were insufficiently covered.

In all, though, I can’t really fault an author trying hard to ply their trade. I consider this book to be a largely successful attempt at a well-written book, and will gladly read her later work.

Sep 28, 7:30pm Top

I finished The island of the day before a few days ago (review on the way; I liked it). That's one of the big volumes off the list; only two books with a high pagecount remain to be read: The wake and Middlemarch.

Fortunately, I've now also started Middlemarch (finally!), having abandoned that one years ago because there's always too many books that I'm reading at once. I'm currently only a few pages in, but already Eliot's quiet snarkiness has worked its magic: plenty of leisurely descriptions of country life that she then undercuts with a precisely timed placing of a tongue in her cheek. Expertly done, and it works on two levels -- "let me tell you how these people think things work", and "I'll make a joke so you and I both know that things are actually more complex than that". Good stuff.

What a difference with Le rouge et le noir! That one, too, is largely about observing daily life in various classes and commenting on their mutual snobbishness, but holy crap is it boring and pretentious! I'm now exactly at the halfway point (50%, as my ereader has it), but every percentage point achieved is a slog through ponderousness and self-importance, two things I have very little patience with. I foresee an abandonment. Perhaps I'm finally too old to waste time on books that bore me. Or maybe I'm lazy and that's just a convenient excuse for accepting what the internet has done to shorten my attention span. Perhaps this book is simply one of the ones that do not agree with me (you can't stomach them all!). Perhaps I'm shallow and I need someone like Austen or Eliot to make social commentary on bourgeois and upperclass mores cute and snarky for me. Whatever the reason, I don't think I'm ready to admit defeat just yet, but that decision isn't far off.

Oct 1, 7:55am Top

>62 Petroglyph:, whew, nobody seems to much enjoy The Red and the Black, I'm going to have to note that when I'm trying to queue it up; surround it with light and fluffy or something.

Middlemarch is brilliant for sure, but not a favourite since I found it more lecture-like than wink-wink. "Let me show you some terrible examples of how not to go about things, by way of explaining the correct way." Not sure I'll revisit, but I'd try seeing it your way if I did.

Oct 1, 11:16am Top

>62 Petroglyph: - Oh dear The Red and the Black is one of those classics that I have on my shelf but haven't gotten around too. Maybe I'll continue to let it just sit there...

Oct 12, 4:55am Top

Drosilla and Charikles by Nicetas Eugenianus (Author) and edited by Joan B. Burton

Why did I choose to read this?
Part of an effort to read more by the Ancients. This is a 12thC Byzantine “novel”, patterned on Ancient Greek romances from the Roman era.

Review (also posted here)
Strangely repetitive, and too affected for my tastes.

Drosilla and Charikles is one of a small number of 12thC Byzantine novels, which were written in the style of 2ndC Greek novels. Briefly put, the Byzantine efforts imitate their examples’ zeitgeist (Classical gods, 3rdC Parthians instead of 12thC Seljuks, …), their language (which deliberately affects Classical Greek, sort of), and their tropes: young lovers, separated by capricious gods, kidnappings, and pirates. In the introduction, Burton floats the hypothesis that in the intervening centuries these tropes had been taken over by hagiographies until that genre’s decline by the 12thC, when they could be reclaimed by the “novel” again. The whole thing is covered in a christian sauce (of course), so the archaising elements have to work within christian parameters.

Like other novels written by the Ancients, this one has a flimsy plot that serves as a framework upon which to hang eruditely composed prayers, speeches, letters, lamentations, songs, and bawdy humour (though only rarely so, in the case of Drosilla and Charikles). Sudden plot twists, abrupt character deaths and far-fetched coincidences are what moves the story forwards. I would compare it to a mid-20thC Hollywood Musical -- the appeal lies in the performances, the dancing and the singing, not so much the characterisation or the plot. All that is fine: I’ve come to expect that from Ancient works. What was too much for me was that there was too much repetition going on, though: the entire plot is summarized several times, when newly introduced characters need to be brought up to speed; missives between characters are elaborately reworded by the messengers; and many classical myths are referenced multiple times.

I found it hard to appreciate this book for what it was. The main audience for this type of writing would have been classically educated 12thC Greek-speaking aristocrats eager to consume non-Western, non-Latin media, so far as their christianity would let them, and eager to recognize Classical references and tropes. As a result, the density of references is too great for my liking, and there’s a few too many layers of affectation in there, too.

Great introduction, though! Excellent text edition.

Oct 12, 5:46am Top

The island of the day before by Umberto Eco

Why did I choose to read this?
I’ve had a copy of this book on my shelves for sixteen years. And to think he’s an author who I’ve enjoyed before and who I think I would enjoy reading again!

Review (Also posted here.)
This was the fun kind of postmodernist novel. Not as ebullient as Calvino or Borges, but more deliberate, more focused. Clever, but not insufferably so.

The island of the day before is set in the 1630s-40s. Its frame story deals with Roberto de la Grive, minor Italian nobleman, who is shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean but manages to end up on board of an abandoned vessel anchored between two islands. Because he can’t swim, he is confined to its decks, thus prompting him to comment he has been shipwrecked on a ship (f you like that sort of snarkiness, this book has plenty of that). Fortunately, the ship is well-stocked with food, water, a scientist’s collection of birds and plants, and a room full of clocks. Roberto settles in for a few weeks. In order to maintain his sanity, he starts writing letters to the girl he loves, which soon becomes a diary of sorts, which turns into his biography, which turns into a thriller of 17thC mercantile espionage.

Eco has a lot of fun with this setup, and spins it off into an astonishing diversity of chapters. Portions of the book read like a dramatic episode in the history of the city of Casale, in northern Italy, where Roberto served in his father’s army. The chapters most like a spy thriller feature Roberto’s long-lost evil twin, who may or may not be imaginary, and a supporting character from Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (which is set in the 1620s). There’s editorial chapters and asides, where an unnamed editor tries to make sense of Roberto’s writings as his state of mind deteriorates. Particularly enjoyable, I thought, were the chapters where Eco positively wallows in imitations of 17thC writings, their styles and their tropes -- I adore the exhaustive compilation of things that may be symbolized by the dove and the attempt to present all of that as one coherent idea. Finally, and, perhaps most impressively, many chapters deal with debates and conflicts from contemporary philosophy, theology and science, presented as learned discussions by experts in their respective fields. These chapters are where Eco really captured 17thC mentalities: how people thought, and why they did so, and why that adds up to a coherent worldview, dove-metaphors and all.

All of this adds up to a wonderful book that revels in its erudition and its own cleverness, and that has absolutely earned that right. It’s uneven in places -- Eco does sometimes let his obsessions go on for a tad too long -- but it’s never boring.

Edited: Oct 12, 8:04am Top

>66 Petroglyph:, you found some references in it I didn't know about, the Musketeers character and the 17thC style/tropes imitation with the doves (I thought that was just Eco being Eco). That would make it even more fun to catch those. I read it a year ago and it still springs to mind now and then. I'd rate some of his other work clearly above it, but I'm glad I read this one too.

Oct 14, 9:20pm Top

Great review! I've been meaning to read some Eco for quite a few years now.

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