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rachbxl in 2012

Club Read 2012

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Edited: Jan 15, 2014, 7:47am Top

Keeping this first message to list books read...

1. Journey to Nowhere: One Woman Looks for the Promised Land by Eva Figes (non-fiction)
2. Cette aveuglante absence de lumière by Tahar Ben Jelloun (Morocco, in French)
3. Lo que esconde tu nombre by Clara Sánchez (Spain, in Spanish)
4. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (USA)
5. Aya de Yopougon by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrérie (Cote d'Ivoire, graphic novel, in French)
6. Le racisme expliqué à ma fille by Tahar Ben Jelloun (non-fiction, in French)
7. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (UK, audiobook)
8. Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar (Libya)
9. My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young (UK)
10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (UK, audiobook)
11. Until Thy Wrath be Past by Asa Larsson (Sweden, translation)
12. The Swimmer by Roma Tearne (Sri Lanka)
13. The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa (Japan, translation)
14. Drowned by Therese Bohman (Sweden, translation)
15. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (USA)
16. The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories by Tayeb Salih (Sudan, translation)
17. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie (Pakistan)
18. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (UK)
19. Still Life by Louise Penny (Canada)
20. Krik? Krak! by Edwige Danticat (Haiti)
21. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (Canada)
22. Once upon a Time in England by Helen Walsh (UK)
23. A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (Canada)
24. My Lover's Lover by Maggie O'Farrell (UK)
25. The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (UK)
26. Sonechka by Ludmila Ulitskaya (Russia, translation)
27. Medea and her Children by Ludmila Ulitskaya (Russia, translation)
28. The Funeral Party by Ludmila Ulitskaya (Russia, translation)
29. The Dinner by Herman Koch (Netherlands, translation)
30. The Tattoed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates (USA)
31. Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (non-fiction, USA)
32. Imie twoje by Maria Nurowska (Poland, in Polish)
33. Maus by Art Spiegelman (graphic novel, USA, in French, translation)
34. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (UK)
35. Something Might Happen by Julie Myerson (UK)
36. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (USA)

Jan 8, 2012, 8:52am Top

Happy New Year, everyone! And as I just said on the introductions thread, here's hoping for a much more fruitful reading year (in my case, at least) than last year. I don't have a great deal to show for 2011 because work got in the way, but circumstances have changed so I'm hoping for a less stressful 2012. I'm also feeling really inspired because last week I had to shift all my books as part of a major reorganisation at home, and as there wasn't time to do it properly, everything was shoved unceremoniously on to shelves in another room. I wasn't happy...but actually it's fantastic. It's not like I didn't know what was on the shelves, but now that the books are all mixed up (even TBR jumbled in with things I've read - unheard of!) it's like it's all been refreshed, and suddenly I'm really excited about the books I see on my shelves, and things are queuing up to be read.

So I'm already halfway through the wonderful Cette aveuglante absence de lumiere (This Blinding Absence of Light) by Tahar Ben Jelloun.

Jan 8, 2012, 9:28am Top

My first book completed in 2012 is a work of non-fiction:

Journey to Nowhere: One Woman Looks for the Promised Land by Eva Figes

It's a shame I didn't manage to finish this (slim) book in 2011 as it would have fitted nicely on my 2011 thread, leading on from other memoirs I read last year.

Eva Figes was born in Berlin, and her early childhood was coloured by the increasingly inhumane anti-Jewish measures introduced by the Nazis. After Kristallnacht no doubt remained that the only option was to flee Germany, and her family emigrated to Britain.

But this isn't the story of Eva Figes herself; it's the story of the family's maid in Berlin, Edith, also Jewish. Edith was left behind when the family fled Berlin, and Figes may never have given her a second thought, had she not re-appeared several years after the war, in London, and begged the family to employ her again. This they did, but things had changed, everyone had changed, and it didn't last long. Long enough, though, for the teenaged Figes to spend hours in the kitchen listening to Edith's story; Figes was curious, and Edith needed to tell her story.

In 2008, umpteen works of fiction and non-fiction later, Figes wrote this book, Edith's story; she tells how she put the story away in her mind, forgot about it, got it out and examined it, added newly-gleaned facts to it, and put it away again until finally she was ready.

In the first part of the book Figes recounts things that she herself lived, with Edith there in the background. I found Figes's style devastatingly effective - spare, unemotional, it hits home. The second part tells what happened to Edith afterwards. Having somehow survived the war, she was 'recruited' by an old acquaintance to go and be a pioneer settler in Israel. Yet Israel, far from being the promised land, turned out to be hell on earth (as a German-born Jew Edith was persecuted by the other Jews), and in desperation she returned to Europe, turning to the only family she knew - Eva's family.

The final part of the book is a searing attack on the the way Israel was created and on the role of the USA in the Middle East. This on its own I wouldn't have found particularly inspiring, but preceded by the personal accounts (and by Figes's examination of what it is to be Jewish), it's fascinating. You don't have to look very far on the internet, or even in the quality press, to find opinion pieces on the Middle East (or any other topic) that are clearly rushed, written to provoke or just to fill space; this, though, is obviously the result of a lifetime's reflection, and Figes marshals her arguments beautifully, calmly, aiming not to convince, but just to say her piece.

Jan 8, 2012, 10:19am Top

Welcome back, Rachel! I love your review of Journey to Nowhere, and I've added it to my wish list.

Jan 8, 2012, 12:00pm Top

Great to see you here, Rachel!

Jan 8, 2012, 3:06pm Top

Enjoyed your review of Journey to Nowhere enough to add it to my 2012 wishlist. Well done!

Edited: Jan 8, 2012, 5:17pm Top

Grood review. I've also added Journey to Nowhere to my wishlist.

Jan 9, 2012, 10:28am Top

Hi Rachel, good to see you back. And, like everyone else here, I also want to read Journey to Nowhere after reading your review!

Jan 9, 2012, 7:35pm Top

Nice to see you back, Rachel. Will be watching what you are reading;-)

Jan 11, 2012, 4:53pm Top

I recently read my first book by Eva Figes, Nelly's Version, and liked it enough to want to read more by her. Journey to Nowhere sounds like a good one to read next, and I've added it to my wishlist.

Jan 20, 2012, 9:01am Top

Thanks for popping in, everyone! Hope you enjoy Journey to Nowhere as much as I did.

>10 arubabookwoman: Deborah, is Nelly's Version fiction? I really like her style so want to try some of her fiction.

Jan 20, 2012, 9:24pm Top

Nelly's Version is fiction. My very brief review is here:


I think she's written a fair amount of fiction.

Jan 21, 2012, 3:29am Top

Thanks! Sounds interesting, I'll look out for that one. I think you're right - I don't have my copy of Journey to Nowhere to hand, but I seem to remember a fairly long list of fiction titles at the beginning.

Jan 21, 2012, 4:15am Top

Cette aveuglante absence de lumière by Tahar Ben Jelloun
(English translation available: This Blinding Absence of Light)

How can a book about 18 years in prison in appalling conditions be so beautiful?

In 1971 a small group of army officers attempted a coup d'etat against Moroccan king Hassan II; it failed and they were arrested. Having spent several years in a standard prison (and already able to see the end of their sentences), they were unexpectedly transferred to a specially-created secret prison where they spent 18 years in small cells designed so no light came in (hence the title), and in which it was impossible to stand up.

Ben Jelloun's novel is a fictionalised account of life in the prison at Tazmamart, based on the story of one particular survivor, the narrator. Ben Jelloun's slightly detached style lends itself perfectly to describing the prisoners' life; I had to stop occasionally to take in what he was saying, not because it wasn't clear, but so as to let it sink in. I think he almost gives you a choice - you can read on quickly, or you can stop and think about what he's saying. There are descriptions of conditions so inhumane as to be almost unthinkable...and accounts of what the men did to counter them. One kept track of time over the years. One recited the Koran, teaching it to the others. The narrator, a cultured, well-educated man, recited books he had read - from memory. There are also matter-of-fact descriptions of descent into madness, of drawn-out, painful deaths in lonely cells...and of the careful burials accorded to each victim (the only time the men were allowed outside).

In a sense, all of human life is here in this small closed space - the cruelty of those responsible, the indifference of those who could change things but didn't, the quick deaths of the prisoners who gave up...and the breath-taking strength of character of those who didn't. It's the last that makes the book so beautiful, together with Ben Jelloun's style.

Whilst the English translation won the IMPAC award, when the original came out in 2001 it caused great controversy. The survivor on whom the narrator was based, Aziz Binebine, distanced himself from Ben Jelloun and the book in an open letter (he objected to the way in which the book had been produced and to some of the terms of the contract, and he says he was forced into the open letter because Ben Jelloun wouldn't communicate with him directly). Meanwhile Ben Jelloun was widely criticised for not having raised his voice and denounced Tazmamart earlier; he countered that like all Moroccans, he had been prevented from speaking out by fear (particularly understandable in his case, I'd say, since he was imprisoned by the regime for a couple of years as a young man).

Whilst the controversy raises what I think are fascinating questions about the role and responsibility of the writer, I'm not sure it detracts from this novel itself, which is a great work of fiction - and one without which I, for one, would still be ignorant of these events. I've often said on LT that one mark of good fiction, for me, is that it makes me want to go and find out about what actually happened, and that was the case here.

I'd had this book for ages; it was the reorganisation of my bookshelves that pushed it to the top of the pile.

Jan 21, 2012, 5:09am Top

Great review, rachel. I don't know why I don't own this book yet!

Jan 21, 2012, 5:15am Top

That's a great review of Cette aveuglante absence de lumiere and fascinating to read some of the history of the novel.

Jan 21, 2012, 8:59am Top

Rachel, you're so fortunate to have read This Blinding Absence of Light in the original French. It remains one of my all-time favorite discoveries via LT and I love what you had to say!

Please consider adding your review to the book's page. I would like to thumb it :)

Jan 21, 2012, 9:21am Top

Agreed, great review. I think that this is Jelloun's masterpiece. There are a few of his I have not read, but none of those I have read have surpassed this.

Jan 21, 2012, 3:16pm Top

I too think that This Blinding Absence of Light is a masterpiece, and I think your review caught its essence. Where one might expect an unremittingly bleak and horrifying book, what I took away from the book was the resilience and ingenuity of the human spirit--I particularly remember the scene in which the narrator is relating the story of A Streetcar Named Desire to the other prisoners, and they are amazed that a man would actually get down on his knees before a woman. (Picture Marlon Brando bellowing "Stella.")

I wasn't aware of the controversy surrounding its publication. We're fortunate that it did actually get published.

Jan 22, 2012, 5:24am Top

How can a book about 18 years in prison in appalling conditions be so beautiful?

Agree completely. Great review - it was interesting to read about the history of the book's publication.

>18 avaland: - avaland - what would you recommend as a second-choice Jelloun?

Jan 23, 2012, 11:21am Top

Thanks, everyone.

>Akeela, it's done, just for you. I thumbed yours while I was there ;-) You include some things I wanted to mention but didn't because it was getting so long - the joy provided by the little bird's visits, for example.

Jan 23, 2012, 11:33am Top

Fabulous review of This Blinding Absence of Light, Rachel. I read it several years ago, and your comments make me want to reread it soon.

Jan 25, 2012, 9:08am Top

>18 avaland: Have read Racism Explained to My Daughter, Leaving Tangier, and A Palace in the Old Village, all worthy reads, but very different from This Blinding Absence of Light. The first is nonfiction, a very worthy—as it says—explanation of racism. As for the novels, one is about young people trying to leave Morocco, and one is about and old man trying to return. The former I read in '09 and in my review said it was a: "powerful story of immigration, identity, disillusionment and danger" and the latter I would say is about culture, faith and family (the relationship between parents and children). I have Last Friend but have not read it yet.

To answer your question, I think The Sand Child was widely celebrated upon publication and he won the Prix Goncourt for The Sacred Night, neither of which I have read, but sound like good places to start! (I, more or less, just read was was new and easily available).

Jan 25, 2012, 1:13pm Top

>23 avaland: Thanks for the reminder about A Palace in the Old Village; I downloaded it onto my Kindle last year, but I haven't read it yet.

Racism Explained to My Daughter is excellent.

Edited: Jan 26, 2012, 8:48am Top

I read most of Racism Explained to my Daughter last year and agree it's excellent (makes mental note to find it and finish it!)

The Sand Child was the first Ben Jelloun I read, and whilst I don't rate it as highly as This Blinding Absence of Light, it's similarly beautifully written and is based on an intriguing true story.

Jan 26, 2012, 10:20am Top

Racism Explained to My Daughter sounds fascinating; I'll have to look for it.

Jan 27, 2012, 3:44am Top

I had been planning to look for The Sand Child next just because it was the most popular - glad to hear you liked it rachbxl. Will also look for Racism Explained to My Daughter - though that would probably be in a different section in a bookstore.

Edited: Feb 4, 2012, 12:24pm Top

Lo que esconde tu nombre by Clara Sanchez
(seems to be available translated into English as The Scent of Lemon Leaves)

I read the original Spanish, for which Sanchez won Spain's Premio Nadal in 2010. Shame that the delicious creepiness of the Spanish title ("what your name hides") isn't picked up in the English translation, because it fits the book perfectly.

Thirty-year old Sandra, pregnant but unsure if she wants to stay with the father, and having left her job, takes refuge in her sister's holiday home on the Spanish coast. She is befriended by an elderly Norwegian couple, who seem to be happy to be the grandparents she's never had. They invite her to live with them, and employ her to keep Karin, the woman, company.

The perfect escape from the world Sandra's trying to escape from? Only until she meets Julian, another octogenarian, a Spanish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who has dedicated his life to hunting down Nazis, who has come to the area having had as tip-off that a retired high-ranking Nazi and his wife have been living there in luxury. The Nazi and his wife are, of course, the Norwegians. (Numerous Nazis really did hide for decades in Spain, including a Norwegian couple with the same names as the couple in the novel).

I won't say more about the plot as I don't want to give anything away, but I couldn't put this book down. Sandra is inexorably drawn into a world of pure horror - but for the reader the horror is entirely psychological (no blood and guts here), and it's terrifying at times. What I really admire is the way Sanchez keeps everything under control; it could so easily have veered off into the ridiculous, but whenever I thought that might happen she brought it right back...which made it all the more chilling.

Will definitely be looking out for more by Clara Sanchez.

Feb 1, 2012, 8:37am Top

>26 rebeccanyc: I think I got it from the UK a few years ago, after reading This Blinding Absence of Light. Not sure if it is out here.

>28 rachbxl: Sounds interesting! Wonder if the translation is any good?

Feb 2, 2012, 2:53pm Top

>20 DieFledermaus:-27 Back to Ben Jelloun again. I've just been over in the Reading Globally group, reviving my long-neglected thread, and I was reminded that I've read another of his works, Sur ma mère. Not much use for anyone who doesn't read French, I'm afraid, as it's not been translated into English (there's a German translation though, Yemma), but it was beautiful. A love song to his mother in book form, but not at all sentimental.

>29 avaland: re the translation: if the title's anything to go by, no! It was translated into Italian with the same lemon leaf title as the English - I wonder why. The translator is Julie Wark, if that means anything.

Feb 4, 2012, 6:27am Top

>28 rachbxl: - Hadn't heard of that one, but I'll be looking for it now. Sounds very tense.

Feb 14, 2012, 5:55am Top

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

This one's for review in Belletrista so I won't say much here. I'd been looking forward to Jesmyn Ward's second novel ever since reading Where the Line Bleeds, also for Belletrista, and I wasn't disappointed. I don't know how she does it, but her characters really get under your skin, even when you think you don't care.

Feb 14, 2012, 8:07am Top

>32 rachbxl: Agree about the characters getting under one's skin.

Feb 14, 2012, 1:17pm Top

Just now catching up. Terrific reviews here. I'm very interested in Journey to Nowhere, will add that to the wish list. (This blinding absence of light is already on the wishlist).

Feb 15, 2012, 5:57am Top

>34 dchaikin: Thanks, Dan!

Aya de Yopougon by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie
Graphic novel

Beautiful graphic novel set in Yopougon, a fairly poor district of Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, where Abouet grew up before moving to France (the story is hers; the illustrations, Oubrerie's). I read the original French, but it's been translated into English as Aya.

As Anna Gavalda says in her introduction, this is a book to silence those who think Africa is only about famine and civil war, hiding behind all those acronyms used by international organisations. Yopougon is Africa too - and now that I've read this, I want to go! The pages of this gorgeous book are full of real people, the young people off to their wonderfully-named discos and bars, the young couples courting at the "Hotel of the Thousand Stars" (aka the open market, once the stallholders have packed up for the night), the part-time healers, the local Big Man, the friends, the fights, the laughter, the tears.

My one gripe is that it's too short - but fortunately there are several more volumes to look forward to. I read it in an evening, and it made me feel that all's well with the world.

Feb 15, 2012, 7:54am Top

I've started listening to an audiobook of Great Expectations. What a revelation! I came to Dickens too soon, I think; I remember trying to read A Tale of Two Cities, having received it as a present, aged about 11, and it put me off. Luckily for me, I had some Audible credits that I didn't know what to do with, and I decided I may as well jump on the Dickens anniversary bandwagon. It's fabulous. And the biggest revelation of all is that it's funny!

Feb 15, 2012, 9:28am Top

Yes there is humour in Dickens. I love Great Expectations.

Feb 15, 2012, 10:57am Top

I love Dickens, and agree, he's funny!

I am loving my audio read of Jane Eyre, maybe more than I did when I read it, if that's possible :)


Feb 19, 2012, 2:22pm Top

#36 - I've been using the Dickens anniversary to make myself read the copy of A Tale of Two Cities that's been languishing on my shelves for years. I'm enjoying it (and am pleasantly surprised by the humour in this book too), but find I need to read it slowly, and sometimes re-read sentences, in order to take it all in. I cannot imagine tackling it aged 11! Claire Tomalin commented that children today don't have the attention span for Dickens, but I'm struggling at the grand age of 32...

I look forward to your review of Great Expectations. I think that may be the next Dickens I read (I've resolved to read at least one a year from this point on).

Feb 20, 2012, 2:39pm Top

>39 Rebeki: I don't think I got very far with it! I have a vague memory of struggling for ages to read the first couple of pages and then giving up. My mum gave it to me, I think - she bought it because it was a really nice edition (I no longer have it, unfortunately). I clearly remember her telling me to wait a few years, but of course I ignored her.

Claire Tomalin is partially responsible for my deciding to give Dickens another go. I haven't read the biography, but I did read an article of hers about Dickens in The Guardian a few weeks ago, and she made me want to read his books.

I'm up to chapter 24 or thereabouts of Great Expectations and am loving it. Pip, now elevated to gentleman's status, has recently arrived in London and is settling in with the Pockets. One of the things I love is all the (unnecessary?) detail. I say 'unnecessary' because it's certainly not vital to the advancement of the plot - I'm thinking of the long descriptions of what Pip sees in the courthouse on his first day in London, for example. However, it helps create an overall picture of Pip's environment that is incredibly rich. In recent years, as I've often said in my posts on LT, I've become increasingly frustrated with modern authors in search of a good editor, taking 500 pages to say what could have been said in 300. It must be a testament to Dickens's skill that here, it's the longer, the better.

Feb 20, 2012, 5:05pm Top

Le racisme expliqué à ma fille by Tahar Ben Jelloun
available in English translation as Racism Explained to my Daughter

I dug it out and finished it; it took me all of 10 minutes (the whole thing's barely 60 pages long, after all).

Written after Ben Jelloun took his 10-year old daughter to an anti-racism demonstration, in an attempt to answer her endless questions, this book didn't tell me anything about racism I didn't know, but it explains it in everyday terms and provides plenty of food for thought. And all argued, of course, with Ben Jelloun's trademark elegance.

Feb 23, 2012, 3:30am Top

This morning I was deprived of my dose of Dickens on the train to work. My neighbour's a very nice man and I usually enjoy chatting to him when we end up catching the same train - but I confess that my heart sunk when I saw him this morning because I knew he was going to keep me from Pip and Estella. They're taking over my life! I spend my whole day calculating when I'll next be able to put my earphones in...

Feb 23, 2012, 4:08am Top

I've read Dombey and Son and Oliver Twist, but wasn't keen because of the huge lists of things and the sentimentality. I did like A Tale of Two Cities though.

Loved the David Lean film of Great Expectations. The humour really came across, as it has in your audiobook.

Feb 23, 2012, 10:13am Top

#42 - That's a funny situation R. I read at work over lunch when I can, and get really annoyed then someone offers to join me for lunch.

Feb 24, 2012, 9:29am Top

Mar 8, 2012, 3:40am Top

>43 pamelad: Thanks for the mention of the David Lean film, Pam - I didn't know about it, but will certainly look out for it now.

Mar 8, 2012, 4:19am Top

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
audiobook read by Martin Jarvis

Last Thursday I was due to go away for a few days straight after work. On my way to work in the morning I discovered to my horror that in fiddling around trying to install my next audiobook on my iphone, I'd inadvertently deleted Great Expectations! I was beside myself - I was close to finishing it, and I couldn't bear the thought of waiting until I got back from my trip to find out how it all ended. Across the road from work there's a fabulous second-hand bookshop, with a huge English section, and at lunchtime I rushed over there - and my luck was in. Amongst hundreds of English books they had just two by Dickens, including this one...so I was able to finish it that evening on the plane.

As I think I've already made clear, I loved it. Every now and then a story comes along that you get completely caught up in, and this was one. What difference it made to listen to it I'll never know, but Martin Jarvis does an excellent job of bringing it to life. I found that I read the last part of the book in his voice, such an impression had he made on me! He's recorded a lot of Dickens, so I'll be listening to more.

I'll resist the temptation to wax lyrical about all the things here that I enjoyed, but I do just want to say how much I liked the character of Pip. Or perhaps I mean how much I like what Dickens does with him, because I didn't always find him likeable. The whole novel, of course, is about Pip's transition from boy to man - and from rags to riches - and we really do see great changes in Pip, not always immediately for the better. There are several passages where he talks to - or lectures, really - Joe and Biddy about how disappointed he is with their behaviour, where he clearly believes that his ascension to the rank of gentleman makes him better than them but where he shows himself to be no gentleman at all, which made me suck in my breath at disbelief (aimed at Pip, not Dickens). Then Pip is full of genuine remorse when he does realise how badly he's behaved towards the people who love him, which I found moving. I still can't decide whether ultimately Pip gets what he deserves, having been foolish enough to believe that really was better than those around him, worthy of being singled out, or whether he is a tragic victim of manipulation by others, who, regardless of whether their intentions are good are not, force his life to take a different direction.

I'm pleased to have finished this, and to have enjoyed it so much, because Dickens was a great gap in my reading. I suppose we all have these weird little holes in our reading, and I'm delighted to have started to fill this one in so successfully.

Mar 8, 2012, 4:25am Top

I've been off work with a bad cold this last couple of days (you don't get far in my line of work with a croaky voice). I can't read because it makes my head ache...but I can listen! So I'm making good progress with my next audiobook, Jane Eyre read by Juliet Stephenson (Akeela enjoyed it so much that I couldn't resist). It's years since I read it so my memories are quite hazy, but it's slowly coming back as I listen. At first I was just desperate for Mr Rochester to make an appearance, but fortunately I've fallen into enjoying the first part of the book in the meanwhile!

Mar 8, 2012, 7:04am Top

I enjoyed your enticing review of Great Expectations, Rachel. I haven't read it, so I've just ordered the free Kindle version of it. Hopefully I can get to it later this year.

Mar 8, 2012, 9:00am Top

And as a bonus you could read during take off and landing!

Interesting thoughts. Back in my high school days we were supposed to read an abbreviated version. I don't remember how far I got, far enough to learn of Pip's benefactor (or did my teacher give that away). Anyway, that's the entirety of my Dickens reading...need to correct that. This kind of review motivates me to.

Mar 8, 2012, 9:33am Top

I just finished Great Expectations a few weeks ago and will admit that I didn't enjoy it as much as you. However, the whole time I was wondering if I would enjoy it more as an audio book, a book format I never use. I really think the next time I try Dickens I'll try an audio format. Seems like it might really work for his books.

Mar 8, 2012, 2:03pm Top

I should probably give Great Expectations a reread some day. I absolutely hated it in high school and assume I would react differently now.

Edited: Mar 8, 2012, 5:35pm Top

Great Expectations is one of my favourite books. I am so glad you enjoyed it, your enthusiasm came over in your review. What's next for you - more Dickens.

Mar 9, 2012, 2:23pm Top

Delightfully personal review! One of these days I really must squeeze some Dickens in. This sounds like a good place to start.

Mar 9, 2012, 4:12pm Top

Our local University produced Great Expectations as a play during February. After reading your review, I regret not having attended!

Mar 10, 2012, 12:59pm Top

Thanks, all, for your kind comments.

>51 japaul22: japaul22, equally, the whole time I was wondering if I'd be enjoying it as much if I were reading it; I'll never know, but it worked extremely well as an audiobook. This was one of the very first audiobooks I've listened to, and I'm won over - both by the format and by Dickens.

>53 baswood: Barry, I'm going to resist the temptation to rush right on to more Dickens and have a little break. When I do read more, I think it might be Bleak House, which I already have as an audiobook...though I'm open to suggestions. What would you recommend?

>55 Linda92007: Linda, I don't know. I saw a bit of the recent BBC adaptation of Great Expectations (just before I started listening to it) and I gave up (largely because Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham irritated me). Once I started listening it all made a lot more sense - a large part of the charm, to my mind at least, lies in the detail, the observation of little things around Pip, and I wonder how well any production can get that across. I'm keeping an open mind though, and I'll be looking out for the David Lean film recommended by pamelad in post 43.

Mar 10, 2012, 7:14pm Top

Rachel I will be reading Our Mutual Friend in a couple of weeks for my bookclub. I might be able to recommend it later.

Mar 11, 2012, 6:55am Top

I'll look forward to hearing what you think, then.

Mar 11, 2012, 7:12am Top

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

Wonderful surprise, this book. RL has intruded to such an extent this last year or so that I really haven't kept track of recent publications; I hadn't heard of this and bought it at Manchester airport earlier this week just because the blurb on the back cover intrigued me. Fortunately I wasn't put off by the cover photo - it shows a young couple kissing in a car, which has nothing to do with the story.

The teenage narrator, Nuri, lives with his father in Cairo, having recently lost his mother. Egypt is their adopted home; 'our country' is another, unnamed, Arab country, where Nuri's father was a close associate of the king. On holiday in Alexandria, Nuri is entranced by Mona, an elegant guest at the same hotel, whom his father then marries. Nuri grapples with his feelings for his stepmother, pouring his adolescent desire into long letters he sends to her from school in England, and relishing the odd moment the two of them get to spend together without his father, whom he resents - the interloper.

Their lives change abruptly when Nuri's father disappears, apparently abducted from the bed of a lover in Geneva. Whilst it's fairly clear to Nuri and Mona, if not to the police, who the abductors were (the regime in 'our country'), who was the woman, and why won't she meet them? Was she really his lover, or was she part of a set-up? There follows an initial period of shock, during which Nuri and Mona are thrown together and become dangerously close. After that, Nuri appears to get on with his life; his father's will (to be opened in the case of his death or disappearance) states that he will only inherit fully once he has done a PhD, which he does. Yet he's only going through the motions, I think, as if his life had stopped with his father's disappearance.

It's not a long book - I read it in a couple of sittings - and it's elegantly, hauntingly written. It's going to stay with me for a while, I think.

Mar 12, 2012, 4:27pm Top

Another Dickens you might enjoy is Oliver Twist. It is so much more than the cliche of "Please Sir...". The story of the children Fagin has in his gang, the story of Nancy, and the portrayal of the conditions for homeless children in London are all superb. Dickens' language when discussing Fagin could be offensive today, but it should probably be taken in the context of his time.

Mar 14, 2012, 10:59am Top

I have read Matar's In the Country of Men and am very curious about his new book. Glad to read your review.

Edited: Mar 14, 2012, 1:37pm Top

#44 I read at work over lunch when I can, and get really annoyed then someone offers to join me for lunch.

Yes, I know that feeling exactly! I've been very annoyed by that too. Sometimes you have to remain open minded though--one day I was enjoying my book alone on the cafeteria sundeck, and a coworker came out with a guy from another department, and they asked me to join them. It would have been extremely rude to say no, but that's exactly what I wanted to do. Twenty-four years later, I'm married to that guy and we have two kids.

Mar 14, 2012, 2:33pm Top

oh, great story! Since I'm already married my prospects of a conversation are a little lower. :)

Mar 20, 2012, 9:57am Top

Ooooh, jumping in very late on #35 - it looks really good. Amazon France may have an order coming their way. Shame they don't seem to sell them as a set.

Mar 22, 2012, 5:38am Top

>60 SassyLassy: SassyLassy, thanks for recommending Oliver Twist; it's certainly one I'd like to read in the future - I'm quite curious about what the real thing is like, as opposed to the stereotyped 'Please, Sir...' that you mention.

>61 dchaikin: Dan, I haven't read In the Country of Men, but having enjoyed Anatomy of a Disappearance so much, it's gone on my wish list. What did you think of it?

>64 ljbwell: ljbwell, hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Edited: Mar 22, 2012, 6:33am Top

My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young

There's a great World War I novel in here...or maybe two or three. I couldn't help feeling that Young had unearthed so much fascinating material that she couldn't resist sticking it all in, resulting in a sprawling, flabby novel with some truly wonderful parts to it.

There are various different themes here, any one of which would have made a good basis for a novel. There's Major Locke and his wife Julia, and how war changes people and relationships. Riley and Nadine and the resistance to their relationship because they're not of the same class - and how the war reduces class differences whilst bringing a whole new set of differences. The amazing facial reconstruction techniques pioneered on men who had their faces blown off in the trenches, and the psychological impact on the patients, as well as the impact on their relationships with others. The psychological impact of war - on those who fight, those who participate in another way, those who stay at home; on the wounded and the non-wounded. What women did in WWI, with the different experiences of Nadine, Rose and Julia.

Two or three of these themes combined would have made for a fabulous novel in which the selected strands could have been developed, and the characters with them. I was most drawn to the story of the Lockes, so for me the 'great novel' I referred to above would focus on them, but in fact any reduced combination would work because all the different stories are interesting...which made it ultimately all the more frustrating that the book as a whole is so unsatisfying.

Mar 22, 2012, 10:08am Top

Ratings are all over the place for My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You. Now I know why.

#65 - I had some trouble with In the Country of Men, but I can't remember exactly why. Something about the confused nature of the nine-year-old narrator. Nonetheless, I'm happy to have read it and I think it's an important book.

Mar 22, 2012, 4:35pm Top

>67 dchaikin: Hi Dan - yes, I had a look at other reviews after I'd written my comments. It's such a shame because there really is a fantastic book in there.

Mar 22, 2012, 5:04pm Top

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
audiobook, read by Juliet Stephenson

I wish I'd been in the habit of writing down my thoughts about books back when I read this as a teenager because I'd love to know how I reacted to it then. I still have an idea of how I felt about it, but I'd love to hear it from the horse's mouth, as it were.

Back then, it was all about Mr Rochester, hence my comment in an earlier post about being impatient for him to make an appearance. Now, it's all about Jane. In fact it's so totally, utterly, completely about Jane that I wonder that my teenage self couldn't see it (I'm quite disappointed in younger self!) My reaction to Mr Rochester has changed significantly, too - 20-odd years ago the romantic, over-imaginative me wanted nothing more than to be swept off her feet by a similarly strong, brooding, romantic man; now, he's the man Jane loves, the man Jane decides to accept...ON HER OWN TERMS. That passed me by first time round.

What's really struck me this last fortnight as I've listened to Juliet Stephenson's wonderful reading is that if this were written now by a modern author, I don't think we'd find it credible - we'd say that Jane's too modern, too independent for a 19th century heroine. And yet there's Charlotte Bronte in 1847 writing about feisty, plucky little Jane (I wanted to avoid using the word 'plucky' because this afternoon I read a post of avaland's in which she uses it to describe Jane and I wanted to be original - but I can't avoid it because it's exactly the right word).

It must have taken me about 2 weeks to listen to this on the train every day - but it feels like Jane's been with me for much longer than that. Her time at Lowood School feels like a lifetime ago. I don't mean that it's dragged; I mean that Jane's really got inside me. Maybe this time she'll stay.

Mar 22, 2012, 7:14pm Top

>69 rachbxl: . . . if this were written now by a modern author, I don't think we'd find it credible - we'd say that Jane's too modern, too independent for a 19th century heroine.

Interesting that we think of ourselves as more modern than the heroines of the 19th century. Jane Eyre came out in 1847. By the 1850s George Eliot was leading a very modern life — some would say scandalous — herself, and then of course there is George Sand. Among the main differences between now and then, one, our society is more open and seems more modern in its attitudes, and two, being an independent woman in 1850 was very difficult to bring off, so the women who did it were exceptional. Today it is practically the norm.

Enjoyed your thoughts on this. It has caused me to stop and think about it.

Mar 22, 2012, 7:35pm Top

wondering about my own high-school memories of Jane Eyre. Certainly it never occurred to me to consider Jane modernly independent.

Mar 22, 2012, 8:07pm Top

If only librarything had been around when we were all younger and we had had the time to write down our thoughts on classics like Jane Eyre. Interesting stuff Rachel

Mar 28, 2012, 2:49pm Top

Glad to have provided food for thought!

Jane Eyre has really stayed with me and is going to be a hard act to follow, particularly as it was so beautifully read by Juliet Stevenson. I started another audiobook - Trollope's The Warden, a book I enjoyed well enough when I read it a few years ago. My idea at the time was to read all the Barsetshire books but I got distracted so I thought I'd start from the beginning again, this time with an audiobook. I listened to a good half hour on my way to work the other day...and it really didn't grab me. I'll give it another chance, but I'm wondering if it's a book I need to read rather than listen to. It's the long descriptive passages, I think; I remember being quite enthralled by them when I read them, but when I listened my mind wandered.

In the meanwhile, in need of something completely different, I treated myself to another Rebecka Martinsson mystery on my Kindle:

Until Thy Wrath be Past by Asa Larsson
translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thomson

It hit the spot. So much so that if I had to start another language tomorrow for work (I'll have to sooner or later, but not for a while), it'd be Swedish - I want to go and learn it in the wonderfully atmospheric north of Sweden, as inhabited by Larsson's characters (and I'm counting Nature as a character, because it always plays such a huge role in these books).

In this one, the body of a young girl is found beneath the melting ice; it looks at first like a diving accident but it soon becomes apart that it's something more sinister. The investigation involves Rebecka dicing with death as usual (whoever thought life as a district prosecutor in a rural area could be so dangerous?) I really do think she's one of my favourite modern heroines. Several members of this group have recently read Margot Livesey's modern take on Jane Eyre, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, and in one of the discussions about it I think it was avaland suggested that a modern Jane might well be a Lisbeth Salander kind of character. I think she might be a Rebecka Martinsson - has overcome a difficult childhood to become an intelligent, independent woman who doesn't have to go with the flow, who wants love but not at all costs, a bit of a loner but still liked and admired by those around her, someone who takes decisions based on her principles and then faces the consequences. I like her a lot.

My one quibble here (and I don't know if this is the translator or Larsson) is that whereas in the previous three books the characters were referred to mainly by their first names, in this one it's suddenly all surnames only - it felt like I was dealing with a whole new set of characters, and it took me about half the book to settle into it.

Apr 5, 2012, 4:37am Top

The Swimmer by Roma Tearne

40-something poet Ria retreated to her old family home in Suffolk some years ago, after a failed relationship. Her monotonous existence is broken when on a series of warm summer nights she sees a young man cross her garden to swim in the river at the bottom of it. He turns out to be a Sri Lankan asylum seeker recently arrived in Britain, and a beautiful friendship develops between these two lonely people.

As I read the first of the three sections, narrated by Ria, I had the nagging feeling tht I'd been there before, that I'd already read a story about an older writer who falls in love with a much younger person who brings them back to life, in a sense; I eventually realised that the book I was thinking of was none other than Tearne's very own Mosquito. For a while after that I felt a bit cheated that I was getting the same story again, but actually that's not fair; they are 2 different explorations of a theme.

I couldn't help wondering as I read if Tearne doesn't sometimes lay it on a bit thick in her descriptions - the idyllic Suffolk summer is perhaps a touch TOO idyllic, the perfection of Ria's rose-scented garden on a summer evening is just too perfect. Somehow she manages to keep it just on the right side of credible, but I had the sneaky feeling that I was being manipulated so I wasn't feeling terribly charitable towards the book for large parts of it. I never wanted to stop reading, but if I read on it was with an increasing sense of detachment and with one sceptical eyebrow constantly raised.

I was completely unprepared, then, for the effect the last of the three parts had on me. It came out of nowhere and floored me; I sat on a plane yesterday morning with tears rolling down my face. It's been a long time since any book moved me quite to that extent.

Apr 5, 2012, 7:05pm Top

Wow what a reaction!

Apr 5, 2012, 7:11pm Top

Makes me almost want to reread The Swimmer! Did you cry at the end of Mosquito? I did--and like you, I almost never cry over books. Although, I have to say, there must be something about Tearne--just today I was catching up on her blog and she had my eyes well up at a couple of points (she's very involved in human rights causes).

Apr 6, 2012, 7:43am Top

>73 rachbxl: I didn't like this last Larsson as much as the previous ones. She cranked up the "foo" factor in this one (visits from ghosts who give her clues...etc) and I was a bit irked that, yes, Rebekah had yet another personal traumatic experience to survive and overcome... but, that's just me.

Speaking of Jane Eyre, here is an older essay that Joyce Carol Oates wrote on it. An excerpt: One of the reasons for Jane Eyre's authority over her own experience, and the confidence with which she assesses that experience, is that, as the romantically convoluted plot evolves, the reader learns that it is history rather than story. Jane Eyre, who is wife and mother in 1819, is recounting the events of 1799-1809 in a language that is unfailingly masterful precisely because it is after the fact...

Yes, as I was reading the retelling by Livesey, I did wonder how I might cast a modern Jane Eyre. Livesey's is set in the 50s and 60s, before the 2nd wave of feminism, and Du Maurier's Rebecca is set in the 30s (I think). I did wonder if a contemporary Jane Eyre might not only "resist" but also fight back and Salander is what came to mind (because of the rage), but she would be an extreme example (Jane with a revenge fantasy!), but I like some of your analogy with Martinsson, though Martinsson doesn't have a repressed anger (she suffers trauma but not abuse/neglect, if I remember correctly), nor would I call her exactly passionate. But perhaps I'm trying to draw an analogy too close, and it is the spirit of Jane that we see in other characters?

Apr 7, 2012, 12:34am Top

Would you consider copying your reveiw onto the page for The Swimmer? I think it really is quite powerful, and would stand apart from the existing reviews.

I notice an overlap in Tearne's work, but just when I think she's repeating herself, she adds a good twist. Her next book (due to be published in June) is Road to Urbino, so based on the title I think she might draw from her holiday time spent in Italy.

Apr 7, 2012, 12:48am Top

Only those are the books I mark 5 stars, that affect strongly, emotionally.

Edited: Apr 22, 2012, 6:49am Top

>77 avaland: Lois, thanks for the link to the JCO essay - I enjoyed reading it. I was particularly struck by the idea that critics and some readers at the time found the novel 'coarse'. Whilst I imagine that it must have been shocking to have some of the themes (in particular relating to Bertha Mason) discussed, the tone is so controlled, so elegant, so masterful, to borrow JCO's term, that to my mind it's anything BUT coarse.

>78 Nickelini: Joyce, I hadn't thought of doing so but I'll happily go and copy it now, since you suggest it - thanks! I think the overlap is interesting, isn't it? She reminds me of a potter, starting off with the same lump of clay which she turns into the same basic form...and then just when you think you've seen it before she does something surprising with it, so deftly that you don't see her hands move. Thanks too for your mentions of her blog, both here and on your own thread - I've had a quick look and will definitely be going back to read more.

ETA that I've just put my review up on the main page for The Swimmer; I'm stunned to see that there are only 47 copies of it on LT - and so I went on to check Mosquito, of which there are only 126. We talked about it so much here (well, you did, Joyce!) that I'd assumed it had really taken off.

Apr 22, 2012, 6:54am Top

>77 avaland: rather than editing my last post again I'll add this here instead. Re Jane Eyre in modern characters, yes, when I said I saw her in Rebekka Martinsson I guess I meant the spirit of Jane, rather than every possible parallel being a neat fit.

Apr 22, 2012, 7:29am Top

The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa
translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Much as I loved the beautifully understated The Housekeeper and the Professor, it took me quite a while to get round to this collection of three novellas. Maybe I needed to be in the mood - which I was, in the end, so Yoko Ogawa captivated me again with her gentle, odd little stories about the quirks of human nature. Her characters observe one another in a way that Ogawa herself must observe the people around her - how else could she have such insight into human psychology? What stuck me most of all (apart from the (beautiful) pervading sense of slight melancholy, characters detached from the world around them trying to make sense of it) was the sustained low-level cruelty in the first two novellas. In The Diving Pool the teenaged narrator 'looks after' a 2-year old orphan in the orphanage run by her parents, but is overcome by 'a cruel impulse' which had 'something agreeable about it' - so she hides from the child to see her panic and cry, puts her in an urn she can't climb out of and leaves her to cry, and finally feeds her rotten food (I say 'low-level' cruelty because although the consequences of this last are catastrophic, I don't think that's the intention of the detached narrator). Meanwhile, in Pregnancy Diary the narrator observes her sister's pregnancy as if through a piece of glass, making panful after panful of grapefruit jam which she knows her sister will eat straight out of the pan. Yet the narrator is well aware that this jam, eaten in large quantities, contains potentially harmful enzymes...

At first I was repulsed by this cruelty, until I realised that perhaps the reason for my repulsion is that it's all too realistic. Cruelty of a less subtle form - imagine the narrator of The Diving Pool had drowned Rie in a well, for example - is different because it's extreme, I can distance myself from it; I wouldn't do that. But these petty little cruelties - don't we all do this kind of thing, to a greater or lesser degree, every single day? Now that's an uncomfortable thought.

Apr 23, 2012, 9:41am Top

Great review of The Diving Pool: Three Novellas, rachbxl. As disturbing as these novellas sound, I am intrigued.

Apr 23, 2012, 7:12pm Top

I suppose all petty little cruelties are relative, but those described in your review of The Diving Pool seem more than petty to me.

Apr 24, 2012, 3:41am Top

Very nice review of The Diving Pool. I enjoyed the stories too, but what a contrast to The Housekeeper and the Professor. I have Hotel Iris on the to-buy list - it sounds more in the line of the coolly observed violence of the Diving Pool than the gentle warmth of Housekeeper.

What did you think of the last story? It seemed very surreal to me - I wondered what was up with the landlord (neighbor?), how much was in the main character's head and if her cousin (was it her cousin she kept trying to visit?) even existed or if something had happened to her.

Apr 24, 2012, 12:03pm Top

I'm also intrigued by The Diving Pool, given your excellent description of it. I'm curious about the psychology of cruelty on an individual level, as I take care of babies and young children who have been abused or neglected by their parents or caregivers and require hospitalization. I and the rest of the medical staff are often amazed and horrified by these cases, as we couldn't imagine doing these things to innocent children. So, I'll put this book at the top of my wish list, and buy it soon.

Apr 26, 2012, 9:38am Top

>84 baswood: Barry, 'petty' was perhaps not the best word. I was trying to make the point that these cruelties won't NECESSARILY cause lasting harm, and aren't inflicted in order to cause harm in the first place. And on a similar note...

>86 kidzdoc: Darryl, I know mercifully little about abuse/neglect, but what struck me here was exactly this point about the cruelty being inflicted without any apparent intent to cause harm (and indeed without any awareness of the potential consequences).

>85 DieFledermaus: DieF, I really enjoyed the atmosphere of that last story, dreamy, surreal...but like you I'm really not sure what was real. I keep wondering about it; maybe I should read it again.

Apr 26, 2012, 11:21am Top

Drowned by Therese Bohman
Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy

A Belletrista read, so I'm saving my thoughts for my review. It was a quick, light read and to be honest I'd expected to forget it as soon as I closed the book, but somehow it's still with me. I keep wondering about the characters...

Apr 26, 2012, 11:35am Top

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

I bought this a couple of years ago because several people had raved to me about it. I started it immediately but soon gave up in disgust - I really disliked it.

And yet. I didn't get rid of it, and I picked it up again the other day; it was like I was reading a different book! I still wouldn't rave about it, it's far from being one of the best books I've read - it's not even the best I've read this year - but it was an enjoyable read. My feelings about it changed depending on the narrator; I loved the bits narrated by Alma, and even better were her brother Bird's parts, but I found the other voices less convincing (and I found Leo Gursky's repeated use of 'and yet' began to jar after a while).

All in all, it's a lovely feel-good book. It's not that everything works out perfectly in the end, not at all - but it left me feeling that all was well with the world.

Apr 26, 2012, 3:00pm Top

I think there's something to be said for being in the right mood for a book - and that can make a big difference in how you respond.

I experienced that with Oryx and Crake - not that I disliked it, but just couldn't get into it. Put it down after about 50 pages, picked it up again several months later and couldn't put it down.

Apr 27, 2012, 12:04am Top

#89-90 - it's interesting, and quite strange how that works. Sometimes I wish I could just pick up the next book and read it like a normal person...the first time

Apr 27, 2012, 7:14am Top

>89 rachbxl:-91 I suppose this is why there are so many books in my TBR pile. I like to have choices as so much depends what I am in the mood or frame of mind for.

The History of Love is really well done on audio, btw. I both read it and listened to it.

Apr 27, 2012, 2:12pm Top

I haven't read The History of Love, but I loved Great House, which I read because of a review that described it as like THOL but for people who like depressing books!

May 15, 2012, 4:15am Top

>89 rachbxl:-92 I'm currently reading (and enjoying) another 2 books which I wanted to read but just couldn't get into the first time - Danticat's Krik? Krak! and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. It's definitely a question of mood, for me at least. (I was gutted when the Atwood didn't grab me since over the last 10 years or so I've devoured everything else of hers, so I'm relieved it's working this time).

>93 rebeccanyc: Ah, now there you've got me interested, Rebecca - on to the wishlist!

May 15, 2012, 4:56am Top

Got a little bit of catching up to do; I had a week's holiday the week before last so managed a bit more reading that has been usual of late.

The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories by Tayeb Salih
translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies

This, together with Season of Migration to the North, had been on my wishlist for ages. Somebody here read it recently (Lisa, I think), which was what finally made me get myself a copy. I loved it! The two short stories were enjoyable enough, but it was the novella The Wedding of Zein which I really liked. The story itself is simple enough - village idiot Zein (but is he really so stupid?), having 'fallen in love' countless times, only for another man to marry the girl in question, finally marries a girl nobody would ever have thought him good enough for. Simple, but a nice little tale...but on top of that, there's the way Tayeb Salih describes village life. The novella is really composed of vignette after vignette - it's like looking at a set of photographs and having someone describe them to you in such a captivating way that you start to forget that you weren't actually there. I feel like I know that little Sudanese village well.

What I really took away with me, though, was a sense of awe at Tayeb Salih's ability as a story-teller. Just now I talked about the 'vignettes' in the novella; I loved every single one of them, but what bowled me over was how the author links them together. Several times he introduces a new character, or refers to some piece of village lore, and on each occasion just as I was starting to wonder if I hadn't paid enough attention (should I know what he's talking about here? I must have missed a bit), he launches into a new scene in which the reference is fully explained. I tend to avoid the term 'well-crafted' when I comment on books because I think it's over-used, but I have to use it here - it's put together in such an exquisite way. He weaves the most beautiful threads and then leaves them dangling...only to swoop back in later and pick them up again, this time combining them with others to make them even better.

If I didn't go straight on to read Season of Migration to the North it was only because I didn't have it with me on holiday, and now that I'm back I'm trying to resist my old habit of reading a single writer's books back-to-back.

May 15, 2012, 5:41am Top

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

I wasn't at all well the day we set off on holiday so my book packing consisted of stuffing my Kindle in my bag and hoping for the best. Whilst I like my Kindle, I don't use it in a very organised way so I had no idea what was on it - all sorts of gems, it turns out, so I'll be making more use of it from now on.

Pakistani-born Kamila Shamsie had been on my radar for a while (that's presumably why I had a book of hers on my Kindle in the first place), and after this I want to read more.

This novel is huge in scope, incorporating many of the major events of the 20th century; it begins in Nagasaki on the day the atomic bomb is dropped and ends with the war on terror in Afghanistan, taking in the 1947 partitions of India and Pakistan, the rise of Islamist extremism in Pakistan in the early 1980's, the nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan, 9/11 and Guatanamo on the way. More than that, though, it's the story of the entwined fate of several generations of two families who live through and whose lives are shaped by these events.

The first part of the novel, in Nagasaki, brought me up short because I realised that whilst I've read oodles of WWII fiction, I don't think I'd ever before read anything relating to this particular aspect of it. Because it was on the other side of the world? This is where we're introduced to my favourite character, Hiroko Tanaka, a young Japanese woman who loses fiance, father and home in the blast, and who will carry the scars of her own burns (on her back and in her mind) for ever. We next encounter her in India, where she has come to seek out the family of her dead German fiance - his lonely sister, Ilse Weiss, and her British husband, James Burton, the sun setting on their marriage as it sets on the Raj. I really enjoyed this Old Delhi section, the crumbling empire, a twilight world. It's here that Hiroko meets her husband, a Muslim named Sajjad Ali Ashraf who works for the Weiss-Burtons.

Over the next 60 years the two families protect each other - and betray each other. It's as if the members of the different generations are involved in a dance in which they have limited choice over the steps they make because they are dictated by the influence of world events. Shamsie really succeeds in bringing home the personal tragedy of huge events; it's hard to grasp the scale of Nagasaki with its thousands and thousands of dead, much easier to comprehend the way it dominates the rest of Hiroko's life. Shamsie also creates a credible link from Nagasaki through to Guantanamo, although I did feel that she was stretching a point by having members of the same two families involved at every turn. Up to 9/11 I was happy to go with it, but when James and Ilse's (American) son Harry (who has never stopped pining for his lost childhood in India) and Hiroko and Sajjad's (Pakistani) son Raza turn up busting terrorists together in the desert I thought it had gone a bit far...unfortunately, because the rest of the novel seemed so beautifully poised and controlled. I get what Shamsie was trying to do but I'm not sure it works.

So, reservations about the last part, but in general I'd say that this is a ripping yarn, beautifully told. I was utterly caught up in the fate of the two families, although the characters I cared most about were Hiroko and Ilse; I loved the story of their friendship into old age. And I found some of Shamsie's sentences so beautiful I had to go back and read them over and over again.

May 15, 2012, 6:18am Top

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Thanks to Darryl (kidzdoc) for this one - his glowing review reminded me that I wanted to read this (I put it on my Kindle after it was reviewed in Belletrista). What an enjoyable read!

Harriet Baxter is a lonely elderly English lady who, in London in 1933, sets out to write her memoirs of a particular period of her life - a couple of years in the 1880's when she lived in Glasgow and befriended the family of painter Ned Gillespie. It all seems very innocent - Harriet's aunt, whom she took care of, having died, Harriet needs a change of scene and chooses Glasgow. A reasonable choice, given the International Exhibition. Having just arrived, she chances upon an incident in the street; a lady is choking to death, and Harriet saves her. The lady invites her to visit for tea the following day - and she turns out to be the mother of Ned Gillespie, whom Harriet had met briefly at an exhibition in London not long before. Ned and his family (wife Annie and two children), it so happens, live very close to Harriet, and she soon proves herself an invaluable friend, always ready to help out in whatever way the situation requires.

Yet it's clear from the start that all is not quite as rosy as it might appear, for Harriet continually makes ominous reference to a court case, and perhaps tries to justify herself without apparent reason. I won't say what the court case involves as I don't want to spoil it. Interspersed with the memoir are Harriet's comments on her current situation; her only contact is with a paid companion, who quickly becomes the object of Harriet's suspicion.

Harriet, anyway, turns out to be a wonderfully unreliable narrator (I have a weakness for them). By the end of the book I had no idea what had happened, which with most book would be frustrating but here is genius on the part of the author. Like Darryl I wanted to go straight back to page 1 and read the whole thing again, more closely. When is Harriet telling the truth? How much is coincidence and how much is forced by her?

May 15, 2012, 7:21am Top

>95 rachbxl: I read The Wedding of Zein last year after it was recommended by Leila Aboulela at the PEN festival in NYC. I have not yet read his Season of Migration to the North but I have it. I agree about the other two stories included in the book.

May 15, 2012, 7:51am Top

I loved Jane Eyre when I was in high school, and she has really stayed with me. Based on your experience, though, perhaps it's time to re-read it and see if my opinions about the book have developed. I imagine I was rather taken with Mr. Rochester too. :) I've watched pretty much all the renditions of the movie, though, so I might have a mixed up version of what really happened (based on all the different interpretations of all the different movies).

May 15, 2012, 8:43am Top

I enjoyed your review of Burnt Shadows, a book I really loved when I read it a few years ago. I also read and liked her earlier novels, In the City by the Sea and Kartography. I still have Broken Verses on my TBR, and I had totally forgotten about it. Maybe I will pick it up this month!

May 15, 2012, 9:00am Top

> 95, 96, 97 Great reviews all! The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories particularly interests me as I would like to become more familiar with Arabic literature.

May 15, 2012, 7:19pm Top

Excellent reviews rachel, particularly Burnt shadows

May 15, 2012, 7:28pm Top

I'm glad that you enjoyed Burnt Shadows and Gillespie and I, two of my favorite novels of the past few years. I'll add The Wedding of Zein to my wish list.

May 18, 2012, 4:38am Top

Loved your review of The Wedding of Zein - I could tell you really enjoyed it! I'd also recommend that one as well as Season of Migration to the North which was rather different in tone.

I might just have to read Gillespie and I and not wait for my turn to pick for book club.

May 20, 2012, 1:40am Top

Catching up after a very long time! I haven't read Gillespie and I but I loved The Observations by the same author, and I can highly recommend the audiobook which is read by Jane Harris herself, extremely well.

Your comment about the end of The Swimmer made me think of a conversation I had with a friend about the film The Descendants. We'd both cried at the end, but she had watched it on a plane, and she said there was some 'scientific' reason why you were more likely to cry (at a film or, I guess, book) if you were on a plane. I had never noticed this, I wonder if anyone else has?

May 20, 2012, 6:54am Top

Thanks for all your comments!

>99 The_Hibernator: Rachel, the only screen adaptation of Jane Eyre I've seen is the TV one with Timothy Dalton, around the same time I read the book (I've no idea now whether I read the book first or not), but that was enough to give me a totally skewed view of what happens! At least the way I remember it it was full of the smoulderingly handsome, masterful Mr R - I was quite brought up short when re-reading to discover that he's not actually much of a looker...

>100 Cait86: Cait, I had a feeling you were a Shamsie fan. I'm certainly going to seek out more of her work, and I look forward to seeing what you think of Broken Verses when you get to it.

>101 Linda92007: Linda, I'm no expert in Arabic literature either, but some of what I've read requires a bit of an effort (for which you're rewarded, but still, it's an effort). The Wedding of Zein's not like that at all, you can just sit back and enjoy the story and soak up the atmosphere, so it's probably a good way in.

>105 wandering_star: WS, I've been casting around for another audiobook; I think you've just found it for me - thanks! Intriguing idea about the plane. I know I fairly often cry at books on planes (whether more often than when not on planes I couldn't say), but I'd have said it's because as there's nothing to distract me, no dinner to cook or ironing to do, I can really get into the story. Maybe it's not that, though, maybe your friend's right and there's a scientific explanation. Anybody?

May 20, 2012, 7:10am Top

>106 rachbxl: I think the newest version of the movie (the one that came out last year in the theaters) has a reasonably handsome Mr Rochester, but Jane Eyre points out that she doesn't think he's handsome. I think that's the only adaptation where they were both supposed to be plain (like they were in the book).

May 25, 2012, 7:29am Top

Hey, Rach, I'm reading On Black Sisters' Street currently. It has taken me a bit to get used to the vernacular, but I'm enjoying it.

Edited: Jun 13, 2012, 9:09am Top

Still Life: A Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery by Louise Penny

A few weeks ago I saw Cait's comments on this on her thread, and decided it was just what I needed for a bit of light relief (we've just moved house). And so it was - thanks, Cait!

This is the first of the Three Pines mysteries, set in Quebec in a village which may be small and off the beaten track but which nevertheless has way more than its fair share of artists, bohemians, bon-viveurs and larger than life characters. Jane, a much-loved long-time elderly resident of Three Pines, is found dead in the woods - hunting accident? Murder? Cue the arrival of Inspector Gamache, the wonderfully genteel head of homicide in the Quebec police, to investigate.

The murder investigation, being restricted to such a geographically limited area, rather reminded me of a game of Cluedo - and the characters are in many ways so delightfully old-fashioned that it really was reminiscent of 'Miss Scarlet in the library with a candlestick'. Gamache goes about his work in a quiet, understated yet stunningly effective way, which his latest junior Yvette, an ambitious young officer on her first homicide case, fails to appreciate, often to comic effect. She wants to jump in and force people to speak by laying down the law; he prefers to watch, listen, and wait for them to talk in their own time (in the meanwhile he enjoys sharing whiskies with the villagers next to the roaring log fire in the local bistro - it's all terribly civilised).

This is an absolutely charming book which I really enjoyed reading for a bit of escapism. Sometimes I found it frustrating because the quality of the writing varied immensely - there was one section in particular where I really wondered if it had been written by the same person. Penny's treatment of Yvette, the young officer, was something else which jarred - sometimes her reactions made me laugh, but well before the end of the book she'd become something of a caricature, too flat (particularly odd when compared to the characters of Gamache and his assistant, and to the villagers, all of whom practically walk off the page). However, I was willing to overlook these faults because of the sheer enjoyment reading it gave me.

As well as the story itself, I really appreciated the setting and the glimpse into life in Quebec and the language divide, which figures quite prominently. It's not central to the story, but it's always there and often referred to - rather like the language divide here in Belgium.

Jun 13, 2012, 5:41am Top

Krik? Krak! by Edwige Danticat

I find it harder to collect my thoughts on books I've read on my Kindle than on ones I've read in paper form - I don't like flicking back through my Kindle copy, don't find it very comfortable.

Anyway, this is the third Danticat I've read, and confirms my admiration of her writing. I was a bit lost at first because I hadn't realised this was a short story collection, and I was trying in vain to find the thread between what I thought were chapters in a novel but were in fact short stories, and getting annoyed with myself for not being able to follow. So I put it to one side and came back and started again several months later - I must have been more on the right wavelength because I realised at once that they were short stories (although there are some links between some of them). As ever with Danticat's work, the real protagonist is Haiti; almost all the stories are set there, at different times over the last 80 years (since the 1937 massacre), and those that aren't are the stories of Haitian immigrants in the USA.

All the protagonists in these stories are women (strong women, splendid in the face of adversity), and one of the themes (again, repeated elsewhere in Danticat's work) is the link between women over the generations. Grandmothers, mothers, daugthers, granddaughters, all bound together by their shared family history and by the history of their country; there's something almost magical about the way Danticat handles this. As if in Haiti these bonds are so much stronger than elsewhere.

Jun 13, 2012, 8:20am Top

Enjoyed your reviews. And I have the same trouble with Kindle and other e-books (I read them on an ipad). It's OK if I remember to highlight, but if I'm just looking for a section, scanning is clunky.

Jun 13, 2012, 9:15am Top

Thanks Dan!

Reading back over my comments on Danticat I realise that what I said about not realising they were short stories might sound a bit odd - but that's another of my problems with the Kindle, no back-cover blurb. I put things on my Kindle when I hear about them; my Kindle is just another TBR pile - and whilst it's great to go away for the weekend, for example, with 100 of my TBR's on one little electronic gadget, I have trouble deciding what to read because it's often ages since I bought the books...and without being able to pick them up and look at the cover and read the back and so on, they grab me less. I get much more enjoyment (and inspiration) out of browsing my real TBR shelves than from looking over the TBR titles on my Kindle.

Jun 13, 2012, 5:19pm Top

You could make your own notes on the kindle for example; how you heard of the book, what the reviewers said about it, etc.

Just a thought, although I don't bother with any of that.

Edited: Jun 17, 2012, 7:51am Top

Glad you enjoyed Still Life, Rachel - I have the second and third books in the series ready to go for some fun summer reading :)

Jun 19, 2012, 5:25pm Top

Love reading all your reviews and your choice of books. I'm not a great lover of short stories but am attracted by what you and others say about Danticat. Any suggestions on where to start?

PS I agree about the difficulty Bout flicking through Kindle books - but for me it has provided a useful discipline that I don't skim through to the end of the book if I find I am getting a bit bored!

Jul 3, 2012, 6:08am Top

>114 Cait86: Cait, I needed some of that fun summer reading a little earlier than planned (last week, and despite the lack of anything remotely resembling summer weather) and I read the second Three Pines - every bit as enjoyable as the first.

>115 helensq: Hello helensq, thanks for your visit! The first Danticat I read (just because it was the first I got hold of, I think) was The Farming of Bones, which is a novel - it was wonderful, and I'd heartily recommend it. It's a captivating story but it also taught me a lot about Haiti and its recent history (and made me go away and look up more about it). Actually it was one of the first (of many) books I read on the recommendations of fellow LTers.

Jul 3, 2012, 6:35am Top

I have a little catching up to do...

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Atwood is one of my very favourite writers. I've devoured all the rest of her work with impatience, so it's odd that this should have sat on my TBR shelf for a couple of years...and even odder that the first time I tried it I put it to one side as I couldn't get into it. When I finally picked it up again, though, I enjoyed it as much as I'd expect to enjoy anything by Atwood, even if I wouldn't say it's one of my favourites.

We're back in the terrority of The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake here - a nightmarish vision of the future, but one which is horribly easy to see as the development of our present. That's one of the things I love about Atwood - in all her books she's chillingly close to home, if you allow yourself to think about it. Here we have a bioengineered world controlled by the large corporations (the menacing CorpSeCorps) - and it's not hard to see why people let them take control, given the lawlessness of the streets in the 'pleeblands' beyond the corporate compounds. There's some fairly ramshackle opposition to the status quo from groups like God's Gardeners, who, with their homespun philosophy which it's better not to inspect too closely, their home-grown food, their old-fashioned clothes and their aversion to washing, have long predicted 'the Waterless Flood', which finally comes in the form of a plague which ravages the earth.

Atwood's imagination is impressive as ever, and she must have had endless fun thinking up the invented creatures which now roam the earth, the results of bioengineering experiments, some more successful than others. For me, though, it's still her portrayal of people that stands out, and of women in particular; Toby, Ren, and Amanda too, are memorable creations and very real women. It's not just the individual characters, either, it's also the relationships between them - and in particular female friendship - which Atwood depicts so truthfully.

Jul 3, 2012, 7:23am Top

Once upon a Time in England by Helen Walsh

I picked this up off the swap shelf at work, really not expecting very much but desperately in need of reading material...and I couldn't put it down.

Warrington (N-W England), 1970's: Robbie Fitzgerald dreams of leaving his dismal factory job and making it big as a singer. He's already a hit on the local club and pub circuit - his amazing voice makes people overlook his odd appearance, squashed nose, flame-red hair and green eyes - and he could have any woman he wanted...but he chooses Susheela, the shy Malaysian nurse who helped care for him in hospital (and the only nurse not to give him her phone number as he left). For love, Susheela goes back on the promises made to her family when she left Kuala Lumpur, promises to train and then return to Malaysia as soon as possible, and she and Robbie get married. Life in 1970's Warrington isn't easy for a mixed-race couple, though...

By the second section, in 1981, the Fitzgeralds and their two children have moved, at Susheela's insistence, to a more genteel part of Warrington where she hopes, in vain, to find acceptance. Robbie, having abandoned his singing dreams for the sake of his family, has no spark left in him, and is adrift, having left his beloved Orford district for the first time in his life. He's no more at home in this new part of town than his wife is, despite the fact that he can see the Orford chimneys on the skyline. Susheela makes heartbreaking attempts to fit into their local neighbourhood, only to be scoffed at behind her back, and in doing so she makes demands on her husband which, if only she could see it, reduce him still further. It's a poignant, loving portrait of two people who have loved each other but who fail to understand each other. Meanwhile, the couple's son, Vinnie, has problems of his own, facing racist taunts at school. He becomes a sensitive, bookish boy, beloved of his mother but a huge disappointment to his illiterate father, who would rather he get into fights than write poetry. When Vinnie wins a national children's writing competition and his piece is printed in full in the local paper, instead of bursting with pride, Robbie is mortified that in the accompanying photo his son is wearing make-up (copying the pop idols of the day).

The third and final section, 1989 in Manchester, was a disappointment. Here Vinnie and his younger sister Ellie take centre stage, the stage being Manchester's druggy club scene (as was). Drugs would certainly have been one answer, one response to the circumstances of their childhood (the weight of growing up mixed race in a society where it wasn't yet tolerated, the problems between their parents, etc), but I question whether they both had to take this route, albeit in very different ways. Another problem for me was that, despite the fact that in 1989 I was 17 and had lived all my life in a town even closer to Manchester than Warrington is, I chose to let the Manchester club/drug scene pass me by (I was happier at home with a book, even then). I'm happy to say that I don't know a lot about drugs...which meant that parts of this third section were difficult for me to follow because of all the druggy jargon used without explanation. After a while it really started to grate.

Anyway, gripes aside, the ending was effective, in a horribly inevitable kind of way. I wanted it to work out better but I knew it couldn't. When I finished the book I felt an enormous sense of loss, the way you do when an author has created a set of heart-breakingly human characters, faults and all. I remember feeling this way after Tim Winton's Cloudstreet - can I really live without them?

Jul 3, 2012, 7:42am Top

After that I needed a little light relief and distraction so it was back to Three Pines with Chief Inspector Gamache:

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

As I said a few posts ago in my response to Cait's comment, it was every bit as enjoyable as the first.

There are countless murder mystery/police procedural series where the detective and his/her team are the constant element, but this is a bit different because it's not just the wonderful Chief Inspector and his colleagues who reappear, it's the village of Three Pines and all its inhabitants too.

Frankly, I'd die of claustrophobia within minutes if I had to live in Three Pines. It's all very well having a fabulous bistro on the village green where I pop in every evening for a drink by the roaring log fire (accompanied by a dainty bowlful of homemade nibbles), or where I can drop by for a gourmet meal prepared and served by my charming homosexual friends. It's lovely having people that I can count on, people who'll be round with a casserole at the drop of a hat. How wonderful to be surrounded by artists, a prize-winning poet and other such luminaries. Eating at each other's houses every evening - it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, like I belong. But honestly, if these people were the only people I ever saw, if the community were so small and close-knit that everyone knew my every movement, if I had no privacy whatsoever, if it were quite so remote, I'd go mad very quickly. That's the charm of Three Pines, though; Penny has managed to create somewhere where I really want to live...even whilst knowing that I'd hate it.

Jul 3, 2012, 6:18pm Top

Excellent review of Once upon a time in England

Jul 5, 2012, 11:22am Top

Enjoyed your latest posts - your post on The Year of the Flood was very interesting to me...although it made me think of Snow Crashwith the Corporate protectorates.

Jul 6, 2012, 5:15am Top

>121 dchaikin: Dan, I'm not familiar with Snow Crash, but a quick look at its LT page suggests it's not really my thing! Would you recommend it?

Jul 6, 2012, 5:28am Top

My Lover's Lover by Maggie O'Farrell

Bleh. I've enjoyed other O'Farrells in the past, but this one I only finished because it was on my bedside table and I kept forgetting to take anything else upstairs.

Lily is yet another of O'Farrell's stock of slightly dopey 20-something females, a university graduate but one who still hasn't found her niche so floats around with several dead-end jobs. She moves into a flatshare in a trendy warehouse conversion (we won't worry our heads about how her dead-end jobs pay the rent...) and promptly falls in love with the owner, architect Marcus. The main problem with this is that she sees Marcus's ex-girlfriend Siobahn, whom she believes to be dead, whenever she's with him. At this point I was wondering how O'Farrell could possibly spin it out for another 150 pages - woman haunted by ghost of lover's ex - but to be fair it's not quite as straightforward as that. Still, I couldn't feel any sympathy for Lily as the story developed - just get out of there, you silly girl! I've realised that I don't want to read stories (written by women, moreover) about silly weak little women hanging around for a man.

I do, however, like O'Farrell's writing style; now I'd really like to see her do something a bit different. Her books tend to stick to a formula and I think it's a waste of her writing skills.

Jul 6, 2012, 10:25am Top

#122 - I really like Snow Crash, but it's probably not your kind of book. It's sci-fi with a thriller aspect and much humor...and maybe not intended to be taken seriously. Not what I would consider literary. The only comparison to Atwood is his taking modern life to "logical" extremes (in this book)...

Jul 6, 2012, 10:25am Top

Come to think of it, Snow Crash isn't my kind of book either...

Edited: Jul 6, 2012, 12:30pm Top

I've realised that I don't want to read stories (written by women, moreover) about silly weak little women hanging around for a man.

Oof. No thank you. I like your review, though.

Jul 9, 2012, 3:29pm Top

Good to catch up on your reviews. I'll have to get to Year of the Flood one of these days...

Your comment that, '...this one I only finished because it was on my bedside table and I kept forgetting to take anything else upstairs,' made me laugh - laughter that comes from sympathy and understanding.

Jul 14, 2012, 4:12am Top

>127 ljbwell: It's ridiculous how often it happens, though! I've promised myself that next time I'll just get straight out of bed and go and find something else...but I know I won't.

Jul 14, 2012, 4:47am Top

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

Why had I never heard of Simon Mawer? Why isn't everyone talking about this book? It was in fact shortlisted for the Booker a couple of years ago but it passed me by completely, and I only read it now because a friend passed it on and her recommendations are usually reliable. It didn't grab me immediately, but I was interested enough to keep picking it up again...and by page 100 or so I was hooked.

The interwar years in Central Europe is a period that fascinates me - the flourishing cultural scene, the importance attached to the intelligentsia, the civilised café life... In Polish there's a term for this period which means something like 'the glorious thirty years' - when everything blossomed, only to be stamped out first by WW2 and then by 50 years of communism. The Glass Room begins at the end of the 1920's in a town in Czechoslovakia known only as Město ('Town'), but apparently easily recognisable if you happen to know the town in question. Viktor, scion of the wealthy Landauer car-making family, and his new wife Liesel want to build a house, and together with the architect Rainer von Abt they embark upon a project to build an ultra-modern house - in fitting with the times and the desire for things to be sleek and functional rather than decorative. When finished, the house becomes the wonder of the town, with its vast open spaces, huge plate glass windows looking out right over the town to the fortress, and its onyx wall dividing the library from the salon. It's a place of openness and transparency, light and optimism, and in it they settle into family life (which, despite the setting, is not free of secrets).

However, Viktor is Jewish, and the arrival of the Nazis forces them to flee to Switzerland, initially with the idea of returning home as soon as the war ended. The dream of returning to the Glass House gradually slips away, and eventually they emigrate to America. Meanwhile, the house passes from one use to another - a laboratory for experiments aimed at proving the inferiority of the Jews during the early years of the war, then a shelter for a group of Russian soldiers and their animals. In communist Czechoslovakia it becomes a day clinic for children affected by polio. These temporary users of the Glass House skate over its surface, oblivious to it, and let the house fall into disrepair. Finally, a relaxation in the regime leads to an invitation to the Landauers to return to what is no longer their home - the book both begins and (almost) ends with this visit, which by the end has become extremely moving.

The novel is ostensibly about the house, the Glass House with its famous Glass Room - but as one of the characters says, a house is nothing without its inhabitants (I paraphrase). Mawer uses the house as a focal point, but this is actually a novel about people, about lives changed irretrievably by war and the whims of subsequent regimes, about what can happen to very normal people when they aren't treated as human beings.

Jul 14, 2012, 9:06am Top

I thought The Glass Room was a beautiful book too (it was Darryl/kidzdoc who told me about it), but I felt it was seriously marred by a big coincidence.

Jul 14, 2012, 5:32pm Top

Excellent review of The Glass Room. It sounds a very moving story.

Edited: Jul 16, 2012, 7:27pm Top

Why had I never heard of Simon Mawer? Why isn't everyone talking about this book?

I've talked about The Glass Room quite a bit since I read it nearly three years ago, probably less so in Club Read though. I've mentioned elsewhere that it remains my favorite Booker shortlisted novel that wasn't selected for the Prize over the past 5-6 years, and it probably would have won the award if it had been written in any other year in that time other than 2009, when Wolf Hall took top honors. I've picked up two other books by Mawer, Trapeze, his latest novel, and Mendel's Dwarf, but I haven't read either one yet.

BTW, my review of The Glass Room is here:

Jul 17, 2012, 4:10pm Top

>130 rebeccanyc:, 132 Rebecca, Darryl, I'm surprised I missed it, particularly as you both (two of my most reliable sources of recommendations on LT) rated it.

Rebecca, the coincidence I imagine you're talking about (about a third of the way in?) didn't bother me, but only because I've heard other similarly 'impossible' stories told by Polish people about the fates of their families during the war, in particular in the border regions. The coincidence right at the end I found very moving...but a little contrived, and ultimately (to me, at least) much less credible than the other.

Darryl, I'm off to read your review right now. Very often as I start a book I have a look at what people have been saying about it here on LT, but in this case I didn't as it came right out of the left field in the form of a loan from a friend which I just got on with reading.

And Darryl, referring back to my review of My Lover's Lover in post 123, and your reaction to my comments about weak little women hanging around for men, the book I'm about to post about is perhaps one you'd enjoy more...

Jul 17, 2012, 4:18pm Top

Sonechka: a Novella and Stories by Ludmila Ulitskaya
translated from the Russian by Arch Tait

Ulitaskaya's first novella, Sonechka, plus a wonderful collection of short stories, is the first of three of her works I'm reading for a piece in Belletrista. For that reason I won't say much about it here, other than to mention that this is an intriguing world of fabulously strong women (not always likeable, and they don't always win, either), battling to live out their ordinary lives under the constraints of the Soviet system.

I really enjoyed this, and am looking forward to moving on to Medea and her Children and The Funeral Party.

Aug 8, 2012, 4:22am Top

Medea and her Children by Ludmila Ulitskaya
Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait

What a wonderful storyteller Ulitskaya is! Again, I read this for a forthcoming Belletrista piece so I won't say much here, other than that I greatly enjoyed this family saga set largely in the Crimea. Like Sonechka and the other stories in the collection in my last post, it's all about people trying to make their lives as 'normal' as possible under the Soviet regime - and life really does go on.

I have one more Ulitskaya to read, The Funeral Party, but I'm going to have a break first.

Aug 16, 2012, 8:09am Top

The Dinner by Herman Koch
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

This is where my much-maligned Kindle comes into its own. The other day I read a review of The Dinner in The Economist (the original came out a couple of years ago, but the English translation has just been published), liked the sound of it...and 30 seconds later I was reading it.

Two brothers and their wives meet for dinner at an expensive restaurant, not to enjoy the food but to discuss what to do about their teenage sons, who have been involved in a violent attack on a homeless person which, having been caught on film, has horrified Dutch society. The film has been shown repeatedly on tv and is on YouTube, but so far nobody but their parents has recognised the boys. What to do?

The book is narrated by one of the two fathers, Paul, who initially presents himself as a very ordinary, respectable member of society, one of the people...unlike his brother Serge, a flamboyant politician who, according to the opinion polls, is set to become the next Prime Minister at the forthcoming elections. Paul goes out of his way to make snide remarks about his brother, criticising his choice of this ridiculously pretentious restaurant, scoffing at Serge's pride in being able to jump the 8-month waiting list to get them a table, poking fun at Serge and Babette's second home in the Dordogne, whilst endlessly emphasising the fact that he himself, Paul, is just an ordinary bloke, a former history teacher, no less, happily married to Claire, the two of them living their unremarkable life together with their son Michel - just another happy little family. As the story goes on, though, Paul reveals himself to be anything but a reliable narrator.

The Dinner reminded me strongly of The Slap - another disturbing probe under the surface of middle class respectability. It's no literary masterpiece, but to criticise it for that would be to miss the point, I think. I read it in little more time than it would have taken the characters to eat the dinner in question because I couldn't put it down - but some of it was very uncomfortable reading, horrifying, even.

Edited: Aug 16, 2012, 8:47am Top

Very enticing review of The Dinner, Rachel. It won't be published in the US until February, but it is available in the UK, so I'll probably buy it there next month.

Aug 16, 2012, 12:54pm Top

> 136 Enjoyed your review, Rachel!

Aug 16, 2012, 5:24pm Top

Excellent review of The Dinner, Herman Koch. Mind you I would have difficulty in not poking fun and someone's second home in the Dordogne. The book sounds very interesting.

Aug 16, 2012, 6:10pm Top

Sounds intriguing Rachel - I will look it out.

Aug 17, 2012, 11:39am Top

Thanks all, glad to have caught your interest.

>139 baswood: Well quite, Barry! What didn't come across at all in my comments on The Dinner is just how savagely funny Paul's acid remarks are, at first, anyway, before his bitterness comes through - and the section on the Dordogne is merciless.

Aug 30, 2012, 1:03pm Top

The Funeral Party by Ludmila Ulitskaya
Translated from the Russian by Cathy Porter; translation edited by Archie Tait

The final part of my Belletrista trio of Ulitskayas. I'm glad I took this on as she's been a great discovery. Didn't enjoy this one quite as much as Medea and her Children, but it was nevertheless a very enjoyable read with a host of memorable characters.

Aug 31, 2012, 11:27am Top

The Tattoed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

As anyone who's ever read any of her books will know, JCO has a very particular style - lots of short sentences. Without a verb. And italics! (And exclamation marks). I've read several of her books now, and this style always grates on me as I start to read but she draws me in with her storytelling. I spend a while grinding my teeth and cursing her for making me want to read in spite of myself, until eventually I just give in and enjoy it.

The Tattoed Girl is a disturbing book about writer and academic Joshua Seigl, who decides to hire an assistant to help with his work (I pictured Seigl as an older man and had to re-think him when I discovered he's 39). Candidates sent by the university are all rejected by him for ridiculous reasons - Seigl comes across as horribly pernickety, a grown-up spoilt mummy's boy. Seigl then finds himself taking the unusual step of offering the job to a girl?woman? (nobody can tell her age) who has just started working in the local bookshop. Alma, running away from a shady past, has just washed up in town, and has been taken under the wing of Dimitri, a waiter at Seigl's preferred cafe/restaurant. Nothing is quite what it seems: Alma's apparent disfiguring birthmarks are tattoes (inflicted on her against her will by a man or men she thought wished her well - we never find out the circumstances); Seigl, 'The Jew', is not Jewish at all, as his mother wasn't Jewish; Dimitri takes Alma in off the street, nurtures her...and then starts to 'lend' her to his friends and sell her sexual services to others. None of this unpleasant stuff is spelled out; it's just alluded to in passing, which makes it all the more disturbing...as if it were normal. And I think that's the idea - this, for Alma, is normal life, at least until she meets Joshua Seigl.

Sep 6, 2012, 2:15pm Top

"I spend a while grinding my teeth and cursing her for making me want to read in spite of myself" : )

A bit late getting to it, but enjoyed your review.

Sep 19, 2012, 1:09pm Top

>144 dchaikin: Thanks, Dan! And as for your being 'a bit late' getting to my review, I'm so far behind with yours and others I follow that I don't even know where to start.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

One of the most devastating books I've ever read.

Barbara Demick spent several years as the Los Angeles Times correspondent in Seoul from 2001. She was only able to visit North Korea on organised tours for journalists and other selected visitors, these visits being so highly stage-managed that it was impossible to get a fair picture. Unable to do her research on the ground in the usual way, she instead produced a series of pieces for her newspaper on the basis of extensive interviews conducted over several years with over one hundred people who had escaped from North Korea; she later developed these articles into this book. In a stroke of journalistic genius she decided to focus on people who came from one particular town, Chongjin, North Korea's third largest city, way up in the north away from the show-town which is Pyongyang. Her idea here was that if she couldn't do the research in situ to corroborate the tales people told, at least if they were all talking about the same place they would to a certain extent corroborate each other, and allow her - and the reader - to build up a clearer picture of life in one particular city.

In Nothing to Envy Demick weaves together the stories of the lives of the six interviewees she chose to focus on to form a detailed picture of life in Chongjin, and by extension in North Korea, in the late 20th century. The level of control exercised by the state over its citizens as described here is staggering. But WHY? What a waste of human life (and I'm not even talking about those who died). In reading this book I so often found it hard to take in that the events being described happened in my lifetime - the 1990's famine, for example, which left up to 3.5 million dead, and which was caused and prolonged by the way the regime ran the country.

The hardest thing to accept here, I found, was that there's no happy ending. The six individuals are undoubtedly living better lives now, but only because they defected, not because the regime fell, and in each case their freedom has come at a high price, with some of them having terrible trouble to adapt. Others, including the family and friends of these people, continue to live in poverty and oppression in their home country.

As I've often said on my thread, I don't read much non-fiction, and when I do, it has to tell a human story. And when that human story is as well told as this one (Demick is a joy to read...I mean her writing style, not her subject), non-fiction is better than any novel. The cover blurb includes a quote from a review which says that this is 'required reading for anyone interested in the Korean peninsula'. In fact I myself wasn't remotely interested in the Korean peninsula...but I am now.

Thanks to Rebecca, wandering star and others for pushing me halfway towards this book; from your comments it had lodged in my mind, but not enough to make me seek it out...but when it was on the display shelf in the staff library I joined last week, it seemed like it was meant to be.

Sep 19, 2012, 2:32pm Top

Glad you "enjoyed" it, Rachel.

Sep 19, 2012, 2:40pm Top

Great comments on Nothing to Envy. I was just thinking last night that it's time to read that one.

Edited: Sep 19, 2012, 11:11pm Top

Enjoyed reading your last two reviews; you made me want to read them both.

eta: Am going to go backwards and see what I've missed on your thread here!

Sep 20, 2012, 3:20pm Top

Nothing to Envy gets consistently high ratings and good reviews on Librarything, with no one as far as I can see questioning its authenticity, which is surprising as Demick is writing about a society from the point of view of those who "escaped" from it and would therefore not have any qualms in denigrating the ruling regime.

Sep 20, 2012, 5:17pm Top

She is telling their stories as they told them. I am not a t home with access to the book, but if I remember correctly Demick addresses the question of authenticity by discussing obtaining multiple "testimonies" that describe similar events/situations.

Sep 21, 2012, 9:00am Top

I suddenly feel very guilty for not having read this yet...anyway, on the wishlist now. Fascinating review.

Sep 21, 2012, 1:58pm Top

One of these days I'll get to Nothing to Envy...

Sep 23, 2012, 5:15am Top

>143 rachbxl: Except when she is imitating Henry James! (I think it was in Wild Nights! that she had a sentence that ran on for a page...) and I'm pretty sure she changes her style, a least to some degree, depending on the type of book she is writing. The Tattooed Girl is likely written quite differently than, say, A Bloodsmoor Romance. But, while I have noticed a change in style according to who is narrating the story, I've not paid a lot of attention to her sentence structure because I've been fascinated with content, but I will have to take a closer look now.

Oct 3, 2012, 5:28am Top

>149 baswood:/150 Sorry, haven't been around for a while. Barry, I no longer have the book as it's gone back to the library, but my understanding is the same as Rebecca's. In fact, that's why Demick decided to focus on the stories of people from one particular city - with one exception, the people in the book aren't in contact with each other, I don't think, in their new lives, and didn't know each other back in Chongjin (it's a huge city), so there's little likelihood of them having got together to concoct a story...and yet their stories consistently corroborate each other. You're right that these are people who escaped and therefore might have an interest in denigrating the regime (although one of them is someone who didn't actually want to escape, a dedicated follower of the regime who escaped by accident, as it were, and only later did the scales fall from her eyes)...but I've just finished reading Maus, for example, and whilst the outside world didn't have access to the concentration camps, we don't question (well, most of us don't) what happened there, in part because it's so well documented now; I guess that documentation is only just starting with North Korea. Moreover, Demick explains her method at the start of the book, and it's nothing if not meticulous. Even so, there were times when I wondered, 'but how do you KNOW this?' (details of the childhood of the deceased father of one of the protagonists, for example) - but at the end of the book there's a section of notes on sources which is so detailed that I was entirely satisfied.

Oct 3, 2012, 6:01am Top

Imię twoje by Maria Nurowska

I find it surprisingly hard to find things to read in Polish which satisfy my criteria - they have to be good stories which will keep my interest, fairly light and easy to read, without insulting my intelligence. I know there's a lot of great literature which was written in Polish but I don't want to feel like I'm having to make an effort to understand it - Olga Tokarczuk, for example, writes beautifully, but I have to concentrate and that's not what I want right now (keen as I am to read the several books of hers I have on my shelves)...and then at the other end of the scale (as with any language, I suppose) there's a lot of utter rubbish written in Polish which I just can't read. I find it difficult to find books between the two extremes.

The phenomenally prolific Maria Nurowska might just be my saviour. Several years ago, when I still had Polish classes, my teacher gave me excerpts from one of her books, Mój przyjaciel zdrajca, her slightly fictionalised account of the life of a fairly high-ranking Polish officer who defected. I was so gripped that I bought the book next time I was in Poland, and while I was at it I bought Imię twoje - only to stick them on the shelf and forget about them.

Anyway, this is the story of a New Yorker, Elizabeth, who travels to Ukraine in search of her husband, Jeff, who has disappeared whilst on a trip researching the history of the wooden Orthodox churches typical of the area. This being Ukraine in 2000, she quickly finds herself in a place where the rule of law barely exists, with Jeff's interpreter being held without charge, and the US embassy powerless to intervene because the authorities insist Jeff exited Ukraine before his disappearance. Elizabeth's search takes her all over Ukraine, including into the desolate Chernobyl radiation zone, to Moscow and to Chechenya...it's all fairly implausible but it was a rollicking good read and I kept looking forward to the next opportunity to pick it up.

Oct 3, 2012, 6:23am Top

Maus by Art Spiegelman
translated into French by Judith Ertel

I'm not sure that Maus needs any introduction here. Just in case, it's a graphic novel about the author's father's experience as a Polish Jew in the run-up to and during the second world war, charting his descent from his comfortable life running a factory in south-east Poland, through the increasing limitations on the Jews, to the ghetto and finally to Auschwitz. There are also sections showing Vladek's life today in the US, his relationship with his son, and with the world around him.

It's called Maus because all the Jews have mouse heads atop their human bodies (the Poles are pigs, the Germans cats, the French frogs, the Americans dogs)...but in fact the different animal heads are only tied-on masks, which I took to mean that underneath our uniforms, our signs of allegiance, we're all the same.

The details of Vladek's experience are harrowing, of course, but just as horrifying for me was to see from the account of his current life and his character that he'd never left the camps behind; as Art's wife says at one point, he didn't actually survive - he's marked for life. It should have been a new life in the US, but all his friends are concentration camp survivors, and Auschwitz still dominates. Art's mother Anja, likewise, went through the camps, and was unable to pick up the threads of her life after the war, eventually committing suicide. And for Art - how to have anything approaching a normal relationship with his parents when they've been through THAT?

I wouldn't normally read a French translation of something written in English, but I saw this in my local library the other day and knew the time had come to read it. I imagine that the original has Vladek speaking a version of English which is heavily influenced by Polish, because that's how it's done in French. It's extremely well done - I could hear his voice in my head, and he speaks EXACTLY the way French is spoken by Poles who've never really studied it but manage to speak it quite fluently (there are a lot of them around here!)

A brilliant book which I'm glad to have got to at last.

Oct 3, 2012, 8:54am Top

I have yet to read any graphic novels, but your great review of Maus has convinced me to add it to my wish list, rachbxl. Also, very interesting comments on reading literature in Polish.

Edited: Oct 3, 2012, 9:35am Top

A great review of Maus, such a powerful book. It was the first graphic novel I read, although it took a long time before I read another. (ETA - so I looked it up. I read Maus in 1999. I read my next graphic novel in 2008)

Oct 3, 2012, 2:43pm Top

>158 dchaikin: Oh Dan, do you know how often you make me laugh? (in a good way, of course!) What was the next one you read, out of curiosity? I haven't read many myself; I started with the wonderful Persepolis and have read 2 others, I think. Enjoyed them all but none had the punch of Maus, not even Persepolis. 'Powerful' is exactly the right word.

Oct 3, 2012, 4:46pm Top

Excellent review of Maus rachbxl

Edited: Oct 4, 2012, 1:33pm Top

#159 :) In 2008 I "read" Shaun Tan's wordless The Arrival. From 2009-2012 I read 20 graphic novel (even though few of those aren't properly "novels", I mean most weren't fiction)

Oct 4, 2012, 7:36am Top

Great review of Maus, Rachel. I think it was the first graphic novel that I read, and I loved it as well.

Oct 9, 2012, 5:27am Top

>161 dchaikin: Dan - a wordless graphic novel? Did you enjoy it? I might have to look out for that, I'm curious. (And is there a term, then, for graphic novels that aren't novels, ie are non- fiction? Actually all but one that I've read fall into that category).

Oct 11, 2012, 7:46am Top

Shaun Tan is terrific, but usually classified as Young Adult. I really did enjoy The Arrival; worth a look, I think.

Oct 11, 2012, 11:54pm Top

Terrific review of Maus, rachbxl. I've yet to tackle a graphic novel (although V for Vendetta has been on my wishlist for a while); I'll add Maus to the wishlist as well.

Oct 19, 2012, 5:43am Top

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

I finished this over a week ago but keep putting off commenting on it as I never have the book with me at the right time. Anyway, I still don't have the book with me but I'm just going to get on with it.

I'd never heard of Deborah Levy until recently, although she's published over half a dozen novels and was, according to the introduction to Swimming Home, one of the leading lights in English-language fiction in the 1990's. I've read several reviews of this novel on LT recently, but I can't remember whose it was that made me pick up my Kindle and buy it straight away (it was certainly the reviews here that made me read it, not the fact that it's Booker shortlisted).

Swimming Home is a wonderfully dark subversion of the tried and tested (and usually quite tedious) middle-class-Brits-in-holiday-villa-in-South-of-France formula. The two families renting the villa find a naked woman swimming in their pool; the naked woman, Kitty French, maintains that there's been a mix-up - she thought she had arranged to stay at the villa herself. Rather than doing the obvious and throwing her out, one of the women takes the odd step of inviting her to stay in the villa with them (despite her husband's notorious philandering)...and everything starts to unravel. Maybe all our relationships (not just couples) have these cracks in them - things hold together and hold together, and then suddenly fall apart.

I was just reading SassyLassy's post on her thread about Janette Turner Hospital (whom I hadn't heard of); Sassy comments that Turner Hospital 'shows her characters as products of, and in relation to multiple environments' far more successfully than other writers, and that's exactly how I felt about Levy's writing here. The characters are unusually real to me, and their reactions to all sorts of circumstances seem natural and credible - as if they themselves were telling Levywhat to write, rather than her imagining them.

Edited: Oct 19, 2012, 5:59am Top

Something Might Happen by Julie Myerson

A couple of years ago I read Myerson's Me and the Fat Man, having enjoyed her journalism. I don't remember much about Me and the Fat Man other than that I found it a little disturbing, but that I liked her writing. I filed Myerson away in my brain as someone to read more of one day without going out of my way to track her books down - and I found Something Might Happen in a second-hand bookshop the other day.

Two couples, Tess and Mick, and Lennie and Alex, live in a quiet Suffolk seaside town with their families. They've known each other for years and are great friends. Life is good - or at least it seems so at first. Then, as in Swimming Home, an unexpected event puts everything out of kilter and it all comes unstuck. The unexpected event is Lennie's brutal murder, a huge shock in a peaceful community like this.

This was a really quick, easy read, and it was also quite compelling (I had my medical one morning this week and read most of it whilst sitting around waiting for various examinations), but left me feeling a bit cheated, unsatisfied. It's written well enough - Myerson's writing is pleasant to read, as ever - but I couldn't help but compare it to Swimming Home (see last post). Unlike Levy, Myerson seems to push her characters around, force them into reacting in ways that don't always seem natural. I couldn't help feeling that she'd come up with a story and wanted to tell that story at all cost, even if her characters didn't always want to comply. So when I got to the ending, yes, it's moving...but I felt that I, like the characters, had been herded there a little bit against my will.

Oct 19, 2012, 7:37pm Top

Excellent review of Swimming Home. It has certainly made me want to read it.

Oct 19, 2012, 7:42pm Top

Like the way you compared Swimming Home to Something Might Happen. ..."as if they themselves were telling Levy what to write, rather than her imagining them." Love the way you put that!

Oct 20, 2012, 5:07pm Top

Enjoyed the reviews; and interesting comparison. I'll keep Deborah Levy in mind.

Nov 16, 2012, 4:38pm Top

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

Ah, now I get it. This is my 4th or even 5th JCO and whilst I've enjoyed the others enough to go on seeking her books out (and I must say they've stayed with me), I confess that until now I'd been feeling a little emperor's-new-clothes-ish about the whole JCO thing. This one, though, is just brilliant, one of the best books I've read in a long time (and devoid of what I'd come to consider the JCO trademarks which I moaned about in #143).

The Mulvaneys are a perfectly normal American family in the 1979s, living a perfectly normal family life in their beloved family home, High Point Farm. The only thing that sets them apart from other families just like them is that they seem to have a special gift for happiness. To be the Mulvaneys is to be blessed...and to be the envy of those around, perhaps. This state of bliss comes to an abrupt end when 17 year-old Marianne, the only girl among the 4 Mulvaney children, is raped at a high school prom.

Marianne's rape shatters the family apart, sending its members hurtling off in all directions. No longer a unit, they are transformed into an uncomfortable collection of individuals between whom what's left unsaid does far more damage than the little that is said. For one member of the family, the rape is the start of a relentless descent into hopelessness; others seek revenge; some grow estranged, from choice or because they are banished.

I've often found the characters in JCO's novels interesting, compelling, even, without being able to engage with them properly. The Mulvaneys got right under my skin, though - all of them. JCO tells this huge story of family life in a matter-of-fact way; these apparently lost and broken (and likeable) people are shown getting on with their lives with sympathy but without sentimentality. They all go off down their different paths, but each path is credible - I found I had a lot of time for the Mulvaneys. And then the ending! A masterpiece of hope without being trite.

I think it might take me a while to pick anything else up...

Thanks to Lois for this one, ages ago.

Nov 16, 2012, 6:12pm Top

Enjoyed your excellent review of We were the Mulvaneys I too have been put off by her style of writing, perhaps I will try her again.

Edited: Nov 16, 2012, 8:15pm Top

Wow comments on We Were the Mulvaneys. I read that one a year or so ago, and had mixed feelings about it. I wasn't quite sure what JCO was doing in that novel. Then, this year I read My Sister, My Love, which has a very different family from the Mulvaneys, but yet--similar. And a whole bunch of things clicked in about We Were the Mulvaneys that I didn't get when I read it. I think those are the only two JCOs I've read, but I own a whole pile and look forward to the rest of them. She's an interesting writer, for sure.

Nov 17, 2012, 8:46am Top

Excellent review of We Were the Mulvaneys. I haven't read anything by JCO in many years, but your review is inspiring me to revisit her.

Nov 17, 2012, 9:35am Top

I saw part of the movie of We Were the Mulvaneys on TV once; it seemed a little melodramatic, but I never saw the whole thing.

Nov 18, 2012, 3:35pm Top

I got caught up in your review of We Were the Mulvaney's, excellent review. Still not sure if I want to read JCO's fiction, for whatever reason.

Nov 19, 2012, 1:58pm Top

>171 rachbxl: Ha! And that is one I have not read yet (I wanted to wait until the Oprah attention waned). But, I love your thoughtful comments and it makes me want to reshuffle the Oates pile (probably needs to be dusted anyway).

As you know, I am a die-hard fan of Oates---for oh so many reasons. I have enjoyed exploring her work - it's like being in a forest where one can explore all the interesting thickets and open spaces, stream banks and animal dens, root systems and foliage...all while being in the same forest, and recognizing it as such.

Group: Club Read 2012

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