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You know those books you’ve been meaning to reread for decades, but don’t?Because you’re scared of them. Meet one of mine.

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I read The Magic Mountain in my early twenties, when I was much too young to appreciate it. Or did I become afeared because of that translation exercise – the one of the 6-page long sentence. Which might not have been as long as that, but was definitely loooooooooong , and definitely written by Thomas Mann. Perhaps not in The Magic Mountain though. It might have been Doctor Faustus. Anyway something made The Magic Mountain insurmountable in my head, despite Buddenbrooks being one of my top 10 novels of all time.

And yet I always had a lurking suspicion that one day I would revisit. Hence the presence on my shelves of a beautiful second-hand copy of the Folio Society edition from 2000, translated by John E Woods, illustrated by Leonard Rosoman.  It’s probably been there for 12 years or so, but I have finally summoned up the courage to make a start, prompted firstly my Buddenbrooks conversation with Tony during last year’s German Literature Month, during which I began to contemplate rereading The Magic Mountain for this year’s event. Then I discovered that Dovegreyreader is currently making her own ascent. I have decided to join her.

Now I would be delighted to find myself bounding up this mountain with the panache of a mountain goat, but, somehow, I doubt it. So this is the plan. The Magic Mountain is Sunday afternoon reading for the next few weeks. At just under 700 pages, I should be approaching or, better still, standing on the summit by the end of February. Expect progress reports.  You may need to be on hand to supply me with oxygen when the atmosphere becomes rarified.

For now though I’m enjoying the train journey into the Swiss Alps ….

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“The moment the small, but uncommonly sturdy engine pulls out, the real adventure begins.”

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Translated from Russian by Ronald Bingley

The four-volume Folio Society edition of Chekhov stories is a thing of great beauty, and it was my intention to stretch the reading of them over the course of 2018, with one story between novels throughout the year.  There’s been a change of plan, based on my reading of the first volume, because in the course of just two stories, I became strangely addicted and decided to simply read it to the end!

I use the word strange because this happened despite me not caring particularly for the first story, The Steppe, one of Chekhov’s acknowledged masterpieces.  More a novella than a short story, it documents the journey of a young boy across the Steppe as he is delivered to his new home and his new school.  It didn’t leave me with a good feeling for the child as he is left greeting the advent of his new and unknown life with bitter tears when his uncle and the accompanying priest disappear from view.

What kind of life would it be? asks the final sentence.  Based on the previous 90 pages, a difficult one, given that the boy, Yegorushka, has been transported across the Steppe, at one point handed off to an unknown band of wagon merchants, bullied mercilessly by one of them, almost caught his death of cold in a snowstorm, and is finally left to board with a woman, who isn’t really that willing.  No wonder there are bitter tears.  It’s almost as if this is an anti-bildungsroman story.  His experiences on tne journey should have toughened him up, but Yegorushka is an remains a (lost young) boy.

There is another purpose to this story, of course, and that is to document the landscape and life on it as seen through the eyes of an innocent and inexperienced child.  That was an education in itself, both for Yegorushka and myself.

However, I found the story quite upsetting.  And was a little apprehensive about continuing.  Was Chekhov going to put me through the emotional mangle with every tale?

Not quite, but let me tell you, he certainly doesn’t play it for laughs!  (Do any Russians, I ask myself?)

This first volume of  4 contains 13 stories from the years 1888-1891.  Table of contents for ardent Chekhovians below.

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Folio Society Collected Stories of Anton Chekhov Volume 1

I’d only previously read one –  The Bet, in which dinner party conversation turns to a debate on the death penalty vs life imprisonment.  A young lawyer opines as follows: The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral.  But, if I had to choose between them, I’d certainly choose the second.  Any kind of life is better than no life at all. At which point a wealthy banker offers him 2 million roubles to voluntarily submit to 15 years of solitary confinement.  He accepts and spends the next 15 years reading any and everything that takes his fancy.  What’s the outcome?  An unexpected drama with a surprisingly wise outcome.

Chekhov is very knowing – physicians generally are, coming into contact with the wide span of humankind – but his eye is not always kindly. While the upper classes in the form of the The Princess are lambasted with the harshest of criticism (though she is as impervious to it as a duck is to water.), so too are the attitudes of the bullying women abusers of the peasant classes.

The emotional turmoil I experienced during The Steppe is insignificant to the distress experienced by the hosts of The Party whose day descends by degrees from comfortable, if superficial, contentment to heart-wrenching personal tragedy.  Life is fragile …

… and death something to which we must become reconciled.  That this theme occurs again and again should not surprise.  In 1884, at the age of just 24, Chekhov contracted tuberculosis and so, the transience of life was bound to occupy his thoughts.  In Gusev he deals directly with death through consumption as a ship full of sick decommissioned soldiers makes it way back to Russia, although most of the passengers, including the title character, won’t survive the journey.  In A Dreary Story a terminally ill, elderly doctor faces his final six months of life. This story was a difficult – dreary, even – read, because of the doctor’s dawning realisation that life has already stripped him of his joy.  He may have an illustrious reputation, but what use is that now? He has only one relationship of value remaining, and events are conspiring to rob him of that also …. Death, when it comes, will be a relief.

Cheery stuff, isn’t it?  Amazing that I found these stories so addictive.  Perhaps that’s because I found Chekhov’s vision to be true.

But to end on a lighter note – if a story about the devil and a man’s soul can be said to be light material – it’s not every day that the man gets the upper hand, but the cobbler in The Cobbler and the Devil does just that – and all without the deus ex machina that Goethe used to get Faust out of a bind.  Yes, I smiled at that.

Thoughts on volume two to follow shortly.

19B97187-B21A-412A-B37A-725CC42C1564Two for the price of one.  I’ve never read a novel to which that applied more.  Or even that old chestnut “a novel of two halves” ….

To serve as an introduction, Susan Ryeland, editor for Cloverleaf Books, tells us about Alan Conway’s latest novel, the 9th Atticus Pünd murder mystery.  She hints that it is a novel that dramatically changed her life.Then we are plunged into Alan Conway’s novel, a cosy murder mystery, if you will, a homage to Agatha Christie.  Because Atticus Pünd is from the same mould as Poirot. You know, one of those superior beings, who solve everything before we mere mortals have taken a breathe.  What saves Pünd from the incessant eye-rolling that Poirot induces in me is, of course, his dark German heritage and the fact that his terminal illness gives him an air of vulnerability.

The Pünd mystery – if I may call it that – is set in the 1950’s.  It concerns the death of the unpopular Mary Blakiston, who is found at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck, and eventually, as is the case in all good murder mysteries, a second more brutal killing.  The village is populated by a host of typically Christie suspects (the ex-husband, the vicar, the squire, etc),  each with secrets of their own and motives for killing one or both of the dead.  Horowitz doesn’t skimp on what is effectively the first of two murder mysteries in the book.  He ensures his fictional author pays attention and mixes the necessary ingredients: the clever detective, his less-able side-kick and the reader must negotiate their way through clues and red-herrings aplenty.  Horowitz even has Conway constructing his mystery as Christie used to, using the structure of a nursery rhyme: One for sorrow/two for joy/three for a girl/four for a boy/five for silver/six for gold/seven for a secret/never to be told.

And indeed it appears that way, because the seventh and final section of the Conway novel is missing!  Recovering it is made more difficult by the fact that Conway commits suicide immediately after delivering the manuscript.

Susan Ryeland is determined to find the final chapter, because it is essential to the survival of Cloverleaf Books.  It will become the bestseller that will keep the publishing house afloat. And so begins the second, contemporary mystery, because when she goes down to Conway’s home, there’s a slight whiff of foul play that grows stronger by the minute.  Particularly when she begins to uncover the parallels between what has now become Conway’s final novel and the contemporary “reality”.

Was the 9th Atticus Pünd mystery, therefore, a statement of intent or a self-fulfilling prophecy?  Or maybe even both?

In the course of her investigation, Ryeland comes to realise how much Conway despised his fictional creation, wealth and fame notwithstanding. (Here Horowitz is drawing on the history of crime fiction and the similar feelings that  Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie had for their respective detectives.)  And to hammer the point home, Horowitz invents the entire backcatalogue of Atticus Pünd mysteries. Neither is this an embellishing conceit, it is crucial to solving the mystery of Conway’s death and finding that final chapter.

Ryeland also serves a secondary purpose.  As editor of a publishing house, she is ideally placed to serve as a literary critic, and her deconstruction of the mystery genre and reasoning on their popularity are as enjoyable as her sleuthing.

Other reviewers have called Magpie Murders (note not The Magpie Murders – it’s important) “fiendishly clever”.  I can only agree.  Horowitz planned the novel for 5 months and the result is flawless.  It’s a brave novel too.  Imagine all that effort, only to kill off your detective.  No chance of a sequel, then, unless Susan Ryeland has another novel to publish ….

The CBA Plan for 2018

I was disappointed with the number of pre-2017 TBR books I read.  I could have sworn it was more than 45 out of 115. So I’m setting a target of an average of 5 pre-2018 TBR books per month for this year. 60 books in total, likely 50% of my reading. The CBA plan is designed to help me achieve it.

C is for Choice

I concentrated on associations with the letter B during 2017.  So I read Böll and Bronte (Anne), historical fiction about Robert Burns and the Borgias, and a menagerie of titles with birds (doves, eagles, magpies, parrots and swallows).  In total 23 of the 45 pre-2017 TBR reads had an association with the letter B.

And so C is for choice in 2018. I have shelves of books with colours in the title, or cats or canines, comestibles, cities and countries I have visited, and some I have not. Coffee-table books and crime novels by the score, plus a substantial collection of Folio Society classics.  Plus an untold number of 700+ page chunksters (gulp). There are also a couple of centenaries I’d like to mark this year.  Muriel Spark’s, of course.  She was born in the same year as the Austro-Hungarian empire fell.  So I’ll join in Ali’s #readingmuriel2018 now and again, and I will revisit Roth’s The Radetzky March.  There are also a couple of bi-centennial publication anniversaries.  Will this be the year I finally read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and/or E T A Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr?

C is also continuation.  I shall progress from Anne to Charlotte Bronte, read more countries for Marina’s #EU27project and complete my second circuit round the globe with Pushkin Press. I’d also like to squeeze in some more Böll – I didn’t read as much as I wanted to last year.  And I shall pick off a few more from my completist reading list.

C, then, appears to mean spoilt for choice.  How ever will I determine what to read next? That’s not usually a problem. I had no issues choosing to start the year with Chekhov.  But some books simply get lost in the stacks.  So it is time to enlist the aid of the cookie jar to increase their chances of being found again. My version is not full of titles though; it contains 50 categories and random.org will pick the categories to be read next.  The first drawing pulled out categories, 11 (a travelogue), 29 (an EU27 project read), and 41 (a book from Europa Editions).  I get to pick which titles I’m in the mood for.  Right now, it’s these.

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Once these have been completed, there will be a second cookie jar drawing.

B is for blogging

In December I decided only to review 4 or 5 star reads, using my monthly wrap-up post to quickly mention/review the rest.  I’m going to continue with that system for now.  It may mean fewer posts, but, it should mean more reading and a reduced TBR at the end of the year, but, only if ….

A really does mean acquiring less

There’s always a devil in the detail, isn’t there? I exceeded my acquisition (purchase) allowance in 2017. (Quelle surprise!) At least, I know where I went awry.  The temptations of the Edinburgh Book Festival were too much, and I had a bit of a (ok a massive) book-buying binge in December.  So C is for a radically changed purchasing strategy.  No book-buying ban. No purchasing targets. Just one rule. When I buy something, it has to be read immediately.  That way, purchases should not add to the TBR.  I know I will have to keep my eye on this, and so, I’ll add a TBR watch to the monthly wrap-up. (And no doubt,  I’ll be reading new purchases to the exclusion of everything else in the 2 months following Edinburgh Book Festival …)

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I’m pretty sure I said I’d read these last year, but what difference is another year, when you’ve been waiting for well over a decade on the TBR?

Which book(s) have you chosen for your first read(s) in 2018?

2017 Books of the Year

When I analysed my 2017 reading statistics, I was so pleased that there was a nye on perfect 50:50 split between English and foreign languages, that I decided this year’s awards would reflect that, with each having an English and a foreign language winner.  This has resulted in a rather longer than usual list of 14, but so be it.  All of these books are likely to stay on my shelves forever.  It is also a surprising list.  Only 3 out of the 46 ladies I read appear on it (discounting those in the two anthologies.) Yet 3 of the 13 Pushkin Press titles are present.   Food for thought.  Perhaps I should make a bee-line for the ladies from Pushkin Press next year?

But enough of 2018 . Today’s spotlight belongs to the winners of 2017. Links are to my full reviews. Only titles read for the first time in 2017 are eligible.  Drumroll please.

Books that added authors to my completist reading list

Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles (1950)

Ursula Poznanski – Elanus (2016) (Not reviewed because there is no English translation. Why ever not? I feel a crusade coming on.)

Best Novel

Sarah Dunant: In the Name of the Family (2017)

Roy Jacobsen – The Unseen (2016)  Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw

Best Novella

Christopher Morley – Parnassus on Wheels  (1917)

Heinrich Böll – And Where Were You, Adam? (1951) Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

Best short story collections

The Moth – All These Wonders (2017)

Things Look Different in the Light – Medardo Fraile (2014) Translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

Best travelling companions (I spent 2 months in Northern Germany, this year, so no surprises about the German connections here.)

James Hawes – The Shortest History of Germany (2017)

Cay Rademacher – The Wolf Children (2017) Translated  from German by Peter Millar

The Biggest Surprises (i.e the ones I didn’t expect to be as magical as they were)

The Disappearances – Emily Bain Murphy (2017)

How A Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by A Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog – Johann Peter Hebel (1811) Translated from German by John Hibberd and Nicholas Jacob

The I Capture The Zeitgeist Award (although not necessarily the same Zeitgeist)

Stav Sherez – The Intrusions (2017)

1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (2016) Edited by Boris Dralyuk

——-———

A surprising list as I said earlier.  The biggest surprise to me is that there are 4 short story collections on it.  6, if you count the novellas.  7 or 50% of the list, if you want to argue that Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is a collection of interconnected short stories, rather than a bona fide novel.  Which I will because then, there is an even bigger surprise in store.  Both of my books of the year are short story collections!  And they are ….

2017 Books of the Year

And, for those who think I’m cheating, and insist on there being only one book of the year, I would pick the Bradbury, which would edge in front of Fraile, by a nose, simply because I’ve never read anything like it before.

December is a tricky month.  I’m always in the doldrums after German Literature Month. But it’s the month of long nights – pitch black here at 4 pm – and so December is an ideal opportunity for long, undiluted reading sessions.  It’s a couple of years since I abandoned star ratings on the blog at least, but in my head they’re still going strong.  I decided to try an experiment, only reviewing 4 or 5 star books with other titles receiving quick commentary in the monthly wrap-up.

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Physical books Read December 2017

That sure cleared up time for reading. I will have completed 14 books by the end of December, only 4 of which I have reviewed.  Not that it was a bad reading month even though at one point there was a disaster looming with 3 2-star reads one after another. I will reveal all. It will shock you – it shocked me.

2 star reads

Ali Smith – Winter.  All I can say is that the door to appreciation that Autumn left slightly ajar, closed – nay, slammed – shut during Winter.  I knew it wasn’t going well, when after 30 pages I decided to re-read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to get a handle of what was going on.  Dickens’s maudling, sentimental Christmas Carol.  Unsurprisingly, it didn’t make me like Winter any better either,

The third two-star read – and prepare yourself, this is shock of the year time – is Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  I’d been looking forward to re-reading this for James’s All Jane Readalong for ages.  Well, this turned into the most tedious book of the year.  It was just one inane conversation after another, with one lingering look after another.  Move from Kellynch Hall to Bath for more of the same.  A little bit of excitement when a silly young girl falls down some steps in Lyme Regis.  I’ll stop there before my snarkiness gets the better of me.

Things improved after that, thankfully,

3 or 3.5 star reads

The Island at the End of Everything – Kiran Millwood Hargrave
More adventure in the South Seas, this time a young-adult historical novel based on effects of the government’s decision to turn Culion Island into a leper colony.  An interesting – sometimes fact is stranger than fiction  – and moving account of the emotional impact of the policy.  Informative and thought-provoking with regard to the disease and the way we view the disabled.  Plenty of adventure thrown in for young readers too.  Currently shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book of the Year Award.

The Sun is God – Adrian McKinty
Return to the Island of Kabakon which I visited courtesy of Christian Kracht during German Literature Month. I mentioned that not everyone survived their stay on the island of the sun-worshipping cocoivores. McKinty’s novel imagines what would have happened if the authorities had launched an investigation into those mysterious deaths. Entertaining and highly imaginative.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson / Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek – Anthony O’Neill / The Travelling Companion – Ian Rankin
The original, the sequel, and a modern homage to Stevenson’s classic tale.  All perfect for long, winter nights.  A themed-read post to follow.

4-star reads

The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe – Franziska Du Reventlow
Short stories from the Grande Dame of Bohemian Munich.  Reviewed for Shiny New Books.

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horowicz
A homage to Agatha Christie incorporating a deconstruction of the murder mystery genre. Very clever, tongue in cheek in places, naughty in others. Review to follow.

Germanii – Vladislav Hristov
Short poems – translated from Bulgarian into German – of observations by a Bulgarian immigrant to Germany.  Review here.

Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic
Award-winning debut crime novel from Australia. The fact that the P.I is deaf brings in all kinds of new angles, Writing in top gear, from the very first sentence. Review here.

Five-star reads

An Edinburgh Sketch Book – Iain Fraser and Anne Fraser Smith
The most beautiful book of the year. Review here.

Elanus – Ursula Poznanski
A thrilling YA novel about a boy, his drone and the problems that ensue when he sees something he shouldn’t, and then does something he shouldn’t.  The novel is made more fascinating by the fact that the boy – a stroppy hormonal teenager, actually – isn’t so likeable.  Elanus is a perfect blend of Bildungsroman and techno-thriller. I simply could not put it down, reading all 400+ pages in German in just 3 days! Given that Erebos was another 5-star read, Poznanski’s YA output has been added to my completist list and Aquila is on its way to me now. I’m unlikely to review Elanus in full, because there is no English translation.  I don’t get it.  Question:  Why is no-one translating Poznanski for the Anglophone market? Answer most likely:  Because not enough people picked up and read Erebos.  People, I urge you to go do it now.

Other Posts

German Literature Month VII: Author Index
From Fact to Fiction: The  Russian Revolution
Six Degrees of Separation: From It to On Writing

2017 Reading Statistics
YTD 107 Read, 8 Audio Books, 12 DNF
November 2017 14 Read 2 DNF

A little slicing and dicing of those numbers feels appropriate now we’ve reached the end of the year.

1) English:11 foreign languages 58:57 (Includes 5 German originals)
2) German:Other languages 34:23
3) Male:Female 64:46 (Excludes 5 anthologies)
4) Fiction:Non-fiction 110:5
5) Pre-2017 TBR:Acquisitions/Library books 45:70 (I’ll never reduce the TBR at this rate.)
6) Published 2017: Published prior 45:70
7) Top publisher Pushkin Press – 13 titles read

Do those figures provide any clues to the makeup of my best of year list? Maybe, maybe not.  All will be revealed tomorrow ….