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Eyrie – Tim Winton

EyrieTom Keely, once a renowned environmental activist, has lost his job, his reputation and his self-esteem.  He has retreated to his eyrie, a flat 10 floors up, with self-pity, booze and pills for company.

There’s only one direction in which to travel, and Winton’s plot is designed to bring the man back down to earth.

A chance encounter with his neighbour, a woman from his past and her grandson, is the catalyst for this process.  There’s something about them that appeals to Keely’s better nature and he begins to reengage.  BUT, given that he is a shambling wreck of a man with seriously diminished brain power,  this may not be the best decision.  Gemma was always bad news, even when they were kids, when she and her elder sister sought refuge in Tom’s home while her father was battering her mother. Things haven’t improved for her since those days.  She finds herself caring for her grandson because her daughter is in jail for drug offences.  The child’s father plays no active role in his son’s upbringing and besides, he’s lean, mean and it’s best he remains unaware of your existence.

In those far off days, Gemma was protected by Tom’s father, a preacher with a heart as big as his physique and  a reputation of mythical proportions. Tom suddenly finds himself in competition with that reputation, wanting to prove himself worthy of the big man. The irony is that the man who has walked away, rejected and alienated those who are actually on his side, does not turn away from the person who presents the greatest threat.

The character study of Tom Keely, and his impaired judgment is fascinating and perturbing in equal measure; that of Gemma is laced with ambiguity.  She, too, is damaged goods.  The protection afforded in the past, temporary, and when the Keelys moved away, the chickens came home to roost. She has survived through developing a thick skin and strategies, not always beneficial to those around her.  So, while she is in some instances a victim, in others she is a malign presence.  It’s not always clear whether she is a vulnerable adult, genuinely needing Tom’s help, or a predator, capitalising on Tom’s vulnerabiliites to drag him into the vortex of her own maelstrom.

Eyrie is an intense story, vibrantly told. Winton is an author I’ve been meaning to read for years and I’m now annoyed that I’ve waited so long. (I started here because the novel is longlisted for both the 2014 IMPAC and the 2015 Folio Prize). Purists may not like the fact that his prose is choppy, not always using full sentences. I did. It reflects the way people think, and there’s a plethora of history contained in the 1st sentence. “So.”  Descriptive passages are finely tuned, whether that to the sleazy after-effects of Tom’s binges or the beauty of the natural habitat of Western Australia.The ambiguities that pervade the text are masterful. Motifs of falling men recur throughout. Is Winton foreshadowing or teasing? At the start Tom has already fallen, even though he lives on high.  The novel ends with him literally flat out on the pavement. Does this mean that the downward spiral continued until physical circumstances matched the metaphysical and nothing else remains? Or is the lowest physical point the moment of his greatest triumph and the start of better things to come? That is for each reader to decide.

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imageSnow Country (Penguin Modern Classics)Translated by Edward G Seidensticker,

As Tony, the host of January in Japan, builds up his pantheon of J-Lit Giants, he is also identifying whacking great holes in my reading experience.  That pantheon now consists of 15 and, before this year’s January in Japan began, I had only read a short story by Mishima and one by Tanazaki. Time to put that to rights (or at least double the numbers) by the end of this year’s event.

Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country entered my radar as a result of reading David J Simon’s wonderful An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful this time last year, part of which takes place in hot spa in the same mountainous region of Japan. Kawabata’s novel was cited when he won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1968.

Good job I wasn’t on the jury then!

Where shall I begin? Let’s start with Culture and my anathema to Shimamura, a rich married man who leaves his wife and children at home In Tokyo to holiday at the spa and cavort with the local geisha for weeks on end before returning to wife. (The plot in a nutshell.) I use the word cavort, but it’s not as blatant as that particularly as this is not a graphically sexual novel.   While he’s behaving this way, Shimamura spends his time obsessing about a third female, one he saw on the train journeying to the spa, tending to an obviously terminally-patient.  This behaviour earns him no approbation and seems acceptedw as normal.

Then there’s the female lead – Komako – one of many local geishas, paid to entertain the male guests at parties with music, song and possibly/probably more. (It’s not explicit.)  She’s capricious and spends most of her time drunk, perilously close to a state of emotional collapse and manically worried about her reputation, particularly if she’s found in Shimamura’s room come morning time. …

Must be a geisha-taboo – a convention not explained in the text (why would it be – Kawabata’s Japanese audience would get it).  Neither is there an introductory essay in this edition, not even the one originally written by the translator.  I found it odd that Penquin chose not to reprint it here.

I could have used it because there was so much flying over my head. Conversations between Shimamura and Komako full of non-sequiturs, zero character development, events that I knew were symbolic and significant, though I couldn’t tell you how. ( Not even the climactic burning house scene.) It felt very much like an episodic patchwork, which in many ways it is.  An understanding of the novel’s etymology tells me all I need to know.

Any redeeming qualities? The descriptions of the snow country itself and its progression through the seasons. It was a great book to read as the belated Scottish winter arrived.  Kawabata’s descriptive prowess was much in evidence and I admired many visual and psychologically astute sentences. A couple of chapters in, I was thinking of The Great Gatsby in the sense of a lean, spare analogous novel with not one word wasted, packed with hidden meaning.  I’m sure the same is true of Snow Country. It’s just that I don’t have the context to decipher it.

imageThis Is Where I Am – Karen Campbell (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Well done, book group.  I could not have have started the 2015 reading year in better fashion.  This is Where I Am is a rivetting novel that I urge everyone to read – especially if you are from Glasgow.

It is the story of two people starting from a personal ground zero.  Deborah is a recently bereaved widow who volunteers at the Scottish Refugee Council in an effort to fill her time. Abdi is an asylum seeker from Somalia who has arrived in Glasgow with his 4 year-old daughter, Rebecca.  We do not know what has happened to bring him here, but we do know his daughter stopped speaking following the loss of her mother.

Deborah is assigned to Abdi as a mentor.  Her role isn’t just to guide him through the process of applying for refugee status.  She is to show him the city that may become his home and help him adjust to his new existence. It’s not plain sailing.  First there is the physical reality. “There are not that many tall, black men in Glasgow”.  Abdi is conspicuous. Glasgow has its fair share of rascists and Abdi is targeted.  Secondly, the mental trauma of the past. A series of flashbacks reveal the reasons for Abdi asylum seeking status and his daughter’s silence.  Thirdly, the trials of a bureaucratic system, designed, at times, to prevent asylum seekers and refugees from making progress.

Deborah too has much to learn.  She is financially comfortable but the long years of caring for her husband have left her isolated. So the volunteer work is a first step into reconnecting with society.  Perhaps for this reason, she invests more in the relationship with Abdi and his daughter than I would have expected, though it’s fortunate for them that she becomes a friend who cares, despite the emotional scars and cultural minefields that must be negotiated.

You could say that this is a political novel and, in these days when – shall we say – foreigner-bashing is becoming increasingly prevalent, it will make some question their preconceptions. However, in no way is this a didactic read.  It is a humane story of reentry into society.

It is also a portrait of a city. Each chapter begins with the description and history of a place, whether that be one of Glasgow’s iconic sites, such as the Kelvingrove museum, or one of the less touristy spots, such as Leverndale mental hospital. They are all places where Deborah and Abdi meet and the descriptions serve to show the contrast and colour of Scotland’s largest city.  The same is true of the demography.  The supporting cast is just as varied.  For every obnoxious rascist (and one is particularly beyond the pale), there is a warm, generous-hearted Glaswegian.   For every hypocritical professional cum politician, there is a sincere man of the streets.  For every asylum seeker who succeeds, three fail with differing fates awaiting them.

Campbell is not just showing where Abdi is, but how it is, and it’s not always pretty. It is an emotionally honest novel, uncomfortable in places. Campbell does give us an ambiguously happy ending (you have to read it) but at the cost of an unfeasible plot twist.  (My only criticism.)

That said, this doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the novel at all.  Primarily due to the language.  Whether it be Glaswegian banter in a supermarket fishmongery, impenetrable bureaucratic jargon, or the bemused misunderstanding of someone coming to terms with English idiom, the pitch is flawless and frequently hilarious.

Her Sunday School teacher told her she was a ‘mucky pup’ after craft-time, when she had glue on her hair and chin  I looked up “pup’ in my dictionary afterwards – it means young dog.  She called my little girl an animal!

Fortunately Abdi realises this is not an insult and adopts it as his daughter’s nickname. Lovely, isn’t it? Just another of this novel’s many endearing features.


Winner of the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize
Translated by Anne McLean

This novel first came to my notice at last year’s Ayewrite! Festival when Kamila Shamsie extolled its virtues.  It then went on to win the IMPAC. As I’m about to start reading the TBR books longlisted for this year’s prize, I thought it would best to read last year’s winner first.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. It was a pleasant surprise, I hasten to add. I think I was expecting the horrors of a political dictatorship. No idea why (something to do with Vásquez’s previous novel, The Informers, perhaps?) In many ways though, it is about dictatorship, albeit the dictatorship of post traumatic stress disorder.

The narrator, Antonio, is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He barely survives an assassination in which his companion, the target, is killed. As the two men were in the early stages of a tentative friendship, not much is known about why someone would want Ricardo Laverde dead. Except that he had just been released from a 19 year imprisonment.  There is also the mystery surrounding the recording that reduced Ricardo to tears shortly before his death.

Antonio is deeply traumatised and, following a lengthy convalescence, becomes obsessed with discovering the whys and wherefores.  This search, while understandable, is full of personal risk. His partner is beginning to weary of his post-incident  preoccupations and Ricardo Laverde’s past can be nothing but murky.

So it proves to be, and, within the context of Colombian 20th century history, this inevitably involves the drugs trade. Vásquez takes us back to the time when it all began; when it appeared harmless. The contemporary narrative post dates the era of notorious drug baron, Pablo Escobar – his ranch is already lying in ruins –  but the ongoing and murderous effects of his legacy are all too clear.

Two families are ruined by it. It is the human interest in these stories that form the heart of the novel, and make it beat.  That and the tour of Columbia, from the streets of Bogota through the mountains to La Dorada in the hot and sticky Magdalena Valley. Vásquez never takes us into the seedy drug dens or the world of the addict.  He has no need.  There is drama aplenty. For Columbia also has a legacy of fatal air accidents and Ricardo Laverde’s life is irrevocably coloured by the fallout from two of these. The sounds on the tape mentioned earlier are of his future falling apart.  As Antonio’s quest progresses, patterns in his life begin to mirror those in Ricardo’s – to the point that he, too, is left in possession of the sounds of his own life falling into the abyss.

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I have too many books.

I know this because  a) books go missing and remain lost and b) 2014 was the year I lost control of the TBR (I couldn’t keep my catalogue on librarything up-to-date) and c) I face analysis paralysis deciding which book to read next and then when I do, I can’t find it, bringing me full circle to a).

I was going to post a picture of my physical library to demonstrate the sorry state of affairs, but it is a disgrace, a battleground no less. Gone are the days of the pleasant reading space.  These days I must cut a swathe through the book stacks, risking life and limb, or more likely concussion, just to find a reading seat.

Woodcut from Swift’s Battle of the Books

In 1704, there were similar scenes of aggression in St James’s library, although the battle was not between books and reader.  It was a civil war between ancient and modern books. Did the Ancients contain everything one needed to know, or did one need the Moderns?  Could the Moderns claim superiority when they were standing on the shoulders of giants?  Were the Moderns deserving of the shelf space they occupied in the King’s Library? 

Jonathan Swift satirises the controversy then raging in European circles by pitching the books and their authors against each other in an epic battle, replete with sabre-rattling, insults and side skirmishes. The argument had started in France with Fontanelle arguing for the Moderns.  Sir William Temple countered robustly on behalf of the Ancients.  Considering he was working as Temple’s secretary at the time, Swift showed considerable panache/courage/bravery satirising the controversy, and you might think that the outcome was a given.  Indeed the narrator does at times show Temple’s bias: The army of the  Moderns

Consisting chiefly of lighthorse, heavy-armed foot and mercenaries – whereof the foot were in general but sorrily armed and worse clad, their horses large, but extremely out of case and heart. However, some few by trading among the Ancients had furnished themselves tolerably enough.

However, Swift gives his text the feel of an ancient manuscript, feigning missing lines, sections and ultimately, leaving the battle unfinished.  The argument is for others to win, not the satirist.

Now I’m no expert on either the Ancients or Swift’s 15th-17th century Moderns, and so I cannot comment on the outcomes of the duels as they occur in The Battle of the Books.  Nor can I say I’m particularly curious to investigate in detail.  However, it strikes me that the argument is timeless.  In my library, contemporary literature could well be slugging it out with the literature of the 18th-20th centuries.  I might spend some time during 2015 setting up a similar battle. A mini tournament of books if you will. But first I have to identify (and find) the champions for either side.

I have girded my loins and donned protective headgear.  I’m going in …

… guaranteeing carnage in the form of a cull.

 

This was 2014

I’m not doing an eclectic “best of” this year because my reading patterns are changing.

I’m finding that instead of reading more widely, I’m reading more deeply – picking a theme and staying with it for 1,2,3 or even more books. It’s a pattern likely to continue throughout 2015.

As will most likely my picking of reading material associated with travelling. I did a lot of that during 2014: holidays,  weekends and days away, attendance at literary festivals and ad-hoc events.  It didn’t seem to rain as much in Scotland this year. (Long may that continue.)  Loved it all and hope for more of the same next year.  Less reading time converted into  15 books/5000 pages fewer than last year though surprisingly I wrote the same amount of blog posts. (93 to last year’s 91).  I’ve enjoyed 2014 in ways other than having my nose stuck in a book (gasp!)  and the following list of favourites are inevitably associated with some of that.  They haven’t been picked solely on the basis of their literary merit.

That said, I’ll start with my favourite (and best, in every sense of the word ) book of the year.

For the second year in a row, I’ve found my Book of The Year during German Literature Month.  Though this one is neither  written in German, nor is it literature, but Neil McGregor’s Germany: Memories of A Nation is a work of genius.  Not just for Germanophiles, but more than likely to be.  It just pipped Rory McLean’s Berlin: Imagine A Citywhich I read while there, into second place.  McLean’s book sparked a reading project to follow Berlin through the ages via fiction.  That turned out to be a great idea.  The first novel I picked up in this project, Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, just happens to be my Novel of The Year.  Staying in Berlin a little while longer, Ben Fergusson’s The Spring of Kasper Meier, set amidst the devastion of Berlin in 1946,  conjured the best evocation of place.

A cracking debut novel it is too, yet not my debut of the year.  That rosette is embossed with Sarah Maine’s Bhalla Stranda Victorian saga and another novel I picked up to coincide with my travels, this time to the Hebrides. I was superglued to its pages.

Now that we’re in Scotland,  one of my highlights of the year was participating in the Read Scotland challenge.  (The only one I completed as it turned out.)  Although intending to continue reading one Scottish book a month through 2015, not many of the 15 Scottish novels I read in 2014 make it to this list.  It appears that the Read Scotland Challenge was an accumulative pleasure.  I will mention Lin Anderson’s crime novel Pictures of the Dead, set in the derelict cinemas in Glasgow though.  Hands down, best first chapter and my favourite crime novel of my year.

The other Scottish call-out goes to R L Stevenson, whose A Child’s Garden of Verses charmed the socks off me …. and added him to my completist reading list.

Elena Ferrante was also added to that list; My Brillant Friend, as brilliant as everyone says it is.  Novels 2 and 3 not hitting the same heights.  Addictive nonetheless and I’m looking forward to the final volume of the quartet in 2015 (hopefully).

While supporting #readwomen2014, I concentrated on the ladies on my completist list.  My favourite from this selection was Margaret Atwood’s short story anthology Stone Mattress, which I didn’t review in full because Victoria did such a splendiferous job on Shiny New Books (winner of my best newcomer award. :) ). I was relieved to see Atwood back on top form as Maddaddam was a DNF earlier in the year.  Stone Mattress is currently longlisted for the Folio Prize as is Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf In Manhattan, the most imaginative homage I’ve read to date.

Each year I have a standard goal to read 33% in translations.  Last year, thanks mainly to the Simenon reissues and German Literature Month I’m just over 50%.  Yet only 2 of the books mentioned so far are translations (which is rather telling).  So let me give Yogo Ogawa’s short-story collection Revenge an honourable mention as it was in the running  for both Favourite Translated Fiction (edged out by Baum) and Favourite Short Story Collection (edged out by Atwood).

Finally, the book that was most fun was built on the idiosyncrasies of  German compound nouns and written by a non-German speaker.  Schottenfreude, was exactly that, a joy from start to finish and the most beautifully designed to boot.

———-

For the purists

5-star reads of 2014 (7/86)
Stone Mattress: Margaret Atwood, Grand Hotel – Vicki Baum,  The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer, The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey, The Boat – Nam Le,   Germany: Memories of A Nation – Neil McGregor, Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition – Ben Schott.

4.5 star reads of 2014 (2/86)
Schroder – Amity Gaige, Revenge – Yogo Ogawa

Complete reading list with ratings

—–

For the statisticians

Male:female reading list ratio 43:42 (1 mixed anthology)
Male:female favourites ratio 5:7

Fiction:non-fiction reading list ratio  76:10
Fiction:non-fiction favourites ratio 9:3

Anglophone:translated fiction reading list ratio (includes poetry) 35:37
Anglophone:translated fiction favourites ratio (includes poetry) 6:3

Published 2014: published pre-2014 ratio 40:46
Published 2014: published pre-2014 favourites ratio 6:6

New-to-me:Previously read authors reading list ratio 43:27
New-to-me:previously read authors favourites ratio 9:3

Review copy:Purchase:Library Book Ratio 40:42:4

This is where I thank the OUP blog for alerting me to the Radio 4 series compiled by the Director of The British Museum, Dr Neil McGregor and seeking to distil 600 years of German history into 30×15 minute episodes. (The series is still available on iplayer for another 12 months, if you’re so inclined.)

The premise, which enables such concision, is the exploration of German history and culture through objects: one iconic object per episode. The series begins with the Brandenburg Gate and ends, completing its circle, with the Reichstag.  Inbetween there is a diverse mix of the great (Charlemagne’s crown) the good (Barlach’s Angel), the small (the coins of the Holy Roman Empire) the seemingly insignificant (a diving costume),the literary (Christa Wolf’s debut novel) and the absolutely essential (beer and sausages) … although not a mention of toasted almonds.  Tut, tut.

As brilliant as the series is, I found myself a little frustrated.  I am a visual communicator and I needed to see these artifacts. Without the time to visit London to see the special exhibition at the British Museum (on until 25.01.2015), I decided to treat myself to the accompanying book.  (At £30 it wasn’t cheap, but it was affordable and worth every penny.) I continued listening to the radio as I paged through the chapters, reading the more detailed text simultaneously   Pictures I wanted, and I was rewarded with a visual banquet  … of everything imaginable.  Maps of Germany through the ages, portraits, sculptures, historical documents, objects of state, domestic artifacts. Tales of grandeur, tales of the everyday.  Surprises.  For example: I had no idea Germany used to stretch – legitimately – into Russia or that Kant never left Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) and so never set foot in the Germany of today. I hesitated only as the dark chapters of the 20th century approached but even here McGregor provided details that are stranger than fiction such as the irony of design in the Buchenwald concentration camp gate. 

History has never been so immersive.. Nor do I think this book will be consigned to the shelves to gather dust.  I’m pretty sure it will serve as a springboard to more German history and a contextualising reference to further German literature reading from this point on.

Five_Stars.GIF

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