Everything’s exhausting (<– the best way to utter this sentence is to sing it to the tune of that Lego Movie song). It’s only been exhausting lately, though. Just that time of year. And what’s good is that very, very soon this exhaustion will be done once Easter break starts. Lisbon!! I’m ready for you… not so much for your half-marathon (LOL) but definitely for your infamous custard desserts, which are obviously going to be the best way for me to get in touch with my Portuguese ancestry :D
Something that is definitely AWESOME rather than exhausting is that this year I am on the Shadow IFFP jury! This is an informal group of happy blogging folks who love reading translated & international fiction. We are going to read ALL of the books on this list (with the same kind of BRING IT ON attitude with which one decides to clean all the things). We are then going to select our own shortlist (which will most likely be different from the official one) and then before the real winner is announced we’ll have a top-secret vote/Hunger Games fight-to-the-death and crown our very own 2015 IFFP Prize Shadow Champion. This is a completely unofficial endeavor; there is nothing in it for anybody rather than reading tons of good books, talking about them, discovering new authors and hopefully promoting high-quality translated fiction along the way (you can read all about the other panelists here).
Um, I am also going to be honest and say that I am probably not going to to read EVERY single book on the list by the time the shortlist is announced sometime in mid-April… (sorry Knausgaard, you are probably not going to make the cut… but I totally want to read you someday! I promise!!) BUT either way I am super excited and can’t wait to get started with Murakami tomorrow. I’m also looking forward to Can Xue and Tomás González (a Colombian author I’d heard of but have never read).
In the meantime, here’s an update on some books I’ve read lately in what so far has been a relatively s.l.o.o.o.w. reading year for me… something that is hopefully going to change (!). Before I get started, let me just say that there are TOO MANY GOOD BOOKS in the world. I could have easily given all of the books below an asterisk (which represents excellence) on my reading list–I’ve basically had to refrain myself from actually implementing my usual ranking system or else every book I’ve read so far this year would have one and my list would look totally whack…
My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)
Well, I just gobbled this book down like I was bingeing on Netflix. **** TV! Read books!! I’m currently reading the sequel (The Story of a New Name), but as much as I love being immersed in Naples-world I’m probably going to have to put it aside for now due to all the other reading I have to do (see IFFP news above).
There were several reasons why I found this book (and am finding its sequel) so addictive. The first is the complete and utter pleasure of being sucked into a world that I know absolutely nothing about–I’ve never been to Naples, am obviously not part of the generation of any of these characters, so when I read this book I am basically in a WHOLE NEW WORLD a la Aladdin. THIS is what the very best fiction can do: suck you into an unfamiliar universe that is utterly absorbing. The world-building and level of detail here is comparable to that of a well-done fantasy novel, and I obviously mean that as a big, big compliment.
I also love this book’s ambition– we start out small, with a Judy Blume-esque friendship between two young girls, and then slowly but surely the scope of the novel gets bigger and bigger, taking in the society that they are living in as a whole. Capitalism, communism, and the brutal lack of choice these women are faced with are just a few of the Big Themes this extremely well-executed book grapples with. Let me tell you, as a 21st-century female this book made me feel privileged as hell, especially in terms of the choices I’ve been able to make in regards to my education.
This novel has so much going for it. The prose is very straightfoward and easy to read. The characters are incredibly rich: forever surprising you, full of mystery and contradictions. This adds to one of the biggest pleasures of the novel–you’re constantly trying to figure people out, their motivations, their true selves vs. the roles they must play in society (some of these people would fit right in with Game of Thrones, matching wits with the very best of the Tyrells and Lannisters). Similarly to Game of Thrones, the cast in this book is massive–just listing their names and professions takes up a good 4-5 pages at the beginning (this sure would be one expensive HBO series).
The other thing this book does extremely well are Killer Pay-offs–devastating moments in the book that happen after long build-ups, which make you realize how much you have emotionally invested in these characters. There’s the wedding scene at the end, when you realize that the titular role of the “brilliant friend” has been brutally reversed. Or the fate of a pair of shoes. Or a teacher’s reaction to an old pupil’s visit. Ufff I could go on but I don’t want to spoil anything.
This book served as a strong reminder to me that one of the main reasons I read is for well-developed and interesting characters. Give me characters who want something, who are flawed and complex, and I’ll hang out with them all day. Best of all–there are still TONS of Elena Ferrante books in the world left for me to read!
The End of Days (Jenny Erpenbeck)
“A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.”
This book (and sentences like the one above) pretty much broke my heart. It’s the only book I’ve read on the IFFP list, but I am already (foolishly) thinking it will most likely make my shortlist. The premise is simple, could even be summarized in cheesy phrases: What would happen if this happened and not that? What would the road not taken be like? What if all the roads not taken by a character were all narrated as a single storyline?
From this premise, we thus get a single character who lives many lives, dying and living repeatedly in various incarnations: as an infant who dies in her crib, as a teenage girl in pre-World War II Austria, as a communist intellectual in Moscow, as an old woman in reunified Germany. The ambition in terms of geography and history in this book is stupefying. On a very personal level, I also find this theme of what-might-have-been, what-could-be absolutely gut-wrenching. What keeps us whole in face of the brutal forces of history? How do we keep going? Is something like a complete set of Goethe books (which plays a key role through the novel) enough compensation? With this book and Visitation I now officially bow down to the altar of Erpenbeck, forever and ever.
The Serialist (David Gordon)
I keep mentioning Bolaño… I guess because this novel reminded me of something the Bolaño character says in Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis: “I read everything, even bits of paper blowing down the street.” This attitude of complete and utter openness to anything and everything is (for me) not just a literary stance, but a political one. A vital one. An essential attitude towards life, an openness and willingness to anything and everything. For me, the willingness to read everything–bits of paper, detective novels, trashy murder mysteries–isn’t just an attitude towards literature, it’s a lifestyle.
I could say more on that theme but I won’t for now. Instead, I thus heartily recommend this book to anybody who loves reading in its purest form, as utter escapism–reading as fun, as a joy. Here are my favorite quotes, which I can’t help but share:
‘Why do we read? In the beginning, why do we love the books we love? For most, I think, it’s travel, a flight into adventure, into a dream that feels like our own. But for a few it is also escape, flight from boredom, unhappiness, loneliness, from where or who we can no longer bear to be. When I read, the words on the page replace the voice in my head and I cease, for a little while, to be me, or at least to be so painfully aware of being me. These are the real readers, the maniacs, the ones who dose themselves with fiction the way junkies get high, the way lovers adore the beloved: beyond reason.
This kind of reading, ironically, precedes all judgement. Objective criteria don’t enter in, any more than with love. (I say ironically because it is these very readers who, having fallen for books, become scholars, critics, editors–in other words, snobs–while maintaining their secret vice.) Genre fans–vampire lovers, sci-fi geeks, mystery addicts–are a kind of atavistic species, a pure but anomalous breed. They still read like children, foolish and grave, or like teenagers, desperate and courageous. they read because they need to.’ (139)
‘But of course we have only one world, this dark and knotty one, and the truth we find when we look too deep is rarely pretty. Unlike in books, where we are all fearless seekers, in life, most of us would rather not see too clearly.’ (259)
The Scatter Here Is Too Great (Bilal Tanweer)
An enjoyable read. This is a linked collection which acts as a hybrid between novel and short story collection–it’s probably more on the novel side, as I feel most of the pieces would lose something essential if they were read on their own. The book is narrated in multiple voices–traumatized ambulance drivers, young children, aspiring writers, a teenage girl–who are connected by a central event, a bomb blast on a bus in urban Pakistan.
Overall, I liked the stories narrated from the kids’ point of view the best. The strongest for me was the final one, in its haunting, hallucinatory romp through a city labyrinth in search of a man called the Bird of Death–it reads like Kafka and Borges had a baby, and how could I not love a child like that, right? In terms of basic plot points, by the book’s end I was still confused about how the father (Baba) died, but I suspect it was in there somewhere and I just missed it. I also really liked the subtle understatement of the narration, and how we never actually see the moment of the bomb blast itself. There is a lot about this book that is resistant to neat categorization and commercialism–a refusal to tie up loose ends, to turn the book into a nice pretty comforting narrative full of cute Crash-like coincidences. I respect that a lot–the resistance to make things feel complete. Here’s to chaos and fragmentation!
Young Skins (Colin Barrett)
This is one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve ever read (it’s deservedly already appearing on lists like these). I could read stories like “Calm With Horses” all day (fortunately it’s novella length). In these stories we see garbage-filled yards, Alsatians accidentally swallowing wasps, distant fathers working in mines, brutal Irish young adulthood, and pubs, pubs, pubs. The endings are for the most part understated and open. The language is straightforward and to the point. I loved the theme of having stories narrated from the POV of right-hand men, the silent hulking bodyguards who are usually only treated as background material in most gangster, hard-knock-life type films. Strong stories include the aforementioned “Calm With Horses,” “The Clancy Kid” (which opens the collection and has a fantastic scene of a crown-wearing kid guarding a bridge; what a way to evoke Irish mythology, history and the loss of childhood innocence in one go) and “Diamonds” (love the rehab theme). The unexpected switch of perspectives at the end of “Stand Your Skin” and “Kindly Forget My Existence” are also incredible and serve as excellent examples of the kind of gut-punch gesture that the short story form is capable of. My God, there are so many good books to read in this world, and this is definitely, definitely, definitely one of them.
Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill)
Fuck the plot, as Edna O’Brien said. What I try to capture as a writer is the feeling of being alive, of being awake. Because of this, I’m more apt to follow the wisp of a thought or a half-glimpsed image than chart a sequential series of events. But I absolutely believe in momentum. Momentum is not plot, but it has that same quality of urgency and forward motion, I think.
The quote above is from Jenny Offill’s interview with The Paris Review, and I think it captures a lot about what I enjoyed about this book: the momentum. It’s like an avant-garde, fragmented Lorrie Moore–the humor plays a HUGE role in making a book this “experimental” (whatever that means) work. The plot is simple: a girl and a boy meet, get married, have a baby, go through relationship trouble. What really makes this book exemplary, though, is the execution: it’s narrated in short, often disconnected sentences that form fragmented vignettes–almost like prose poetry. It reminded me of Renata Adler, though I found this book a lot more approachable and enjoyable than Adler–I guess I will always be an old-fashioned plot person at heart. But the style makes sense to me in terms of the content–what relationship is whole rather than fragmented, right? What better way to narrate a long-term love story other than in little moments?
Besides love & sorrow, there’s also bedbugs. And part-time jobs that involve astronauts. There’s fun facts about Buddhism and random quotations. There’s reflections on marriage + art (especially in terms of being a woman & mother). It also deserves to be said that the reading list on Offill’s website (of books that helped inspire her novel) looks absolutely stunning, not least for the inclusion of Mary Ruefle. Overall, this book was good for my soul, and chances are it’ll be pretty damn good for yours, too.