The Man Booker Long List, and the (Wo)Man Shadow Jury; Joy of My July

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I could hardly sleep last night, for the anticipation of the Man Booker long list which was to be released today. Here it is before noon, and I have five of the titles from our local library and two of them downloaded on my kindle.

The list of thirteen books is as follows (in random order, of course):

  1. My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
  2. Hystopia by David Means
  3. Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh
  4. The North Water by Ian McGuire
  5. Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves
  6. Serious Sweet by A. L. Kennedy
  7. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
  8. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
  9. His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnet
  10. The Many by Wyl Menmuir
  11. All That Man Is by David Szalay
  12. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
  13. The Schooldays of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee

I am happily joining Frances, Rebecca, Teresa and Nicole in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Jury as we read, review and discuss each title until the winner is announced on October 25. Until then, you will find our thoughts on our respective blogs throughout the next few months.

Have you read any of these titles? Do you have a favorite (or two)?

Mailbox Monday: Letter Writers Alliance

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If anything, the past ten years spent in a digital world has made me long for a return to more things analog. Although blogging about books has enriched me immeasurably, both with the people and the literature it has brought to my life, I will always most appreciate the feel of a book: the scent of its binding, the whisper of its pages turned, the handwritten notes in the margin, the underlined passages. The convenience of a kindle, and the illumination of the nook’s screen, do not make up entirely for the weight of a novel in my hands.

And so it is with writing. Is there any email that can replace a handwritten letter? The handwriting is an extension of the sender; the personality, the mood, the sentiment is all conveyed so seamlessly on the smooth page. I love to consider handwriting, for I feel it reveals so much when I look at the size, the slant, the formation of the lower loops. Long  have I studied handwriting analysis; longer still have I taught cursive to my class, one of the few teachers in our elementary building who continues to do so.

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So it thrilled me to come across the Letter Writers Alliance based in my very own city of Chicago. For a mere $5.00 you can become a member, thereby gaining access to the member’s shop, but more importantly, a pen pal of your own.

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Once you have applied to become a member you must actually wait until your letter arrives, which includes a membership card with your own ID number, as well as a username and password for the site.

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Then you can enter your number into a very brief questionnaire which will help the organizers make a match for you.

I am awaiting the name and address of the person to whom I will write, but I had to share this alliance with you in case you feel as I do: the need to be more like a person, and less like a machine, through the time honored tradition of the handwritten letter.

Under The Harrow by Flynn Berry

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I’ve been on a mad tear of devouring thrillers lately. They are my “go to” genre when I become distraught, which I am a wee bit right now. Facing the start of a new school year amid typical August heat in Illinois is only one of the things on my horizon. So, instead of reading more thoroughly for Paris in July, or Spanish Lit  Month as I have in prior years, I am buried in psychological thrillers which do not disappoint.

Under The Harrow by Flynn Berry is fantastic. It has the enigma I crave, along with the quality of writing I adore. One is not sacrificed for the other as so often happens in this genre.

When Nora arrives at her sister Rachel’s, expecting polenta and coq au vin, she finds instead the dog hanging from the banister on his tangled up lead and bloody handprints on the wall. Her sister has been stabbed numerous times and is lying dead upstairs in blackened blood. We come to find out that she had been attacked several years earlier on the way home from a party, and subsequently wonder if the two incidents are related.

But there are several other threads which cause dismay. One is the absence of their father whom they haven’t seen, nor does it appear that Nora wishes to see him, in a long time.

Our dad has not turned up. As far as I know, the police have not found him yet, but this is the funeral of his eldest daughter. He might learn of it somehow. He might limp up the aisle and settle in next to me and start to offer theories. The church doors are shut now, and I wonder if anyone would mind if I locked them.

And, there is the presence of Stephan, an old boyfriend whom Rachel did not seem to wish to marry.

Stephan has arrived, I realize with a shot of terror. He comes up and kisses me on the cheek. He smells of whiskey and from this morning, not last night…

They almost got married. Close brush, she said. He still wanted to.

I am only halfway through; this book will keep me pleasantly occupied tonight. I just had to tell you how much I’m enjoying it, how it appears to be one of the best thrillers I’ve read in years. Seriously.

No wonder it has been named one of the best books of summer by Elle, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, The Huffington Post and more. Even Claire Messud said, “Once I started reading Under The Harrow, I couldn’t stop. It’s like Broadchurch written by Elena Ferrante.”

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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The praise for this one is incomparable. Endorsements from the likes of thriller writers Harlan Coban and Sue Grafton made me all the more eager to review The Couple Next Door.

Anne and Marco are young parents having a dinner party with their neighbors, Cynthia and Graham, while taking turns to check on their baby next door every half hour. When Anne feeds her daughter at 12:00 a.m. everything is fine; when Marco checks her at 12:30 a.m. everything is fine. But when they return home at 1:00 in the morning, to find their front door ajar about three inches, they also discover their baby, Cora, is gone.

Immediately, Anne castigates herself. They never should have left the baby alone when the sitter cancelled. Soon, it becomes apparent that a kidnapping has taken place. Or, is Anne implicated because she suffers from post-partum depression and is under the care of a psychiatrist? Each character’s motivations are closely examined in an intricate, well-wrought plot.

The story is a compelling one, the twists are not arbitrary or so sudden they seem artificial. The suspense is substantial as we take our suspicions from one character to the next. There is no doubt at the end, as there can be with translated literature, as to who committed the crime or why. All of these reasons make this a good read. It stops from being a great read, for me, because the sentences are jerky and flat, thrust at us like little jabs from some fencing dual. There are cliches we have heard all too often before.  But, if you want a suspenseful read, with a well drawn plot, this would be the book to pick up.

The Couple Next Door will be published August 23, 2016. Surely it is worth being compared to Gone Girl, and The Girl on The Train, except that I liked this one better than either of those.

Paris in July: The Ripening Seed by Colette

The flowers to the right are sea-holly, a flower I have never seen before, possessing a blue which are the exact color of Vinca’s eyes. Yet Phil does not pick them for her, the girl that he has loved for as long as they both can remember.

He picks them instead for Mme Dallery, the Lady-in-white, the enchantress who seduces sixteen year old Philippe by first inviting him in to her home for orangeade. He feels he must reciprocate the hospitable gesture, and so he picks a bouquet of sea-holly to present to her. But then how quickly his innocence, his childhood, the unwavering trust given him by Vinca, is changed forever.

What would summer be without a love story, a beach, a novel translated from French? This little book is a mere 122 pages; you could read it in one evening as I have. But it carries the impact of Madame Bovary, another French novel of several hundred more pages, in which love is lost at the machinations of another.

Colette shows us how quickly the transformation to adulthood can take place, for after this particular summer neither Philippe nor Vinca will ever be the same.

Le Ble en Herbe, translated from the French as The Ripening Seed, was written by Colette in 1923. I have read it especially for Paris in July, so glad that I have, because nothing satisfies me in quite the same way as a classic does.

“Privacy is the Last Thing We Have.” I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

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Each word I put on paper I imagine may be the last I write in freedom.

I came across this quote a mere 22 pages into I Am No One, and immediately found myself identifiying with Jeremy O’Keefe, the History professor who said it. How often I have wondered if our freedom of speech will someday be taken away, as the world that I have known and trusted slowly turns upside down.

Jeremy is now teaching at NYU, after leaving Columbia and then Oxford. His life is in shambles, and throughout this book which is a testament he seems to be recording, we are never quite convinced of his sanity. Is he telling the truth, or is he paranoid? Could it be he is somehow being manipulated?

The novel begins with a missed appointment he thinks he has made with one of his students. She doesn’t appear, and when he arrives home to check his email he finds a note cancelling their meeting which he does not remember writing. While he was waiting for her at the cafe, he exchanges a few brief words with a young man who keeps appearing, apparently coincidentally, in Jeremy’s life.

Things worsen when unmarked cardboard boxes appear, addressed to him with no indication of who sent them, yet they contain hundreds of pages of private information: every URL he has ever visited, every phone number he has called, and files of photographs of his life.

To me, this is the most fascinating part of the novel. Do we know how visible we are in our every movement? Do we know who it is that is watching is, or worse, keeping track of our private lives?

To be human is to be watched, to be part of society, because we are social animals, but we do not expect that observation by community or government will extend into our private lives. Those of us who are rational believe that as long as we are not breaking any laws, there is no reason the government should be watching what we do inside our homes, within the confines of our private property, and yet this apparently rational belief has been demonstrated, time and again, by behavior of law enforcement and intelligence services, to be profoundly false.

I Am No One is a literary thriller with immediate implications to the lives we live today. Privacy, past relationships, technology and terror are all brought into sharp focus as Patrick Flanery examines their interplay with this book. It is a job well done, a thoroughly fascinating read, making me wonder if any of us have the courage  to make our private lives visible. Should we be required to do so.

Spanish Lit Month: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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…you want me to invent a fable that will make the unwary fall on their knees and persuade them that they have seen the light, that there is something to believe in, something to live and die for-even to kill for?”

“Exactly. I’m not asking for you to invent anything that hasn’t already been invented, one way or another. I’m only asking you to help me give water to the thirsty.

This prequel to The Shadow of the Wind holds the same mystery and wonderfully tense atmosphere, with a dedication to books which borders on religious. Andreas Corelli, French publisher with the ever present angel brooch on his lapel, makes the above proposition to author David Martin. He wants David to write a book that has less to do with containing a story than it does with harboring a soul for The Angel’s Game has nothing to do with angels, but everything to do with love, revenge and bibliophilia.

We find the Cemetery of Forgotten Books here again, which is a fortress of tunnels and bridges all leading to a cathedral made of books.

This place is a mystery. A sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and loved and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands, a new spirit…

Andreas Corelli’s game is played out on this board, involving the beautiful city of Barcelona with its real streets, such as Calle Santa Ana on which can be found the bookshop belonging to Sempere & Son, and the real cathedral, Santa Maria del Mar. It is an intricate retreat into the dangers and hopes that novels give us, all with a touch of Spain that is perfect for Spanish Literature Month.

Before I go, a few favorite quotes:

“I don’t trust people who say they have a lot of friends. It’s a sure sign that they really don’t know anyone.”

“May I offer you anything? A small glass of cyanide?”

“We can only accept as true what can be narrated.”

“There is nothing in the path of life that we don’t already know before we start. Nothing important is learned; it is simply remembered.”

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: “…burn ’em to ashes, then burn the ashes.”

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For a Science Fiction book written 66 years ago, Fahrenheit 451 has an astonishing amount of relevance for today. The people do not have living rooms, they have TV parlors, where they are inundated with sound to such an extent that they cannot converse, or think, or imagine for themselves. Their ears are stopped up with tiny Seashells streaming constant noise; their eyes are blank, reflecting what lies behind them: emptiness.

This book reminds me of The Stepford Wives, where women were controlled by their husbands, only this time the people are controlled by the government. It is a government which lies, and covers up to hides its mistakes, all in order to save face just as Hillary Clinton still does today regarding Benghazi. People believe what they are told to believe because they are not able to think for themselves.

Guy Montag decides he will not burn books any longer. Instead, he turns liquid fire on Captain Beatty, and then manages to escape the Mechanical Hound which is set to seek and destroy him. He finds a ragged group of men around their own campfire, a fire from which surely a Phoenix will rise, for these men know that together they are stronger than individuals who can merely rage. They have taken it upon themselves to memorize the written word, from Thoreau’s Walden to the Magna Carta, the Constitution, and Ecclesiastes.

A warning comes from Granger, which we would do well to heed:

“And hold onto one thought: You’re not important. You’re not anything. Some day the load we’re carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And some day we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddam steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up. Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.”

I can’t imagine a better time to look in the mirror than right now.

The Hands That Hold La Regenta, Not Average, and That’s Finally Okay

The girl at the nail salon just shook her head at me when I insisted on this polish. She tried and tried to explain that it was clear (“But, that’s what I want,” I told her), and she went to the rack to bring back several bottles of colored polish each bolder than the next.

I am not a bold person. I do not even consider myself a very sparkly person, in terms of glitter and baubles; I could only be considered sparkly in wanting to make people laugh.

Plus, my hands are a bit wrinkly, and I don’t want to draw attention to unfavorable bits. I mean, there’s a lot I like about them such as they cook beautiful meals and hold wonderful books, but they aren’t a thing of beauty in and of themselves.

But, as I was lying here reading La Regenta (which I now love by the way, thank you very much, Tom) and looking at my hands, I was reminded of how important it is to choose what it is that we want, to not be persuaded into someone else’s point of view because it’s accepted. Or, typical. Or, what everyone else does. Generally, I don’t like what everyone else does. I don’t read what everyone else does, I don’t look like everyone else does, and I certainly don’t think like everyone else does.

How long has it taken to accept my own self? To leave the shop with the girl shaking her head and not care one whit? As long as I am loving and kind, building up my fellow man, I don’t see anything wrong in claiming my own way.

In fact, I am finally learning to embrace it.

Spanish Lit Month, Paris in July: Something Old and Something New To Read

One of the great joys of blogging about books are the reading events of the summer. I speak particularly of Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Richard and Stu, as well as Paris In July hosted by Tamara.

I have begun La Regenta with Tom of Wuthering Expectations, but alas, my expectations lessen the further I read. I had high hopes of it resembling more of Madame Bovary and less of Spain’s boring theologians and their hierarchy. Perhaps I will continue, but if not, I am looking at these:

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Albina and the Dog-Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky, translated from Spanish by Alfred Macadam. Restless Books site says:

From the psychomagical guru who brought you The Holy Mountain and Where the Bird Sings Best comes a supernatural love-and-horror story in which a beautiful albino giantess unleashes the slavering animal lurking inside the men of a small village.

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I am one third of the way into Cathedral by the Sea by Idefonso Falcones, translated by Nick Caistor, which is set in 14th century at the height of the Inquisiton and describes the building of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona. It reminds me of Ken Follett’s Pillars of The Earth, which I think is a good thing.

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For Paris in July I plan on reading this slim volume, Ripening Seed, by Collette. It is described here as thus:

The author captures that precious, painful moment when childhood retreats at the onslaught of dawning knowledge and desire. Philippe and Venca are childhood friends. In the days and nights of late summer on the Brittany coast, their deep-rooted love for each other loses its childhood simplicity.

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Finally, there is a new release from Eleanor Brown, The Light of Paris. Popsugar says it’s:

“A charming novel about living life on your own terms that will make you long for the streets of Paris.”

Although, it doesn’t take much for me to long for the streets of Paris. A walk in Chicago has much the same effect, to tell you the truth. At any rate, these are a few titles I’m thinking of for July, before the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow reading begins with Frances and others. So glad for time off to enjoy my bookish passion.