Have You A Favorite Reading Space?

About sixteen years ago, my husband and I were in the Cinque Terre for our honeymoon. We stayed on a beach in Monterosso, Italy which looked just like this, (see below) and if I wasn’t so enchanted with the environment, it would have been my ideal place to read. The sea, the umbrellas, the cotton chaise chairs rented for about $5.00 a day were blissful.

Cinque Terre beach

But, my day to day life does not consist of sitting on an Italian beach surrounded by my favorite sights and sounds. My every day life consists mostly of teaching elementary school, a job which has fulfilled me for over thirty years.

Sometimes the children come into my classroom, having completely read a book which they chose from one of my shelves the day before.

“How did you read this in one night?!” I ask in astonishment. (I forget that they do not have dinner to make, or dishes to wash, or papers to check in the evening.)

“I lay on my stomach, in my room, and I read until I’m done,” they often say. I don’t catch my breath on “read until I’m done” as much as I do with “lay on my stomach.”

I do not lay on my stomach to read any more.

For one thing, it brings the print up far too close for my monovision. For another, my back starts to cramp, or my arms begin to ache, from holding my torso up. No, at this point in my life, I want something else to hold me up. I want something soft, and enveloping. And yet, at the same time, it must be beautiful.  I have long had a penchant for the furniture from MacKenzie Childs. Even though it’s very bright, I love either of these two arrangements:

Or, a more simple arrangement such as this chair alone:

arhaus ghost sky

I could drape my legs over the side, or sit cross-legged when they became too heavy. The thick cushion looks heavenly after a day of teaching on my feet. Even the simple background decreases any distracting visual stimulation.

Or, I would enjoy reading in bed. My bed at home is a beautiful sleigh bed, chosen for design more than comfort. If I could choose again, I would be so tempted by this teak daybed, or this tufted backboard, on which to recline:

 

With the coming of summer, and thus much more free time for this teacher to read, I’m reviewing the possibilities. I’m perusing catalogs, and online sites, and dreaming of perfect spaces. These images seem just right, if I can no longer lie on the stony beaches of the Mediterranean.

And you? Where do you envision your summer reading taking place?

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (“Who knows how, and why, a vocation for solitude is born?”)

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To me, the image of a garden is of so much potential. Inherent to a garden is growth, beauty, and the possibility of perfection. (I think of the Garden of Eden as presented in the Old Testament.)

But there is also the possibility of everything going wrong: weeds, decay, the infiltration of parasites.

So it’s interesting to me that Bassani titles his novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Not The House of the Finzi-Continis. Not The Hütte of The Finzi-Continis. The Garden. And what an apt title it is, to tell the story of this affluent Jewish family living in Ferrara, Italy, in 1938, who can indulge in the play a lovely garden has to offer.

There is a tennis court, disappointing to the Professor’s children, Micol and Alberto, but nevertheless a gathering place for their group of friends who wish to seize the beauty of summer. Waiting by the entrance gate to this garden’s tennis court are Bruno Lattes, Adriana Trentini, Carletto Sani, Tonino Colevatti, and three or four other young men and women. They meet to play tennis, to laugh and compete and partake of Skiwasser, the beverage Micol insists on providing as she finds it the most refreshing.

Our narrator, the man who falls in love with Micol, is also an insistent one. He comes to her house to play tennis never missing an afternoon, and when she goes away to study in Venice, he goes to her home to work on his thesis in her father’s library. He has been invited, to be sure, but he seems unable to determine when he might be overstaying his welcome; he is unable to determine the extent of Micol’s affection for him, which does not seem to surpass that of friendship, even after subtle gestures on his part. (How he laments not following her to Venice, where surely, he thinks, his efforts could have changed the course of events.)

If on that rainy afternoon, when the radiant Indian summer of ’38 suddenly ended, I had at least managed to speak to her–I told myself bitterly–perhaps things between us would have gone differently from the way they went.

After virtually throwing himself upon her, quite literally, she is forced to tell him that she does not love him. She does not wish him, in fact, to visit as much as he has. Perhaps he should take three weeks to stay away altogether.

So much is in decline: the relationship between Micol and the narrator who loves her; her brother Alberto’s health; the strength of the Jewish position in the late 1930s. We are told from the very beginning that Alberto dies of a lymphogranuloma, and the other members of the family are all deported to Germany in 1943.

It is a story of tremendous loss and rejection: of this man’s love, as well as the injustice the Jewish people suffer during this particular time period. It is a story, to me, of our ultimate isolation and solitude; no one is able to save anyone else.

Perhaps it is all we can do, sometimes, to take care of ourselves.

(I read this novel at Dorian’s invitation, and look forward to reading the thoughts of others who have read along.)

If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio (Most definitely not the next The Secret History)

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“…Dellecher was less an academic institution than a cult. When we first walked through those doors, we did so without knowing that we were now part of some fanatic religion where anything could be excused so long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses. Ritual madness, ecstasy, human sacrifice. Were we bewitched? brainwashed? Perhaps.

I’ve missed it, desperately.”

If the setting of a small college housing artistic students who vibrate with a barely hidden malice seems familiar, perhaps it is because you are thinking of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But while Tartt’s characters were studying Greek, and Latin, and holding secret seances in a farmer’s field at night, M. L. Rio’s characters are quoting Shakespeare and swimming in a lake as the autumnal season deepens. Yet there is an aura of fear here, too, the knowledge that something has gone terribly wrong, for from the very first chapter one of the men is being released from prison. He has a story to tell.

Oliver’s story is compelling. He tells of his fellow theater students: Wren, Filippa, Meredith, James, Alexander and Richard. For reasons which were never fully explained, Richard is filled with wrath. It is a consuming wrath, exhibited in bullying: teasing, shouting, taunting and hitting. It is no wonder he is found floating in the lake one morning before dawn. His face has been bashed in, he is covered with blood, and it surely looks as if he is dead. But when he calls weakly for help, this group of students who call themselves friends, decide to do nothing. They decide to let him die, in the water, and tell the authorities that they all get along just fine.

It doesn’t ring true to me. From where does Richard’s rage stem? Why agree to tell the police that everyone has been getting along well when clearly they have been tormented? (Surely they must already suspect one another.)  There are blatant disconnects that not only irritate me, they keep this novel from approaching anything near the power of The Secret History.

So while I enjoyed the Shakespeare dramas, the lines from his plays cleverly interwoven into the narrative, and the collegiate setting in which a small band of friends unite; while I think the ending is fairly clever in a Tale Of Two Cities sort of way, this novel ended up being a disappointing read.

Which doesn’t bode well for my opinion of Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven, who said that it is “A rare and extraordinary novel.”

If only that were so.

Do Any of These Titles Fit With Your Personal Canon?

If, as the Oxford dictionary presents, one of the definitions of a canon is “the list of works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality,” then preparing such a list is a heady task for any bibliophile. And reading those lists of fellow bibliophiles is at least as interesting, if not more, than revealing one’s own.

Here’s a problem: around which perimeters can such a list be created? Those books from childhood which firmly established my love of reading? Then I would have to say B is For Betsy by Caroline Haywood, or my well worn copy of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. And even before that, my mother was reading Beatrix Potter books to me, and The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.

Or, there are the books which ushered me into adulthood, such as Madame Bovary read at the tender age of 17 after a particularly heart rending break up, or Madeleine L’Engle’s The Love Letters.

There are books which shaped my whole political outlook, such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or opened doors to me of fantastic other worlds such as Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84.

So, a list considered to be of the highest quality? All I can give you is a list of my most well-loved books, the books which I have carted from apartment to condo to townhouse to home, the books that I pick up and reread again and again. From the top of my head, here is my personal canon:

  • The Bible
  • Possession by A. S. Byatt
  • The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
  • Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
  • Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis
  • The Lord of The Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoevsky
  • Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • The Day of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson
  • Swimming to Elba by Sylvia Avallone
  • Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Surely there are more, should I take the time to ponder more deeply, or scout my shelves more thoroughly. But thanks to Frances of Nonsuch Book, and Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed before her, I have compiled a list of my most beloved books. My canon, so to speak.

Do any of them resonate with you?

Man Booker International Prize 2017; the Shadow Jury Announces Its Shortlist

img_3846With great excitement, and after some deliberation (but, it really wasn’t that hard for us), the Shadow Jury has produced its short list for the Man Booker International Prize this year.

From the time that the longlist was announced on March 15, we managed to read most of the 13 titles before April 30. Each of the longlisted books was read by at least six of the eight judges; six titles were read by all of us.

In my opinion, the best books of the longlist easily stood out. (Determining the best from the shortlist will be the tricky part!) The jury’s decision for the short list is as follows:

Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland)
Translated by Philip Roughton
(MacLehose Press)

Compass by Mathias Énard (France)
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
(Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway)
Translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
(MacLehose Press)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany)
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
(Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Judas by Amos Oz (Israel)
Translated by Nicholas de Lange
(Chatto & Windus)

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina)
Translated by Megan McDowell
(Oneworld Publications)

My personal favorites from this list are Fish Have No Feet, The Unseen, and Judas. But, there is a strong feeling for Compass and Fever Dream by several of the jury members. So, we await the official announcement of the winner, as we deliberate among ourselves which title we will choose as our winner for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 this June.

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

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I’m always surprised when the Naperville Public Library not only has something I want to read, but I’m not the 863d hold on one of three copies. And so it is that I have been able to settle down with an aching jaw, an ample supply of Motrin, a pot of tea, and Earthly Remains, Donna Leon’s latest mystery with Commissario Guido Brunetti.

What a pleasure it is to spend the evening with him, this old “friend” from previous novels. In the beginning of this book, he has just been diagnosed with the need for rest and relaxation from work and is preparing to leave his office for Sant’Erasmo in the south. How I long to accompany him and partake in his plans of rowing, or reading in bed with a fresh cup of coffee should it rain.

He is staying at a villa his wife’s aunt owns, and there he befriends Signor Davide Casati, a man whom Brunetti discovers once rowed with his own father. The skill with which this older man is able to guide the boat is compared to the old peasant in Anna Karenina with whom Levin scythes, barely able to keep up. Such a beautiful comparison, in my literary mind’s eye.

But after a terrible storm, neither Casati nor his boat are able to be found. Where could he be? Checking on his bees in their various hives all around Venice? Talking with his deceased wife at the cemetery? Brunetti calls in reinforcements to help investigate his friend’s disappearance, which, of course, is ultimately a death.

“While he waited, Brunetti went and looked out the window and allowed anomalous information to move around in his mind: a few dead bees in a plastic vial, the Aral Sea, two thousand Euros a week, dark mud in another vial. If they were pieces on a board, would he be able to move them round so that they formed a picture?”

Of course Commissario Brunetti carefully puts together the pieces, moving them around so that an answer emerges, and in the course of his detective work reminds us of the honor, and dishonor, within each of us. Although surely some, who have grown accustomed to luxurious comfort, are able to excuse their dishonorable side which can lead to murder.

While this novel is carefully executed, each piece of the mystery ringing true to current crises, my favorite part of Donna Leon’s writing is how she is able to make me dwell in Venice. Even if only for a night.

The Man Booker International Prize 2017 Short List is Announced

BookPile MBIP 2017

With the exception of Mirror, Shoulders, Signal and A Horse Walks Into a Bar, I am in complete agreement with the expert judges for the Man Booker International Prize. While I’m confused about the inclusion of Dorthe Nors’ book, at least they had the sense to leave off the tedious, boring and overwrought Explosion Chronicles.

I’ve heard good things about A Horse Walks Into A Bar, but I am still awaiting my library copy; it is one of the few books I have not yet read. But the others? Wonderful stuff!

I love Fever Dream for its enigmatic, mysterious message.

I love Judas for addressing the age old conflict between the Arabs and the Jews in a fascinating, well written plot.

I love The Unseen for putting us on an island about a century ago, and letting us live there within a closely knit family.

I love Compass for ethereal, brilliant writing like a stream of consciousness but better.

But, surely I would not have omitted Fish Have No Feet from the short list. It remains in my top three.

As for what the Shadow Jury panel chooses for our top short list? We will make that decision public on Thursday, May 4.

The Goldilocks of Lipsticks

As I wait with bated breath for the announcement of the Man Booker International Prize short list, which will be announced in London tonight, I thought it would be a good time to post on a perfect new lipstick.

It’s not too bright, it’s not too dark.

It’s not too orange, it’s not too pink.

It’s not too shiny, it’s not too dry.

If you’re looking for a great shade for Spring, at a great price, Clinique’s Graffiti Pop is just right.

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Translated by Katy Derbyshire, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list)

IMG_3980Each chapter is a different voice telling a different version of the same desperate story: sex trade in a former East German city from 1989 to the present. It makes you ache at the loneliness and despair, while at the same time feeling horror at the choices these people have made with their lives. For surely becoming a prostitute, or a pimp, or a “guest” (a word preferable to the women than “customer”) is a choice, is it not?

How adept Clemens Meyer is at assuming the point of view of each person in his tale. I feel I am listening to the 30-something woman as she prepares to leave her warm flat in January for the unknown darkness awaiting her in a hotel room; I feel I am listening to the taxi driver who says to her, with a sweeping flourish of his arm, “Your car, madame.”

The irony, the pain, is piercing.

Yet at the same time, I can’t help but feel a little slimed while reading this. There is more than I want to dwell on about the darkest sides of human nature, the way sex is twisted into anything but love, the way that money and drugs and power are more important than a person’s heart.

Surely what Meyer writes about must be based in truth somewhere. Surely this is a world not entirely of his own creation, and who am I to judge? But 124 pages in feels like enough, at least for tonight. There is more than enough sorrow in these pages to last me until page 672.

What do you think? Should the subject matter of a book effect the way it is scored?

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Winner of the English PEN Award
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on October 17, 2016
672 pages

Compass by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list)

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“Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps.”

But that is exactly what Franz Ritter is doing one night; as he struggles to find sleep, he is reviewing his life, his time with Sarah and the joy he felt in her presence.

They met at a conference held at Hainfield Castle in Vienna, and have since taken strolls or eaten meals in Damascus, Istanbul, Tehran and Aleppo.

“I have to admit that, even though I am not what could be called a hedonist or a gourmet, the setting, the food and the excellent Lebanese wine they served there (and especially the company of Sarah, whose beauty was brought out by the Ottoman cortile, the jewels, the cloth, the wooden mashraybiyas) have fixed that evening in my memory; we were princes, princes from the West whom the Orient was welcoming and treating as such, with refinement, obsequiousness, suave languor, and all of this, conforming to the image our youth had constructed of the Oriental myth, gave us the impression of finally living in the lost lands of the Thousand and One Nights, which has reappeared for us alone: no foreigner, in that early spring, to spoil its exclusivity; our fellow diners were a rich family from Aleppo celebrating a patriarch’s birthday, whose women, bejeweled, wearing white lace blouses with strict black wool vests, kept smiling at Sarah.”

You can see how the sentences, which are often a full paragraph in length, contribute to the dream-like quality, while at the same time giving us a perfect sense of place.

And because Franz is a musicologist as well as narrator and dreamer, we are introduced to music and composers such as we may have been previously unaware. Take Felicien David, for instance, who became famous on December 8, 1844, after the premiere of Le Desert which is a symphony in three parts based on the composer’s memories of a journey to the Orient. (What a beautiful piece of music it is.)

“…memory is the only thing I don’t lack, the only thing that doesn’t tremble like the rest of my body…”

His recounting of a night he slept with Sarah seems to embody not only their relationship, but the love-hate relationship of the East and the West. Perhaps we may admire each other, even partake in the glorious offerings each has to offer, but can we truly ever understand each other? Can we truly be united? It seems an invisible line divides us, one that try as we might, can never be fully dissolved.

11:10 p.m.

11:58 p.m.

12:55 a.m.

We spend a restless night with Franz, tossing and turning, unable to find the peace required to rest.  Each “chapter” is instead listed with a time stamp, recording the hour and the intricacies of his thoughts. They are tangled and knotted; he tries to sort out his memories, his relationships, his past which is inextricable from music and stories and historical figures.

My fellow shadow jury members are well taken with this book, and for its sense of beauty, its important themes, and well wrought sentences, I can concur. It certainly has more power than the trite Mirror, Shoulders, Signal, or cumbersome Explosion Chronicles.  I fully expect Compass to be on the jury’s short list, as well as the official short list which will be announced April 20.

Find other reviews at Tony’s Reading List, The Bookbinder’s Daughter, David’s Book World, and Winstonsdad’s Blog.

Compass by Mathias Enard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on March 22, 2017
480 pages