For Spanish Lit Month: The Linden Tree by César Aira

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I have chosen The Linden Tree by César Aira for Spanish Lit Month, and like so many books I read for blogging “events”, it has enriched my reading pleasure and knowledge of another country. (I think of José Saramago’s books, both Blindness and Skylight which are deeply memorable to me, or Javier Marias’ most excellent books such as Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, or Fever and Spearor Thus Bad Beginsor A Heart So White.)

César Aira creates a fictional town of Pringles in Argentina under the leadership of Perón; he is the boy telling us of life in his town, and it could be the first person voice that makes it so resonant of my own childhood, or the innocence of youth some of us are lucky enough to experience.

A child’s father is a model, a mirror, and a hope. More than that, he’s a typical man, a specimen of fully formed, adult humanity. A kind of Adam constructed from all the fragments of the world that the child progressively comes to know…The father is like a big, complex riddle whose answers appear one by one over the course of the child’s life. I would even venture to say that those answers are the instructions for living. “What about people who don’t have a father?” somebody might ask. But to that I can reply: Everyone has a father. (p. 22)

His father is black, his mother is dwarf-like, with glasses so thick they resemble marbles, and these two form the backbone of his understanding. They live in one room of an empty building containing 24 rooms, which they rent. But, since the landlord will not give his father a receipt, his father will not pay the rent, and so there they reside in a stalemate which seems to work for everyone.

Throughout the novella, we glimpse the life of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the decade under which Péron led Argentina.

…anti-Peronism eventually came from the same direction as Peronism, that is, from above. And when the dream of being able to forge one’s destiny evaporated, the result was disillusion, and shame at being so naive. (p. 54)

But, I didn’t find it to be as concerned with politics as I did with the life of a child in a small, poor, Argentinean town. It brought to mind memories of my own youth, for in some ways, childhood fears and dreams are universal.

I felt nostalgic for time itself, which the Plaza’s spatial stories made as unattainable as the sky. I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect linden blossoms, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit…So I set out to recover the old self. (p. 92)

I read this for Spanish Lit Month hosted this year by Stu; it is also my sixth book for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer.

I have never read a “locked-room mystery” before; Murder in The Crooked House by Soji Shimada

20190701_065958.jpgApparently, a locked-room mystery involves a murder which occurs in a room that has been locked from within. The room seems to have no way for someone to enter, so how did the murder occur if it wasn’t a suicide?

Soji Shimoda takes us to the northern tip of Japan, to Hokkaido, where Kozaburo Hamamoto has built an eccentric house. The floors slant; the tower next to it leans like the Tower of Pisa. Guests gather in late December for a Christmas holiday, as the snow falls, and the mood is created for three bizarre murders to follow.

Each murder finds the victim fallen, with a knife wound, and one limb tied to a piece of furniture. Clues are meticulously laid out, but they are for a reader far more astute than I.

In some ways, this novel reminds me of Sherlock Holmes because it is all so logically presented (and solved). It also, strangely enough, reminded me of Agatha Christie; the guests become suspicious of one another and gather in the salon with their suppositions.

I liked it. But, I didn’t love it. I kept reading to the end because I wanted the solution, not because the story gripped me relentlessly. What I really wanted was to visit Hokkaido…

Paris in July 2019

Mels Paris in July 2019

Behold the button for Paris in July, hosted by Tamara, which was created by Mel U. Marc Chagall is reason alone to participate in this event honoring all things French.

Tamara encourages us to cook French cuisine, watch French films, read French books, and I will listen to French jazz which I especially love on Spotify.

As for the literature…it is time to turn to my Penguin Little Black Classics:

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Femme Fatale by Guy de Maupassant

A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert

The Atheist’s Heart by Honoré de Balzac

These are short little books, and should take me through July quite nicely, along with Stu who is hosting Spanish Lit Month for which I will be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude with him and others.

Do join us, in one event or both. Summer is made so lovely by these events I look forward to all year.

It is no wonder The Dry by Jane Harper has won a multitude of awards

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I have spent the past few days secluded in my house because of “the wet”. The rain in Illinois is relentless, keeping me from swimming at Centennial Beach, or riding my Cannondale down the prairie path next to the river. It is understandable how the weather can drive people to distraction; the drought in The Dry, set in fictional Kiewarra in Australia, presents as a character itself. You can feel the heat pressing down on you from every page, as well as the despair which accompanies it.

Luke lied. You lied.

These two lines repeat throughout the book, drawing me in, as I want to know what Luke and his friend, Aaron Falk, lied about. Luke can never tell, because he has been found killed, along with his wife and young son, in the very first pages. It is assumed, at first, that Luke took his life after killing his wife and son. But, why would he leave baby Charlotte crying in her crib? Why were the cartridges Remington, and not Winchester as Luke’s gun used?  Too many things point to the possibility that Luke did not, after all, commit the murders everyone in the town believes he has.

Aaron has come to the funeral in his former town at the insistence of Luke’s father, and he stays to uncover the murders of Luke and his family. It seems that each person in Keiwarra has a heavy load. For one thing, there is no money. The drought is killing the crops, killing the income, killing the hope and incentive in an already small and struggling town. Some of the people have turned to alcohol, or gambling; others are simply existing. But, most of them aren’t without suspicion. For there is another murder, of teenaged Luke, Aaron, and Gretchen’s friend, which is also shrouded in blame.

Aaron and his father left Keiwarra twenty years ago, unable to bear the accusations that they had a hand in Ellie Deacon’s, drowning. Ellie lived with her abusive father, Mal Deacon, and her cousin, Grant, under increasing strain which her mother left for her to endure alone. But, when her body was pulled sodden from the dark water, the reasons for her death were never clear. We only know that neither Luke, nor Aaron, would turn from the alibi that they were together on the day she died.

Jane Harper took me through the town, the people, the murders, with such carefully crafted details that I never once felt manipulated. I never once questioned a loose thread; they weren’t to be found. Nor, did I suspect the turns the story would take near its conclusion. It is no wonder, then, that her book has the following recognition and awards:

2018 BRITISH BOOK AWARDS
Crime and Thriller
Book of the Year

2018 BARRY AWARDS
Best First Mystery

2017 UK CRIME WRITERS’
ASSOCIATION AWARDS

Gold Dagger for
Crime Novel of the Year

2017 SUNDAY TIMES
Crime Book of the Year

2017 PRIX COGNAC
AWARD (France)

2017 ABIA AWARDS
Book of the Year

Fiction Book of the Year

2017 INDIE AWARDS
Book of the Year
Debut Fiction
Book of the Year

2017 AMAZON
Best Mystery and
Thriller Novel

2017 GOODREADS
CHOICE AWARDS

Best Mystery Thriller
Best Debut

2017 NED KELLY AWARDS
Best First Fiction

2017 DAVITT AWARDS
Best Adult Crime Novel
Readers’ Choice

(Thank you to my friend, Lesley, who brought it to my attention a few years ago.)

I Meant No Offense

I had breakfast with an old friend yesterday morning, with whom I love to discuss books. She was the one who introduced me to A. S. Byatt’s Possession, a novel which will always be in my list of top ten favorite books. During the course of our conversation she mentioned reading bits of my blog, and how at one point in my reading of the long list for the Man Booker International Prize I wrote that our library has “nothing but books by Nora Roberts.”

(Gasp.)

In my frustration about the lack of books I wanted to read, I never thought about how disparaging that remark was to others.

And so, I’m sorry.

The last thing I ever mean to be is offensive. In fact, I am struggling not to pick up offense in my own life; how terrible it would be if I was leaving it behind me.

It never ceases to surprise me how this  blog of mine is actually read by real people, some of whom are my real friends. After thirteen years of writing about books, and struggling to find a place as I am not an editor, nor publisher, nor professional reviewer, I am no longer anonymous. But, the power of the written word is quite powerful, and if I have said anything which has caused offense, please know that I never meant it.

The Ditch by Herman Koch

I like Herman Koch’s writing. I liked the moral dilemma of The Dinner, and Summer House With Swimming Pool which told a different story of  misbehaving adults. The Ditch, however, meanders through several issues at once, meditatively enough to remind me of Javier Marias’ writing. One enjoys the book, while at the same time wondering if the plot will ever pull together.

Robert is the mayor of Amsterdam, married to a woman he calls Sylvia because he doesn’t want to disclose her true name, and thus her nationality, lest it prejudices our idea of who she is. He will only tell us she is from a country south and east of Holland, farther than France, and he leaves it at that. Spain? Could she be from Spain, or even farther, a place like Casablanca?

In what struck me as a rather paranoid perspective, he determines that his wife is having an affair after observing her at a party, across the room, throwing her head back in laughter as she converses with Alderman Maarten van Hoogstraten. There is nothing about her behavior which seems suspicious to me, but once the idea occurs to her husband, he can only embellish it in his mind.

Simultaneously, Robert has meetings with his ninety-five year old father who is planning his own death, feeling that he has lived all he wants to and anything more will be downhill.

“That’s the way things are in this country these days, son. When you want to die, they can’t wait to come help. But if you want to enjoy driving for another year, suddenly there are all kinds of ethical objections.”

Near the end of the novel, Robert and his twenty year old daughter discuss her boyfriend, whom she saw kissing another girl on the dance club floor. Diana tells her father that she wants to be the only one, no more looking at other girls, and if he can’t give that to her it’s over.

“Isn’t that sort of one-sided?” I began. “Aren’t you coming down on him a little too hard?”

This, from her father, a husband who has been suspicious of his wife since the novel began. Perhaps in the course of its 300-some pages he has come to see that relationships need flexibility and understanding.

It is never clear whether Sylvia was involved in an extramarital affair or not, nor, I suppose, does it matter very much. The point Koch is making, I think, is that when we love someone, we overcome any negative thoughts we may harbor concerning them. He concludes, “We don’t say much, more often we say nothing at all. We don’t talk as much as we used to. But we are together. We stand close together.”

That is all that really matters.

Frodo’s Courage, an Indomitable Thing

There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow.

After my son and I saw the film, Tolkiena few weeks ago, I knew it was time to pick up his books once again. It has been since I was fifteen or so, reading them in a secluded tower in San Miguel de Allende while our family was there for Christmas. No, I have read bits of them to my son as he was growing up, creating in him a great fondness for travel, adventure, and defying danger.

I love The Fellowship of The Ring for the courage it instills, for the way it upholds what is honorable, true and good, for the way I can liken it to Christianity even though the movie completely avoided such comparisons.

Let this be my first of 20 Books of Summer.

Moby Dick Read-along Plans

moby dick 2I have long been wanting to read Moby Dick, and Brona’s plan seems just about perfect: three to four chapters a week beginning August 1, which is Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. The reading could be followed up with a listening to the chapters on audio at Moby Dick Big Read.

Here is a screenshot of the site, as the name almost sounds…ridiculous:

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So, it’s a plan. I have time to finish Lucky Per which was to be May’s read-along, and locate my leather bound, gilt-edged edition of Moby Dick. Perhaps you will join us as well.

Some of the best reading I’ve done all year: Daphne DuMaurier Reading Week

I am most familiar with Rebecca, but I love My Cousin Rachel for creating an equally menacing woman with a duplicitous spirit. Questioning her selfish intent kept me guessing until the end.

Jamaica Inn was a dirty, nasty place filled with a mean, nasty man. I did not like him, nor reading of his thieving ways, but I liked how his niece was rescued by the one she loved. Not, by the way, the Vicar as one might have suspected.

And Frenchman’s Creek, which I have finished just now, has perhaps the best ending of all. After the adventure, and the trysts, and all the romance of loving a pirate, Dona must return to her husband and children. There is no other choice for a mother, after all.

None of the novels have contrived, easily manipulated conclusions like today’s authors are so adept at creating. They have neither the skill, nor the imagination, of Daphne DuMaurier. My month would have been strangely empty had I not indulged in three of her books at Heaven Ali‘s prompting. And for that I thank her.

Lucky Per read-along this May

C0353C75-F9E0-47D7-B1C4-083D27F8D434This painting by Paul Gustave Fischer gives an indication of Denmark about one hundred years ago, and I like the mood he creates in this winter scene. But I am even better able to create an image in my mind when I read.

As I read of Peter Andreas sneaking out of his house at fourteen years of age to go sledding in the moonlight, I immediately sensed the joy he must have experienced until he was caught by the night watchman. Undeterred, he tells a bald-faced lie about there being a knife fight at the top of the hill, and saying he will fetch the doctor he makes a quick escape. (How is that some people are able to lie so quickly, so effectively, and others, when caught, simply stammer or look blank?)

At this point in my reading, he has left his father’s home, determined to succeed in his lofty engineering plan (involving fjord realignment) which has already been proved faulty by his professor. He is borrowing money for suits he cannot afford, and sleeping with women he does not love. I am mesmerized by this novel, which “propelled its author (Henrik Pontoppidian) to a 1917 Nobel Prize for Literature.” (Introduction in the Everyman’s Library edition.) I am reading it, at the suggestion of Dorian, along with several others. You can find comments and observations on Twitter at #LuckyPer2019, and of course you are welcome to join in as we read this month of May.