The Eight Mountains by Poala Cognetti (My Favorite Novel of Summer so Far)

“We (the Nepalese) believe that at the center of the earth there is a tremendously high mountain, Sumeru. Around Sumeru there are eight mountains and eight seas. This is the world for us.

While he was speaking he drew outside of the wheel a small peak for each spoke, and then a little wave between one peak and the next. Eight mountains and eight seas. Finally, at the center of the wheel, he drew a crown which I thought might represent the summit of Sumeru. He assessed his work for a moment and shook his head, as if to say that this was a drawing that he had made a thousand times but that of late he had begun to lose his touch a little. Be that as it may, he pointed the stick to the center and concluded, “We ask: who has learned most, the one who has been to all eight mountains, or the one who has reached the summit of of Sumeru?”

The Eight Mountains won Italy’s Premio Strega and the French Prix Medicis etranger, which is why I picked it up. But, I stayed for the story within. It is a novel of relationship, and its beauty is tender and unique and special. I loved the two best friends, their relationships to their fathers and one another. I loved the mountains, and the way that the image in the quote above depicts each boy as he grew to be a man.

I don’t have the right words for this wonderful book, except to say that I recommend you read it.

Going Forward

It’s good you can’t see my face. I was a bit teary walking out of school for the last time yesterday afternoon. Five of my friends went with me, some lagging behind to take this picture unbeknownst to me.

It has been a long good-bye. A year long anticipation of this moment, which actually feels more like the beginning of summer than the ending of a career. (The cheerful woman from the Employee Assistance Program told all the retirees that this would happen. “It won’t be until September that you get totally depressed,” she said.)

I know that I can come back to read to the children, to read in some classrooms or the library. But, it won’t be the same. I won’t have my own classroom, which has become a family of sorts, with a history of remembered jokes and stories. That is precisely why I cannot sub, because I couldn’t stand popping in day to day with no lasting relationship with the children.

We all know the ending of something is the beginning of something else. I’m looking forward to blogging with the zeal I felt in 2006, actually commenting on your blogs as I visit them. I’m looking forward to reading even more than I do now, and reviewing more of the books which are sent to me. I’m looking forward to attending BSF (Bible Study Fellowship International) this September, and swimming and cycling this summer; seeing my family more, seeing my friends, and not rushing into making dinner fifteen minutes before we eat it.

But for now, for today, I am absorbing the fact that I am officially retired. I will never walk into school the same way that I left it yesterday, because we can never go back. Now is the time for going forward.

Middlemarch by George Eliot (completed today)

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I must admit that Middlemarch didn’t interest me much until the last hundred pages. I forced myself to continue with it, due to my promise to Arti and Gretchen, and quite possibly it would have been more enjoyable if we three were together discussing it over a cup of tea with lemon. As it was, I sat this Memorial Day Weekend with this tome, in unbearable humidity, bound and determined to finish it so that I can get on to Cult X and Testament of Youth. I am not very patient with English literature, which always seems to need a better editor than it had. (Not one page of Anna Karenina, similar in length, tired me.)

And now for the interesting bits. Tertius Lydgate, who unfortunately married Rosamond Vincy, has become so far behind in debt that he beseeches his wife to give up her purple amythests, sell the silver plate, and even move to a less expensive home. Her pride, and her attachment to her belongings, forbid such actions, and she turns the situation to being his fault alone. She is completely unwilling to support him and turns her graceful neck away at an angle that makes me want to strike it.

So, Lydgate appeals to the banker, Mr. Bulstrode, who gives him one thousand pounds. Yet, almost simultaneously, a patient of Lydgate’s dies, and the townspeople believe that the money given by Bulstrode, and accepted by Lydgate, is a bribe.

”It has come to my knowledge since,” he (Lydgate) added, “that Hawley sent someone to examine the housekeeper at Stone Court, and she said that she gave the patient all the opium in the phial I left, as well as a good deal of brandy. But that would not have been opposed to ordinary prescriptions, even of first-rate men. The suspicions against me had no hold there; they are grounded on the knowledge that I took money, that Bulstrode had strong motives for wishing the man to die, and that he gave me the money as a bribe to concur in some malpractices or other against the patient-that in any case I accepted a bribe to hold my tongue. They are just the suspicions that cling the most obstinately because they lie in people’s inclination and can never be disproved.” (p. 811)

That last line is perhaps the briefest summary of Middlemarch, a novel in which George Eliot examines the defamation of character, and the consequential ruin of one’s trust in oneself; the bond of marriage which can suffocate when it is an unhappy one; the superficiality of the masses when assembled together in the same small town.

Dorothea Casaubon calls Lydgate to her home, and comforts him with her gentle and true spirit which insists on seeing the good in others. When she writes a checque for one thousands pounds for Rosamond, and delivers it to her home, she unexpectedly comes upon Rosamond and Will Ladislaw sitting altogether too closely on the sofa. He his clasping her hands in his, and the situation looks compromising. But this doesn’t bother Rosamond half as much as it does both Will and Dorothea.

”Shallow natures dream of an easy sway over the emotions of others, trusting implicitly in their own petty magic to turn the deepest streams, and confident, by pretty gestures and remarks, of making the thing that is not as though it were. She (Rosamond) knew that Will had received a severe blow, but she had been little used to imagining other people’s states of mind except as a material cut into shape by her own wishes; and she believed in her own power to soothe or subdue.”

Yet, as we read on it is Dorothea’s character to seek the good in people, to believe in the triumph of good over evil, and to know that money cannot possibly bring the happiness so desired by many. Her first husband, Mr. Casaubon, had meanly forbidden her to marry again, specifically the one she truly loved, or else she should lose the property he had left to her. But this sword will not cut through her armor, one which chooses truth over prosperity. I love how she ends with the one she loves.

As I close the last pages, I am pleased with the outcome of this book, happy that I have read a classic I had not read before. It would be a perfect story for Masterpiece Theater, as there is so much wisdom inherent to its tale told through the foolishness of so many of its characters.

”Yes, dear, a great many things have happened,” said Dodo in her full tones.

“I wonder what,” said Celia, folding her arms cozily and leaning forward upon them.

“Oh, all the troubles of all the people on the face of the earth,” said Dorothea, lifting her arms to the back of her head.

Read-along In June: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

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Having finished the read-along for Middlemarch in May, I am now embarking on the read-along for Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain sponsored by Jillian of In Her Books. (Click on the link to find her invitation.)

Here is a brief description of this novel:

In 1914 Vera Brittain was eighteen and, as war was declared, she was preparing to study at Oxford. Four years later her life – and the life of her whole generation – had changed in a way that was unimaginable in the tranquil pre-war era. TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, one of the most famous autobiographies of the First World War, is Brittain’s account of how she survived the period; how she lost the man she loved; how she nursed the wounded and how she emerged into an altered world. A passionate record of a lost generation, it made Vera Brittain one of the best-loved writers of her time.

You can buy it with free shipping from Bookwitty here.

Please feel free to join this endeavor, on Twitter as #cctestament.

The Shadow Jury Declares A Winner for the Man Booker International Prize 2018

It’s been ten weeks since the Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced, and in that time the Shadow Panel has been working away in the background, reading frantically while discussing the merits and flaws of the selected titles. From the thirteen books we were given by the official judges, we chose a shortlist of six (only two of which made the official cut!), and off we set again, to reread as much as possible in the time we had left. Then, we discussed the books a little more before voting for our favourites, culminating in the choice of our favourite work of translated fiction from the previous year’s crop. And who might that be?

THE WINNER OF THE 2018 SHADOW MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE IS:

OLGA TOKARCZUK’S FLIGHTS

(FITZCARRALDO EDITIONS, TRANSLATED BY JENNIFER CROFT)

Congratulations to all involved! While not a unanimous decision, Flights easily won the majority of votes from our judges. In fact, in the seven years we’ve been shadowing the prizes (IFFP, then MBIP), this was the clearest winner by far, showing how impressed we were by Tokarczuk’s integration of seemingly disparate pieces into a mesmerising whole. Thanks must also go to Croft for her excellent work on the book – as always, it’s only with the help of the translator that we’re able to read this book at all.

A special mention should also go to Fitzcarraldo Editions. This is their second consecutive MBIP Shadow Prize, as we selected Mathias Énard’s Compass as our winner for 2017; they have proved to be one of the UK’s rising stars of fiction (and non-fiction) in translation.

*****

And that’s it for 2018…

Firstly, I’d like to thank the rest of our Shadow Panel. While David, Bellezza and Lori were around to help once more, it was a new-look team this year with Paul, Vivek, Naomi, Oisin and Frances joining the crew. It’s been fascinating to compare our opinions about the books, even (or especially!) when we disagreed about them. Here’s hoping that we can do it all again next year.

Additionally, let’s give a shout-out to all the readers and commenters out there. It’s heartening to have people appreciate our endeavours, and when people say that they’re following the prize vicariously through our reviews and comments, even if they don’t have time to read all the books themselves, it makes us feel as if the whole process is worth it.

Finally, we’d like to thank the official judges for taking the time to read an awful lot of books in order to select the cream of the crop. We hope that their final choice, to be announced about twenty-four hours after ours, is a worthy winner to round off this year’s prize. Who will it be? Could they possibly recognize the winner to be Flights as the Shadow Panel has done?

Middlemarch: Let’s Talk About Marriage For A Minute

Earlier this year I read of a marriage hastily, and later regretfully, made. It was between Isabel Archer and Mr. Osmond in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Now, George Eliot gives me Dorothea Brooke and Mr. Casaubon in her novel, Middlemarch. Both marriages seem doomed from the moment we learn they are to take place.

I asked my friend Gretchen why Dorothea married Mr. Casaubon when I first began this novel. Why would a beautiful and charming young woman become entranced by a man with eyes in deep-sockets who resembled a portrait of Locke? It seems she thought he possessed a deep mind, containing profound thoughts, and she believed she could assist him as he laboriously studied and wrote his papers.

But, Mr. Casaubon does not seem as willing to give his heart away as much as he wants his life well served. Here is a typical kind of sentiment Eliot attributes to him throughout the novel so far, about one third of the way through:

Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy…When Dorothea accepted him with effusion, that was only natural; and Mr. Casaubon believed that his happiness was going to begin. (p.333)

He never seems to take into account Dorothea’s happiness, or her heart, and I continue reading this novel with dread for her future.

(Please feel free read along with us, as we continue Arti‘s plan for #MiddlemarchInMay.)

Life of Pi by Yann Matel (winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2002)

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The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity – it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud. (p. 6)

The first time I picked up The Life of Pi, I abandoned it for being ridiculous. I did not recognize the beauty of the writing, nor the ethereal qualities of magicial realism. I was a very concrete girl, and thus at times, a foolish reader. A boy is named Piscene Molitor Patel after a swimming pool in Paris, because his family’s good friend loved swimming there the best? It was not an auspicious beginning to me.

Skip to the part where Pi’s father decides to leave Pondicherry, India for Winnipeg, Canada. The ship they are on, carrying several animals from the family’s zoo which has been sold, sinks. All that is left is Pi, an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. A tiger who has been named Richard Parker, after the befuddled intervention of a shipping clerk who got the papers mixed up between the tiger and the hunter who had found him.

But this time through, I am utterly entranced. I feel as if I am on the boat with Pi struggling to live. First, he has to go through the realization that his parents and brother are lost to him. Then, he has to figure out how it is that he can survive. Not only must he find food and water for himself, in the middle of the sea, he must find it for Richard Parker. He must be certain that he is not dinner for the tiger.

The way they survive is quite graphically depicted. Pi eats fish, and whatever he pulls from the ocean, raw, of course. He tears apart turtles, and exists on dorados, flying fish, and the water he can obtain from rainfall or flimsy stills which turn sea water into fresh.

When I place myself in his position, mentally, I am overwhelmed by the abundance in my life compared to the absence of practically everything required to live in Pi’s. Of course there is the trouble of finding enough food and water, but so much more is lost to him: family, human companionship, baths, entertainment of any sort. He reads the survival manual he has found perhaps a thousand times, for the lack of any book. Yet he is determined to live. His perseverance is one of my favorite things about him.

Near the conclusion of the novel, we come upon two very bizarre things. One, is the encounter that Pi has with another man. Pi has become temporarily blind, but he communicates with this voice on board his lifeboat. Until Richard Parker eats this man, and Pi recovers his eyesight to behold a dismembered body without a face, we are unsure if he exists at all.

Even more bizarre is a forest of floating trees, resting on seaweed and algae rather than earth. Pi and Richard Parker tentatively step out onto this island, and feel quite comfortable there with the pools of fresh water and fish which lie therein. But when Pi discovers a tree, and climbs it in hopes of enjoying its fruit, he finds that the ‘fruit’ is really a light ball, the contents of which is a human tooth. There are, in fact, all the teeth of a human skull inside each ball, and Pi comes to the conclusion that he cannot stay safely on this island as he had hoped; it is a carnivorous island which devours what comes its way.

Like the very best of animal stories, this one is ultimately about dealing with extreme loss, overcoming fear, testing one’s endurance, and being courageous beyond what one thinks he is capable of being. And for those who scoff at Pi’s story being true? I leave you with this quote:

“If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?”

“Mr. Patel-”

“Don’t you bully me with your politeness! Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?” (p. 297)

Just call me The Rocket

The Dolphin Dash was this weekend on Saturday; a 5K or a 1 mile run which all the students and their parents sign up to do. Some people take it very seriously, even going so far as to train for the run which is always held the first weekend in May. I, of course, read as hard as I could.

Every year I walk the 1 mile with a parent or two, enjoying the sunshine and the walk and being surrounded by my kids. But long passed are the days when I ran a 6 minute mile in college.

This year, I crossed the finish line (with my timing chip left at home on the kitchen counter) to the cheers of students and the announcement of the P.E. teacher shouting into the microphone, “And now, with a time of 17 minutes and 55 seconds, we have Meredith, The Rocket, Smith!”

It was all great fun, and after I hugged him, I said I was going home.

“What?” he joked. “You’re not waiting for the announcement of the times?” I smiled at him, and left.

This morning, the children walked into my room shouting and screaming. “Mrs. Smith! You won the huge trophy!”

“No,” I said.

But, in walked the PTA mother who had arranged the entire Dolphin Dash with the biggest trophy I have ever won. It said, “Fastest Female” on the bronze plate in front. So, I had to have a picture for proof.

Because NO ONE, least of all me, would ever have expected me to win a running race. It is the most hilarious thing I’ve experienced all year. And, in case you want to congratulate me, it was because I was the only female teacher who ran walked.

I’m still laughing quietly to myself.

The Imposter by Javier Cercas, translated by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018) “Reality kills and fiction saves.”

Javier Cercas is unashamedly forthright about his own personal objections to writing this book right from the beginning.

Suddenly I felt that, though I had twice given up on the story, it had been through a lack of courage, because I sensed that in the old man (Marcos) something was hiding that interested me, or profoundly concerned me and I was afraid to discover what it was. p. 51

As long as we’re revealing inner thoughts, I must confess that I am more interested in Cercas’ revelations about his own life, and that of a writer, than I am about Enric Marcos’ life. It doesn’t matter much to me that he lied, and presented himself as someone he was not, as much as what his actions imply: that lies are built on many small truths, and therefore they hide the whole truth. So what would have made Marcos build a life of lies, posing as an imposter, in the first place?

Enric is like Quixote: he could not resign himself to a mediocre existence, he wanted to live life on a grand scale; and since he did not have the wherewithal, he invented it. p. 31

Cercas says he was afraid that in writing his book, he would somehow be justifying the actions of Enric Marcos. And then he remembers a quote by Tzvetan Todorov:

Understanding evil is not to justify it, but the means of preventing it from occurring again. p. 53

Which is, of course, one of the the main reasons for studying history in the first place.

In presenting himself as someone he was not, in mixing small truths with big lies, was Enric Marcos inherently evil? Cercas says that Marcos’ “narcissistic lie (saying that he was in Flossenburg, a Nazi concentration camp, as a prisoner) hides the truth of horror and death…it is an attempt to hide reality so as not to know or recognise it, so as not to know or recognise himself.” p. 187-188

So I read this book not because I am so terribly interested in Enric Marcos the individual, as much as I am interested in what he represents. I also found myself fascinated by the personal revelations of Cercas, as he wrote about what it means to be a writer; what it means to write fiction.

“…reality kills and fiction saves, because more often than not fiction is merely a way of disguising reality, a way of protecting oneself from it or curing oneself of it.” p. 203

While this is not a favorite of mine from the Man Booker International Prize long list of 2018, it was well loved by many on the shadow panel. It was not, however, deemed worthy of the short list by the official judges. Judging from their short list, it seems that they prefer shock value more highly. (Yet, if that was wholly true, why leave off Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz?)

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Despentes is France’s most famous bad-girl author. A rape survivor who has worked as a prostitute and a housemaid, Despentes’ unapologetically feminist eye picks out the telling details of contemporary French society’s casual ennui and petty hypocrisies. Her “Vernon Subutex” series of novels — there are three — are critically acclaimed best-sellers in France. In Volume I, we meet the book’s eponymous hero, a fallen former record-store owner who has nothing left to his name except interview tapes of a recently deceased rock star that could be his ticket off the streets. ~New York Times

This is a tame synopsis of a novel which is making me feel increasingly like I need to take a bath.

For example, I wouldn’t call thievery, adultery, lying, drugs, or pornography “casual ennui and petty hypocrisies.” Let’s call it what it is: immorality.

Nor would I say that this is a “mind-blowing portrait of contemporary French society.” (Nellie Kaprielian, Inrocks) Of all the times I have been in France, and there have been many, I did not see or participate in such behavior. So maybe it portrays some level of French society, but to make that a blanket statement for all of France feels a bit extreme.

What Vernon Subutex 1 is, is an acerbic novel of a confused and lost group of people, who keep searching for meaning in their lives while it constantly eludes them. Because, I think, they are looking in the wrong places.

It is hard to read this novel and not feel a certain amount of empathy for Vernon. I see how lonely he is, how directionless and physically poor; a combination of things which can only lead to more despair unless he makes different choices.

For me, this is a novel about life spinning out of control for people who are living their lives based on selfish pleasure. Looking at the cover alone, you can see how much anguish is within its pages.

It has been included in the short list for the Man Booker International Prize 2018, and whether it will be declared the winner remains to be seen.