The Bell In The Lake by Lars Mytting (A work of historical fiction, published today, which I loved.)

The minute I began reading, I was immersed in the small town of Butangen, Norway, hundreds of years ago. I read of the conjoined twins whose father, Eirik Hekne, had the Sister Bells cast in their honor. The bells were forged of bronze and silver, for Eirik threw into the melting pot not only all of his silver cutlery, but two fistfuls of silver coins. Was he being wasteful? Perhaps not, as the bells were cast from his fortune, but also in grief and longing.

Few Felt that silver was better spent on church bells than on barns, yet they took it as a reminder that hardship was easier to bear than sorrow. (p. 124)

I read that Norwegian nights are “coal-black in the winter, filling even the stoutest heart with fear.” I read of the stave church, built of wood in the 1100’s, embellished with the heads of dragons. The door of the one in Butangen was once surrounded by a carved serpent and decorated with Nordic symbols. It is in such a church that Kai Schweigaard has come to pastor, that lovely Astrid Hekne visits with elderly Klara Mytting. It is in such a church that Klara dies in the bitter cold at the edge of her pew, against a wall, during one service. Her death causes Kai to wonder how his parishioners’ needs can be better met by the church.

Photo credit

The painter Johan Christian Dahl, made a professor in Dresden, aroused interest in Germany over Norway’s culture, especially the stave churches. The churches were dismantled in Norway where they were no longer wanted, and rebuilt in Germany, thus preserving their historic value. Each beam, each stave, each plank of the medieval church must be carefully recorded so that it could be accurately rebuilt in its new home.

And so, a young German artist named Gerard Schonauer is sent to Butangen to draw the church, to fulfill the architectural plans that have been set before him. But, he was not sent to fall in love with Astrid. And certainly not to leave the bells in their native village in Norway instead of being taken to a new, unfamiliar home in Germany.

The bells seem to have a mystical power of their own, almost personifying the sisters for whom they were named. They have an uncanny way of ringing unexpectedly, or falling suddenly; they seem to know where danger lurks.

He (Astrid’s grandfather) started to talk about the powers of the Sister Bells. “They do nay ring for pretty things. They donae ring to warn of forest bandits or a little earthslide. They ring when folk mun wake up and choose wisely. Or to warn of a disaster as they did in 1814.” (p. 124)

While it might be easy, in theory, to take down a church, the German officials do not understand the power of the Sister Bells any more than they understand the church was originally a house of worship containing far more than wooden staves made from the tallest pines of the forest.

I can’t do this, Gerard said to himself. Nobody can. If the church is taken down it’ll never be made whole again. There’s more here than I can ever understand. The most important thing of all, an inner essence, will disappear when we demolish it.

But another anxiety gripped him too. An anxiety that had started when, on that first day, he had heard the church bells. Now he got the distinct feeling that they disliked him They were somewhere above him, where they lived, free in the air, in fragile balance. (p. 129)

Creating bells that are as real as any character may seem an extraordinary thing to write about. But, they took on a presence that stood for something. More than being merely powerful bells of bronze and silver, the Sister Bells stood for tradition. For superstitions. For two sisters, their father, and the bond made in a small Norwegian village between a young woman and the two men who loved her. It is an atmospheric book, of powerful proportions, that fully transported me to Norway in the nineteenth century. I cannot stop thinking about what I have read, pondering the history, the religion, and the sacrifices made within these pages.

Lars Mytting, Norway’s bestselling novelist, is the author of Norwegian Wood. His books, which have sold over 1 million copies in 19 languages, have won the Norwegian Bookseller Prize and have been shortlisted for the prestigious Dublin IMPAC Prize, among others. The Bell in the Lake has been sold in 12 countries and was a #1 bestseller in Norway.

  • Imprint: The Overlook Press
  • Publication Date: September 29, 2020
  • Price: $27.00
  • Trim Size: 6 x 9
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-4318-4
  • EAN: 9781419743184
  • Page Count: 400
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Rights: North America
  • Additional formats: Ebook

S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, for the R.I.P. XV, and for Great Reading Pleasure

S. is gorgeous, a masterpiece of verisimilitude. . . . The book’s spiritual cousin is A.S. Byatt’s Possession. . . . The brilliance of S. is less in its showy exterior than the intimate and ingeniously visual way it shows how others’ words become pathways to our lives and relationships.” —Washington Post

A drenched man in a dark overcoat wanders the streets, unable to remember who he is or where he came from. He enters a tavern, speaks with a woman who has an olive complexion, and is suddenly grabbed from behind, thrown over a strong man’s shoulder, and taken aboard a ship.

Such horrors lurk there, from holes punctured around the men’s mouths so that they can be sewn together with thread to “hearing muted expressions of pain from all about the ship.” (p. 57)

Who is this man? He learns his name is S., while the reader wonders if this could be the author V. M. Straka, who wrote The Ship of Theseus, as well as other “novels that toppled governments, shamed ruthless industrialists, and foresaw the horrifying sweep of totalitarianism that has been a particular plague in these last few decades.” (p. v)

The Ship of Theseus, the novel within this novel, was written in 1949, and it is this text that I read first. Then, I went back to the beginning to read all the annotations that had been handwritten in its margins. Annotations, and dialogue, from two students: Eric, who is studying Straka, and Jen who found Eric’s book containing all his notes.

“Did you write in the book?” my husband asked when he saw me reading it.

“No,” I told him, “it’s part of the presentation.”

“That would drive me crazy!” he exclaimed, and for some people that would perhaps be true. But, I am enchanted by the parallel stories, and the ephemera tucked within its pages, all interwoven to reveal mysteries beyond my imagination.

S. is not a book for those who prefer technology, or e-readers; it is a book lover’s dream.

Some Spooky Reads I Have Planned for the R.I.P. XV

The events of the early days of blogging, circa 2006 when I began, still bring joy to my heart. I have always participated in Carl’s R.I.P. Challenges, even to the extent where I purchased Poppets which he brought to our attention through his blog posts.

And now we are ready for R.I.P. XV which begins September 1 through October 31, 2020. Use #RIPXV, or @PerilReaders, should you wish to include social media with your posts.

I have tentatively planned the following books:

And, of course, you are welcome to join Amateur Reader and I (and several others) in John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra which may, in fact, also qualify for a disconcerting read.

Cathedral By The Sea, and Other Books I’ve Begun for Spanish Lit Month Before It Ends

I have had a difficult time reading this month, and sadly, finishing books for Spanish Lit Month. I began Cathedral of The Sea which, as you can see from the blurb about the author at the end of this post, sounded fabulous. Fourteenth century? Several literary prizes? It held every promise.

However, I abandoned this hefty novel halfway through. After slogging through well over 300 pages, many of which were interesting, the overall effect was too much of a soap opera. There were dramatics from the characters which seemed contrived, and I would have much rather known more about the cathedral itself than their imagined lives.

So, with The Cave being Portuguese rather than Spanish, and Cathedral of The Sea being boring, I tried another book: A Million Drops by Victor Del Arbol. It too, lies abandoned halfway through, although it is an international best seller which was named a Best Book of The Year by The Washington Post, Seattle Times and Crime Reads. Perhaps I will pick it up after I finish All This I Will Give to You, written by Dolores Redondo which won the Pleneta Prize in 2016. Such are my efforts for Spanish Lit Month, the later also qualifying for Women In Translation Month.

A lawyer and a writer, Falcones’s first book, La catedral del mar (Cathedral of the Sea), was published in 2006, when he was nearly 50. This historic novel is set in 14th-century Barcelona, when the Catalan empire was at its greatest. Cathedral of the Sea won Falcones several international awards, including the Spanish Qué Leer award, the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio award, and the French Fulbert de Chartres award. His second novel, La mano de Fátima (The Hand of Fatima), which is set during the Moorish era, received the American-Italian Roma Prize for best foreign literature. Since 2013, he has released three books. (From culturetrip.com)

Have Life…Abundantly

I love walking through Herrick Lake Forest Perserve. My mother and I have walked there several times a week ever since the pandemic of COVID-19 began. We are refreshed by the beauty of the trees and the path beckoning us forward. We are restored by the oxygen coming to our faces which can be mask free in the good outdoors.

Yesterday I asked the Morton Arboretum, another place of great beauty, why it is that they insist on timed-entry passes when even public parks have been open for weeks. Well, I didn’t exactly I ask. I suggested that they eliminate their timed-entry passes (which must be reserved daily) on Instagram, and I got this reply from some random Instagrammer:

I loved the timed-entry. Seriously, everyone should be doing that! The virus is NOT under control. You must get your news from Fox.

I have been laughing at the last line ever since I read it. Please, take offense at my suggestion and accuse me of a certain political persuasion when all I want to do is walk amongst the trees.

People are in such great distress emotionally, and I don’t mean to minimize their pain. I know someone very dear to me who is just coming through a tremendous battle with depression that kept him down for several weeks. But, we don’t have to accept the enemy’s darkness! Remember what Jesus said:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. -John 10:10 (ESV)

Let us choose an abundant life filled with hope rather than fear. Or, judgement. Or, discouragement. And might I suggest taking a walk in the forest, as well?

Shadow Garden by Alexandra Burt “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

Here is a fact: by recalling an incident, you corrupt it. If you want to maintain its pristine and virgin state, just let it sit, don’t disturb it. I’ve been playing that game for a while and it’s time to blow away the cobwebs and look at the truth, even if it isn’t pretty.

Shadow Garden reminded me of Rebecca’s Manderley. The atmosphere was shrouded in mystery, in darkness, and secrets such that the reader doesn’t know whom to trust…is Donna, the wife of Edward, reliable? She has been, after all, brought to Shadow Garden as a convalescent. Her husband has left her under the housekeeper’s care, and every time Donna asks, “Has Penelope called?” she is told, “No. Not today.”

Penelope, called Penny, or Pea when she was very small, is Edward and Donna’s daughter. She has caused untold traumas for her family through behavior she is either unwilling, or unable, to control and soon their perfect world has spun out of control. Even the skills of a surgeon, which is Edward’s profession, are unable to stitch together the image of perfection which all three of them succeed in ripping apart.

I was caught up in the relentless suspense of this domestic thriller, eager to find out exactly why Donna was at Shadow Garden and if she would ever escape. The plot unfolded seamlessly, without tricky manipulations which authors of this genre so frequently use to create artificial suspense. One is left feeling both sympathy and horror for the family that suffered enormous pain due to their impossible expectations and grave misunderstandings.

Shadow Garden was published on July 21, 2020. My thanks to Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read and review it here.

Weather by Jenny Offill (“Aren’t you tired of all this fear and dread?”)

No pictures of books lying open on a bed, surrounded by neutral blankets, dried flowers, and half drunk cups of coffee, for me. I prefer simple. Real over artificially composed. And, an author who writes as if she understands exactly what I am thinking myself.

Such is Jenny Offill.

Her writing is lyrical. It is contemplative. Stream of consciousness, within a wry joke, within a story. Somewhere in this novel she is pointing us to hope, using the devices of humor, anecdote, reflection, and “prepping.”

What to Do If You Run Out of Candles

A can of tuna can provide hours of light. Stab a small hole in the top of an oil-packed tuna can, then roll a two-by-five-inch piece of newspaper into a wick. Shove the wick into the hole, leaving a half inch exposed. Wait a moment for the oil to slack to the top of the wick, then light with matches. Your new oil lamp will burn for almost two hours and the tuna will still be good to eat afterward.

But, this is not the stuff that appeals to me the most. It is the narrator’s reflection on her job as a librarian, her role as sister, wife and mother. (As I read, I wished I had written more of the things my son said to me when he was small. All I can remember is, “Mom? What do strangers look like?”)

I will leave you with some snippets of my favorite bits. Surely they will give you an indication of why I love this book so much:

But how to categorize this elderly gentleman who keeps asking me to give him the password for his own email. I try to explain that it is not possible for me to know this, that only he knows this, but he just shakes his head in that indignant way that means, What kind of help desk is this?

And:

The problem with assortative mating, she said, is that it feels perfectly correct when you do it. Like a key fitting into a lock and opening a door. The question being: Is this really the room you want to spend your life in?

And:

I kiss Eli’s head, trying to undo the rush. Why didn’t I have more kids so I could have more chances?

And:

Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?

Old person worry: What if everything I do does?

And:

There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.

And:

Don’t use antibacterial soap! Catherine told me, because lalalalalalalala.

And:

I’m like a woman carrying a full cup into a room of strangers, trying not to spill it.

And:

A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”

I think, ultimately, that she reminds us we are in charge of our own thoughts, our own outcomes. Here is one last passage:

A man is having terrible dreams. In them, he is being chase by a demon. He seeks counsel from a therapist, who tells him he must turn around and confront the demon or he will never escape it. He vows to do this, but each night in his dreams, he runs again. Finally, he manages to turn around and look straight at the demon. “Why are you chasing me?” He asks it. The demon says, “I don’t know. It’s your dream.”

The Booker International Prize 2020: our Shadow Jury’s Verdict

The official announcement of the winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize has been postponed until later in the summer, to give readers more time to get and read copies of the novels.

But our shadow jury of bloggers and reviewers of translated fiction has already completed our reading and re-reading, so it seems fitting to announce our Shadow Winner on the original date of May 19th.

As a reminder our own shortlist was, in alphabetical order of the original author’s name: 

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Farsi – Iran), tr. Anonymous (Europa Editions)
The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse (Norwegian – Norway), tr. Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Spanish – Mexico), tr. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese – Japan), tr. Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker)
Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (French – France), tr. Sophie Lewis & Jennifer Higgins (Peirene Press)
The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Dutch – Netherlands), tr. Michele Hutchison (Faber & Faber)

Runners-Up:
The Other Name: Septology I-II
and
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

Jon Fosse’s “slow prose”, unfolding his story in one long, flowing stream that reads with great fluidity, took us deep inside his narrator Asle’s mind and thoughts. And we were caught up in the heady mixture of Persian myth, story-telling and magic realism of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, a true ode to literature and to the deeply soothing role books and stories play in our survival of trauma.

But the winner of our 2020 Shadow Jury Prize is:
Hurricane Season, written by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Comments from some of our judges:

Hurricane Season is an appropriate title for a novel that roars into the unsuspecting reader’s mind, with its long and winding sentences, and its refusal to flinch from the brutalities of its world.”

“There is anger, pain, and the understanding of the role literature plays when it comes to compassion and empathy.”

“As author M John Harrison said of Melchor’s novel ‘…she had shown me things I needed to be faced with.’ and expanded my understanding of lives so very different from my own.”

“It unflinchingly portrayed a world apart from us and artfully created another layer of distance from subject through the use of mythologized violence. That she both creates distance and ‘makes us look’ simultaneously was incredibly powerful for me.”

“Melchor’s prose, in Hughes’s stunning translation, is raw, brutal and so, so necessary.”

“As readers and intrepid voyagers down Melchor’s Dante-like vision, we are like riveted inmates, incarcerated either by law or by economics or gender, who stand to witness the depravity, despair and pain being inflicted upon this part of the world. The real evidence and reward here is not in unmasking the Witch’s killer or killers or in finding out why this happened, the true recompense of Melchor’s novel is to pay tribute by listening to the dead’s testimony,‘there is no treasure in there, no gold or silver or diamonds or anything more than a searing pain that refuses to go away.’“

And our congratulations extend to the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions who provided two of our top three, and also now have two Shadow Prize wins in three years.

Now it’s over to the official jury for their decision.

20 Books of Summer

This time, I plan to complete Cathy’s challenge: read 20 books from June 1, 2020 until September 1, 2020. It’s called 20 Books of Summer, and I can’t think of anything nicer to do during those hot months than sit with a book and a cool drink. Especially as I strongly suspect that Centennial Beach, my favorite swimming hole, will be closed due to the COVID 19 pandemic.

So, which 20 books from my shelves shall I read? We are allowed to change the titles, and even change the number (from 20, to 15, to 10), but I like to set a high goal and accomplish it. These titles are included in my list of twenty read before summer’s end. Surely, there will be time to do it.

  1. Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
  2. Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
  3. A Man by Keiichiro Hirano
  4. Shadow Garden the by Alexandra Burt
  5. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Graham
  6. What The Wind Knows by Amy Harmon
  7. A Million Drops by Victor Del Árbol (for Spanish Lit Month)
  8. Weather by Jenny Offill
  9. All This I Will Give To You by Dolores Redondo (for Spanish Lit Month and Women In Translation Month)
  10. The Cathedral by the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones (also for Spanish Lit Month)
  11. The Death and Life of Bobby Z by Don Winslow
  12. The Gentlemen’s Hour by Don Winslow
  13. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  14. Savages by Don Winslow
  15. Satori by Don Winslow
  16. Broken by Don Winslow
  17. The Vacation by T. M. Logan
  18. The Cave by José Saramago (also for Spanish Lit Month)
  19. Safe by S. K. Barnett.
    The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle)

There you have it, a nice blend of translated literature, thrillers, contemporary fiction, and what our library has of my new passion for Don Winslow.

What do you have planned for your summer reading?

How Have I Not Read Don Winslow’s Books Before?

I’ve been interested in what readers have been turning to in these days of quarantine. Some open the classics, others prefer romance. While translated literature has great favor in my reading preferences, I must admit to a weakness for thrillers. Crime. Suspense. The problem, for me, is finding a reliably good one.

I remember reading The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum in the late 80’s and being unable to put it down even though we were in the south of France, and I ought to have been more interested in the Mediterranean. I remember reading Shutter Island by Dennis LeHane and thinking it far superior to Mystic River. And there are so many books in between which I don’t remember at all. They seem to tell the same story, over and over.

I bought The Force by Don Winslow for fifty cents at our library’s Used Book Shelf long before the CoronaVirus appeared. In fact, as I perused my Goodreads shelf yesterday, I noticed I’d marked it as “to read” in 2018. After all the emotionally laden work of the Booker International Prize 2020 long list, which was certainly worth reading, it was a great pleasure to me to dive into these books, for the plots and characterization captured my mind and heart.

The Force is about the New York City Police Department’s Task Force, with a hero I will never forget. It was like reading The Godfather; you know some of the characters are dark, and flawed, and deal in illegal territory, but you can’t help loving them anyway. The dialogue alone in this book was remarkable. I saw Manhattan, in all its glory and all its shame, unveiled before me.

The Power of The Dog is about the drug lords in Mexico. And, the DEA. And, the corruption in politics. It is violent, and horrifying, and absolutely mesmerizing in its revelations. When I was a little girl, I thought that doctors healed, teachers taught, and presidents led. I have since had my eyes opened to the true nature of many in these professions. Now I can add law enforcement to my disillusionment, knowing that all of us are living in an often sad, and fallen, world.

I cannot recommend either of these two novels by Don Winslow enough, and now I leave you to begin The Cartel, which is Book 2 in The Power of The Dog trilogy.