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)
Tom, of Wuthering Expectations, has been posting about John O’Hara here. When he mentioned Appointment in Samarra, I immediately wanted to read it with him in September. And, as Tom points out, Samarra in September has nice alliteration.
Here is more about the 240 page novel from Penguin:
One of Time’s All-Time 100 Best Novels
The writer whom Fran Lebowitz called “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald” makes his Penguin Classics debut with this beautiful deluxe edition of his best-loved book.
One of the great novels of small-town American life, Appointment in Samarra is John O’Hara’s crowning achievement. In December 1930, just before Christmas, the Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, social circuit is electrified with parties and dances. At the center of the social elite stand Julian and Caroline English. But in one rash moment born inside a highball glass, Julian breaks with polite society and begins a rapid descent toward self-destruction.
Brimming with wealth and privilege, jealousy and infidelity, O’Hara’s iconic first novel is an unflinching look at the dark side of the American dream—and a lasting testament to the keen social intelligence of a major American writer.
Do consider joining us for Samarra in September! I am sure we will read and post throughout the month as we feel led, and even write one or two tweets using #SamarraInSeptember.
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?
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.
I haven’t been blogging much. I can hardly bear social media in general, having deactivated my Facebook page and coming close to doing the same with Twitter. There is too much unbearable news and most of the opinions are not even vaguely aligned with mine.
So, it was a pleasant relief to be reminded of Spanish lit month, hosted by Stu and Richard. Some of the best reading I’ve ever done has been for events sponsored by fellow bloggers and bibliophiles. And even though I’ve never made friends with Roberto Bolaño (gasp!, I know!), I am quite fond of José Saramago. I have never forgotten the power of Blindness, and I would reread Skylightif there weren’t the three novels pictured above in our local library. Here is a blurb for The Cave:
Cipriano Algor, an elderly potter, lives with his daughter Marta and her husband Marçal in a small village on the outskirts of The Center, an imposing complex of shops and apartments to which Cipriano delivers his wares. One day, he is told not to make any more deliveries. Unwilling to give up his craft, Cipriano tries his hand at making ceramic dolls. Astonishingly, The Center places an order for hundreds. But just as suddenly, the order is canceled and the penniless three have to move from the village into The Center. When mysterious sounds of digging emerge from beneath their new apartment, Cipriano and Marçal investigate; what they find transforms the family’s life. Filled with the depth, humor, and extraordinary philosophical richness that marks all of Saramago’s novels, The Cave is one of the essential books of our time.
~Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books
I have already begun The Cave, and I must leave you now to get back to it. Lying in the hammock, under the maple tree in our backyard, with a lovely piece of literature for Spanish Lit month…there is not a better way to spend the afternoon that I can think of.
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?
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?
I kiss Eli’s head, trying to undo the rush. Why didn’t I have more kids so I could have more chances?
Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?
Old person worry: What if everything I do does?
There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.
Don’t use antibacterial soap! Catherine told me, because lalalalalalalala.
I’m like a woman carrying a full cup into a room of strangers, trying not to spill it.
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 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.
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.
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 Forceis 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 Dogis 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.
I have been living with Martial de Mégremut, on the island his great-uncle required he inhabit, for several days. And, nights. For it is during the night that so much of the action seems to take place. People come and go, quietly, quickly, in the night. They suddenly appear, and suddenly disappear, and Martial often follows them through the brush, or the snow, on a muddy path which is at best obscure.
Your great-uncle Mr. Cornélius, in making you his heir (under certain conditions, moreover, as you will see) has left you but a modest inheritance:
On the mainland, along the river, two hundred fifty acres of barren ground. Nothing grows there except a little grass for the sheep. Of course, you will find a flock of one hundred head. It is not much. But Mr Cornélius eked out a living from them. It is true you will also have the island and the house of La Redousse, unproductive, alas! You will also have Balandran. He tends the sheep. He fishes. He hunts. A singular man, as you will discover. Completely devoted to Mr. Cornélius, down to his marrow; he is thought to have a harsh character.
How could he have lived without Balandran? This quiet, incredibly strong, yet small, man brings Martial his dinner. His breakfast. His coffee. He cleans with great efficiency and prepares the small iron bed with sheets smelling of soap.
I loved the little whitewashed hut in which Martial dwells. It has a bed, a desk, a chair, a fireplace and a storeroom. There are no books, no diversions of any kind other than his contemplative thoughts as he sits before the fire. This is where he must live for three months before the rest of the will’s stipulations are revealed to him.
During his stay he befriends Bréquillet, Balandran’s dog:
I returned to the fire.While I had been looking the other way, Bréquillet had slipped onto the hearthstone. He was resting there, his muzzle on his two black paws, relaxed but alert…Bréquillet sighed with well-being. Long tremors ran along his spine as he closed his eyes to savor the pleasures of a warm hearth and the closeness of man, creator of fire, friend of dogs.
During his stay, he learns of the ram, Sacristan:
A great ram, a male leader a sire. I had never before seen one so tall or so strong. His loins were huge, thick; his chest deep. Tawny wool rolled in thick curls from his rump to his warm, vibrant neck. Around his pointy ears, his horns spiraled three times, vigorously crowning his thick, woolly temples. His wide, hairy brow was boldly thrust forward, ready for combat; his eyes sparkled.
“This is Sacristan,” Balandran said solemnly, “our master ram.”
I was overcome with emotion. “Yes, I said to Balandran. “I remember. After the rain, we were supposed to go to the land, to see him.”
The rain. It rains constantly on the island:
An almost unearthly light radiated from the whitewashed ceilings and walls. Meanwhile, it was raining outside. Under the wind’s thrusts, the rain had begun again, and I heard showers lashing the roof. For the window, I could see the clayey soil of the clearing, where drops of water splattered. Nearby, elms, enormous birches, and giant willows rose. Their trucks held up a vast tangle of leafless limbs whose tips touched the storm. They tossed despairingly against the gray sky, heralding winter.
Can you not sense the mood? The almost gothic quality of the island, its inhabitants, and even the weather? Henri Bosco has done a masterful job of creating a sense of place, which for me, was even more significant than the trial of enduring on an island, virtually alone, while waiting to find out what else needs to be done to gain an inheritance. (It was a grave deed that Martial must accomplish, one so subtly described it was almost easy for me to miss.)
I loved this book, for the beautiful writing (and translation!) allowing me to contemplate the slow pace that we ourselves are now living during the self isolation of the CoronaVirus pandemic. It is a time of seclusion that proves Martial’s worth, as he must overcome severe adversity and his fears. It is a time that tests our own strength as well, in which perhaps we, too, would be well-served to sit quietly by the fire, calmly reviewing our lives.
Malicroixwas published on April 7, 2020. It was my great pleasure to read it with Dorian (@ds228), Frances (@nonsuchbook), Grant (@GrantRintoul), Nat (@Gnatleech) and Kim (@joiedevivre9). Thank you, nyrb for the copy to read, and Joyce Zonana (@JoyceZonana) for an exquisitely wrought translation.