Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated by Philip Roughton, Man Booker International Prize long list 2017)

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I have rarely reviewed the books I hold the most dearly on this blog. I am afraid that my words will tarnish them, that my words and their author’s words have no business being on the same page.

So it is with Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. If I tell you that I read breathlessly, turning the pages without being aware of the paper, or the light, or the time, or my chair, you might say, “I’ve heard all that before.”

You might even be unconvinced of its power if I told you there was a line on nearly every page that I wanted to record in my commonplace book, write down to record exactly what Jon said so that I can read it again and again at my leisure.

Even though he writes a family history with some of the hopelessness of a secular viewpoint, he brings to mind questions that I often battle, feelings which I claim to have owned. A few examples:

“Question: What travels faster than the speed of light?

Answer: Time itself.

It whizzes like an arrow straight through us. First the sharp point penetrates the flesh, organs and bones, that’s life, followed shortly by the feathers, that’s death.” p. 51

“…how is it possible to make it through life relatively undamaged when so much wears out-when passions fade, kisses cool, and so little goes in the direction we choose?” p. 73

“Memories are heavy stones that I drag behind me. Is it heavy to remember? asked Ari. No, only what you regret or long to forget – regret is the heaviest stone.” p. 86

“Nothing but eternity matches up to God’s terrible implacability.” p. 91

“…we constantly try to suppress the feeling, the certainty, the fact, that humanity is ephemeral, our lives birds’ songs, seagull’s cries, then silence.” p. 84

“At some point, this thought assails us all. Why have I lived? Why am I living? Because if we never ask, never doubt, and pass our days and nights thoughtlessly, or dash through them so quickly that little stays with us but the newest mobile phone, the most popular song, it’s not unlikely that sooner or later, we’ll run into a wall.” p. 107

“It’s impossible to measure longing, nor is it possible to understand it, describe it, explain it, those who miss someone always have something dark in their hearts, a string of sorrow that time plays, strums, plucks.” p. 312

And the title? Fish have no feet, what does that mean?!

“The silly girl neither stops nor hesitates but steps into the sea, despite no-one having been able to walk on water since Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee two thousand years ago to charm a few fishermen. The girl from the north steps down from the rocks and one foot immediately enters the sea, as does the other a nano-second later. No-one, you see, can walk on water, and that’s why fish have no feet.” p. 331

Have you ever searched for something and then perhaps compromised, making do with what comes close enough to what you had in mind? And then have you ever had the rare experience of knowing, as surely as anything you ever knew, that you have found what you were looking for?

That is me holding this book right now. I’m not saying it will win the Man Booker International Prize 2017, or even that my fellow shadow jury panelists will feel that it should.

But I know, in my heart of hearts, that no book on the long list will surpass this one for me.

Find another review at Tony’s Reading List.

Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated by Philip Routman
Published on August 25, 2016 by Quercus
384 pages

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw): Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list

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However, one afternoon something strange happened to the sky, and when the sky not only goes dark but also strange and is low and hard to read, this is a sign in itself, a sign of the worst.

The people on the island do not make the rules. The weather makes it for them, and they must cope accordingly.

Young Ingrid has an infectious laugh. She laughs all the time, until she goes away from the island to school. There, the first thing she learns is to swim; she also learns her alphabet and her numbers and sees herself in a big mirror for the first time.

You are not allowed to laugh in the classroom, for three reasons, the teacher counts on his long, thin fingers: it is disruptive, it is infectious and it looks stupid…Ingrid doesn’t understand what he means. Not being allowed to laugh when you need to is like being deprived of a leg. But life is hell, she does learn that at least, so she stops laughing and starts crying instead.

I am learning about a country of which I am ill aware: Norway. The open space must be wonderful, the sea’s power terrible, and the work arduous beyond belief. Just staying alive, and warm in the Winter, takes every day’s efforts. But, there is a certain beauty in a job well done, as only experienced,  wind-chapped hands know how to do.

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photo credit here

A correctly constructed peat stack is not only beautiful, like a man-made eye-catching attraction in the countryside, it is a work of art. A slapdash, hastily built stack, on the other hand, is a tragedy, which reveals its true nature at the worst possible moment, in January, when they wade through the snow with hand-woven baskets on their backs and discover the peat to be encrusted with ice, frozen rock solid.

I loved reading about this family on their island, catching and salting the fish, rowing the færing into the Trading Post on the mainland, caring for one another, as well as unexpected children who come their way. Jacobsen gives us a magnificent picture of life in Norway, but even better, to me, is the portrayal of family. Which need not be related by blood.

He also includes themes of dreams and regret, courage in the face of adversity, and how to survive the loss of something you aren’t even aware is being taken away from you.

This is yet another splendid book in what is proving to be a very powerful long list.

Find another review at 1st Reading’s Blog and David’s Book World.

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
Translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
Published by Quercus on August 16, 2017
272 pages

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (translated by David McKay): Man Booker Long List 2017

I have not read such a gorgeously written book in a long time. The images which Stefan Hertmans paint for us, brilliantly translated by David McKay, are as clear in my mind as if I had watched them on film. From my mind, though, they become seared on my heart until I must put down the book for a brief respite.

This story is a vivid re-imagining of the narrator’s grandfather, a man with the birth and death dates exactly matching those of my maternal grandfather: (1891-1981) “as though the numbers played leapfrog with each other.” From two notebooks of handwritten memoirs he  reconstructs his grandfather’s life, and thus creates a more complete understanding of his own.

When his grandfather comes down the stairs to present him with a gold pocket watch, the grandson has no way of knowing what a precious gift it is. The story of this watch, passed from generation to generation before it was passed to him, was yet unknown. When it slipped from his grasp, and broke into bits minutes within receiving it, he had no way of knowing the places it had been in his grandfather’s pocket. Or, in his grandfather’s life.

And I broke it, an heirloom that was nearly an antique when he was young. What could he have done with the shattered pieces? A man walks by with a panting Doberman straining at the leash; I hear pigeons cooing. It’s too late now for the remorse that holds me helpless in its grip.

(How well I remember my grandmother giving me the pearl earrings she wore for her own wedding day, and several months later asking me how I liked them. I had to tell her that I had felt my ears one day, to find that one was missing. She looked at me for awhile, but never once scolded me, before she said, “These things happen.” What memories of hers were lost with my carelessness?)

War and Turpentine tells of his grandfather’s life, from these small experiences as a young boy, to an adolescent who works a grown man’s job in an iron foundry, to his enlistment in World War I, to seeing the woman he wants to marry in an upstairs window behind his house. Before he can marry her she dies of pneumonia, and he bravely marries her elder sister, for he is a man who

…seemed to possess no egotism, conceit, or self-importance, but only an instinctive eagerness to be of service, a quality that made him both a hero and a first-class chump.

The narrative of this man, who was “tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he’d wished to become” became a tool for me to think back on my own family, my own history, and the hunger I often feel for time gone by.

Consider this snippet of a quote:

“…if you praise a simple fellow like that, it’ll only go to his head, and he’ll stop applying himself.”

How heartily my teachers, and even some members of my family, adhered to that sentiment! It has caused me to work unceasingly for praise, and when I became a mother, to render it too easily to my own son.

And now, perhaps you’re wondering about the inclusion of the painting by the cover of the book? It is Velazquez’s Venus at Her Mirror, known as the Rokeby Venus. But, Urbain Martien has repainted it, and unbeknownst to him is discovered by his grandson crying over the portrait. For the face which he has painted on the Venus is that of Maria Emelia, the one woman whom he truly loved, the one woman with whom the life he desired was denied. She brackets the beginning of the story, as well as the end, and lies in the shadows of all the pages in between.

Find more reviews at Tony’s Reading List, Messenger’s Booker, and ANZ Litlovers Lit Blog.

War and Turpentine by Sefan Hertmans
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Published August 9, 2016
304 pages

The Confessions of a Young Nero by Margaret George

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“Let them call me cruel. Better that than dead.”

I have had a strong desire to know more about Rome’s emperors and history ever since I read Captivity in January, for not only am I entranced by all things Italian, I like to have a reference point for the New Testament. (Which I read regularly.)

Margaret George is a new author to me. I have not read any of her previous novels: Elizabeth 1; Helen of Troy; Mary, Called Magdalene; The Memoirs of Cleopatra; Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles; The Autobiography of Henry VIII. But, in reading The Confessions of a Young Nero, I find her research to be as exhaustive as I could imagine it to be.

She paints a portrait of Nero which is compassionate and sympathetic to what must have been a truly anxious life. From the very first chapter, his uncle (Caligula) attempts to murder him by throwing him overboard at the age of three. His mother, Agrippina, is no better. She is a manipulative, conceited woman whose allegiance lies with whomever can give her the most power. It is a wonder Nero grew up to be emperor at all, with such attempts on his life and enemies within his own family.

We catch a glimpse of his sorrows and disappointments, his life and achievements, his hunger for music and affection through Margaret George’s eyes. The novel is easy to read, filled with historical research, and fascinating in its portrayal of Nero’s life.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell): Man Booker International Prize Long List

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The important thing already happened. What follows are only consequences.

The pace of this book is frenetic, building up panic as those who have suffered a terrifying dream are well aware; we want to wake up, we want things to be better, we want to find out that none of what we dreamed was real.

Amanda lies dying on rough, coarse sheets. A boy murmurs to her, and their dialogue is all we have to tell us their story. To lead us to “the important thing.” At the boy’s prompting to remember, she relives the horrors that have brought them to this place.

In a disjointed, and bizarre narrative, we find that she and her daughter, Nina, have come from town to vacation in the peace of the countryside. She has befriended the boy’s mother, Carla, a beautiful woman with an elegant walk whose red hair is worn in a bun.

The boy’s mother has witnessed a stallion die after it has drunk from a stream. Next to the stream was a dead bird, and when the boy’s mother becomes aware that her son has drunk from the same stream, she carries him almost immediately to the green house. There, a woman to whom people go rather than the clinic, takes David into a back room.

Later, Nina sits down in the grass, becoming wet in what her mother assumes is dew. She and her mother are given pills at the local clinic and told to go home, rest. They have had too much sun.

Can it be mere stupidity that denies the effects of poison which has infiltrated the ground, the water? Or, perhaps is it easier to deny the truth than deal with its consequences. But, a mother’s desire to save her child, the “rescue distance” as Schweblin so aptly calls it, can only stretch so far in its effectiveness. And as the lines between the two children blur, so do the ramifications for the rest of the community.

This is a frightening book, an alarming story which seems part sci-fi and part horror. It has just the kind of emotional tension which the books on the Man Booker International Prize long list so cleverly create.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Published March 2, 2017 by Oneworld
160 pages

Find more reviews from Tony’s Reading List, 1st Reading’s Blog, and A Little Blog of Books.

Have I Shown You My Midori Traveler’s Notebook? Have I Told You How Much I Love It?

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I have long been a record keeper, from trips to France as a child, to the horrible years before my first husband died, and beyond. I have a large selection of Italian leather bound journals, Moleskines, and various notebooks from places such as the Art Institute of Chicago. But none of them seem quite right because once filled their purpose seems largely done.

However, the Midori Traveler’s Notebook from Japan is more ideal than any I have ever used before. If only you could feel the patina of the cowhide leather, turning to velvet beneath the repeated touch of my hands. I have my name stamped in gold on the bottom cover, and a charm hanging off the bookmark such as Japanese girls like to hang on their phones.

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Inside are various inserts, such as the 2017 Weekly Diary which I use as a calendar and memory keeper,

as well as lined inserts which I use as a type of commonplace book: one for scripture verses I love, and one for a book journal.

But, the possibilities are endless! Once an insert is finished, it can easily be removed and replaced with another. There are all kinds of inserts to choose from: lightweight paper, grid, lined, sketch, or kraft. They are only about $6.00 each, and they all hold up to fountain pen ink without bleeding through.

My favorite shop is Baum-kuchen in Los Angeles, where Wakako weaves magic in the merchandise she sells. Today, this package arrived containing the items I had ordered all wrapped so beautifully.

There is a new lightweight paper insert (#013), a roll of 4 Season washi tape, a box of brass paper clips, and an Essential wallet to carry valuables such as credit cards and money.

 

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For I, too, believe that, “logic will take you from A to B. imagination will take you everywhere.”

The Man Booker International Prize and the 2017 Shadow Jury Panel

img_3846It is with great anticipation that I await March 15, for that is when the Man Booker International Prize long list will be made known to us. It is from this list that many of my favorite books of the year are read; several of them linger still in my memory so great is their power. If you have not read The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker, or The Dark Road by Ma Jian or The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson perhaps you should stop reading this post and begin them now.

I became a member of the shadow jury panel in 2014, the year after I learned about the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It has since evolved into the Man Booker International Prize. Fortunately, Stu and Tony have invited me back, and now for the second year in a row our panel consists of the following book bloggers:

Stu Allen is returning to chair the first Man Booker International Prize shadow jury after hosting four shadow IFFP juries. He blogs out of Winstonsdad’s Blog, home to 500-plus translated books in review. He can be found on twitter (@stujallen), where he also started the successful translated fiction hashtag #TranslationThurs over five years ago.

Tony Malone is an Anglo-Australian reviewer with a particular focus on German-language, Japanese and Korean fiction. He blogs at Tony’s Reading List, and his reviews have also appeared at Words Without Borders, Necessary Fiction, Shiny New Books and Asymptote. Based in Melbourne, he teaches ESL to prospective university students when he’s not reading and reviewing. He can also be found on Twitter @tony_malone

Clare started blogging at A Little Blog of Books five years ago. She does most of her reading during her commute to work in London and reviews contemporary literary fiction and some non-fiction on her blog. She particularly enjoys reading French and Japanese fiction in translation. Twitter: @littleblogbooks

Tony Messenger is addicted to lists, and books – put the two together (especially translated works) and the bookshelves sigh under the weight of new purchases as the “to be read” piles grow and the voracious all-night reading continues. Another Tony from Melbourne Australia, @Messy_tony (his Twitter handle) also reads Australian Poetry, interviewing a range of poets on his blog, which can be found at Messengers Booker (and more) and at Messenger’s Booker on Facebook – with a blog containing the word “booker” why wouldn’t he read this list?

Lori Feathers lives in Dallas, Texas and is co-owner and book buyer for Interabang Books, an independent bookstore in Dallas. She is a freelance book critic and board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She currently serves as a fiction judge for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. Her recent reviews can be found @LoriFeathers.

David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer from the north of England, now based in the south. He has written about translated fiction for Words Without Borders, Shiny New Books, Strange Horizons, and We Love This Book. He blogs at David’s Book World and tweets as @David_Heb.

Grant Rintoul is a Scottish reviewer who lives on the coast not far from the 39 steps said to have inspired Buchan’s novel. Luckily the weather is generally ideal for reading. He blogs at 1streading, so-called as he rarely has time to look at anything twice. He can sometimes be found on Twitter @GrantRintoul

Although we comprise an unofficial jury, I think our opinion matters, for we represent the readers. Our passion lies with translated books, and each year we have unanimously agreed on which is the best work of literature from those presented on the long list. Please follow our thoughts on our collective blogs as we once again embark on a journey to discover which will be named the Man Booker International Prize winner on June 14, 2017.

And thank you, Daniel Hahn, for your brilliant work editing, writing and translating literature, as well as following me on Twitter. 😉

Reading Ireland Month

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The Company of Books, Dublin

It’s a photograph that bids me to enter. But the best I can do is read Ireland with Cathy and others this month, before the Man Booker long list is announced on March 14.

I hope to squeeze in a new book I received, by Catherine Dunne, entitled The Years That Followed. Catherine is an author I’m looking forward to discovering; here is a bit about her:

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“Catherine Dunne is the author of nine novels including The Things We Know Now, which won the Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. She was recently long-listed for the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction Award 2015. Her work has been translated into several languages. She lives in Dublin.” ~Simon and Schuster

Will you be adding anything for Reading Ireland this month?

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias

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I may have shared with you how I often feel a stranger in this world. When a writer is able to tap into that emotion, to make me reread a sentence because he has just described a way I’ve felt, it is a somewhat rare occurrence. But Javier Marias is one of the few writers who is able to do just that, touch a piece of my heart and make it feel a little less alone.

Take for example, this early description of Beatriz’ troubled marriage, which faintly mirrors my experience with my first husband:

“Perhaps that was her curse, her main problem,  and one of the reasons why she still loved him so much: he made her laugh and he always had. It’s very hard not to stay in love with or be captivated by someone who makes us laugh and does so even though he often mistreats us; the hardest thing to give up is that companionable laughter, once you’ve met someone and decided to stay with them. (When you have a clear memory of that shared laughter and it occasionally recurs, even if only very infrequently and even though the intervals between are long and bitter.)” p. 66

Film director Eduardo Muriel’s story is told by the twenty-three year old young man, Juan De Vere, and perhaps it is his naive perspective that lends this novel a coming of age feel. He knows very little of marriage, of adult manipulations or despair, and as the lives of Eduardo and his wife, Beatriz Noguera, unfold before our eyes we see through young de Vere’s perspective how bad begins.

This line comes from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” It is in part, of course, the title, but it is also a major theme of the novel. “What is ‘the bad’?” we ask ourselves, “and how did it begin?”

Could it be the loss of a child? A lie told by one spouse to another in the beginning of their marriage? Infidelity? We read to discover what it is that makes Eduardo treat Beatriz so scornfully, in private, and what makes her leave the house for trysts with Dr. Jorge Van Vechten, or an even more private appointment in a room at the Hotel Wellington.

This is a novel which has bound me to it all week, alternating between highlighting passages and stopping to ponder them. It is just the kind of breathtaking work which Javier Marias writes, a writer who has become one of my favorite Spanish authors. I leave you with a few quotes which struck me as I read:

“It’s true, however, that we always arrive late in people’s lives, indeed, we generally arrive late for everything.” p. 327

“…a nostalgia for the life you discarded always lingers on in the inner depths of your being, and, during bad times, you seek refuge in it as you might in a daydream or a fantasy.” p. 414

“It reminds me of that expression that so perfectly defines us Spaniards: Quedarse uno tuerto por dejar al otra ciego-‘To put out your own eye while trying to make another man blind.'” p. 419

“As I said, you can’t just put a line through the past to erase it. Even once you’ve decided that you no longer want that past.” p. 420

 

 

Mailbox Monday: a plethora of delectable temptations

If it looks like there are a lot books which have come my way, it is largely because I have not put up a Mailbox Monday post for far too long. But, as these books are so exciting to me I thought a few might interest you as well.

First, there is a Valentine present from my parents. The book inside the beautifully wrapped red paper, underneath a golden heart, is Perfume by Lizzie Ostrum.

The incredible stories of 100 perfumes from a whole century of scents.

Signature scents and now lost masterpieces; the visionaries who conceived them; the wild and wonderful campaigns that launched them; the women and men who wore them – every perfume has a tale to tell.

Join Lizzie Ostrom, dubbed ‘the Heston Blumenthal of perfume’ (Daily Mail), on an olfactory adventure as she explores the trends and crazes that have shaped the way we’ve spritzed.

Next, we have from SoHo Press:

Cruel is The Night by Karo Hämäläinen (Finnish):

Prizewinning Finnish author Karo Hämäläinen’s English-language debut is a literary homage to Agatha Christie and a black comedy locked-room mystery about murder, mayhem, and morality in our cynical modern world.

and

The Boy in The Earth by Fuminori Nakamura (Japanese):

As an unnamed Tokyo taxi driver works a night shift, picking up fares that offer him glimpses into the lives of ordinary people, he can’t escape his own nihilistic thoughts. Almost without meaning to, he puts himself in harm’s way; he can’t stop daydreaming of suicide, envisioning himself returning to the earth in obsessive fantasie…

Trysting by Emanuelle Pagano, comes from Two Lines Press (French):

A seductive blend of Maggie Nelson and Marguerite Duras, Trysting seizes romance’s slippery truths by letting us glimpse nearly 300 beguiling relationships: scenes between all genders and sexualities. Proving that the erotic knows no bounds, almost anything can be a means of attraction: from amnesia and throat-clearing to sign language, earplugs, back hair, arthritis, PVC, and showers. Combining aphorisms, anecdotes, and adventures, Trysting is a tour de force that gives a new perspective on a question as old as humanity.

Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in The World  by Jorge Zepeda Patterson came from Restless Books (Spanish):

Winner of the prestigious Premio Planeta, Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in the World is an enthralling international political thriller about sex, power, and information—and the extreme lengths people will go to attain them.

Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac (Spanish):

Savage Theories wryly explores fear and violence, war and sex, eroticism and philosophy. Its complex and flawed characters grapple with a mess of impossible, visionary theories, searching for their place in our fragmented digital world.

My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry has been hailed as this Winter’s “must-read thriller”.

My Last Lament by James William Brown is, “A poignant and evocative novel of one Greek woman’s story of her own—and her nation’s—epic struggle in the aftermath of World War II.”

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George is historical fiction based on the life of “Emporer Nero, one of the most notorious and misunderstood figures in history.”

and finally,

Lenin’s Last Roller Coaster by David Downing is a British spy novel set in 1917 which commemorates the Bolshevik Revolution.

I hardly know where to begin, but I hope I have given you some interesting titles to put on your radar.