In Which The Shadow Jury for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 Revisits Mathias Enard’s Compass and Arrives At A Decision

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“We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud, seeing nothing outside, alone, never understanding each other we smoke, faces agonizing in a mirror, we are a frozen image to which time gives the illusion of movement, a snow crystal gliding over a ball of frost, the complexity of whose intertwinings no one can see, I am that drop of water condensed on the window of my living room, a rolling liquid pearl that knows nothing of the vapor that engendered it, nor of the atoms that still compose it but that, soon, will serve other molecules, other bodies, the clouds weighing heavy over Vienna tonight: over whose nape will this water stream, against what skin, on what pavement, toward what river, and this indistinct face on the glass is mine only for an instant, one of the millions of possible configurations of illusion – look, Herr Gruber is walking his dog despite the drizzle, he’s wearing a green hat and his eternal raincoat; he avoids getting splashed by the cars by making ridiculous little leaps on the pavement: the mutt thinks he wants to play, so it leaps towards its master and gets a good clout the second it places its dirty paw on Herr Gruber’s trench coat, despite everything he manages to reach the road to cross, his silhouette is lengthened by the streetlights, a blackened pool in the midst of the sea of shadows of the tall trees ripped apart by the headlights along the Porzellangasse, and Herr Gruber seems to think twice about plunging into the Alsergrund night, as I do about leaving my contemplation of the drops of water, the thermometer, and the rhythym of the trams descending towards the Schottentor.”

It’s not exactly the kind of first sentence you could easily memorize, as people have done with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

But, it is indicative of the style of this book. Mathias Enard’s prose is mesmerizing, catching us up in a mood, covering us with atmosphere, and yet not wavering one instant from brilliance.

I thought this book might be too esoteric to win the Man Booker International Prize 2017. It wasn’t, for me, an easy read. Nor is there a specific plot on which I can center my thoughts. For those reasons, I chose The Unseen as my personal favorite for the Prize. In fact, The Unseen received four votes from the Shadow Jury panel.

However, another four votes went to Compass, resulting in some heavy consulting between Tony and Stu, who point out that Compass won by .1 of a point in the first round of voting. All of us concur; it is a worthy book to win the Man Booker International Prize 2017.

We shall see what the official judges say is the winner. They have a hard job of it, I think, deciding between the likes of Compass, Fever Dream, Judas and The Unseen. Each book stands out for its power and pertinence; I do not envy them their job. But, the Shadow Jury has declared our choice in Compass, and we eagerly await the official judges’ verdict.

 

(While one waits, might I point out that Spotify has a playlist for Compass? It is a lovely accompaniment to listen to while reading.)

A Feast For Crows by George R. R. Martin

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I have escaped a hot and airless classroom into a medieval world of great imagination. I am journeying with Brienne, and her entourage consisting of Nimble Dick and Podrick Payne, as they search for Sansa and Ser Dontas. Brienne’s sword is named Oathkeeper, and every bit of this story charms me as I read about them breaking their fasts on honey and bread, traveling through bogs and woods of pine, looking down on cliffs at a strange rider who follows them several miles behind.

I root silently for Tyrion Lannister, my personal favorite of all the characters, and don’t believe for a minute that he poisoned Joffrey at his wedding, nor killed his own father Lord Tywin after Jaime helped him escape from prison. People love to accuse the ugly or maimed.

I want to see Cersei smacked soundly; the opinions she holds of herself are far too self-righteous and manipulative for my liking.

And there’s Aeron Greyjoy, the Damphair, who belongs to the sea as a drowned man. Only, he is a drowned man who lives.

I have turned away, temporarily, from the “heavier” reading of books in translation, or the meat of the classics, for a pure romp in high fantasy. I am fully enmeshed in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, and grateful for the escape it provides in tandem with the freedom of summer. I must read a little more slowly, for there’s only one book more: A Dance With Dragons.

Have you read any of the five books from A Song of Fire and Ice? Are you as mesmerized as I am with this tale?

Ought we to be ashamed as readers? Or, at all?

I have been having the most interesting conversation with Tom, albeit through truncated comments rather than around a table,  on his post about France’s bookstores. His point, I believe, is that they shame American bookstores. That is a point well taken.

But, I took it farther. I pressed on to say that French fragrance and fashion and food shames American products of the same sort. Tom wishes to keep the critique to art (i.e. literature).

Okay, let’s talk about literature for a minute here. Can we start with what I read my eight and nine year olds in my third grade class?

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This year I was surprised by a group of 8 fifth graders, who knocked on my door and presented me with a large purple cellophane box. Inside, was an item they had made for each read-aloud book I had shared with them when they were in third grade. There was an origami box turned into a covered wagon for The Little House on The Prairie. There was a tissue box covered in spiders for Charlotte’s Web. (“Because you always cry at the end.”) There was a recipe for ladyfingers from one of my childhood favorites, The Pink Motel. I won’t bore you with a description of each item, the point is what I read to them mattered. What I read to them was mostly from many, many years ago.

What matters now? What kinds of books are written, published, or read that matter? Books are available because they titillate, or entertain, or are expected to make a profit for the publisher. But I wonder about the quality of the writing, the worth and lasting value of the books we read today.

Perhaps this is why, in part, I have turned so eagerly to translated literature. It seems that books from other countries are better at addressing pertinent issues, or at least the large dilemmas in life. I think of the lists for the Man Booker International Prize I have read over the years, each one seared into my memory. (Even The Iraqi Christ, which I loathed.) They are more than a “trite” murder, fantasy, or romance driven novel. They are the bread and meat of which life is made.

And so we come full circle. Ought we to be ashamed of what we read? Are books with little inherent value being published at the fault of the reader or the publisher? Or, perhaps you feel that the books published today, in America, bear no blame at all. But I contend that we are not living with the quality I once knew, nor the quality enjoyed by those abroad. And I think it speaks to a larger issue of loss, a decline in culture, or morality, unlike any time I have seen before.

Have You A Favorite Reading Space?

About sixteen years ago, my husband and I were in the Cinque Terre for our honeymoon. We stayed on a beach in Monterosso, Italy which looked just like this, (see below) and if I wasn’t so enchanted with the environment, it would have been my ideal place to read. The sea, the umbrellas, the cotton chaise chairs rented for about $5.00 a day were blissful.

Cinque Terre beach

But, my day to day life does not consist of sitting on an Italian beach surrounded by my favorite sights and sounds. My every day life consists mostly of teaching elementary school, a job which has fulfilled me for over thirty years.

Sometimes the children come into my classroom, having completely read a book which they chose from one of my shelves the day before.

“How did you read this in one night?!” I ask in astonishment. (I forget that they do not have dinner to make, or dishes to wash, or papers to check in the evening.)

“I lay on my stomach, in my room, and I read until I’m done,” they often say. I don’t catch my breath on “read until I’m done” as much as I do with “lay on my stomach.”

I do not lay on my stomach to read any more.

For one thing, it brings the print up far too close for my monovision. For another, my back starts to cramp, or my arms begin to ache, from holding my torso up. No, at this point in my life, I want something else to hold me up. I want something soft, and enveloping. And yet, at the same time, it must be beautiful.  I have long had a penchant for the furniture from MacKenzie Childs. Even though it’s very bright, I love either of these two arrangements:

Or, a more simple arrangement such as this chair alone:

arhaus ghost sky

I could drape my legs over the side, or sit cross-legged when they became too heavy. The thick cushion looks heavenly after a day of teaching on my feet. Even the simple background decreases any distracting visual stimulation.

Or, I would enjoy reading in bed. My bed at home is a beautiful sleigh bed, chosen for design more than comfort. If I could choose again, I would be so tempted by this teak daybed, or this tufted backboard, on which to recline:

 

With the coming of summer, and thus much more free time for this teacher to read, I’m reviewing the possibilities. I’m perusing catalogs, and online sites (the later pictures taken from Arhaus) and dreaming of perfect spaces. These images seem just right, if I can no longer lie on the stony beaches of the Mediterranean.

And you? Where do you envision your summer reading taking place?

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (“Who knows how, and why, a vocation for solitude is born?”)

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To me, the image of a garden is of so much potential. Inherent to a garden is growth, beauty, and the possibility of perfection. (I think of the Garden of Eden as presented in the Old Testament.)

But there is also the possibility of everything going wrong: weeds, decay, the infiltration of parasites.

So it’s interesting to me that Bassani titles his novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Not The House of the Finzi-Continis. Not The Hütte of The Finzi-Continis. The Garden. And what an apt title it is, to tell the story of this affluent Jewish family living in Ferrara, Italy, in 1938, who can indulge in the play a lovely garden has to offer.

There is a tennis court, disappointing to the Professor’s children, Micol and Alberto, but nevertheless a gathering place for their group of friends who wish to seize the beauty of summer. Waiting by the entrance gate to this garden’s tennis court are Bruno Lattes, Adriana Trentini, Carletto Sani, Tonino Colevatti, and three or four other young men and women. They meet to play tennis, to laugh and compete and partake of Skiwasser, the beverage Micol insists on providing as she finds it the most refreshing.

Our narrator, the man who falls in love with Micol, is also an insistent one. He comes to her house to play tennis never missing an afternoon, and when she goes away to study in Venice, he goes to her home to work on his thesis in her father’s library. He has been invited, to be sure, but he seems unable to determine when he might be overstaying his welcome; he is unable to determine the extent of Micol’s affection for him, which does not seem to surpass that of friendship, even after subtle gestures on his part. (How he laments not following her to Venice, where surely, he thinks, his efforts could have changed the course of events.)

If on that rainy afternoon, when the radiant Indian summer of ’38 suddenly ended, I had at least managed to speak to her–I told myself bitterly–perhaps things between us would have gone differently from the way they went.

After virtually throwing himself upon her, quite literally, she is forced to tell him that she does not love him. She does not wish him, in fact, to visit as much as he has. Perhaps he should take three weeks to stay away altogether.

So much is in decline: the relationship between Micol and the narrator who loves her; her brother Alberto’s health; the strength of the Jewish position in the late 1930s. We are told from the very beginning that Alberto dies of a lymphogranuloma, and the other members of the family are all deported to Germany in 1943.

It is a story of tremendous loss and rejection: of this man’s love, as well as the injustice the Jewish people suffer during this particular time period. It is a story, to me, of our ultimate isolation and solitude; no one is able to save anyone else.

Perhaps it is all we can do, sometimes, to take care of ourselves.

(I read this novel at Dorian’s invitation, and look forward to reading the thoughts of others who have read along. Jacqui’s is here.)

If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio (Most definitely not the next The Secret History)

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“…Dellecher was less an academic institution than a cult. When we first walked through those doors, we did so without knowing that we were now part of some fanatic religion where anything could be excused so long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses. Ritual madness, ecstasy, human sacrifice. Were we bewitched? brainwashed? Perhaps.

I’ve missed it, desperately.”

If the setting of a small college housing artistic students who vibrate with a barely hidden malice seems familiar, perhaps it is because you are thinking of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But while Tartt’s characters were studying Greek, and Latin, and holding secret seances in a farmer’s field at night, M. L. Rio’s characters are quoting Shakespeare and swimming in a lake as the autumnal season deepens. Yet there is an aura of fear here, too, the knowledge that something has gone terribly wrong, for from the very first chapter one of the men is being released from prison. He has a story to tell.

Oliver’s story is compelling. He tells of his fellow theater students: Wren, Filippa, Meredith, James, Alexander and Richard. For reasons which were never fully explained, Richard is filled with wrath. It is a consuming wrath, exhibited in bullying: teasing, shouting, taunting and hitting. It is no wonder he is found floating in the lake one morning before dawn. His face has been bashed in, he is covered with blood, and it surely looks as if he is dead. But when he calls weakly for help, this group of students who call themselves friends, decide to do nothing. They decide to let him die, in the water, and tell the authorities that they all get along just fine.

It doesn’t ring true to me. From where does Richard’s rage stem? Why agree to tell the police that everyone has been getting along well when clearly they have been tormented? (Surely they must already suspect one another.)  There are blatant disconnects that not only irritate me, they keep this novel from approaching anything near the power of The Secret History.

So while I enjoyed the Shakespeare dramas, the lines from his plays cleverly interwoven into the narrative, and the collegiate setting in which a small band of friends unite; while I think the ending is fairly clever in a Tale Of Two Cities sort of way, this novel ended up being a disappointing read.

Which doesn’t bode well for my opinion of Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven, who said that it is “A rare and extraordinary novel.”

If only that were so.

Do Any of These Titles Fit With Your Personal Canon?

If, as the Oxford dictionary presents, one of the definitions of a canon is “the list of works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality,” then preparing such a list is a heady task for any bibliophile. And reading those lists of fellow bibliophiles is at least as interesting, if not more, than revealing one’s own.

Here’s a problem: around which perimeters can such a list be created? Those books from childhood which firmly established my love of reading? Then I would have to say B is For Betsy by Caroline Haywood, or my well worn copy of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. And even before that, my mother was reading Beatrix Potter books to me, and The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.

Or, there are the books which ushered me into adulthood, such as Madame Bovary read at the tender age of 17 after a particularly heart rending break up, or Madeleine L’Engle’s The Love Letters.

There are books which shaped my whole political outlook, such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or opened doors to me of fantastic other worlds such as Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84.

So, a list considered to be of the highest quality? All I can give you is a list of my most well-loved books, the books which I have carted from apartment to condo to townhouse to home, the books that I pick up and reread again and again. From the top of my head, here is my personal canon:

  • The Bible
  • Possession by A. S. Byatt
  • The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Love Letters by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis
  • The Lord of The Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoevsky
  • Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • The Day of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson
  • Swimming to Elba by Sylvia Avallone
  • Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Surely there are more, should I take the time to ponder more deeply, or scout my shelves more thoroughly. But thanks to Frances of Nonsuch Book, and Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed before her, I have compiled a list of my most beloved books. My canon, so to speak.

Do any of them resonate with you?

Man Booker International Prize 2017; the Shadow Jury Announces Its Shortlist

img_3846With great excitement, and after some deliberation (but, it really wasn’t that hard for us), the Shadow Jury has produced its short list for the Man Booker International Prize this year.

From the time that the longlist was announced on March 15, we managed to read most of the 13 titles before April 30. Each of the longlisted books was read by at least six of the eight judges; six titles were read by all of us.

In my opinion, the best books of the longlist easily stood out. (Determining the best from the shortlist will be the tricky part!) The jury’s decision for the short list is as follows:

Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland)
Translated by Philip Roughton
(MacLehose Press)

Compass by Mathias Énard (France)
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
(Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway)
Translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
(MacLehose Press)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany)
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
(Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Judas by Amos Oz (Israel)
Translated by Nicholas de Lange
(Chatto & Windus)

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina)
Translated by Megan McDowell
(Oneworld Publications)

My personal favorites from this list are Fish Have No Feet, The Unseen, and Judas. But, there is a strong feeling for Compass and Fever Dream by several of the jury members. So, we await the official announcement of the winner, as we deliberate among ourselves which title we will choose as our winner for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 this June.

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

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I’m always surprised when the Naperville Public Library not only has something I want to read, but I’m not the 863d hold on one of three copies. And so it is that I have been able to settle down with an aching jaw, an ample supply of Motrin, a pot of tea, and Earthly Remains, Donna Leon’s latest mystery with Commissario Guido Brunetti.

What a pleasure it is to spend the evening with him, this old “friend” from previous novels. In the beginning of this book, he has just been diagnosed with the need for rest and relaxation from work and is preparing to leave his office for Sant’Erasmo in the south. How I long to accompany him and partake in his plans of rowing, or reading in bed with a fresh cup of coffee should it rain.

He is staying at a villa his wife’s aunt owns, and there he befriends Signor Davide Casati, a man whom Brunetti discovers once rowed with his own father. The skill with which this older man is able to guide the boat is compared to the old peasant in Anna Karenina with whom Levin scythes, barely able to keep up. Such a beautiful comparison, in my literary mind’s eye.

But after a terrible storm, neither Casati nor his boat are able to be found. Where could he be? Checking on his bees in their various hives all around Venice? Talking with his deceased wife at the cemetery? Brunetti calls in reinforcements to help investigate his friend’s disappearance, which, of course, is ultimately a death.

“While he waited, Brunetti went and looked out the window and allowed anomalous information to move around in his mind: a few dead bees in a plastic vial, the Aral Sea, two thousand Euros a week, dark mud in another vial. If they were pieces on a board, would he be able to move them round so that they formed a picture?”

Of course Commissario Brunetti carefully puts together the pieces, moving them around so that an answer emerges, and in the course of his detective work reminds us of the honor, and dishonor, within each of us. Although surely some, who have grown accustomed to luxurious comfort, are able to excuse their dishonorable side which can lead to murder.

While this novel is carefully executed, each piece of the mystery ringing true to current crises, my favorite part of Donna Leon’s writing is how she is able to make me dwell in Venice. Even if only for a night.

The Man Booker International Prize 2017 Short List is Announced

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With the exception of Mirror, Shoulders, Signal and A Horse Walks Into a Bar, I am in complete agreement with the expert judges for the Man Booker International Prize. While I’m confused about the inclusion of Dorthe Nors’ book, at least they had the sense to leave off the tedious, boring and overwrought Explosion Chronicles.

I’ve heard good things about A Horse Walks Into A Bar, but I am still awaiting my library copy; it is one of the few books I have not yet read. But the others? Wonderful stuff!

I love Fever Dream for its enigmatic, mysterious message.

I love Judas for addressing the age old conflict between the Arabs and the Jews in a fascinating, well written plot.

I love The Unseen for putting us on an island about a century ago, and letting us live there within a closely knit family.

I love Compass for ethereal, brilliant writing like a stream of consciousness but better.

But, surely I would not have omitted Fish Have No Feet from the short list. It remains in my top three.

As for what the Shadow Jury panel chooses for our top short list? We will make that decision public on Thursday, May 4.