Merry Christmas!

Because my husband has French ancestors, he has always signed my Christmas cards with Joyeux Noel. But, it doesn’t matter which language we speak as we take the time to wish each other hope, peace, love and joy this December.

What an unusual year it has been with the pandemic and social/political unrest. Yet, there have been pockets of joy in my life, which I hope you, too, were able to find. My son just had hernia surgery, and so he is home with us recuperating. I love his presence at the table for meals, or how we read to each other each night by the tree, despite the pain that he must go through to heal.

I stop to count the happy bits of 2020, which include walks at Herrick Lake, coffee and laughter with my parents, tea parties in the pergola, birthday celebrations on the patio, being able to worship in church. There have been endless hours to read this year, although not this month (and I look forward to sharing more literature together in 2021). What we have been denied, only makes me appreciate what we do have all the more; there is no time that I go to the grocery store without being grateful for full shelves so unlike what I saw last March.

My theme for this Christmas, for the year to come, is found in the Old Testament:

And He shall be our peace.

Micah 5:5

I pray this peace for us, for today, for our new year. May we find peace in Him, for it is not to be found anywhere else.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas.

The Japanese Literature Challenge 14 (Coming January 2021)

I have been seeing posts of reading plans for 2021 on many of my friends’ blogs, and I hope that you will find time this coming year to join in the Japanese Literature Challenge now to begin its fourteenth year.

As in years past, it will run from January through March. We will read books in translation (unless you are able to read Japanese), and review them on our blogs. You may also choose to leave thoughts on social media with #JapaneseLitChallenge14. I have now set up a review site for you to leave links, as before.

Here are some of the titles, many coming in 2021, which I will review during the challenge:

Coming from Penguin Random House on April 6, 2021
Coming from Penguin Random House on March 2, 2021
Coming from Abrams Books on March 9, 2021
From Pan Macmillan on September 19, 2019
Breasts and Eggs took my breath away.” ~Haruki Murakami


Also, there will be a group read of Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami who has been “hailed by Haruki Murakami as Japan’s most important contemporary novelist.” The novel also won the Akutagawa Prize.

I hope that you will join us this year, whether for the first time or the fourteenth. Please leave a comment if you’re interested in participating, so that I can add you to the review site.

November Was…

(The Morton Arboretum)

It was a rather strange November: it rained most of the days, and I went barefoot in my shoes much longer than I normally do as the chill wasn’t grasping for my feet when I went on walks. I think walking three days a week has been a saving grace, refreshing beyond belief to be out and renewed in the woods.

Thanksgiving Day was without church, for the first time I can remember in my life, as we have had to shut down so much again. (But, I am thankful for Sunday mornings when we can still gather with safety precautions in place.) It was also without my parents, and cousins, and aunt and uncle, but our son came to eat the turkey with us. I never knew such a quiet Thanksgiving meal, yet I was so grateful for his presence, with my husband and I.

I have been burying myself in thrillers, more than translated literature, lately. They seem an easy escape. Sometimes, they end up being not so thrilling, but here is the list of what I read in November:

  1. The Lost Resort by Susie Holliday
  2. Too Good to be True by Carola Lovering
  3. You Would Have Missed Me by Birgit Vanderbeke (German Lit Month, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch)
  4. Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalesen (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) 
  5. Long Road to Mercy by David Baldacci
  6. The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

I reviewed none of them, sadly, although I would highly recommend You Would Have Missed Me by Birgit Vanderbeke, which I read for German Lit Month. As it is published by Peirene Press, who claims their books can be read in two hours, it is rather short. But, I have never been able to manage two hours; I am a much slower reader, absorbing every nuance that I can.

I’m not sure what the fuss is over David Baldacci? I see his latest best-selling Atlee Pine novel is Daylight, which is third in a series. So, I thought I should acquaint myself with the first before I read the third, and I was not so impressed. Atlee seems to tick all the boxes of a powerful female character, one who even lifts weights, but the best thing about Long Road to Mercy was the setting of the Grand Canyon.

And now we begin December. I’m looking forward to Johanna Basford’s Advent pages (free to download here), Illustrated Faith’s Advent, Jacquie Lawson’s Nordic Advent Calendar, and the Advent reading plan in my ESV Bible (online). These little traditions make me feel like a child again, for which I am glad, because I think we need the eyes of children especially in December.

For German Lit Month, a few considerations…

Peirene Press (You Would Have Missed Me is shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize)

Why Peirene chose to publish this book:

Today, as in the past, people flee from one country to another in the hope of finding a better future. But how do children experience such displacement? How do they cope with traumas of a refugee camp? In this novel Birgit Vanderbeke goes back to her own childhood in the divided Germany of the 1960s. She shows how the little girl she once was saved herself by imagining countries on the far side of the world. A masterpiece of memory turned into fiction. 

Written by Birgit Vanderbeke
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

An unnamed narrator, recently bereaved, travels to Olevano, a small village south-east of Rome. It is winter, and from her temporary residence on a hill between village and cemetery, she embarks on walks and outings, exploring the banal and the sublime with equal dedication and intensity. Seeing, describing, naming the world around her is her way of redefining her place within it. Written in a rich and poetic style, Grove is an exquisite novel of grief, love and landscapes.

GROVE

Esther Kinsky

Translated by Caroline Schmidt

Published 15 April 2020
French paperback with flaps, 280 pages


A kaleidoscopic family saga told through the fractured lives of the three Moreau siblings, alongside a faltering, recovering love story, The End of Loneliness is a stunning meditation on the power of our memories, of what can be lost and what can never be let go. With inimitable compassion and luminous, affecting praise, Benedict Wells contends with what it means to find a way through life, while never giving up hope you will find someone to go with you.

Written by Benedict Wells, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

I read the introduction to German Literature Month 10 on Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat , where Caroline not only extends an invitation but outlines a few authors chosen to focus on in November (should you wish). This is always an event I appreciate very much, as it widens my knowledge of German literature greatly. Perhaps you will join us this month as well?

Sunday Salon: Gratitude Documemted 2020

It is a more difficult year than usual to document our gratitude, and yet, with the arrival of November (and Thanksgiving!), and the tumult we face before the year is quite finished, I believe it is all the more necessary to do so.

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

~1 Thessalonians 5:18 (ESV)

It is hard to give thanks when I am worried, when the worries seem to pile up unabated around me. But, I know that when I give thanks I am able to look toward the good and focus on hope rather than doubt. It helps me to document gratitude within a book to which I can refer on especially dark days.

The photos above are only the beginning of what I have prepared for November. They show a little book I made, with the help of a kit from Illustrated Faith. (I believe you can still buy some pieces for it here.) There is a prompt for each day, under which I have written the verse. On the back I will make it more personal, writing in it like a journal pointing to specific events from this year which have been especially lovely. Like having coffee with my parents several times a week. Walking with my husband through the fall colors at the Arboretum. Getting a text from my son that says he is fine.

Will you document gratitude this year? Will you join in me in looking for the beauty amidst the trial? Let us find the good and give thanks for it.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (One of my favorite books of the year.)

I never expected to read a book about the plague during a pandemic. I’ve done my best to keep away from dark thoughts, considering illness or death. But, when I began Hamnet, checked out as an ebook from our local library, I knew I needed a copy of my own…a copy through which I could meander at my own pace, relishing every well-chosen word, not worrying about the due date when the library would whisk it back unwillingly from me.

Maggie O’Farrell imagines Shakespeare’s life for us, while never revealing his name. She brings forth his wife, his parents, his home in Stratford more vividly than any play could reveal. Most importantly of all, she brings his son, Hamnet, to life. Even in his death, for we see the excruciating effect it has on his mother, his father, and their marriage.

In the opening pages he comes down the stairs, looking for someone, anyone, to help him. For his twin sister, Judith, is ill. They had been playing with the kittens in the yard, and then Judith had to lay down, and now she is not only pale, and clammy; there are two buboes showing under her skin. Bumps with an ominous threat of death.

Hamnet’s illness takes his mother by surprise, for she had been concocting remedies from her plants, her herbs, her tinctures, to help her daughter. And when Hamnet dies, she is full of self-blame for not seeing it, for not being able to prevent it.

I felt her recriminations towards herself as fiercely as my own. What mother doesn’t wish to take her child’s suffering upon herself, doesn’t long to pave a path for a long, fulfilling life for her child, doesn’t imagine all the thoughts about what could have been? For me, Maggie O’Farrell’s genius in this book was in brilliantly portraying Hamnet’s mother, even more so than his famous father.

It broke my heart, while making me feel not quite so alone in my own motherly sorrows.

It’s Time to Vote for the Goodreads Choice Awards 2020. There’s just one thing…

I received an email in my inbox this morning that it’s time to vote for the Goodreads Choice Awards 2020. I’m not much of a Goodreads fan, but I went over there anyway just to see what was on their lists.

It was easy to vote for Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell in the Historical Fiction section. And, Tana French’s latest book, The Searcher, in Mystery and Thriller. I don’t read Young Adult, or Poetry, or Romance, or even much popular fiction these days, so I kept scrolling for a category which I adore.

Perhaps you will not be as shocked as I was, but there is no category for Books in Translation! Now, I know there is the Booker International Prize, and the Best Translated Book Award, and a myriad of other awards for translated literature. But, I thought that such a large forum as Goodreads would include it as a category for a reader’s Choice Award. Surely, they are not so narrow.

My opinion of them has not changed much since my latest visit. In fact, I would be so inclined as to call the name Goodreads a misnomer, if not an oxymoron, since they are so remiss as to exclude one of the best genres of all.

What do you think? Am I the silly one for expecting to find Books in Translation a category within which to vote?

The Witch Hunter by Max Seeck (translated from the Finnish by Kristian London)


It is a wonder that Max Seeck is able to bring all the layers of this mysterious puzzle into one cohesive piece. As I read, I couldn’t imagine how Jessica Niemi’s life as a police detective could relate to the life she briefly lived in Venice as a young woman: in the arms of Colombano, a handsome and skilled violinist whose dark intentions combined with his amorous ways.

Several women who resemble her, with dark hair and a beautiful face, are slowly being discovered as murdered. The first is the wife of a famous author, who is found dressed in a black evening gown sitting at the dining room table with high-heeled shoes placed by her bare feet. Worst of all, perhaps, is the hideous grin which transforms her face into a macabre mask even in death.

At first, the police department assumes someone is re-enacting all the murders which have occurred in the author’s best selling novels. Indeed, it appears that they follow the descriptions of women being crushed to death, or drowning in icy water. But when strange words in Latin (Malleus Maleficarum) are found transcribed in the snow on a roof, and men with horns appear to Jessica as shadowy creatures in the night, it becomes clear that much more is going on than what had been merely described in the author’s best sellers.

The tension is ever building and suspenseful. Never once could I predict quite where the plot was going, nor did I feel manipulated in its execution. Perhaps most compelling of all is the character Seeck created in his lead detective; she is a heroine who lives in a studio apartment never wishing her colleagues to be aware of the wealth she has, as evidenced within the connecting apartment next door. It is a wealth she inherited at her parents’ demise and has come to terms with as the novel completes.

The Witch Hunter by Max Seeck is published today. You may listen to an excerpt of the opening pages by clicking below. Alternatively, this book can already by found at retailers such as Barnes & Noble.

Max Seeck devotes his time to writing professionally. An avid reader of Nordic noir for personal pleasure, he listens to film scores as he writes. His accolades include the Finnish Whodunit Society’s Debut Thriller of the Year Award 2016. Max Seeck has a background in sales and marketing and loves to promote his works, and is fluent in English and German.

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

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara: Let’s Talk About The Drink With Ice, Thrown by Julian English into Harry Reilly’s Face

What the hell had he done, he wondered. He had thrown a drink in a man’s face. An especially terrible guy who should have had a drink thrown in his face a long while ago. It wasn’t as if Harry Reilly were a popularity contest winner or something. If most people told the truth they would agree that Reilly was a terrible person, a climber, a nouveau riche even in Gibbsville where fifty thousand dollars was a sizable fortune. (p.97)

I am only a little more than one third of the way through this novel, but I can’t stop thinking about Julian English throwing his drink into Harry Reilly’s face one evening at the club. He threw it so hard that the ice left black marks on Harry’s face…but also on Julian’s social acceptance.

My mother has said to me that life “spins on a hair”, meaning that the slightest choice, or action, can alter the whole course of one’s existence. It seems that Julian’s life will be inexorably altered with this event which occurred early in the novel.

Was it unplanned? He was thinking about how much he would like to throw his drink at Harry one minute, and we dwell in this fantasy with him until the next thing we know, he has really done it.

Is Julian unwilling to let Harry have attention by telling the stories that he does, pausing in just the right places and looking over his shoulder before hitting the punch line?

Is it that Harry is an Irish Catholic, and Julian harbors a resentment or prejudice against such a heritage? Or, maybe he’s jealous that Harry is the man with money to whom everyone seems to owe a little…

I am curious about all these reasons, not to mention the path of destruction that Julian seems to be taking. He is only thirty, and yet he has a wife. A home. Supportive parents. A business selling Cadillacs. And he has recently opened his wife’s Christmas present to him: a leather pigskin box with his initials stamped on them in gold ink. Not J. E., but J. McH. E. as he likes. Now he has a place to put his studs, and I find myself questioning him, while at the same time longing to experience how people really lived in the late 1930s. John O’Hara has a way of making it seem simple and risqué at the same time.

Find other posts from our read-along of Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara at Simpler Pastimes, Typings, and Wuthering Expectations.