The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (translated from the German by Jen Calleja, Man Booker International Prize 2010)

The first thing I loved about this book was how it mirrored my experience in Japan this October. I could immediately relate to seeing Japan for the first time from a Westerner’s point of view. The cleanliness, the bare beauty, the efficiency, everything described was similar to what I noticed as well.

Gilbert Silvester has dreamed that his wife Mathilde has been cheating on him. And so he flies to Tokyo on a transcontinental flight, leaving quite abruptly.

Soon he meets Yosa Tamagotchi, who is poised to throw himself in front of a train because he is terrified he won’t pass his exams. Because his beard is trendy and neat, and Gilbert is a beard researcher, Gilbert decides to speak to him. Because Yosa is a Japanese young man, and therefore extremely polite, he interrupts his plan to talk with Gilbert.

Gilbert suggests there must be a better place for Yosa’s intentions. He decides to follow the poet Basho’s footsteps to Matsushima, “the most beautiful place in Japan, the bay of pine islands.” They would travel to the pine islands, taking the same route Basho took; it would be a pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual cleansing.

Somewhere along the way, Yosa disappears. We do not find out if he has changed his mind, or if he has gone elsewhere to fulfill his original plan. Several times, Gilbert thinks he sees him, but perhaps it was only a reflection in the tea bowl or in a dream.

Gilbert makes it to the pine islands himself. He writes haiku as Basho did, and explores his journey.

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Far away from home

pine trees as old as the stones –

fleeting clouds above.

This haiku examined the relationship between durability and ephemerality, the unremitting transitoriness of things, of travelling.

It is such a quiet kind of book that I didn’t realize its impact until I closed it. Only then could I see that the implications are universal. We are all ephemeral.

p.s. The night has passed since I finished this book and wrote this extremely brief post. I am still thinking about all the nuances within its pages, about the haikus and how difficult they must have been to translate accurately.

Typical of so many Japanese novels, The Pine Islands is more of a “slice of life”: dropping us in, and pulling us out, of the story before anything is truly settled. We take the pilgrimage with Gilbert, mimicking Basho’s travels. And the more I think about it, the more the novel has crept into my mind like a mist which will not readily dissipate.

(Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for my copy of The Pine Islands.)

Mailbox Monday: Four I Am Eager to Read

Children of The Cave is published by Peirene Press. It is the winner of the 2017 Finnish Savonia Literature Prize and the Kuvastaja prize for the best Finnish Fantasy Novel. It is described as, “A Gothic Victorian tale about forest children, which address the limits of science and faith…written as a diary this postmodern, ethical narrative asks questions about how we encounter the ‘other’.”

The Nocilla Trilogy includes Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Exprience, and Nocilla Lab published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 19, 2019. It I has been translated from Spanish, and is described as “a shot to the heart of the traditional novel.” ~J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, Babelia

The End of Loneliness has been translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, and was published on January 29, 2019 by Penguin Books. It spent over eighty weeks on Germany’s bestseller list, won the European Union Prize for Literature, and was selected as German independent bookstores’ favorite book of 2016. It has been translated into 27 languages, and is described as “a profoundly moving portrait of what can be lost and what can never be let go.”

Seventeen is a Japanese novel by Hideo Yokoyama, bestselling author of Six Four. It is described as “an investigative thriller set amid the after math of disaster.” It is, of course, something I will read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12 which ends April 1, 2019.

More Mailbox Monday books can be found here.

My Top Ten Books for 2018

 

It is no surprise that when I review the list of approximately fifty books I read in 2018, the ones which are my favorite are all (but one) in translation. But, that does not make them inaccessible for readers who do not normally pick up translated literature. In fact, if you are tired of the same boring mysteries, the same boring love affairs, the same boring story told over and over again, I can’t recommend each one of these enough.

My Top Ten for the Year 2018:

  1. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk: Because it deserved to win the Man Booker International Prize this year for its breathtaking writing and memorable recounting of our lives.
  2. From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Because I have never seen three disparate stories woven together so seamlessly, or with such power.
  3. The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti: Because it won both the Strega Award and the Prix Médicis étranger, and faultlessly told the story of two boys’ friendship, as well as their relationship with one’s father.
  4. Fever and Spear by Javier Marias: Because Javier Marias is my favorite Spanish author; everything he writes is downright lyrical.
  5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: Because I was enchanted by this quirky character who loved convenience stores, the reason for which I could completely understand when I was in Japan this October.
  6. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami: Because it is an accessible, brilliant novel by my favorite Japanese author whom I never pretend to fully understand.
  7. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig: Because the tension mounted with every move, and the author wrote it in less than 100 pages.
  8. Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck: Because of the compelling side she shows for the immigrants who have no home.
  9. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz: Because it was the most startling and upsetting book I read this year (ever?) and I will never forget it.
  10. Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard: Because Mattias Enard captured Michelangelo in a fresh, new way when I thought I knew him already.

And now, I wish you a Happy New Year, and many joyous reads ahead in 2019!

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (for German Lit Month 2018)

The magic comes out of the books themselves, and I have no more idea than you or any of your men how it works. (p. 170)

“Magic comes out of the books themselves…” and I have always known this to be true. Cornelia Funke gives us a world of magic, a world of books, suitable for adults as well as the children for whom it is written. Any good children’s book is worthy of an adult as well.

What is the best part of this story? Is it the way that each chapter begins with an enticing quote from another book, helping us to predict what that chapter may hold (or luring us to reread the book from which it came)?

Is it the way that she has captured the bibliophile’s love of literature, with homes which are stacked with books in the hallways, stairs, and on every available surface?

Or, perhaps it is the adventure story itself, with such captivating characters as Silvertongue, who is able to read people out of, and into, books; perhaps it is Meggie, who longs for the return of her father who has been captured by Capricorn.

I know that for me, this fantasy novel has far more impact than any Harry Potter book. It’s surrealism hovers on the brink of reality for how well it brings the meaning of literature to life.

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (German Lit Month 2018)

For four months I had not held a book in my hands, and there was something intoxicating and at the same time stupefying in the mere thought of a book, in which you could see the words one after another, lines, paragraphs, pages, a book in which you could read, follow, take into your mind the new, different, diverting thoughts of another person. (p. 51)

You can see the desperation of the man who has been held in solitary confinement by the Nazis, deprived of any diversion whatsoever. He is held hostage in a hotel room, with no paper, no pencils, no books, nothing but wallpaper, the pattern of which he has begun to memorize.

When he is taken for yet another interrogation, he notices a rectangle in the pocket of a jacket hanging against the wall and supposes it must be a book. Smuggling it into his waistband, he dares not reveal the title until he has successfully kept it hidden and returned to his room.

It is a book on how to play chess. At first, this comes as a terrible disappointment, and then, it is a source of great distraction. He can play game after game, memorizing the moves required to win. Eventually, however, he can only play against himself, never against a thinking, reasoning, opposition.

At the beginning my thinking was calm and considered, I took breaks between one game and the next in order to recover from my agitation. But gradually my frayed nerves refused to let me wait. My white self had no sooner made a move than my black self feverishly pushed forward; a game was no sooner over than I challenged myself to another, for one of the two chess selves was beaten by the other every time and demanded a rematch. (p. 63)

The hold that chess has on him almost makes him mad. In fact, after an affliction of ‘brain fever’, the doctor tells him that it would be better never to go near a chessboard again.

He cannot help himself, however, when on an ocean liner he observes a game between the world champion and other passengers. He inserts himself into this game, giving advice which earns him their utmost interest and respect. A game is set up between him and the champion to see who will emerge the victor.

Suddenly, there was something new between the two of them; a dangerous tension, a passionate hatred. They were no longer opponents testing their abilities in a spirit of play, but enemies resolved to annihilate each other. (p. 79)

It is a remarkably tense book for holding a mere 84 pages. I was caught up in the story of two individuals, each of them damaged in their own way, pit against each other in the very game of which they are both obsessed. It is a story of great tension, deceptively simplistic in its presentation. One wonders, upon its completion, if there truly is such a thing as winning.

 

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Leave it to Jenny Erpenbeck to write the most compassionate novel about refugees I have ever read. In my mind, even Exit West by Mohsin Hamid cannot compare.

Perhaps it is not only because of her beautiful writing that she is able to do this; perhaps because she is German she has an idea of what being a refugee must be like.

When I taught in Germany during the 1980’s the Wall was still up. My husband and I rented an apartment from a man whose father had come to visit friends and was never allowed back to his home in the East. We saw films of people trying to escape into the West, and it was horrible.

Our narrator, Richard, lives in Berlin after the Wall has been taken down. I found him to be alienated from his country in ways that faintly resembled how the Africans were alienated from theirs.

In 1990 he suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country, from one day to the next, though the view out the window remained the same.

If being a refugee is like being a stranger in a land, than Richard himself qualifies as one in telling this story of his past and Germany’s present.

His terrain has changed not only with the fall of the Wall, but with the death of his wife, the absence of his lover and now the end of his career. As he tells us of his youth, in the East side of Berlin, we hear of pain and suffering which resonates with that of the refugees whom he is so curious about.

His curiosity expands into “interviewing” the African refugees when he visits them in the nursing home where they have been temporarily moved, then helping them, and finally befriending them.

Some of my fellow bloggers have suggested that this novel is more about the theme than the writing, and indeed, the theme of the refugee’s plight is relentless. But, the novel is compassionate, and thought-provoking, and in many ways uncomfortable to me as I examine my own thoughts regarding this current issue in our world.

One of the most striking pages to me was one in which on a field of white, the only sentence was this:

Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?

Some favorite quotes, highlighted as I read:

He can’t even comprehend that his departure is just a part of everyday life for all the others – only for him is it an ending.

…everything he’s ever studied – is now his own private property and nothing more.

Today alone, six people died in swimming accidents in the greater Berlin area, the newscaster says in conclusion, a tragic record, and now it’s time for the weather. Six people just like that man still at the bottom of the lake. We become visible. Why didn’t Richard see all these men at Alexanderplatz?

The Africans probably had no idea who Hitler was, but even so: only if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war.

Now, too, he is experiencing such a moment; he is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.

When you become foreign, Awad says, you don’t have a choice. Somewhere here is where the problem lies, Richard thinks: the things you’ve experienced become baggage you can’t get rid of, while others – people with the freedom to choose – get to decide which stories to hold on to.

Learning to stop wanting things is probably one of the most difficult lessons of getting old. But if you don’t learn to do that, it seems to him, your desires will be like a bellyful of stones dragging you down to your grave.

For a long time the old man and this young man sit there side by side at the desk, watching and listening as these three musicians use the black and white keys to tell stories that have nothing to do with the keys’ colors.

Buy with free international shipping and delivery from Bookwitty.

Effi Briest for German Lit Month; This Will Be A Short Post

Whoever said Effi Briest is like Anna Karenina has rocks in his head. If ever there was a more disappointing comparison, I don’t know of it.

Anna and Effi? One is elegant and charming and womanly and passionate; the other swings in the backyard by the heliotrope one day and is engaged two hours later to a former beau of her mother’s.

Effi succumbs to the attentions of a womanizing Major, who near the end of the book dies in a duel with Effi’s husband. There is no issue of love here, only terribly naive infatuation, and immaturity, on the part of Effi.

The end.

I found this novel boring and dull and no where near the power that Tolstoy wielded with Anna’s heart. (Not to mention the character found within Levin.)  The best I can say about it is, “I’ve finally finished it.”

Begun in November, finished in December, for German Lit Month led by Lizzy and Caroline.

(If you haven’t yet read Effi Briest, a beloved German classic, you can buy a copy here with free shipping worldwide.)

 

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Translated by Katy Derbyshire, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list)

IMG_3980Each chapter is a different voice telling a different version of the same desperate story: sex trade in a former East German city from 1989 to the present. It makes you ache at the loneliness and despair, while at the same time feeling horror at the choices these people have made with their lives. For surely becoming a prostitute, or a pimp, or a “guest” (a word preferable to the women than “customer”) is a choice, is it not?

How adept Clemens Meyer is at assuming the point of view of each person in his tale. I feel I am listening to the 30-something woman as she prepares to leave her warm flat in January for the unknown darkness awaiting her in a hotel room; I feel I am listening to the taxi driver who says to her, with a sweeping flourish of his arm, “Your car, madame.”

The irony, the pain, is piercing.

Yet at the same time, I can’t help but feel a little slimed while reading this. There is more than I want to dwell on about the darkest sides of human nature, the way sex is twisted into anything but love, the way that money and drugs and power are more important than a person’s heart.

Surely what Meyer writes about must be based in truth somewhere. Surely this is a world not entirely of his own creation, and who am I to judge? But 124 pages in feels like enough, at least for tonight. There is more than enough sorrow in these pages to last me until page 672.

What do you think? Should the subject matter of a book effect the way it is scored?

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Winner of the English PEN Award
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on October 17, 2016
672 pages

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (translated by Simon Pare)

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“Whenever Monsieur Perdu looked at a book, he did not see it purely in terms of a story, minimum retail price and an essential balm for the soul; he saw freedom on wings of paper.”

I love this book; I’m annoyed with this book.

I love it because it reminds me of Paris, of all the book stands along the Seine. I love the mention of many wonderful books, which I will list at the bottom of the post. And, I love a romantic story, especially one set abroad.

Yet, I’m annoyed. Jean Perdu is likeable enough, but please. It’s like reading about a cat named Cat. Perdu means lost in French, as anyone with two years of high school French could tell you, and it irritates me to read about a “lost” man with a surname of, essentially, Lost.

Jean Perdu has been lost since his lover, a woman named Manon, left him when he was 29 years of age. It seemed she wanted it all: a husband named Luc, with Jean on the side as her lover, and the author gives us a page or two of reasons why this is perfectly acceptable. After all, she reasons, who doesn’t have enough love for everyone?

Three decades later Jean is handed an unopened letter written by Manon, found in a drawer by his grieving neighbor, Catherine, with devastating news. News which now he can do nothing about as it happened so long ago.

He unanchors his book barge, Literary Apothecary (a charming name, to be sure, as Perdu recommends books he specially chooses for each individual customer) and embarks on a river adventure with a young author named Max, and an Italian man named Silvio. Each are in search of a resolution of his own.

At turns winsome, at times trite, this best selling novel leaves me divided. I understand what it is to grieve the loss of a lover. I understand what it is to read, and “prescribe” books for others. My hesitation comes from the fact that George tries so hard to be heartfelt, but sadly comes across as banal.

Books suggested within Little Paris Bookshop:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Five Parts by Adam Douglas
  • The Elegance of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes
  • The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster
  • Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary (tanslated by John Markham Beach)
  • Frauen von Brucken werfen (Throwing Women off Bridges-unpublished in English) by Gunter Gerlach
  • Stages by Hermann Hesse
  • Investigations of a Dog (a short story in The Great Wall of China, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir)
  • Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
  • Moby Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
  • The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet  (translated by Adriana Hunter)
  • The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike)
  • Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
  • the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, beginning with The Color of Magic and most recent Raising Steam
  • His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
  • Blindness by Jose Saramago
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • The Ritual of the Ashes by Alem Surre-Garcia and Francoise Meyruels
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  • The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

p.s. The Little Paris Bookshop was first published in German, entitled Das Lavendelzimmer.

p.p.s. I have not abandoned Captivity; I simply read this for Saturday’s book club discussion.

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

imageHe never claims to be anyone other than who he was, and yet this time the German Volk see Adolfo Hitler as a comedian. How is it possible that a man as evil as Hitler is now perceived as funny?

I approached this book with profound trepidation. And yet I was immediately drawn in, for Vermes is not making light of Hitler. He is utterly scorning the 21st century, particularly the media. From radio to television, newspaper to YouTube, his sarcasm lays the game completely bare.

I was reported to be dead. They said I had committed suicide…Was I dead? We all know, of course, what to make of our newspapers. The deaf man writes down what the blind man has told him, the village idiot edits it, and their colleagues in the other press houses copy it. Each story is doused afresh with the same stagnant infusion of lies so that the “splendid” brew can then be served up to a clueless Volk. (p. 26-7)

No, in Vermes’ novel Hitler is not dead. He has reappeared as the Reich Chancellor in Berlin, in his full uniform, and is promptly introduced by a man in the newspaper kiosk whom he has befriended to two gentlemen from a production company. Joachim Sensenbrink and Frank Sawatzki help orchestrate Hitler’s extraordinary reception by the German people who refuse to believe he is who he says he is.

Didn’t this happen once before?

Look Who’s Back is an unflinchingly honest look at Hitler, at people, at media, at our culture today. It is surprisingly funny, if one has the courage to laugh at one’s self, while at the same time cringing from the truth presented without any facade whatsoever. I am refreshed by the audacity and clear perspective that Vermes has used in pointing out to us what we should already know. I think it is a very courageous novel.

IMG_0625 Timur Vermes was born in Nuremberg in 1967, the son of a German mother and a Hungarian father who fled the country in 1956. He studied history and politics and went on to become a journalist. He has written for the Abendzietung and the Cologne Express and worked for various magazines. He has ghostwritten several books since 2007. This is his first novel.

Jamie Bulloch is the translator of novels by Daniel Glattauer, Katharina Hagena, Paulus Hochgatterer, Birgit Vanderbeke, Daniele Krien and Alissa Walser.

Look Who’s Back stunned and thrilled 1.5 million German readers with its fearless approach to the most taboo of subjects. Naive yet insightful, repellent yet strangely sympathetic, the revived Hitler unquestionably has a spring in his step. (Back cover)