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!

“For I myself am my own fever and pain.” Fever and Spear by Javier Marias (Spanish Lit Month 2018)

Jacques Deza is working and living in London when Sir Peter Wheeler invites him to a buffet supper.

“A few friends and acquaintances are coming here for a buffet supper two weeks from Saturday; why don’t you come too, I know how alone you are in London.” (p. 23)

He is alone in London because he is separated from his wife, Luisa, which seems to be a source of sorrow for him even though they could not continue life as a couple. Deza imagines her not answering the phone when he calls because she has a male companion with her, and when she does call him back he cannot be sure that her explanation of being on the phone with her sister is wholly accurate. (Marias does a remarkable job of examining everyday life from every angle, as if he is revealing my own thoughts in the process.)

While at this buffet supper, Deza is introduced to Bertram Tupra who eventually hires him away from his post with BBC Radio to work exclusively for Tupra.

The work got off to a gradual start, by which I mean that once the contract had been agreed, they began giving me or asking me to undertake various tasks, which then increased in number, at a brisk but steady rate, and, after only a month, possibly less, I was a full-time employee, or so it seemed to me. These tasks took various forms, although their essence varied little or not at all, since this consisted in listening and noticing and interpreting and reporting back, in deciphering behaviors, attitudes, characters and scruples, indifferences and beliefs, egotisms, ambitions, loyalties, weaknesses, strengths, truths and contradictions; indecisiveness. What I interpreted were – in just three words – stories, people, lives.” (p. 212)

Is this not, I ask myself, exactly what Marias does as a writer? He interprets stories, people, and lives, exquisitely. He gives me much to think about as I progress through each of his novels. Within Fever and Spear, he touches on youth:

”When you’re young, as you know, you’re in a hurry and always afraid that you’re not living enough, you feel impatient and try to accelerate events, if you can, and so you load yourself up with them, I you stockpile them, the urgency of the young to accumulate scars and to forge a past, it’s so odd that sense of urgency. No one should be troubled by that ear, the old should teach them that, although I don’t know how, no one listens to the old any more.” (p. 99)

On trust:

“We never know when we have entirely won someone’s trust, still less when we have lost it. I mean the trust of someone who would never speak of such things or make protestations of friendship or offer reproaches, or ever use those words – distrust, friendship, enmity, trust – or only as a mocking element in their normal representations and dialogues, as echoes or quotations of speeches and scenes from times past which always seem so ingenuous to us, just as today will seem tomorrow for whoever comes after, and only those who know this can save themselves the quickening pulse and the sharp intake of breath, and so not submit their veins to any unpleasant shocks.” (p. 183)

On grudges:

”…we forget what we say much more than what we hear, what we write much more than what we read, what we send much more than what we receive, that is why we barely count the insults we hand out to others, unlike those dealt out to us, which is why almost everyone harbors some grudge against someone.” (p. 199)

On seeing:

”It’s a very rare gift indeed nowadays, and becoming rarer, the gift of being able to see straight through people, clearly and without qualms, with neither good intentions nor bad, without effort, that is, without any fuss or squeamishness.” (p. 254)

Wheeler tells Deza that they are similar; they can both see people like that, clearly and without qualms, such that seeing was their gift to be placed in the service of others.

Near the end of the novel, a series of cartoons and pictures appear, which warn against speaking too much as your words may by heard by enemy spies. Wheeler tells Deza,

“But I don’t think there was ever a campaign like this one against ‘careless talk’, in which they not only put civilians on guard against possible spies, but recommended silence as the norm: people were prevailed upon not to speak, they were ordered, indeed exhorted, to keep silent. Suddenly people were made to see their own language as an invisible enemy, uncontrollable, unexpected and unpredictable, as the worst, most fearsome of enemies, like a terrible weapon which you, or anyone, could activate, and set off without ever knowing when it might unleash a bullet…” (p. 332)

It is ironic, then, that Wheeler suddenly becomes unable to speak himself as his papers fly away in the wind of a helicoptor which has suddenly appeared, hovering over their conversation. It all seems to reflect the times in Spain when Franco’s dictatorship required people to get around the censorship laws.

As I close the final pages, I am curious as to the identity of the woman who has rung his doorbell in the rain, saying, “Jaime, it’s me.” Who says, “It’s me” without being certain of being let in with no further identification? Deza’s story continues, and I will need to see what it contains in Volume 2 of Your Face Tomorrow. Javier Marias has left me hanging, but not without much to ponder.

(Thanks to Richard and Stu who have sponsored Spanish/Portuguese Lit Month and extended it into August.)

The Imposter by Javier Cercas, translated by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018) “Reality kills and fiction saves.”

Javier Cercas is unashamedly forthright about his own personal objections to writing this book right from the beginning.

Suddenly I felt that, though I had twice given up on the story, it had been through a lack of courage, because I sensed that in the old man (Marcos) something was hiding that interested me, or profoundly concerned me and I was afraid to discover what it was. p. 51

As long as we’re revealing inner thoughts, I must confess that I am more interested in Cercas’ revelations about his own life, and that of a writer, than I am about Enric Marcos’ life. It doesn’t matter much to me that he lied, and presented himself as someone he was not, as much as what his actions imply: that lies are built on many small truths, and therefore they hide the whole truth. So what would have made Marcos build a life of lies, posing as an imposter, in the first place?

Enric is like Quixote: he could not resign himself to a mediocre existence, he wanted to live life on a grand scale; and since he did not have the wherewithal, he invented it. p. 31

Cercas says he was afraid that in writing his book, he would somehow be justifying the actions of Enric Marcos. And then he remembers a quote by Tzvetan Todorov:

Understanding evil is not to justify it, but the means of preventing it from occurring again. p. 53

Which is, of course, one of the the main reasons for studying history in the first place.

In presenting himself as someone he was not, in mixing small truths with big lies, was Enric Marcos inherently evil? Cercas says that Marcos’ “narcissistic lie (saying that he was in Flossenburg, a Nazi concentration camp, as a prisoner) hides the truth of horror and death…it is an attempt to hide reality so as not to know or recognise it, so as not to know or recognise himself.” p. 187-188

So I read this book not because I am so terribly interested in Enric Marcos the individual, as much as I am interested in what he represents. I also found myself fascinated by the personal revelations of Cercas, as he wrote about what it means to be a writer; what it means to write fiction.

“…reality kills and fiction saves, because more often than not fiction is merely a way of disguising reality, a way of protecting oneself from it or curing oneself of it.” p. 203

While this is not a favorite of mine from the Man Booker International Prize long list of 2018, it was well loved by many on the shadow panel. It was not, however, deemed worthy of the short list by the official judges. Judging from their short list, it seems that they prefer shock value more highly. (Yet, if that was wholly true, why leave off Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz?)

Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munez Molina (translated by Camilo A. Ramirez, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

I’d like to say I liked this novel, and at first I did. But halfway through I became so bored I didn’t know whether to finish it or throw it against the wall.

In a nutshell, it is the story of James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his endless aliases and attempts to avoid being captured by the police. He reads James Bonds novels and cheap spy thrillers; he stays in fleabag hotels and employs prostitutes. He tries to be more sophisticated than he is, but his suit is the wrong thing to wear in the hot May temperatures of Lisbon, Portugal. His ears are lopsided, one bigger than the other, and he never quite fits in. We are given only the briefest glimpses into his past, brought up in Alabama with alcoholic parents, lice ridden siblings, and a growing prejudice against African Americans.

Alternating with his story, is the story of the author who is discontent with his life; his marriage, his two sons, everything gets in the way of what he wants to do: write. Or, on some pages, drink and hang out with his friends. I was interested, at first, in the difficulties inherent to writing: seeing the stack of white paper next to the typewriter, feeling the flow of ideas fall naturally into a rhythym one day, or hide into nonexistence another.

But the two storylines don’t connect very well in my opinion, and the tediousness of Ray’s efforts to escape became overwhelming to me. I am compassionate to a point. However, there are books on the Man Booker International Prize long list which are calling to me more loudly than this one.

Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world by Jorge Zepeda Patterson (a thriller for Spanish Lit Month)

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Milena isn’t Russian, as supposed, and she didn’t come to Mexico of her own free will. She was captured as a teen in Croatia by a human-trafficking ring and forced into prostitution.

When the novel opens, her benefactor has just died in her arms. He is the owner of El Mundo, and has prepared for such an event by writing a letter which instructs his daughter to protect his love, Milena, and to take the black book away from her because it could ruin the family.

What black book? How could it destroy the family? The secrets are many and multi-layered in this Spanish thriller which won the  Premio Planeta. (A literary prize of $800,000.)

Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world was sent to me by Restless Books. I read it for Spanish Lit Month with an ache in my heart for the women who suffer in this trade, and the men who are oblivious to their suffering.

The next day, each of them (the men who came to the prostitutes) went on with his normal life, beyond the boundary of that hell they financed, thinking they had integrity and that paying a stack of euros got them off the hook for any wrongdoing.

Jorge Zepeda Patterson does a brilliant job of portraying the darkest aspects of prostitution and its inherent evil; of men taking advantage of anyone they can to gain power. He shows us the inner workings of the mafias engaged in human-trafficking and the groups laundering money for organized crime.

A far cry from Javier Marias’ gentle, even enigmatic prose, reading this novel is like watching a film. One that carries scenes all the more horrifying because they can be found in real life. It is a shocking book, and violent, incredibly fast paced and an exceptional thriller for those who enjoy this genre.

Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me by Javier Marias (for Spanish Lit Month 2017)

The television broadcasts a film with Fred  MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck while Marta lies immovable on her double bed, dying.

Her son, who would not easily fall asleep, lies in his wooden cot under aeroplanes strung on thread just above his bed. They sway lightly in the air, reminding our narrator, Victor, of his own childhood planes.

Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword.

He is not well acquainted with Marta. He has come for dinner, and what he hopes will follow, while her husband is away in London. Surely he did not expect his evening to transpire as it has. In the course of this improbable event, of a woman dying while he is in her bedroom, he pauses to reflect.

….everything seems as nothing to us, everything becomes compressed and seems as nothing to us once it is over, then we always feel that we were not given enough time.

For awhile, he wonders if she has not in fact died. He returns to her apartment building, gazing at the windows on the fifth floor which belong to her apartment, hoping that perhaps she simply fell unconscious; he hopes that someone has taken care of her son whom he left sleeping in the cot.

But no, Marta has in fact died, and so the title’s implication expands to more than merely our narrator.  We think on Marta’s widowed husband, Dean, and her son, Eugenio, her father, Juan, and her sister, Luisa.

Tomorrow in the battle think on me, when I was mortal; and let fall thy lance.

He suffers guilt, but also self examination. He is a ghostwriter, and therefore used to being behind the scene. He often refers to himself as being nobody.

Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword. Tomorrow in the battle think on me, when I was mortal, and let fall thy pointless lance. Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow, let me be lead within thy bosom and at a bloody battle end thy days. Tomorrow in the battle think on me, despair and die.

There are all sorts of battles going on. The ones on television where aeroplanes on film are fighting in battle, the ones of Victor’s own making revealed to us as he reviews his life.

A large portion of the novel switches from the death of Marta to his divorce from Celia, with whom he was married for only three years. One evening, he questions if the prostitute he visits could be her. They look so similar, but he is uncertain, and even after he leaves her, and calls his ex-wife who is at home, he cannot be sure that she has not brought a customer home with her.

His battles are many, and tortuous. But, he is not the only one who endures them.

The novel ends with Marta’s husband and Victor in confrontation. Dean reveals his own battle within the details of his trip to London while his wife lay dying, unbeknownst to him, in Victor’s arms.

And how little remains of each individual in time, useless as slippery snow, how little trace remains of anything, and how much of that little is never talked about, and, afterwards one remembers only a tiny fraction of what was said, and then only briefly: while we travel slowly towards our dissolution merely in order to traverse the back or reverse side of time, where one can no longer keep thinking or keep saying goodbye: “Goodbye laughter and goodbye scorn. I will never see you again, nor will you see me. And goodbye ardour, goodbye memories.”

It is a tragic novel, one which examines relationships thoroughly and deeply, as well as the individuals who live in them. After reading it, I see once again why Javier Marias has become one of my favorite writers.

Thank you to Richard and Stu who host Spanish Lit Month in July. Find another review at Tony’s Reading List.

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.

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

 

 

Spanish Lit Month: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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…you want me to invent a fable that will make the unwary fall on their knees and persuade them that they have seen the light, that there is something to believe in, something to live and die for-even to kill for?”

“Exactly. I’m not asking for you to invent anything that hasn’t already been invented, one way or another. I’m only asking you to help me give water to the thirsty.

This prequel to The Shadow of the Wind holds the same mystery and wonderfully tense atmosphere, with a dedication to books which borders on religious. Andreas Corelli, French publisher with the ever present angel brooch on his lapel, makes the above proposition to author David Martin. He wants David to write a book that has less to do with containing a story than it does with harboring a soul for The Angel’s Game has nothing to do with angels, but everything to do with love, revenge and bibliophilia.

We find the Cemetery of Forgotten Books here again, which is a fortress of tunnels and bridges all leading to a cathedral made of books.

This place is a mystery. A sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and loved and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands, a new spirit…

Andreas Corelli’s game is played out on this board, involving the beautiful city of Barcelona with its real streets, such as Calle Santa Ana on which can be found the bookshop belonging to Sempere & Son, and the real cathedral, Santa Maria del Mar. It is an intricate retreat into the dangers and hopes that novels give us, all with a touch of Spain that is perfect for Spanish Literature Month.

Before I go, a few favorite quotes:

“I don’t trust people who say they have a lot of friends. It’s a sure sign that they really don’t know anyone.”

“May I offer you anything? A small glass of cyanide?”

“We can only accept as true what can be narrated.”

“There is nothing in the path of life that we don’t already know before we start. Nothing important is learned; it is simply remembered.”