Very Inspiring Blogger Award

blogger-award

What a surprise. I’ve been nominated twice for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. Thank you so much Litlove and Heavenali. I’m grateful and flattered.

The idea behind the award is to pass it on to 15 other blogs and share 7 things nobody knows so far.

I have a problem on both fronts. I will not come up with 15 book blogs because that would mean I’d have to re-nominate many who have already been nominated at least once.

7 things nobody knows so far – well there may very well be a reason why nobody does. :)

So, let’s stick to what’s important. Here are 12 book blogs I’d like to nominate for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award:

His Futile Preoccupations – Guy’s probably the blogger who made me buy the most books. I love his choices and the way he writes about them. Crispy fresh writing style and choices that are far from conventional. Plus he’s a writer magnet. I haven’t seen any other blog on which so many writers comment.

Book Around the Corner – Emma is someone who will always write about books with passion and have new insights. Her reviews are never predictable, her choices always interesting.

Pechorin’s Journal – Whether he reads modernist fiction or sic-fi, he’ll always write beautifully and poetically about it.

Babbling Books – I don’t know anyone else who reads huge tomes on history and historical figures and writes about it so well that you don’t even need to read the books for yourself. And you will always find an interesting discussion of philosophical, historical or political topics on his blog as well.

Vishy’s Blog – It’s wonderful when someone loves reading so much and manages to share his enthusiasm. He’s also one of the most diverse readers around. Non-fiction. literary, modernist, crime, YA, fantasy, there’s nothing he wouldn’t read.

Still Life With Books – Violet’s a blogger I admire for her writing style and careful analysis. I always find books I’d like to read on her blog, especially memoir and non-fiction.

Tony’s Book World – If I had to pick a blog and only read what they review, he’d be one of those I’d choose. I just love his choices. The reviews are pithy and to the point.

The Reading Life – There are not many around with so much passion and enthusiasm for short stories and different cultures.

Postcards from Asia – My lovely co-host of some great events. She has a very unique way of writing reviews, very literary.

Buchpost – Quirky blogger who writes in German and English, shares photos and best of book blogging links, which contain great discoveries.

Kaffeehaussitzer – German blog I’ve discovered only recently. He writes thoughtful, in-depth reviews and takes wonderful photos. He’s a man with a mission. If you visit, you’ll find a lot of food for thought and good reasons why we should support Indie bookshops.

Le blog de Mimi – French blogger with an impeccable taste. She reads and reads and reads. One of the most dangerous blogs out there because she makes you discover so much.

 

Each of these blogs is a treat. They are all very different but intelligent and inspiring.

Please don’t feel forced to pass on the Award. Do it if you feel like it, if not – that’s OK as well.

 

Donal Ryan: The Spinning Heart (2012)

The Spinning Heart

Irish writer Donal Ryan’s first book  The Spinning Heart is less a novel than a chorus. A chorus of 21 voices telling, stating, deploring, accusing and confessing things that are on their mind, things they want to commit or have committed, things they should have done or could have done. While each of them gives us a slice of individual life, in his or her unique voice, using their idiom or vernacular, they are linked because of the recession that has hit them hard. Most of the professional life in this small rural community was tied to the building firm of Pokey Burke who fled the country, leaving his former employees without pension or income. He’s also responsible for a ghost estate, in which one of the narrators, Réaltín, her little boy, and one elderly woman live. The other houses haven’t been finished and Réaltín’s house has a lot of shortcomings too.

The book opens with Bobby’s voice and closes with Triona, Bobby’s wife. In between are the 19 others. Former workers of Pokey, his father and many more. What struck me the most was that every chapter really sounded as if a person was talking to us. The voices are each so intimate and distinctive. Some focus on the present moment and the recession, some go way back. What we read paints an astounding portrait of Irish society, the things that have been the same for decades, like the weight of the Catholic Church, and those that have drastically changed, like the economy. Some voices are shocking, some are heartbreaking, some belong to very young children, some to old people, most to those who have been the most affected by the recession- people between 18 and 60+.

While all these lives have been marked by Pokey and his real estate fraud, there are also two thin plot lines which link all the people: the abduction of Réaltín’s boy and the murder of Bobby’s father. With these to plots the book transcends the economy theme and encompasses more universal topics like family and relationships.

The Spinning Heart is an amazing piece of writing and I’m not surprised Donal Ryan won the guardian First Book Award. Creating 21 distinctive voices is an achievement but to tell 21 touching life stories and to capture a whole country even more so.

Harriet Lane: Her (2014)

Her

Last year I read Harriet Lane’s Alys, Always and loved it so much that I had to read her new novel Her as soon as it came out. Amanda Craig calls it “Thriller of the Year” and while I might not have read enough of the books that came out in 2014 to confirm this, it’s certainly the best thriller I’ve read so far this year. Take Lucie Whitehouse’s Before We Met and one of Ruth Rendell’s psychological thrillers and you’ll end up with something like Her.

Her has a split narrative. Nina tells one half of the chapters, while Emma narrates the other half. Do you ever wonder what people truly think of you? What they might say about you behind your back? Whether they truly like you or just pretend they do? If you have, and I’m pretty sure, we’ve all wondered at some time, this book will resonate deeply with you as Nina is not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable character. She does tell us the truth, albeit in small doses, but she’s anything but truthful to Emma.

At the beginning of the book Nina sees Emma in the street, in London. She hasn’t seen her in years, decades even, and is pretty sure that Emma will not remember her. However, Nina remembers Emma because, all those years ago, Emma did something that Nina could never forgive.

At first Nina doesn’t do anything. She just relishes seeing Emma in a bad place, with one small demanding child and a second on the way. She’s not a young mother and the sleepless nights, the demands of motherhood, have taken their toll. She’s not as gorgeous as she once was. And she’s neither rich nor does she have a career, unlike Nina who lives a life of elegance and wealth and is a succesful painter.

Their paths cross again. This time Nina makes contact. What follows is extremely chilling. Nina befriends Emma, is helpful and kind, but we know what she really feels. Unbeknownst to Emma she manipulates, stages disasters that are just small at first but become more menacing every time.

Reading what Nina thinks and does, followed by Emma’s interpretation of the events, made me feel so uncomfortable. I couldn’t help putting myself into Emma’s place and tried to imagine what it would be like being duped like this. Creepy.

The book is extremely gripping because we constantly ask two questions: What did Emma do all those years ago? and How far will Nina go?

What makes this book even more readable is Harriet Lane’s writing. Her descriptions are fresh and elegant. The only thing that bothered me was the depiction of motherhood. I’m sure it’s stressful to have small children but to the extent this is described here?

The end wasn’t exactly what I had expected but I thought it made sense and it shed another, even darker light on Nina.

If you liked Notes on a Scandal or Ruth Rendell’s psychological thrillers, you’ll enjoy this and appreciate Harriet Lane’s lovely, elegant writing.

Federico García Lorca: The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba (1936) – A Play

The House of Bernarda Alba

I’ve read many French and German plays, some British, American, and Russian ones, but only one or two of Spanish origin. Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Literature Month seemed like a good opportunity to change this and I decided to read The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba, Federico García Lorca’s last play, which he completed just before being murdered by Nationalists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba is set in a village in Spain in the house of the widow Bernarda Alba. Her second husband has just been buried and she decides to close down the house  and impose an eight-year-long mourning period. This means that her five unmarried daughters will lose their freedom and live a secluded life for the next eight years. Bernarda Alba is a joyless tyrant, a crushing, sadistic mother, who uses her Catholic faith as a means to domineer and abuse her daughters. The oldest, Angustias, is already 39 and still not married. She’s the only one from Bernarda’s first husband and has inherited a fortune, while the other four, ranging in age from 20 to 30, are left almost destitute. The two youngest, Adela and Martirio, are both in love with the same man, Pepe el Romano. Pepe seems to be in love with Adela, the only pretty one among the five  daughters. Martirio is jealous and full of hatred. Unfortunately the scheming Bernarda has arranged that Pepe will marry the rich Angustias. As is to be expected the play ends in tragedy.

It’s stifling hot in the play and the heat works as a brilliant metaphor for repressed anger, suppressed desires, sexual frustration, and passions running amok. It enhances the sense of oppression and suffocation the women experience. An eerie element comes from the fact that everyone spies on everyone else at all times and that they all envy each other for one reason or the other. It’s a play that can easily be read as a metaphor for a totalitarian regime. But it’s also an illustration of the crushing power of the Catholic faith and how it can be abused by a sadistic and frustrated person.

This is an amazing play. The dialog is concise and pithy, consisting mostly of short repartees. The only exceptions are the exchanges between Poncia – a servant/confidante – and a maid and between Poncia and Bernarda Alba.

Although men are so important, not one man appears on stage. They are only spoken about and referred to.Browsing on YouTube I saw that a few directors chose to include male actors, which I find very wrong. García Lorca wanted to express something by leaving them out. I wonder why some directors chose to include them? Out of Fear that nobody would want to watch a play with only female actors?

I prefer reading plays but this is one I’d love to see performed. It has been made into a British TV movie (1991), starring Joan Plowright as Poncia, the servant/confidante of Bernarda, who is tied to her mistress by some weird loyalty in which there’s as much obedience as hatred and rebellion. Quite an interesting relationship. I started watching it but this is such a prototypical Spanish play that seeing it performed by British actors was a bit strange. I’ll still watch it some day and  have attached it for those who are interested.

This is my second contribution to Stu‘s and Richard‘s Spanish Literature Month.

Eugenio Fuentes: The Depths of the Forest – El interior del bosque (1999)

El Interior del Bosque

In a guardian article on best crime fiction in English translation Ann Cleeves mentioned Eugenio Fuentes’ novel The Depths of the Forest – El interior del bosque. Since Stu‘s and Richard‘s Spanish Literature Month was upcoming and I’ve never read a Spanish crime novel before, I thought it would be an excellent choice.

The book starts chillingly with the POV of the first victim. Gloria, a beautiful painter, is hiking alone in Paternóster, a remote nature reserve, in Spain. She feels dread but since she’s all alone, there doesn’t seem to be any reason. A few minutes later she’s murdered brutally. This isn’t a spoiler. Her murder is revealed on the bokk cover and happens in the first few pages. The next POV is quite unusual. A rat finds Gloria’s body. The following paragraphs are written from the point of view of a group of young boys who torture scorpions and discover Gloria’s body. The POV switches again, this time we are in the head of Richard Cupido, the PI hired by Marcos, Gloria’s fiancé. Marcos is sure that the Guardia Civil, the local police, are not going to investigate thoroughly and hopes Cupido will find the murderer.

Most of the story is written from Cupido’s perspective but many chapters are told from the point of view of the many suspects. When a second woman is murdered there are even more suspects. In spite of these many different perspectives, the book didn’t feel disjointed.

Most of the men who came in contact with Gloria fell in love with her. And it seems that she had affairs with most of them. Was it a crime of passion? Or has it something to do with an ongoing lawsuit? El Paternóster used to belong to a rich widow who has been fighting to get it back for years. Did she take drastic measures to discourage the public from visiting?

Cupido turns in circles for a long time. He gathers information but it’s leading nowhere. And he becomes obsessed with Gloria himself.

Having finished the novel, I’m facing a huge dilemma. I want to be fair to a novel, which is clearly on the literary side of the crime spectrum, and would most certainly delight many readers, but at the same time I have to admit that this wasn’t for me. Not because it wasn’t good but because it contained a recurring scene of an act of cruelty against an animal (a deer) that made me sick. I skipped most of the parts but still read too much for my own liking. It wasn’t a gratuitous scene but nevertheless, I wonder why an author chooses to include scenes like this. I think this is too bad because if those scenes hadn’t been included I would have liked this book. I thought that all the aspects about nature and how people value it in different ways was thought-provoking and topical. From the nature theme we’re lead to think about human nature. Clearly, the cruelty is part of these explorations. Cupido is a complex character and most of the other character studies were quite fascinating too. The way Fuentes captured this nature reserve and its remoteness, was very well done. Fascinating and eerie at the same time. And I really wanted to find out who killed those women. But overall the novel was too pessimistic for my own liking. While I agree that humans are the most cruel animals in this world, I don’t want to read about it in this way. Or Nnot if illustrating this point includes scenes with cruelty against animals. If this doesn’t bother you and you like your crime novels unusual, literary and very bleak – don’t miss this.

This is my first contribution to Spanish Literature Month hosted by Stu and Richard.

The Depths of the Forest

 

Literature and War Readalong July 28 2014: The Lie by Helen Dunmore

The Lie

Helen Dunmore has written several times about WWI. Back in 2012 we’ve read her earlier novel Zennor in Darkness, a book that made it on my Best of List that year. Naturally I’m looking forward to read her latest novel The Lie. I’ve seen a few reviews here and there but avoided to read them as I want to discover it for myself. What I like the most about Helen Dunmore is her beautiful prose. You can sense right away that she is also a poet.

If Rudyard Kipling’s epitaph at the beginning of the book is anything to go by, then it will be a heartbreaking novel.

If any question why we died

Tell them, because our fathers lied

This epitaph is doubly tragic as Kipling lost his son in WWI. Judging from the movie My Boy Jack, the boy would never have enlisted if it hadn’t been for his father. Here’s Kipling’s touching poem:

My Boy Jack

Have you news of my boy Jack?
Not this tide.
When d’you think that hell come back?
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

Has any one else had word of him?
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Here are the first sentences of The Lie

He comes to me, clagged in mud from head to foot. A mud statue, but a breathing one. The breath whistles in and out of him. He stands at my be-end. Even when the wind is banging over the roof that I’ve bodged with corrugated iron, it’s very quiet. He doesn’t speak. Sometimes I wish he would break the silence, but then I’m afraid of what he might say. I can smell the mud.You never forget the reek of it. Thick, almost oily, full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chloride of lime. He has got himself coated all over with it. He’s camouflaged. He might be anything, but I know who he is.

And  some details and the blurb for those who want to join

The Lie by Helen Dunmore (UK 2014) WWI, Novel, 304 pages

Set during and just after the First World War, The Lie is an enthralling, heart-wrenching novel of love, memory and devastating loss by one of the UK’s most acclaimed storytellers. Cornwall, 1920, early spring.

A young man stands on a headland, looking out to sea. He is back from the war, homeless and without family.

Behind him lie the mud, barbed-wire entanglements and terror of the trenches. Behind him is also the most intense relationship of his life.

Daniel has survived, but the horror and passion of the past seem more real than the quiet fields around him.

He is about to step into the unknown. But will he ever be able to escape the terrible, unforeseen consequences of a lie?

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The discussion starts on Monday, 28 July 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Gabriel Chevallier: La Peur – Fear (1930) Literature and War Readalong June 2014

Fear

Most of the books we read for the Literature and War Readalong are historical novels, written by people who do not have any experience of war. But I always try to make sure to include at least one novel or memoir written by someone who had first-hand experience. Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear – La Peur is one of those. Like his narrator Jean Dartemont, Chevallier was a simple soldier during WWI. He served from 1914 to the end of the war. In 1915 he had a small break because he was wounded but was sent back to the front-line after his recovery. Reading his account it sounds like a miracle that anyone could survive this long under such circumstances. Given the title of this novel it may also come as a surprise that its author returned highly decorated. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

Most of the time reading La Peur felt like reading a memoir and I suppose most of it is autobiographical. What drew me in from the beginning was the voice. I hope they were able to capture this unique and powerful voice in the English translation. A voice that mentions everything, denounces everything, and lets us get as close to the war in the trenches as possible without having been there.

The book hasn’t a plot as such, it’s more an episodic account of Dartemont’s experience of WWI and his thoughts. Not for one second does he think the war is noble, nor does he ever strive for glory. He sees right through most of the cowardly and sadistic officers and he speaks openly. Not always though. Sometimes he’s just too baffled to speak his mind like when an elderly man asks him on his leave whether they are having fun. Those at home think it’s all a great adventure, just like most of those who signed up early on.

Dartemont who was a student didn’t sign up for “gloire et patrie” (glory and homeland), he signed up because he wanted to see. He’s a very curious person, that’s probably why he never averts his eyes, no matter how scared he is. In the beginning he’s just like a participant observer. At first he’s far from the most intense fighting but once he’s seen his first battle, the first dead people and horribly wounded, fear is his constant companion.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this. Not for one second are we led to believe that going to war is heroic. It might very well be one of the most openly anti-war books I’ve ever read. Free of any sentimentality, free of any attempt to make us swallow the bitter pill by telling some touching story. It’s just one man’s account of the most horrible things one can experience.

The parts that shocked me the most are not the gruesome descriptions of the wounded and the dead but those that show how utterly ill prepared most of the attacks were. And how incapable and idiotic most of the high command was. How can you expect to win a battle when the enemy is dug in and your soldiers are just running into open fire? No wonder there were some battles in which there were 50,000 to a 100,000 dead and wounded within two hours. All this led to the mutinies of 1917. Of course it wasn’t much better on the British side. Unfortunately many officers were not only useless but petty and sadistic, mean-spirited and small-minded, and managed to turn even times of rest into nightmares.

Seeing how scared Dartemont was all through the war, and how long he stayed in the trenches, I was wondering why he wasn’t shell-shocked. I think he must have had an extremely strong character. Unlike so many, he never looks away, not even when he’s scared. He’s always aware that any moment could be his last, that he could end up maimed for life from one second to the other. This extreme awareness, paired with a strong character, seems to have helped him stay sane through the madness.

As awful and detailed as many of the description were, I liked reading this, because I liked the narrator’s voice so much. Staying this matter of fact in such mayhem is admirable.

I’m not surprised this book went out of print in France when WWII broke out. It’s as powerful as it is subversive. Chevallier rips off the masks of all those who pretend war is noble.

 

Other reviews

 Guy (His Futile Preoccupations)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

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Fear – La Peur is the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI novel The Lie by Helen Dunmore. Discussion starts on Monday 28 July, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.