Mercè Rodoreda: Jardí vora el mar – The Garden Above the Sea (1967)

Jardì vora el mar

Mercè Rodoreda was a Spanish writer who wrote in Catalan. She’s most famous for her novel La plaça del diamant – In Diamond Square – (also The Time of the Doves). I’ve had that for ages but when I came across the German translation of Jardí vora el mar (The Garden Above the Sea), I couldn’t resist. Unfortunately it hasn’t been translated into English.

The story is set in Spain, in the 20s of the last century. The narrator of the story is a gardener. He’s a widower and has been in charge for the garden that belongs to a villa above the sea since decades, even before the current owners spent their summer vacations in the villa. The story spans six summers, summers that change from playfulness and enjoyment to drama and tragedy. Our narrator is not only a silent witness, he’s drawn into the story as the occupants of the villa treat him like a confidante. During the first year, when the young couple, Rosamaria and Francesc, and their friends spend their first summer at the villa, things seem perfect. The young people are beautiful, rich, joyful. They swim, they party, they tease each other. The gardener watches and listens. At night he refuels in his garden. He listens to the plants breathe, enjoys the scents and colors, cherishes the loneliness.

He loves to watch the young people. He has his favourites. There’s Feliu the painter who only paints the sea. Sebastia who travels in Africa and brings back a lion and a monkey. The summer when the mischievous monkey is at the villa, is by far one of the most entertaining, but some darkness already manifests. It is the summer of the monkey, but also the summer in which the construction of the neighbouring villa begins. At the end of that summer, the monkey goes missing and the young people at the villa feel like it was the last perfect summer. They already know that the villa next doors will be even bigger and more glamorous than their own.

The following summer, the new neighbours move in, and the tragedy unfolds. The past has come back to haunt Rosamaria and Francesc.

In the afterword the novel is compared to Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi Continis and to The Great Gatsby. There are similarities but it might be especially interesting to point out the differences. The three novels are told by a narrator who is an outsider but while the narrators in Fitzgerald’s and Bassani’s novels circle the orbit of the rich and famous, they are still guests and allowed to take part, while the gardener is distinctly removed. All three books mourn also the end of an era. The Great Gatsby and The Garden Above the Sea are set in the 1920s, while Bassani’s book takes place in the 40s.  The Finzi Contini are Jewish. Needless to say how the story will end. Gardens and houses are important in the three novels but nowhere is the garden as much a character as in Rodoreda’s novel. The afterword tells us that the author was a passionate gardener and we can feel that. The descriptions of the flowers, trees, and bushes, their changes through the seasons, the difficulties to grow them are described with so much love, only someone who loves plants could have achieved that. I’ve come across many novels, in which houses are like characters, but I’ don’t think I’ve come across many, in which the garden played such an important role. Not even Bassani’s novel.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is easily one of my top ten favourite novels. I also love The Great Gatsby. I enjoyed Rodoreda’s book a great deal, but I only loved the descriptions of the garden. In choosing a gardener as her narrator, as wonderful a character as he may be, we stay much more spectators of the characters, are never fully immersed. We only see what they do when they are outside; we never see them interacting inside of the house. Most of the things we learn, are things the gardener himself was told by someone who heard it from someone. Seeing characters from afar, doesn’t allow to get as close to them as we would wish. Plus, the main protagonists change. Every summer, someone else gets close to the gardener, visits him in his small house. Those are the most intimate moments in the book, the ones, other than the descriptions of the garden, that I enjoyed the most. It’s not always good to compare a book with such famous novels as The Great Gatsby or The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but in this case it helped me understand, why Rodoreda’s book left me a little cold, although it’s a fantastic book that I might even re-read some day.

The review is part of Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month.

Nicci French: Thursday’s Child (2014)

Thursday's Children

I’ve been waiting to read Thursday’s Child, the fourth in the Frieda Klein series, until it came out in paperback. That happened just a few months before the fifth Friday on my Mind was published. It’s one of the rare series I’ve followed since the beginning. Here are the first three reviews Blue Monday – Tuesday’s Gone – Waiting for Wednesday

I think what surprised me the most, is that this book was so much better than the last and that it felt very fresh, and added a lot on Frieda’s private life and backstory.

Due to the nature of the crime she investigates, we learn a lot about Frieda’s past. Since Frieda is a psychotherapist, an old school friend contacts her because her daughter shows signs of distress. At first, Frieda is not willing to see the girl. For one, she wasn’t all that keen on her mother all those years ago and she’s not sure how she can help. In the end she accepts to see the girl anyway and what she hears is extremely shocking. Not only because something awful happened to the girl, but because what happened sounds exactly like something that happened to Frieda when she was the girls’ age.

Although Frieda’s left her hometown twenty years ago, hasn’t stayed in contact with any of her friends, and never spoke to her mother again, she decides to leave London and investigate what has happened to the girl – and maybe to herself. I’m one of those people who would never go to a school reunion and reading how Frieda went back and had to face her past, was an intense read. I also had a very complex relationship with my mother, and so, reading about her reunion with her mother was intense as well.

Unlike in most other Frieda Klein novels, London isn’t as important in this book as in the others, but it still plays a role. Frieda’s love life takes a surprising turn and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I wonder if it was necessary to handle it that way and I’m very curious to see where she goes from here.

While the crime element is solid and gripping, it’s not the only interesting narrative strand. Following Frieda as she faces her troubled past was well worth reading. That one of the perpetrators of the first books is still following Frieda, added another, creepy layer.

Something I don’t like in crime novels is when there’s a final showdown. It’s a typical element in most psychological thrillers and Nicci French has used it before. Not in this one. That’s why it felt fresher. Frieda also didn’t put herself as much in harm’s way as she did in other books. That was always an element that annoyed me because I felt it had less to do with Frieda than with creating suspense.

If you like the series, you shouldn’t miss this. It’s the second best so far. However, I wouldn’t recommend to start with this one. You would maybe still enjoy the crime story but the part about Frieda’s life would not be as interesting.

Peter Mendelsund: What We See When We Read (2014)

What We See When We Read

How does your Anna Karenina look? Is she tall and dark-haired? Homely or elegant? Can you picture her nose? And what color is Ishmael’s hair? What does he wear? These are but a few of the questions Peter Mendelsund explores in his exciting book What We See When We Read.

Mendelsund is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf and art director of Pantheon books. In his book, which is subtitled A Phenomenology with Illustrations, he explores what it means to read and what types of pictures are created in books and in our heads.

As readers we are often not conscious that the images we see before our inner eyes correspond only to some extent to what we find on the page. Our own imagination embellishes, we write along. That’s why we so often find fault with the way characters and settings look in movies. “No,” we say. ”This isn’t what I’ve imagined.” Returning to the book, we might discover that what we imagined isn’t any closer to what the author wrote than the choices the film director made.

Ciphers

“Characters,” Mendelsund writes, “are ciphers. And narratives are made richer by omission.” I agree with him. Most readers would. Isn’t there anything more tiresome than a description that is so detailed that you feel your imagination crumble under the exhaustion of picturing exactly what you should see?

Mendelsund also questions whether we are still able to imagine like people in the era before movies, TV, and the Internet. And what about children? Do we teach them how to imagine through picture books? Are they born with their imaginations? And has everyone the same imagination?

While I nodded in agreement most of the time, and stopped reading frequently because I found an observation so interesting, there were a few moments when I disagreed. Mendelsund states, for example, that we all fill in gaps with things we are familiar with. If a book is set in a foreign country, we will still see our own backyard. He mentions that while reading a documentary on Stalingrad, he pictured the streets of Manhattan. I certainly don’t do that and I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t.

Anna Karenina

The best thing about the book however is that it’s like a picture book for grown ups. It has illustrations on almost every page, makes elaborate use of different fonts, font sizes, and placement of text and, in doing so, enhances the experience, adds to the questions, and illustrates the points.

Be prepared – if you read this book, you’ll want to discuss it. Mendelsund may not always be right, but he’s always stimulating and thought provoking. I certainly enjoyed this book a lot.

Stewart O’Nan: The Odds (2012)

The Odds

Stewart O’Nan’s novel The Odds is the second novel of my 20 Under 200 project. It’s the third of O’Nan’s novels I’ve read so far and while Last Night at the Lobster is still my favourite, I thought this was very well done.

The Odds tells the story of a middle-aged couple, who spends Valentines Weekend at an expensive hotel in Niagara Falls. They are broke, about to lose their beloved house, and ready to file for bankruptcy. Their marriage has been crumbling for years and after this weekend they will get a divorce. Basically, because they hope to hide assets. The interesting element, the element that generates tension in this novel, is that the reader knows from the beginning this weekend means different things for the characters. Marion considers this a weekend of goodbye. The divorce will bring her freedom. Art, on the other hand, considers this to be a new beginning. He’ll ask his wife to marry him again. Unsurprisingly, the book is full of double entendre and subtext. Watching the protagonists circle each other, trying to find out if they made the right move – Marion hopes having sex isn’t giving the impression, she’s still in for a new beginning, while Art hopes the flashy diamond ring does really express love and is not just seen as a reckless token – is enthralling.

While these dynamics would be interesting enough to follow, there’s something else ging on here. Niagara Falls was where they spent their honeymoon but it’s also a place where you can gamble. This might have been the most interesting part of the book and it shattered a few of my illusions. How naïve was I to believe that Niagara Falls offered nothing but a spectacular view of one of nature’s most amazing offerings. I’ve been taught, Niagara Falls is a garish, small version of Las Vegas. Flashing lights and casinos included. I honestly don’t get it. Do people really enjoy illuminated sights? In garish colors at that? I remember when I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time in its all-year-round Christmassy illumination – I was disgusted. But this seems even more sacrilegious.

The trip to the casino makes a lot of sense because Art thinks he has figured out how to win big time at the roulette wheel, using the Martingale system. He’s certain that working with the odds will save them.

I found it amusing that Stewart O’Nan used different statistics as titles for his chapters. Odds of a couple making love on Valentine’s Day 1 in 14 – Odds of a U.S. citizen filing for bankruptcy: 1 in 17 – Odds of a married couple reaching their 25th anniversary: 1 in 6 – Odds of surviving going over the Falls without a barrel: 1 in 1,5000,000. Of course, all these are relevant to the story and made me think of those long chapter titles we find in many 19th century novels that give a flavour of what follows.

While they spend their days queuing for hours to see the many tourist attractions, at night they hit the casinos. If you want to find out whether the odds are against them – you’ll have to read the book.

I found this very well written, very realistic. I particularly liked the way he showed the absurdity of a tourist business that transforms a natural phenomenon into a tawdry theme park. Pretty sad, to be honest. It was equally excellent how he described how two people can have very different feelings about the same thing and that even in a marriage you may very well live with a stranger.

What kept me from loving this was that the people described are very realistic, but not exactly interesting. Since this is the second novel about middle-aged people, written by a man, I wonder whether men’s view of middle age in our society isn’t more negative than women’s view. Often, in novels written by women, the middle-aged protagonist starts a new, freer life. This is to some extent reflected in the attitude of the two protagonist. While Art thinks it would be a catastrophe if they spilt, it means freedom for Marion.

After finishing this book I’ve asked myself two questions:

What are the odds that I’ll visit Niagara Falls: 1 in 10,000

What are the odds I’ll pick up another Stewart O’Nan novel? 1:1

Maybe The Odds isn’t Stewart O’Nan’s best novel but it’s still well worth reading.

I first read about The Odds on Guy’s blog here.

Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending (2012)

The Sense of an Ending

When I posted my 20 under 200 list last week, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending was the novel that was mentioned the most and, so, I decided to pick it as the first novel of my project.

I don’t think, I have to write a lengthy summary as many other bloggers have done so already. Just a few words. The narrator, Tony, is in his 60s and looking back on his life. While most of that life is painfully average and there’s not a lot to say about it, his early youth is scrutinized and described in detail. This scrutiny serves a purpose. His past has come back to haunt him and Tony tries to uncover what exactly happened all those years ago, only to find out, his memory is more than a little faulty. While some people and events are still fresh in his mind, a lot has undergone a transformation and changed so much, that the actual events and the remembered events have but little in common.

I loved the way the narrator pieced together his memories, how he tried to make sense, and showed us how, often, we distort our memories to think better of ourselves or forget unpleasant events. I also loved the description of the four high school boys; their idealism that is always paired with more mundane occupations like chasing girls and hoping for sex.

Nonetheless, I can’t say I enjoyed this book. The voice got on my nerves. The way the narrator constantly tried to turn the reader into his accomplice by seeking reassurance, annoyed me. And I found him bland and depressing.

I also found hat there was a profound contradiction at the heart of this novel. On one side we have a very subtle analysis of memory and the tricks it plays on us; on the other side, we have a narrator who is an obtuse bore. For me, these are clearly two different people. One is the author, the other is the narrator. I really don’t think that someone who tells a story like Tony does and who lives such an uneventful life, just drifting, never striving for anything, never questioning, would come up with such amazing passages like this one:

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly : tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

This doesn’t sound like our narrator. This sounds like Julian Barnes speaking.

Don’t get me wrong, this novel has a lot to offer. The portrayal of adolescent boys is spot on and endearing. The analysis of memory is fascinating and how the theme was tied into the plot was very well done. I can’t say the end surprised me, but several other revelations did. What kept me from truly enjoying it was the narrator and his way of talking to the reader.

 

20 Under 200 – A Summer Reading List

20 under 200 -2

Like so many others, I’ve decided to do something about those huge piles of unread books and not buy so many new ones anymore. Quite a few of the bloggers I know have joined Eva Stalker’s #TBR20 project. The idea is to pick 20 books from your piles and not buy any new books before you read those.

A similar initiative is Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer. Both sound great, but I felt like giving them a twist and that’s why I’ll start my own project called 20 under 200. I’ve chosen 20 books from my piles, which are all under 200 pages. Ideally, I won’t buy any more books until I’ve read those. I will however allow myself to read other, longer books from the piles or exchange some that are on the photos against other novels under 200 pages.

20 under 200

Interestingly, the pile is very diverse, although I didn’t plan that at all. I think I managed to find books from 14 different countries: Japan, Korea, US, UK, Canada, France, Italy. Belgium, Iran, Germany, Poland, Norway, Finland, Argentine.

I was not surprised to see how many books under 200 pages I own. I could easily have added another 20 or 40. I’ve always had a preference for shorter novels.

On to the books:

Tarjei Vesaas – Spring Night (1964, Norway). Vesaas is a Norwegian author whose books won many prizes. He was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in 1964, 1968, and 1969. The book tells the story of one nigt in the life of Sissel and her brother Olaf. They are alone on their parents farm when a strange family whose car has broken down, descends on them.

Luise Rinser – Septembertag (1967, Germany). Luise Rinser is very famous and highly acclaimed in Germany, but not many of her books have been translated. Septembertag – A Day in September – is creative nonfiction. It’s the account of one day. At the time she was living in Rome. I wish more of her books had been translated. I’ve never read anything by her that wasn’t profound and poetic.

Wlodzimierz Odojewski When the Circus Arrived (2000, Poland) Polish author Wlodzimierz Odojewski’s book is another one that hasn’t been translated. The book contains two novellas. I’ve read an excerpt of one and was stunned. The way history is blended into the narrative was masterful.

Banana Yoshimoto – Asleep (1992, Japan) The book contains two novellas. Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite writers, so I’m looking forward to return to her. In the blurb the stories are called “nostalgic, exquisitely sad, and delicate like gossamer”. Sounds promising.

Amélie Nothomb – Barbe Bleu (2012, Belgium) Amélie Nothomb is a Belgian writer, writing in French. She was born in Kobe and spent her first years in Japan. I’ve only read one of Nothomb’s novels and wasn’t so keen on it. I found it a bit cold and aseptic. But when I saw this book I had to get it because I’m fascinated by Blue Beard. Many authors, like Margaret Atwood, have been inspired by Blue Beard. I’m very curious to see what she made of it. I’m not sure this has been translated but usually all of her books are.

Patrick Modiano – L’horizon – Horizon (2010, France)  This is only one of a few Modiano novels I have on my piles. He’s another author whose every book I used to read until I needed a pause. As much as I appreciate and love him, he can be a bit repetitive at times. But it’s time to get back to him. Like in most of his novels, he blends history and memory in L’horizon. His characters are always looking for lost time. I was so glad when I discovered he’d won the Nobel Prize.

Alice Hoffman – Nightbird (2015, US) Alice Hoffman’s latest novel is a YA novel. I’ve only read her books for adults so far. This is the story of a family secret. “A gorgeously bewitching tale of magic love and stretching your wings,” says the blurb.

Margaret Atwood – The Penelopiad (2005, Canada) I’ve had this for so many years, it’s about time I read it. The retelling of the story of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, in form of a chorus of voices. It’s a technique I find highly fascinating.

Julian Barnes – The Sense of an Ending (2011, UK) I’m late for this one. I think it would be easier to name the bloggers who haven’t read it than those who have. I’m particularly interested in the ending of the novel because it has generated such a controversy.

Mary Robison – One D.O.A. One on the Way ( 2009, US) The story is set in New Orleans and told in vignettes. Mary Robison is famous for being unpredictable. I’ve only read her short stories and was impressed. I’m sure this will be just as amazing.

Kim Young-Ha – I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (2011 ?, Korea) This book is said to blend art and reality. Critics call Korean writer Young-Ha urban and edgy.  Many of  his novels have been translated into English. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself  tells, among other things, the story of a love triangle.

Kristina Carlson – Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009, Finland) Finnish author Kristina Carlson’s novel is a historical novel, set in Kent in 1870 and tells the story of Darwin’s gardener, Thomas Davies, a grief-stricken widower who has lost his faith.

Toni Morrison – Home (2012, US) I have read two of Morrison’s books so far and while I liked and admired Beloved I didn’t get along with Jazz. Home is her latest and, according to the reviews I read, her most readable. The story begins with a letter from a woman the protagonist has never met. “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry”. Sounds intriguing. I liked the idea that it explores the meaning of “home”. I often wonder myself.

Simenon – La Chambre Bleue – The Blue Room (1963, Belgium) This is one of Simenon’s romans durs – not one of his Maigret novels. It says on the cover: “Simenon’s gripping novel about lives transformed by deceit and the destructive power of lust.” It’s just been made into a movie.

Stewart O’Nan – The Odds (2012, US) Another favorite writer. It’s the story of a weekend. “A tender, bitter-sweet exploration of faith, forgiveness, and last chances.”

Italo Calvino – The Invisible Cities (1972, Italy) Italo Calvino was an Italian writer. The Invisible Cities is a series of short and very short fiction blending history, realism and fantasy. Calvino called the book “a love letter to the city”.

Adolfo Bioy Casares – The Invention of Morel (1964, Argentina) A fantastic exploration of virtual realities that Borges compared to The Turn of the Screw. An Argentinian classic.

Renata Adler – Speedboat (1971, US) Another experimental novel. The blurb says: It has been more than thirty-five years since Renata Adler’s Speedboat charged through the literary establishment, blasting genre walls and pointing the way for a newly liberated way of writing. This unclassifiable work is simultaneously novel, memoir, commonplace book, confession, and critique. It is the story of every man and woman cursed with too much consciousness and too little comprehension, and it is the story of Jen Fein, a journalist negotiating the fraught landscape of contemporary urban America. Her voice is cuttingly perceptive, darkly funny, and always fiercely intelligent as she breaks narrative convention to send dispatches back from the world as she finds it.

Jenny Offill – Dept. of Speculation (2014, US) This got much praise when it came out last year. It was called one of the most unusual books by many. “Written with the dazzling lucidity of poetry, Dept. of Speculation navigates the jagged edges of modern marriage to tell a story that is darkly funny, surprising and wise.” From the book: “They used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation.”

Sadegh Hedayat – The Blind Owl (1957, Iran) Possibly Iran’s most famous novel. Hedayat has been compared to Kafka and Chekhov. The novel has been forbidden for decades. I’m a bit wary because it’s said to be so depressing. It has even led to a wave of suicides. But it’s said to be as beautiful and poignant and the despair it describes is one most humans face at some point. “A haunting tale of loss and spiritual degradation.”

*****

I think those books will keep me busy this summer. What about you? Do you have summer reading plans?

If you like, you can join me in the 20 under 200 project and join, at the same time, Eva’s or Cathy’s projects.

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver – Den ärlige bedragaran (1982)

The True Deceiver

Swedish-speaking Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson is most famous for her stories featuring the Moomintroll family and their friends. Their creation spans almost thirty years. The first story came out in the 40s, the last in the seventies. When Tove Jansson was in her 60s she began to write books for adults. Some, like The True Deceiver, are novels, other’s, like Fair Play, are a collection of linked short stories, or episodic novels.

I always wanted to read her work, the books for children just as much as the books for adults, and I have no idea why it took me so long. After having finished The True Deceiver and already started Fair Play, I must say, this is one of those writers whose every book I want to read. She’s such an orginal, refreshing, and highly inspiring writer.

Katri and her younger brother, Mats, live in a village, in an unnamed Nordic country. It’s the deep winter. The land is covered in snow. The lake is frozen. Katri has just resigned from a job for the local merchant. Her brother helps building boats, his biggest wish being a boat of his own. In the same hamlet lives Anna Aemelin, a famous, rich children’s book illustrator. She’s become famous for her detailed depictions of the forest, which she adorns with drawings of rabbits. Katri decides that she wants Anna’s money for her brother. And she wants to get it in an honest way. Now honesty is an elastic term and for Katri it seems to mean— speaking the truth. Anna Aemelin has her own idea of what honesty means. And so does Mats.

The blurb of the English edition tells the reader that Katri fakes a break-in at Anna’s house to convince her she needs companionship, that’s why it’s not a spoiler to mention that she and Mats will move into Anna’s big house.

While the plot is interesting, the book’s strength lies in the characters and the setting. These people are so unusual. All three are eccentrics, each in their own way. And their interests, occupations, their innermost being is so original.

The artist Anna Aemelin was the character I enjoyed the most. Before Katri arrives, she’s not even aware of how much money she made with her illustrations. She lives a very ordered life, following the seasons. In winter, she doesn’t draw. It’s a bit as if she was hibernating. She orders food from the shops, doesn’t go out, and spends her days answering fan letters and reading adventure stories for kids. The books will be the foundation of her friendship with the boy Mats, a friendship that will create tensions between her and Katri. In spring, after the thawing, Anna goes into the forest and draws her pictures.

Katri is mysterious. She resembles a mythical figure, how she walks around with her huge, nameless dog, hardly speaking to anyone.

The way they live and communicate with each other is so peculiar because all three characters are loners. The conflicts between Katri and Anna are fascinating because they are both scheming, but both can’t really lie. But does that make them honest?

The story is set during winter and a huge part of its charm stems from the descriptions of the winter landscape, the harshness of the weather, the isolation of the big rambling house.

I don’t want to say too much. Pick it up and discover this unique writer for yourself. It’s certainly going to make my Top 10 of the year.

I read the German translation. That’s why I can’t offer any quotes. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve already started Fair Play, the story of two women artists. It’s another great find. I also want to read her Moomin stories chronologically and have her biography and a few other novels sitting on my piles. So, be prepared, you might read a lot more about Tove Jansson on this blog in the future.

Tove Jansson