Thursday 31 May 2012

Smiley, Jane "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel"

Smiley, Jane "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel" – 2005

After reading "A Thousand Acres" and "The All-true Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton", I knew I really loved Jane Smiley's novels.

Therefore, when I saw her non-fiction work about books, I was more than interested. I didn't read this in a couple of days or even a couple of weeks, I read it in bits and pieces. I learned a lot about novels, reading novels and writing novels, the history of a novel, all sorts of interesting facts, quite fantastic. To show you how much she goes into the different aspects of a novel, here is her list of contents:

1.    Introduction
2.    What Is a Novel?
3.    Who Is a Novelist?
4.    The Origins of the Novel
5.    The Psychology of the Novel
6.    Morality and the Novel
7.    The Art of the Novel
8.    The Novel and History
9.    The Circle of the Novel
10.    A Novel of Your Own (I)
11.    A Novel of Your Own (II)
12.    Good Faith: A Case History
13.    Reading a Hundred Novels

In addition to her clarification about the different elements of the novel, she gives a very good introduction for people who would like to write one, two chapters that are also highly interesting for readers.

On page 280 of the 570 pages (of my edition), she starts describing 100 novels she read for this books, beginning with the oldest novel of them all, "The Tale of Genji" by Shikibu Murasaki, written in the early 11th century.

I don't think I infringe on her copyright, when I list the books she describes, you can find that list and a lot more about this highly interesting piece of work on this link at Randomhouse.

If you are even remotely interested in a little bit more than just reading a good novel, if you want to know about what's behind it all, this is the book for you.

So, here is the list of books that I will draw from for the next decade or so ... all of them described very well by an author who knows what she is talking about, all of them seem so interesting and worth reading, I don't think I would need another list of good books for a while (not that it will keep me from looking at any of them). As you can see, I have read a small part of the books on the list already (42 so far), will add links as I'll go through it trying to read more of them:

Murasaki, Lady Shikibu "The Tale of Genji" (Japanese: 源氏物語 Genji Monogatari)- early 11th century
Author unknown, "The Saga of the People of Laxardal" (Icelandic: Laxdæla saga) - 13th century
Sturluson, Snorri "Egil's Saga" (Icelandic) - 1240
Boccaccio, Giovanni "The Decameron" (Italian: Il Decameron, cognominato Prencipe Galeotto) - 1350
Navarre, Marguerite de "The Heptameron" (French: Heptaméron) - 1578
Anonymous "Lazarillo de Tormes" (Spanish: La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades) - 1554
Cervantes, Miguel de "Don Quixote, vols. 1 and 2" (Spanish: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha) - 1605/1615
Lafayette, Madame de "The Princess of Cleves" (French: La Princesse de Clèves) - 1678
Behn, Aphra "Oroonoko" - 1688
Defoe, Daniel "Robinson Crusoe" - 1719, "Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress" - 1724
Richardson, Samuel "Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded" - 1740
Fielding, Henry "The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling" - 1749
Lennox, Charlotte "The Female Quixote" - 1752
Sterne, Laurence "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" - 1759-67
Voltaire "Candide, or Optimism" (French: Candide, ou l'Optimisme) - 1759
Smollett, Tobias "The Expedition of Humphry Clinker" - 1771
Choderlos de Laclos, Pierre "Dangerous Liaisons" (French: Les Liaisons Dangereuses) - 1782
Marquis de Sade, Donatien Alphonse François "Justine" (French: Les Infortunes de la Vertu) - 1791
Scott, Sir Walter "Tales of My Landlord: Old Mortality and The Black Dwarf" - 1816, "The Bride of the Lammermoor" - 1819
Shelley, Mary "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus" - 1818
Austen, Jane "Persuasion" - 1817
Hogg, James "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner" - 1824
Stendhal "The Red and the Black" (French: Le Rouge et le Noir) - 1830
Gogol, Nikolai "Taras Bulba" (Ukrainian: Тара́с Бу́льба) - 1835
Lermontov, Mikhail "A Hero of Our Time" (Russian: Герой нашего времени, Geroy nashevo vremeni) - 1840
Balzac, Honoré de "Cousin Pons and Cousin Bette" (French: Le Cousin Pons) - 1847
Brontë, Charlotte "Jane Eyre" - 1847
Brontë, Emily "Wuthering Heights" - 1847
Makepeace Thackeray, William "Vanity Fair. A Novel Without a Hero" - 1848
Beecher Stowe, Harriet "Uncle Tom's Cabin" - 1852
Melville, Hermann "Moby-Dick, or the Whale" - 1851
Hawthorne, Nathaniel "The House of the Seven Gables" - 1841
Flaubert, Gustave "Madame Bovary" (French: Madame Bovary) - 1857
Dickens, Charles "A Tale of Two Cities" - 1859
Collins, Wilkie "The Woman in White" - 1559, "The Moonstone" - 1868
Turgenev, Ivan "Fathers and Sons" (Russian: Отцы и дети, Otcy i Deti)
Zola, Emilie "Thérèse Raquin"  (French: Thérèse Raquin) - 1867
Trollope, Anthony "The Last Chronicle of Barset" - 1867, "The Eustace Diamonds" - 1871
Dostoevsky, Fyodor "The Idiot" (Russian: Идиот, Idiot) - 1869
Alcott, Louisa May "Little Women" - 1868
Eliot, George "Middlemarch" - 1871-72
Tolstoy, Leo "Anna Karenina" (Russian: Анна Каренина/Anna Karenina) – 1877
James, Henry "The Portrait of a Lady" - 1880-81, "The Awkward Age" - 1899
Wilde, Oscar "The Picture of Dorian Gray" - 1890
Stoker, Bram "Dracula" - 1897
Chopin, Kate "The Awakening" - 1899
Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur "The Hound of the Baskervilles" - 1901-02
Conrad, Joseph "Heart of Darkness" - 1902
Wharton, Edith "The House of Mirth" - 1905
Beerbohm, Max "The Illustrated Zuleika Dobson, or an Oxford Love Story" - 1911
Madox Ford, Ford "The Good Soldier" - 1915
Lewis, Sinclair "Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott" - 1920 Nobel Prize
Undset, Sigrid "Kristin Lavransdatter" (Norwegian: Kristin Lavransdatter) - 1920 Nobel Prize
Joyce, James "Ulysses" - 1922
Svevo, Italo" Zeno's Conscience" (Italian: La Coscienza di Zeno) - 1923
Forster, E.M. "A Passage to India" - 1924
Scott Fitzgerald, F. "The Great Gatsby" - 1925
Kafka, Franz "The Trial" (German: Der Prozeß) - 1914-15 (written)
Broch, Hermann "The Sleepwalkers" (German: Die Schlafwandler) - 1930-32
Proust, Marcel "In Search of Lost Time" (French: À la recherche du temps perdu) - 1913-27
Lawrence, D.H. " Lady Chatterley's Lover" - 1928
Woolf, Virginia "Orlando" - 1928
Faulkner, William "As I Lay Dying" - 1930 Nobel Prize
Musil, Robert "The Man without Qualities, volume 1" (German: Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) - 1930
Sholokhov, Mikahil "And Quiet flows the Don" (Russian: Тихий Дон, Tikhiy Don) - 1934 Nobel Prize
Neale Hurston, Zora "Their Eyes Were Watching God" - 1937
Bowen, Elizabeth "The Death of the Heart" - 1938
Wodehouse, P. G. "Ring for Jeeves" (US Title: The Return of Jeeves) - 1953,"Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit" (US Title: Bertie Wooster Sees it Through) - 1954, "Spring Fever" - 1948, "Something Fishy" (US Title: The Butler Did It) - 1957
White, T.H. "The Once and Future King" - 1958
Stead, Christina "The Man Who Loved Children" - 1940
Tanizaki, Jun'ichiro "The Makioka Sisters" (Japanese: 細雪, Sasameyuki) - 1943-48
Nabokov, Vladimir "Lolita" - 1955
West, Rebecca "The Fountain Overflows" - 1957
Mitford, Nancy "The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate and Don't Tell Alfred" - 1945
Lee, Harper "To Kill a Mockingbird" - 1960
Carleton, Jetta "The Moonflower Vine" - 1962
Mishima, Yukio "The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea" (Japanese: 午後の曳航, Gogo no Eikō) - 1963
Rhys, Jean "Wide Sargasso Sea" - 1966
Gardner, John "Grendel" - 1971
Munro, Alice "Lives of Girls and Women" - 1971
Mahfouz, Naguib "The Harafish" (Arabic: الحرافيش‎) (in orig. Arabic Malhamat al-harafish) - 1977
Murdoch, Iris "The Sea, the Sea" - 1978
Lodge, David "How Far Can You Go?" (US title: Souls and Bodies) - 1980
Spark, Muriel "Loitering With Intent" - 1981
Tyler, Anne "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" - 1982
Kundera, Milan "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (Czech: Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí) - 1984
Kincaid, Jamaica "Annie John" - 1985
Coetzee, J.M. "Foe" - 1986 Nobel Prize
Morrison, Toni "Beloved" - 1987
Byatt, A.S. " Possession" - 1990
Baker, Nicholson "Vox" - 1992
Keillor, Garrison "WLT: A Radio Romance" - 1991
Atkinson, Kate "Behind the Scenes at the Museum" - 1995
Mistry, Rohinton "A Fine Balance" - 2002
Prose, Francine "Guided Tours of Hell" - 197
Lee, Chang-rae "A Gesture Life" - 1999
Lustig, Arnošt "Lovely Green Eyes" (Czech: Krásné zelené oči) - 2004
Smith, Zadie "White Teeth" - 1999
Updike, John "The Complete Henry Bech" - 2001
McEwan, Ian "Atonement" - 2001
Egan, Jennifer "Look at Me" - 2001

Jane Smiley received the Pulitzer Prize for "A Thousand Acres" in 1992.

From the back cover:

"Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling novelist Jane Smiley celebrates the novel - and takes us on an exhilarating tour through one hundred of them - in this seductive and immensely rewarding literary tribute.

In her inimitable style - exuberant, candid, opinionated - Smiley explores the power of the novel, looking at its history and variety, its cultural impact, and just how it works its magic. She invites us behind the scenes of novel-writing, sharing her own habits and spilling the secrets of her craft. And she offers priceless advice to aspiring authors. As she works her way through one hundred novels - from classics such as the thousand-year-old
Tale of Genji to recent fiction by Zadie Smith and Alice Munro - she infects us anew with the passion for reading that is the governing spirit of this gift to book lovers everywhere."

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Büchner, Georg "Woyzeck"

Büchner, Georg "Woyzeck" (German: Woyzeck) - 1879

Part of a stage play, unfinished, incomplete, published posthumously but became one of the most performed and influential plays in the German theatre repertory.

Modelled after a real life figure, Woyzeck is a man with lots of problems, a "common" man, a low grade soldier with all the disadvantages the working man had at the time. A social disaster, poverty, jealousy, murder ... this has all the elements of a great story.

He has an extremely special way of talking, not finishing sentences or putting fragments in the middle of a thought ... Büchner uses colloquial speech, Woyzeck talks the way the "common man" talks which gives the play more authenticity.

The play is on the curriculum of any German schools, most students read it a year or two before graduating. Most students hate it because it is so complex but there is something about it that attracts you to the play. Büchner is considered one of the most influential writers of his period, the so-called Vormärz (pre-March).

I read this in the original German version.

From the back cover:

"Written in 1836, Woyzeck is often considered to be the first truly 'modern' play.

The story of a soldier driven mad by inhuman military discipline and acute social deprivation is told in splintered dialogue and jagged episodes which are as shocking and telling today as they were when first performed, almost a century after the author's death, in Munich 1913.

Monday 28 May 2012

To read the introduction or not to read the introduction - that's not really the question

At least for me. Not anymore. Not after so many stories have been spoilt for me by an expert trying to introduce me into a classic or a novel that was the recipient of an esteemed prize and therefore "deserves" an introduction.

I know, they mean well. For a student who does not want to read the whole novel and still needs to know what this is all about, that might be a good idea. But I doubt that is the reason why the publisher puts these notes in the book.

They might even think, it's a classic, everyone knows the story already. Not really, there are always new generations, there are people who didn't have to read this particular book in school because the teacher chose another one, there are people who prefer to read the books instead of watching the many film adaptations available nowadays.

How often does the writer of the foreword tell you what happens in the story? A major event that you really don't want to know beforehand. Someone gets killed, a huge accident, a fire, a couple breaks up, you name it, they will have named it before you. It's almost as if someone read it for you and you don't even have to bother anymore.

Giving away too much, especially an essential point of the plot, definitely does not have the same effect on you, either. It dampens down the enjoyment of the read.

I asked my friends about this, they all agreed. Most of them skip it if they read the book for the first time, some read it afterwards. Some like to read it beforehand because they like the explanations in the introduction but even they agree that too much is given away.

The same argument goes for the reviews. It's better to read them afterwards, build your own opinion before you hear others agreeing or disagreeing with you.

Morale of the story. Don't read the introduction if you want to enjoy the novel.

Friday 25 May 2012

Levy, Marc "London Mon Amour"

Levy, Marc "London Mon Amour" (French: Mes amis mes amours) - 2006

Mathias and Antoine are both divorced and move in together to share the responsibilities for their children. Their only rule is, no women in the house. Of course, that rule is broken the minute they set foot into their new apartment ...

This book was made into a movie and I can imagine it being quite a good chick flick, especially since one of my favourite French actors, Vincent Lindon plays the main character. As to the novel, the only reason I carried on reading it was because I read it in French. Gave me something to practice. I don't care much for light reading and this was too light for me. Still, if you love chick lit, it's not a bad book.

From the back cover:

"Mathias and Antoine are both divorced and move in together to share the responsibilities for their children. Their only rule is, no women in the house. Of course, that rule is broken the minute they set foot into their new apartment ..."

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Dickens, Charles "Great Expectations"

Dickens, Charles "Great Expectations" - 1861

I read one Dickens before, "A Christmas Carol". And that was ages ago. I always wanted to read more. Ever since I read Gaynor Arnold's "Girl in a Blue Dress" about his wife, I wanted to read his novels even more. But - so many books, so little time, so it took me a while until I picked up one of his novels.
What can I say. I absolutely loved it. His way of creating suspense is incredible. I have often heard this was his greatest novel, and, even though I haven't really read his others, I can very well understand that. The characters are described so vividly, their thoughts and actions, superb. What I love most about it, you have the imagination to have been there, along with the characters, you are in the story rather than a neutral observer. This novel has it all, love, jealousy, drama, crime, poverty, vanity, anything you can think of.

"Great Expectations" will definitely go on my list of Favourite books.
In the meantime, I also read, i.a., "A Tale of Two Cities" and "The Pickwick Papers". See more reviews of his books here.

My favourite quote, what a beautiful declaration of love: "Out of my thoughts! You are part of my existence, part of my- self. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since - on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, pad of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!"

From the back cover:

"Dickens's magnificent novel of guilt, desire, and redemption
The orphan Pip’s terrifying encounter with an escaped convict on the Kent marshes, and his mysterious summons to the house of Miss Havisham and her cold, beautiful ward Estella, form the prelude to his 'great expectations.' How Pip comes into a fortune, what he does with it, and what he discovers through his secret benefactor are the ingredients of his struggle for moral redemption.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

E-readers and Little Old Me

All my friends know that I am not the biggest friend of modern technology. I found my peace with my computer, I know how to write a document in Word, I even learned how to put a picture in my blog or on any of the social media platforms. I love that I can tape a movie or buy a DVD and watch my favourites over and over again ...

However, there is one thing I don't think I'll get used to very fast, if ever: the e-reader, or, as better known in my circle of friends, books with batteries. I know a lot of people who move a lot and therefore can't buy too many books. There might be a reason for a sick person who cannot hold a book, someone who travels much and can't take too many with them every time they go on a trip. All good reasons to buy one. But for me, wife and mother of two almost grown kids who loves her books, there is nothing that can tempt me into getting an e-reader. I love the smell of my books, I love to hold a book in my hands. I love to be able to go back and forth in my book, well, back more than forth, I try not to take a peek, even if it is very tempting. I carry my books around everywhere, no waiting room will ever see me without my little book baggy. There is just something to it, when you get a new book, choose it from among a group of books at home or in the shop, open it for the first time, smell it, feel it, glance at the first sentences. Aaaaah .... bliss. I also love going to the library and browse through their offers, chat with the librarian, just something that belongs to a "real book". Besides, "used" books tell you a story about how much someone else before you loved it. Of course, I also like opening a fresh new one but used ones do have a certain something. I confess, I'm a dinosaur, left over from a past generation.

If you think, an e-reader is a good idea, go ahead, buy one. But there are disadvantages, so I've been told. You have to decide which one you buy, some companies offer more books to download than others. Then, you have to load the books, if you change the system, you might have to reload. You can run out of batteries, the system can break down (all of these complaints I’ve heard from people who love their e-reader), a friend of mine dropped hers and it was broken etc. etc. Who tells me that I can still read the books I download today in ten years? In twenty? Are they still compatible with the systems we buy today. Probably not, because the companies like making more money. We live in a throw-away society. Guess what, my books will still be compatible with my grandchildren. You cannot easily lend your e-book to a friend and ask her what she thinks, you have to tell them to spend money first. In our book club, we lend books to each other, so we don’t all have to buy them. Of course, that would be out of the question, as well. Too many disadvantages in my eyes. And I don’t like holding a machine like that for too long, I already dislike my mobile phone for that. And it's not that everyone who tries it loves it instantly, I know people who have one and don’t like it.

I guess, there is still something that speaks for the good old fashioned book. Long may it live!

Saturday 19 May 2012

Milne, A. A. "Winnie the Pooh"

Milne, A. A. (Alan Alexander) "Winnie the Pooh" - 1926

Which child doesn't like Winnie the Pooh? Well, I didn't, because I didn't even know he existed. I grew up outside of the English literature world, well, at least until I started secondary school. So, I read him later, when I was an adult.

I love Winnie and all his friends, especially his human friend Christopher Robin and the boisterous Tigger, but also curious little Piglet, wise old Owl, gloomy Eeyore, kind Kanga and her little son Roo.

I love the description of where Pooh lives namely "under the name Sanders" in a house in the Hundred Acre Wood, the double meaning says it all and sets the tone for this rather funny and psychological children's story.

It is so beautifully written and there is so much story, so much heart in it, that you can read it at any age and enjoy it.

From the back cover:

"AA Milne, born in 1882, based the characters of Pooh Bear, Eeyore the Donkey, Piglet, Tigger, Kanger and Roo on his son, Christopher Robin's real nursery toys. The Milne family live in Ashdown Forest and the stories of their adventures are based there."

Thursday 17 May 2012

Gavalda, Anna "95 pounds of hope" - 2002

Gavalda, Anna "95 pounds of hope" (French: 35 kilos d’espoir) - 2002

35 kilograms or 95 pounds, that's exactly how much Gregory Dubosc weighs at the age of 13. Everything goes wrong in his little life. His parents don't care much for him, only his grandfahter loves him. He is not exactly an over-achiever at school, so his parents send him to a boarding school that is more technical than the ordinary one. When he is afraid his grandfather might die, he starts working hard and determined.

I have volunteered in school for a long time and I have seen children like Gregory, children that didn't hope to get anywhere in life, children whose parents were so busy with themselves that the only thing they recognized in their chidlren were their grades. So, the children lost hope and interest because bad grades would be the only thing that would get some sort of recognition.

Even though the story is not entireIy unhappy, I am sorry for all the Gregory's in the world. Anna Gavalda has depicted their lives and problems very well in this short story.

I read this in the original French version.

From the back cover:

"Gregory has never liked school. And now that he's in sixth grade, life has only gotten worse. He's been held back twice and expelled once. His parents think he should go to boarding school, but his only happy moments have been found in his grandfather's cluttered shed, among the tools he uses to build his inventions. Grandfather has been his only supporter, but now even he is urging Gregory to take control of his life. Gregory has to wonder if a fresh start - in school and in life - might not be such a terrible idea after all. This fresh, funny, direct story will resonate with every reader who has ever felt like a square peg in a round hole. "

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Top 10 Most Read Books in the World

I love lists. Not just about books. But especially about books. So, I was quite interested in this list that I saw recently: 

* Millions of Copies sold (past 50 years)

The Holy Bible - 3,900*
Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung - 820
Rowling, J. K. "Harry Potter" - 400
Tolkien, J.R.R. "The Lord of the Rings" - 103
Coelho, Paulo "The Alchemist" - 65
Brown, Dan "The Da Vinci Code" - 57
Meyer, Stephenie "The Twilight Saga?" - 43
Mitchell, Margaret "Gone With The Wind" - 33
Hill, Napoleon "Think and Grow Rich" - 30
Frank, Anne "The Diary of Anne Frank" - 27
(Based on number of books printed and sold over the last 50 years. Some titles may have had more copies printed than some of these books, but a vast number of these books were not sold, so we'll assume that they did not get read.)

What does this list tell us? Certainly not the most popular books everyone should or would want to read. I doubt that most of those books have been read by the people who bought it. After "The Lord of the Rings" films were made, sales of the books rose and rose. I know at least a dozen people who bought a copy but never even opened the book, others who started reading but then lost interest after the usual 50 pages. The Bible, almost any Christian family has at least one in the house, and I'm sure the majority of them never read the whole book. Then there are those (like me) who have more bibles in the house than family members .... I bet that is the same with Chairman Mao Tse-Tung's Quotations, better known as "The Little Red Book". I'm surprised the Quran isn't among that list. I had never even heard of "Think and Grow Rich" but I can imagine it has a similar fate as the Bible, people buy it and hope that they will get rich by having the book in the house.

As to the other novels, I am sure some of them have been read by the majority of buyers, some are pretty new and will probably disappear in a similar list in about a decade, others seem to have withstood the test of time. The fact that Anne Frank is still on this list, even if it's "only" the last place, gives me hope for mankind.

I myself have read seven of those books, only one of the Harry Potter series though but it doesn't specify whether this is the sale of all the books in the series or just the first one. And that brings us to another question, did the series do so well because every reader bought seven (or four or three) of them?

As I said earlier, I love lists. I know they are not perfect but they usually give us something to think about. And as to a book list, if it recommends just one good book to us, it has fulfilled its task, in my humble opinion.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Elderkin, Susan "Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains"

Elderkin, Susan "Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains" – 2000

I had to start this twice, the first time I didn't get very far and was totally bored. For some reason, I picked it up a couple of years later and started reading. Alright, this is not the best book I ever read but it was quite interesting. Theobald Moon, an elderly English guy, lives in Arizona and raises a small girl. Life is what it is, nothing ever happens. Until a couple from Slovakia turns up in an ice cream van.

The novel has been described as "innovative". That certainly is true. The author has a weird way of describing life and its meaning. It is not a cheerful story but I am glad I read it in the end.

From the back cover:

"Susan Elderkin's brilliant Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains explores our places in the lives of our loved ones and in the universe. Theobald Moon lives in a lonely corner of the Arizona desert, tending his spectacular cactus garden, his tiny mobile home, and his astounding appetite. He has fled a stifled, cardigan-and-tea-cozy life in south London for this unfamiliar country and is raising Josephine, who has known no other life than their cheerful yet isolated American one. But when a jangling ice-cream truck finds its way into the desert carrying two ill-fated lovers--a pregnant Slovakian shoemaker and a mysterious ice-cream man--it throws Theo's and Josie's careful lives into a chaotic state for which they're totally unprepared. Fantastic upheaval ensues, as well as an inspired redemption. Innovative and accessible, funny and profound, Elderkin's 'beautiful, touching story' (Bookseller) explores love and responsibility, and the joys and fears such emotions inspire. It is a rare and tantalizing first novel."

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Kleist, Heinrich von "The Marquise of O-"

Kleist, Heinrich von "The Marquise of O-" (German: Die Marquise von O....) - 1808

Heinrich von Kleist. He is a contempory of Jane Austen, although I am sure they never met. Even if they hadn't been living in different countries, their circumstances were very different. Von Kleist was more a "high society" guy.

So, his dramas are about nobility, the marquise being the daughter of a colonel and, after being widowed, courted by a count. She finds herself pregnant and that is the big problem of the story.

Quite an interesting story, not very long but there is so much in this, society and the restraints it puts on everyone, especially women.

I quite enjoyed this novella, even though I prefer books to have more than 500 pages, at least.

From the back cover:

"An ingenious 'whodunit' and one of the greatest works of German literature, The Marquise of O- subverts the 18th-century notion of the infallibility of man and reveals the true ambiguity and caprice of humanity. Held captive by a band of unspeakable ruffians, the Marquise of O- is rescued before they can subject her to a fate worse than death. So how can it be that, some months later, she finds herself pregnant? Believing herself fully innocent, although failing to convince her prudish family of her honor, she places an advertisement asking the perpetrator to identify himself. Heinrich von Kleist is the first of the great dramatists of 19th-century German literature."

I also read the play "The Prince of Homburg" (Prinz Friedrich von Hombug) .

Monday 7 May 2012

Titchmarsh, Alan "Only Dad"

Titchmarsh, Alan "Only Dad"- 2001

If you are looking for a nice holiday read - and if you like Alan Titchmarsh, this is the book for you. A family goes on holidays, father, mother, daughter, they embark on a couple of weeks in Tuscany. But, as usual in these kind of novels, something happens and the situation changes.

Not a big drama, not a lot of "change the world" parts, just a nice read.

I hadn't even thought about opening a thread on this because I didn't think there was that much to discuss about a book like this. But then somebody else here had read it during her holiday and really liked it. I am sure there will be a few more who do.

From the back cover:

"According to their friends, Tom and Pippa Drummond have the perfect existence - a great lifestyle, a lively marriage, and a great kid in Tally. In their late thirties, living in a converted barn on the edge of the Sussex Downs, Tom is a partner in 'The Pelican', a restaurant in Axbury Minster, and Pippa, after a short career as a cook, grows herbs for sale locally and brings up sixteen-year-old Tally - a lively blonde with her head screwed firmly on to her shoulders. A rare summer holiday is planned - an idyllic retreat in the Italian hills. Tom takes time off from the restaurant, Pippa leaves her herbs in the charge of a dotty neighbour, and Tally takes a break from the two men in her life - fast-living Alex and the plodding, persevering 'Blip'. Tuscany is everything they hoped it would be - cicadas in the trees, the scent of sage and citrus and suppers under the stars. But their joy is short lived. Overnight their lives, their circumstances, their very identities are suddenly altered, and life will never be the same again. From being the envy of their friends, the Drummonds are plunged into a world that nobody would wish upon them."

Thursday 3 May 2012

Drinkwater, Carol "The Olive Series"

Drinkwater, Carol "The Olive Series" - 2001-2010

The Olive Farm: A Memoir of Life, Love and Olive Oil in the South of France - 2001
The Olive Season: Amour, a New Life and Olives Too - 2003
The Olive Harvest: A Memoir of Love, Life and Olives in the South of France - 2004
The Illustrated Olive Farm - 2005
The Olive Route: A Personal Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean - 2007
The Olive Tree: A Personal Journey Through Mediterranean Olive Groves - 2008
Return To the Olive Farm - 2010

I have only read the first two of the series but I really liked it. I might have happened upon the first one because the author looked familiar. Yes, she is Helen Herriot, James Herriot's wife in the television series "All Creatures Great and Small". She has a busy life as an actress but that did not seem enough. She married Michel, a French TV producer and together they bought an olive farm in the Provence. A lot of North Europeans have done this before and written about it, I particularly liked Chris Stewart's story "Driving over Lemons" but was not so much taken with Helen Stevenson's "Instruction for Vistors" or Frances Mayes' "Under the Tuscan Sun".

This, however, is a beautiful story where Carol Drinkwater talks about her love to her husband and their love to the olive farm, the work such an adventure encounters and the benefits. She has a wonderful way of describing both the landscape and its people as well as the activities going on. I'm not surprised she has published seven books in the series in the meantime. Reading her book seems like a holiday in the South of France. I loved it.

From the back cover:

"The first in Carol Drinkwater's bestselling series set on a Provencal olive farm.
'All my life, I have dreamed of acquiring a crumbling, shabby-chic house overlooking the sea. In my mind's eye, I have pictured a corner of paradise where friends can gather to swim, relax, debate, eat fresh fruits picked directly from the garden and great steaming plates of food served from an al fresco kitchen and dished up on to a candlelit table the length of a railway sleeper...'

When Carol Drinkwater and her partner Michel have the opportunity to buy 10 acres of disused olive farm in Provence, the idea seems absurd. After all, they don't have a lot of money, and they've only been together a little while.
THE OLIVE FARM is the story of the highs and lows of purchasing the farm and life in Provence: the local customs and cuisine; the threats of fire and adoption of a menagerie of animals; the potential financial ruin and the thrill of harvesting their own olives - especially when they are discovered to produce the finest extra-virgin olive oil..."

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Schami, Rafik "The Calligrapher’s Secret"

Schami, Rafik "The Calligrapher’s Secret" (German: Das Geheimnis des Kalligraphen) - 2008

Our latest novel was written by the Syrian author Rafik Schami who moved to Germany when he was 25 and started writing in German a couple of years later. His original name is Suhail Fāḍil, his pseudonym means "Friend of Damascus" or "he who comes from Damascus".

Some of us had been reading the book in the original German, others in the translation into English. We think that might have influenced our attitude towards the book.

I loved it. There is a lot of history of calligraphy and that was highly interesting. The author liked to build anticipation by giving away a little beforehand which was not my cup of tea at the beginning but it worked out very well. Lots of details, you could vividly imagine the scenes.

However, even though the story was interesting and I loved reading it, the "annex" about the calligraphy and the history is my favourite part. (Unfortunately, this was completely missing in the English version!!!) The discussion whether the Arab language is God’s language and nothing can be added to it, quite a topic.

As to the English version, the German book cover reads: "Die bewegende Geschichte des Damaszener Kalligraphen Hamid Farsi, der den großen Traum einer Reform der arabischen Schrift verwirklichen will und nicht merkt, in welche Gefahr er sich begibt." (in English: "The moving story of the Damascene calligrapher Hamid Farsi, who wants to achieve the great dream of a reform of the Arabic script and does not realize the danger he risks.") However, the English book cover describes: "Even as a young man, Hamid Farsi is acclaimed as a master of the art of calligraphy. But as time goes by, he sees that weaknesses in the Arabic language and its script limit its uses in the modern world. In a secret society, he works out schemes for radical reform, never guessing what risks he is running. His beautiful wife, Noura, is ignorant of the great plans on her husband’s mind. She knows only his cold, avaricious side and so it is no wonder she feels flattered by the attentions of his amusing, lively young apprentice. And so begins a passionate love story of a Muslim woman and a Christian man." Quite a difference, don't you think?

The problem, as so often, may be the translation. While the German readers knew what was coming, the English readers were waiting for the passionate love story of a Muslim woman and a Christian man to start (which was in there but rather a side story).

But even in the English version, you could see the poetry, the beauty of the words. But it seemed more like a travel guide of Damascus, one story piled on top of each other, too many sub plots.

We believe the story to be a metaphor for the impossibility of a traditional Islamic society to live in this world. The author is using calligraphy to show the fundamentalism, to show that this will not work in the 20th century. Another author who does this beautifully is Orhan Pamuk who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. One of my favourite books by him is "My Name is Red". He has also written a very interesting autobiography which is an ode to his home town, as well: "Istanbul. Memories of a City". We suppose the Turkish have avoided this kind of problem with the language by introducing the Latin spelling.

Some quotes I really liked (I read the original, so had to translate the words myself, might not be the same as in the book):

"Gott hat die Gesichter erschaffen, damit wir sie sehen und erkennen. Das Herz macht fromm -, nicht der Schleier." (God created the faces so we can see and recognize them. The heart makes devout, not the veil.)

"Oft stand zur Tarnung über den erotischen Versen ein leicht lesbarer religiöser Spruch." (Often the erotic verses were camouflaged with an easily readable religious saying.)

"Die Erde ist eine Hölle für Wissende, das Fegefeuer für Halbwissende und das Paradies nur für die Unwissenden." (The earth is hell for the knowing, purgatory and paradise for those knowing half  and paradise only for the ignorant.)

We discussed this in our international book club in April 2012.

From the back cover:

"A new international bestseller from the award-winning author of The Dark Side of Love. Even as a young man, Hamid Farsi is acclaimed as a master of the art of calligraphy. But as time goes by, he sees that weaknesses in the Arabic language and its script limit its uses in the modern world. In a secret society, he works out schemes for radical reform, never guessing what risks he is running. His beautiful wife, Nura, is ignorant of her husbands ambitions, knowing only his cold, avaricious side. So its no wonder she feels flattered by the attentions of his young apprentice. And so begins a passionate love storythe love of a Muslim woman and a Christian man."

I read "Eine deutsche Leidenschafts names Nudelsalat: und andere seltsame Geschichten"  [A German passion called noodle salad: and other strange stories] (not translated into English) and
"Eine Hand voller Sterne" (A Hand Full of Stars) in the meantime and they were both great books.