Friday 29 June 2012

Akmakjian, Hiag "30,000 Mornings"

Akmakjian, Hiag "30,000 Mornings" - 1999

A weird novel about the fashion industry and the troubles it can bring. I think the description "Unconsciously reinforcing the maxim that the US is a salad bowl rather than a melting pot" says it all. There is some insight into the human psyche and relationships but overall this book wants to be more than it really is. It's not achick lit but it's not deep, either. I think I was drawn to this book more through the name of the author than anything else. I should have judged the book by its cover. Not really my thing.

From the back cover:

"Inge, a twentysomething Finnish model, has a photographer boyfriend with more than just an eye for art. Inge torments herself with imaginary kidnapping scenarios after her fellow Finn disappears, but visits to her shrink lead her to admit that her sense of loss may have another basis."

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Andrić, Ivo "The Bridge on the Drina"

Andrić, Ivo "The Bridge on the Drina" (Serbo-Croat: На Дрини Ћуприја or Na Drini Ćuprija) - 1945

This is the story of a bridge. From the day it was built in the 16th century up until a couple of hundred years later in the 20th.

It is amazing what such a building or the river below it goes through during the centuries. We people only live a very short time compared to anything around us. In the long run, the life of one person is nothing compared to history.

The author manages to describe this very well. The river runs smoothly, or sometimes not so smoothly, and so does the history of man. Leaders come and go, war rages, natural catastrophes, the bridge still stands and watches over the lives of the people who cross the river.

Reading this makes you almost feel like being the bridge seeing the river flow below you.

But it also shows you a lot of the history of the Balkans that was always in the middle of the Western and Eastern Empires, the Occident and the Orient. As with most Eastern literature, there is quite a bit of poetry in the book, as well. You might want to concentrate on one part at the time. The book certainly brings you to a different part of this world.

Once you read it, you will understand why he was awarded the Nobel Prize for just writing one piece of fiction. It is a masterpiece.

From the back cover:
"In the small Bosnian town of Visegrad the stone bridge of the novel's title, built in the sixteenth century on the instruction of a grand vezir, bears witness to three centuries of conflict. Visegrad has long been a bone of contention between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but the bridge survives unscathed until 1914, when the collision of forces in the Balkans triggers the outbreak of World War I.

The bridge spans generations, nationalities and creeds, silent testament to the lives played out on it. Radisav, a workman, tried to hinder its construction and is impaled alive on its highest point; beautiful Fata leaps from its parapet to escape an arranged marriage; Milan, inveterate gamble, risks all in one last game on it. With humour and compassion, Andric chronicles the lives of Catholics, Moslem's and Orthodox Christians unable to reconcile their disparate loyalties.

Ivo Andrić received received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 "for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country".

I contribute to this page: Read the Nobels and you can find all my blogs about Nobel Prize winning authors and their books here.

Friday 22 June 2012

Never judge a book by its cover?

They say "Never judge a book by its cover". That might ring true metaphorically in a lot of situations but, literally, it does not. Of course, I judge a book by its cover. And in 99% of the cases, the result speaks for itself. I've never seen a pink book that isn't a chick lit, for instance. Or, another example, a lot of crime stories are black. The thing is, that's what the publishers want us to do, they want us to judge the books by their covers, they want us to think that this book appeals to us, they want us to buy it. Why else would they choose certain colours, certain images? The design changes throughout the years. Why? Why not keep the original cover, even if it is a couple of hundred years old? Because it wouldn't sell as well. And why change the cover as soon as a movie is out? Because people remember the movie and want to buy the book.

We can actually use this to our advantage. If you don't like chick lits (sorry, but it is just such a great example), stay away from pink and purple. Easy as that. The colour of a cover often says more about the book than those magazine blurbs, e.g. ABC newspaper says "Fantastic book!" or XYZ critic "Best novel since ..." I don't even have an idea about the content there.

Both the colour and the jacket design tell us a lot about the book, about the reader it is looking for. We can guess the genre, the style, even the story. That doesn't mean it isn't misleading sometimes, but generally, it is a good help. Recommendations from friends or other helpful readers, articles about a book, reviews on your favourite internet pages, they all contribute to getting a good selection of literature appropriate for the individual but if you're on your own when you come across something new, which is your favourite colour?

So, go ahead, judge books by their covers! Pick the ones that appeal to you most. The most important part is, that you read those you might like most. After all, you are reading the novel, not the cover.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Binchy, Maeve "Tara Road"

Binchy, Maeve "Tara Road" - 1998

I found this book for a pound in a bargain bookshop when I first started reading English books. Somehow it was always moved to the bottom of my pile of books. Then I moved on to a little more challenging books and "Tara Road" looked less and less appealing. A friend told me this was a great book and I should read it, she wanted to lend me the book. I told her I had it at home and then I had no choice but to start it. What do you think? I liked it. It's one of those "easy read" books but it's different. It leaves a story behind that I still remember years after reading this. Something I can't say about most of those similar reads.

Two women switch houses, both of them want to run away from a problem, of course, they are the sort of problem you can't really run away from, so the problem follows them to their respective resort. Nice easy read, even if that's not what you're looking for.

From the back cover:

"Ria Lynch and Marilyn Vine have never met. Their lives have almost nothing in common. Ria lives in a big ramshackle house in Tara Road, Dublin, which is filled day and night with the family and friends on whom she depends. Marilyn lives in a college town in Connecticut, New England, absorbed in her career, an independent and private woman who is very much her own person.

Two more unlikely friends would be hard to find. Yet a chance phone call brings them together and they decide to exchange homes for the summer. Ria goes to America in the hope that the change will give her space and courage to sort out the huge crisis in her life that is threatening to destroy her. Marilyn goes to Ireland to recover in peace and quiet from the tragedy which she keeps secret from the world, little realising that
Tara Road will prove to be the least quiet place on earth.

They borrow each other's houses, and during the course of that magical summer they find themselves borrowing something of each other's lives, until a story which began with loss and suffering grows into a story of discovery, unexpected friendship and new hope. By the time Ria and Marilyn eventually meet, they find that they have altered the course of each other's lives for ever.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Conrad, Joseph "Heart of Darkness"

Conrad, Joseph "Heart of Darkness" - 1902

I found this book when reading Jane Smiley's "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel". It sounded interesting and I found it in the library the next time I went.

The author, a Polish novelist who wrote in English, wrote this story about an English captain who goes to Africa for an assignment. His ship is destroyed before he arrives and he is forced to travel into the dark continent. He conveys his thoughts about his experiences, his encounter with the inhabitants, both native and colonists.

Even though this is a novella, only 110 pages, so not very long, there is a lot of information crammed into the story, there is no way you can skip even one sentence and you will have lost the plot. He has a special kind of writing style, probably due to the fact that English is not his mother tongue and he still keeps the flow of his native language, as we probably all do somehow.

In any case, he gives us an interesting insight into colonisation, the impact it had on the people in Africa and also on the Europeans who went there. It is a highly interesting study about a part of history that still influences our lives today.

My favourite quote: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea - something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to ..."

From the back cover:

"In a novella which remains highly controversial to this day, Conrad explores the relations between Africa and Europe. On the surface, this is a horrifying tale of colonial exploitation. The narrator, Marlowe journeys on business deep into the heart of Africa. But there he encounters Kurtz, an idealist apparently crazed and depraved by his power over the natives, and the meeting prompts Marlowe to reflect on the darkness at the heart of all men. This short but complex and often ambiguous story, which has been the basis of several films and plays, continues to provoke interpretation and discussion.
Heart of Darkness grew out of a journey Joseph Conrad took up the Congo River; the verisimilitude that the great novelist thereby brought to his most famous tale everywhere enhances its dense and shattering power.

Apparently a sailor’s yarn, it is in fact a grim parody of the adventure story, in which the narrator, Marlow, travels deep into the heart of the Congo where he encounters the crazed idealist Kurtz and discovers that the relative values of the civilized and the primitive are not what they seem.
Heart of Darkness is a model of economic storytelling, an indictment of the inner and outer turmoil caused by the European imperial misadventure, and a piercing account of the fragility of the human soul."

Friday 15 June 2012

Novels and their link to reality

I love reading historical novels, or novels based on real life. The downside of it? I more or less know what is going to happen. You come towards a date where you know a war will start or something else will take place and you keep begging, quietly, oh, please, don't let the war start, don't let anything happen to that wonderful person, community, building, place ... Or you can't wait for that date to happen because that is going to be the end of the war and the end of the suffering for our heroes. The thing is, that is great writing, making you still want to go on and find out what exactly happens to that particular character the author invented. You know they are invented but they come alive because they are written so beautifully.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Kent, Christobel "A Party in San Niccolò"

Kent, Christobel “A Party in San Niccolò” - 2003

An English "colony" in Italy. A party is celebrated. Not my usual kind of literarute. But something spoke to me when I chose this book. And I was not disappointed. The author is a good writer, she describes people and country beautifully. The plot was alright though a little overdone at times. Still, if you are looking for a nice litle read, this book is worth it.

Book Description:

"An entrancing story that is one of the most absorbing examinations of the English in Italy since A Room With A View. Set during one week in springtime Florence, A Party In San Niccolo follows the events leading up to the seventy-fifth birthday party for Frances Richardson, a much-loved English resident. Around her, Frances' friends are gearing up for the party too: Frank, a disenchanted journalist; Jane, who runs an Italian cookery school for rich Home Counties wives; her shady husband Niccolo; and Gina, a beleaguered mother-of-three who has come to Florence for a break. Before the week is out love, death, family secrets and old memories will come to a head at Frances' party, with dramatic results..."

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Plenzdorf, Ulrich "The New Sufferings of Young W."

Plenzdorf, Ulrich "The New Sufferings of Young W." (German: Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.) - 1972

Any German who visited school after 1972 will have read this book as well as Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther" (which probably will have been read by any German visting school after 1774).

Same as the original "Sorrows", the "New Sufferings" spoke to the people. Ulrich Plenzdorf grew up in the German Democratic Republic. His play is not a nostalgic memoir of one of the greatest stories ever written in the German language, it is a criticism of society.

We hear about  a young man reading Goethe's masterpiece and finding a lot of similarities to his own life. The author uses the slang the youth language of the time which contributes to the familiar feeling you get when reading about this young man and his problems.

The play was an instant success in both parts of Germany and certainly belongs to the major works by German authors.

From the back cover:

"One of the most talked-about works ever published in the German Democratic Republic! This innovative novel by an East German writer is a worthy companion to the classic it parodies and parallels: Goethe's The Sufferings of Young Werther. Goethe and J. D. Salinger were the two greatest influences on Edgar Wibeau, 'Young W.' Edgar is a 17-year-old with the frustrations of teenagers all over the world, living with the added pressures of an East-bloc state. A model all-GDR boy, the son of a factory director, he suddenly drops out. But not from socialism per se--just from conformity, picky regulations, and official disapproval of jeans, the blues, and girls. Hiding out, he finds and devours an old copy of The Sufferings of Young Werther. From then on he wards off reality with Goethe texts, and young Wibeau's fate is superimposed on that of Werther like a transparent overlay. It is an ironic and revealing linkage."

Friday 8 June 2012

A Reader's Little Joys

One of the joys can just be the arrival of a new book. I tend to buy used copies, when and where available. Not only are they cheaper, they often have a history. And I love recycling.

The other day, one of those little gems arrived on my doorstep. The seller had mentioned that the book was "used, as new". That's not necessarily a guarantee, "as new" can mean a lot of things to different people but usually, it's pretty accurate. Alright, sometimes they don't really look "as new" any more but that's a small price to pay for having the books available that I really would like to read. Well, this one did. Looked as new. Even smelled as new. But the greatest thing of all, it had a little surprise waiting for me. When I opened the cover page, I noticed that the copy had been signed by the author.

Unfortunately, I am not able to go to many readings, so I don't get to talk to many authors personally and can't ask them for their autographs. I have a few but not many. So, this was really nice, especially since that wasn't mentioned at all.

Oh bliss, we can be delighted so easily.

Otto, Whitney "How to make an American Quilt"

Otto, Whitney "How to Make an American Quilt" - 1991

This is one of the few books I read after watching the movie. Can you tell that I loved the movie? It is full of wonderful women, one character cast better than the next. They all have a story to tell, and they tell their story to Finn who is the granddaughter of one of the quilt ladies and is about to get married. I expected the book to be just as good.

And it was. Whether this is due to the fact that I had the most vivid images in front of me already and have to thank the director of the movie more than the author of the book, I will never know. I just know that I will love this story forever.

From the back cover:

"An extraordinay and moving reading experience, HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT is an exploration of women of yesterday and today, who join together in a uniquely female experience. As they gather year after year, their stories, their wisdom, their lives, form the pattern from which all of us draw warmth and comfort for ourselves."

Monday 4 June 2012

Dohaney, M.T. "The Corrigan Women"

Dohaney, M.T. "The Corrigan Women: - 1986

A Canadian friend recommended this book to me. A portrayal of life in Newfoundland at the beginning of the last century, well, at the beginning of the First World War. The story of a girl who works as a household helper, who is not treated well by the family she works for. The story of a family during and after a war, of a soldier who is never the same again, of a daughter, who repeats the history of her mother.

And within this turmoil, M.T. Dohaney manages to describe the beauty and ruggedness of that part of Canada, makes you believe you've been there, includes a little bit of history but, best of all, gives you an insight why people survive even the harshest conditions.

From the back cover:

"M.T. Dohaney has been described as Newfoundland’s answer to Frank McCourt. Her first novel, The Corrigan Women, a richly textured portrayal of outport life, is a contemporary classic. Long out-of-print, this first novel in the trilogy that ends with the critically acclaimed A Fit Month for Dying, is now available once again. This intense family drama opens in pre-Confederation Newfoundland, on the eve of the First World War. Fifteen-year-old Bertha Ryan leaves home to work as the hired girl in the troubled Corrigan household in a larger village, called the Cove. There, she is browbeaten by her employer and raped by the deranged son. Pregnant and terrified, Bertha marries her assailant’s brother, with whom she is in love. But the war intervenes, and when her husband returns, he is shell-shocked and nothing is the same. Bertha’s daughter Carmel fares no better. During the Second World War, she marries a charming, handsome American soldier stationed at the nearby base and later she discovers that he is already married. The weight of the accumulated shame eventually falls upon Carmel’s daughter Tessie, who reaches adulthood caught in the crossfire between the ways of the Cove and the world beyond Newfoundland. With characteristic wit and compassion, Dohaney depicts a trio of resilient women who face life with dignity, courage and irrepressible humour. When The Corrigan Women first appeared in 1988, readers kept asking M.T. Dohaney, “Well, what happened? Did Bertha keep visiting the grave?” Dohaney would reply, “I don’t know. The Corrigan Women is fiction.” “But she must have told you.” “No, Bertha is fictional, and that was 1918, long before my time.” And so it went, until the immediacy of The Corrigan Women and the characters that would not stay on the page drove Dohaney to write two more Corrigan Women novels in this highly acclaimed now popular trilogy."

I also read the second part of the story "To Scatter Stones" which I quite liked and the third "A Fit Month for Dying" which I didn't.

Dohaney, M.T. "To Scatter Stones"

Dohaney, M.T. "To Scatter Stones" - 1992

"To Scatter Stones" picks up where "The Corrigan Women" left us. A daughter returns home after her divorce and gets busy in her little village. Again, many obstacles are in her way that are just as difficult in the second half of the century than they were in the first one. However, M.T. Dohaney manages to describe them just as well and the spirit of the Corrigan women has not left. It is still there and will be there in any of their descendants, no matter what the problems will be.

From the back cover:

"Described as Newfoundland's answer to Frank McCourt, M.T. Dohaney's To Scatter Stones is available once again. Long out of print, the highly anticipated To Scatter Stones was first published in 1992, the second novel in Dohaney's celebrated Corrigan Women trilogy. Now it's available to readers once again. In this novel, Tess Corrigan, newly divorced, has moved from Montreal to St. John's as manager of a travel agency. On a visit to her birthplace, a tiny outport called the Cove, she agrees to stand as the Liberal candidate in the forthcoming provincial election. Little by little, she becomes wrapped up in the lives of her childhood friends and neighbours. But the return to her roots is also difficult. The last of the Corrigan women, Tess is the daughter of Carmel and an American soldier, who turns out to be a bigamist. In addition to the uncomfortable echoes from her past, Tess's politics stir up conflict in the traditionally Tory village. Not only does she face discouraging odds and hard ethical choices, but she is the first 'petticoat candidate' ever to run for office in the Cove. On top of these external crises, Tess must deal with her own conflicting emotions and the love of youth, Dennis Walsh, now a priest, who reappears in the Cove. To Scatter Stones spans from the 1960s into the 1990s, marking not only the life changes of the last of the Corrigan women, but the radical changes as Newfoundland moved from paternalism and an economy based on the fishery to a more equitable political ideal. With wit and insight, M.T. Dohaney carries the story of the Corrigan women into the final decades of the 20th century.

When I heard there is a third novel "A Fit Month for Dying", I read that one as well but was hugely disappointed.

Friday 1 June 2012

Atwood, Margaret "The Handmaid's Tale"

Atwood, Margaret "The Handmaid's Tale" - 1985

The Handmaid's Tale. A young lady called Offred tells us the story of Gilead, a country in the future, situated in a part of the present United States of America. Some catastrophes must have led to the state they are in, certainly some ecological disaster but also a revolution that caused the situation the people find themselves in, in a way they have a dictatorship in Mosaic times, the fertile young girls are sent to an older man whose wife can't have children, like Hagar who was the handmaid who was brought to Sarah's husband Abraham in order to bear him children. A lot of the parts of their lives are named after biblical characters or events.

We never get to know the name of the narrator, she just doesn't wish anyone to know it so she can believe there is another life, another place to go back to after all the horror in her life is over. I was wondering about the weird name the author gave to our protagonist until I came across the next ladies who all had a similar one. Offred = Of Fred. Sounds like a dream for guys that all the women carry their name, as if they were their possession ......

I don't even remember what I thought this book would be about, I certainly didn't think it might be a dystopian novel. I love those kind of stories better than the utopian ones, I cannot believe in a glorious future where everyone is peaceful and nobody has to suffer. Those stories that tell us about worlds gone wrong seem much more realistic.

The breeding part reminded me of Hitler's maternity institutions "Lebensborn" where he wanted to breed "pure" Aryans. Here, they just want to breed human creatures which seems to have become a problem. They also know what to do with people who do not comply or are otherwise useless. Their concentration camps are called "colonies" and people are sent there to work in contaminated regions where they will slowly, but very surely, die.

The biblical part reminded me more about what is going on in the United States now, interesting how Margaret Atwood could foresee that almost thirty years ago. Every law, every rule, everything has to confirm to the bible, anything that doesn't is evil. I can very well imagine that in the event of a major catastrophe, these kind of people will try to take over and a dictatorship not much unlike the one described could develop from this.

What I also really liked about the novel, even though it might be tempting and Offred does dream of a better world, she does not have any unrealistic hopes that this will ever happen. Nothing written with rose-tinted glasses.

Yes, a wonderful story, well told, changing between past and present, an interesting, nor foreseeable conclusion at the end, I loved the style. I loved the story. I will definitely read more by Margaret Atwood.

My favourite quote: "Maybe I'm crazy and this is some new kind of therapy. I wish it were true, then I could get better and this would go away."

I re-read this novel with our international book club in 2018. See my new review here.

From the back cover:

"The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.
Brilliantly conceived and executed, this powerful evocation of twenty-first-century America gives full rein to Margaret Atwood's devastating irony, wit and astute perception.

Margaret Atwood was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for "The Handmaid's Tale" in 1986.

Margaret Atwood received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) in 2017.