Saturday 29 September 2012

Rasputin, Valentin "Farewell to Matyora"

Rasputin, Valentin (Распутин, Валентин Григорьевич) "Farewell to Matyora" (Russian: Прощание с Матёрой/Proschanie s Materoj) - 1976

A wonderful account of what development and progression can do to people. Matyora is a village in Siberia, a village like there are millions in this world. The people have lived there all their lives and everybody knows anyone, life goes on like it has hundreds of years ago, here and there we find new additions that make life easier, machines are introduced but for the ordinary people, life goes on as it always has. People get married, have children and die.

This is what most people in Matyora are looking at, this is there life. Or, in this case, it has been. The government decides to build a dam and float the whole area. The inhabitants of the village are to be relocated to other places nearby. While the younger generation welcomes the opportunity to get out of their destiny, the older members struggle, their whole world falls to pieces. Both parties portray what we all know, we have to make sacrifices for progress but how much is too much?

From the back cover:

"A fine example of Village Prose from the post-Stalin era, Farewell to Matyora decries the loss of the Russian peasant culture to the impersonal, soulless march of progress.

It is the final summer of the peasant village of Matyora. A dam will be completed in the fall, destroying the village. Although their departure is inevitable, the characters over when, and even whether, they should leave. A haunting story with a heartfelt theme,
Farewell to Matyora is a passionate plea for humanity and an eloquent cry for a return to an organic life."

I have also read "To Live and Remember" by this great author.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Spyri, Johanna "Heidi"

Spyri, Johanna "Heidi" (German: "Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre" and "Heidi kann brauchen, was es gelernt hat") - 1880-1881

I think everyone remembers their first books. In my case, it was "Heidi". We didn't have that many books at the time, I had to spend a week in hospital when I turned seven, I got my appendix out. I don't remember any of the other presents I received but I clearly remember "Heidi". The very first book I owned. I still have the copy today and it looks pretty well read.

Heidi was everything I wasn't. She lived in the mountains, I lived in Northern Germany where the highest elevation was probably just a little over 100 meters. She loved the outdoors, I loved sitting inside reading my books. She was an orphan, I had my parents and three brothers and hundreds of cousins (well, "only" fifty, but who's counting).

Still, I loved Heidi, maybe because she was so different from me. We all have to have our fictional heroes, Heidi was mine. If I had had a daughter, I might have been able to transfer my love for this book to her but my two boys were not too keen. (I suppose that weird Japanese cartoon series didn't help, either.)

I recently asked my friends what their favourite childhood book was and "Heidi" was the most popular answer.

In any case, give this to your children, it's like time travelling for them, to a country that existed a long long time ago.

From the back cover:

"A classic tale of childhood joys and friendships, it has delighted and inspired generations of children."

Orphaned Heidi lives with her gruff but caring grandfather on the side of Swiss mountain, where she befriends young Peter the goat-herd. She leads an idyllic life, until she is forced to leave the mountain she has always known to go and live with a sickly girl in the city. Will Heidi ever see her grandfather again?"

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Sedaris, David "Me Talk Pretty One Day"

Sedaris, David "Me Talk Pretty One Day" - 2000

A story about the author's childhood. He is trying to tell it in a funny way and somehow he manages. But only somehow.

I was expecting this to be ironic which I would have liked. But it wasn't. This book was just the complete opposite of what I expected it to be. It was childish, that's probably the best description I can come up with if I don't want to get too insulting. The author didn't come across as a very likeable person, either. I just did not care for him or his life or anything he wrote down. At all.

I have no idea who awarded him the prizes for humour or what kind of humour they are talking about.

Will I read another book by David Sedaris? I doubt it!

From the back cover:

"A delightful comedy of atypical life stories that only David Sedaris can describe in such humorous detail.

David Sedaris' move to Paris from New York inspired these hilarious pieces, including the title essay, about his attempts to learn French from a sadistic teacher who declares that every day spent with you is like having a caesarean section. His family is another inspiration. You Can't Kill the Rooster is a portrait of his brother, who talks incessant hip-hop slang to his bewildered father. And no one hones a finer fury in response to such modern annoyances as restaurant meals presented in ludicrous towers of food and cashiers with six-inch fingernails.

Friday 21 September 2012

The Top 10 Most Difficult Books

Publisher's Weekly, a magazine especially for the book world, recently published this list of "the hardest and most frustrating books ever written":

Barnes, Djuna "Nightwood" - 1936
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich "The Phenomenology of the Spirit" (Phänomenologie des Geistes) - 1807
Heidegger, Martin "Being & Time" (Sein und Zeit) - 1927
Joyce, James "Finnegans Wake" - 1939
McElroy, Joseph "Women & Men" - 1987
Richardson, Samuel "Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady" - 1748
Spenser, Edmund "The Faerie Queene" - 1590
Stein, Gertrude "The Making of Americans" - 1902-11
Swift, Jonathan "A Tale of A Tub" - 1633
Woolf, Virginia "To The Lighthouse" - 1927

 So, far I have only read one of those books, "To the Lighthouse" which was considered very difficult by everyone in our book club. I love reading challenging literature, be it fiction or non-fiction. Would I like to read all of those listed? Probably. Will I managed to read them all in the near future? Probably not, especially when I am looking at my every increasing TBR pile. Still, I will copy the list to my calendar and look out for those books whenever I hit the next bookshop and/or library.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Tsypkin, Leonid "Summer in Baden-Baden"

Tsypkin, Leonid Borissowitsch (Леонид Борисович Цыпкин) "Summer in Baden-Baden" (Russian: Ljubit Dostojewskowo - лджубит достоджэвсково) - 1981

Have you ever read a book that consists of just one sentence? Well, neither have I but if you want that feeling, you better start reading this one. A biographical novel about Dostoevsky's travels in Germany with this wife. An interesting perspective, especially if you  have read Dostoevsky's works. This novel reminded me a lot of "The Gambler" since this seems to be the part where Dostoevsky found his story.

The book is not very large but not that easy to read. Sentences sometimes spread over several pages. A thought that starts on one page might be broken up and lead to several other points until taken up again a couple of pages later.

It still is a very interesting book to read, it's amazing when you consider that the author never left his home country, never walked the walks in Baden-Baden like his hero, and still is able to describe them as if he had lived there all his life.

It's a different sort of reading but very well worth it.

From the back cover:

"A complex, highly original novel, Summer in Baden-Baden has a double narrative. It is wintertime, late December: a species of 'now.' A narrator - Tsypkinis on a train going to Leningrad. And it is also mid-April 1867. The newly married Dostoevskys, Fyodor, and his wife, Anna Grigor'yevna, are on their way to Germany, for a four-year trip. This is not, like J. M. Coetzee's The Master of St. Petersburg, a Dostoevsky fantasy. Neither is it a docu-novel, although its author was obsessed with getting everything 'right.' Nothing is invented, everything is invented. Dostoevsky's reckless passions for gambling, for his literary vocation, for his wife, are matched by her all-forgiving love, which in turn resonates with the love of literature's disciple, Leonid Tsypkin, for Dostoevsky. In a remarkable introductory essay (which appeared in The New Yorker), Susan Sontag explains why it is something of a miracle that Summer in Baden-Baden has survived, and celebrates the happy event of its publication in America with an account of Tsypkin's beleaguered life and the important pleasures of his marvelous novel."

Monday 17 September 2012

Juster, Norton "The Phantom Tollbooth"

Juster, Norton "The Phantom Tollbooth" - 1961

This children's novel was recommended by a good friend who has a similar taste in books.

I probably would have enjoyed it more if I had read it as I child, or with my children. Now, I feel it came at least 20 years too late.

Partly quite funny, and even though I'm usually more into words and enjoyed the games they play with the language, I liked the world of numbers best.

But on the whole, it is just too much, too overdone, too fantasy-like. Not my cup of tea.

From the back cover:

"When Milo finds an enormous package in his bedroom, he’s delighted to have something to relieve his boredom with school. And when he opens it to find – as the label states – One Genuine Turnpike Tollbooth, he gets right into his pedal car and sets off through the Tollbooth and away on a magical journey!

Milo’s extraordinary voyage takes him into such places as the Land of Expectation, the Doldrums, the Mountains of Ignorance and the Castle in the Air. He meets the weirdest and most unexpected characters (such as Tock, the watchdog, the Gelatinous Giant, and the Threadbare Excuse, who mumbles the same thing over and over again), and, once home, can hardly wait to try out the Tollbooth again. But will it be still there when he gets back from school?

Friday 14 September 2012

Reading - Travel Through Time and Space

Anne Tyler said "I read so I can live more than one life in more than one place". Exactly. I have neither the time nor the money - or the health - to travel through space and a time machine has not been invented (and will never be, if you ask me, but that's another subject).

But - I just open a book, and there I am. I can be in China in a minute, or in Australia, South America, any place in Europe, Africa, ... anywhere I want; I can be in the Victorian era by just turning a page. I can meet people I always wanted to meet, even if they have been dead for decades.

Oh, what a wonderful thing a book is. I can explore history, genealogy, geography, anything I want. I can dream of being Elizabeth Bennett despising Mr. Darcy, or Richard Burton travelling up the Nile, and if I read a book again, I can even try to convince the characters to make different choices, guide Lara and Dr. Zhivago to a different decision so they can all have a happy ending. Not that they would ever listen.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Hickman, Katie "Daughters of Britannia"

Hickman, Katie "Daughters of Britannia. The Lives and Times of Diplomatic Wives" - 1999

The story of many many wives of British diplomats, past and present, told by the daughter of one of them. Someone who grew up with this, someone who can give us a different perspective.

I am not a diplomat's wife but I know quite a few women who have followed their husband to foreign countries, myself included. And whether you move to a country far away or nearby, you are always the foreigner. I think in some respect, those who move with their country behind them might even have a slight advantage over those who are thrown into the deep water without a safety net.

Anyway, the book. A lot of details, an enormous amount of details, some of them highly interesting, others not so much, at least not for me, I don't care how large a diamond is that some lady wears, for example, it's enough to know that it's gigantic. But I loved to get to know the different wives, especially that the author introduced as Isabel Burton (Isabel Arundell), the wife of Richard Burton whom I got to know in "The Collector of Worlds" and "Nomad On Four Continents" (in German only). She was just as adventurous as he was. Then there are the different lists, like the ingredients of the typical household medicine cabinet in the 1800s. I love to see the difference to today, how far medicine has come since then.

All in all, if you have lived abroad or are just slightly interested in different worlds, different customs, this is a very interesting book.

Some of the quotes that touched me most because I have felt this often myself:
"It was then that I realised that the major problems arising from our nomadic life were going to affect me rather than him."

"I suppose, that different persons observe different things, and attribute to them a different degree of importance."

"'Women around fifty feel they have given up a lot in terms of a career of their own,' explains one Foreign Office counsellor. 'And then when they get to fifty they wonder where they are.'
It is not only jobs which are sacrificed. In diplomatic life a continuing sense of loss can permeate almost every aspect of life. 'You settle down for three or four years, you go off again, you settle again, you move again. Your children in general go away, when other parents in the UK are not experiencing that. You lose job opportunities; you lose friends; you lose identity, I think

From the back cover:

"In an absorbing mixture of poignant biography and wonderfully entertaining social history, Daughters of Britannia offers the story of diplomatic life as it has never been told before.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Vita Sackville-West, and Lady Diana Cooper are among the well-known wives of diplomats who represented Britain in the far-flung corners of the globe. Yet, despite serving such crucial roles, the vast majority of these women are entirely unknown to history.

Drawing on letters, private journals, and memoirs, as well as contemporary oral history, Katie Hickman explores not only the public pomp and glamour of diplomatic life but also the most intimate, private face of this most fascinating and mysterious world.

Touching on the lives of nearly 100 diplomatic wives (as well as sisters and daughters),
Daughters of Britannia is a brilliant and compelling account of more than three centuries of British diplomacy as seen through the eyes of some of its most intrepid but least heralded participants."

Monday 10 September 2012

Berry, Venise "Colored Sugar Water"

Berry, Venise "Colored Sugar Water: A Spiritual Tale" - 2003

Spiritual, yes, bordering on magic realism. Two women who are not happy with their life, a guy who is happy with anything and everything, who lives from one day to the next. We accompany them on their quest to spirituality, to their own self. We learn about dreams and what they could mean, symbols and their effect on us. They try a lot of different approaches, even voodoo and fortune-telling. It seems like a battle between some folk religions against Christianity.

On the whole, what could have been a good approach to multi-cultural understanding, this  is more a chick lit, something people would take to the beach when they don't want to think much. Not a book for me.

From the back cover:

"Lucinda Marie Merriweather believes in everything from fortune telling and hoodoo to God’s grace and the power of prayer. Dissatisfied with her current relationship, she decides to invite a sexy phone psychic named Kuba into her life. Self-assured and sensitive, he seems to be everything Lucy’s looking for. Or is he?

At least Lucy’s not alone in her search for fulfillment. She has her best friend, Adel Kelly, and Adel’s in need of balance herself, caught as she is between a job at a company that values profits over people and a husband who refuses to grow up. It’s about time for a change. It’s about time Lucy and Adel find something in life to hold on to, and believe in - like faith, love, and their own unique spiritual gifts.

Friday 7 September 2012

Introduction to a classic novel - To read or not to read?

When reading a classic novel I haven't read before, I have given up reading the introduction at the beginning of the book. Not because they are badly written but because they spoil everything. Even after reading just a couple of pages, you can forget about reading the book, you get to know who dies, who marries whom and why certain characters have done a certain deed. If I wanted a short version of the book, I could probably find that online. And if they want to give me a short version of the book in the book, they should call it that.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Hartnett, Sonya "Thursday’s Child"

Hartnett, Sonya "Thursday’s Child" - 2002

A book about the Great Depression in Australia, a novel about a family who struggles like any other family during the time, a story about a boy who is different, who is born on a Thursday and, therefore, according to the famous nursery rhyme "has far to go". This story borders on Magic Realism.

An interesting story, supposedly for young adults but I think, any grown-up will enjoy, too.

The book is well written, interesting storyline, you grow to like the characters and fear with and for them.

From the back cover:

"Harper Flute believes that her younger brother Tin, with his uncanny ability to dig, was born to burrow. While their family struggles to survive in a bleak landscape during the Great Depression, the silent and elusive little Tin - 'born on a Thursday and so fated to his wanderings' - begins to escape underground, tunneling beneath their tiny shanty. As time passes, Tin becomes a wild thing, leaving his family further and further behind.

With exquisite prose, richly drawn characters, and a touch of magical realism, Sonya Hartnett tells a breathtakingly original coming-of-age story through the clear eyes of an observant child. It’s an unsentimental portrait of a loving family faced with poverty and heartbreak, entwined with a surreal vision of the enigmatic Tin, disappearing into a mysterious labyrinth that reaches unimaginably far, yet remains hauntingly near.

Monday 3 September 2012

Grass, Günter "Crabwalk"

Grass, Günter "Crabwalk" (German: Im Krebsgang) - 2002

This book had been my suggestion because we always look for novels by authors from different countries. We haven't read many German books, so I thought, let's read a Grass. This author has never been an "easy" person, born in Danzig to Polish-German parents, raised Catholic, moved to West Germany as a young guy, he is strongly left-wing and will say what he thinks needs saying. He is a journalist and a sculptor/graphic artist.

A lot of our members found the book very hard to read. Why do translations of books into English always have to be so bad? We've made this experience again and again. Mind you, in this case, I can't really blame the translator too much, a lot of the conversations, especially by the narrator's mother, are in Pomeranian and even difficult to read in the original German version.

We had various members who started a couple of times until they finally finished it. Some of their remarks: I appreciate that he wrote it. This book caused a big stir in Germany when it came out. I understand German shame factor. I realized how oppressive and burdensome it is for children to have to live with parents' ambitions. Paul Pokriefke wanted to be a normal person, his mother Tulla wrote him off completely and transferred all her ambitions to her grandson. Germans shouldn't dwell on their past. A lot of people don't want them to forget, the hatred is still there. They show it on TV, remind you every year. "Victimization gives them power." I appreciated the father's love for his son, he stands by him. You need not stand up against this great machine. What is going on at the moment? We talked about the Neo-Nazism in several European countries. The truth is, all European countries had and have Nazis.

Even though this was probably one of the toughest reads for most, it was a great foundation for a very interesting discussion. It leads to so many different topics. I don't think anyone should be surprised to know that the author was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Oh, and someone remarked they were astonished by the fact that there were six times as many deaths on the Wilhelm Gustloff as there were on the Titanic, yet you never hear about it.

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

From the back cover:

"Günter Grass has been wrestling with Germany's past for decades now, but no book since The Tin Drum has generated as much excitement as this engrossing account of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. A German cruise ship turned refugee carrier, it was attacked by a Soviet submarine in January 1945. Some 9,000 people went down in the Baltic Sea, making it the deadliest maritime disaster of all time.

Born to an unwed mother on a lifeboat the night of the attack, Paul Pokriefke is a middle-aged journalist trying to piece together the tragic events. While his mother sees her whole existence in terms of that calamitous moment, Paul wishes their life could have been less touched by the past. For his teenage son, who dabbles in the dark, far-right corners of the Internet, the Gustloff embodies the denial of Germany's wartime suffering.

'Scuttling backward to move forward,'
Crabwalk is at once a captivating tale of a tragedy at sea and a fearless examination of the ways different generations of Germans now view their past."

Günter Grass "whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history" received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

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