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‘No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters’ by Ursula K. Le Guin ****

Most will know Ursula K. Le Guin for her fantasy/sci-fi fiction writing, which has been immensely popular for many years now and has deeply inspired many readers and writers alike. Her name has even been mentioned as one of the exceptions of highly successful and broadly well-known female fantasy/sci-fi authors. Despite being a fantasy/sci-fi fan myself, I shamefully have to admit that I have not yet read any of her very famous fiction. I always respected her craft and wit, though, and being given the opportunity to read No Time to Spare has consolidated this respect. 33503495

A collection of essays on so many and various topics which were originally posted on her blog, No Time to Spare is an absolute gem of a book. As Le Guin states herself at the beginning, she had absolutely no interest in blogging until she read José Saramago’s (a very famous Portuguese writer) attempts at blogging and decided to give it a try as well, with apparently very successful results.

The book is divided into parts, each of which centers around a specific theme, such as old age and adapting to the changes brought by aging, writing and literature, feminism, politics, as well as various musings on everyday life and events. In between those parts, there are some sections like interludes, which she has devoted to her cat, Pard, and his adventures and journey into life with the author. These were very adorable to read, but I have to admit that they got rather dull at times and didn’t always manage to keep my interest intact.

As far as the rest of the essays go, Le Guin’s witty and sharp observations shine through and her clever opinions and remarks become a delight for anyone to read. Although I don’t really like the idea of creating a book out of previously published blog posts, I am very glad I read this book, since I had no idea that Le Guin maintained a blog and regularly updated it. Plus, it was very delightful getting to read her ideas and opinions on such a broad variety of topics, something which I haven’t really seen from any other author I closely follow.

I would definitely suggest this book to anyone, regardless of whether they are a fan of Le Guin’s or not, of whether they enjoy fantasy/sci-fi or not (although she makes some very insighful and very useful remarks about fantasy and literature). If you enjoy non-fiction and like a certain dose of wit and well-supported opinions in your reading, then I strongly encourage you to pick up this book. I read this as part of the Non-Fiction November challenge, but I waited until its release date to post my full review.

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A copy was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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Non-fiction November and German Lit Month Wrap-Up

The beginning of December finds me in a very strange situation personally, a situation which affected most of my November activities as well. As much as I would have liked to read more and participate in all the lovely events organised in the bookish community, I did the best that I could given my circumstances.

That being said, whilst I immensely enjoyed my minimal reading for both Non-fiction November and German Literature Month as well as reading other people’s wonderful posts, I wish I could have done more.

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For Non-fiction November, I managed to read almost all of the books I had set as my TBR. Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare was the first book I completed and I utterly loved it. Since it’s being published on December 5th, my review is scheduled for that date.

italocalvino_classicsItalo Clavino’s Why Read the Classics? was the next one on my list, a collection of essays which I read rather selectively, since most of them referred to books and authors I hadn’t read and I didn’t see the point in reading analyses of literature I’m not familiar with. I read this in my Greek translation copy and I was reminded once again how much I adore Calvino’s writing. His love for literature and for the classics specifically shines through his wonderful prose and he makes you want to pick up the nearest classic and immerse yourself in its glory. methode_times_prod_web_bin_96549d4c-baf1-11e6-a53a-ca2ad7b229f9

The last book on my TBR for this event was Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, which I haven’t completed yet. I love Shirley Jackson’s writing and as soon as I saw this biography of hers, I knew I wanted to learn more about her. I listened to this on audiobook and this is probably why my progress has been so slow, since I don’t do very well with audiobooks. I’ve listened to 7 chapters so far and I was not as impressed as I expected to be. While some parts are absolutely fascinating, I often feel like the book is too unnecessarily detailed and that makes it somewhat dull in parts, such as when the author listed all the Christmas gifts Shirley and each member of her family received – a detail I could have lived without being made aware of, and without spending 10 minutes listening about. Perhaps it’s the format of the audiobook which makes it dull for me, I’ll try to find a paper copy to continue reading it.

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As for German Literature Month, I also managed to read both books I had set as my TBR. Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear was definitely my favourite book of the entire month (perhaps of the year too) and you can read the full review I posted a few days ago here.

'Letter_from_an_Unknown_Woman'I couldn’t leave Stefan Zweig, one of my absolute favourite authors, out of German Literature Month. His Letter from an Unknown Woman is the second and last book I read for this challenge. Read in my Greek translation copy like the aforementioned Calvino book, it was a short novella which, like most of Zweig’s other works I’ve read, was filled with emotions and beautiful, beautiful prose. I haven’t encountered any other author who can write about and portray people’s feelings and the wide range of their emotions as eloquently as Zweig does. Whether you’ve found yourself in a situation like the one he’s describing (here, that of a woman’s unrequited youthful love) you will definitely feel like you have experienced this situation by the time you finish reading. This is how powerful his writing is.

These were my contributions to those two November challenges. I had a lot of fun participating in both and I hope next time I have much more time to devote.

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‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ by Yoko Tawada ****

Yoko Tawada is a Japanese author who, in her early twenties, moved to Germany in order to study and has been living there since. A rather prolific author, Tawada writes in both German and Japanese and her works are steadily becoming more and more known worldwide. As a Japanese woman living in Europe, the perspective she offers through her writing is truly unique and very fascinating, as it perfectly captures the feelings of expats without becoming overly dramatic.

33126922Memoirs of a Polar Bear is her most recent novel that’s translated from German to English by Susan Bernofsky, and thanks to the wonderful Lizzy I got the chance to read it as part of the German Literature Month, something I’m really grateful for (you can read Lizzy’s review over here). Coincidentally, the novel was awarded the very first Warwick prize for Women in Translation earlier this month, a prize which in my opinion was very well deserved.

Employing the technique of magical realism, the novel is divided into three parts, each one recounting the story of a polar bear, starting with the grandmother (whose name is unknown), moving on with the daughter (Tosca) and finishing up with the grandson (Knut). The first part, “The Grandmother: An Evolutionary Theory”, is narrated in first person by the polar bear herself as she relates her journey from Russia to Germany to Canada and back to Germany. While working at the circus, like all the polar bears of the novel do, she decides to start writing her autobiography, an attempt which renders her quite popular. Language and writing are two major themes which Tawada uses throughout this novel, as the first bear is constantly faced with linguistic barriers, something which might reflect Tawada’s own initial experience abroad. This dialogue of the polar bear with her editor conveys brilliantly this struggle with language:

“The language gets in my way.”

“The language?”

“Well, to be specific: German.”

[….] “I thought we had communicated quite clearly that you are to write in your own language, since we have a fantastic translator.”

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian anymore.”

In the second part, “The Kiss of Death”, we are following Tosca, the daughter’s story. Instead of hearing the bear’s own voice like in the first part, however, here the narrator is Tosca’s human female partner in the circus. Thus, Tosca’s story is initially given through human eyes, but as the relationship between the two deepens further and further, their voices start intermingling and converging and in a way which only magical realism can justify, the woman hears Tosca’s voice in her mind and the words she eventually utters are not her own but the bear’s. Interestingly enough, this intermingling of voices (and identities, to an extent) happens after the woman decides to start writing Tosca’s biography, since, unlike her mother, Tosca is unable to write and communicate with the other humans. I found it particularly intriguing how the woman, who plays such a central role to this part and to Tosca’s life, remains unnamed throughout, just like Tosca’s bear mother in the previous part. IMG_0106

The woman’s obsession with communicating with Tosca ends up becoming a setback to her marriage, as her husband feels like the woman has rather lost touch with reality. This reminds me of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, where the protagonist’s obsession with not consuming meat or anything related to it also becomes detrimental to her marriage. Much like in the first part, language and communication become major issues, along with those of identity, femininity and maternality.

“Memories of the North Pole”, the third part, introduces us to Knut, Tosca’s son. Once again, Tawada beautifully plays with the narrative voices, as the narration here focuses on Knut and his perspective but is in third person. Later on it is revealed that it was Knut narrating his story all along, but he preferred using the third person even when referring to himself.

Like his mother and grandmother before him, Knut is working at the circus. Having never met his mother, he is being raised and taken care of by Matthias and Christian, who also work at the circus. Again, the issue of language ad communication is raised but I felt like the most prevailing theme here was that of family, relationships and familial bonds. Homosexuality is also brought up, since Matthias and Christian become Knut’s “parents” and the parallels to a homosexual couple bringing up a child are easily drawn.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a short but very rich book. Throughout the novel, there are many hints/metaphors for race (the whiteness of a polar bear’s fur contrasted with the brownness of a normal bear’s fur, which is much more commonly seen), immigration and different cultural backgrounds (the bears live among humans and they are of different species, so perhaps that insinuates different ethnicities?) and all those themes and issues raised could not be more relevant to today’s society.

I absolutely adored Tawada’s writing. It was beautiful and I wanted to savour each and every word. Despite its short length, this isn’t a novel to be devoured in a few hours, not only because of all the different themes it’s packed with but also because all the nuances of Tawada’s prose will be unfortunately missed. I definitely feel like I can never praise this book highly enough and my own words fail in conveying the magnificence of this novel. I will end this review with one of my favourite quotes:

“And there, in darkness, the grammars of many languages lost their color, they melted and combined, then froze solid again, they drifted in the ocean and joined the drifting floes of ice.”

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‘The Remains of the Day’ by Kazuo Ishiguro ****

The 2017 laureate for the Nobel prize in literature is none other than the British author of Japanese descent, Kazuo Ishiguro. Despite my fascination with Japanese literature (I know he’s technically not considered part of the Japanese literary world but still..) I have to admit that I had only read his short story collection, Nocturnes, about 4 to 5 years ago. As soon as Dolce Bellezza proposed a read-along of two of his novels, I knew I had to participate. The Remains of the Day is the only novel of his that I own in English (my mum being a fan of Ishiguro’s writing, we own everything of his that’s been translated into Greek) so I opted for that.

28921For a long time now, I have been very intimidated by this novel. Although very highly praised by some, others have described it as slow, boring and overly wordy. I had made an attempt to read it a few years ago but I never got past page 2; that’s probably because what I needed at that moment was a fast-paced story that didn’t require much chewing over. This novel, however, is everything but that, since it makes you ponder about the issues raised in it for days after reaching the last page.

The story is narrated from the point of view of Stevens, a butler, who works in Darlington Hall, which, after WWII, came to the possession of an American gentleman. Stevens’s new employer advises him to go for a short trip around England since he hasn’t had vacation for a very long time, and, despite his initial hesitation, Stevens warms up to the idea and that’s how the story begins.

Each chapter is narrated from a different town from Stevens’s journey, but more than describing his actual trip and experiences, the butler goes through a trip down memory lane and ends up relating to the reader his story and life with his previous employer and the circumstances surrounding his current position. Prominent figure in his ruminations on the past is his father as well as Miss Kenton who also used to work at Darlington Hall before she got married.

Nostalgia seeps through the narrative in every sentence. Stevens’s language is as formal and rigid as any proper English gentleman’s should be (or used to be) in an effort to hide and cast away his true feelings, but this apathy and indifference while narrating very crucial events in his life is exactly what gives away the extent to which he cared and how deeply he felt about them. This happens to be one of the characteristics of Japanese literature as well, and although Ishiguro is considered part of the British literary production, it appears to me like this part of his heritage permeates his writing, willingly or not. What appears as an inherently British narrative has, in reality, such an affinity to the Japanese culture and way of thinking.

Some of the questions posed and issues raised throughout the novel are those of dignity and which are the qualities that make a butler ‘great’, questions which are ardently connected with Stevens’s past and the choices he had to make as a person and as a butler as well. Ultimately, The Remains of the Day is a novel about the past and how it continually haunts us, shaping our future in ways we could never imagine. It is a novel about regret, regret for the choices that weren’t made and regret for the words left unsaid. It is a novel about duty and loyalty and the lengths an individual can go in order to fulfil them.

Have you read this novel or are you intimidated by it like I used to be?

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German Literature Month & Non-Fiction November

November is one of my favourite months and I’m extremely glad that so many bookish events are being organised in the bookish side of the internet. I have decided to participate in two this time around but I don’t want to be too ambitious with my TBR lists because I’m the worst in time management.

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Starting off with German Literature Month, I have two books lined up:

  • Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada
  • Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

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As for Non-Fiction November, my list comprises of the following:

  • No Time to Spare by Ursula Le Guin
  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
  • Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino

I’m very excited about both events and, of course, I’ve already started my reading 😉 Are you participating in any of those events?

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‘The Lie Tree’ by Frances Hardinge ****

Finding a book to read after submitting my Master’s dissertation this August has been one of the most daunting tasks of the past few months. Nothing I picked up seemed interesting enough to keep me reading and now I have several books of which the first ten to twenty pages have been read but have unfortunately been set aside for the time being.

9781509837564the lie tree illustrated edition_4The Lie Tree was almost one of those books. Usually, when I go through a reading slump I either read something I am certain I will like or something very short to get me back into reading. My copy of The Lie Tree with its 490 pages is definitely not a short read but it certainly sounded like one of those books I am bound to love since it contains mystery, fantasy and historical elements. Plus, the edition I own was illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell, whose work I first encountered through his collaborations with Neil Gaiman, and that certainly contributed greatly to my picking up this book.

The story takes place in Victorian England and it follows Faith, the daughter of a once renowned scientist whose recently bad reputation in society due to some scandal that arose from his research resulted in his family fleeing home and seeking refuge in a smaller town. Secrets never stay hidden for long, however, and their new society labels and mistreats their family again. Faith, being the curious and science-loving girl that she is, is determined to find out what her father’s research was all about and what discovery of his led to their family’s demise. The fantastic elements are not apparent from the outset but I couldn’t speak more about them without revealing some plot spoilers.

Perhaps due to its length, the story starts off in a rather slow manner and it takes the first hundred pages or so for the mystery and the actual plot to truly begin. I usually don’t mind slow books, but for a murder mystery book a slow start isn’t really the best introduction for the readers. The mystery itself, though, was very well crafted. For the very attentive reader the culprit might have been obvious from earlier on, but for me, suspecting everyone due to their dismissive behaviour towards Faith and her family, the revelation was quite a shock. The fantastic elements included, as I mentioned before, are not ever-present and fantasy has been inserted in the world of the book in a very crafty and believable manner.

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Chris Riddell’s stunning illustrations.

The writing is sometimes lyrical and others more practical, but beautiful nevertheless and very fitting to the entire atmosphere of the novel. I really enjoyed Faith’s character, a young girl growing up in an era when female curiosity and desire to learn was everything but rewarded and when women had to hide their research behind the name of a much more powerful and well-established man. The novel raises those issues in a subtle yet satisfying manner, as Faith’s indignation for her being treated unfairly by society and family alike merely for being a girl is evident throughout and is what ultimately empowers her and gives her courage to investigate the mystery surrounding her father. It reminded me somehow of Marie Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which also centers around a lady scientist in Victorian era who struggles to get her research and scholarly profession accepted by society.

Overall, The Lie Tree is an utterly compelling novel which successfully combines mystery, fantasy, feminist and social issues, as well as a coming-of-age story. Although it starts off very very slowly, the pace picks up after a while and the story becomes so intriguing that it’s impossible to put it down. It’s also a very spooky story with many gothic elements, so I guess it’s a very fitting recommendation for Halloween as well. I’m very glad I didn’t put this book aside like all the rest that came before it, as it was definitely worth reading it.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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Halloween Reads: ‘Disney Manga: Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas’ by Jun Asuka ***

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is probably one of the most classic Halloween films of all time and one I never fail to watch almost every year in the months building up to Christmas. The story is one which easily allows for adaptation into picture or comic book format and Jun Asuka took it a step further and adapted it into a Japanese manga. I had heard of Disney animated films and comics having been adapted into manga but I had never actually read one. 30795613

The overall aesthetics and feel of Tim Burton’s film translates very well into the manga form, in which the character designs seem very natural and fitting. The manga follows the film’s plot very faithfully, so much so that even the songs have been added as part of the characters’ dialogue/monologues. This is something I feel could have been avoided, since for someone who isn’t familiar with the film and the songs themselves, this addition is of little to no value, and suddenly moving from normal dialogue to rhyming one might even confuse some.

Another thing that felt different despite the failthfulness to the plot was the pacing. Perhaps due to the nature of manga/comics which are read rather quickly, the story seemed to be moving in a much faster pace compared to the film, something which I felt robbed from the story’s overall pleasure.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading The Nightmare Before Christmas in manga form, as I believe Tim Burton’s grotesque art style fits the manga aesthetics quite nicely. Although the story seemed a bit rushed, it was still as intriguing as the original film and certainly a great read for Halloween or pre-Christmas time. I would definitely recommend it to any Tim Burton fans and to anyone who would like to add a short, fun read to their Halloween reading list.

A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.