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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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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?