1

‘To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace’ by Kapka Kassabova ****

Before the virus completely took over 2020, and made it almost impossible to travel without a two-week quarantine, my boyfriend and I had planned a trip to North Macedonia. We were intending to end our holiday with a wild swim at Lake Ohrid, somewhere we have wanted to visit for years. We are hoping that we will be able to embark on this trip at some point during 2021, but for now, I reached for the closest thing I could find – Kapka Kassabova’s non-fiction title To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace.

The Balkans is an area which I have travelled in relatively extensively already, but I find it fascinating to see regions which I love – as well as those which I have yet to visit – through the eyes of someone who is somehow connected to the physical place. Kassabova’s maternal grandmother grew up in the town of Ohrid, beside the lake, which lies ‘within the mountainous borderlands of North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece’. Lake Ohrid, and also Lake Prespa, which can be found relatively nearby, are located in ‘one of Eurasia’s most historically diverse areas’, and are the two oldest lakes in Europe. Ohrid and Prespa are joined by an underground river, and span these aforementioned borders.

‘By exploring on water and land the stories of poets, fishermen, and caretakers, misfits, rulers, and inheritors of war and exile,’ declares the blurb, ‘Kassabova uncovers the human history shaped by the lakes.’ Alongside her personal journey to reach her family’s roots, the author makes ‘a deeper enquiry into how geography and politics imprint themselves upon families and nations.’

For Kassabova, this region, which has housed ‘generations of my predecessors… is a realm of high altitudes and mesmeric depths, eagles and vineyards, orchards and old civilisations, a land tattooed with untold histories.’ The focus of To the Lake, as outlined in the introduction, is as follows: ‘Geography shapes history – we generally accept this as a fact. But we don’t often explore how families digest big historo-geographies, how these sculpt our inner landscape, and how we as individuals continue to influence the course of history in invisible but significant ways – because the local is inseparable from the global. I went to the Lakes to seek an understanding of such forces.’

The first chapter of To the Lake opens with Kassabova’s recollections of her maternal grandmother’s death. Her descriptions of her grandmother, Anastassia, which she goes on to reveal piece by piece, are so vibrant: ‘Surrounded by the mediocrity, conformity and mendacity that a totalitarian system thrives on, Anastassia lived with zest, speaking her mind in a society where half the population didn’t have a mind and the other half were careful to keep it to themselves.’ Her descriptions of her family particularly really stand out; she describes her mother thus, for example: ‘She always felt to me precariously attuned to life, as if born rootless, as if needing an external force to earth her.’

Some of Kassabova’s writing is undoubtedly beautiful – for instance, when she writes ‘Ohrid made you feel the weight of time, even on a peaceful evening like this, with only the screech of cicadas and the shuffle of old women in slippers’ – but there are some quite abrupt sentences and sections to be found within To the Lake. It does not feel entirely consistent at times, and Kassabova does have a tendency to jump from quite an involved history of the area to a conversation with someone who lives there, and often back again, without any delineation. This added a disjointed feel to the whole. However, the value and interest of the information which she presents was thankfully too strong for this to put me off as a reader.

To the Lake is certainly thorough; it was not a book which I felt able to read from cover to cover in one go, as it is so intricate – both in terms of the history and geography of the region, and of Kassabova’s own family. There is a great deal within the book which explores national divides throughout the lake region, as well as the religions which are practiced. Kassabova seems to focus far more upon the differences of the people whom she meets, than their similarities. There are some brief nods to fascinating Slavic folktales along the way, which I wish had been elaborated upon. Regardless, To the Lake is an important book, and an ultimately satisfying one, which I would highly recommend.

12

Akylina’s Most Memorable Books of 2019

Here we are in the very last day of 2019, yet another year that flew by in the blink of an eye. I did manage to read more this year (68 books) compared to 2018 (52 books), and although I read some really great books, I can’t really say I have many new favourites. This is why, instead of a Best of 2019 list, I come to you with my most memorable reads of the year. Although not all of these books were 5-star reads for me, they are all books I still remember vividly and fondly today.

So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the books that made my 2019 a little brighter:

Masks by Enchi Fumiko 25304404

Perhaps one of the most memorable books of 2019 was the very first book I read, Masks by Enchi Fumiko, translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. A tale of deception, revenge and punishment like nothing you have read before, Masks is an excellent showcase of the narrative capabilities of Japanese female writers of the 1950s, who are significantly less talked about compared to the men writing in the same period.

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

When any form of media is suddenly widely popular and talked about, I’m always very skeptical about it, as I don’t always tend to agree with those popular opinions. Eleanor Oliphant, however, proved to be the bright exception to my own rule. I started reading it having absolutely no expectations, just wanting a light read for my daily commute, and I ended up becoming so attached to Eleanor and her story that I devoured it before realising it.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 29777060._SY475_

One of the most revered classics of Russian literature, Bulgakov’s masterpiece had been on my TBR list for a very long time. Numbering more than 500 pages, The Master and Margarita is a satirical and at times comical and, of course, controversial novel that takes place in Soviet Moscow. It was written during Stalin’s reign, but was published much, much later due to the severe censorship of the time (which, of course, is mentioned and criticised in the novel as well). Employing magical realism and a series of absurd events, Bulgakov weaves a tale that will remain in reader’s minds and hearts for a long time.

39980637._SY475_Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist by John Nathan

Natsume Soseki was undoubtedly one of Japan’s biggest literary figures and John Nathan has done a really impressive job compiling his life and accomplishments in this tome. Soseki’s life story is truly fascinating to read, even though his character was not as praise-worthy as his literary production and contribution was. Nonetheless, no one can deny his massive role in shaping modern Japanese literature and the author of this book has done a wonderful job letting us in on some of his genius.

 

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin 30039170._SY475_

I find Shirley Jackson one of the most intriguing modern authors and I always crave her writing, although I haven’t really read that much yet. A Rather Haunted Life recounts every detail of the author’s life (and I do mean every detail), from her childhood and college years to her married life and unfortunate death. I developed a massive dislike towards her husband, Stanley, since cheating is a behaviour I cannot tolerate, but overall it was very enjoyable reading (or rather listening, as I had this as an audiobook) about Shirley’s life and literary adventures.

 

43706056._SY475_The Five Wonders of Danube by Zoran Živković

Živković is one of the biggest literary figures of Serbia, so I was very excited to finally get to read some of his work. The Five Wonders of Danube is a whimsical and quite original homage to art of every kind and the artistic creation. The book consists of five parts, each one describing a separate incident/”wonder” that takes places in a different bridge of the Danube River, and all connecting somehow at the end. It was translated from Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić and it was an excellent introduction to this great author’s work. I plan on posting a full review of it in January, so stay tuned if you want to hear more details about it.

Ο Κίτρινος Φάκελος [The Yellow Folder] by M. Karagatsis 6938031

Karagatsis is one of my favourite Greek authors and I’ll always lament the absence of his works in English translation. The Yellow Folder (my translation, as there’s no official one) is an excellent character study with drops of mystery and the consequences of attempting to control people’s lives and play with them just to see what happens. Chilling, unforgettable and utterly enjoyable, this novel is a treasure trove of literary allusions, musings on life and rich character study of the kind only Karagatsis can deliver.

18114976Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo by Miyabe Miyuki

Apart from Miyabe’s evocative writing, Apparitions is perhaps one of the best translations I’ve ever read from Japanese, as it truly read like a work originally written in English, without any phrase or passage of awkward phrasing, all thanks to the magic pen of Daniel Huddleston. Apparitions contains several short stories, all set in the Edo (former name of Tokyo) period of feudal Japan. Miyabe’s Old Edo is rife with vengeful spirits and malevolent ghosts, creating a thoroughly creepy and chilling atmosphere, but one which the reader truly cannot get enough of.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri Print

I don’t think I can call Tokyo Ueno Station a favourite book, mostly because it’s theme and plot are so harrowing and heartbreaking that just thinking about it even months after having read it just makes my heart ache. However, I do believe it’s an extremely important read, simply because sometimes we get too caught up in our lives and problems and don’t become aware of the people who might be suffering right next to us. On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, after having lost his family, our protagonist finds himself homeless at Ueno Park near the station and he starts remembering bits and pieces of his life. His son was born at the same day as the Emperor’s son, and yet his fate ended up being entirely different. Tokyo Ueno Station is nothing short of a punch in the gut, as it exposes the ugliest side of life and the inevitability that chases around people who are not privileged. It was translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles.

These are some of the most memorable books I read in 2019. For 2020, I’m hoping to read a little more broadly, read some new to me authors and read literature from countries I haven’t yet read.

Have you read any of these books? What were your most memorable reads of 2019? What are your 2020 reading goals?

Happy New Year to everyone, and I hope 2020 brings you health, joy and lots of bookish delights! 🙂

11

Favourite Books of 2018

Another year has come to an end. 2018 has been a crazy busy year and I barely managed to squeeze in 50 books, quite a few being under 100 pages. Although I read significantly less compared to past years, the books that kept me company in 2018 were primarily books I thoroughly enjoyed, which is a big win for me.

Since the ‘bad’ books were so few and since I’d like to focus on the more positive aspects of 2018, I decided to compile a list of 10 of my most favourite reads of 2018. They were not all 5 star reads, but all of them managed to amaze me in one way or another and stayed engraved in my heart and memory. With no further ado, my favourite books of 2018 were the following:

Pachinko by Min Jin Leepachinko

Whatever I say about this book will be too little, any words I choose will be too insuficient to fully express my love for this book. I read Pachinko early on in the year, in January, and it quickly became one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. It’s a family saga, a chronicle of the life and tribulations of a Korean family as they set foot on Japan after the war in hopes of a brighter future and the harsh reality that they have to face every single day. Through this novel, I learned a lot about the zainichi, the Korean expats that reside in Japan. One wonderful thing about this book is that, although it focuses on the zainichi and their experiences, the everyday struggles and hardships they go through can extend to an international scale and resonate with refugees and expats from any and every country. This book is much more than a story, a tale of loss and family, of race and nationality, of love. It is a life lesson and I really feel a much more enriched person after reading it.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

lullabyLullaby (Chanson Douce in the original French and The Perfect Nanny in the US edition) is a brilliantly crafted thriller and suspense novel that keeps you glued to every page until you reach the very last one. After hearing so much about it, I finally purchased it at the Glasgow airport during my visit in May. Its premise is rather terrifying, as it starts with a young couple finding both their children dead. Even though the novel begins with the outcome and then goes back and recounts the events leading up to this horrible event, the suspense is ever-present and Slimani’s writing is utterly captivating.

 

The Eye by Vladimir Nabokovtomati

I had wanted to read Nabokov’s works for the longest time, and even though I owned Lolita, the timing was never right for me to dive into its conflicting world. Instead, I came across this short novella in its Greek translation (where the cover is from, as I much prefered it to the English language covers I found) and it truly enchanted me. Nabokov’s writing is smart and witty and he manages to create a very interesting story through which he can critically comment on the society of his time (which, sadly, isn’t radically different from that of today), while also making the reader wonder what really happened and what was a figment of the protagonist’s imagination.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

conveniencestoreReading Convenience Store Woman was such an experience for me. I always enjoy reading about people who are considered ‘outsiders’ and who don’t want to conform to the society’s rules, especially when said rules go against who one is as a person. The matter of having a ‘respectable’ job and panning out your life according to certain standards is a very important one, especially since things have started changing in recent years, and people resort to non-traditional professions more and more. Murata’s protagonist is a Japanese woman who started working at a convenience store part-time but still finds herself in the same job years later. Despite her family and acquaintances urging her to find a ‘real job’, she feels conflicted, since she should abide by society’s rules, yet she feels oddly comfortable exactly where she is. It’s a novel that will certainly resonate with many young people today, myself included.

Old Magic by Marianne Curley oldmagic

To be quite honest, Old Magic is a book I would never think of picking up (at least as an adult), and yet here I am putting it in my list of favourites for 2018. My boyfriend, who never reads, had once told me that he had one favourite book he had read as a teen, and he gifted it to me so I would see what he liked back then. I was infinitely skeptical, but started reading it immediately, as I was in need of some very light reading at the time, and I just couldn’t put it down. Written by an Australian author, the book is about a young witch, her struggle to be accepted at her school since she comes from a ‘weird’ family, a journey back in time and, of course, romance. I can’t quite pinpoint why I liked this book so much – it reminded me of the fantasy books I used to read as a kid/teenager and it made me so nostalgic. I truly enjoyed reading Old Magic and I think I will try being more open to books, even if they initially seem like something I would never pick up for myself.

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

26114478A book of essays on a wide variety of topics, but mostly focusing on being a woman writer, a female geek in this (mostly) male-dominated field, something which Hurley proves is very difficult yet possible and rewarding. I haven’t read Hurley’s fiction, yet through reading her essays, some of them being quite personal ones, I felt a deep appreciation for her work and her craft. Some of the stories she told were funny, others empowering and others thoroughly moving, especially those regarding her initial financial difficulties and her health problems. Usually I’m a bit weary when it comes to feminist texts, but this one totally fascinated me and I will certainly seek out Hurley’s fiction in the future.

Το Τέλος της Πείνας (The End of Hunger) by Lina Rokou endof hunger

Once in a while I stumble upon contemporary Greek literary works that are true gems. The End of Hunger is one such example, and, sadly, not (yet) translated in English. The story revolves around a young woman who lives in Athens and, searching for ways to find some money, she starts selling parts of her body to a passing street seller. She sells him her teeth, her spleen, her old diaries and he still asks for more. Rokou’s writing is whimsical and poetic and absolutely beautiful. Her descriptions of the nonsensical and surrealistic events that occur to her protagonist are lyrical and imbued with the right dose of emotion. One could say that this entire selling process described is nothing but the process of falling in love, of giving away every last bit of your self to the other person and then ending up feeling completely empty by the end of it. This kind of blend of surrealism with reality is precisely my cup of tea and I truly hope this book gets translated soon so more people can discover the beauty of it.

A Biography of a Chance Miracle by Tanja Maljartschuk

40800042Another gem of a book which I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. I read A Biography in September and have already posted a full review of it here in case you would like to read more about it (and you should!). Maljartschuk is a Ukrainian author who created a whimsical and thoroughly witty tale full of social satire, magical realism and the cruelty of life. Lena, the main character, always has a tendency to help others and when she gets into university she decides to open her own business selling miracles. The writing is superb, and the translation by Zenia Tompkins excellent.

 

La lettrice scomparsa (The Lost Reader) by Fabio Stassi40242756

Another fabulous read, not yet available to the English speaking world. I read its Greek translation (The Lost Reader is my literal translation of the title) and was utterly fascinated. Originally written in Italian, The Lost Reader is a mystery like no other. The protagonist is an unemployed teacher who opens a booktherapy business, in which he recommends the most fitting book to his patients according to the problems they have, as he’s a firm believer of literature’s healing powers. While trying to get used to this new job and everything that it entails, an old lady from his apartment complex suddenly vanishes and he embarks on a quest to find her and uncover the secrets hidden behind her disappearance. An ode to literature, an inventive mystery and witty quotes hidden in almost every page – what’s there not to love?

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

33846708Last but not least, I have a book I read during the last days of December, proving that it’s never too late in the year to discover a wonderful book. The Black Tides of Heaven belongs to the recently invented silkpunk subgenre, as it is set an Asian-inspired fantasy world. The first of JY Yang’s short novellas set in this world, this book focuses on one of the twins that we get introduced to in the beginning of the story (and its twin novella focuses on the other twin sibling’s story). I adored the world and all of its fantasy elements and I found Yang’s writing fabulous. I’d like this to be a full novel just so I could stay more in this world with these fascinating characters, and that’s why I read its twin novella, The Red Threads of Fortune, immediately after. The fantasy elements I loved were all there, and even enhanced, but I was very disappointed in other parts of the story, a topic which I might discuss in a different post.

It was kind of difficult to choose only 10 of the books I read in 2018 to feature in this post, but I think I chose the ones that left the biggest impression on me and the ones which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, regardless of their literary merit. I hope my reading in 2019 will focus more on quality over quantity again, and I can’t wait to share my reads with you in the new year, as well 🙂

Have you read any of those books, and if yes, what did you think of them? What were your favourite reads of 2018? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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Reading the World: Greece

Hopefully the weather is beautiful wherever you are today, but if not, why not journey to Greece with me for a reading holiday?  The following are five books which I would heartily recommend if you are interested in reading about Greece in all its glory.

1. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres 9780749397548
‘It is 1941 and Captain Antonio Corelli, a young Italian officer, is posted to the Greek island of Cephallonia as part of the occupying forces. At first he is ostracised by the locals, but as a conscien-tious but far from fanatical soldier, whose main aim is to have a peaceful war, he proves in time to be civilised, humorous – and a consumate musician. When the local doctor’s daughter’s letters to her fiance go unanswered, the working of the eternal triangle seems inevitable. But can this fragile love survive as a war of bestial savagery gets closer and the lines are drawn between invader and defender?’

2. The Iliad by Homer
‘One of the foremost achievements in Western literature, Homer’s “Iliad” tells the story of the darkest episode in the “Trojan War”. At its centre is Achilles, the greatest warrior-champion of the Greeks, and his refusal to fight after being humiliated by his leader Agamemnon. But when the Trojan Hector kills Achilles’ close friend Patroclus, he storms back into battle to take revenge – even though he knows this will ensure his own untimely death. Interwoven with this tragic sequence of events are powerfully moving descriptions of the ebb and flow of battle, of the domestic world inside Troy’s besieged city of Ilium, and of the conflicts between the Gods on Olympus as they argue over the fate of mortals.’

97802419514603. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
‘Escaping the ills of the British climate, the Durrell family – acne-ridden Margo, gun-toting Leslie, bookworm Lawrence and budding naturalist Gerry, along with their long-suffering mother and Roger the dog – take off for the island of Corfu. But the Durrells find that, reluctantly, they must share their various villas with a menagerie of local fauna – among them scorpions, geckos, toads, bats and butterflies. Recounted with immense humour and charm “My Family and Other Animals” is a wonderful account of a rare, magical childhood. ‘

4. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
‘For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, maintaining a kingdom while her husband was off fighting the Trojan war was not a simple business. Already aggrieved that he had been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep over a hundred lustful, greedy and bloodthirsty suitors at bay…And then, when Odysseus finally returns and slaughters the murderous suitors, he brutally hangs Penelope’s twelve beloved maids. What were his motives? And what was Penelope really up to? Critically acclaimed when it was first published as part of Canongate’s “Myth” series, and following a very successful adaptation by the RSC, this new edition of “The Penelopiad” sees Margaret Atwood give Penelope a modern and witty voice to tell her side of the story, and set the record straight for good.’

5. The Greek Myths by Robert Graves 9780241952740
‘The Greek Myths is the definitive and comprehensive edition of Robert Graves’ classic imaginative and poetic retelling of the Greek myths. ‘Icarus disobeyed his father’s instructions and began soaring towards the sun, rejoiced by the lift of his great sweeping wings. Presently, when Daedalus looked over his shoulder, he could no longer see Icarus; but scattered feathers floated on the waves below…’ Including many of the greatest stories ever told – the labours of Hercules, the voyage of the Argonauts, Theseus and the minotaur, Midas and his golden touch, the Trojan War and Odysseus’ journey home – Robert Graves’ superb and comprehensive retelling of the Greek myths for a modern audience has been regarded for over fifty years as the definitive version. With a novelist’s skill and a poet’s eye, Graves draws on the entire canon of ancient literature, bringing together all the elements of every myth into one epic and unforgettable story. Ideal for the first time reader, it can be read as a single, continuous narrative, while full commentaries, with cross-references, interpretations, variants and explanations, as well as a comprehensive index of names, make it equally valuable as a work of scholarly reference for anyone seeking an authoritative and detailed account of the gods, heroes and extraordinary events that provide the bedrock of Western literature. The result is a classic among classics, a treasure trove of extraordinary tales and a masterful work of literature in its own right.’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller

Since visiting Olympia in Greece whilst on a Mediterranean cruise in June, I have been trying to get my hands on as many modern day stories of Greek mythology as I could.  The first which I plumped for was Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, a novel which I have heard only good things about.  When I saw that April also written an incredibly favourable review of the book, I felt I just had to read it.  Whilst my review below is rather mixed, I did very much enjoy the novel; it just hasn’t quite reached the heights of ‘favourite’ status for me personally.

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow...

Achilles
tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on
the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500
BC. From Vulci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In The Song of Achilles, Miller has presented the story of Achilles and Patroclus.  I knew the story from reading the wonderful Penguin Book of Mythology (edited by Jenny March) earlier in the year, but I tried to discount all knowledge and enjoy the book for what it was – a love story set amongst the heat of Ancient Greece.  Rather than make her telling of the tale stolid and old fashioned, Miller has given a modern feel to the entirety of the book.  In consequence, it felt as though Achilles and Patroclus’ tale was presented in an entirely fresh way.  I was surprised at how easy it was to read, particularly for rather a lengthy novel.  I must admit that I wasn’t quite expecting the style or tone which Miller presented, but once I got used to it, I felt that it matched the plot perfectly.

With regard to the characters, the way in which the author captured their changing emotions was skilfully done.  I liked the fact that as the boys grew, so did their friendship; a friendship begun merely on the foundation that Achilles found Patroclus ‘surprising’.  Whilst going through their teenage stage, their relationship was often awkward and almost unsettling, and this technique echoed the often tumultuous field of puberty rather well.  The first person perspective throughout worked marvellously, and I loved being able to see the story through the eyes of one who was so involved in it.  The speech between the protagonists and the minor characters too was, like the narrative, rather modern in its style.  This has been criticised in a couple of the reviews I’ve read since, but on reflection, I honestly don’t think that it takes anything away from the story.  Had the language used in conversations and asides been more old fashioned in their style, I feel that it may have bogged down the tale.  It would also have clashed horribly with the modern feel of the narrative.  Miller achieved a good blend between the modernity of the telling and language used and the antiquity of the story.  She also wove in a good deal of historical detail to set the scene and ground the story.  The intertwined storylines which she used also added to this.

 

Ахиллес, оплакивающй Патрокла - Ге Николай Ник...

Ахиллес, оплакивающй Патрокла – Ге Николай Николаевич. Achilles and the body of Patroclus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Miller’s writing was lovely at times, and my favourite aspect of the novel was the way in which she wove in sensory detail.  This was particularly effective when the senses overlapped, and descriptions like the following were introduced: walls which ‘rasped softly as I traced them with my fingertip’.  Her use of music was also a lovely touch.  The Song of Achilles is a novel which I struggled to put down at times, but I must say that I enjoyed the first half of the novel far more than the second.  As soon as the battle scenes came into the story, I felt that Achilles and Patroclus were suddenly fading into the background – almost as though they had become second best for the author.  From here onwards, the development of their relationship was rather stifled and unrealistic. Whilst it had been well paced up until this point, it felt as though the ending was somewhat rushed and not quite developed enough as a result.  To summarise then, The Song of Achilles is a wonderful take on an incredibly interesting myth, but if only Miller had carried on in the way in which she had begun, I feel that it would have been a far more enjoyable novel.