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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Leech’ by Cora Sandel ****

I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between.  I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but  The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work.  The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.

The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later.  This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press.  Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work.  She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry.  The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to.  Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’.  Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry. 9780704340053-us

The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’.  The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles.  She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against.  She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear.  You must have something in your hands all the time.  You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it.  One can simply get too tired.”‘

Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel.  We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh.  She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her.  Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques.  Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.

The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience…  I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again.  I was not myself for a while…”‘.  The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.

Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside.  Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine.  There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation.  The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing.  If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ by Jan van Mersbergen **

Celebrated author Jan van Mersbergen’s Tomorrow Pamplona was the fifth book upon the wonderful Peirene Press list of novellas in translation.  In this instance, the tale was originally written in Dutch, and has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson.  De Morgen calls this ‘an intense reading experience…  Van Mersbergen tells what needs to be told and not a word more’. 9780956284044

From the first, I did like the idea of the chance encounter which the whole plot revolves around; a professional boxer and the father of a young child ‘meet by chance on a journey to the Pamplona Bull Run.  The boxer is fleeing an unhappy love.  The father hopes to escape his dull routine.  Both know that, actually, they will have to return to the place each calls “home”‘.  Tomorrow Pamplona has a storyline which I would not automatically be drawn to.  However, I have very much enjoyed the majority of Peirene’s publications, and have high hopes for everything which they painstakingly translate and reprint.

At the outset, Tomorrow Pamplona appears to be very well paced, and the translation, particularly with regard to the sections which feature the boxer, Danny Clare, has such a rhythm to it.  The balance between action and imagery has been well realised: ‘He crosses a busy main road and runs into a park.  He comes to a patch of grass with a bronze statue in the centre, a woman holding a child in the air as though she wants to entrust it to the clouds’.  With regard to the characters, however, the prose does tend to veer toward the relatively simplistic.  The lack of complexity in sentence structure takes something away from the story as far as I am concerned; it felt like rather a plodding reading experience after the first few pages, and it’s not a process which I can say I very much enjoyed.

There was no immediate captivation here for me.  Whilst the scene was set rather well at the beginning, if anything caught my attention, I felt that it would be in the relationship which built up between Danny and the father, Robert, with whom he travels.  The latter picks up Danny whilst he is hitchhiking, and asks him to come along on the journey; he duly accepts.  Robert’s description of the trip, which he makes each year, and the passion which it strikes in him has been well evoked: ‘Tomorrow morning I’m going to come face to face with a bunch of bulls, Robert continues.  He taps the steering wheel.  I’ll be standing there on one of those streets in Pamplona, in my white shirt, together with all those other people in their white shirts.  Then they let the bulls out and you’d better start running’.  It is his pilgrimage of sorts.  ‘It’s a tradition, Robert continues.  It’s a celebration.  It’s danger.  It’s real life’.

I found a lot of the writing about Danny’s fights and preparation for them a little repetitive; perhaps deliberately so, I’m not entirely sure.  There was no wonder for me here; I did not connect with any of the characters, as I so often tend to do with Peirene’s novellas.  Whilst it was an okay read on the whole, it stirred no strong feelings within me, and it isn’t anything which I would recommend.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘Maybe This Time’ by Alois Hotschnig ****

Originally released in 2006, and rendered into English into 2011, Alois Hotschnig’s Maybe This Time is one of Peirene Press’ earliest publications.  World Literature Today declares that ‘Hotschnig’s prose dramatizes the voice of conscience and the psychological mechanisms we use to face reality or, just as often, to avoid it’.  Hotschnig is one of Austria’s most critically acclaimed authors, and he has won major Austrian, and international, literary prizes over his career.  The collection has been translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis.

9780956284051Hotschnig’s short story collection has been described by many readers as ‘unsettling’, and this, I feel, is quite a fitting appraisal.  There is a creeping sense of unease which comes over one as soon as the stories are begun.  The initial tale, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’, is about a pair of neighbours who sit side by side in the narrator’s eyeline for days on end: ‘… they didn’t move, not even to wave away the mosquitoes or scratch themselves’.  This has rather a distressing effect upon our unnamed observer: ‘Every day, every night, always the same.  Their stillness made me feel uneasy, and my unease grew until it festered into an affliction I could no longer bear’.  His reaction is perhaps the most interesting one which Hotschnig could have come up with in this instance: ‘I drew closer to them because they rejected me.  Rejection, after all, is still a kind of contact’.  As one might expect as the midway point is reached in this tale, the narrator soon becomes obsessed: ‘I decided to observe them even more closely to calm my unease, as if I no longer had a life of my own but lived only through them’.

There are nine short stories included within Maybe This Time, all of which have rather intriguing titles.  These include the likes of ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’, and ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’.  Some rather thoughtful ideas have been woven in; they have a definite profundity at times: ‘We looked at the same views, heard the same noises.  We shared a common world and were separated by it’.  Each of the tales is sharp; every one relatively brief, but all of which have a wealth of emotions and scenes packed into them.  Hotschnig is shrewd, and in control at all times; he makes the reader fear impending danger with the most subtle of hints.

No particular time periods have been specified within the collection, and only small clues have been left as to when each story takes place.  They are, one and all, essentially suspended in time.  I did find a couple of the stories a little abrupt in terms of their endings, but this collection is certainly a memorable one.  There is a great fluency in Lewis’ translation, which helps to render Maybe This Time one of the creepiest reads on Peirene’s list thus far.

 

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Tentative 2017 Reading List

I foresee that I will be rather busy during 2017 due to my PhD thesis, attending supervisions, and exploring Scotland, as well as visiting family and friends, and taking well earnt holidays.  Regardless, I did not want to think about an entire year going by without my being able to have a constructive reading list of sorts with which to work.  I’m not expecting to read everything here, but am using it as a place to check back to every time I want to try something new, or to pick up a book I’ve had on my radar for an awfully long time.  I thought it would be nice to create a post detailing my proposed 2017 reads, and a corresponding page on which to mark off what I have read, and link any appropriate reviews.

Please find below a list of authors, and a separate list of books which I want to get to.  I have also put together a French Reading Project and a Scottish one too, to see me through.  For each, I have included both work by authors who originate in each country, or books which are set there.

Authors:
Olivia Laing; Amelie Nothomb; Lydia Millett; Rebecca West; George Sand; Annie Ernaux; Joan Didion; Leena Krohn; P.D. James; Agatha Christie; Haruki Murakami; Catherynne Valente; Eimear McBride; John Wyndham; Ira Levin; Dorothy L. Sayers; Anita Desai; Isabel Allende; Gunter Grass.

Books:
9780007321599This is Not Your City by Caitlin Horrocks; Corrag by Susan Fletcher; Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann; The Wives by Alexandra Popoff; The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price; Geek Love by Katherine Dunn; The Shining by Stephen King; Harbour by John Ajvide Lindqvist; The Helios Disaster by Linda Bostrom Knausgard; The Midas Touch by Margaret Kennedy; This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell; The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey; The Conquered by Naomi Mitchison; The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits; The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding; Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski; The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara; Kassandra and the Wall by Margarita Karaponou; Fell by Jenn Ashworth; The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan; Alina: A Novel by Dorothy Strachey; Odes by Sharon Olds; Pepita by Vita Sackville-West; The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller; Heroines by Kate Zambreno; What the Light Hides by Mette Jakobsen; Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin; Where Am9781922079299 I Now? by Mara Wilson; Euphoria by Lily King; The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss; The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg; The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells by Virginia Macgregor; You Are My Heart and Other Stories by Jay Neugeboren; A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside; The Dumb House by John Burnside.

 

French Reading Project:
Foreign Parts by Janice Galloway; A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle; A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway; The Fall by Albert Camus; Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre-Ambroise Choderlos de Laclos; Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac; Tartuffe by Moliere; Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik; Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac; Almost French by Sarah Turnbull; The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy; The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart; Camille by Alexandre Dumas; Misanthrope by Moliere; Nicholas by Pere Goscinny; Nadja by Andre Breton; Antigone by Jean Anouilh; A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse; The 9781933372822Wall and Other Stories by Jean-Paul Sartre; Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong by Jean-Benoit Nodeau; The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (reread); Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky (reread); Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne; Sweet Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (reread); The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide; Paris Under Water by Jeffrey Jackson; Paris Was Ours, edited by Penelope Rowlands; At Home in France by Ann Barry; An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken (reread); Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker.

 

Scottish Reading Project:
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley; The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith; Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson; Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh; The Crow Road by Iain Banks; How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman; Corrag by Susan Fletcher; Buddha Da by Anne Donovan; The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (reread); 9781911215325The Complaints by Ian Rankin; The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson; Under the Skin by Michel Faber; The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey; Hame by Annalena McAfee; Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson (reread); Everything You Need by A.L. Kennedy; Closed Doors by Lisa O’Donnell; The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan; The Glister by John Burnside; The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside; A Kettle of Fish by Ali Bacon; Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith (reread); The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers; The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh; A Disaffection by James Kelman; My Shit Life So Far by Frankie Boyle; Poor Things by Alasdair Gray; Stone Garden by Alan Spence; Trumpet by Jackie Kay.

 

My good friend Katie and I have also resurrected our book club, and have selected twelve books to read together next year.  You can expect reviews of each of them to be posted accordingly.  We have also deliberately chosen to read books by women.

January – Gilgi by Irmgard Keun
February – The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
March – The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
April – Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns 9780993414916
May – No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July (reread)
June – The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
July – The Blue Hour by Lillian Pizzichini
August – The Birth House by Ami McKay
September – Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson
October – The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
November – How the Blessed Live by Susannah Smith
December – The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

Each Saturday, I will also be posting a review of a work in translation, as part of my extended Reading the World project.  I am not going to choose these works beforehand; rather, I am going to pick them at my leisure over the year.  Some of my included volumes will invariably be those mentioned above, if translated.

What are you hoping to read in 2017?  Have you read any of these books?  What should I start with?  If you have anything to recommend by my chosen authors, please do let me know.

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New Year, New Plans

I have been thinking of replacing the Saturday Poem posts for quite a while.  Whilst I adore poetry, I have exhausted a couple of the free sources which I’ve been using to schedule the posts, and don’t really have the inclination to seek out new material.

I would therefore like to make each Saturday post going forward a showcase of translated books set in other countries.  I am not going to be solely reading translated literature during 2017, but I hope to be able to slot in more tomes which fit the bill, especially with access to such great, well-stocked libraries.

around-the-world-in-80-book-book-riot

From bookriot.com

I will largely be consulting the Around the World in 80 Books group lists on Goodreads for this project, as well as Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust To Go.  I hope to be able to include books from further afield than Europe and the United States.  I am hoping that these Saturday posts will become an extension of my ‘Reading the World’ posts, which were sadly lacking as soon as the borders of Europe and the US had been reached.

What do you think of this idea?  Are there any books which you’d like to recommend to me?  Which are the top five translated fiction books you’ve read?

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Reading the World: An Ending

The eagle eyed amongst you will realise that I have not journeyed to South America or Australasia yet, but there is a reason for this; I have read very little set within either region, vast as they are.  Should you have any recommendations for me set on either continent, I would be very grateful.

book-stack

Books

All that is left for me to say is thank you so much for armchair travelling with me; it’s been a wonderful journey!  I shall leave you with a few questions, should you wish to answer them.

  1. Has this project inspired you to read any more widely?
  2. Which are your favourite countries (and continents) to read about?
  3. Do you like to read translated fiction?  If so, what was the last book you read which you very much enjoyed?
  4. If you could take a reader around the world using just ten books, which would you choose, and why?
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Reading Around the World: Canada

The books set in Canada which I have read are largely by three authors, all of whom I have included here.  This is not a varied set of recommendations, by any stretch of the imagination; rather, they are all relatively popular and well-known books which I have just happened to enjoy.

1. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
‘”Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.” Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

2. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields 9780143105503
‘One of the most successful and acclaimed novels of our time, this fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett is a subtle but affecting portrait of an everywoman reflecting on an unconventional life. What transforms this seemingly ordinary tale is the richness of Daisy’s vividly described inner life–from her earliest memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death.’

3. Runaway by Alice Munro
‘The matchless Munro makes art out of everyday lives in this exquisite collection. Here are men and women of wildly different times and circumstances, their lives made vividly palpable by the nuance and empathy of Munro’s writing. Runaway is about the power and betrayals of love, about lost children, lost chances. There is pain and desolation beneath the surface, like a needle in the heart, which makes these stories more powerful and compelling than anything she has written before. It is the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2009.’

97818604988004. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
‘Laura Chase’s older sister Iris, married at eighteen to a politically prominent industrialist but now poor and eighty-two, is living in Port Ticonderoga, a town dominated by their once-prosperous family before the First War. While coping with her unreliable body, Iris reflects on her far from exemplary life, in particular the events surrounding her sister’s tragic death. Chief among these was the publication of The Blind Assassin, a novel which earned the dead Laura Chase not only notoriety but also a devoted cult following. Sexually explicit for its time, The Blind Assassin describes a risky affair in the turbulent thirties between a wealthy young woman and a man on the run. During their secret meetings in rented rooms, the lovers concoct a pulp fantasy set on Planet Zycron. As the invented story twists through love and sacrifice and betrayal, so does the real one; while events in both move closer to war and catastrophe. By turns lyrical, outrageous, formidable, compelling and funny, this is a novel filled with deep humour and dark drama.’

5. The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews
‘Meet the Troutmans. Hattie is living in Paris, city of romance, but has just been dumped by her boyfriend. Min, her sister back in Canada, is going through a particularly dark period. And Min’s two kids, Logan and Thebes, are not talking and talking way too much, respectively. When Hattie receives a phone call from eleven-year-old Thebes, begging her to return to Canada, she arrives home to find Min on her way to a psychiatric ward, and becomes responsible for her niece and nephew. Realising that she is way out of her league, Hattie hatches a plan to find the kids’ long-lost father. With only the most tenuous lead to go on, she piles Logan and Thebes into the family van, and they head south.’

 

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