Petroglyph's 2019 reading, part 2

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Petroglyph's 2019 reading, part 2

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Editado: Dez 10, 2019, 7:58pm

This is my first year in Club Read. Part one of this thread is here.

I'm a European who likes to read eclectically (mainly litfic, science fiction, fantasy, assorted non-fiction), but I could do a lot better in terms of spread -- geographical, temporal, linguistic, and racial. Then there’s the TBR pile, portions of which I’m outgrowing, or my tastes have changed. Also, I want to talk about books more often.

Goals / Reading projects
  • Reading more Read But Unowned books

  • Reading more in not-English, particularly my weaker languages (mainly French and German); more contemporary Swedish authors (I live in Sweden); and more in Dutch (my mother tongue), especially “canonical” authors and works

  • Reading more by women.

  • Reading globally: books and authors from nations I have not read (enough of).

  • Genres I’ve never read or generally avoid: I’m thinking things like bodice-rippers, vampire smut, memoirs, yaoi, fanfic, christmas stories. I also should read something by my parents' favourite authors -- Hedwig Courths-Mahler, Alistair Maclean, Gérard de Villiers -- which I know I’ll most likely hate, but I should try and read at least one book by each author. (Abandoning an execrable book at the halfway point is acceptable to me.)

  • More genre fiction. I plan on finally getting to a few science fiction classics I’ve shamefully never read (e.g. Brave new world, Ubik), as well as catching up with a few more recent authors (Ann Leckie, N. K. Jemisin).

  • For the past few years I’ve been participating in a TBR challenge (this is my 2019 thread; the one for 2018 is here), where I commit to reading 24 books which might require a nudge or two to get to. Reviews of those books will be cross-posted here, too.

Editado: Nov 29, 2019, 3:22pm

  1. No es hora de jugar by Lawrence Schimel and Elina Braslina (Children's)
  2. The golden child by Penelope Fitzgerald (Novel)
  3. And the ass saw the angel by Nick Cave (Novel)
  4. The lamb will slaughter the lion by Margaret Killjoy (Novella)
  5. *A forest, or a tree by Tegan Moore (Short story)
  6. Ambtenaar in de gezondheidszorg by Rosalie Sprooten (Poetry)
  7. Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (Play)
  8. The Gothic: A very short introduction by Nick Groom (Non-Fiction)
  9. *Regn by Josefine Klougart (Short story)
  10. *Man kan vinka till varandra från balkongerna by Elsa Billgren (Short story)
  11. *Ödelagda stâder by Merethe Lindstrøm (Short story)
  12. A streetcar named Desire by Tennessee Williams (Play)
  13. *De avond dat Mina mij meenam by Neel Doff (Collection)
  14. Foster by Claire Keegan (Novella)
  15. Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach (Novel)
  16. La gaieté by Justine Lévy (Novel)
  17. Une gourmandise by Muriel Barbery (Novel)
  18. *De druivenplukkers by A. den Doolaard (Novel)
  19. Every heart a doorway by Seanan McGuire (Novella)
  20. House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (Novel)

  1. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (Collection)
  2. Season of migration to the north by Tayeb Salih (Novel)
  3. For he can creep by Siobhan Carroll (Short story)
  4. Betty Boob by Vero Cazot & Julie Rocheleau (Graphic novel)
  5. Fjädrar: tre berättelser by Ursula Scavenius (Collection)
  6. Mig blir du snart kär i by Nanna Johansson (Comics)
  7. Wage slaves by Daria Bogdanska (Graphic novel)
  8. The unknown unknown by Mark Forsyth (Essay)
  9. A song of stone by Iain Banks (Novel)
  10. Houses by Borislav Pekić (Novel)
  11. Diary of a bookseller by Shaun Bythell (Non-fiction)
  12. *The greengage summer by Rumer Godden (Novel)
  13. La guerre des tétons V. 01: Invasion by Lili Sohn (Graphic novel)
  14. *Ta mig härifrån by Emma Ahlqvist (Graphic novel)
  15. *Le bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh (Graphic novel)

  1. Dichtertje - De uitvreter - Titaantjes by Nescio (Collecgtion)
  2. *Zelda: kampen fortsätter by Lina Neidestam (Graphic novel)
  3. Vanden winter ende vanden somer edited by P. Leendertz Jr (Play)
  4. Rubben by P. Leendertz Jr (Play)
  5. Selected poems (Dover Thrift Classics) by Lord Byron (Poetry)
  6. The obelisk gate by N. K. Jemisin (Novel)
  7. Mei by Herman Gorter (Poetry)
  8. La traviata by Francesco Maria Piave (Play)
  9. Zardoz by John Boorman (Novel)
  10. The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (Non-fiction)
  11. La messe de l'athée by Honoré de Balzac (Short story)
  12. The satanic verses by Salman Rushdie (Novel)
  13. The iguana by Anna Maria Ortese (Novel)
  14. The princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace (Poetry)
  15. Den röda vintern by Anneli Furmark (Graphic novel)
  16. *Mathilda by Mary Shelley (Novella)

*Not (yet) reviewed

Editado: Jan 2, 2020, 2:16am

  1. Histoire d'O, suivi de Retour à Roissy by Pauline Réage (Novel)
  2. Book-fools of the renaissance by K. Lesley Knieriem (Essay)
  3. *The need for air by Lettie Prell (Short story)
  4. *Any way the wind blows by Seanan McGuire (Short story)
  5. De komst van Joachim Stiller by Hubert Lampo (Novel)
  6. *Meat and salt and sparks by Rich Larson (Short story)
  7. Tubes: a journey to the center of the internet by Andrew Blum (Non-fiction)
  8. Chrestomathie aus Englischen Autoren in prosa und poesie zum Schul- und Privatgebrauche edited by Edward A Moriarty (Anthology)
  9. The excavations of Herculaneum by Mario Pagano (Non-fiction)
  10. Deutsche Literaturgeschichte in einer Stunde by Alfred Henschke (Non-fiction)
  11. *Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (Play)

  1. *Conte bleu; Le premier soir; Maléfice by Marguerite Yourcenar (Collection)
  2. Das Muschelessen by Birgit Vanderbeke (Novel)
  3. Rites of passage by William Golding (Novel)
  4. Leonardo, or the universal genius by Paolo De Silvestri (Non-fiction)
  5. The garden party and other stories by Katherine Mansfield (Collection)
  6. Beckomberga by Sara Stridsberg (Novel)
  7. *The diploids and other flights of fancy by Katherine MacLean (Collection)

  1. *Furcht erregende Darbietungen by Philip Ardagh (Novel, YA)
  2. Ice station zebra by Alistair MacLean (Novel)
  3. *La maison du canal by Georges Simenon (Novel)
  4. *The world-thinker and other stories by Jack Vance (Collection)
  5. *Histoire d'une jeune fille sauvage trouvée dans les bois à l'âge de dix ans by Marie-Catherine Hecquet (Non-fiction)
  6. *Etikett och god ton by Husmodern (Non-fiction)
  7. *Blue morphos in the garden by Lis Mitchell (Short story)
  8. *Day of the moron by H. Beam Piper (Short story)
  9. So long a letter by Mariama Bâ (Novella)
  10. Live alone and like it by Marjorie Hillis (Non-fiction)
  11. *Guide till Hallands Väderö by Kerstin Bergelin (Non-fiction)
  12. The door by Magda Szabó (Novel)
  13. *A cabinet of rarities: Antiquarian obsessions and the spell of death by Patrick Mauriès (Non-fiction)
  14. Samlade dikter by Edith Södergran (Poetry)
  15. Collected stories by Gabriel García Márquez (Collection)
  16. The moon endureth: tales and fancies by John Buchan (Collection)

* Not (yet) reviewed

Editado: Jul 4, 2019, 3:19am

Figures & statistics Until 2019-06-30

  • Items read: 95
  • Male / female / other ratio: 39/52/4 (42% / 55% / 4%)
  • Languages: 6
    • English: 60
    • Dutch: 10
    • French: 12
    • Swedish: 10
    • German: 2
    • Middle Dutch: 1
  • Types:
    • collection: 6
    • drama: 3
    • essays: 3
    • non-fiction: 6
    • novel: 40
    • novella: 21
    • short story: 12
  • Formerly owned but unread: 31

Editado: Nov 3, 2019, 2:30am

The golden child by Penelope Fitzgerald

Why did I choose to read this?
Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my Completist Authors, meaning I’ll be reading all the fiction she ever published (nine novels and a story collection). This is my sixth book by her, but it was the first novel she published; it is set in a museum. And since I work part-time in a fairly large museum, I was particularly looking forward to this one.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was a wild ride that brought me lots of joy. The golden child was Fitzgerald’s first novel, and while it is more ebullient than her later work in terms of plot and the sheer delight of throwing stuff at the reader to see what sticks, it also shows her characteristic restraint in not over-explaining character motivations or the genre tropes she expects readers to be familiar with.

The initial setting is the British Museum, a vast and labyrinthine structure whose institutional organization is incomprehensibly byzantine even to the people who work there. It is home to punch-clock civil servants, a pipe-smoking octogenarian archaeologist of the classical persuasion, bottom-level workers who do the cataloguing and drawing, the unsung heroes of the admin staff, and a multitude of department heads who vie for what little public money is available. When the Museum organizes a much-hyped temporary exhibition on Garamantian funeral practices, everyone needs to work together to manage the endless visitor queues, and the scene is set for a cozy art theft mystery. And that is when the plot really starts.

Also, class issues are not-so-subtly at play, shots are fired at Britain’s post-decolonisation position as a world power, and at one point Fitzgerald includes a puzzle like the one Sherlock-Holmes solved in The adventure of the dancing men. Shameless fun is what it is.

I am so glad I found out about Fitzgerald. Her books are both cozy and cutting, eccentric as well as understated, and she knew exactly what she was doing and how to get away with it. Full marks!

Jul 4, 2019, 3:05am

And the ass saw the angel by Nick Cave

Why did I choose to read this?
A gift from a friend of mine, eleven years ago. I started it almost immediately, but it fell by the wayside at the time.

Review (Also posted here.)
And the ass saw the angel is a murky Southern Gothic novel. It is set in a town called Ukulore, located in a once-fertile valley in the US South, which is the home base of a fundagelical Christian splinter group. Their Prophet has been dead a long time, and their local wealth and dominance have gradually driven away many of the other inhabitants; the remaining non-Ukulites are vagrants, whores, outcasts and the inbred poachers from the nearby swamp. Many years of constant rain has reduced the valley to rot and mud, and the strictly-observed Ukulite morality has made place for covert baseness and the worst kind of social discrimination. The main character, Euchrid, is an ostracized maniac and a congenital mute whose grotesque family tree is an extravagant mess of incest, alchoholism, abuse and cruelty to animals. His pendant, the Beauty to his Beast, is Elizabeth, the blonde baby girl whose birth heralded the end of the rains and the beginning of a new fertility. Euchrid and Elizabeth, both believing themselves to be instruments of a Higher Power, will shape the future of this vile place.

I thought this was a so-so book. I’m not averse to weird fiction (nor to Weird Fiction), but And the ass saw the angel struck me as pretty generic, both plot-wise and theme-wise. The descriptions of filth and depravity are sometimes overdone, in the way that concise and image-packed lyrics quickly lose their effect when maintained over longer sections of prose. Also, Euchrid’s inner dialogues are presented in some barely-applied eye dialect, which mainly consists of ah and mah for “I” and “my” among regularly-spelt English -- at that point, why bother, really?

That said, though, I do think the book’s gnarly language and style are absorbing and the book’s saving grace. His drive and his thirst for the grotesque are apparent on every page, and without the twisted narration Cave would not have been able to hold everything together, if only precariously.

Jul 4, 2019, 3:06am

The lamb will slaughter the lion by Margaret Killjoy

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by women. Reading more weird fiction.

Review (Also posted here.)
A fantasy novella in which an egalitarian group of lgbtq squatters and allies occupies an abandoned US town. Some of their leaders have summoned an undying spirit in the shape of a three-antlered deer who helps maintain the near-utopia by slaughtering those who do evil. A moral quandary ensues.

Killjoy presents a fairly straight-forward story in which the moral issues aren’t as murky as she’d like, but which keeps all its plates spinning simultaneously. Not great, but not bad, either!

Jul 8, 2019, 12:36am

Milk and honey by Rupi Kaur

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by women; reading more poetry. In truth, though, I read this because a friend who absolutely loathed this book urged me to so she could properly moan to me about it. I obliged. (The friend in question teaches poetry and is not impressed with Kaur’s offerings.)

Review (Also posted here.)
This is one of those books that are decidedly not for me. Many of these poems just came across as standard motivational poster material, pseudo-deep quotes from anime you see in online forum signatures, or loose thoughts with artificial breaks to mimic the look of poetry. I thought the sentiments expressed were trite and teenagery, though they are expressed with the intensity of someone feeling things for the very first time, someone finally finding words to express them.

I’ll give a few examples of what I’m talking about, and I’ll quote the poems in full. Here’s one from p. 87:
it must hurt to know
i am your most
And here is another (p. 93):
i am a museum full of art
but you had your eyes shut
And another (p. 88):
i didn’t leave because
i stopped loving you
i left because the longer
i stayed the less
i loved myself
I’m sorry to say that these do not qualify as poems to me. Deepities and cheap sentiment, yes. Poetry? Not so much.

In general, I thought Kaur’s writings do way too much telling, and way too little showing, like in this one from p. 118:
i don’t know why
i split myself open
for others knowing
sewing myself up
hurts this much
Or this one from p. 155:
there is a difference between
someone telling you
they love you and
them actually
loving you
And this one from p. 158:
removing all the hair
off your body is okay
if that’s what you want to do
just as much as keeping all the hair
on your body is okay
if that’s what you want to do

- you belong only to yourself

Too many poems in this book are like that: straightforward telling with artificial line breaks and not enough showing.

Only occasionally did Kaur hit upon a striking non-trite image or a progression of images that went at least part of the way there, such as in this poem (p. 31):
when my mother opens her mouth
to have a conversation at dinner
my father shoves the word hush
between her lips and tells her to
never speak with her mouth full
this is how the women in my family
learned to live with their mouths closed

Sadly, I thought poems like these were too few and far between. The ones I liked best were about female sexuality, and surviving sexual abuse: those are topics I haven’t read much poetry about, and that’s where Kaur’s directness seemed almost touching.

So yeah. Direct and heart-felt these writings may be, I thought they were trite and full of teen pain and not very poetry-like. But like I said at the start, I am not part of the target audience, which is teenage girls, and that is really all there is to it. I hope they, at least, get something out of it.

Jul 8, 2019, 12:49am

Ambtenaar in de gezondheidszorg by Rosalie Sprooten, or in English Civil servant in the health services

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by women; reading more in Dutch; reading more poetry. The appeal of poetry is usually lost on me, and so I have taken to browsing the relevant sections of, which is like Project Gutenberg but for Dutch-language literature and literary criticism. It’s a cheap and easy way to boost my figures for non-male, non-English and non-novel reading!

Review (Also posted in Dutch here.)
Short poems about mental health (mostly), often written from the perspective of non-medical staff at a psychiatric hospital. The language is direct, almost banal, but it does feature incisive observations and meticulously worded images, at least sometimes.

Editado: Jul 10, 2019, 11:23pm

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

Why did I choose to read this?
Generally owned-but-unread; reading more widely. I should read more plays, and sometimes buy them in fits of well-intentioned enthusiasm, but then I never seem to get to them. This play I’ve owned a copy of since 2008.

Review (Also posted here.)
George and Martha are a middle-aged couple who live on a New England university campus; he teachers History, she is the Dean's daughter. They invite a new colleague and his wife over for a nightcap after a university function and, as the night wears on and the drinking grows heavier, subject them to their twisted hate games. For George and Martha loathe each other: their intentionally toxic relationship consists mainly of sniping at each other about flaws real or imagined -- mediocrity, adultery, patricide, overbearing parents. They are vindictive assholes whose only joy is found in going out of their way to be hurtful to each other; their guests are largely there to turn the whole thing into a fetishistic performance.

I suspect the revelations in the third act were supposed to make their relationship seem poignant or even tragic or something, but I couldn’t find it in me to care. George and Martha are vicious assholes who chose to be that way and who choose to continue down that path: they’re entirely responsible for all their nastiness and bullshit, and I see no reason to pity them or even think of them as 3D-characters. They are the Serious Literature equivalents of that one-dimensional Big Bad from dreadfully written genre fiction, who is just evil for no adequately explained reason.

It was at least a little creative, though, and the buildup in acts one and two was good, and so I’ll give it two stars.

Ago 1, 2019, 7:32am

Real life intervened, and my reading has slowed down, and I'm about fifteen-twenty reviews behind.

But I've been able to free up some time now, and I'm reading again. I'll be chipping away at the review backlog, too!

Editado: Ago 1, 2019, 7:50am

Every heart a doorway by Seanan McGuire

Why did I choose to read this?
This novella won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and, therefore, is really popular and hopefully high-quality.

Review (Also posted here.)
I liked this, I think. Every heart a doorway is set in a boarding school for lost teenagers, mainly girls. At some point they found a temporary door into a fantasy world where they fit perfectly, where they felt truly at home. Some visited a High Nonsense world with rainbows and distracted fae; others spent time in gloomy or cruel worlds where strict rules have to be obeyed, on pain of dismissal. When these children return (willingly or not) to the real world after subjective years, only a few weeks or months have passed here on Earth, and the children have trouble adjusting to a world where they no longer really belong; their parents utterly fail to understand or believe them. The boarding school for wayward girls tries to provide support to these lost teenagers and reintegrate them back into the world, if they want to.

I don’t think I am all that willing to accept some of the core premise of this novella -- the “teen finds a whole world where she feels truly understood” thing is no longer for me -- but the quality of the worldbuilding kinda makes up for that. Also, the novella is lovingly tinged with horror elements, which appealed to me a lot more. So yeah, three stars.

Ago 1, 2019, 8:01am

>8 Petroglyph:

I watch Booktube (basically the section of Youtube where book lovers talk about books) and despite not reading any young adult I tend to follow younger Youtubers just for the positive energy they send out and sense of motivation I get to read from them. This poetry book made the rounds on Booktube with everyone loving it and singing its praise and instantly putting the author on a pedestal. When I saw the book at the airport bookstore I decided to take a glance to see what the praise was all about and I was shocked at its simplicity. It felt like someone had taken inspirational quotes from Tumblr and collected them into the equivalent of a middle schooler's notebook. So your review is spot on with my reaction to the book and yes, only naive teenagers could like it.

Ago 1, 2019, 8:35am

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

Why did I choose to read this?
It had been too long since my last grand-scale Space Opera, and having read and enjoyed other books by Reynolds, this more-or-less standalone novel seemed like it wouldn’t require committing to a multi-book series.

Review (Also posted here.)
In the far future humans have colonized a visible part of the galaxy; they have split into numerous sub-species and observe the non-human species and civilisations that rise and fall in waves. That kind of observation requires taking the long view of many millions of years, and that is exactly what the Lines can do. The Lines are near-immortal post-human clones of a single forebear, called “shatterlings”, and they travel around the Galaxy in cycles lasting hundreds of thousands of years; at the end they meet up and compare notes, and then they are off again. One such line, the Gentians, are the shatterlings of Abigail Gentian, who produced one thousand clones about six million years ago; when this book start about eight hundred are still in existence.

Without spoilers, I can say that House of Suns deals with proper Space Opera stuff: extremely advanced self-repairing ships, galaxy-wide chases, Deep Time, highly advanced AI, potential galaxy-wide warfare, and a now-lost species of Priors who left behind incomprehensibly advanced tech. And all travel is kept sub-luminar, which adds to the charm. All that is great. Unfortunately, this book also felt pretty YA to me: some things were too facile, especially the relationship between Purslane and Campion, the parts set in Palatial, and some decisions made about the ending, which felt too much like a cop-out.

Entertaining, but not my best read by Reynolds.

Ago 1, 2019, 8:49am

>13 lilisin:
I follow a few booktubers, too, including a few YA ones. Those I watch more for the entertaining reviews of crap books than for anything else, though I have to agree that their enthusiasm is infectious!

The friend who got me to read this book was very vocal in her disdain, but yes, even then it came as a bit of a shock just how not-good it was. Inspirational quotes from Tumblr, indeed.

Ago 2, 2019, 11:36am

Season of migration to the north by Tayeb Salih

Why did I choose to read this?
My first Sudanese author. Comes warmly recommended by my SO, who specialises in African literatures.

Review (Also posted here.)
This book runs along two narrative strands. In the present, post-independent 1960s Sudan, an unnamed narrator returns to his ancestral village at a bend in the Nile after an education in London; his PhD was about an obscure English poet, which is an inevitably irrelevant training for his day job as a government clerk in Khartoum. The village is almost unchanged from when he left, and so he is surprised to meet Mustafa Sa’eed there, another Western-educated Sudanese, who was a professor of Economics in Interbellum London before serving a sentence for murdering his (white) wife. Sa’eed now has retired into obscurity, married a local woman and become a father. His life forms the second narrative strand, told largely through hear-say, letters and anecdotes, almost like a play within a play.

Form-wise, Season of migration to the north juggles its two timelines admirably. The unnamed narrator in the present tells his story linearly, whereas the flashbacks detailing Sa’eed’s life are lengthy first-person narratives given through second-hand intermediaries or letters, and they are presented non-chronologically. The former are almost entirely novel-like, the latter are definitely oral literature, and slot into place like similar passages in something like the Odyssey. Their integration is not all that smooth, though, in that transitions from one to the other draw attention to themselves in a way that cannot be but intentional. In fact, the entire novel is presented as a slightly oral version of a Western-style novel: the first line (and several other chapters later on) addresses readers directly (“Gentlemen”).

Content-wise, I am not sure what to think about this book, or more precisely, what to conclude about this book, which I think is the point: there are no easy answers. Sa’eed’s dealings with the West make heavy use of exoticising myths about Africa to gain influence among well-willing liberals and to seduce British girls. Similarly, the post-independence governmental systems in Sudan and their attempts to introduce modernity resemble Colonial forms of power too much for comfort. The unnamed narrator, though a civil servant in the capital Khartoum, feels powerless to effect any change, despite people clearly expecting this of him. His feelings towards his ancestral village importing mechanized water mills and farmer co-operatives are divided: he sees the improvement in living standards, but is reluctant to overwrite his sentimental memories. He is privately sympathetic to Bint Mahmoud, Sa’eed’s widow, though does nothing to prevent her independent streak and her shameful disobedience to her father’s ukase from escalating into irreversible damage at the hands of tradition. In other words: the tone is very much one of conflicting loyalties and an unacted-on disappointment at a lack of openness and honesty.

Season of migration to the north is a book about uneasy change, set before transitions have run their course. It’s a thoughtful mulling over opinions and feelings about those changes that are unformed and set in stone at the same time.

(The copy I read, published by NYRB Classics, features an excellent introduction by Laila Lalami.)

Ago 2, 2019, 11:51am

A streetcar named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Why did I choose to read this?
General owned-but-unread. I should read more plays, and sometimes buy them in fits of well-intentioned enthusiasm, but then I never seem to get to them. This play I’ve owned a copy of since 2014.

Review (Also posted here.)
A formerly-rich Southern Belle spends a few weeks with her sister and her working-class husband. No-one can know she’s really poor and desperate, but her brother-in-law feels punched in the working class by her very presence and sets out to diminish her. Tensions simmer and are expressed through spite, violence and power games.

I liked this one a lot better than Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I read earlier this month. At least the characters in this one seem human, can be empathized with, show some characterization. And not just a little: they’re fully fleshed out and do not really feel like made-up people in made-up circumstances. I enjoyed not enjoying spending time with them.

Very well done!

Ago 4, 2019, 10:18am

Une gourmandise by Muriel Barbery

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by women; reading more in French.

Review (Also posted here.)
Un gourmand âgé essaie de retrouver un goût particulier qui l’échappe. Il sait qu’il va mourir dans peu de temps, et il repense aux repas les plus intenses et les plus touchants qu’il a jamais mangé pour le localiser. Dans sa vie, il a vu beaucoup et goutté plus, et il est content de revoir tous ses souvenirs.

Dans les chapitres qui alternent avec ceux du gourmand, des autres personnages offrent leur perspective sur lui, et il paraît que le gourmand, en chassant des expériences gastronomiques, n’a pas réussi d’établir des relations avec autrui. Presque personne ne l’aime: il n’a aucun ami, et sa famille le méprise. Même le mendiant dans le portail de l’immeuble le dédaigne.

Simple, et bien fait. Un roman vite lu, vite oublié.

Ago 4, 2019, 6:47pm

Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach

Why did I choose to read this?
I want to read more Weird and Decadent fiction, and this one is a stone-cold classic. Also, I want to read more Belgian literature, particularly in French. Two birds with one stone!

Review (Also posted here.)
Un jeune homme riche qui vient de devenir veuf ne peut pas supporter la perte de son épouse. Par conséquent, il a laissé tomber tout et il est parti pour Bruges, une ville métaphoriquement morte depuis que la mer s’est retirée, ce qui pour le veuf malheureux est la meilleure place pour passer son deuil. Ici il s’est replié sur lui-même et son chagrin. Il habite son immeuble dans la ville médiévale, sort prendre des promenades sans but, maintient l’autel qu’il a construit dans son salon, et refuse presque tout contact avec autrui. Comme ça il se passent cinq ans. Durant une de ces promenades il rencontre une femme tout à fait identique à son épouse morte, à la surface en tous cas, et ses obsessions vont être renforcées.

Ce roman court ne m’a pas trop plu, non moins parce que le déroulement de cette intrigue, aujourd'hui, a été utilisé trop souvent. Il y a aussi le sentiment que la seule femme qui puisse être parfaite est un cadavre intact et non dérangé (comme chez Poe, par exemple). Mais le pire est que la plupart du texte consiste en descriptions plein de pathos et de sentimentalité, et cela me fait perdre mon intérêt presque immédiatement. Je peux supporter mieux que le tout est pimenté avec une admiration hébétée pour la splendeur catholique et pour la ville ossifiée: cela ajoutait à l’atmosphère. L’apogée, par contre, m’a beaucoup amusé: il était trop absurde, trop exagéré (et trop attendu) pour vraiment me décevoir.

Je suis heureux d’avoir lu un classique décadent, mais je ne crois pas je le relirai.

Ago 5, 2019, 8:48am

Foster by Claire Keegan

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by women. Not having read much at all by Irish authors. I’d read lots of praise for Keegan’s short stories, so I decided to test the waters with a novella (expanded short story) before diving into a collection.

Review (Also posted here.)
Rural Ireland, indeterminate time. An eight-year-old girl is summarily dropped off at a farm for an indeterminate period of time; the farmer and his wife have agreed to look after her for a while. Her own parents have long since been overwhelmed by poverty and a large number of children and don’t have the money or the energy to bother with advanced parenting such as emotional support and bedtime reading. The childless couple she spends the summer with, though, do, and the girl experiences what it is like to be allowed to come out of her shell.

Small-scale drama at family level, told through the eyes of a child, but very well written. Almost melodramatic at the end, but the novella has earned its ending.

Ago 5, 2019, 10:47am

>8 Petroglyph: Thanks for that review. I had taken a peek in the book. I agree these don't come across as poems. This was both the most stolen book from the bookstore last year, and a bestseller in the poetry section. I try not to be too harsh about it because it did get some teenagers down to the poetry section and even I read Rod McKuen as a teen in the very early 70s and I wouldn't call that poetry now either (and I'm a bit embarrassed to admit reading him now, but he was a bestseller).

Ago 5, 2019, 9:59pm

>21 avaland:
I try not to be too harsh about it because it did get some teenagers down to the poetry section and even I read INSERT CRAP AUTHOR HERE as a teen

I can be very eager to thrash-talk a bad book (it's very cathartic), but I held off here, precisely for that reason: Rupi Kaur aims to reach an audience that is a) not me, and b) not in need of more people punching down at them. Going out of my way to mock her work would be just mean-spirited. Besides, I think most of us have at least one author (genre?) we feel apologetically embarrassed about now that we're grown up.

Ago 5, 2019, 10:01pm

Betty Boob by Vero Cazot & Julie Rocheleau

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by women; reading more in French (even though this turned out to be largely wordless); reading more widely (i.e. graphic novels).

Review (Also posted here.)
This was wonderful!

Told almost without words but with plenty of humour and sass, this graphic novel deals with the aftermath of breast cancer. Without her left breast, Elizabeth feels extremely self-conscious of other people's reactions, and finding a way of accepting her new self-image is not a matter of going from point a to point b.

Cazot and Rocheleau depict that journey with lots of nudity, clever visual wordplay, engrossing artwork that flares off the pages, and a fine-tuned sense of tone. I enjoyed every page.

Ago 6, 2019, 8:43pm

La gaieté by Justine Lévy

Why did I choose to read this?
J’aime beaucoup les deux romans auto-fiction que j’ai lu de Annie Ernaux; les livres de Lévy m’apparaissaient tomber dans le même genre.

Review (Also posted here.)
Justine Lévy est une mère, et pour elle ça veut dire que elle s’est dédiée entièrement à son enfant et à sa rôle de mère. Étant enfant, elle a souffert l’abus de sa mère distante. Ses enfants, à elle, auront la meilleure enfance qu’elle peut les donner: elle se l’est promis. Et comme ça, elle décide d’être gai, au lieu de continuer laisser l’abus psychologique commis par sa mère déterminer sa vie. Mais la réjection est un processus qui demande de la ténacité.

Ceci est un livre que j’ai pas fini. Après un tiers j’y ai renoncé.

Comment Lévy soigne ses enfants au quotidien ne m’intéresse point. La lutte énorme qui est la vie banale d’un parent de la petite bourgeoisie me fatigue. Ce livre tout me semble moins qu’un roman autofiction, et plus comme un bouquin de développement personnel qui apprend un message insipide: “il ne suffit pas de décider d’être gai; il faut s’efforcer à long terme”. Le didactisme mal placé, quoi.

La gaieté me rappelle les bêtises de beaucoup de livres de recettes qui contiennent des introductions irrelevantes ou des anecdotes concernant la découverte de tel ou tel légume mais qui n’ont rien à faire avec les recettes à proprement parler; ils ne servent qu’à insérer une touche personnelle pour engager les lecteurs qui s’intéressent à la vie privée de l’auteur.

En somme, puisque je déteste des romans didactiques, et parce que je n’ai aucun patience pour des anecdotes mièvres de la petite bourgeoisie, La gaieté, pour moi, était un roman raté.

Ago 7, 2019, 4:54pm

>5 Petroglyph: >16 Petroglyph: Catching up after some time away. I took bullets on Fitzgerald and Salih. Nice reviews.

Ago 25, 2019, 9:17pm

>25 Jim53:
Thanks! Always happy to nudge people to try some P. Fitzgerald. And my appreciation for Salih's book increases the more I think about it. You choose your bullets well!

Editado: Ago 25, 2019, 9:34pm

La malédiction de Machrood by John Flanders

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more in French. Reading more by Belgian authors. I read plenty of short stories by John Flanders (pseudonym for Jean Ray) as a kid, and I was curious to see if they held up. They did not.

Review (Also posted in French here.)
Jean Ray wrote weird fiction for children, back in the 30s and 40s. And those are the reasons that this collection did not really appeal to me: the orphan heros are too innocent, the villains are uniformly fat and ugly, and the plots end too abruptly.

These stories have not aged well. As genres, the fantastique, weird fiction and horror have seen too many developments since Ray penned his tales, and his efforts now seem too facile and infantile. Pity.

Ago 25, 2019, 9:27pm

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading globally. Reading more in French. Reading more by women. I’d read two of Yoshimoto’s novellas before, and they appealed to me enough to pick up two more.

Review (Also posted here.)
These two novellas I’d describe as slice-of-wistful-life in 21stC Japan, where depressed and lonely city girls try to overcome the barriers between themselves and others and the barriers within themselves, too. The second novella edges into magical realism, with a subdued dollop of Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Not too much, not too little: just right. Notable was that either novella featured a trans/non-binary character, though part of the reason for their inclusion, I think, was to heighten the magical-realist atmosphere.

Both novellas were nicely done, though, and next time I’m in the mood for muted melancholy, I’ll look for more of Yoshimoto’s work.

Ago 25, 2019, 9:28pm

Fjädrar by Ursula Scavenius

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by women; reading more by Scandinavian authors. A random find at the local library. Danish short stories translated into Swedish.

Review (Also posted in Swedish here.)
Three lit-fic stories of the alienating persuasion. One story deals with life in crumbling tenements somewhere in Eastern Europe; the second story with a couple’s attempt at surviving the apocalypse when the water levels just keep rising; and the third story with a widower whose wife died of cancer and whose bird-obsessed son has feathers growing on his back. All characters eke out their lives among filth and neglect, and recurring motifs are cabbage heads, feral dogs, and bird-mania.

This was a little too alienating for my taste. Probably well-done if you’re into this kind of thing, but it is not for me.

Ago 25, 2019, 9:35pm

The unknown unknown by Mark Forsyth

Why did I choose to read this?
A recommendation by a colleague, who guessed (correctly) that a bibliophilic essay about bookshops might appeal to me.

Review (Also posted here.)
Forsyth touts the advantages of getting lost in a bookshop, of serendipity, of finding things you didn’t know existed when you walked in. He contrasts this with online algorithms and their recommendations for things that are likely to interest you. A bit of a grumpy old-media attitude, but I’m in full agreement with his paean to bookshops.

Set 5, 2019, 5:31pm

La guerre des tétons, V. 01: Invasion by Lili Sohn

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more in French; reading more by women; reading more widely (e.g. graphic novels).

Review (Also posted here.)
Sohn attaque le cancer du sein avec beaucoup de l’humour et de panique: elle est réticent à avoir une dépistage, ne veut pas accepter la diagnose non plus, mais est forcée à faire face à la réalité. Le résultat est un bédé mignon, très génération Y, et feel-good. Mais pas mal du tout!

Out 18, 2019, 3:10pm

Just stopping by to catch up and wave a hello. Enjoying your posts.

Nov 3, 2019, 2:57am

Zardoz by John Boorman

Why did I choose to read this?
The movie Zardoz is a personal favourite: it’s a clumsy, awkward piece of wannabe-deep-thought that I find adorable in its bungling of Themes and Substance. It’s such a perfect illustration of its zeitgeist -- at least, of popular conceptions of the early seventies’ drug-infused counter-culture -- as well as a delightful example of earnest-but-misguided WTFery.

Review (Also posted here.)
When I found out that John Boorman once published a novelization of his movie Zardoz (a film I cannot but class as "feel-good"), I simply had to read it. I kind of wish I hadn't now: its clumsy pretention and not-quite-sensical pseudo-philosophy just aren't as entertaining without the visuals. It's really only of marginal interest for fans of the movie.

Nov 3, 2019, 3:15am

The princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace

Why did I choose to read this?
A random find in a bookshop. It seemed extremely similar to Rupi Kaur’s book of not-quite-poems (which I reviewed upthread here), and, sadly, this turned out to be the case.

Review (Also posted here.)
This book is a collection of motivational poster copy, straightforwardly worded social justice slogans and teenage woes that have collectively been typographically arranged to mimic the look of poetry. I get that this may be inspirational to some people, but it isn't to me. I get that the author had to write her childhood abuse into words, but I'm not convinced this was the best outlet. I don't even agree that many of these texts qualify as poetry.

Nov 5, 2019, 11:36pm

>33 Petroglyph: I am deeply amused by the fact that I am no longer the only person here to have read the novelization of Zardoz this year. :)

I was also amused by your description of the movie, which I cannot disagree with. Can't say I didn't warn you about the "not as entertaining without the visuals" thing, though!

Editado: Nov 7, 2019, 5:52am

>35 bragan:
I think I read about this book in your thread, so thanks for the obscure book recommendation!

But yeah: much like the Eternals had to visit outer space in a spaceship to discover it was "another dead end", I had to find out for myself that weak-sauce ideas on paper seem so much worse without cheap-o production values and unconvincing mimes.

Editado: Nov 13, 2019, 1:53pm

Rites of passage by William Golding

Why did I choose to read this?
Ten years ago a good friend gifted me a stack of books she didn’t want any more, and this is one of the few that had remained unread. I knew nothing about this book going in; I’d even refused to read the blurb. It's apparently also won the Booker prize? I’d even forgotten that I’d read something by Golding before (Lord of the flies, obviously).

Review (Also posted here.)
Rites of passage was one of a whole stack of books given to me by a friend whose taste I trust, so when I finally got to it I didn’t even bother reading the blurb and dove in unprepared. It turns out it’s maritime fiction (yay!) that’s set towards the end of the Napoleonic wars (yay!), and it won the Booker prize (promising!). It’s also a book in which “not much happens” on a plot level. Instead, though, the central ideas are culpability and responsibility, and the characters’ ongoing struggle with guilt and the consequences of their actions proved to be an engrossing read. I don’t think I would have bought this book myself, but I’m glad I was given the opportunity to read it. It’s an excellent novel, one that I like better the more I think about it.

The novel takes the form of a maritime journal kept by Edmund Talbot, who chronicles the goings-on during a voyage to Australia. As the only proper Aristocrat on board (though a very low-level one, at that) Talbot is given to posturing, tempted as he is to over-sell his importance. Still, he’s got enough humility to realize his aloof status is partially made up of bluster, and he knows deep down that he is not really all that principled himself. There’s just enough self-depreciation there to make him a sympathetic unreliable narrator. And so, when Talbot looks down on people and mocks their appearance or criticises their ethics, we can sometimes laugh with him, sometimes not, but we’re invited to feel superior to him either way -- until that gets questioned. That bit was very nicely done, I thought.

As the voyage wears on, Talbot’s diary becomes increasingly concerned with mild-mannered Pastor Colley, one of the passengers, who becomes the victim of the Captain’s wrath. Initially, Colley is merely an easy scapegoat when Captain Anderson needs a very public demonstration of his unquestioned authority on board. But since it turns out that Captain Anderson is fastidiously anti-clerical, he finds it all too easy to continue his harassment. The officers, encouraged by the captain’s attitude, begin to take advantage of the milksop Pastor, and soon even the passengers see no reason to show him any consideration. Talbot, eager to maintain his persona, mocks Colley’s looks and tries to get in the Captain’s good graces.

The second half of the book is largely taken up by Colley’s diary, which offers a different account of the voyage so far. While Talbot keeps his distance and views his acquisition of navigational terms as a curiosity, almost an anthropological experiment by an outsider, Colley tries to make friends, and he is genuinely chuffed at having learnt things about sails and rigging. He is deeply impressed by sunsets and takes great pleasure in experiencing the various textures of the sea depending on wind and weather. He, too, is a bit of an arrogant fop, in that he clearly expects his being a Pastor to result in deference and admiration. But when he is met with indifference from the passengers, mockery from the crew, or instinctive hatred from the captain, he blames himself first and is eager to find excuses for others. .

On the whole, this was a pretty good novel. While it was nice to get thoroughly acquainted with Colley’s character in the second half, that portion did drag a little bit because of all the repetition. But that is really my only complaint. The writing was good, the characters were properly fleshed out, and I loved the interplay between morally gray characters’ writings as they navigate their moral compass and the way I changed my mind about their actions. There’s even more to this novel, but talking about those aspects would really spoil the book, so I’ll leave it at that.

Nov 13, 2019, 7:17am

>37 Petroglyph: Interesting. It's been a long time since I have read Lord of the Flies (and did not understand how you can name that book a children book!). I had heard of Rites of Passage and your review makes it even more appealing.

Nov 13, 2019, 1:48pm

>37 Petroglyph: Yes, that’s an amazing book. Takes Georgian naval stories to a whole different level. Are you going to read the other two books in the trilogy as well?

Editado: Nov 13, 2019, 2:12pm

>38 raton-liseur:
I guess it's "tainted" by association: if it's assigned pretty systematically to high-schoolers, that makes it a children's book in people's minds? I myself did read it as a teenager (for English classes, of course), but my memories of the book are so hazy that all I can say, really, is that I thought it was a proper adult book at the time. Rites of passage, too, I think is a proper adult book: it spoke to me and did not patronise me at any time. Do give it a shot!

>39 thorold:
Yes, I'm tempted now to also get a hold of the rest of the trilogy. I gather they all take place during the same sea voyage, so I would have to read them in quick succession.

Next year's "have to read this" list also includes Joseph Conrad's Nostromo -- I have a lot of Georgian sea stories to look forward to!

Nov 13, 2019, 2:10pm

>40 Petroglyph: I did not mean you called Lord of the flies a children's book. I was referring at how it is usually presented, at least in France. It's usually a recommanded children's read, which I don't understand. It would be interesting if this is not the case in your part of the world.
Will think about Rites of Passage (and the two others in the trilogy then).

Editado: Nov 13, 2019, 2:15pm

>41 raton-liseur:
Yes, I realized that after I'd pressed "post" -- apologies! I've altered message 39.

The book was definitely a standard entry on reading lists where I grew up (Belgium). I think it was one of the few books that we all had to read -- two or three others were up to individual choices.

Nov 13, 2019, 2:18pm

>40 Petroglyph: Well, it's a very long voyage, even though the books are quite short: you don't need to rush!

Nov 13, 2019, 3:29pm

>42 Petroglyph: No worries :)
I agree with your explanation, although I'm happy it was not a compulsory read for me and I could read it in my thirthies.

Editado: Nov 13, 2019, 10:47pm

No es hora de jugar by Lawrence Schimel & Elina Braslina

Why did I choose to read this?
I need to step up my half-hearted and languid attempts to acquire a little conversational Spanish. My SO got me this bedtime book to help with that.

Review (Also posted here.)

Una historia muy linda sobre una chica que va a dormir. Pero su perro quiere jugar. Quién gana?

Nov 13, 2019, 10:49pm

Wage Slaves: En memoar av en prekär migrantarbetare by Daria Bogdanska

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by women; reading more contemporary Swedish authors; reading more widely (e.g. comics & graphic novels).

Review (Also posted here.)
This is a largely autobiographical graphic novel that Daria Bogdanska wrote about her first years after moving to Sweden from Poland. As a penniless immigrant, she scraped by taking on dodgy waitress positions that paid under the counter. She quickly realised that her employers were exploiting all their staff, with increasingly harsher treatments the less waitresses were ethnically Swedish. Bogdanska organises an undercover exposé of toxic family ties and forced dependence, and she does so by involving the unions and the media.

This graphic novel felt very Swedish: agitating for social justice by working with welfare state institutions. It’s well done: the black-and white illustrations and the art style reinforce the themes nicely, and they also convey some of the flavour of living down and out in an immigrant-heavy quarter of a Swedish city, where lofty ideals of equality and social security for all may not always reach those most in need of them.

Nov 13, 2019, 3:00am

La messe de l’athée by Honoré de Balzac

Why did I choose to read this?
I enjoyed other works by de Balzac, and this seemed like a quick way of getting acquainted with more works in his Comédie Humaine. Also, I’m an atheist myself, so the title made me curious.

Review (Also posted here.)
Un des étudiants du célèbre chirurgien Desplein découvre un secret -- du moins, c’est ce qu’il croit: Desplein, athée dévoué, visite une église catholique tous les trois mois pour y écouter une messe. Quand l’étudiant finalement lui demande pourquoi (après avoir surveillé son maître pendant un an!), l’explication de Desplein montre qu’il n’y a aucune contradiction entre ses principes et son comportement.

Pas mal. De Balzac dessine le portrait d’un athée sympathique et consciencieux. Le dénouement concerne une seule question assez simple -- est-ce qu’un athée peut respecter la foi d’autrui? -- avec une réponse parfaitement évidente. La simplicité de cette nouvelle et son caractère tout à fait 19ième siècle concordent très bien avec son “mystère” central qui se concerne également avec des angoisses de cette époque. Une charmante petite histoire.

Il paraît que cette nouvelle a été écrite durant une seule nuit; cela explique peut-être la seule partie de l’intrigue que je trouve difficile à accepter: que l’étudiant observe son maître durant un an pour une chose qui n’est guère un mystère et que le chirurgien lui explique volontiers.

Nov 14, 2019, 7:09pm

>46 Petroglyph: This has gone into my wishlist!

>45 Petroglyph: Fellow Spanish learner here! I'm reading Ritos Iguales - the Spanish translation if Equal Rites - by Terry Pratchett in the hope of improving my Spanish. I'm enjoying it but I'm terribly slow. I'm tempted to try your way. Starting with a children's book might be more rewarding. Small steps and all that... That book looks adorable.

Nov 14, 2019, 9:58pm

>48 Dilara86:
My SO has lent me a copy of Borges' Ficciones, which I ought to pick up and try to work my way through. But I can imagine that a Pratchett book would be a lot of fun to spell out in a new language -- interesting to see what the translators do with the puns and the pop-cultural references!

Editado: Nov 14, 2019, 10:37pm

The satanic verses by Salman Rushdie

Why did I choose to read this?
Because a) it’s one of those books and authors I feel I really ought to have read, and b) I’ve owned a copy for a shameful mumbleteen years now.

Review (Also posted here.)
The satanic verses is a book whose reputation precedes it. I found it an exciting read, dazzling, even, if I’m allowed over-used blurb cliché, for the book is all over the place and will shower you with impatient joy and breathless erudition.

The main plot deals with two Indian expats in London, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, explore their love-hate relationship with London (“Ellowen-Deeowen”) and Englishness through a series of semi-mythical sequences that may or may not be in-universe fictional echoes of each other. In one layer, Gibreel and Saladin miraculously survive a fall out of a terrorist-exploded airplane in mid-flight, drop into the sea, and swim ashore, where they each meet a series of odd characters. Each finds himself developing increasingly strange and magical powers that drive them towards extremes on the good-vs-evil spectrum. Saladin grows horns, goat legs and an epic case of sulphuric halitosis; Gibreel grows a halo and hallucinates giving Islamic revelations to the prophet Mahound.

(This, incidentally, pushes this book beyond “magical realism” territory and firmly into the “fantasy” genre. But that is my opinion, and not a hill I’m willing to die on.)

Interspersed with their wanderings through London’s postcolonial underbelly are other stories with other protagonists. One is a Historical Fiction (-ish) retelling of the beginnings of Islam; another is a fairy tale (-ish) about the foot pilgrimage of an entire Indian village to Mecca, led by a magical, butterfly-covered girl, and who experience a series of maybe-miracles on the road. These stories (and others) are thematically related to the main event, but crossovers do happen. It is not entirely clear whether these are hallucinations, dreams, phantasms or in-universe movies, perhaps based on in-universe hallucinations, etc.. The book takes a very playful attitude to narrative -- at some point, the author himself appears in a cheeky cameo.

Rushdie’s writing style is equally ebullient, with stream-of-consciousness puns and rephrasings stacked on top of each other, ADHD-like, and it relies on cleverness and sheer force of agitation to propel things forward. Motifs, themes and narrative echoes do tie things together, though, especially past the halfway mark.

This was an electrifying read. The satanic verses transforms an immigrant’s belonging to a duality of cultures into a kaleidoscopic dazzle, or a funhouse, surrounded by weird copies and echoes of the self. I’m not sure if the contents quite match up to the sensational fireworks of the presentation, but style over content this is most definitely not.

Nov 15, 2019, 10:34pm

Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars

Why did I choose to read this?
Some books sound like they were written to please me in particular (Earlier instalments from this challenge include The towers of Trebizond and The Wake). This year’s candidate appears to be Moravagine, a Decadent novel, in which an escapee from a psychiatric hospital and his doctor traipse around the world, witnessing the global chaos that were the 1910s.

Review (Also posted here.)
The narrator of this novel, freshly-graduated genius doctor Raymond la Science, lands a position at a renowned Swiss sanatorium for wealthy but criminally insane patients. This is where he meets one of the inmates, Moravagine, the last and very decrepit heir to a line of Central European nobility. The rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire have put him away to solidify their hold on the throne -- but also because he’s a psychopathic murderer with a near-inhuman psyche. Raymond and Moravagine discover they are kindred spirits, and decide to break out. Joined together like a pair of parasites they travel the unstable world of the early 1900s, hiding under a variety of spy-level disguises, aliases and false passports. Wherever they are -- masterminding the Revolution in Russia, rafting up the Orinoco, witnessing The Great War -- Raymond develops his anarchistic ideas in his journal, and Moravagine leaves behind a trail of butchered girls. They feed off each other, and as their picaresque voyages become increasingly deranged, they themselves become more and more unhinged.

The first chapter was great! It hit me with an unexpected twist that boosted my confidence in having found a wild reading experience. Wild it was, but I don’t think the momentum was adequately sustained: some parts dragged too much (the Russian Revolution sections in particular), and others felt more incoherently tacked on. As the novel wears on, unity and structure become looser and cease to apply; this is particularly clear in the WWI segments and everything after. And while this is absolutely intentional, I don’t think the various sequences lead all that well into each other.

Moravagine is a very angry book: it’s furious at the mechanised slaughter of WWI and the indifference of modern technology and the kind of societies they have created. It has no faith in any of the Great Narratives either, and even raving anarchy and a primeval pleasure at tearing down society’s values are ultimately unfulfilling and hollow.

I cannot help but think that this book would translate exceptionally well to the big screen -- its story and aesthetic would be much better served in a largely visual medium. I think it would make for an awesome movie in the hands of Ben Wheatley (A field in England) or Robert Eggers (The VVitch: A New England folktale and The lighthouse).

Nov 15, 2019, 3:28am

>51 Petroglyph: fascinating and disturbing.

Also, I got a lot out of your Rushdie review. I finally read a book by him, his latest, and it leaves me thinking he’s an author I should read more of.

Nov 16, 2019, 9:06am

>50 Petroglyph: I've never read it and feel I should. Your review might be the push I need to give it a try.

Side note: I learnt a new expression here, not a hill I am willing to die on. I enjoyed it: it's very graphic and says a lot! I'll surely use it if the oppourtunity arises!

Nov 16, 2019, 12:00am

>52 dchaikin:
This book has indeed whet my appetite for more by Rushdie. Possibly something more recent by him (i.e. last ten years).

>53 raton-liseur:
I think it's a book that's worth having read, and it's very rewarding for the effort it requires to read.

a hill X is willing to die on has a related expression choose your battles. It's sage advice, I think, especially because you can't win 'em all, and there are too many battles to choose from.

Nov 16, 2019, 12:02am

Das Muschelessen by Birgit Vanderbeke. English title: The mussel feast

Why did I choose to read this?
Part of an effort to read more in German. This book is a recommendation by a colleague, and I have no idea what to expect.

Review (Also posted here.)

One evening at dinnertime a family sit around the kitchen table waiting for Father to come home from work. The food on the table is a pot of mussels: it’s not something they particularly care for, but Father does, and so they accommodate him. But this time he’s late, and the family realizes they are waiting to eat food only Father likes, listen to music only he likes, obey rules only he thinks are important. The absurdity of the situation dawns on them.

It turns out Father is a full-blown narcissist, who rules his family with an endless parade of double standards that without fail end up in his favour. While the children are allowed to practice the piano (even though art and music are inferior to proper skills like engineering), they can only do so between the end of school and when Father comes home, for he wants peace and quiet. Father won’t visit his mother back in East Germany, for Father is a successful businessman and cannot be asked to put up with his poor Ossi mother and her sub-par living conditions. Father wants his children to get good marks at school -- that reflects well on him -- but when they do it’s not good enough: today’s subjects are watered-down versions of the ones Father had in his day, and so a good mark today really only translates to a middling-to-bad mark from his own schooldays, and approval is withheld.

Father excuses everything with the mantras of “this is how things should be in a proper family” and “appearances must be kept up”, and obedience is obtained on pain of punishment and violence. And because the family have been overaccommodating for so long, they don’t even realise how crooked they’ve grown placating someone who’ll never be satisfied. Until the night when they sit by themselves around the cooling mussels, increasingly less willing to slide into their role as Proper Family Members.

After finishing the book, I read that it was written as an almost allegorical tale of life in East Germany just before the Berlin Wall fell. Sure, why not? I didn’t spot that, and I actually think I would have found that a fairly cumbersome reading of the book. What I saw, and what I really liked, was the expert breakdown of a raging narcissist’s behavioral patterns, a dismantling of his power structures. I saw an excellent psychological portrait of abuse victims finally recalibrating their normal meters and recognizing their victimhood. And that, I thought, was very well done.

Nov 16, 2019, 12:30am

>55 Petroglyph: That's a fabulous cover.

Nov 16, 2019, 2:14am

Interesting about the allegory and also your take on it. What a crazy era. My only problem was as I read your review I kept thinking-but mussels are delicious.

Nov 18, 2019, 8:16am

>49 Petroglyph: interesting to see what the translators do with the puns and the pop-cultural references! Either not much so far, or it has gone over my head!

Ficciones is my personal albatross. I don't know how many times I picked it up, read the first few pages, then gave up, for reasons I'm unable to explain.

Moravagine sounds interesting. I don't think I'd heard of it before. I'd have to be in the right frame of mind to read it though...

>57 dchaikin: So true...

Nov 18, 2019, 2:56pm

Ficciones was one of the first books I picked up when I started reading Spanish, but I’d read it before in translation, so it wasn’t much of a challenge really. The stories are compact and the language is very clear, even if the ideas are rather complicated...

Funny, my experience of Muschelessen was more or less opposite to yours: I knew it had to be about the collapse of the DDR somehow, and I was restless until I’d worked out how. But I expect that was to do with who recommended it and how it got on my reading list. I keep saying that I’ll read some more by Vanderbeke, but I’ve only managed one other short novel since then.

Editado: Nov 18, 2019, 10:58pm

>58 Dilara86:
Here's a link to the Annotated Practchett File (current version 9.0) which has been around since at least the early 2000s. It's a listing of all the tv shows, bands, lyrics, puns and assorted references and bases for jokes that fans have noticed. Fair warning: it's a time-sink!

Ficciones... I suspect I'll make an actual effort to read it next year, when I hopefully will have more spare time. Like >59 thorold:, it won't be my first time reading the stories (Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius is one of my all-time favourite stories, actually; I practically know it by heart), so I don't anticipate a gruelling reading process. But that's the idea: start with something familiar and relatively simple.

Nov 18, 2019, 10:59pm

>59 thorold:
I'm definitely interested in reading more by Vanderbeke. I do need a few German-language books for next year, too.

Editado: Nov 18, 2019, 2:16am

Vanden winter ende vanden somer edited by P. Leendertz Jr

Why did I choose to read this?
This is one of four known abele spelen or “noble plays”: a group of secular plays written around 1350, the earliest non-religious plays in Dutch (Wikipedia link). This is the only one I have not yet read.

Review (Also posted here, albeit in Dutch.)

Of winter and of summer is a very medieval allegorical dialogue: the personifications of Winter and Summer argue about which season is more conducive to love-making. Winter claims it incentivises couples to spend its long nights in bed keeping each other warm; Summer promotes its general atmosphere of happiness and fertility in nature. Other allegories show up and take sides. Things come to a head and the two parties agree that a duel to the death is the only way to settle the issue. Fortunately Venus, Goddess of Love, decides to step in and convinces the combatants of the predictable golden mean: both are equally important.

The play ends with the disappointed Vagrant on his way to a coal mine: he was hoping for Summer to win, because his life is almost unbearable during Winter.

Order and concord are the central ideas in this play: Winter and Summer are treated with respect, like Courtly nobility, and pains are taken to depict them as of equal standing. (I suspect that if this piece were re-written today, there’d be a clear victor, but the losing season would realize they’re better at something else.) Comic relief is provided by the side characters, albeit the kind of humour that looks down on the poor and the weak (cf. the Vagrant’s bittersweet final scene). Clearly there is a limit on respect and impartiality, and it runs along class lines: flatter those above you, mock those below you. But that may be too dark a conclusion to draw from such a fluffy piece.

Nov 18, 2019, 2:20am

Rubbe edited by P. Leendertz Jr

Why did I choose to read this?
This is a companion piece to the one reviewed in >62 Petroglyph: The only one out of four that I had not yet read.

Review (Also posted here, albeit in Dutch.)

Each of the serious plays comes paired with a short farce (about 200 verses), in this case Rubben. Rubben is not a very clever man whose wife has given birth only three months after their wedding. While he suspects shenanigans, his cunning mother-in-law tries to convince him that, in reality, nine months have passed -- has he counted the nights as well?

As with the other late medieval farces, this piece features a very ancient form of humour with well-worn stock characters (the dumb man, the lusty wife, the sly mother-in-law). Compared to the more serious play this farce involved much more potential for audience stimulation: instead of passively absorbing some allegorical debate, the audience here is aware that they know more than some characters, less than others, and the revelations allow them to experience the drama along with the characters. A simpler setup, perhaps, but more immersive.

Nov 20, 2019, 9:44pm

Fascinated to read about those early Dutch plays

Nov 20, 2019, 4:07am

>64 baswood:
They're certainly interesting peeks into a society that no longer exists! I hope to find the time soon to read more from this period.

Nov 20, 2019, 4:09am

The garden party and other stories by Katherine Mansfield

Why did I choose to read this?
Chipping away at the Owned but unread collection, kind of. I once bought a "selected short stories" collection by her, but that book is now in storage. This Project Gutenberg copy covers a good chunk of that book, I think.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was an interesting and diverse collection of short stories, most of them pretty great. They deal with loneliness, class issues and growing-up experiences, usually by presenting a snapshot of someone’s life, or by telling of a jarring transition. What struck me most was Mansfield’s carefulness in writing: the way she cares for her characters and her economy of expression I can only call "professional" -- it’s masterfully done.

The first time I read something by Mansfield was when one or two of her short stories were assigned for a short story class at uni. I can see why: her stories work really great as exemplary illustrations of the genre. This was her third short story collection (apparently she called her first one, In a german pension "immature"), but these stories are definitely all grown up!

Editado: Nov 20, 2019, 4:43am

The iguana by Anna Maria Ortese

Why did I choose to read this?
I’ve read very few books by even fewer Italian authors (none of who are women), and on a recent trip to Italy I had the chance to do something about that. This was billed as magical-realism-slash-fantasy.

Review (Also posted here.)
This is a hard book for me to review. It’s clearly some form of dreamy fantasy, almost fairy-tale like, but the book equally obviously targets real-life societal disillusionment. I suspect that parts of it may be, if not allegory, then at least socio-political commentary on issues I know too little about, which is why I find this hard to review.

Things start of very simple. Naïve and good-humoured Count Aleardo di Grees, from Milan, sets out on his yacht for a lucrative trip around the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast. He ends up on a Portuguese island that cannot be found on any of his maps and that is owned by an impoverished set of three brothers, nobles all. Their domestic help is a walking, talking iguana called Estrellita, a long-suffering menial servant who behaves at times like a ten-year-old child. Most cruelly, Estrellita’s obvious affections for one of her owners are unscrupulously abused. Count Aleardo takes pity on the poor creature, but finds that he, too, finds himself becoming very fond of Estrellita’s crush, Marquis Felipe.

Initially, this tale that has all the trappings of an allegory -- the fairy-tale quality, the sea voyage into unknown lands, a barely-inhabited island, a talking animal, the focus on aristocracy, the well-worn stereotypes (decrepit aristocracy; profit-obsessed American business moguls; naïve and well-willing main characters, the evil step-siblings). Some of the social commentary is blindingly obvious -- money-hungry capitalism, the impractical benign benevolence of the upper crust. But as the narrative lurches from revelation to revelation, it loses more and more of its attitude of simplicity and one-to-one correspondences. The story gains a few levels of depth and complexity that feel radically different from how it all started. I’ll readily admit that some of it went over my head, but I think I know enough about 1950s (dis)illusions to follow at least Ortese’ general direction.

Nov 21, 2019, 4:51pm

The excavations of Herculaneum edited and largely written by Mario Pagano

Why did I choose to read this?
I bought this on a recent trip to Italy that included a visit to the ruins of Herculaneum, a town covered in volcanic ash during the same eruption made famous by Pompei.

Review (Also posted here.)
(This review is for the English-language version of this book)

This was a minimum-effort book that I cannot really recommend.

I expected an informative booklet that included a general, site-wide history as well as a house-by-house overview of the buildings uncovered in Herculaneum, with details about the various frescoes and mosaics. I also wanted lots of illustrations. Technically, that is what I got, except that the execution is not up to snuff.

While the illustrations are (mostly) great, the contents and the execution as a whole are fairly shoddy. The texts do tick off the points that the authors wanted to mention, but they read like barely-edited bulleted lists that would need at least one additional round of revisions to turn them into proper texts that guide readers through the information. The general overview section in particular is guilty of this: portions of it consist of almost unordered series of paragraphs, which makes the text a chore to get through. Also, some of the bits that would have fit better in the general overview were buried in the sections for individual houses.

The messy text was not improved by the writing style, which is very Italian (i.e. less analytical and less rigidly structured than English-language academic texts), and especially the English, which honestly was pretty bad in places, and which made several of the individual paragraphs borderline-incomprehensible, too. Sometimes, the Latin, Italian and English versions of a single term were used in the same paragraph, which doesn't improve clarity, either.

And finally, there are layout issues as well: Legends in illustrations appear to have been done in text boxes that sometimes cover parts of the actual illustration!

All of these problems tell me that there was no strong editor to pull together the various sections into a more unified work. It seems like hastily-produced rush-work, which is a shame, really.

So yeah: this book is not something I’m happy to have spent money on. It’s not the worst booklet aimed at tourists I’ve seen, but I wouldn’t recommend picking this up.

Nov 21, 2019, 4:53pm

Leonardo, or the universal genius by Paolo de Silvestri

Why did I choose to read this?
I bought this on a trip to Italy a few years back, during which I saw some of Leonardo’s works. I wanted a quick biography, like wikipedia but with more illustrations, and on glossy paper.

Review (Also posted here.)
I bought this book in Milan thinking that it would satisfy a casual interest to know more about Leonardo da Vinci and his works, and I think I chose well: I got exactly what I expected.

The first section is a lengthy biography of Leonardo, which includes some historical background on a few of his works, and enough history to anchor things in time and place. Not quite as dense as a wikipedia page, but pleasant to read nonetheless. The rest of the booklet is a listing of some of his more or less finished paintings, sorted by which art institute currently owns them, along with some historical and technical notes on their production history. There is also a section on his notebooks and their fractured history.

The illustrations are plentiful and high-quality, the information is accessible and well-written. This is a perfectly adequate book if all you want is a cursory overview with some nice pictures.

Editado: Nov 22, 2019, 7:14am

Deutsche Literaturgeschichte in einer Stunde by Alfred Henschke

Why did I choose to read this?
Part of an effort to read more in German. I read about this book on thorold’s thread, and it seemed like a fun read. Next year I’ll be consulting this book for German-language recommendations.

Review (Also posted here.)
Originally published in 1922, this is a very subjective selection of highlights from a thousand years of German-language literature. Henschke starts with Charlemagne-era prayers and ends with Great-War-era literatures. During his overview he ticks off plenty of classics and various movements and other zeitgeist-y groupings.

The whole thing took me more than an hour, but the book is very light-hearted and, above all, very opinionated, but in a good way. For instance, Henschke is confident that Martin Luther’s Reformation, while necessary at the time, will in the long run prove to be merely a passing fancy; he also sets aside a whole chapter just to worship Goethe. If you like your literature professors to be vocal about their likes and their dislikes, Henschke would love to tick that box for you.

I’ve come away from this book with a few recommendations, and I think I will be consulting it in the future for more reading tips.

Nov 22, 2019, 7:35am

>70 Petroglyph: Glad you found it interesting. Klabund/Henschke was one of the few Germans of his time not to hold the title of “Professor”, of course ... I get the impression he was more of a Hans Castorp, but with a sense of humour.

Nov 22, 2019, 9:23pm

>71 thorold:
I did, thanks for the introduction!

Hans Castorp is unknown to me... Ah, Der Zauberberg! That book I've mentally shelved among the "maybe one day, but so daunting" books. Perhaps I ought to tackle Mann first with something shorter, like Der Tod in Venedig?

Nov 22, 2019, 9:37pm

>72 Petroglyph: Buddenbrooks is a very good way in, if not exactly short. It’s enough like a 19th century novel that you don’t lose your way, but it still keeps taking you by surprise. Zauberberg is a very long book in which almost nothing happens, so you have to go into it with strong motivation. But it’s worth it, of course. Lotte in Weimar is fun if you know your way around Goethe. Doktor Faustus is only for masochists, music theory experts and philosophy professors (put me in category 1 there...). I still haven’t worked up the courage for Joseph und seine Brüder.

Nov 22, 2019, 9:50pm

Chrestomathie aus Englischen Autoren in Prosa und Poesie by Edward A. Moriarty

Why did I choose to read this?
A random find in a second-hand bookshop. It is a schoolbook from 1844, cost me about 1€ and seemed interesting. Happily, it turned out to be great fun!

Review (Also posted here.)
For a roughly 180-year-old schoolbook, this was pretty interesting. This anthology of English writers was published in 1844 for the benefit of German students of English language and culture. There are really three sections (the books claims there are two): the first is a selection from various non-fiction essays, books, tracts and political speeches, followed by a series of excerpts from narrative fiction. The final section is made up of poetry and some drama (the latter mainly some famous bits of Shakespeare).

I skipped most of the poetry: I thought it was dreadful, chosen as the poems were to be moralizing and instructive and suitable for early 19thC ideas of what is proper for adolescents. The prose section was much better, with amusing pieces by Sterne, several chunks of Sir Walter Scott’s historical fiction, and a tale by Marryat and Washington Irving.

But it was the non-fiction section that was super interesting and the stand-out feature for me! The excerpts dealt with an unexpected range of topics: a panegyric on the benefits of education; a history of the English language; character portraits of historical figures (e.g. Robespierre, Henry VIII); the retirement of Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and Spain; the prehistory of Ireland; English voyages of discovery; the battle of the Nile during the Napoleonic wars; an economic overview of the US city of Philadelphia (population, main industries, exports); the ways in which the Austro-Hungarian empire tries to wring money out of tax-exempt Hungarian nobles; Smith’s Division of Labour; and an investigation into why the physical sciences made so much progress during the 16th and 17th centuries, as opposed to before. There is also a series of political speeches (e.g. for the abolition of slavery, against committing to a war, or on parliamentary reform), some of which are so snarky and biting under a veneer of polite pretense that I winced in sympathy with its targets. This is a very erudite list of texts, and one that charmed me with its unpredictable topic selection outside of English self-aggrandizing history topics.

I read this book with much more enthusiasm than I had been anticipating, which, at the end of the day, is really all you can ask for.

Nov 22, 2019, 9:53pm

>73 thorold:
Thanks for that!

I don't know my way around Goethe, or around classic German literature at all, for that matter (hence the Klabund book). I'll pencil in Buddenbrooks for next year.

Nov 22, 2019, 1:17am

The diary of a bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Why did I choose to read this?
A spontaneous gift from my SO, who knows I like bibliophilic books.

Review (Also posted here.)
Shaun Bythell owns and operates a large second-hand bookshop in tiny Wigtown, down in an almost-forgotten corner of Scotland. His diary consists mainly of the everyday grind that is dealing with customers and gathering new stock, as well as the seasonal excitement that are annually-recurring events organised by the bookshop and by the town. Bythell agitates against massive online retailers that are driving shops like his out of business: he likes a good complaint about non-customers who merely visit in order to check his stock’s prices against those online. He also likes it when his staff and customers are characters: they provide funny anecdotes that fill the pages and that make this a largely effort-free read. Also, since I work part-time in a shop, several of the interactions with customers or the kind of people who are looking for something to complain about (and anyone to complain to) are comfortingly familiar. Easy reading.

I’m not sure what persona Bythell was aiming for: I have the impression that many reviewers think of him as a cantankerous but lovable bookseller -- perhaps like a toned-down version of the Bernard Black character of Black Books. To me, though, he comes across as more of a regular self-employed service industry worker: sales interactions are fine, attempts to “connect" are not. Anecdotes showcasing his grumpiness feel cherry-picked, like affecting a Bernard-Blackish persona for marketing purposes.

Either way: this book chugged nicely along, and it contains just enough local interest and social commentary on corporate-run capitalism to elevate it above mere fluff. Its main interest, for me, was the look behind the scenes of the day-to-day running of a bookshop. It was especially interesting to learn how second-hand stock is acquired.

Nov 22, 2019, 1:27am

La traviata by Francesco Maria Piave

Why did I choose to read this?
In preparation for seeing this opera performed. This was my first opera seen live.

Review (Also posted here.)
Short and melodramatic: drama among upper-class twits that is almost definitional in its opera-ness.

Nov 23, 2019, 1:19pm

The gothic: a very short introduction by Nick Groom

Why did I choose to read this?
General interest non-fiction. I think my SO and I might have bought this book to fill up a 3-for-2 promotion.

Review (Also posted here.)
This book traces the word gothic and all the groups and movements that have been associated with it throughout history, from migration-period Germanic tribes to present-day horror movies, American Gothic, and goths. I was familiar with the broad outline of the story (Goths > non-Italian styles coming in from north of the alps > medieval > horror with medieval-style trappings > creepy stylish horror), but this book focused that view and added a few steps.

In particular, Groom argues that Early Modern book collections of protestant tales of gruesome persecutions (to counter Catholic saints’ lives) were instrumental in connecting the horror aspects to the notion of the gothic. While very interesting -- I knew nothing about this -- that chapter dragged a little, though. Groom also delves into political debates of the 17th and 18th centuries, highlighting the use of gothic as a term for homegrown, nationalistic attitudes (as opposed to Mediterranean or Roman-legacy). The focus, annoyingly, is laser-focused on England; whatever was going on on the Continent earns barely a mention.

Groom develops a view of the gothic as broadly a counter-cultural one, which allows him to unite all the disparate movements that have been called 'gothic' under a single viewpoint. I’m not so sure if that is a useful way of looking at it, but I guess that is where the book moves into LitCrit territory instead of History. It’s an interesting perspective, and one that allows Groom to tie in many things that I would not necessarily have termed gothic: Lovecraft and pseudo-rebellious horror aficionados, to name only a few more or less contemporary examples.

Still: this book does more than simply enumerate and it tries to tie up its various threads into a single, red-coloured plait. And that is precisely the job that a trained literary historian should do in a book like this.

Nov 23, 2019, 1:33pm

Selected poems (Dover thrift editions) by Lord Byron

Why did I choose to read this?
Filling the gaps in my reading of the classics. I’d never really read Byron before, I think, other than a few excerpts here and there..

Review (Also posted here.)
I’ve spent a few pleasant moments reading this booklet -- a collection of what I assume are taken to be Byron’s best-known works (with perhaps a few lesser-known surprises thrown in -- I wouldn’t know). Drama and affectations are noticeably there, of course, but also lots of exuberance and bittersweetness. It’s a good selection, varied as it is to bring out the poet’s versatility.

I also must say that a lot of this poetry was very good -- rhythms, cadences and word choices all carefully massaged to sound natural and free-flowing. The man had a way with words, that much is very clear, even at a distance of almost 200 years.

Nov 23, 2019, 2:58am

Histoire d’O, suivi de “Retour à Roissy” by Pauline Réage

Why did I choose to read this?
It’s a bona fide classic of “banned books”, which it turns out I’m reading a few of this year (The satanic verses, Mieke Maaike’s obscene jeugd. Ain’t no moral busybody gonna tell me what not to read!

Review (Also posted here.)
This is an infamous bdsm book which since its publication in the mid-fifties has caused much controversy and is one of the canonical “banned books”. I found it to be pretty tame, though, in this current era that is both post-sexual-revolution and during-limitless-internet-porn.

The book’s main character is O, a young Parisian woman, whose name may stand for Object or a cry of pain/pleasure, or a female orifice of your choosing. Her boyfriend takes her to a Château in Roissy, outside of Paris, where she is to be cultivated into a sex slave: the Château is run by an organization of libertines (male and female) who train up young girls as unquestioning sex puppets to fulfill all their bdsm needs. O completes her training and upon her release back into her old life she becomes a permanent member of an exclusive underground club: any Roissy libertine will recognize a ring she must wear at all times and may do with her as they please. Many of her subsequent experiences only serve to further dehumanize her, but O is an exemplary sex slave and tries her best to be eager to obey, for that is what her owners expect, and she is no longer her own person. She settles into this life with nary a wrinkle.

In the second part of the novel, which may or may not have been written by the original author, more attention is given to world-building and the logistics of the libertine Château at Roissy.

This book was weird, and hard for me to get a grip on, and I think that is largely because of two reasons. One is that the book is merely a series of highly unrealistic sexual fantasies. From the first page O is entirely without a will of her own: she mechanically goes along with everything and becomes a keen, even proud sex vessel for her owners to utilize in whatever way they see fit. This is only heightened by the burning desire of some of her female friends to be subjected to the same treatment: some profess to be jealous of O and to want to be (more) like her. The narrative does not spend nearly enough time on O’s psychology to maintain much of a pretense at not being a dom’s fantasy as viewed through a sub. There’s no real plot, either, merely a series of sexcapades that highlight different aspects of what it means to be someone’s property. In other words: the book is not aimed at a mainstream audience, who might expect more in the way of psychological realism, and explaining its fetishes to outsiders is not one of the things it sets out to do.

Secondly, the erotica/porn in question doesn’t fit at all under vanilla conceptions of “sex”: it’s mainly about displays of dominance (or lack thereof) and unquestioned obedience; about libertines’ free use of their slaves, and the slaves’ fervent collaboration in recruiting aditional attractive females for their masters’ cults. Most of the sex is centred around beatings with paddles and suchlike, sometimes to the exclusion of all else; frequently it’s all about observing how one’s sex slave pleasures others. If that is not your thing, or if that doesn’t really qualify as “sex”, then an understanding of this particular set of fetishes remains intellectual, at a distance.

Instead, this book’s central driving force is an almost programmatic desire to depict a corruption of Innocence, an erasure of independent will, and to see a vanilla mind-set brought low. Qua novel it isn’t very good, because of the lack of psychological credibility and no sustained plot to speak of. In terms of shock value… Well, of course it’s about female objectification, and it glorifies complete and enthusiastic subjugation of women by domineering men. But there is so much of that in our society, a lot of it much more insidious than this. Also, the book is actually pretty obviously a collection of sexual fantasies, which I tend to be pretty forgiving of, rather than real-life circumstances, so yeah.

And finally, I found this book to be curiously dated. Its transgressions seem to target a society where ubiquitous internet porn is not a thing, which of course is only natural for a book written in the 1950s, but it went beyond that: often I felt as though Histoire d’O might have been set in the era of Marquis de Sade (a major influence on this book, or so I’m told); I was honestly surprised to see people driving cars.

In all, this book is not a good novel, as such, and its stream of improbable fetish scenes become fairly humdrum after a while. Reading this book felt more like an intellectual exercise in anthropology than something to enjoy, even vicariously.

Nov 28, 2019, 10:58am

Houses by Borislav Pekić

Why did I choose to read this?
My first Serbian author. A random choice, motivated entirely by my crush on NYRB Classics (almost anything they put out is worth reading).

Review (Also posted here.)
From his penthouse high above Belgrade, Arsénie Negovan observes the city through a selection of military-grade binoculars. He’s old but wealthy, a retired architect, and has spent the last two decades in self-imposed quasi-exile in his flat. The only people he interacts with are his wife (much younger than he), his maid, and his lawyer. His wealth derives from an architectural empire of houses and tenants and sub-letters he runs indirectly, corresponding through his lawyer, but mostly by offloading the work onto his wife. When he begins to suspect that his intermediaries may be hiding things from him, Negovan decides to take matters into his own hands. For the first time in decades he leaves his flat and he sets out to revisit the beautiful houses he designed, to see what decades of urban change have done to them.

While Negovan wanders around a Belgrade that is almost-unfamiliar to him he mulls over his usual obsessions and so Pekić has the opportunity to take the reader along on a travelogue through large portions of the 20th century and its national delusions and changes in the zeitgeist. And yes, Negovan does remember the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, Communist protest marches, and underhanded capitalist profiteering, but all he really cares about is how these things affected him and his Demiurg-style relationship with his houses: shortages of building materials, delays in getting to auctions, intransigent family members whose opinions of, say, the Fascists or the placement of a front portal, differed from his. He also reminisces extensively about things he said once, as a hired speaker or one-time come-backs -- and while the occasions have long since been forgotten by the other people involved, or the organizations that he addressed may no longer exist, but in Negovan’s shrunken and exiled psyche they loom large.

Houses or, in other translations, The houses of Belgrade is a reliably solid instalment in that subgenre of litfic where an unreliable narrator with delusions about their grandeur looks back upon their life, which then segues into a literary commentary on much of twentieth-century history of a country and its pipe dreams. (See also: Kazuo Ishiguro.) I thought this book was a satisfactory read, but I’m not sure if I’ll remember much in a few years’ time. I do suspect, though, that this novel may have been more comedic than I picked up on: the pettiness of the aforementioned capitalist profiteering and the general siege-mentality when confronted with any kind of governmentally-promoted ideology reminds would slot right into place in black comedies from the Balkans.

Other than its general/generic solidness, I must say that architecture is a very nice medium through which to portray an entire city for the better part of a century. And while writing may not be the preferred medium for architecture, the book’s laser-guided focus on Negovan’s towards Possessions and Egotism does a lot to offset that.

Nov 28, 2019, 11:59am

Beckomberga by Sara Stridsberg; Translated into English as The gravity of love

Why did I choose to read this?
Part of an effort to read more contemporary Swedish authors (I live in Sweden). About a girl growing up in a psychiatric hospital (though not as one of the patients).

Review (Also posted in Swedish here.)

A chronological summary of the plot in Beckomberga (The gravity of love) runs like this: Jackie’s father is an alcoholic suffering from an almost congenital depression. After a failed suicide attempt he is admitted to Beckomberga, Stockholms great psychiatric hospital, where he will stay over a year. During this time her mother grows even more detached than before, when she was often abroad for her job, and takes herself off to somewhere on the Black Sea. Jackie is thirteen at this point and starts spending almost all her time at the hospital, making new friends among the patients. Later in life, when she herself is a mother, all three of them continue to live in different countries. While Jackie would like to show her parents she loves them, their personalities make this impossible.

This novel, however, is not told chronologically, but in a pointillistic series of small scenes, dialogues and observations that hop, skip and jump through Jackie’s life. Each scene takes only a page and a half, sometimes three, but then it’s the next scene’s turn. It took me some sixty, seventy pages before I understood the frame of the timescale, partially because all the characters are introduced by first name only, and figuring out how they all relate to each other takes time. The whole book is written like an intimate music video by a gentle indie rock band where initially unconnected images slowly congeal into a story that is at once maudlin but with a touching story about family filmed with pretty lighting.

I didn’t really like this book: small, sentimental family dramas leave me feeling indifferent, and books about a desire to properly belong to one’s family even more. My patience with delicately poetic descriptions of clouds and sea and how people stand or lie down also ran out quickly.

I suppose that on a purely stylistic level this book is pretty well-written, technique-wise, and it’ll certainly appeal to people who love small-scale family dramas. But sadly it didn’t do much for me.

Nov 28, 2019, 10:05pm

The obelisk gate by N. K. Jemisin

Why did I choose to read this?
The second volume in her Broken Earth trilogy. I enjoyed the first one quite a bit, and will definitely read the rest of the series.

Review (Also posted here.)

Secondary world fantasy has two main challenges: one is to build an interesting universe that differs from our world along a few illustrative parameters; the other is to also set a good story in that world. The strength of this trilogy is that it does both very well, and in The obelisk gate the strands are pretty well intertwined, that is, the scenes about earth-shattering magic and worldbuilding also tie into issues of family, while the more mainstream-psychological scenes focusing on the central mother-daughter relationship aren’t just about that, either. Both enhance the other.

This second part of the trilogy is concerned with main character Essun’s attempts to find her daughter. Essun also continues to grow in her mastery of orogeny (the ability to control tectonic-like earth powers) as her grasp on the history of her world becomes firmer, while her daughter Nassun goes on a parallel voyage. At this point both could still become each other’s nemesis, a family cruelly broken up, or they could still ultimately bond as the only remaining members of their family. Nemisin has shown she can be hard enough on her characters for this still to be the case: no maudlin feel-good outcome is guaranteed. At least that is how this book feels, and I like it that way.

Pretty good. I’m looking forward to book three, because this trilogy promises a lot and seems like Nemisin has got the skills to deliver.

Editado: Nov 28, 2019, 11:34pm

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Why did I choose to read this?
Part of an effort to read more by the Ancients. I made it through a third of this book as a teen before just never picking it up again, though not for any real reason (I’m always reading too many books at once). This time I plan on seeing it through.

Review (Also posted here.)

This is not a book that was intended to be read all the way through: it’s a collection of notes to self, kept over a fairly long timeframe and across multiple locations, written in a terse, almost abbreviated style sometimes that would only have made sense to the author himself, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, Emperor of Rome in the middle of the second century. Much of it is understandable, though, and even setting aside that the text is some eighteen hundred years old, it is a fascinatingly in-depth insight into a real person from Antiquity.

The Emperor tried his very best to be honest with himself and with others, and to treat his fellow human beings with the respect they cosmically deserve. He is nothing but frank and direct with himself; he is his own stern teacher and Superego.

Some bits are repetitive, in that there are things that Marcus Aurelius keeps reminding himself of over and over again: of his own mortality, first and foremost; of being ever rational; of his relative insignificance in view of time, space and the human multitudes; but also of the importance of maintaining mindfulness and humility while fulfilling his duties, or doing anything at all, for that matter. Above all he is concerned with occupying his rightful place in the order of things, both in the Universe and in Society. Presumably these were some of the things he struggled with most, or found hardest to implement consistently in his life.

Interestingly, there are many aphorisms strewn through the text, along with allusions to anecdotes or lines and characters from plays that illustrate a particular point: these Marcus Aurelius frequently does not elaborate upon and are merely there to serve as quick mnemonics for the larger lesson they remind him of. Some of these references are obscure, but others are to texts that have come down to us. That means it is important to find an edition with good footnotes! And my edition, edited and translated by Gregory Hays, was indeed wonderful. The translation really flowed: Hays clearly took pains to render the Emperor’s Greek into contemporary language. The footnotes and the explanatory introduction were great, as well.

Nov 28, 2019, 1:29am

A song of stone by Iain Banks

Why did I choose to read this?
A present from my SO, who knows that I’ve enjoyed several other books by this author, both his mainstream litfic as Iain Banks, and his science fiction as Iain M. Banks. This, apparently, is a post-apocalyptic litfic where a squad of soldiers take over a Scottish castle inhabited by ageing nobility. Sounds interesting enough!

Review (Also posted here.)
During an ongoing Apocalypse that may or may not be winding down, Abel and Morgan, an elderly Lord and Lady, see their castle taken over by a platoon of semi-professional soldiers. The castle has been in their family for centuries and wouldn’t stand up to modern artillery shelling, but it’s got walls, towers and a moat, and it represents a minimally defensible home base for the squad. Abel, self-important and with more than a vibe of decrepit aristocracy, finds himself humiliated at every turn by the soldiers, and especially by their (female) leader, who revel in their new-found dominance. And while the former lord of the manor tries to maintain a polite illusion of being nominally in charge, he also seems to take a perverse pleasure in seeing his heirlooms thrashed and his wine cellar ransacked. Still, he’s got these grand ideas about getting back at his tormentors, and he is cunning and twisted enough to really stick it to them.

I’m in two minds about this book. On the one hand, it was another book of the type ”ageing unreliable narrator whose self-image doesn’t quite comport with reality”. Maybe it’s because I’ve read a few of these in a fairly short amount of time, but that part I could have done without. There’s also the build-up of a plot thread about Abel’s twistedness, which, while well-done, turns out to be relatively tame at the end (and is easily guessable).

But I did find things to like in this book, too. There’s some good writing in there, for one thing, mainly in balancing the reader between pity for an old has-been who doesn’t know he is a has-been and an acceptance of the realities of war. I also liked how Banks toys with his protagonist: he’s an aged bear mechanically performing his old circus tricks for an audience that merely pities him, but at the same time he’s an unpleasant git, and so I kind of enjoyed seeing him humiliated -- the same complex feelings, I guess, that Abel had for his destroyed heirlooms.

What I liked best, though, is that even for a book set during an ongoing apocalypse, A song of stone is bleak on a meta-level. Banks toys with us, readers, too, and our expectations of how wartime stories develop: instead of centring on military-perspective action beats, like fortifying a stronghold or taking out rival claimants, the bulk of the story deals with the chafing between Classes and with the respectless tearing apart of the old world in the conflagration of the not-yet-new one.

So yeah. While I won’t call this a great book, it’s got enough going for it to warrant at least a quick browse.

Nov 29, 2019, 2:59pm

Book-fools of the Renaissance by K. Lesley Knieriem

Why did I choose to read this?
Bibliophilic books or books about bibliophilia rarely disappoint. This was a paper dealing with Early Modern examples, from when the printing press made it feasible for individuals to amass large collections of books.

Review (Also posted here.)

This is a paper from 1993 (freely available here) that looks at various European book-hoarders from the Early Modern period. It lists various types of motivations for why they allowed themselves to indulge in their obsession, with each kind of motivation is accompanied by a case study, a closer look at one or more specific individuals.

This was informative and dealt in a straightforward manner with how a familiar hobby works out in society that didn’t have the easy accessibility of books that we do. The text is dry (but that’s a feature, not a bug), but that is more than offset by its focus on Early Modern weirdos.

Nov 29, 2019, 3:21pm

Dichtertje - De uitvreter - Titaantjes by Nescio (Published in English as Amsterdam Stories)

Why did I choose to read this?
I want to read more by canonical Dutch-language authors.

Review (Also posted in Dutch here.)

These novellas were exquisitely charming, if slightly dated. They deal with bourgeois society in the urbanized Netherlands in the early 1900s, and they often poke satirical fun at self-importance and navel-gazing: a tug-of-war between youthful ideals, the urge to improve society, and the comfort and idealistic decay that come with living in a well-ordered society; the enthusiastic compulsion to walk down many life paths at once versus the realization that certain ideals just aren’t compatible. A little bit like August Strindberg’s The red room, in other words, though I think Nescio’s tragic satire worked a lot better.

Nov 29, 2019, 3:24pm

Mei by Herman Gorter

Why did I choose to read this?
Plugging holes in my reading of the Dutch-language literary canon. May is an allegorical poem from 1989; it is usually cited as one of the high points of Dutch impressionist poetry.

Review (Also posted here, albeit in Dutch.)

This is an allegorical poem in which the month of May, a fresh-faced young daughter of the moon, enters into the world by washing up on the beach. One of the first things she sees is the funeral procession for her sister April -- a fate that she herself will suffer too, once her time is up. May travels through the Netherlands which are transitioning from Spring into Summer in the most pastoral of ways. She even meets the poet and falls in love with the god Baldr.

This was not quite my cup of tea. And I don’t think that’s entirely the poem’s fault, but I blame my personal preferences: May simply features too many of my instant-dislikes. To begin with, I often find it hard to appreciate poetry, and this airy and pastoral poem is really not up my street -- strike one. Secondly, the poem is of the allegorical persuasion -- strike two, right there. And of course, the fragile and wondrous May has to rely on the poet for a large portion of her month-long existence and is subsequently cast as his manic pixie dream girl. That was the poem’s third strike for me.

True -- the imagery is creative, relying heavily on neologisms and unusual juxtapositions, even for a 130-year-old poem. But it annoyed me once too often. Too bad!

Dez 30, 2019, 1:03am

De koffiedief by Tom Hillenbrand. English title: The coffee thief, originally in German, though not (yet) translated into English. Translations into French, Spanish and Dutch exist (the latter is how I read it).

Why did I choose to read this?
This year’s Doorstopper. A present from my SO. An historical adventure thriller set during the 17thC when the lucrative coffee trade is dominated by the Ottoman Empire.

Review (Also posted here.)
The coffee thief is set In the 1680s: The Ottomans are in complete control of the lucrative coffee trade, and the West is finally becoming addicted to that black gold. Whoever manages to break the Turks’ monopoly stands to make fabulous amounts of money. And so the Dutch East India Company, looking to hamper a competitor, hires a down-on-his-luck counterfeiter called Obediah Chalon to put together a team that can infiltrate the Arabian Peninsula and smuggle live coffee bushes across the desert and the seas. In other words: a heist movie set in the 17th century.

A premise like that can only work if all cylinders are firing, and Hillenbrand goes all-out.

The plot is very much a 21st-century creation: Obediah recruits a team of experts (a buccaneer, a botanist, a mistress of disguises, a master thief), which run through the usual thriller tropes (the Javert figure, the threat of an in-group traitor, Louis XIV’s Royal Musketeers and Suleiman II’s Janissaries hot on their heels) and a series of big-budget set pieces. Also, the Heist Gang itself consists of a checklist of minorities: a Catholic, a Protestant, a Woman, a Gay and a Bisexual. The plan is clever, the pace is electrifying and the plot runs on swagger and the Rule of Cool.

So far so thriller. Where this book really shines is its historical fiction spin on high technology: it flaunts its reliance on the bleeding edge of the Scientific Revolution as much as a film from the Mission Impossible or Ocean’s Eleven franchises does its near-future gadgets. This is evident from the initial setting of the coffee houses where intellectuals exchange international gossip as well as learned tracts on lens-grinding and alternative mathematical notations. But the heist also crucially relies on recent advances in botany, clock-making and state-of-the-art cryptography, as well as an international network of natural philosophers. Hillenbrand douses all the cogwheels that make a thriller run with a joyful helping of pioneering science and technology, and it’s an amusing gimmick that is expertly developed into the kind of almost-believable setting needed for this kind of plot.

This historical thriller was a solid read, and highly entertaining. Hillenbrand is on top of his game, knows exactly what expectations to fulfill, and keeps the thrills coming at a high rate. He clearly had a lot of fun writing it, and I spent a few great hours reading it. Warmly recommended.

Editado: Dez 30, 2019, 1:38am

So long a letter by Mariama Bâ

Why did I choose to read this?
My first Senegalese author. A recommendation by my SO, who specialises in African literatures. I’d much rather read this in the original French, but couldn’t say no to a second-hand English-language copy for only $1. So it goes.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was a solid read. Short, but impactful.

Ramatoulaye, a middle-aged teacher in 1960s post-independence Sénégal, looks back on her life, which fell apart after her beloved husband of many years took a new, younger wife. Islam technically allows for this, but Ramatoulaye cannot but see this as an act of betrayal that merits a break-up, emotional as well as in terms of living arrangements.

The book is less concerned with the trappings of fiction and of narrative throughline than it is with sketching the lay of the post-colonial land and the clash between traditional, islamic conceptions of families and the Western ones, both of which come with uncomfortable baggage and neither of which feels fulfilling. Cultural ideals and taboos come into conflict, and navigating them is a matter of staving off the inevitable failing as long as possible -- a situation made even more complex across generational gaps and class divides.

Consequently, the text feels more like a mulling over of large-scale societal issues, though it thankfully steers clear from preachiness. The fact that this novel takes the form of a long letter to a friend helps a great deal: addressing an Other, a ‘you’ lends the book the flavour of a discussion rather than a lecture. It treats the reader as a sounding board with which the author can clarify her own thoughts to herself as much as to her audience. Furthermore, Bâ drew on events from her own life, and that, too, goes a long way to grounding the plot in real life. So long a letter definitely has an agenda, but it’s not obnoxious about it.

Dez 30, 2019, 1:11am

Samlade dikter by Edith Södergran. English title: Collected poems

Why did I choose to read this?
My SO’s favourite Swedish-speaking poet (as a teenager). Let’s give her a go!

Review (Also posted in Swedish here.)
This was not for me. Södergran wrote many nature poems (which, honestly, weren’t all that bad, just not that special), but also lots of nonsense about poeta vates imagery complete with lyre, cheap drama featuring old gods, mysticism and, towards the end of her short life, pious bunk about god and his mother. Not for me.

Dez 30, 2019, 1:32am

The door by Magda Szabó

Why did I choose to read this?
I’ve heard nothing but good things about this novel, but know very little about it going in.

Review (Also posted here.)
Absent-minded and non-practical writer Magda, who has more than a few echoes of author Magda Szabó, hires elderly housekeeper Emerence, who is doggedly herself and refuses to compromise. Both women are diametric opposites in many respects: Magda is a politically active writer, but she is quick to give in, doesn’t speak up and lets everyday things happen to her; Emerece is a barely-literate who never rests, who even sleeps sitting up, and who has her unshakeable habits, which she is firmly convinced are the only way to live. Her bull-headed insistence on interacting with people on her own terms is enforced through sheer force of character. For a character she is: secretive, but known to all in the neighbourhood, and they are protective of her like a local semi-tame cat.

I found this novel to be strangely compelling. There really is not much to it, just the relationship between two women who are unlike each other, and the fascinating portrait of working class intransigence. But the development of the central friendship is captivating in a way I find hard to express in words. Much of the novel’s hypnotizing force, I think, rests on it feeling more like an autobiography or a character study than narrative fiction -- perhaps even a confession and a meditation on shame.

The door is not my usual cup of tea, but I’m glad I got to read it. It’s a book I’ll be turning over in my head from time to time.

Dez 30, 2019, 1:33am

Collected stories by Gabriel García Márquez

Why did I choose to read this?
This one was also on the 2016 tbr challenge, but I only completed a few stories. I’ll try again this year.

Review (Also posted here.)
This is a collection of García Márquez’ short stories sorted in more or less chronological order. His early work resembles that of Silvina Ocampo: alienating and untethered to traditional fictional representations of reality. The stories get less weird and more narrative over time, but even then their magical realism remains central to their character. Other definitional features are a confidence of voice and delivery paired with a calculated balance between sparseness and lyricism. The man could write, no doubt about it.

Many of these stories I enjoyed reading; others I enjoy having read more than ploughing through them. But on the whole this was a very worthwhile book.

Dez 31, 2019, 1:41pm

>90 Petroglyph: Lovely review!

Dez 31, 2019, 6:56pm

>90 Petroglyph: I’ve never read any of GGM’s short stories. On the list it goes, thanks!

Jan 2, 2020, 3:03am

>94 ELiz_M:

>95 lisapeet:
I've never read any of his long-form work. Looking to remedy that in 2020!

Jan 2, 2020, 3:04am

Tubes: a journey to the center of the internet by Andrew Blum

Why did I choose to read this?
A SantaThing present from a few years back, the only one left unread from that particular batch.

Review (Also posted here.)
Andrew Blum is a journalist who wonders about the physical reality of the internet: How does his computer connect to the net? Where do the cables go to? How do they join up? Where are all the data centers? What pathway do the data packets take, and what does that look like on maps of the US and the world?

Blum decides to travel around the US and Europe to talk to experts at various levels of complexity: the ISP centre, Internet Exchanges, and data centres belonging to Google and Facebook. Most of the facilities consist of drab, anonymous-looking box-buildings in out-of-the-way places. He is present when an underwater cable coming from West Africa is connected to one in Portugal; he also visits the location where a transatlantic cable arrives in Cornwall.

This was interesting: Blum does a good job of leading us through his journey of discovery. What I didn’t like was his tendency to inject too much drama and pathos into his writings: he likes to draw conclusions that, when written up in the style of, say, the Time Magazine or Vanity Fair, spiral into Anthopology and Large-Scale Societal Impact Of Things. Several of his musings on those topics are fairly pedestrian, but the overwrought way he presents them makes them seem hollow sometimes.

Jan 2, 2020, 3:06am

The Diploids and other flights of fancy by Katherine MacLean

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by women, reading more genre fiction. A random find in a second-hand shop. 1950s-era pulp sci-fi, which is likely to be meh, but written by a woman, which was uncommon at the time.

Review (Also posted here.)
This collection contains eight science fiction stories from the 1950s through the early 1960s. They’re pure pulp stories, meaning that the writing is serviceable, and that they sometimes suffer from cringey science (e.g. engineers fearing that a terrorist might let Pluto fall into earth; silly Sapir-Whorf nonsense). But they all share a clear focus on how individuals and societies respond to changes in technology, and I thought that aspect was very well developed. I’d say this collection is about as introspective as pulp sf gets.

On the whole, though, I quite liked these stories, dated though they might be: the scientific kernels they revolve around are things like genetic manipulation, bio-engineering self-repairing bodies, staging a global take-over through mathematical models of sociology, and raising children with ESP. MacLean tries to coat the science part of her stories with at least one or two layers of semi-plausible-sounding technobabble. And most of these stories here are, if not passable, then at least likeable: while some Golden-Era tropes are annoying, there is an unmistakable drive for interesting ideas to wrap stories around, and that can never be a bad thing.

MacLean’s writings reminded me of the stories of Walter M. Miller Jr., which I liked for similar reasons.

Jan 2, 2020, 3:06am

The moon endureth: Tales and fancies by John Buchan

Why did I choose to read this?
I’m trying to read more Weird Fiction, and this story collection is by the author of The 39 steps, which I read a few years back and liked. It was also free on Amazon (and Project Gutenberg).

Review (Also posted here.)
This is a collection of tales of subdued mystery and gentle Weirdness, usually set against a dramatic background -- a picturesque Italian mountain village, rainy Scottish glens, barely-charted South Africa. The foreground is taken up by Pakistani magic potions, Pre-Christian Semitic Goddesses, or the Weirdness that is advanced and Quantum physics.

The stories themselves were interesting enough, though they are interspersed with narrative-ish poems, which I found pretty forgettable.

Jan 2, 2020, 3:08am

Ice station zebra by Alistair MacLean

Why did I choose to read this?
This year I pushed myself to read some of my parents’ favourite authors; MacLean was one of my father’s. I simply selected one of his highest-rated books.

Review (Also posted here.)
The highly-advanced atomic submarine Dolphin is dispatched to the Arctic on a rescue mission: a weather station somewhere on the ice pack has lost radio contact after broadcasting an SOS. A civilian, Dr. Carpenter, is sent along to assist the military crew with his expertise. Of course, as these things go, Carpenter turns out to be rather more than a medical doctor (he helped design the weather station, for a start). It won’t come as a surprise, either, that the weather station is really a front for top secret shenanigans.

This was a tight little Cold War thriller that uses its settings to great effect: tense underwater conditions as the submarine dives underneath the arctic sea ice, and high-tech survivalist porn in the scenes set on top of the ice. The end drags a little, but at that point the novel has built up enough goodwill.

Jan 2, 2020, 3:11am

De komst van Joachim Stiller by Hubert Lampo. English title: The coming of Joachim Stiller

Why did I choose to read this?
This book is often included in high school reading lists, but I’d never read it. It gets billed as a major entry in Dutch-language magical realism.

Review (Also posted in Dutch here.)
Freek Groenevelt lives in Antwerp. He is a middle-aged author who thinks highly of himself, though in recent years he’s mainly been writing pieces for a local newspaper, and what he actually does is slacking off: every few days he goes into work for a few hours; he spends the rest of his time hanging around in bars and taking long walks through his beloved city. For inspiration, of course. One day he receives a hand-written letter about one of his articles, which, upon inspection, turns out to be uncannily prophetic, since it bears a postmark dated forty years ago. Graphological inquiries and New Age theories only serve to complicate things. And to top matters off, the letter writer’s name, Joachim Stiller, keeps turning up in the unlikeliest of coincidences.

My main impression of this book was one of datedness. That is mainly due to the plotline featuring Simone, the only female character with any kind of screentime. It runs as follows: Middle-aged self-important writer meets a sexy, twenty-five-year-old woman who teaches university-level mathematics. After 2 (two!) interactions, she promptly falls for him and dumps her fiancé (!) in his favour. Over the course of the story, she moves in with him, cooks for him, manages his emotions, clings to his shoulder when anguish overcomes her, and ultimately becomes pregnant with his baby. She is instrumental in him re-establishing balance to his life, once the Joachim Stiller affair is over. Dirty old Gary Stu of the type that might have passed unnoticed decades ago, but it won’t any more.

And that, I’m afraid to say, tipped the balance for me. All of it -- the vague admiration for New Age bullshit, the mystery of a prophetic-yet-unseen figure, the graphology, Jesus-imagery -- may be instrumental in the author’s career, or in the Zeitgeist, in which case I’ll make myself put up with pseudo-science or pseudo-religious nonsense. On a literary level, however, I am fed up with that trope where a middle-aged writer writes about a middle-aged writer who is arrogant -- totally earned, though -- or with the “middle-aged writer obsesses about (declining) sexual appetite” trope. Ugh!

In short: regardless of its status as a classic, this novel features a number of tropes that give me a literary toothache.

Jan 2, 2020, 3:13am

Live alone and like it by Marjorie Hillis

Why did I choose to read this?
I’m the kind of person who pauses movies to see what characters are reading (or to browse their shelves), and this book I spotted while watching the 1975 musical comedy At long last love. (Screenshot here). That movie, in turn, I watched because it was included on a "Worst movies of all time" list; turns out I quite liked it. Anyway, googling the book title brought me to this excerpt from a book about Live alone and like it, and that settled it: I simply had to read it. (Here’s a fluffier piece with plenty of quotes.)

Review (Also posted here.)
This was great fun. Originally published in 1936, Marjorie Hillis’ self-help book gives wise and wittily phrased advice to women who live alone, voluntarily or otherwise, short-term or not. Some portions of this book are very specific to the 1930s (bed jackets, maids for hire per hour) or to New York City. Others are very sensible and perfectly applicable today.

Through experience Hillis has developed a formula for improving the mental well-being of the "liver-aloner": Stop feeling sorry for yourself, try not to be a burden but a contributing presence, develop at least two hobbies, become a more interesting person, and cultivate friends. At a certain point, efforts to become more interesting and well-informed and efforts to enrich your friendships become mutually reinforcing and before you know it you’ll be in a much better place, mentally as well as in terms of how you’ve decorated your living spaces. All it takes, Hillis claims, is a little planning and some sustained effort. Along the way, she shares tips on mixing drinks, pampering yourself for little money, and a long list of Free Things To Do In New York City. She sings the praises of breakfast in bed, unreasonable amounts of travelling, and informed bargain-hunting.

Honestly, the bulk of the book’s advice is solid, and Hillis’ finely-tuned sense of snark makes the whole thing a delight to read -- or to read out loud.

Jan 2, 2020, 3:57am

Time for some stats!

This year I read 185 separate items; 24 of these were individually-published short stories, which leaves 161 "meatier" texts.

>4 Petroglyph:
    Author gender:
  • Male / female / other: 84/98/5 (45% / 53% / 2%)
    Languages: 7
  • English: 110
  • French: 25
  • Swedish: 23
  • Dutch: 18
  • German: 4
  • Middle Dutch: 3
  • Spanish: 1
  • novel: 71
  • novella: 26
  • short story: 24
  • non-fiction: 21
  • collection: 18
  • play: 9
  • graphic novel & comics: 6
  • poetry: 6
  • essays: 4

One of my goals this year was to make a dent in the number of owned-but-unread books. I started the year with 285 such items, and ended it with 266. By mid-December I'd managed to get that number down to the 250s, but the end-of-year period added 18 new books to my library. Still, I managed to read 49 books I had acquired before 01/01/2019, which means I'm removing more old(er) books from the Unread Pile than I'm adding new books to that pile. That is the right direction!

Jan 2, 2020, 4:00am

Thanks to all who contributed to this year's discussion! Also thanks to all who lurked without commenting!

Do feel free to lurk and/or comment in my 2020 thread.

Jan 5, 2020, 8:19pm

What a great year. Enjoyed your end of the year blitz.

>93 Petroglyph: I adored Márquez’s short story collection overall. The first stories were only ok, but I got a lot out of the sense of his development over time.