Writers on reading: Frank Kafka

frank kafkaI think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

Source: Translated from a letter to the art historian Oskar Pollak January 27, 1904.

What Kafka is advocating I think is a reading experience in which the words provoke a reaction in you the reader. Texts which slip effortlessly in and out of  your consciousness have little value in his estimation, the true test of a good book is one which forces you to engage with it; to take hold of your emotions and move them in some way. That’s a tall order but if you find a book that does it, the experience can be breathtaking.

Have I read anything that wounded or stabbed me? Very few in fact but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

From my teenage days Albert Camus’ L’Estranger comes to mind as a book that affected me not just as I read it but for a long time afterwards even though I wasn’t absolutely sure I understood it fully.  My thirties were my fallow years when though I enjoyed many books, I can barely remember them. It wasn’t until my forties when I decided to start a formal course in literature again that I began reading more deeply and found some novels which were remarkable. Of them, Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir with its bleak portrayal of life in an impoverished French community,  could definitely be considered as giving me a ‘blow to the head’. And then, more recently my adventures in reading authors from far flung corners of the world led me to a discovery of a book equally painful to read – Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

 

The View from Here – Books from Indonesia

viewfromhereWelcome to the world of books. In the last feature in this series we travelled to Colombia to hear from Laura Sesana about writers and the literary scene from her native country.

This time we are heading for Indonesia where we catch up with Ratih Dwi, a freelance translator who blogs at booklypurple.

 

Let’s meet Ruth

I’m a freelance Ruth Dwitranslator, mainly doing translation on commercial romance novels for a publisher here in Indonesia. I have a penchant for contemporary Western fiction, but I’ve been trying to broaden my reading horizon and not to limit myself to a certain genre or literary works from a certain country/part of the world. So that’s what my blog site is about. It is where I put my reviews after reading books of any genre and origin. And if people tend to divide fiction into literary and popular/commercial, then they’ll also find both in my blog site.

Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Indonesia? Any particular titles or authors that are creating a buzz?

I think what is popular in my country very much follows the current trend abroad, especially in the US. So now young adult author like John Green is pretty much creating a buzz here. Though I can say that books about travel/personal journey and romance novels by Indonesian writers are also gripping most of our readers’ attention today.

Q. Who would you say some of the most prominent authors from Indonesia either now or in previous eras?

Pramoedya Ananta Toer is our most prominent author whose works were and are still very popular to this day, many people have read his books. But today’s authors like Dee (the pen-name of singer-songwriter Dewi Lestari), Tere Liye, and Leila S. Chudori have also standout positions in our literary world.

Q: Are there some novels or books that you were required to read when you were in school?

I cannot remember but I don’t think there were any. However, as far as I can recollect, they always inserted a paragraph or two from some Indonesian classics in our Bahasa Indonesia textbooks as a text sample for reading.

Q: Reading the Wikipedia page about literature from Indonesia, it shows a very rich mixture of culture. How does this reflect the way people write – do you think their approaches are different depending on whether they come from a Malay tradition for example or Sundanese?

In the past, cultural backgrounds indeed influenced the way people wrote, because their works were the reflections of their cultural upbringing and environment. The characteristics and social problems of each tribe are different and that mirrored in the characters, themes, and atmosphere presented in their writings. But I don’t think it’s still the case in our today’s contemporary literature, mostly.

Q: If there was just one book you think we should try to read to give us a good flavor of literature from your country, what would you recommend?Andrea Hirata’s Laskar Pelangi. Or any work by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

 Want to Discover More Countries?

The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page 

Interested in Being Featured?

If you’d like to do a guest post to represent your country, please leave a comment with info on how to contact you.

The adventure begins

By the time you all get to see this I will be well on my way to this magnificent view.

victoria falls

It’s of Victoria Falls on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia in case you didn’t recognise it. The first destination on our holiday.

When I can manage to lift my eyes away from the view, they’ll be buried in one of several books I have with me. I thought it would be appropriate to start with two classic novels by African authors.

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is a novel from my large TBR. Published in 1948 it tells the story of Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest from a remote rural Natal town, who goes to Johannesburg to search for his son. As Kumalo travels from place to place, he begins to see the gaping racial and economic divisions that are threatening to split his country. I remember reading this in the 60s and being moved by the way Paton shows some of the issues that would later give rise to apartheid.

My second choice is something I found when browsing in a bookshop in Johannesburg today. Odd how we bloggers gravitate to bookshops no matter where in the world we are.

The shop had a good selection of African writers and an assistant who was more then happy to share her recommendations. I could have come away with an armful but given I have to actually be able to lift my suitcase, I settled for just one.
Dalene Matthee was a South African author writing in Afrikaans and best known for her four Forest Novels, written in and around the Knysna Forest, along the tourist trail called The Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. I bought Fiela’s Child, a 1985 novel in which a boy goes. Issuing in the forest. Nine years later government officials find a white child living with a coloured family in the mountains beyond the forest. They take him away from Fiela who has brought him up as her own son and return him to his original parents. But the boy waits and waits for Fiela to rescue him once more.

I had never heard of this author but have dipped into a few pages already and it seems a good one.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have an right appointment with a gin and tonic. Purely medicinal yiu understand, tonic being a well know means of avoiding malaria.

 

The new phenomena – colouring books

Time to dust off that pencil case from decades ago, to sharpen those points and find your eraser. Dystopian fiction or science fantasy is so passé apparently. What really cool readers want is to be able to put coloured pencil to paper (staying within the lines of course).

To the surprise of the publishers, the best selling book at Amazon’s US site for the past few weeks is a colouring book designed especially for adults. Johanna Basford, a Scottish illustrator, has sold more than a million copies of Secret Garden and 220,000 copies of her newest book, Enchanted Forest, The proud ‘artists’  are busy spreading the results of their labours across social media sites with pictures sprouting up on Instagram, Facebook and the like.

Are they all regressing to childhood to deal with a mid life crisis? Is the trend a comment on the state of television today such that people would rather switch off and get down to some artistic endeavours than watch another tv-cop series? Or is a consequence of our economic woes that people can’t afford to go out and socialise? As yet, the psychology pundits have been remarkably quiet but you can be sure that somewhere someone in academia is already dreaming up a theory. And maybe some marketing whizz kid is already thinking of promoting join-the- dots books for adults.

Are you tempted by the idea of revisiting your childhood? or are you so talented you can turn out a passable work of art without the need for someone to hold your hand?

 

Classics Club Spin Revolves Again

classicsclub3The Classics Club Spin is beginning again and I almost missed it but am hoping that, since the team that runs this is five hours ahead of me, I can just squeak in at the last minute. It’s a good way of pushing me to make progress on my list without having the pressure of a challenge. Last time around I ended up with Henry James and Washington Square/Daisy Miller which I wasn’t looking forward to but appreciated in the end. Here’s keeping my fingers crossed I get something good this time around.

The rules for Spin Number 9 are the same as before:

  • Pick twenty unread books from your list. Here’s my classics club list
  • Number them from one to twenty
  • A number will be drawn
  • That’s the book to read by 15th May

I’m going to mix things up a little by adding my own rule: My 20 books have to be from my TBR pile (i.e., I already have them in my possession). That way I get to clear some space in my bookshelf … or floorspace.

So here is my list. Many of them are re-reads – books I read when I was much much younger and feel I didn’t fully appreciate or understand at the time. These are marked **

  1. Vicar of Wakefield – Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  2. Mansfield Park  – Jane Austen 1814**
  3. Old Goriot – Honore Balzac 1835
  4. Can You Forgive Her – Anthony Trollope 1864**
  5. The Way we Live Now – Anthony Trollope 1875
  6. Dr Thorne – Anthony Trollope 1858
  7. Adam Bede – George Eliot 1859**
  8. The Fortune of the Rougons – Emile Zola 1871
  9. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy 1873-77
  10. Daniel Deronda – George Eliot 1876 **
  11. A Parisian Affair and other stories – Maupassant 1880
  12. The Diary of a Nobody – George Grossmith 1888
  13. The Voyage Out – Virginia Woolf 1915
  14. Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton 1920
  15. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf 1925 **
  16. Frost in May – Antonia White 1933
  17. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck 1939
  18. The Pursuit Of Love – Nancy Mitford 1945
  19. Cry, the Beloved Country – Alan Paton 1948
  20. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1985

Which one do you think I would enjoy the most?

The symbol ** means I have read them previously

Update: I fixed my terrible spelling of the Balzac title thanks to an eagle eyed reader

Sunday Salon: New Aquisitions

A combination of announcements about some of the leading literary prizes and a some browsing of favourite bloggers’ sites resulted in a bit of a splurge on the book buying front this week.

First up are two authors who came to my notice when they were named last week as finalists for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.

The Way of the Women by Marlene van Niekerk

Way of the Women Van Niekerk is a South African author who has been feted in her country in 2011 for her outstanding intellectual contribution to literary arts and culture through her poetry, literature and philosophical work. The Way of the Women was originally titled Agaat but  renamed when the English translation was published. It went on to be shortlisted for the 2007  Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The novel is set on a farm in the Western Cape of South Africa whose aged occupant Milla de Vet lies dying from a  wasting disease. Paralysed she has to depend on another woman Agaat Lourier with whom she has a close but ambiguous relationship forged over half a century of apartheid in South Africa.

Tree of Life by Maryse Conde

Tree of LifeMaryse Conde is a Guadeloupean author also named as a Man Booker International finalist.  I was hoping to get one of her earlier and most acclaimed novels Segu but couldn’t find a reasonably priced and decent quality second hand one. So I settled for Tree of Life instead, reassured by a comment  by Victoria at LitLove on my post about the prize, that she hadn’t been disappointed by any of Conde’s work. In this novel, Conde traces the personal story of how one Guadeloupe family rises from poverty to wealth over several generations. This has a wide range of settings, from Guadeloupe and Harlem, to the slums of  Haiti and the exclusive enclaves of the Parisian upper class.

 The recent announcement of the Folio Prize for 2015 was responsible for my third purchase:  Family Life by Akhill Sharma

Family LifeThe Folio Prize was the latest accolade for Akhill Sharma’s novel — last year it was selected as one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2014.  It’s a semi-autobiographical work that documents the young life of Ajay Mishra, a child in a young middle-class family in Delhi. His father decides the family must leave the uncertainty of a country living under emergency rule for the ­prosperity of the West. Settled in New York the family struggle to cope with a personal tragedy and the challenge to their idea of the American Dream.

Prize announcements aside, my final two purchases were prompted by a guest post I published last year about Australian literature. Whispering Gums mentioned many authors but I chose just two to begin with: David Malouf and Patrick White.

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf 

Remembering BabylonThis novel won the inaugural IMPAC Award in 1993 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Award.  Its the story of an English cabin boy who is cared for by Aborigines when he becomes marooned in the far north of Australia. Sixteen years later me moves back to the world of the Europeans, relatively new settlers who find their new home an alien place. What attracted me to this book was how its themes of living on the edge and of Australia as a fearful land reflect some of the ideas in the course on Australian literature I started a few weeks ago.

 

Voss by Patrick White

VossWhispering Gum called Voss her “absolute standout” novel from her youth, a novel which  “had it all for a teenage girl – outback drama, romance (of a cerebral and spiritual nature), and angst about life and society.” I’m long past my teenage years but this sounds like one of the classics from Down Under. The publishers’ blurb made it sound too good to miss:”Set in nineteenth-century Australia, Voss is the story of the secret passion between an explorer and a naïve young woman. Although they have met only a few times, Voss and Laura are joined by overwhelming, obsessive feelings for each other. Voss sets out to cross the continent, and as hardships, mutiny and betrayal whittle away his power to endure and to lead, his attachment to Laura gradually increases. Laura, waiting in Sydney, moves through the months of separation as if they were a dream and Voss the only reality.”

That little haul should keep me quiet for a while…..

Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Kinder than SolitudeWhen a novel is shortlisted for the Folio Prize and the author is someone whose previous work has been shortlisted for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Guardian First Book Award and the PEN/Hemmingway award, I expect to experience something pretty special. I’m glad that I didn’t know at the time I read Yiyun Li’s novel Kinder than Solitude, that the 2015 Folio judges were “looking for excellence” and they felt their shortlisted titles had “boldness and experiment.” Had I known that, my expectations would have been even higher and my disappointment consequently greater.

This is the story of four young people in Beijing.  Moran  and Boyang are close friends whose friendship is tested when Ruyu enters their life.  Sent by her adopted aunts to live in the city, she’s constructed a barrier of icy-heartedness around herself  that she steadfastly maintains despite Moran and Boyang’s best efforts to break through.  A fourth member of their little group is Shaoi, a college student a student who, it’s hinted, may have been involved in the recent Tiananmen Square protests.  In a macabre poisoning she becomes severely brain damaged.

By the time the book opens, twenty one years have elapsed and Shaoai has just died.   Ruyu has moved to the USA. Twice married and divorced she has constructed a barrier around her life through which it seems no person or event can penetrate. Moran also emigrated and divorced, has plenty of creature comforts but has a largely sterile and solitary life.  On the surface, Boyang is the only one of the trio that is enjoying life. He has remained in Beijing, a handsome intelligent man who drives a flash BMW and has a string of successful businesses,  this ‘diamond bachelor’ finds happiness eludes him. He’s neither young enough to form genuine relationships with the girls he meets nor old enough to be a genuine sugar daddy.

It’s a simple premise for a novel in which a dual time frame is employed to show how the lives of members of this quartet are irrevocably changed by an event in their past. The publishers suggest this is a hybrid novel; a thriller in which the identity of the novel is gradually revealed and also a psychological examination of the way in which we are all trapped by the past.

I’m not convinced it lives up to either of those descriptions. It’s not really a mystery story because there are enough signals to make it obvious to any averagely intelligent reader which character was responsible for the poisoning. Observations on human nature abound certainly but instead of illuminating the action they too often border on the portentous or banal.

As an example, the narrator declares at one point:

Nothing destroys a liveable life more completely than unfounded hope.

And at another:

But how does one tell where one’s true self stops and makes way for all the borrowed selves?

Perhaps other readers have more tolerance that I did for such pseudo aphorisms.

It was brave of Li to make her central figures uninspiring and unsympathetic for much of the novel.  Their current lives are bleak and sterile, full of suppressed and unspoken emotions. It’s not until at least halfway through the novel that we get beyond the confusing faux philosophy and begin to dig beneath the surface of the characters of the three survivors.  It’s only then that the novel comes together but for me it was too little.

 

Kinder than Solitude is published in the UK by Fourth Estate. 

My copy was provided by NetGalley

 

Snapshot April 2015

UnknownThe first day of a new month and it’s time to take a quick snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.

Reading

I’ve been desperately trying to finish Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five in time for the book club discussion tonight. But despite a valiant effort during a three hour stint in the hairdresser’s on Saturday, I didn’t make the end. This is a novel whose name I’ve known for years and years but never had a clue what it was about. If you’d pressed me I would have said it was science fiction. How wrong can one get. It’s a powerful satirical novel about the impact of war on an innocent individual caught up in its snare. I’ve also started Life of Pi by Yann Martel as part of my Booker Prize challenge. This is one I’ve not been looking forward to because it features animals and I seem to have an aversion to those kinds of books (with the exception of course of Black Beauty). So far Martel is keeping my interest – maybe because I haven’t got to the bits with the animals in it yet.

Listening

I’ve just started The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore. She’s someone I’ve had my eye on for a while but never got around to reading. This is set in post world war 2 Britain where a young doctor’s wife feels increasingly isolated and lonely as she tries to adjust to the realities of married life in Yorkshire. One night she finds a discarded RAF great coat; sleeping under it to keep warm she begins to dream and to remember her childhood. The book is billed as her first ghost story. No sign of any ghosts yet, just a lot of good period detail about food rationing.

Learning

I am no superwoman it is clear. Despite good intentions when I signed up for a Coursera module on Australian literature I have fallen way way behind.  I even bought a few books to read along the way (Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, The Short History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey and Voss by Patrick White) but they all lie unopened. The early video lectures on differing perceptions that writers have had of the continent were interesting but then we went into some disconnected lectures on native literature. Interesting individually but I couldn’t see what point was being made other than that we should not forget that literature is not the prevue of the white settler. If I hadn’t been also taking a course on family history at the same time I would have made better progress. Memo to oneself: do one thing at a time.

 

The cost of reading… and not reading

sundaysalonI love buying books. Though I have hundreds of them in the house queuing up to be read I just cannot resist the temptation to acquire yet more. Until today I never really thought about the cost of my magpie-like tendency. Then I saw a statistic which stopped me in my tracks.

Book Riot reader survey

This came from a survey of more than 2,000 followers of the Book Riot site. In the same survey 19 respondents reported spending more than $2,000 in one year on books.

I realised that I had no idea how much my own reading habits cost me. I didn’t think I was in the $2,000 category but I honestly didn’t know. So I did a quick calculation. Last year I bought 30 books (rather more than I was supposed to given that I had started the year with a declaration of imposing a book buying ban). Eleven of these came from a charity shop/second hand store so were roughly half the price of a pristine edition. I estimated  that I spent somewhere in the region of $260-300 on books in total in 2014. I started to feel calmer. It wasn’t a huge amount to spend on an interest I reasoned (just think how much I’d be spending if I was into surfing or horse riding).

The feeling didn’t last very long.

What about all those books that I’d bought and never read. How much had that cost me over the last few years? $3,000? $4,000? However much it was, I realised that if I didn’t read these books I’d be wasting a whole lot of money. Another good reason to seriously tackle to TBR pile don’t you think?

Man Booker International finalists announced

The judges for the 2015 International Man Booker prize have made some interesting choices of finalists. This prize differs from the Man Booker prize itself because it recognises the author’s whole body of work rather than a single novel. To be considered the author has to have work published originally in English or widely available in translation in the English language.

What delighted me about the choice for this year was the breadth of nationalities represented. We have authors from ten countries – some of them nations which are not widely considered as great sources of literature and where the freedom of self expression via writing, is often under severe constraint. Only one of them (Amitav Ghosh) is a name that would be broadly familiar.

The ten authors on the list are:

Of these I’ve read just three.

Alain Mabanckou’s book Broken Glass was the very first book I read when I kicked off my world literature project. The style was unusual (no punctuation) and it was packed with literary references many of which I didn’t pick up on but I loved it. I’ve since been told it’s not even his best book. Do read this if you get a chance. My review of Broken Glass is here 

The only novel by Amitav Ghosh I’ve read is The Glass Palace which is a generational saga set in Malaysia and India. I did enjoy it though it could have been shorter without losing any of the impact.  My review of The Glass Palace is here 

And finally, a writer whose novel took my breath away when I read it last month, Satantango by László Krasznahorkai is a grimly fascinating tale of a communist hell. Read my review here 

The other delightful aspect about this list is that the remaining six names are authors who are completely new to me. I feel an hour with the credit card at my finger tips is approaching…