Author Archives: BookerTalk

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: Learning To Live

Edith Piaf regretted nothing. Matt Haig’s protagonist regrets everything. All her missed opportunities, all the decisions not made and the paths not taken.

Nora Seed’s life once held so much promise. She could have been an Olympic swimmer or toured the world with a rock band. She might have been a glaciologist. She could have gone to live in Australia with her best friend or gone to run a cosy English village pub with her husband.

Instead she is at rock bottom. She’s lost her job at a music shop, her only client for piano lessons has decided he’s more interested in football, she’s estranged from her brother and her cat has died. She has nothing – and no-one – to live for.

Every move had been a mistake, every decision a disaster, every day a retreat from who she’d imagined she’d be.

Suicide, she decides, is the only way to escape the misery of a life full of regrets. But on the brink of death she is transported to The Midnight Library, where every book acts as a gateway to the past. They give her the chance to try out all those alternative lives; to see how things would be different now if she had made other choices then.

As Mrs Elms, librarian at this mysterious place tells Nora:

Doing one thing differently is often the same as doing everything differently. This is your opportunity to see how things could be.

And so new versions of Nora are created. The one where she does win an Olympic medal, another where she does get to Australia and a third in which she is conducting scientific experiments in the Arctic ice fields. In one incarnation she marries the fiancé she had, in her real life, ditched two weeks before her wedding; in another she is a Cambridge don married to a surgeon.

Are any of these other lives better than her current existence? To answer the question, Nora has to consider what truly matters and what would make her life worth living. Is it fame? Or friendship or perhaps love?

The Midnight Library has a lot going for it.

It features a library and a helpful librarian for one thing (always a plus for us bibliophiles). The contents of the Midnight Library are not however your usual material:

The books were all green. Greens of multifarious shades. Some of these volumes were a murky swamp-green, some a bright and light chartreuse, some a bold emerald and others the verdant shade of summer lawns … There were no titles of author names adoring the spines. Aside from the difference of shade the only other variation was size; the books were of similar height but varied in width

And it articulates well the desperation of someone in the throes of a breakdown. Matt Haig has faced depression in his own life so is more than qualified to show what Nora Seed experiences as she sits alone in her flat, scrolling through other people’s happy lives and comparing them with her own empty existence. She has, she says in her farewell note, only herself to blame. She had chances but blew everyone of them.

What Nora discovers is that no life is perfect however much it might look that way from afar; each life brings with it a degree of disillusionment and pain. Yet the over-arching message of the book is positive, that there is a way to climb out of the black hole and embrace the joy of life.

I also enjoyed some of the philosophical digressions, the explanations of quantum physics and string theory. I even grasped the concept of Schrödinger’s cat (Haig’s explanation is much clearer than that given in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being).

And yet I didn’t fully engage with this book. I felt sympathetic towards Nora initially. Haven’t we all had times when we’ve regretted a decision or thought “what if…” . But as the novel progresses, the enlightenment she gains from each incarnation began to feel repetitive. I can see how this book would appeal to many readers but overall I found it too whimsical.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: Endnotes

The Midnight Library is published by Canongate on 13 August 2020. My copy was provided by the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review/

Matt Haig is the author of the bestselling memoir Reasons to Stay Alive in which he described how, when he was 24 years old, he could see no way to go on living. This is his story of how he came through his crisis and learned to enjoy life.

Where Are Good Sources For Books In Translation

Globe showing images of authors from around the word
A World of Literature

My project to read books by authors from 50 countries is close to being completed. I have just nine countries to “visit” which I’m hoping to do by the end of this year.

I’ve enjoyed the World of Literature project so much I’m thinking to continue though I’m not sure I can tackle every country in the world as Ann Morgan did with her Year Of Reading the World project. Even more ambitious is the project currently being undertaken by Imogen at Reading and Watching The World blog. She’s set herself the task of reading two books, watching a film and exploring an artist from each country.

It would take a huge (enormous in fact) amount of effort for to tackle the full list of 196 nations. Adding another 50 countries to my original list would be tough enough, particularly because my rule is that each book I read has to be written by an author from the country. They could be born in the country or could have lived there for a significant amount of time. Of course it would be a lot easier if I just chose books set in a particular country but I find that books by non-native authors often don’t have that ring of authenticity.

The other issue is that, for some countries, there can be next to nothing published in English. I came up against that challenge early on in my project when I tried to find books by authors from the African nations. South Africa was simple, Nigeria gave me numerous choices but I drew a complete blank with Mali and Burkino Faso.

One reason is that some countries have governments who severely curtail its citizen’s freedom of expression, hence why Amnesty International has had so many authors on their Prisoners of Conscience list over the years. Other countries like Samoa tend to have more of an oral rather than written tradition. And then there’s the problem that many publishers (there are some notable exceptions) don’t see much of a market in translated fiction.

If I do continue with the project – and right now it seems highly likely – I’ll need to do extensive research to find out what’s available. And probably expand the list of sources I’ve used until now for ideas and inspiration.

I’ve already started to put a list of sources together.

Where You Can Find Translated Fiction

Periene Press

Periene isn’t a prolific publisher but everything it issues is carefully selected It tends to specialise in contemporary novellas from European authors, most of them being translated in English for the first time. They could be a great resource for some of the smaller European nations – I see for example one of their more recent titles is by a Lithuanian author named Dalia Grinkevičiutė and will publish Nana Ekvtimishvili from Georgia later this year.

Asympote Journal

Asympote runs the only book club I’ve come across which is dedicated to literature in translation. I had a subscription package for a year which delivered gems like The Barefoot Woman by an author from Rwanda and The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodroziç, an author from Croatia. A renewal of my subscription is in order I think.

Winstonsdad’s Blog

Stu is a phenomenal reader of translated fiction as a glance at his blog will testify. The 1,000 plus books he’s reviewed cover more than 100 countries, with multiple entries for many nations. Want to read something from Romania or Montengro? He has you covered.

Africa Writes

This website is linked to the Africa Writes biennial festival which is a partnership with the British Library to celebrate literature from across the African continent. It focuses on contemporary writers so isn’t of much help for some of the “classic” works as such, but does a good job of highlighting new books.

Words Without Borders

Words Without Borders is a multi-faceted organisation that  translates publishes and promotes contemporary international literature. Since it was formed in 2003 it’s published well over 2,200 writers from 134 countries, translated from 114 languages. It published authors like Italy’s Elena Ferrante and the South Korean author Han Kang long before they achieved international status. Their website and online magazine regularly feature extract from new books which are useful in giving a taste of the authors style

Do You Have Any Suggestions?

I haven’t yet mentioned any of the bloggers who do a great job promoting literature from their own countries.

Australian fiction is covered well by Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums. Cathy at 746books.com has a list of 100 books by Irish authors, and if it’s Korean literature you’re interested in, then Tony at Tony’sReadingList is the place to head. I’ll put a plug in here for my own attempts to promote authors from Wales, you’ll find a list of books here on BookerTalk. All these bloggers do of course read a wide variety of books, not just those from their home country.

If you know of any other good resources I can use to identify books in translation, do let me know. I’m particularly lacking in sources for countries in Asia.

Sample Saturday: 3 “popular” novels

I seldom buy books that are in the bestseller lists. Somehow the more attention a book gets, the less inclined I am to read it. But a few of these bestsellers/much acclaimed novels do creep onto my shelves from time to time. I dug these three from the “owned but unread” shelves today to try and decide whether I want to keep them. You can help me decide.

The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josh Silver

I’ve no idea how I came to have this book. It’s marked as a proof copy but I don’t recall ever requesting it nor do I think it’s likely since it’s described as a “love story” and I don’t do romantic fiction.

The blurb tells me its about Lydia whose fiance Freddie is killed in a road accident on her birthday. She just wants to hide indoors and sob but believes that Freddie wouldn’t want her to do that. So she enlists the help of his best friend to take her first steps into the world alone but then gets another chance at her old life with Freddie.

That sounded a bit of a Sliding Doors type of narrative. But I’ve since discovered its more of an alternative reality tale since Lydia tackles her insomnia by joining a clinical trial for a new sleeping pill. Yet whenever she takes one of the little pink pills, she wakes up in an alternate reality, in which her beloved partner of 14 years is still very much alive.

It’s been described as “Heartbreakingly beautiful, butterfly-inducing and laugh out loud funny ” and “a powerful and thrilling love story about the what-ifs that arise at life’s crossroads.”

Loads of readers have clearly enjoyed it because it was on the Sunday Times bestseller list and came with a recommendation from Reese Witherspoon’s book club. I’ve sampled a few of the pages and though it reads well I don’t think its going to hold my attention for long. It belongs more in a home where it will be better appreciated.

The Verdict: Let Go

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  by Gail Honeyman

Now this is one I did buy myself; I know because my copy still has the “buy one get one half price” sticker. I must have bought it thinking it was worth a punt at half price having seen it “everywhere” a few years ago.

Actually it was pretty hard to miss the book since it won the Costa First Novel Award in 2017; the British Book Awards Debut Of the Year and Overall Winner and was named in the Top Ten of Library’s Thing’s favourite books in 2017.

Gail Honeyman’s debut work is a tale of a 29-year-old woman who’s rather a social misfit and hard to like. She wears the same clothes to work every day and has the same meal deal for lunch. At the weekend she gets through two bottles of vodka.

As the book progresses we apparently come to learn that her behaviour is the result of a traumatic past. Bizzarely she becomes enamoured of the front man for a local band whom she believes is destined to be the love of her life.

I’m anticipating this tale include themes of loneliness and mental illness. It sounds promising, I just hope it doesn’t have a cheesy happy ever after kind of ending….

The Verdict: Keep

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

This is a review copy that was passed on to me with a recommendation from Susan who blogs at booksaremycwtches.

As you will not be surprised to discover it’s a story about a man who is a beekeeper in the Syrian city of Aleppo. He and his wife who live a fairly simple life but one enriched by friendship and kinship. Their life and everything they hold dear are destroyed by war

What’s selling this book to me is that Lefteri was inspired to write the story by the people she met and the stories she heard when she volunteered at a centre in Greece for women and children displaced by war. Her own parents were refugees, fleeing their native Cyprus during the war of 1974. Their feelings of trauma also helped inform the novel, according to an interview she gave to The Irish Times.

The Verdict: Keep

My TBR stash is now going to be marginally reduced. That’s ok; the objective of Sample Saturday isn’t to get rid of books, but to make sure my shelves are full only with books I do want to read. What do you think of the decisions I’ve reached? If you’ve read any of these books I’d love to hear from you.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik: Motherly Love Under Scrutiny

The folks responsible for selecting the Asympote Book Club titles certainly know how to find some gems in translated fiction. I’ve yet to read one from my subscription package that hasn’t been thought-provoking, inventive or memorable. Sometimes, as in the case of Love by the Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik, all three.

This novella questions the accepted notion that an emotional bond exists between mothers and their offspring that is both deep and unbreakable.

A horrid mother featured in another of Hanne Ørstavik’s books – The Blue Room – in which a mother’s locks her daughter in her bedroom to prevent her going abroad with a boyfriend. We’re clearly meant to see this as an action born out of intense love. In Love however, the issue is more about the absence of a mother’s attachment and devotion to her young son.

Vibeke has recently moved to a new home in the north of Norway with her eight-year-old son Jon. She’s enjoying a new job as an arts and culture manager, but there are hints that she finds the real world a challenge. One of the first things we learn about her is that she uses books to escape that reality:

She wishes she could read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up, with coffe, lots of cigarettes, and a warm nightdress on.

It then quickly becomes evident that while Jon is always thinking of his mother, she would often prefer to forget his existence. His chatter about his train set and a picture he has seen, is an unwelcome intrusion in her world of day dreams about fashion and romance. “Can’t you just go, she thinks to herself. Find something to do, play or something?”

On one icy winter night, on the eve of his ninth birthday, Jon does indeed find something else to do. He decides to go out and sell raffle tickets around the neighbourhood. It will, he imagines, leave the way clear for his mum to make him a special birthday cake.

Vibeke has no such plans. She’s completely forgotten about her son’s birthday. Instead of baking, she takes a bath, paints her toe nails and then decides to head to the library. She never notices her son is not in the house. She thinks he’s in bed asleep.

From this point, Hanne Ørstavik’s narrative becomes palpably more atmospheric and menacing. I found it an incredibly tense experience to read this book because every time mother and son encountered a stranger or went somewhere else in the town, I was afraid some calamity would befall them. It’s so cleverly written that we never know whether it will be Jon or his mother who ends up in the greatest danger.

Will Jon be abducted or abused by the old man who takes Jon down into his rank-smelling basement? When Vibeke goes off with a fairground worker is she being driven to a nightclub or to her death? There’s a strange woman at the fairground with long wig-like white hair, white gloves, a white cape, and tall white boots. When she later stops to offer Jon a lift is she acting as fairy godmother or wicked witch?

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to go with strangers? Not everyone’s as nice as me,” she tells him. In fact every stranger in this book becomes a figure of suspicion.

Though it has the atmosphere of menace and dread associated with thrillers, Love is essentially a study of a relationship and whether looking after a child’s physical needs – Vibeke does feed Jon – and showing a passing interest in his stories, can be said to constitute love.

Hanne Ørstavik examines this question using a ingenious dual consciousness mode of narration. It’s not just a matter of alternating the points of view between Vibeke and Jon in successive chapters. What Ørstavik does instead is to link the two perspectives so closely they flow from one to another across, and often within paragraphs.

We cut from Vibeke as she leaves an all-night cafe and gets into a car, to Jon as he walks along a road when a car pulls up next to him.

The engine idles, puffing its exhaust. Jon feels its warmth against his lower legs.

He’s turned the engine off but left the ignition on, the heater’s running and he’s switched the radio back on …

The text reads as if they are the same episode but in fact that second sentence has switched back again to Vibeke.

Mother and son do not occupy the same vehicle that night yet the narrative structure makes it seem they are connected. Is the idea that there is an indissoluble bond still in existence between them? That’s hard to reconcile with the fact that throughout the whole night we never get a sense Vibeke has given a single thought to the child left alone at home. In fact we learn that he is not only shut out from her thoughts, he is shut out of the home having forgotten his key.

For such a slim work (it runs to just 125 pages), reading Love is an astonishingly tense and completely engrossing experience. It’s hard intially to avoid being critical of Vibeke’s attitude to her son, a boy who is imaginative, curious and utterly devoted to his mother. She comes across as shallow and self-centred but we can also sympathise with her desire for some love (the adult kind) in her life. And while she doesn’t make the child the centre of her world, there are signs that, in her own way, she does love him.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik: Endnotes

About the Book: Love was first published in 1997 under the Norwegian title Kjærlighet. In 2006 it was voted the 6th best Norwegian book of the last 25 years. The book was the first of her novels to be published in the United States,’ it was shortlisted for the National Book Awards in the category Translated Literature.

About the Author:

Hanne Ørstavik was born in the far north of Norway but moved to Oslo at the age of 16. Her career as an author began in 1994 with the publication of the novel Hakk (Cut) but it was three years later when  Love was published, that she began to gain recognition. Since then she has written several acclaimed and much discussed novels and received a host of literary prizes. In June 2014, Periene Press published the first ever English translation of one of her novels – The Blue Room.

Six Degrees: From How to Do Nothing to Americanah

This month’s Six Degrees begins with a book whose title suggests it falls into the self-help category. Since I’m invariably disappointed by the superficiality of most of those books I haven’t given much thought to How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell.

But reading the descriptions have got me far more interested. Odell is an artist is a writer and a Stanford professor who has become increasingly disturbed about the effects of our “always on” world. She argues that reacting instantly to every ping of a new text message, constantly checking Twitter feeds and Instagram stories is possibly torching our ability to live meaningful lives, and preventing us from noticing what matters.

1

A similar concern formed the basis of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. If you’ve not read it, this is a thought-provoking, and disturbing account of research that shows how the Internet is re-wiring our brains so they become more accustomed to only superficial understanding. We don’t read what’s on our screens, we simply scan with a profound consequence for how we retain and recall information and learn.

Carr’s book was based on the distraction problem caused by content stuffed with hyperlinks, every one of which was calling for your attention. If he was writing it now, he’d be commenting on the added distraction caused by all the marketing messages that bombard us every time we fire up a website or a social media platform. They’re there for one reason, and one reason only: to persuade us to buy.

2

The same year I read The Shallows I read The Undercover Economist in which Tim Harford delved into the world of coffee shop marketing. He explains in non-technical terms how Starbucks and other coffee chains price their coffee and drinks to try and get us to trade up.

The economic principles are quite straightforward. Your entry level Americano doesn’t offer much of a profit margin. But add in frothy milk, and call it a latte or a cappuccino and the profit looks more healthy. The ingredient costs don’t go up that significantly but your customers think they’re buying into a life style so they’re willing to pay higher prices. Persuade those same customers they really need (deserve?) a flavoured syrup, a squirt of cream or a sprinkle of marshmallows ( heaven help us, some people want all three) and those profit margins rocket.

I guarantee, when you’ve read Harford’s chapters on Who Pays For Your Coffee and What Supermarkets Don’t Want You To Know, you will never look at a coffee menu in the same way.

Marketing is much older than maybe some of us realise. Émile Zola had his finger on the button in 1883 when he set one of his Rougon-Macquet novels in a Parisienne shop.

3

In The Ladies’ Paradise the store owner Octave Mouret has grand ambitions to become more than just a modest size operation. He sets about creating a huge department store, killing off his competitors with his big advertising spend, ‘no questions asked’ returns policy, rapid home delivery and seasonal sales. Mouret uses the mechanisms of seduction, transforming everything for sale into an object of desire, enticing women to lose their heads and buy far more than they need or can afford.

Into this den of consumerism steps Denise Baudu, a young orphaned provincial girl who takes a job in the store because she has to provide for her two younger brothers. She’s taught to smile and agree with customers even when they’re being completely disagreeable, arrogant and rude.

4

There are similar scenes in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin which transplants the young Eilis Lacey from her small village life in Ireland, to the bustle of Brooklyn. Ellis, accustomed to the sales technique of the harridan who ran the village shop (customers who want cleaning products on the Sabbath re given short shrift), is nervous as hell when she begins her job in an American department store. Here she’s told, the customer is always right and its Ellis’ job to serve their every need.

Brooklyn is a love story but also a story about the experience of people who leave their homes in search of what they believe will be a better life.

5

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo picks up this theme through the story of Darling, a young teenager who manages to escape the poverty, hunger and despair of Zimbabwe to live with her aunt in “Destroyedmichygen” (Detroit, Michigan).

At first she is surprised by the astonishing variety and plenitude of food, by the wealth of everyday choices. She adopts the new lifestyle, the clothes and habits of her new friends. But then she begins to feel alienated from her motherland and her new life; missing all the traditions and beliefs she grew up with, and at the same time detached from the hectic life of easy gratification in America. 

6

It’s a book that reminded me strongly of sections in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which a brilliant exploration of modern attitudes to race and identity, loss and loneliness.

Her female protagonist Ifemulu, having achieved her dream of a place at an American university struggles to find her identity. Ultimately this girl triumphs when she decides not to conform to expectations about her ethnic origins and colour. The moment she stops hiding her Nigerian accent beneath an American one and refuses to straighten her hair she feels truly free and true to her roots.

And with that we reach the end of this month’s Six Degrees chain. We’ve travelled from France, Nigeria and Zimbabwe to the USA, pausing to pick up a coffee and get our hair done. I hope you’ve enjoyed my meanderings.

If you’re interested in taking part in Six Degrees yourself, take a look at the information provided by our host Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best

Should You Review Only The Books You Enjoy?

The debate over whether book bloggers should include reviews of books they disliked as well as those they enjoyed, has reared its head again.

The catalyst was this post on Twitter. The person who shared this was baffled: why single them out when there were plenty of other bloggers who also only reviewed the books they liked?

The message generated almost 200 replies and more than 3,000 “likes”.

It’s been fascinating to watch the reactions to this message. There seemed to be three types of response:

  1. People who agreed that bloggers didn’t need to review books they disliked. They saw it as a waste of their time or disrespectful to the authors.

I never write a review if I don’t like the book. If I don’t like it, I don’t mention it. Reading is subjective and it’s not my place to trash a writer who has possibly spent a year or more pouring blood, sweat and tears into a book.

2. People who felt the potential impact on an author shouldn’t stop bloggers making negative comments in reviews.

Yes reviews can be helpful if they have constructive criticism. But READERS are under no obligation to help authors. They already bought the book. The reviews are for other READERS not AUTHORS.

3. Those who felt they had a responsibility to their followers/readers to be honest about reactions to a book

I’m so dissatisfied with 95% of the books I read each month on my blog, I’m warning people way from them. I will not abandon a book I start reading, but I am very clear about what I dislike about them.

I tackled this topic in a previous post about “negative reviews” in my A2Zofbookblogging series. But since the issue is clearly still on people’s minds and opinions are so varied I asked a few bloggers I follow, about their “rules” .

Joanne: Portobello Book Blog

The question about reviewing a book she hasn’t enjoyed isn’t really an issue for Joanne.

She only ever reviews books that she has enjoyed and would want to recommend, she says.

There are so many books out there that I wouldn’t continue reading something I wasn’t enjoying. I don’t claim to be a critic and just because I haven’t liked something, doesn’t mean that someone else won’t.

Since Joanne frequently participates in blogtours, what does she do if the books she’s agreed to read, just doesn’t work for her?

I would contact the organiser and explain. They are always understanding and can usually provide something else such as an extract so I can still take part in the tour and help publicise the book.

Cathy: 746books.com

Cathy takes a somewhat different approach. If she hasn’t enjoyed a book she will still review it but being careful to explain what didn’t work for her and to give a balanced reaction by highlighting any positives.

When I started my blog in 2013, my aim was to read all the unread books I had on my shelves and my kindle – all 746 of them – which has meant that if I haven’t liked a book I’ve felt that I needed to be honest and say that. I did not give myself the luxury of simply not mentioning that particular book as I was counting down all the books I had finished.

Even if that was not the case, I still think I would be honest in my response to a book, be it good or bad. I generally find that the books I am most interested in reading are ones that have had mixed reactions from people I trust. A book that has been universally adored tends to be a book that I will avoid!

Over the last seven years of blogging I have only written two or three reviews that I would consider to be ‘bad’ reviews but I feel that it is possible to discuss what you consider hasn’t worked without slating an entire work

There’s no definitive answer to this issue. Ultimately, as many of the contributors said, it’s YOUR blog, you get to choose the rules.

Personally I choose to review books I enjoyed and those I didn’t partly because I feel that gives my readers a more balanced experience when they land on my blog. Those are also the blogs I most enjoy and value reading.

However when when I have to share my dislike of a book, I still try to be balanced in my appraisal. It’s like doing a performance review for an employee: you try to make any criticism balanced and constructive.

A Question For You

Do you have a “policy” for your blog about whether to include reviews of all the books you read regardless of whether you enjoyed or didn’t enjoy them? Why did you reach that decision?

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