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10 books I enjoyed most in 2016

This week’s Top Ten topic,  hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is the ten best books of 2016. By which I take it they mean the books I read in 2016 that I enjoyed the most. I’ve pontificated about this for a few weeks now but can delay no longer. So here is my list. I was surprised to see how many are Booker prize related.

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  1. Top spot goes to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing for her sweeping saga of life in China during the Cultural Revolution and its effects on three musicians. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and in my ever so humble opinion should have been the winner. But the judges disagreed….sigh.
  2. The Many by Wyl Menmuir: a debut novel which was mesmerising even if I didn’t fully understand it. Contained some disturbing ideas about the long term effectof pollution on the sea and fishing stock . It was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize
  3. The North Water by Ian McGuire: Another 2016 Booker contender, this was a rollicking if grim historical adventure set on a whaling ship.
  4. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink: the only non fiction book to make it onto my top 10, this was a thought-provoking detailed examination of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on a hospital in New Orleans and the life/death decisions confronting the medical staff.
  5. Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb: my first experience of this Belgian-born author. After reading this terrific novella about a young girl’s humiliation when she goes to work for a Japanese company and comes bang up against cultural rules and expectations.
  6. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: Another author that I read for the first time in 2016 and what an experience. The plot focuses on a group of people who go to a concert in a Latin American country and end up being taken hostage. Although there is plenty of tension and drama, the real interest for me was in how the different hostages (who include a world famous opera singer, her accompanist and a devoted fan) all respond to music.
  7. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: it’s taken me many years to get around to reading Murakami. It was delightful atmospheric novel about love and loss.
  8. The Gathering by Anne Enright: another Booker title but this time a winner – from 2007. Irish authors often tend to focus on doom and gloom and this one is no exception since it revolves around a sister’s reaction to her brother’s suicide. It’s grim in a sense but Enright portrays the inner life of her protagonist so well I just had to keep reading.
  9. The Narrow Road to the Deep North: by Richard Flanagan: Winner of the Booker Prize in 2014, this is a riveting story account of an Australian doctor who is haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife and his experience as a prisoner of war in Thailand.
  10. My Name is Lucy Barton  by Elizabeth Strout: yet another 2016 Booker contender though I read this long before the Booker judges made their initial selection. It’s the first time I read anything by Strout and on the strength of this tale about a mother/daughter relationship I’ll be keen to read some of her earlier work.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: Review

NorwegianwoodCherry  blossom season comes and goes. Kyoto lies under a blanket of snow. Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood may range across the seasons but the heart of its protagonist Toru Watanabe is forever locked in winter.

As his plane lands in Berlin a snatch of the Beatles song Norwegian Wood comes wafting over the aircraft sound system. It awakens his memory of the time when more than twenty years earlier he had fallen in love with a beautiful, though deeply-troubled, fellow student Naoko. The last occasion on which he saw her was when they walked together in a frozen landscape near a remote sanitorium where she was undergoing therapy. Soon after she killed herself in those snow-clad woods.

Time has blurred his memory of that scene and the person he once was. But every so often, just as it does on that flight, it returns.

Each time it appears it delivers a kick to some part of my mind. Wake up, it says, I’m still here. Wake up and think about it. Think about why I’m still here. The kicking never hurts me. There’s no pain at all. Just a hollow sound that echoes with each kick.

Toru relives for us the days of his younger self as a student in Tokyo in 1969. This is not a novel about the halcyon days of young love but a painful, troubled tale of a coming of age. Or as Toru puts it: “In the midst of life, everything revolved around death.”

We learn that Naoko’s death was not the only tragedy Toru experienced as a young man. He’d once had a close bond with two other students  and his girlfriend Naoko. But when Kuzuki inexplicably committed suicide,  the two survivors were thrown closer together and the inevitable happened, Toru fell in love with Naoko.  She’s a very troubled young woman who though sweet and longing for happiness cannot deal with the strain of life.

While Naoko experiences a breakdown and seeks help at the sanitorium, Toru becomes enamoured with another student. Midori Kobayashi is everything Naoko is not;  vibrant, adventurous, unconventional. A date with Naoko took the form of a long walk through the suburbs of the city; a date with Midori involves clubs, drinks and a visit to a porn cinema. With her Toru may have the chance to achieve what Naoko’s death removed; a chance of real life and love.

Many other authors would, at this point, opt to wrap the novel up with a neat and tidy ending in which the potential lovers either walk off together to find a new life or forever part. Murakami avoids the conventional end. Instead he leads us only part of the way through the frozen landscape of a relationship, giving clues as to a potential ending but leaving us to decide whether ultimately Toru embraces the opportunity of a new life with Midori or continues in his grief and devotion to the unobtainable dead Naoko.

The subtlety of the ending perfectly reflects the delicateness and elusiveness with which Murakami renders this story of young, tragic love. He doesn’t wallow in the emotions but lets us feel Toru’s bewilderment as he approaches the crossroads of his life. Deceptively simple in terms of plot, the writing is so beautifully managed and suffused with symbolism and layers of meaning, the result is surprisingly affecting.

 

 

Snapshot January 2016

Happy New Year!

 

First of all a big thank you to all of you who’ve followed this blog over the last year, sharing your reactions, asking questions and giving advice. Without you this whole blogging lark would be a very miserable experience.

Now what was I up to as I opened my new calendar to the first page?

Reading

I’ve landed myself in a spot I don’t enjoy where I have multiple books on the go. Two I can manage if they are vastly different genres (one fiction, one non fiction for example) or if one is in hard copy and the other on the e reader. But three is testing my limit.

Lookat Me

NorwegianwoodA place called winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started reading Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me early in December but this story of a model’s identity issue after she is smashed up in a car accident, didn’t feel the right thing to be reading during our family Christmas retreat. The snowy landscape on the cover of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood seemed far more apt (even though there was no snow around and the weather on Christmas Day was more like spring). And things were going really well despite not being given much opportunity to read – there was always someone who wanted to play charades or dish out yet more cake. And then I got into a panic yesterday because I realised the book club meeting is next week and I hadn’t even opened the chosen title. Which is why I’ve had to abandon the first two novels and to pick up Patrick Gale’s shortlisted Costa prize novel A Place Called Winter.  It don’t hate it but I don’t love it either and would much rather be reading Murakami…..

Listening

Sarah Walters is one of those names I’ve seen  around a lot but never felt that motivated to read. But I spotted an audio recording in the library of her most recent novel Paying Guests and decided to give it a go. Not convinced I would enjoy reading it but it’s certainly a good one for the car as I’ve been scurrying around recently. This one is set in London in the early years after the end of World War 1 when a genteel lady and her daughter are forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet. The arrival of Len and Lily as ‘paying guests’ disrupts the household but no-one could have predicted it would all end in a sensational court case. Walters does a superb job of conveying the period detail where just to take a bath involves considerable effort and the streets are full of out of work ex-servicemen.

Watching

TV is not allowed at our family Christmas gatherings so we had to wait for our return home to catch up with the BBC’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It was much trailed because of its star-studded cast. But I found it disappointing – very slow and ponderous.

#Read into 2016 – at the midnight hour I was reading

Read into 2016Having challenged you all to stop the reading clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve 2015 and share what you were reading at that time, I obviously had to take a dose of my own medicine. So here is the low down on my #readinto16

Though I’m not much of a party animal and in fact hate all the whooping that greets New Year’s Eve, when the clock struck the hour, I was enjoying a glass of bubbly with a few friends at home. So I was not actually reading at that moment (it would have seemed a bit rude wouldn’t it to rush off and stick my nose in a book??). Maybe other hostesses could have managed that with aplomb but not yours truly. So I will simply share what was on my bedside table at the time: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

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This is the first time I’ve read anything by Murakami. I’ve seen those big fat titles and thought them a little daunting (plus they seemed a bit sci-fi which I don’t get on with too well) . But during a business trip to the States I was at the bookstore looking for a book to read on the flight home. I was staring at Murakami, taking each one off the shelf and scrutinising it while debating whether this would be the moment to give him a go. I hadn’t noticed a colleague had come to stand next to me but he reached out, picked out a book from the shelf, handed it to me and said simply “take this one, it’s the best one he’s written, just wonderful.” It was Norwegian Wood.

That was three years ago and it’s taken me until now to get around to opening it. I’m glad I did because although I’m only about a third of the way through, I love it. You know how there are some books that you start reading and before too long you just know this is made for you? Norwegian Wood is one of those experiences.

To describe it as a love story makes it sound slushy. It is about love but it’s also about memory and loss. I have to force myself to read it slowly because I’m afraid of missing some of Murakami’s beautiful prose in my rush to know what happened in the love affair between the young Japanese students.

It’s getting 2016 off to a brilliant start……

Time for a little sheep talk

Unknown-3Today (Feb 17) marks the first day of the Chinese new year and the start of the year of the sheep. According to the Chinese zodiac system people born in the year of sheep are polite, filial, clever, and kind-hearted. They prefer the quiet life and are apparently especially sensitive to art and beauty.

You’d think then that these artistic creatures would feature prominently in fiction.  But these poor creatures have definitely been short-changed by authors. There are plenty of novels featuring dogs and horses, but our woolly friends barely get a look in. The first two options here are the only ones I could think of personally, for the remainder I had to rely on Goodreads and LibraryThing.

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick

A  science fiction novel published in 1968, this doesn’t even feature real sheep apart from a brief mention at the beginning. In it’s post-apocalyptic setting, most types of animals are endangered or extinct due to extreme radiation poisoning from the war. Keeping and owning live animals is therefore a status symbol so many people turn towards cheaper synthetic, or electric, animals to keep up the pretense.

2. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

A bit of a stretch I know since the lambs are symbolic rather than actual. They feature in a brief episode when FBI trainee Clarice Starling is forced into revealing her troubled childhood on a sheep farm where she tries to prevent the lambs from slaughter.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, 
 A murder mystery  in which a flock of sheep take on the role of detectives when their much-loved shepherd is killed, pinned to the ground with a spade. Among their number are Othello, a “bad-boy” black ram; Mopple the Whale, a Merino who eats a lot and remembers everything; and Zora, a pensive black-faced ewe with a weakness for abysses. The Goodreads blurb calls it a ‘witty philosophical murder mystery” where the sheep’s discussions about the possible culprits turn into metaphysical speculations.  This could either be excruciatingly twee or deliciously funny. It seems to have built quite a following – the novel has been translated from the original German into 30 languages.
4. Sheep by Simon Maginn 
By contrast comes this  horror story set in a tumble down farmhouse in Wales where James and Adele son hope to find peace after the drowning of their daughter. When James unearths an odd collection of bones while working on the house, they begin to learn the nightmarish story of the tragic history of their home.
5. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s  third novel novel is apparently a blend of styles — part detective , part metaphysical speculation, part magical realism. Where do the sheep fit in you might wonder? They’re the subject of a photograph which catches the eye of a Japanese copywriter. He uses the picture to illustrate a newspaper, unknowingly becoming the subject of a hunt orchestrated by a Mr Big who wants to track down the source of the image before he dies.
So that’s it. Not exactly three bags full but there might just be something that suits the little maid who lives down your road.

Snapshot of August

Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching

August

Reading

I finished The Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo a few days ago. This was the book I chose to represent Burkina Faso on my book journey along the Prime Meridian. It wasn’t a brilliant novel but I am glad I read it purely because of the bravery that lay behind its creation. Zongo was a writer who died because the regime under which he lived was afraid of the power of his pen to challenge their authority. The Parachute Drop led to his arrest, torture and imprisonment. As I said in my review of The Parachute Drop  this is an important book rather than a memorable one.

I’m now in that space where I need to decide what to read next. My request for The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt which was long listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize came through at the library so I started that. But it’s too heavy for me to take on my travels tomorrow to USA. My choices will be between Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (it seems appropriate to read him in the month when his newest novel – Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki – is published) and Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave which has lingered on my TBR shelf for way too long.  Maybe I’ll end up with both

Listening 

I’m steadily working my way through all the audiobooks of Peter May’s Chief Superintendent Roy Grace crime series that are on offer via the library system. They’re perfect for the short drive time to work or to help me through the dreaded task of ironing. The latest one I heard was Not Dead Enough, in which our detective is confronted with a doppleganger mystery as he tries to solve a double murder.

Watching 

The BookerTalk household has been enjoying Philomena and The Railway Man though the film version doesn’t bear a lot of relation to the book which I found harrowing. We’ve also been allowing to pass before our eyes, some old episodes of the crime series Lewis which was born out of the success of Morse. Lewis is nowhere near as good because although the lead actor is perfectly skilled in his craft, he just doesn’t have the calibre of John Thaw. It’s ok however if you just want something at the end of the night that isn’t too taxing.

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