Saturday, July 29, 2006

People Almost Always Long For Change

Book Number 4: No Saints Or Angels, by Ivan Klíma
Country: The Czech Republic

In her dreams, Kristyna murders her ex-husband.

Jana, Kristyna’s daughter, is rapidly sliding into drug addiction.

Jan, Kristyna’s lover, is in danger of uncovering too much in his investigations of war crimes in Prague.

In contemporary Prague, these three individuals, all at different stages in their lives, struggle to find happiness from life. Each narrates parts of their own personal battles. Kristyna, a depressive dentist, is the centre of the story. Her life is scarred by the death of her grandmother in a gas chamber during the holocaust, her father’s intense Socialist ideals that overshadowed his interest in his daughter, the betrayal of her ex-husband, and her deceitful teenage daughter, who steals and lies to fund her drug habit. Gradually, Kristyna learns that she wasn’t the only one her father or her husband let down and she slowly begins to find the strength to let the past go.

Although I found the greyness and bleakness of this book hard work at first, as the story progresses, Klíma’s philosophy emerges – there are no saints or angels in life, and as long as we can make our peace with that, the beauty in life will become apparent. The depressive depiction of life at the outset of the book is a gratifying contrast to the hope and promise Kristyna eventually realises life contains - "You live so long as you have something to expect."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Land of the Eagles

Book Number 3: Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, by Ismail Kadare
Country: Albania

The works of Albania’s most controversial author Ismail Kadare reach English-reading audiences by a more arduous process than those of other foreign writers. Apparently nobody English speaks Albanian; or, if they do happen to be fluent in English and Albanian, they must have better things to do with their time than translate literature, because Kadare’s works are translated first into French and then into English. There are always numerous concerns regarding translated literature (primarily regarding the translator’s loyalty to the original), and more so when the literature in question has been translated from a translation, but Kadare’s writings seem to have emerged pretty well. This is evidently a testament to the skills of both the author and his translators.

The first book of Kadare’s I read was Broken April, which transported me to the Albanian mountains and the midst of an ancient blood feud, with the shadow of the Kanun (the book in which the code of the blood feud is written) colouring everyone and everything. With Spring Flowers, Spring Frost I was expecting a read at least as entrancing as Broken April, but rather disappointingly I found it distinctly unsatisfying.

The story follows Mark, an artist, as he struggles to make sense of what is happening to Albania, and in his life. Mark and Albania have both lost track of where they are going and what they are doing, and both man and nation are desperately trying to avoid slipping into utter despair and confusion. The book is written in chapters and counter-chapters, juxtaposing Mark’s life in the present with myths and legends of old that Mark contemplates in an attempt to understand love, life, and Albania’s precarious teetering on the boundary between the old society and the new. The Kanun is omnipresent in this book also, threatening to break down the fragile new society and deny Albania entry into the EU.

I’m ashamed to say I’m not too good with subtlety in books, and I definitely feel as though I have missed something crucial in this one. One of the mysteries I am still trying to work out is Mark’s absent friend, Zef. He is a conspicuous absence throughout the book, and one that the author touches on repeatedly, but I can’t see why. The surreal aspects of this novel are always touched upon by reviewers with mixed conclusions, but for me, it contributed to the disappointment I felt with the book overall. I am in no way implying that this is not a novel worth reading; I just didn’t get on with it. Although I appreciate the themes and techniques employed by Kadare, I didn’t like the characters or the grittiness of the subject matter. I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this book if anyone has read it.

* Article on Kadare winning the International Man Booker Prize in 2005
* Albanian Literature online

Never Judge A Book by Its Cover?

I always judge a book by its cover.

I don’t see it as a fault on my part; rather, I prefer to blame the publishing houses that commission and then authorise the designs. It is rare that I enter a bookshop with a list of books to buy, and ever rarer that I stick to the list when I do have one. I take enormous pleasure in slowly wandering among the shelves, pulling off books with attractive covers and promising titles (or more recently, books whose authors look as though they might be European), sitting and flicking through them, and trying to decide which of the books I have selected will be coming home with me. There is nothing more distressing than a beautiful book with promising reviews on the back, which then turns out to be unworthy of attention. Only slightly less upsetting is the sensational book with the unappealing cover.

It is impossible for me to define exactly what makes a book cover good in my eyes. Of course, I know what I don’t like, which includes shiny covers, very bright colours, overly curly fonts and depressing titles. I also loathe the fact that every other contemporary book is declared by the critics to be ‘a modern classic!’ or a ‘masterpiece!’. Whenever I read those words on the back of a book, my heart sinks. I suspect, for me, the secret of a good book cover involves the use of a painting as illustration on the front, an outstanding quotation pulled from somewhere inside the book, and the simplest design possible.

One of my favourite book covers belongs to my copy of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. There is a detail of a Caravaggio on the front cover, and at the top, the title of the book and the author’s name underneath it are printed in embossed gold capital letters. In the bottom right hand corner, the first line of the book is printed in white italics (“On they went, singing ‘Eternal Memory’, and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing…”). The spine of the book is plain black, with the title and author’s name in white, and on the back cover is a black and white photograph of Pasternak. Below his chin, the briefest synopsis is printed across his jacket, in five neat white lines. It is understated, elegant, and the beautiful sentence on the front of the book makes it irresistible.

For the next year however, I'm having to abandon my whimsical dismissals of works as a result of an unsatisfactory cover. My local library simply doesn't possess a large enough range of Estonian authors for me to be so picky.

Monday, July 24, 2006

In Every Sense Hungry

Book Number 2: Les Liaisons Culinaires, by Andreas Staïkos
Country: Greece

The contenders: Dimitris and Damocles.
The battlefield: The kitchen.
The prize: The affections of Nana, a married woman.

In Athens, the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach. Upon discovering that they share a lover, neighbours Dimitris and Damocles commence a fierce culinary competition in order to exclusively secure Nana’s attentions. As the weeks progress, Nana is seduced by creations such as moussaka, stuffed vine leaves, and the magical-sounding ‘sea urchin corals, drowning in a spoonful of Aegean water’.

The author includes the working recipes for all the dishes that feature in the war of seduction, most of them classic Greek recipes. The majority of them feature meat as a main ingredient, so if, like me, you happen to be vegetarian, you may have to resort to another book for versions minus the meat. However, the inclusion of the recipes is what makes the book, providing a brief introduction to traditional Greek cuisine, and inviting readers to experiment in their own kitchens. Even I was inspired to create a vegetarian moussaka!

Nana is a hilarious character; totally unashamed by the discovery of her deceit in conducting affairs with both men, she enters into the spirit of the contest for her love wholeheartedly, urging the men on with declarations such as: “Today is going to be such an ordeal for you: cutting, slicing, peeling, grating, chopping – just for me…Fitting remuneration for my love, I think you’ll agree.”

Personally, I loved the light-hearted irony of the role reversals – it is the woman arriving in the flat and reclining in a chair while the man attends to her every need, and strives to delight her taste buds by slaving for hours in the kitchen. Nana strikes one back for the women!

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Meaning Of Love

Book Number 1: 'In Lucia's Eyes', by Arthur Japin
Country: The Netherlands

It is, I think, brave for a man to place himself in the shoes of a woman in love and attempt to write an account of her desires and sacrifices as though he himself had lived her life.

I discovered Arthur Japin's fictionalised memoir of the life of Lucia, one of only two women Casanova admits to having 'wronged', in a secondhand book shop, when I shouldn't really have been looking for a book at all. What I stumbled across turned out to be a story of all kinds of love: real and imagined, unrequited and passionately returned. As children, Lucia and Casanova fell in love. As adults, they loved each other again, but she hid herself behind a veil, and he did not know who he loved.

This book is utterly spellbinding. The only complaint I can imagine someone having is that the character of Lucia is somewhat idealised. Although the man she loved with all her heart confirmed her (and perhaps everyone's) worst fear, she never lapses into self pity, or resentment, or bitterness. Then again, this is a fictionalised account of a life lived, and in my opinion, it adds to the romance and ambiance of the story. Any artistic liberties the author has taken with Lucia's character obviously do not interfere with the historical facts as far as they are known.

I'm not really one for re-reading books, but I have a feeling I'll be coming back to this one in the future. It has everything - love, betrayal, deception, sacrifice and an unexpected bittersweet ending. I'm actually a little horrified to think that if I hadn't specifically been searching for something by a European author, I probably would never have read this!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Book Traveller

First things first. I'm not really travelling. I just plan on reading books. A lot of books.

Here's my plan (because it's good to have a plan) : I am aiming to read 100 books from 100 different countries in one year. These books will include novels, short stories, poetry, maybe non-fiction all depends what I come across through my browsings in libraries and bookshops. This may seem like an arbitrary goal, which I suppose it is really, but I'm hoping to get a lot from my year of world literature. A better knowledge of geography for a start...

My love of wasting time drifting aimlessly round bookshops prohibits me from making lists of all the books/authors I would like to read this year (that, and the fact that as soon as I slap something onto one of my 'Must Read' lists, I immediately lose all will to pick it up), so I'm just going to see what happens. Actually, I know what happens, because I went to a secondhand bookshop and then the library a few days ago, meandered, and discovered my first few books.

My itinerary for the next couple of weeks includes the Netherlands, the Czech republic, Italy, Greece and Albania. Keep reading to see how my journey is progressing!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The List So Far...

Below are the books that I've read and am counting towards my 100 books. There will be some books you'll read about on my blog that won't appear in the list - either because I've already read an author from that country but couldn't resist another, or because they aren't relevant to the 100 countries challenge. This list will be updated as I finish books.

1. In Lucia’s Eyes, by Arthur Japin (Holland)
2. Les Liaisons Culinaires, by Andreas Staïkos (Greece)
3. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, by Ismail Kadare (Albania)
4. No Saints or Angels, by Ivan Klíma (Czech Republic)
5. Embers, by Sándor Márai (Hungary)
6. The Czar's Madman, by Jaan Kross (Estonia)
7. The Three Cornered Hat, by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (Spain)
8. The Fish Can Sing, by Halldór Laxness (Iceland)
9. Les Enfants Terribles, by Jean Cocteau (France)
10. Journey In Blue, by Stig Dalager (Denmark)
11. Reunion, by Fred Uhlman (Germany)
12. Home And Exile, by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
13. As The Crow Flies, by Véronique Tadjo (Côte d'Ivoire)
14. So Long A Letter, by Mariama Ba (Senegal) AND Scarlet Song, by Mariama Ba (Senegal)
15. Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna ( Sierra Leone)
16. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana)
17. This Blinding Absence of Light, by Tahar Ben Jelloun (Morocco)
18. Woman At Point Zero, by Nadal El Saadawi (Egypt)
19. Memories of My Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez (Colombia)
20. Waiting, by Ha Jin (China) and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, by Yiyun Li (China)

21. Death In The Andes, by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
22. Dirty Havana Trilogy, by Pedro Juan Gutierrez (Cuba)
23. If This Is A Man & The Truce, by Primo Levi (Italy)
24. The Lady, The Chef and The Courtesan, by Marisol (Venezuela)
25. The Obscene Bird of Night, by Jose Donoso (Chile) AND Memoirs, by Pablo Neruda (Chile)
26. The Red Queen, by Margaret Drabble (UK)
27. Thirteen Cents, by K. Sello Duiker (South Africa)
28. The Fatal Eggs, by Mikhail Bulgakov (Russia)
29. Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo (Mexico)
30. Mugasha: Epic of the Bahaya, by Nyambura Mpesha (Kenya)
31. Nehanda, by Yvonne Vera (South Africa)
32. The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon (Trinidad)
33. Shipwrecks, by Akira Yoshimura (Japan)
34. The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh (Vietnam)