My Plans For Reading Ireland Month

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Last year, I missed Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month and so I was glad to see that she and Raging Fluff would host it again in March.

Since I try to read from my piles, I went through my book shelves in search of Irish writers. I found much more Irish books than I thought I would and now I’m spoilt for choice.

Here are a few of the books that I might read, in no particular order:

 

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Elizabeth Bowen The House in Paris

When eleven-year-old Henrietta arrives at the Fishers’ residence in Paris, little does she know what fascinating secrets the house itself contains. Henrietta finds that her visit coincides with that of Leopold, an intense child who has come to Paris to be introduced to the mother he has never known. In the course of a single day, the mystery surrounding Leopold, his parents, Henrietta’s agitated hostess and the dying matriarch in bed upstairs, come to light slowly and tantalisingly.

louise-oneill

Louise O’Neill Asking For It

A soul-shattering novel that will leave your emotions raw. This story will haunt me forever. Everyone should read it’ Guardian

In a small town where everyone knows everyone, Emma O’Donovan is different. She is the special one – beautiful, popular, powerful. And she works hard to keep it that way.

Until that night . . .

Now, she’s an embarrassment. Now, she’s just a slut. Now, she is nothing.

And those pictures – those pictures that everyone has seen – mean she can never forget.

time-after-time

Molly Keane Time After Time

Durraghglass is a beautiful mansion in Southern Ireland, now crumbling in neglect. The time is the present – a present that churns with the bizarre passions of its owners’ past. The Swifts – three sisters of marked eccentricity, defiantly christened April, May and Baby June, and their only brother, one-eyed Jasper – have little in common, save vivid memories of darling Mummy, and a long lost youth peculiarly prone to acts of treachery.

Into their world comes Cousin Leda from Vienna, a visitor from the past, blind but beguiling – a thrilling guest. But within days, the lifestyle of the Swifts has been dramatically overturned – and desires, dormant for so long, flame fierce and bright as ever.

two-moons

Jennifer Johnston Two Moons

In a house overlooking Dublin Bay, Mimi and her daughter Grace are disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Grace’s daughter Polly, and her striking new boyfriend. The events of the next few days will lead both of them to reassess the shape of their lives. For while Grace’s visitors focus her attention on an uncertain future, Mimi, who receives a messenger of a very different kind, must begin to set herself to rights with the betrayals and disappointments of the past.

time-present-and-time-past

Deirdre Madden Time Present and Time Past

When Fintan Buckley develops an interest in old autochrome photographs, strange things start to happen. To all appearances, Fintan holds down a successful job and enjoys life with his conventional middle-class family in Dublin, yet inwardly he starts to experience states of altered consciousness, with unsettling hallucinations and sudden insights. Meanwhile, Fintan’s sister Marina has been unearthing family stories from the past and the two of them, in different ways, find themselves renegotiating their history and the decisions that have brought them to this place, this present.

city-of-bohane

Kevin Barry City of Bohane

The once-great city of Bohane on the west coast of Ireland is on its knees, infested by vice and split along tribal lines. There are still some posh parts of town, but it is in the slums and backstreets of Smoketown, the tower blocks of the Northside Rises and the eerie bogs of Big Nothin’ that the city really lives.

For years, Bohane has been in the cool grip of Logan Hartnett, the dapper godfather of the Hartnett Fancy gang. But there’s trouble in the air. But now they say his old nemesis is back in town; his trusted henchmen are getting ambitious; and there’s trouble in the air…

lonely-passion-of-judith-hearne

Brian Moore The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

A timeless classic dealing with the complexity and hardships of relationships, addiction and faith.

Judith Hearne, a Catholic middle-aged spinster, moves into yet another bed-sit in Belfast. A socially isolated woman of modest means, she teaches piano to a handful of students to pass the day. Her only social activity is tea with the O’Neill family, who secretly dread her weekly visits.

Judith soon meets wealthy James Madden and fantasises about marrying this lively, debonair man. But Madden sees her in an entirely different light, as a potential investor in a business proposal. On realising that her feelings are not reciprocated, she turns to an old addiction – alcohol. Having confessed her problems to an indifferent priest, she soon loses her faith and binges further. She wonders what place there is for her in a world that so values family ties and faith, both of which she is without.

And one crime novel

in-the-woods

Tana French In the Woods

When he was twelve years old, Adam Ryan went playing in the woods with his two best friends. He never saw them again. Their bodies were never found, and Adam himself was discovered with his back pressed against an oak tree and his shoes filled with blood. He had no memory of what had happened.

Twenty years on, Rob Ryan – the child who came back – is a detective in the Dublin police force. He’s changed his name. No one knows about his past. Then a little girl’s body is found at the site of the old tragedy and Rob is drawn back into the mystery. Knowing that he would be thrown off the case if his past were revealed, Rob takes a fateful decision to keep quiet but hope that he might also solve the twenty-year-old mystery of the woods.

Have you read any of these? Which ones would you recommend?

Some Thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

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This isn’t a proper review of Atwood’s famous novel but some of my impressions and reactions to it and a brief summary. Since the US election, the sales of books like 1984 and the Handmaid’s Tale have risen. While I had read the former, I hadn’t read Margaret Atwood’s novel. In many ways it wasn’t what I expected at all. It’s interesting, complex, and clever but I don’t think it’s a book I’ll read again. There are amazing observations, long quotable passages, but as a whole, I found it dull. Even so, reading it infuriated me, which certainly proves that it’s a powerful book. Interestingly though, the element that triggered this response is an element that I haven’t seen mentioned in any of the reviews I’ve come across but it’s something that is essential to totalitarian and oppressive societies. The aspect I’m referring to is the instrumentalising of the oppressed. No matter what toxic system/government/injustice, it is hardly ever maintained without the help of the oppressed. This complicity of the oppressed is something that infuriates me in real life so much that I couldn’t overlook it. The fact that people don’t mention it, shows how astute Atwood’s depictions were. Just like in real life, it’s something so upsetting that it’s like a blind spot.

What is The Handmaid’s Tale about?  The book is set in a near future, in the state of Gilead, formerly known as United States of America. A series of ecological disasters and war have led to its people being mostly sterile. After a coup, a totalitarian group of fanatic Christians has taken power. Women are divided into groups. Those married to government officials, those who breed for those who can’t have children and those who are used in other ways – sent to the colonies where they will discard toxic waste, or those used to make the system work, instruct the breeding women.

Offred, the narrator, is one of the Handmaid’s, destined to breed. At the time when the story is set, this whole system is new, so women like Offred are the first of their kind. What makes their fate particularly harrowing is that they knew a “before”. They used to live normal lives that were pretty much the same lives we still live today. That life ends when their bank accounts are closed and all their money and belongings go to their husbands. Those who’ve had children are then ripped from their families and assigned to rich couples who can’t have children.

Offred describes her life in minute details. They don’t have any freedom at all. They are all dressed the same and basically not allowed to do or say anything, unless it’s according to the new laws. Public executions are a means to make everyone obedient. But there’s an underground movement and, as it seems Offred met one of the women of this movement.

I’ll stop the summary here because if you’ve not read it you might enjoy finding out, how this story is told. It’s structure is one of the best things and the only element that contains a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark and depressing tale.

Obviously, reading about a world in which women are owned by men and have no freedom whatsoever, is scary and infuriating but that’s nothing compared to the fact that women are in charge of the “training” of the handmaids. The way in which Atwood portrays how this system is regulated and reinforced is so clever.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

The quote shows that some women accept the explanations given by the government. They also accept to be the instrument of the government. In some instances because they believe that women are, in many ways better off than before, but also because becoming executors, helps them to escape either death or being worked to death in one of the toxic landfills.

Why is it that victims enforce the system that exploits them? Fear and self-preservation are some of the reasons, but there’s also something far more toxic – they have internalized the system.

The Handmaid’s Tale is bleak but there’s a glimmer of hope, as I mentioned before. While some of the oppressed help keep up the system, there are many who plot an uprising.

Before ending this post, I’d like to mention one other aspect that I found chilling. One reason why women were so easily disempowered was because pre-Gilead society didn’t use cash but only credit cards. That way it was easy to stop the women’s access and transfer their money to their husband’s account and to disempower them completely. They didn’t even have enough cash to buy a ticket to somewhere else and escape. I found this chilling because I know a great many people who say that we are moving away from cash and to the exclusive use of cards/online banking etc.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was published, readers thought that Atwood depicted a Muslim society. Maybe she did. I think we shouldn’t read it like that. We should read it as a portrayal of the belief system and the functioning of a totalitarian government. Thinking that she wrote about a Muslim society is something we cannot afford. It can happen in other societies as well.

Now on to something different. Look at those covers! And I haven’t even posted all of those I found. Mine is the one on the far left. It’s not my favourite. The one I’m most familiar with is the second to the left, the one I like the most is the fifth from the left but I actually find the first and the last to do the book more justice. Do you have a favourite?

Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses (1949)

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Published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses was Elizabeth Taylor’s fourth novel and the sixth I’ve read. Usually, when I decide to read everything by an author, I try to read in chronological order, not so in Elizabeth Taylor’s case. I seem to jump back and forth in time. I can’t say it minimizes my enjoyment but I might be less aware of her development as an author.

Every summer, Camilla, Liz and Frances meet for a month at Frances’ house in the country. Camilla and Liz have been friends for years. The much older Frances, who is now a painter, was Liz’s governess. For years, the month in the country was the highlight of their year, but this year things have changed. Liz who is newly married and wonders if she’s made a mistake, has brought her baby and is constantly afraid something might happen to him. Frances is getting very old and can hardly paint anymore. And Camilla, the main point of view character, is scared of old age as a spinster. All three of them are aware that things are not like they used to be. They still talk openly but they aren’t lighthearted anymore. While they still enjoy each other’s company, the changes and differences also bring out their darker sides.

The novel begins with Camilla waiting for a train. Richard, a very handsome man, is waiting next to her. He’s the kind of man she would never be interested in normally but the two witness a horrible tragedy and when they meet again, later at the local pub, they talk and she’s suddenly attracted. Liz who is there as well warns her. She has a bad feeling about this man. She is not the only one. Frances has invited an admirer of her paintings, Mr Morland, who stays at the same hotel as Richard. He finds him sneaky and dishonest. Richard is that and much worse. He’s a notorious liar and, as Camilla will find out, very dangerous.

Camilla’s affair with Richard stands in stark contrast to the rest of the novel, which explores the friendship of the three women and their characters. The book is filled with wonderful, psychologically astute character descriptions. The three women are very honest with each other and accept each other in spite of their differences and the many changes they have undergone. Some of their exchanges are wonderfully outspoken. Camilla doesn’t even shy away from telling Liz she hates her husband.

Loneliness is a theme in almost all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. In A Wreath of Roses, she excels at exploring it from different angles. All of the characters are to some extent afraid of loneliness and try to combat or prevent it in different ways. Liz has married, almost out of the blue, a very pompous man, whom Camilla dislikes. Camilla has begun the affair with Richard because she dreads the idea of another lonely, uneventful year as a secretary in a school. And Frances, the most independent of the three, not only accepts Morland’s friendship but Liz’s offer to possibly live with her and her husband in the future.

Of the three women, Camilla is the one the reader gets to know best. She’s in many ways the most tragic because she’s alone although she’d like to be in a relationship. Only she hasn’t found the right man. Richard is only a distraction. In their discussions, the women speak openly about marriage and gender roles. They don’t seem to think that there could be camaraderie between a husband and a wife, but they know there is companionship, which might be preferable to loneliness. This view of marriage is quite pessimistic but what struck me even more is that the life of a single woman is portrayed in an equally pessimistic way. Unless a woman has a vocation that fulfils her completely, like Frances has her art, she will end up sad and lonely. On the other hand, marriage might stifle her development.

A Wreath of Roses caught me by surprise for many reasons. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did and certainly wasn’t prepared for something as sinister. But there was also a small disappointment. I didn’t appreciate the somewhat circular structure and the way it ended. Those who have read it will now what I’m talking about. But don’t get me wrong, it’s a minor reservation. Otherwise, this is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s richest and most nuanced novels. It combines a wonderful cast of characters with a tone and mood that is at times acerbic but mostly bitter-sweet and melancholic. An interesting combination, for sure. In spite of the somewhat puzzling ending, A Wreath of Roses has become one of my favourites, together with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek.

Literature and War Readalong February 28 2017: Magnus by Sylvie Germain

magnus

Sylvie Germain is a highly acclaimed French author of fiction and nonfiction. She earned a PhD in philosophy and studied with the famous French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Most of her novels have won multiple prizes. The most famous ones are Le livre des nuitsThe Book of Nights, Nuit d’ambreNight of Amber, Jours de colèreDays of Anger and Magnus. 

 

Here are the first sentences of Magnus:

Prologue

A meteorite explosion may yield a few small secrets about the origin of the universe. From a fragment of bone we can deduce the structure and appearance of a prehistoric animal; from a vegetal fossil, the presence long ago in a now desert region of luxuriant flora. Infinitesimal and enduring a plethora of traces survive time out of mind.

A scrap of papyrus or a shard of pottery can take us back to a civilisation that disappeared thousands of years ago. The root of a word can illuminate for us a constellation of derivations and meanings. Remains, pit-stones always retain an indestructible kernel of vitality.

In every instance, imagination and intuition are needed to help interpret the enigmas.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Magnus by Sylvie Germain, 190 pages, France 2005, WWII

Magnus is a deeply moving and enigmatic novel about the Holocaust and its ramifications. It is Sylvie Germain’s most commercially successful novel in France. It was awarded The Goncourt Lyceen Prize. Magnus’s story emerges in fragments, with the elements of his past appearing in a different light as he grows older. He discovers the voices of the deceased do not fall silent. He learns to listen to them and becomes attuned to the echoes of memory.

 

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 28 February 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

N. Scott Momaday: House Made of Dawn (1968) Literature and War Readalong January 2017

house-made-of-dawn

This is going to be a pretty short post. I finished the book but I didn’t get along with it. It had its moments but overall it was frustrating to read.

Published in 1968, House Made of Dawn was N. Scott Momaday’s first novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Critics say it’s his most inaccessible novel. Since it’s the first book, I’ve read by him, I can’t say whether the later novels are more accessible or not, I can just confirm that this one is not. At first the writing reminded me of the more challenging Toni Morrison novels I’ve read (Jazz came to mind), but while I could always make sense of her books, this one lost me. Don’t get me wrong, it has beautiful moments and chapters but it goes back and forth in the chronology, uses stream-of-consciousness, fragments, bits from dreams, mythology. The worst was that I wasn’t always sure whose stream-of consciousness I was reading. And I was never sure why he chose the different approaches. At times, it felt like some of the chapters were creative writing exercises. The chapter that was the most readable read like a short story. It comes towards the end and it helped me make sense of what came before. It’s very powerful and the writing is beautiful. The biggest problem I had is that there is no real story. We just follow the protagonist, Abel, stumble from one episode to the next.

Like Abel, the main protagonist, Momaday grew up on different reservations. What Momaday manages to convey is the confusion. The culture Abel grows up in, isn’t intact. Some of it is part of his heritage but a lot is part of other Native American heritages. Then he joins up and fights during WWII. When he comes back, like his mother and brother, he starts to drink. He kills a man, is sent to prison, comes back and drinks again and gets into fights.

We’re held at arm’s length the whole time, never get a good feeling for Abel’s’ emotions.

The beginning was hard to read because there are descriptions of hunting that made me sick. One in particular, in which Abel captures an eagle.

I’m also not entirely sure, this was a good choice for the readalong. Yes, Abel seems to suffer from PTSD, but he suffers from a lot of other things too. He might not have been better off if he hadn’t joined up.

I’m sorry for this lousy review. I hope someone else has read along and enjoyed it more. I’m sure, if I wanted to spend a couple of days doing research, read secondary literature, then I would find more to like but I’m not really in the mood for that.

 

Other Review

TJ@My Book Strings

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House Made of Dawn is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII novel Magnus by Sylvie Germain. Discussion starts on Tuesday 28 February, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night (2015)

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Our Souls At Night, Kent Haruf’s last and posthumously published novel, is a work of sheer beauty. It’s so beautiful in fact, that if there wasn’t also a heavy dose of heartbreak, it would have been too beautiful for its own good.

This is how it begins

And there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark.

They lived a block apart on Cedar Street in the oldest part of town with elm trees and hackberry and a single maple grown up along the curb and green lawns running back from the sidewalk to the two-story houses. It had been warm in the day but it had turned off cool now in the evening. She went along the sidewalk under the trees and turned in at Louis’s house.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters are both in their seventies and have been widowed for a long time. One evening, Addie calls on Louis and asks him if he wouldn’t like to spend the nights at her house. The reader is just as surprised as Louis, as it’s clear from the start that these two people barely know each other. Addie correctly assumes that Louis is just as lonely as she is and that for him, too, it’s hardest at night.

No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably.Lying down in bed together and you staying at night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

Louis accepts her proposal. At first, they are shy but they quickly warm to the possibility of friendship and after getting to know each other better, after many evenings spent in bed talking, they even fall in love with each other.

It’s such a tender story and I loved it very much. When I started reading, I thought it was a lovely idea to tell the love story of two seventy-year-olds and could hardly believe that people called this novel sad and depressing. Unfortunately, I soon found out that it wasn’t as uplifting as I thought it was.

I often wonder, why people speak unkindly about people who fall in love later in life. Why do they oppose it so much? In Our Souls At Night, Haruf explores some of the possible reasons. The book starts almost like a fairy tale. Addie and Louis have found something very rare – a person they can love and talk to, a friend with whom they can discover things and find new joy in life. They do a lot of things they never did before or haven’t done in a long time, like camping or just going out. All would be perfect if there were no other people, but those around Addie and Louis, don’t react kindly. Neighbours, children, so-called friends, are shocked and try to sabotage their friendship and throw mud at them. The tragedy of these two lovers is that, just like very young people, they are dependent on others and staying together comes at a very high price. Whether they are able and willing to pay that price I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to find out for yourself.

I loved the story, which is first sweet then bittersweet, but what I loved even more was the beautiful, luminous writing. In most of his sentences Kent Haruf uses the conjunction “and”. Not only once but often two, three, even four times. This gives his sentences a leisurely pace, a gentle, tone that works so well with the peaceful fictional small town, Holt, his favourite setting. I don’t think he would get away with the overuse of the conjunction, if he didn’t pair it with a very precise vocabulary. All of these elements are present in the first sentences already. That’s why I quoted them. If you like the opening paragraphs, there’s a good chance you’ll like the rest as well. He maintains this pace, the use of descriptions, the gentle tone and mood until the last paragraph. It looks so simple, but it’s very skilful writing.

I have to thank Jackie Cangro for mentioning Our Souls At Night. I hadn’t heard of it before.

The year has only just begun, but I know this book will be on my best of list. I’m even thinking of adding it to my all-time favourites list.

Our Souls At Night is being made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

 

Banana Yoshimoto: Moshi Moshi (2016) – Moshi-moshi Shimokitazawa (2010)

Book Cover Moshi Moshi

A few years ago, I used to read every book by Banana Yoshimoto. With the exception of Goodbye Tsugumi, I liked or loved them all. Why did I stop reading her you may wonder? Because her best books are very similar. She returns to the same topics and themes again and again and while these are themes I’m drawn to, I still felt I needed to wait a little before returning to her.

Moshi Moshi tells the story of twenty-year old Yotchan whose father, a musician, has committed suicide together with another woman than his wife. Yotchan and her mother are devastated and trapped in their grief. Yotchan had just graduated from a culinary school and wanted to open her own restaurant. Grief and the realization she might not be ready makes her rethink her plan. Watching Ichikawa Jun’s film ‘Zawa Zawa Shimokitazawa, she decides that changing the neighbourhood and moving from Tokyo’s posh Meguro district to the colourful Shimokitazawa neighbourhood might help her.

During the day, Yotchan works in the bistro of a friend, in the evenings she explores Shimokitazawa. One day, her mother stands in front of her door and tells her she will move in. Yotchan isn’t happy about this but she agrees anyway. Yotchan is afraid that her mother might interfere with her life but she shouldn’t have worried. Her mother too, wants to change, shed her old self, find new meaning.

Both women begin to enjoy life again, but the dark mystery surrounding her father’s death still weighs heavy on both. Without telling her mother, Yotchan investigates and finds out that he woman with whom he committed suicide was a very dark person. Charismatic in a destructive way.

It takes Yotchan and her mother the whole book to come to terms with the suicide of their beloved father and husband, but when they do, they have found a way to integrate him into their life and, at the same time, leave their old life behind.

I loved this novel. It’s beautiful and melancholic, a celebration of the transitoriness of life and of what the Japanese call “exquisite sadness”. Shimokitazawa is described as a very lively place. Full of bistros, cafés, restaurants that attract artistic, bohemian people. Since Yotchan is a chef, she’s particularly attracted by the culinary side of this neighbourhood. It was fascinating to read about her trips to restaurants and cafés which included the descriptions of the places and the food. There’s such a wealth of food in this book, none of which I’ve ever tasted. All I know of Japanese cuisine is Miso soup, Sushi and Ramen. Not one of these is ever mentioned. I loved that because it introduced me to what the Japanese really eat.

Yotchan, who is the first person narrator of this novel, is a lovely character. She’s enthusiastic and keenly aware of the people and places around her. Her appreciation of beauty and the fleetingness of things infuses the story with a bitter-sweet mood.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so I won’t go into any details, but there a few very beautiful descriptions of locales, places and trees which by the end of the book will not exist anymore.

Banana Yoshimoto has a knack for capturing fleeting beauty, for using unusual, eccentric characters and situations. She’s also known for writing about death and the influence of the dead on the living. This book contains all of that and more. Because it is longer than most of her other books, the reader has time to get fully immersed in this world. I was sad when I finished the book. It reminded me of a time when I was twenty and, like Yotchan, knew that many of the people and places I loved would possibly not stay in my life forever. It’s peculiar to look back and remember this odd clarity. Maybe this happens to most people at that age. Like Yotchan, I enjoyed the company of some people and at the same time I knew, I would move on.

It takes a lot of skill to write about the sad aspects of life but to do so in a way that is uplifting, that doesn’t shy away from describing futility but in doing so guarantees that what is gone is not forgotten but won’t trap you in the past.

Since I liked this so much, I was glad to discover that I had another one of her novels, Amrita, on my piles.

I read the German translation of Moshi Moshi that’s why I didn’t add any quotes. I wonder if the English edition contains as many footnotes as the German translation. I was thankful for those footnotes as they explained the food that was mentioned and some expressions I wasn’t familiar with.

Until now, Kitchen was my favourite Yoshimoto novel, but I liked this one just as much.

japanese-literature-challenge-x

This review is my second contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X

Here’s the review list.