Best Books I Read 2017

The year’s not over and it is possible I might still read something I love, but I don’t want to wrap up in January. I want to leave this year behind. It was a difficult year. It started good and then went downhill from February on. I wrote about my eyes because that affected my reading/blogging the most but I had so many other unpleasant, weird, and other ailments. That’s why I was hardly present during German Literature Month and why I didn’t blog/visit in June/July, and most of November/December. Even so, I’ve read a lot of books I absolutely loved. Most of them during the first months of the year. Those are also the books I didn’t only like while reading, but still remember vividly. I’ve also read a number of books I didn’t review and while some were good, I would have forgotten all about them, if I hadn’t written down the titles in a notebook. I’m not sure why they were gone so completely, as some, like Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Pastor’s Wife, made an impression. I probably had too much on my mind.

Be it as it may, here are my “best books” of the year, including the links to my reviews and short excerpts from the reviews:

Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

From my review:

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.

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

From my review:

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.

Benediction by Kent Haruf

I didn’t review this. I read it right after Our Souls at Night and was surprised to find out I loved it even more. So much, in fact, that I wasn’t even able to write a review. That happens sometimes.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

From my review:

It’s not often that a title is so well-chosen or that it does double duty like in the case of Moore’s eponymous title. Yes, the book is about loneliness, and it’s about the last hope to find love. But it’s also a description of utter despair and suffering and that’s alluded to in the title as well. After all, “passion” is also a reference to the “passion of the Christ” or his final suffering and martyrdom. We find in this book the same doubts, the same “why have you forsaken me feeling”, only Judith Hearne, being human, has another fate awaiting her.

Magnus  by Sylvie Germain

From my review:

I’m afraid, I could only scrape the surface of this beautiful and complex novel. I’d say it’s one of the best books on war and memory and the importance to remember our own story and the history of our society. For such a sophisticated novel, Magnus is surprisingly captivating and suspenseful. There are two powerful twists that I didn’t see coming. Truly a tour de force.

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

From my review:

Obviously, this novel spoke to me because it shed light on some questions I had about my family’s history, but even without that, I would have loved this book for its minute details and because it focused on  aspects of the war that are often just briefly mentioned. I can’t think of any other novel that focuses on the invasion of Paris and the early occupation. Most other books either focus on the fighting or on the resistance. I also liked how critical she seems of human behaviour. All too often historical WWII novels or period movies choose to show how people grow under the circumstances, how they overcome their pettiness and selfishness, turn into heroes. The shared tragedy brings out the best in them. While I’m sure, this is true for some, for many it isn’t. Since Némirovsky experienced what she described, I’m pretty sure, her description is more realistic than the idealized versions we usually see. In her book, the Michauds are the only people who seem to grow morally under the circumstances.

The War by Marguerite Duras

From my review:

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I’m familiar with Marguerite Duras and love her writing but I still thought this would be just another WWII memoir. It isn’t. Most memoirs fous either on the war – on the battle field or the home front – or on the camps. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir by someone who was waiting for someone and about the challenges of the return. There’s so much going on in these pages. Every day, there’s a new anxiety regarding her husband and every day the people in France find out more details about the war. The French sent 600,000 Jews to the camps. One in 100 came back. They didn’t know any details about the camps until the end of the war. Other arresting details capture that for France the end of the war also meant the end of the occupation. Or what it was like to see Paris at night illuminated again.

The Grass Harp by Truman Capote

From my review:

I remember how I surprised I was, years ago, when I read that Harper Lee and Truman Capote had been friends since childhood and that she helped him with his book In Cold Blood. While I haven’t read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, thinking of that novella and other elements of Capote’s life, made me assume he was from New York. I realized then, that I had been mistaken. Reading The Grass Harp, makes it obvious where Capote comes from and, given the close friendship with Harper Lee, it’s not surprising that this slim book has a lot in common with To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it inspired Harper Lee. The stories and the writing are different, but there are many similar themes; childhood, friendship, authority, love, justice, money, society, death, outsiders, life in a small town, the South, the role of women and African-Americans . . .

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

From my review:

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.

Crime Fiction

The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

From my review:

This book is so eerie. It made me feel uncomfortable from the beginning. The last thing I would want, is to share an isolated house with a brooding, taciturn stranger. Not even the descriptions of the beautiful fjord made me ever forget what this would be like. And in Allis’ situation at that. She’s really done herself a huge disservice in doing what she did back home. Her life is shattered and the things she did has left her very vulnerable. While she hopes things can only get better, the reader senses from the beginning that the house on the fjord might not be a safe haven. There are too many sinister indications that something’s wrong, and that Sigur might be hiding a secret of his own.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

From my review:

The Devotion of Suspect X is a very clever novel. It’s as subtle as it is complex, told in a cool tone and infused with a gentle, melancholic mood. I absolutely loved it.

A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto

From my review:

I followed this character with great fascination and astonishment, but for the longest time I didn’t understand why this was called a crime novel. It’s clear from the beginning that Asai’s wife wasn’t killed. So why was this labelled crime? I can assure you, it’s labelled correctly but I won’t tell you why.

C’est toi le venin (not translated yet) by Frédéric Dard

From my review:

I absolutely loved this novel. Some of it is predictable but there are still enough surprising twists and the end is chilling.

Like Simenon, Dard relies heavily on dialogue. There are just a few descriptions here and there to create a mood and atmosphere. That’s why reading the book feels a lot like watching a movie. It has immediacy and a pretty brisk pace.

Non-fiction

I read a lot of nonfiction and some of the books I read were great (to name but a few – The Lonely City, The Things You Can see Only When You Slow Down, Pema Chödron’s books, The Curated Closet, The Cool Factor) but I didn’t review them, that’s why there’s only one title in this category.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

From my review:

I never thought I would love The Diary of a Bookseller so much. I discovered Shaun Bythell ‘s book on Jen Campbell’s YouTube channel. She knew him because she interviewed him way back when she wrote The Bookshop Book. Possibly he was also a contributor to her Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. Shaun Bythell is the owner of Scotland’s largest secondhand bookstore. His shop has over 100,000 titles. He’s famous for being more than a little cranky, a bit like Dylan Moran’s character in the TV series Black Books (if you haven’t watched that yet, do yourself a favour and watch it. It’s so, so funny). If you read the diary, you’ll agree, that he has reasons for being cranky. My goodness. It’s unbelievable what some customers do or say.

While 2017 was a bit of catastrophe for me, it wasn’t such a bad year reading wise.

 

Should anyone wonder about the photo – it’s a view from my bedroom window and a total one-off as we hardly ever get snow, which surprises most people as they think snow is common in Switzerland, but unless you live near/in the mountains, it’s not that common. We get a day or two but not even every year. I took this picture early in the morning, one week before Christmas. I woke up to this view but a couple of hours later, it was already gone. The movie enthusiasts among my readers might enjoy knowing that the film producer Arthur Cohn lives in the high building you can see in the back in the middle of the photo. 

Marguerite Duras: The War – La douleur (1985) Literature and War Readalong April 2017

Marguerite Duras’ affecting book The War – La douleur  is a collection of texts based on her war diaries. Before beginning my review, I have to mention that I’ve read the French edition and don’t know how close to the English it is. It seems that the two last texts, two short stories, have been left out in the English edition but I could be wrong. I’m not going to review them here. Each of the texts covers another time period.

1945

La douleur – The pain is the first text in the book and is also the longest and appears to be the only one that she left as she found it. Duras said that she couldn’t remember writing this diary and that, to her, it seemed more powerful than any of the literary texts she’d ever written. La douleur, which was written during April 1945,  describes in painful details, how Marguerite Duras waited for the return of her husband, Robert L., a member of the resistance, who had been deported to Buchenwald in 1944.

Duras managed to convey the anxiety of those waiting and the incredible difficulties to take care of someone who came back. They knew to which camp Robert had been brought and so, knowing the Germans had lost the war, they followed the news closely and went to the centres to which those who returned came and questioned them. Duras knew that Buchenwald had been liberated, but she didn’t know if by that time Robert was still alive. Once she found someone who had seen him, there was still the fear that he might have been among those shot by the fleeing Germans. Why, she wonders did they shoot them just minutes before the arrival of the Allies? In Buchenwald alone 51,000 were shot, while 20,000 survived. Possibly, he was among the survivors but if so, he might still die of exhaustion or an illness. A little later, when they hear that the German cities are literally burning, another anxiety joins the fears she had before. He might be trapped in a fire storm and get killed that way.

In the end, two of her friends travel to dacha (Robert had been moved a few times) and bring him back. Before they arrive, they warn her – she might not recognize him. The tall man weighs a mere 38 kilograms and looks horrific. He’s very ill and his survival is almost a miracle.

1944

Monsieur X – Pierre Rabier is the second text in the collection. It describes the cat-and-mouse game a Gestapo official plays with Marguerite Duras. He pretends her husband hasn’t been deported yet, meets her often, wants to have an affair with her. He may think he’s the stronger one, but Duras plays a game with him as well. She learns everything about him and later uses it to help sentencing him to death.

After the war

Albert des capitales and Ter le milicien both describe how Duras and other members of the resistance take part in torturing and forcing people to give them information that will lead to their or other people’s sentencing. In these two pieces she changed names and wrote about herself in third person, calling herself Thérèse.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I’m familiar with Marguerite Duras and love her writing but I still thought this would be just another WWII memoir. It isn’t. Most memoirs fous either on the war – on the battle field or the home front – or on the camps. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir by someone who was waiting for someone and about the challenges of the return. There’s so much going on in these pages. Every day, there’s a new anxiety regarding her husband and every day the people in France find out more details about the war. The French sent 600,000 Jews to the camps. One in 100 came back. They didn’t know any details about the camps until the end of the war. Other arresting details capture that for France the end of the war also meant the end of the occupation. Or what it was like to see Paris at night illuminated again.

As I wrote before, some of the texts deal with what happened to collaborators. Duras seems to have taken an active part in their arrest and punishment. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done. I can absolutely not imagine myself watching someone being tortured or even torturing someone.

There were also aspects that were especially interesting for me, as a French person, because the liberation and its aftermath, the coming to power of de Gaulle have led to problems France is battling to this day. Marguerite Duras mentions that de Gaulle only wanted to emphasize that the Allies won the war. He didn’t mention the camps, nor did he want them mentioned because it had to be about glory not about pain. Possibly this explains the choice of title because she thinks you have to discuss the pain. You have to hear the people who suffered. I’m afraid that the logic behind not mentioning the camps isn’t only linked to “glory” and such. If you don’t talk about the camps, you don’t need to talk about those who were deported to the camps and the people who sent them there. Ultimately, this leads to the refusal to admit responsibility and the denial that there were collaborators.

French politics aside, this is one of the most important WWII texts I’ve ever read. The writing is tight, evocative and detailed, just what I had expected from Marguerite Duras.

 

Other Reviews

My Book Strings

 

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The War – La douleur is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next readalong is dedicated to war poetry. Discussion starts on Wednesday 31 May, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Literature and War Readalong April 2017: The War – La douleur by Marguerite Duras

Usually I like to say a few introductory words about my readalong titles, but I’m in bed with the flu and my head feels like it’s filled with cotton. The book has to speak for itself. Luckily, I found the first pages of  the translation of Marguerite Duras’ The War – La douleur online.

Here is the beginning:

I found this diary in a couple of exercise books in the blue cupboards at Neauphle-le-Chateau.

I have no recollection of having written it.

I know I did, I know it was I who wrote it. I recognize my own handwriting and the details of the story. I can see the place, the Gare d’ Orsay, and the various comings and goings. But I can’t see myself writing the diary. When would I have done so, in what year, at what times of day, in what house? I can’t remember.

One thing is certain: it is inconceivable to me that I could have written it while I was actually awaiting Robert L.’s return.

How could I have written this thing I still can’t put a name to, and that appalls me when I reread it? And how could I have left it lying for years in a house in the country that’s regularly flooded in winter?

The first time I thought about it was when the magazine Sorcieres asked me for a text I’d written when I was young.

The War is one of the most important things in my life. It can’t really be called “writing.” I found myself looking at pages regularly filled with small, calm, extraordinarily even handwriting. I found myself confronted with a tremendous chaos of thought and feeling that I couldn’t bring myself to tamper with, and beside which literature was something of which I felt ashamed.

April

Opposite the fireplace and beside me, the telephone. To the right, the sitting-room door and the passage. At the end of the passage, the front door. He might come straight here and ring at the front door. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Or he might phone from a transit center as soon as he got here. “I’m back — I’m at the Lutetia to go through the formalities.” There wouldn’t be any warning. He’d phone. He’d arrive. Such things are possible. He’s coming back, anyway. He’s not a special case. There’s no particular reason why he shouldn’t come back. There’s no reason why he should. But it’s possible. He’d ring. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Lots of other things like this do happen. In the end they broke through at Avranches and in the end the Germans withdrew. In the end I survived till the end of the war. I must be careful; it wouldn’t be so very extraordinary if he did come back — it would be normal. I must be careful not to turn it into something extraordinary. The extraordinary is unexpected. I must be sensible: I’m waiting for Robert L., expecting him, and he’s coming back.

The phone rings. “Hello? Any news?” I must remind myself the phone’s used for that sort of thing, too. I mustn’t hang up, I must answer. Mustn’t yell at them to leave me alone. “No, no news.” “Nothing? Not a sign?” “Nothing.” “You know Belsen’s been liberated? Yes, yesterday afternoon…” “I know.” Silence. “You mustn’t get disheartened, you must hold on, you’re not the only one, alas — I know a mother with four children…” “I know, I’m sorry, I haven’t moved from where I was. It’s wrong to move too much, a waste of energy, you have to save all your strength to suffer.

She said, “You know Belsen’s been liberated?” I didn’t know. One more camp liberated. She said, “Yesterday afternoon.” She didn’t say so, but I know the lists of names will arrive tomorrow morning. I must go down and buy a paper and read the list. No. I can hear a throbbing in my temples getting louder and louder. No, I won’t read the list.

 

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

La douleur  – The War by Marguerite Duras, 217 pages, France 1985, WWII

This 1944 diary of a young Resistance member, written during the last days of the French occupation and the first days of the liberation, is only now being published – Duras says she forgot about it during the intervening years, and only recently rediscovered it in a cupboard. The loneliness and ambivalence of love and war have appeared in Duras’ work before, from The Lover to Hiroshima Mon Amour, in which a Frenchwoman reveals to her Japanese lover, after the bomb, that she was tortured and imprisoned in postwar France for her affair with a German soldier. In the first section of The War, Duras the heroine waits for her husband to return from the Belsen concentration camp. When De Gaulle (“by definition leader of the Right – “) says, “The days of weeping are over. The days of glory have returned,” Duras says, “We shall never forgive him.” It’s because he’s denying the people’s loss. When her husband returns, she has to hide the cake she baked for him, because the weight of food in his system can kill. (We are spared no detail of his physical degradation, even to being told the color of his stools.) When he is stronger, she tells him she is divorcing him to marry another Resistance member. In the second section, set earlier, at the time of her husband’s arrest, a Gestapo official plays a cat-and-mouse game with Duras, to whom he’s attracted, preying on her desperation to help her husband. In the third section, post-liberation, she switches roles, becomes an interrogator as Resistance members torture a Nazi informer. She also half-falls in love (with characteristic Duras dualism) with a young prisoner who childishly joined the collaborationist forces out of nothing more than a passion for fast cars and guns. In her preface, Duras says it “appalls” her to reread this memoir, because it is so much more important than her literary work. Certainly, like everything she has written in her spare, impassive voice, the book is at once elegant and brutal in its honesty: in her world, we are all outcasts, and the word “liberation” is never free of irony. A powerful, moving work. (Kirkus Reviews) –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 28 April 2017.

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

The Art of the Novel (edited by Nicholas Royle)

the-art-of-the-novel

I had a hard time deciding which should be my last post of the year. Finally, I chose to write about The Art of the Novel, a book I devoured and will return to very often. It may sound like The Art of the Novel is only for writers but that’s not the case. Readers, writers, and teachers of creative writing will find it equally inspiring and useful.

Editor Nicholas Royle has asked eighteen writers to write an essay about an aspect of the novel or a theme related to novels. Additionally they were to share one of their favourite writing exercises, a list of top tips, and a list of novels. Some of these book lists reflect the topic the authors have written about, but more often, they are just a list of the writer’s favourite novels.

Every one of these nineteen articles (Royle wrote one too) was interesting. Sometimes the authors used other writer’s novels to talk about a topic, sometimes they used a book they had written to show the reader how they achieved something. The topics are wide-ranging: Magical Realism, Narrative Perspective, Motivation, Historical Novels, so-called “Dos and Don’ts”, Place, Plot Twists . . . I can’t think of an aspect that hasn’t been covered. Unless you write/read exclusively in a specific genre, you’ll find something of interest in this book.

These are some of the authors who have contributed: Jenn Ashworth, Stella Duffy, Alison Moore, Nikesh Shukla, Kerry Hudson, Joe Stretch, Toby Litt, Alice Thompson and many more.

To give you an idea of what to expect, I’m picking one essay, Kerry Hudson’s “Details, Details”.

At first, Kerry Hudson asks the reader to imagine a man and a woman having dinner and arguing about something. Eventually, they come to a conclusion and smile at each other. Obviously, this isn’t much of a scene, so paragraph by paragraph, she fleshes it out and shows the reader what can be gained by adding details. She then goes one step further and asks the reader to describe the present moment. Where is he/she reading? What does the environment look, smell, sound like?

The essay is followed by a “proper” writing exercise. She asks the reader to leave the house and sit somewhere outside, taking notes of as many details as he/she possibly can. Afterwards, writers should then weave these descriptions into an existing draft and make connections.

As I mentioned before, every exercise is followed by top tips. In this case they are as follows:

  • Get your arse on the seat; writers write.
  • Write your shitty first draft solely for yourself. Edit and revise for your readers.
  • Be kind. Work hard. Don’t be an arsehole.

The last element of the article is her list of favourite/recommended novels.

Hudson’s essay is a bit different as it focuses heavily on exercises. Other’s like Livi Michael’s “Approaches to the Historical Novel” focus on other writer’s work and on showing different ways to write historical novels. Alison Moore’s “Living in a Real World” draws heavily from her prize-winning novel The Lighthouse.

What I enjoyed a great deal was how different all of these authors sounded. Their voices, tones, approaches are so varied that it never gets boring. Reading this, you have a feeling of listening to many, very different, people telling you something about books.

The exercises and top tips are as varied as the voices, which makes them very useful for all sorts of writers, whether they are beginners or more advanced, more interested in genre or drawn to literary fiction.

Since there are nineteen writers in this book, and they all recommend ten to fifteen books, you get a huge list of recommendations. Quite a few books and novelists are mentioned by several authors, but none as often as Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat.

Whether you are a writer or a reader, I highly recommend this book. It will give you food for thought, inspiring exercises, tips and many (themed) book recommendations.

 

On Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Elizabeth and her German Garden”

Elizabeth and her German Garden

I thought this would be my first book by Elizabeth von Arnim but I’d totally forgotten the wonderful The Enchanted April, which I’ve read a long time ago and enjoyed a great deal.

Published in 1898, Elizabeth and her German Garden was von Arnim’s first novel and was a huge success when it came out. It’s inspired by her own life and the time she spent in her garden in Nassenheide, Germany.

The book is written in form of a diary.

This is how it begins

May 7th—I love my garden. I am writing in it now in the late afternoon loveliness, much interrupted by the mosquitoes and the temptation to look at all the glories of the new green leaves washed half an hour ago in a cold shower. Two owls are perched near me, and are carrying on a long conversation that I enjoy as much as any warbling of nightingales.

Elizabeth is married to an oldfashioned, stern man, she calls The Man of Wrath. She’s in her early 30s and has given birth to three girls she calls the April, May, and June baby. Unlike most other women of the German high society, Elizabeth hates living in Berlin where she suffocates indoors and has to put up with many obligations. She feels she can only be truly herself in her garden. She’s actually pretty clueless when it comes to gardening but that doesn’t diminish her enjoyment. She loves spending her money on seeds and plants and tries to be outdoors as much as possible. She reads, writes, and eats in her garden. Sometimes, to her annoyance, she has visitors. With the exception of one friend, Irais, she despises all of them.

The book is filled with beautiful, lyrical descriptions of her garden, the nature, and landscape of Pomerania. Elizabeth is an oddity in this society. A woman who prefers solitude and the outdoors.  She wishes, she were freer through, allowed to pick up a spade, do her own digging.

In spite of the many beautiful passages and witty comments on the people around her, I liked this far less than I thought I would. Elizabeth might rebel against her situation and the way women are treated, she’s aware of injustice when she’s its victim, but, unfortunately, when it comes to others she is far more condescending than kind. She hardly ever sympathisez with anyone, not with the workers on her husband’s farms, nor with the gardeners, the visitors, the horses she abuses to travel during icy periods, knowing very well it’s hard on them. Yes, she’s witty but she’s also quite cruel. She questions the treatment of women but isn’t bothered all that much how the workers are treated. She makes fun of them, even goes as far as calling them dumb. Maybe this is due to personal frustrations, still, I found her to be very unkind and, in the end, it tainted my reading experience. I was surprised to discover this side of the book as I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere. I only ever saw it praised for the lovely descriptions and sentiments on solitude and nature. Keen to see whether there were other reviewers feeling similar, I discovered an article in the Financial Times called The hidden dark side of “Elizabeth and her German Garden”. The writer wrote about a BBC radio 4 programme that left out all those negative passages that I mentioned before. He too, was baffled.

I would understand this kind of whitewashing if the passages were minor but they aren’t. The last third, for example, is dedicated to the visit of Elizabeth’s friend Irais and a young English woman called Menora. Menora is enthusiastic and very naïve, which Irais and Elizabeth find hilarious. They constantly make fun of her, make sure, she commits silly errors, let her believe that Elizabeth is German, although she’s English. There’s even some cruelty. All this shows that both Elizabeth and Irais feel superior.

Before ending this post, I d’ like to mention one aspect that I found funny and often touching – the way she wrote about her babies. Those passages showed great love and concern and underlined her fears for the future of the girls, knowing so well, how little freedom women had in this society.

I’m still glad I read this because the beautiful passages on nature are truly remarkable. Who knows, perhaps my memory will do its own whitewashing and I’ll only remember the positive aspects of the novel in a few years. That said, I’ll read more of Elizabeth von Arnim. Maybe I’m not being just and read this too much like an autobiography but it seemed so close to her life.

The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber

The Art of Time in Fiction

It’s rare that I read a nonfiction book with as much enthusiasm as Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction.  Given the topic it’s not surprising though. I’ve long suspected that one of the key elements dividing literary fiction and genre fiction might be the use of time. I’m thinking of the artless use of the split-narrative that we find in almost every crime novel these days. Or the time-split in historical genre novels. Silber’s title is well-chosen, because using time masterfully is really an art.

She divided her book into different chapters, each dedicated to another use of time, another technique. I noticed, when compiling the list that when it’s done really well, we hardly notice what approach an author chose. I really appreciated the many examples she gave and from which she quotes extensively. Of course, this makes it a dangerous book for book addicts because it makes you want to add to your piles.

I will go through the categories, describing them briefly and adding the examples Joan Silber chose.

Classic Time

The first category was “classic time”. In this approach the author describes the story chronologically, chosing only a brief time span. There isn’t a lot of back story, nor flashbacks. I’d say it is the category that shows the most, tells the least.

The best example for classic time is:

  • Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

 

Long Time

When an author tells a character’s whole life and the story spans over many years and decades, then we have an example of long time. I think it’s the category I’m the least fond of, but stories like Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, that capture a whole life, condensing long stretches, and only needs some forty pages, are not to be dismissed.

The examples quoted are:

  • Anton Chekhov – The Darling
  • Gustave Flaubert – A Simple Life/Un Coeur Simple
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Namesake
  • Carol Shields – The Stone Diaries
  • Arnold Bennett – The Old Wives’ Tale
  • Guy de Maupassant – Une Vie
  • Yu Hua – To Live
  • Evan Connell – Mrs Bridge
  • Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

Switchback Time

The use of flashbacks, dreamlike sequences, non-linear storytelling, might be what appeals to me the most.

Here are a couple of examples for this type of storytelling:

  • Alice Munro – A Real Life, The Progress of Love, Carried Away, The Albanian Virgin
  • James Baldwin – Sonny’s Blues

 

Slowed Time

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time might be the most prominent of this category. In a movie there would be the use of slow motion. It’s an arresting technique that captures sensory and sensuous details like no other.

A few examples:

  • Nawal al-Sadaadawi – The Thirst
  • Don DeLillo – Videotape
  • Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time

 

Fabulous Time

This is the realm of magical realism and folk and fairy tales. It’s characterized by uncertainty and a reversal of natural time and disregarding the laws of time.

The examples used to illustrate this are:

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
  • Italo Calvino – Italian Folktales
  • Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things

 

Time as Subject

One of the most interesting uses of time in fiction is when it’s made the subject of the story. I’ve never read Fitzgerald’s Winter Dreams, which seems to be similar to The Great Gatsby, but uses time differently. Since I’m planning on re-reading The Great Gatsby, I’m looking forward to comparing it to Winter Dreams.

Here are the examples given in the book:

  • F.Scott Fitzgerald – Winter Dreams
  • Katherine Anne Porter – Old Mortality
  • Henry James – The Beast in the Jungle
  • Leo Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan Ilych
  • Alan Lightman – Einstein’s Dream
  • Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Denis Johnson – Out on Bail
  • Martin Amis – Time’s Arrow
  • Charles Baxter – First Light
  • Jorge Luis Borges – The Secret Miracle
  • Ambrose Bierce – An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
  • Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

I can’t say there’s one of these approaches I don’t like, but I guess books in which the time is a subject and what Silber calls “switchback time” might be those I like the most.

This is a wonderful little book that will appeal to readers and writers alike. It’s part of “The Art Of” series books published by Graywolf Press.

What about you? Do you prefer any of these categories? Or do you enjoy the use of split timelines/narratives more?

 

Peter Mendelsund: What We See When We Read (2014)

What We See When We Read

How does your Anna Karenina look? Is she tall and dark-haired? Homely or elegant? Can you picture her nose? And what color is Ishmael’s hair? What does he wear? These are but a few of the questions Peter Mendelsund explores in his exciting book What We See When We Read.

Mendelsund is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf and art director of Pantheon books. In his book, which is subtitled A Phenomenology with Illustrations, he explores what it means to read and what types of pictures are created in books and in our heads.

As readers we are often not conscious that the images we see before our inner eyes correspond only to some extent to what we find on the page. Our own imagination embellishes, we write along. That’s why we so often find fault with the way characters and settings look in movies. “No,” we say. ”This isn’t what I’ve imagined.” Returning to the book, we might discover that what we imagined isn’t any closer to what the author wrote than the choices the film director made.

Ciphers

“Characters,” Mendelsund writes, “are ciphers. And narratives are made richer by omission.” I agree with him. Most readers would. Isn’t there anything more tiresome than a description that is so detailed that you feel your imagination crumble under the exhaustion of picturing exactly what you should see?

Mendelsund also questions whether we are still able to imagine like people in the era before movies, TV, and the Internet. And what about children? Do we teach them how to imagine through picture books? Are they born with their imaginations? And has everyone the same imagination?

While I nodded in agreement most of the time, and stopped reading frequently because I found an observation so interesting, there were a few moments when I disagreed. Mendelsund states, for example, that we all fill in gaps with things we are familiar with. If a book is set in a foreign country, we will still see our own backyard. He mentions that while reading a documentary on Stalingrad, he pictured the streets of Manhattan. I certainly don’t do that and I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t.

Anna Karenina

The best thing about the book however is that it’s like a picture book for grown ups. It has illustrations on almost every page, makes elaborate use of different fonts, font sizes, and placement of text and, in doing so, enhances the experience, adds to the questions, and illustrates the points.

Be prepared – if you read this book, you’ll want to discuss it. Mendelsund may not always be right, but he’s always stimulating and thought provoking. I certainly enjoyed this book a lot.