Wednesday, 22 March 2017

carnations in my study



The other day my son and I were having breakfast when he asked me what were my favourite flowers. Without thinking I said carnations (on the table was a vase with yellow ones). 'Why?' he asked. 'Because they are durable,' I said, 'they last long.' A few years back I would have said white tulips or peonies, without a doubt. When I think about it I cannot really choose between these three, but carnations are the flowers I buy most of the time (the Spaniards were on to something when they chose the red carnation as their national flower). This is an image I snapped in my study this morning while enjoying a nutmeg latte. Carnations and stacks of books on my desk is a common sight. Happy hump day!


Monday, 20 March 2017

№ 8 reading list | North Korean stories by Bandi



The first day of spring calls for a new reading list, wouldn't you agree? Three publishing houses, Head of Zeus (Apollo), Pushkin Press and Serpent's Tail, provided the first three books on the list and for that I thank them. I will later be reviewing the novel Pachinko and A World Gone Mad, Swedish author Lindgren's WWII diaries (known for her children's books), but today I want to specially mention a unique North Korean story collection, The Accusation by Bandi (pseudonym). The author, unknown to us, still lives in North Korea and risked his life by writing and smuggling his work out of the country (see more below). Here is my № 8 reading list:

· Pachinko  by Min Jin Lee
· A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45 
· The Accusation  by Bandi
· Seize the Day  by Saul Bellow
· The Blue Touch Paper  by David Hare
· Another Country  by James Baldwin
· Pale Fire  by Vladimir Nabokov
· The Sea, The Sea  by Iris Murdoch


Seize the Day is my first Saul Bellow read - about time! An Instagram bookworm-friend called it 'an incredible novel' and added 'it's haunted me most of my adult life.' I meant to start with Herzog but it wasn't available at the library. Playwright David Hare is on my list of favourite people. Listening to him talk about writing is a pure pleasure and now I'm finally going to read his memoir. He e.g. wrote the screenplay for the film The Hours (2002), based on the book by Michael Cunningham. Loved the book, loved the film. There is one reread on the list: The Sea, The Sea by Murdoch. I was probably too young when I read it because I don't seem to remember half of it.

Forbidden stories from inside North Korea: The Accusation by Bandi

The Accusation by Bandi contains seven stories about ordinary men and women in North Korea. The author is unknown: Bandi is a pseudonym (means firefly in Korean) and to protect his identity some details have been changed. In a note from the publisher it says they 'believe it to be an important work of North Korean samizdat literature and a unique portrayal of life under a totalitarian dictatorship.' Apart from the news, what we have read so far are works by people who have escaped from the regime. What makes this book unique is that for the first time we have stories written by an author still living there. Instead of a preface and acknowledgements there are untitled poems by the author, who describes himself thus in one line in the former: 'Fated to shine only in a world of darkness'. The latter has a poem where he begs to be read:
Fifty years in this northern land
Living as a machine that speaks
Living as a human under a yoke
Without talent
With a pure indignation
Written not with pen and ink
But with bones drenched with blood and tears
Is this writing of mine

Though they be dry as a desert
And rough as a grassland
Shabby as an invalid
And primitive as stone tools
Reader!
I beg you to read my words.
If only the entire world would read these stories and that one day Bandi would be able to enjoy the royalties as a free man. I haven't finished the book but what I have read so far is heartbreaking. The social and political circumstances in North Korea, the lack of human rights, are known to us, but when reading stories by someone living in these conditions, suddenly, it becomes all too painfully real.

The Accusation
By Bandi
Serpent's Tail
Hardcover, 256 pages
BUY HERE

Utagawa Hiroshige, A Red Plum Branch against the Summer Moon, c. mid-1840s, colour woodblock print

My next reading list will be the Japanese one I have mentioned more than once. Therefore, I chose to include this painting by Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (also Andō Hiroshige, 1797-1858). Blooming trees in spring, mon dieu! Soon I will be sipping my latte on the patio and reading under the pink blossoms of a cherry tree ... a quality moment in the life of a book lover.

images by me | Utagawa Hiroshige art via The Art Institute of Chicago | first three books on the list provided by these publishers: Head of Zeus (Apollo), Pushkin Press and Serpent's Tail


Tuesday, 7 March 2017

a year in reading - part 2



Shall we pick up where we left off in A year in reading - part 1, my blog entry where I commented on books from my last year's reading lists? As stated in that entry, I don't comment on books that I have already talked about or on those I was rereading. My reading lists are based on my mood when I put them together and consist of books that have been on my to-read list for a long or short time (that list gets longer and longer!). Unsurprisingly, there were a few disappointments. Below are my thoughts on some books on my № 4, 5 and 6 reading lists:

№ 4 reading list (4 of 10):
· Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. This classic is probably more interesting for beginners on a spiritual path or for those unfamiliar with Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. It did very little for me and I only finished it to cross it off my list. (Interested in Buddhism? Choose a non-fiction by a leading Buddhist teacher. To give you an idea, here are some that I read at a certain point in my life: Thich Nhat Hanh, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Pema Chödrön.)
· The Summer Book and A Winter Book by Tove Jansson. When I shared the list I had read about two stories in the latter and was well into the former, which I loved. In The Summer Book you will find a stronger collection of stories, more coherent, mainly because they have the same memorable characters.
· In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Felt like a gem when I picked it up but at some point the plot of these loosely interconnected stories became predictable. There is so much corruption and injustice on the pages that I was beginning to long for something a bit more uplifting. I was hoping this book would teach me more about Pakistani culture, and given the good reviews I was expecting it to be richer.
[Another from the list: The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking (see separate blog entry).]


№ 5 reading list (4 of 7):
· A Time for Everything by Karl Ove Knausgård. Nothing wrong with the writing but I decided to not finish it because I simply wasn't in the mood. This is a book about angels and he changes the setting of biblical stories; takes us from the desert to a Norwegian landscape. Maybe I will pick it up again later but I think I will first revisit the originals.
· White Teeth by Zadie Smith. The book I so wanted to like and recommend to you. I still haven't finished it. I like the writing style but the characters don't interest me at all. Occasionally I pick it up - reluctantly, I admit - and after a few pages I give up. I found the characters in her book NW much more interesting. In that one Smith experiments with the form of the novel, which may not be everyone's cup of tea. I struggled a bit through the first part of NW, but as soon as I reached the second I was hooked.
· Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Loved the prose and characterisation in her family drama that sometimes left me shocked - the father is a religious fanatic who uses domestic violence. For sensitive readers I have to add that there is also beauty and hope. The quality of Adichie's writing is such that following horrific descriptions, her beautiful sentences seem to subsequently soothe and heal. This story has not left my mind since I finished it. Adichie is one of my favourite living authors.
[Another from the list: Avid Reader by Robert Gottlieb (see separate blog entry).]

№ 6 reading list (4 of 8):
· The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. I liked the first two parts but I think this is one of the novels I will forget having read. In this one Barnes has reimagined the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalin. It just didn't leave me with anything; I finished it and moved on to the next.
· All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan. I mentioned in my entry that I liked his writing style. Parts of this book are very dark; I think I even held my breath sometimes. For me, the character of Mary stole the show; I found her much more interesting than Melody, the main character. The fault of this book is the ending; everything is possible in fiction but it didn't work (I cannot say more without revealing it). However, Ryan is an author who has made it to my list and I intend to read his previous works.
· Boyhood Island: My Struggle 3 by Karl Ove Knausgård. Of the three My Struggle books I have read, this one was my least favourite. Its strengths are the picture he paints of the father he hated (understandably) and the family dynamics. Its weaknesses are the too many repetitive descriptions of him playing with the neighbouring kids or schoolmates. This book could have been 100 pages shorter and better.
· The Return by Hisham Matar. One of those books I was really looking forward to reading but except for the first five chapters, I was rather disappointed. The first five chapters have a different writing style, which I loved, and it wasn't until after I had finished the book that I learned that part of them appeared in an article in The New Yorker called 'The Return', which Matar wrote in 2013, before the publication of the book. To be frank, just read the article.
[Another from the list: The Makioka Sisters by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (see separate blog entry).]

That's it, I'm done with the 2016 lists.

This year I intend to do things differently and share my thoughts sooner, but I will let some time pass between sharing a reading list and my opinion on the books on it.


Friday, 24 February 2017

a year in reading - part 1



Here it is, the blog entry I have wondered whether to write or not, the one with comments on a few books that appeared on my 2016 reading lists. First I thought of writing these notes in a comment under the list in question but later thought it best to keep them separate. I see no reason to repeat comments that I have already made on certain books, or to comment here on the ones I reread; I only read books again if I like them or they hold a special place in my heart.

Speaking of rereading books: Scottish author Ali Smith was recently featured in the 'By the Book' column (NYT), where she said something that reasoned with me:
[A] rereading can feel like a first-time read in itself, which is another great thing about books and time; we think we know them, but as we change with time, so do they, with us. (Sunday Book Review, 12 Feb. 2017)
I saw this feature a couple of days ago and noticed that she mentioned the book Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. If you are following me on Instagram you may have seen it in a photo I shared last Sunday. It so happens that I borrowed it at the library on Saturday and it will be on my next reading list.


Below are some of my ideas about books that appeared on my № 1, 2 and 3 reading lists. On my first list I included design books but later decided to only include novels, auto/biographies, travel books, etc. Let me add that it's not my intention to steer you away from the books I unfavourably comment on, or those I didn't finish. Our literary tastes are different, so are our cultural and social backgrounds, and I certainly don't want to appear as an authority on what to read and not to read. However, I know that I have blog readers who are using my lists as a guide to books, which is why I think it only fair to mention those that perhaps didn't live up to my expectations.

№ 1 reading list (2 of 8):
· The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski. I read a few chapters before putting it away, only because Africa by John Reader has been on my list for some time and I wanted to read it before reading other Africa-related books on my to-read list. Polish journalist Kapuscinski covered Africa for decades and I believe that one day I will pick up his book again and finish it.
· The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. The biggest disappointment of my 2016 reads. Started brilliantly with an observant and humorous Theroux - I could hardly put it down. At some point his tone becomes annoying, as if all he can do is complain. I lost both my interest and patience, and tossed it. A travel writer that doesn't inspire me to travel has no place in my bookish heart.

№ 2 reading list (1 of 6):
· Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady. Lost my patience and gave up. Way too revealing and not in a good way. The times were different but it astonished me how she allowed Neal to disrespectfully treat her right from the start of their relationship. The first chapters are a good lesson in how not to pick a husband.
[Another from the list: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (see separate blog entry).]


№ 3 reading list (2 of 6):
· Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir. The first volume of her autobiography, in which she covers her early life, her childhood in Paris and her Sorbonne years. My only fault with it was her serious narrative; her tone of voice was too intellectual for a child but fitted better as she grew older. The next three volumes will appear on my reading lists in the future.
· Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. In my opinion, overrated. In the beginning the narrator is a young girl which means an easy read with a simple vocabulary, and there is plenty of humour (the mother is priceless!). The author lost me when I reached the last third or fourth part of the book (when the girl leaves home); the narrative became sloppy somehow. This was one of those books that I really wanted to like and be able to recommend but it left me rather disappointed.

'Part 2' is coming soon, with comments on a few books from the № 4, 5 and 6 reading lists.

[Update: click here for part 2.]