Saturday, August 13, 2016

Witness and Mysteries. . . What I've Been Reading

I'm supposed to be on a blogging break now, but that, of course, means that I have more time to read, which in turn means there are more titles to record here. . . . and then I look ahead on the calendar and see our big move ahead and some travel plans a few weeks after that. Plus, of course, I'm getting ready to host a Read-Along of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend in a few weeks. . . My mother used to use an old expression, "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach," and it seems to apply well to other appetites and consequences than those for food. I'm often wanting to do more than I can really manage, tempted to "bite off more than I can chew." Perhaps my new resolution for my blog(s) might be to under-promise and then try to over-deliver. . . . Sadly, there's another old expression, something about old dogs and new tricks, that suggests I might not change my ways so easily.

Excuses and explanations done, then, I'll confess that as much as I'd wanted to spend more time telling you about Anthony Marra's wonderful, haunting, painful A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon, all I'm going to say is that BuffaloGal was absolutely right when she commented that the novel about the damaged humanity left in the wake of the Second Chechen War, "it was brilliant- a story of love, loss, and what binds us together. Run- don't walk!! I can't get it out of my head" I finished the book a few weeks ago, and the characters are with me still. The setting is as well, I'm surprised to say -- much of it is a setting of devastation, to be honest, and depressing more than horrifying. A setting I'd prefer to consign to a Mad Max movie, one that lays bare humanity's willingness to hurt and destroy in the name of a cause or an idea or simply a hatred. But there are also small, persistent images of tentative hope, hope against better judgment, admittedly, often betrayed, yet just enough affirmation of goodness and strength and guarded tipping into love -- just enough to keep me mesmerised, reading forward through the pain.

Wonderful descriptions of the role of art in the novel, particularly its value, if any, in the face of obliterating, banal destruction. Often woven together with these descriptions is an ongoing meditation on the decaying of memory, the disappearance of an entity -- a sorrowful notion, yes, but rendered throughout in lyrical terms that will make you look away from the page for a moment or two and just consider. . . I love the narrator's voice as well, detached somewhat, yes, and omniscient, but with a wry care for the characters he tells us about -- often this narrator will tell us that a certain character will, 30 or 40 years' hence, do such-and-such an action. This inflects the novel's intense focus on a particular, destructive historical and geographic moment, putting it onto a much bigger canvas, time-wise at least, and arguably, by extrapolation, spatially as well.  I think it also has the effect of emphasising the role of witness, a role (and a responsibility?) that I believe a novel like this invites us to take up. My life is undeniably privileged, but at the very least, I can be attentive to the world's sorrows so that I might use that privilege as responsibly as possible. Pursuing this concept here would lead me into a much longer post than I have time for (See? Eyes bigger than my stomach again! Mom was right!), so I'll leave it at that. . .  Thank you BuffaloGal for recommending this and I second your advice to other readers: Run, don't walk! Read this book.

Just quickly, now, to list a few mysteries I've read lately:
Julia Keller's Bitter River.  As with the first in this series featuring West Virginia prosecutor Bell Elkins, I enjoyed this well enough once the rhythm got established quite a few chapters in. I couldn't help but be irritated by the references to the events of the last novel, and overall, I wished for more editing. There are too many metaphors, too much figurative language altogether, and for me at least, too much "folksy," for want of a better word. I like the characters, like the setting well enough, the plotting was satisfying, and I would probably read another in the series, but I won't rush to find one as I have with other mysteries (the two below being examples).

Donna Leon's Quietly in their Sleep (alternatively titled The Death of Faith) -- fifth in the Commissario Guido Benedetti Brunetti series set in Venice. The target of Leon's ongoing exposure of corruption in Italy is the church, in this novel. I know many of you have already read the series, are perhaps enjoying the latest title now, but I'm fortunate enough to have started them quite recently (I mention others here and here, and it's such a delight to watch the relationships and characters develop -- Benedetti and his wife's particularly.

Denise Mina's Field of Blood. Also lucky to have just discovered Mina, via my blogging buddy Sue at High Heels in the Wilderness. This title is the first in a series featuring young journalist Paddy Meehan, and I'm already hooked by the way Mina captures the hopes and fears and impatiences of an 18-year-old looking out at the exciting possibilities of city life from her hermetic family and community neighbourhood.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm really on a blogging break and I have some books to read. . . Comments? You know I love them, although I hope you'll understand if I hold back responding while on my vacation.


  1. A lot of suggestions... It seems we all here have similar taste for books ( Hostess and me were reading Fellows Belgravia during our holidays :-))
    I have finished A. Benett's Lady in the Van-can't wait to see how Dame Maggie rocks it in the movie (did I saiy this somewhere else-probably yes :-))
    A little of my comfort read : J. K. Rawlings Cursed child ,than Bill Bryson's At Home (The short Hystory of Private Life-I find it very interesting!
    I am reading recently bosnian author Bekim Sejranovic's Your son Huckleberry Finn,homage to Mark Twain. It is the novel about river,life,love,complicated father-son relationship and struggle with addiction. He is one of very interesting post-yugoslavian authors and I am sorry that I could not share it with you
    But- I did a little research and have found on Bosnian Chronicle from Ivo Andric,the winner of Nobel prize in 1961. He was Croat,born in Bosnia and Herzegovina (than in Yugoslavia),a diplomat and excellent writer. I have found that some other of his books were translated in English,among them Nobel awarded The Bridge on the Drina(but don't know where to find them)
    On there is also Three Winters from T. Stivicic. If someone reads in Spanish,there you could find Ivana Brlic Mazuranic's beautiful children novel Las aventuras dal aprendiz Lápich
    Lucky you Frances,you have so many Donna Leon books to read!
    On my kindle for windows are waiting Americanah,the Nest and first Birder mystery
    Lot of work....:-)
    Happy reading!

  2. I am thrilled that you enjoyed A Constellation of Vital Phenomena as much as I did. Although I haven't read anything that has met that standard, I have enjoyed several other new (to me) authors.
    Have you read any Reynolds Price? I just completed his short book of essays "Feasting the Heart" I enjoyed his true Southern voice and sense of place in a way that I haven't with other famous Southern authors. I also enjoyed the meditative quality of Paul Kalanithi's "When Breath Becomes Air" The part that spoke to me was his search for life's meaning through literature and neuroscience . I enjoyed the juxtaposition and tension this caused.I believe Dottoressa will be more than satisfied with her choice of "Americanah" A truly enjoyable exploration of our culture through the eyes of another and how her journey changes her- even when she eventually returns to her native culture.Thank you for your thoughtful musings...I look forward to them.

  3. Just to say thank you for drawing my attention to Diana Athill. Have read three of her books by now and enjoyed them enormously. Very encouraging.
    I thought that if I have to read "My Brilliant Friend" in a foreign language anyway (there seems to be no translation into German), I might as well get it in Italian. Very bold, as my Italian is one thousand times worse than my English. We'll see how it goes.

  4. Tu as les yeux plus gros que le ventre as they say in French. But I am glad that you discovered Denise Mina. She's one of the best writers in the tartan noir mouvance and Has some interesting things to say about women readers and writers as I discovered at a conference a couple of years ago.

  5. Dottoressa, Alan Bennett is topping my reading list, although I despair of finding time. I had made the resolution to read through his backlist even before seeing The Lady in the Van (it's available on Netflix here -- couldn't believe our luck!). We enjoyed it very much, especially Dame Maggie. I'll make note of those titles by Croatian authors . . . wow! the list is SO Long of books I want to read. . . I have been brushing up my (ancient) Spanish to perhaps one day, that children's novel.
    BuffaloGal, I haven't read Reynolds Price, and will make a note. Have read Kalinithi's beautiful, poignant memoir (a powerful complement to one of the most important books I've read in the last couple of years, Atul Gawande's Being Mortal). Absolutely agree with you that Dottoressa is sure to enjoy Americanah.
    Eleonore, I'm very impressed that you'll try My Brilliant Friend in Italian. I've been trying to work through the original of Ferrante's La Figlia Oscura, translating to English as I go, a few paragraphs at a time. Tough work! But exhilarating. . . Isn't Athill wonderful?! I haven't yet got her latest but will soon.
    Lesley, I'm glad to know this expression exists also in French -- I'm surprised how often it comes to mind for me, generally in Mom's voice. As for Mina, I'm delighted to have discovered a mystery writer with a plentiful back list of well-written books. Tartan Noir Mouvance? I need to check that out and see who else is on the list. Perhaps you and I will get to chat more about this before long (I will be there in October/November -- can't wait!)

  6. Thank you Frances for all your reading suggestions which I have been taking advantage of for quite some time. Some of the books you have been talking about I was lucky to read in the original English, others in translation to my native tongue (Polish) (frequently wishing I'd read the original version....).
    As a long-time Donna Leon fan may I just quietly point out that it is Brunetti and not Benedetti...

    Thank you for the joy of reading both your blogs!

  7. Oh my goodness, Teresa, of course it's Brunetti -- no idea how that "Benedetti" slipped in, but thanks so much for alerting me -- I've changed it now.
    So glad that you enjoy the blogs and have been finding some of my reading suggestions helpful -- so many, many books to read. Aren't we lucky?!
    Any favourite Polish writers to recommend? Ones whose work you know is available in English?

  8. Frances,
    always glad to oblige. My favourite among Polish writers is Olga Tokarczuk (pronounced Tokartchook) whose work I believe has been translated to English (please check out Her most recent book, The Books of Jacob (please look up and't yet but boy doesn't it deserve a wide and appreciative readership. I would be particularly interested in having your opinion, Frances, what with your academic background, knowledge of literature and understanding of intercultural interactions. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed that there would appear a translator who will do justice to Olga's work and make her book available to the English-speaking (and -reading) world.

  9. Just read a review of "L'amica geniale" in my sunday paper. The German translation is coming out next week. Good news for me, so if I cannot keep up with the rest of you while reading in Italian, I will have something to fall back on.
    BTW: Benedetti is/was a poet and writer from Uruguay. I like his work very much. His novels, set in the Uruguay of the fifties and sixties (before the coup of 1973) show a quiet, middle-class, secure and almost provincial society (in Latin America!) which appears totally unreal from today's vantage point.

  10. Teresa, thank you, duly noted and added to the daunting (and exciting) list of To Be Reads. . . An ex-colleague of mine has been engaged with colleagues at a Polish University for the last few years, taking students on exchanges to study Polish Literature there and receiving Polish students at my old uni to study Canadian Literature. Her interests have focused especially on border zones, not necessarily just those geographical ones but also cultural, linguistic, etc., as they apparently recur regularly in Polish writing. I'll do my best to make room for reading some soon.

    Eleonore, I had to surrender my Italian copy of La Figlia Oscura back to the library after about 40 pages of painstaking translation. I'm sure your Italian is far more efficient than mine, but I'm glad you have a back-up option coming soon.
    As for Benedetti, hmmmm, can we imagine him meeting our Commisario Brunetti? But yes, such a comfortable, stable Latin American society as that seems impossible now. Obviously, the Marxist unionism was simmering already, though, to have invited the violence of the 70s crackdown. . . (and interestingly, that trade union movement links us back to the Ferrante quartet. . . )