Reading Habits

I felt like doing a tag today, so I found the Reading Habits tag on BookTube. It seems to have been around a long time and I couldn’t find the creator, so I unfortunately can’t include a link to their channel.

Here goes:

1 Do you have a certain place at home for reading?

Yes, I have a big purple comfy bean bag in front of one of my book shelves, but I don’t use it very often, because it’s in my bedroom which is not accessible to Curious Dog (he’s scared of the steep open staircase). Since I sit up in my bedroom at my desk during the work week all day without CD, I don’t want to sit away from him when I’m reading on my off days. So, I mostly read in the living room, with Curious Dog snoozing at my feet or next to me on the sofa. Very cozy. Every now and again he wants to be cuddled, but that’s also nice.

I also do a lot of reading at night in bed. Partner needs more sleep than I do and goes to bed early, and I use the time to read. Good for both of us.

2 Bookmark or random piece of paper?

Random piece of paper. Bookmarks are too organized for me. Also, I read a lot of e-books on Kindle and they don’t need a bookmark.

3 Can you just stop reading or do you have to stop at a certain point?

Depends. Sometimes I like to finish a chapter before stopping, but if I’m interrupted, or tired, I don’t mind stopping where-ever I happen to be in the book.

4 Do you eat or drink while reading?

Yes, I like good cup of tea, coffee, or cocoa with a book. I also like snacking on salty snacks but don’t do it very often. Only as a special treat. When I’m by myself, I also read while eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I also read while cooking (mostly when cooking soups, as they only use one pot and you can stir with one hand and hold a book in the other).

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5 Multitasking: music or TV while reading?

No music, but when we’re in Bavaria, I often sit in the evening with Mum in the living room. When she wants to watch something on TV that I’m not interested in, I read instead. The TV doesn’t bother me, I just tune it out.

6 One book at a time or several?

Several. I usually have three or four going on at the same time. A book of poetry, a short-story collection, something non-fiction, something fun, a classic… I guess poetry and short-stories don’t really count, because I usually just stop after reading one or two of them and that’s not really stopping in the middle of a book to turn to another one.

7 Reading at home or everywhere?

Everywhere. My smartphone has the Kindle app, so I can read my books anywhere. If I have to wait in a longish queue or am in the waiting room at the dentists or somewhere, I read. I also always take books on vacation, both as Kindle and as a paper copy (in case there a long blackout and my devices run down – no way am I risking being stranded somewhere without anything to read. The horror!).

8 Reading out loud or silently in your head?

I don’t read out loud except very occasionally to read a funny or interesting passage to Partner. Easy reads, like crime novels, I read fast and without subvocalizing, but with non-fiction and demanding fiction, I do subvocalize in my mind. That slows me down, but I don’t mind it. If I try to do without subvocalizing, I find I don’t grasp what I’m reading. Apparently, this just needs practice, but I’m not terribly motivated. I feel that reading slowly can increase enjoyment.

9 Do you read ahead or skip pages?

No. If I read ahead, I’m not motivated to continue with the unread bits and skipping pages feels like I haven’t read the book properly. That seems pointless to me. If I decided to DNF a book, I’d probably check up on the ending. My book selection process, however, is rather well honed and I hardly ever get books that I end up hating, so I haven’t done this in ages. Can’t remember the last time.

10 Breaking the spine or keeping it as new?

I try to keep the spine as unblemished as possible, but paperbacks that I love and read a lot get a creased spine anyway. Of course, not a problem with e-books.

11 Do you write in your books?

I never used to but have started in the last few years. I never read without a pencil anymore to mark passages or add comments. I can’t bring myself to use a pen and I also don’t use a highlighter. I do use the highlight and note function in my Kindle app. The only books I don’t write in are nice editions of graphic novels and some other special hardbacks. In general, I think that books are objects of daily use and don’t need to be specially revered. I used to have the opposite opinion: never write in books, what a sacrilege! But I changed my mind about it.

Keep safe, world.

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes 2

This is my second post about my project to read the entire Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie R. King, which I used to be keen on, but then lost track of. Here is the previous post:
Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes 1

In February I read the next two installments in the series, books 3 and 4:

A Letter of Mary

This novel (as all the previous ones) again has the framing story (just a couple of pages at the beginning) that the author, King, pretends to just be the editor of the book, the manuscript of which was sent to her from an undisclosed source.

The novel’s action is set in August and November 1923, two years later that the previous installment, A Monstrous Regiment of Women. It’s again told in the first person by Mary Russell. She and Holmes are now married; Russell is pursuing her theological research while also working with Holmes on cases. Occasionally Holmes is engaged on cases by himself. They seem comfortably settled in their marriage, when suddenly they receive a visit by Dorothy Ruskin, an older woman amateur archeologist whom they had met during the course of travels in Palestine (reported in the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice). Ruskin has found a potentially very important ancient letter which she wishes Russell to keep and deal with as she deems appropriate.

When Ruskin returns to London, after having visited Russell and Holmes in their Sussex home, she is killed in what seems a car accident. Russell and Holmes travel up to London to identify the body and find that the accident was staged. Dorothy Ruskin had been murdered and her hotel room searched. Had the murderer’s been looking for the ancient letter?

Naturally, Holmes and Russell start investigating. During the investigation, Holmes goes undercover as a handyman to check on Ruskin’s relatives, her rather uncongenial sister and her son. Russell takes on a job as secretary for a womanizing Colonel, who is also a suspect. In the course of her investigation, she is briefly aided by Lord Peter Wimsey. A nice touch for Wimsey fans:

“Good Lord, it’s Mrs Sherlock!” The foolish, slightly lopsided face with the too-bland eyes registered amazement at seeing me in this setting.
“No, it’s not, “I corrected him severely. “It’s Miss Mary Small, whom you’ve never set eyes on in your life.”
His grey eyes flared with interest and amusement even as his face and posture lapsed instantaneously info the silly-ass act he did so well.

Laurie R. King, A Letter of Mary. Bantam, 1998, p. 214.

There are a lot of false leads in this case, but in the end Russel and Holmes manage to ensure, with the help of the victim, who had taken some precautions of her own before being murdered, a kind of poetic justice.

During the book we learn a lot about Russell and Holmes life together, we learn some more about Russell’s childhood trauma, we get to meet Mycroft Holmes again. Feminist themes are again addressed, which I am always interested in. A good read!

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The Moor

As I’ve mentioned in my February Reading post, this fourth part of the series is one of my favourites. It starts off with the usual editor’s comment about the unknown provenance of the manuscript of the novel, with the interesting addition that the editor (that is, King, the author) might have been sent them by the ‘real’ author (that is, Mary Russell). A nice playful touch. Russell would have to have been in her late nineties at the time the novel was published.

The novel is again reported from Russell’s first-person perspective. It is set in Dartmoor, where years ago Holmes solved the mystery of the Baskervilles’ Hound. Holmes has been called to the old home of his friend the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, because of some reports of strange, almost supernatural goings-on on the moor. And he’s also investigating a case on the side for his brother Mycroft. Holmes calls Russell away from the scholar’s life in Oxford to help him on the case.

Really intriguing about the novel is that Sabine Baring-Gould is a real person, who led a rather interesting life and wrote lots of books and novels himself, many of them about Dartmoor and the surrounding countryside. Whenever I read this book, I feel inspired to read some of his writings, but so far I haven’t managed to get around to it. Maybe later this year…

The plot itself involves a lot of tramping about on the moor to follow up reports of a ghostly carriage that’s been seen here and there. On the way, we learn quite a bit about the moor and the people who dwell there. As might be expected, it turns out that there’s a rational explanation for the supernatural sightings (as was also the case with the Hound of the Baskervilles). The house of Baskerville and its owners are involved in a complicated attempted fraud that is, of course, foiled by Holmes and Russell.

In addition to the “Editor’s Preface”, there a very interesting “Editor’s Postscript” about Sabine Baring-Gould and one of his descendants who wrote a fictional biography of Sherlock Holmes! Another of the fun intertextual elements the series abounds in!

I like this installment of the series because of the atmospheric setting, the inclusion of a real person, as well as the allusions to the classic Hound of the Baskervilles. One of the best books of the series.

Keep safe, world.

February Reading

Considering that February was a short month and I wasn’t on vacation as I was in January, I managed to read quite a lot:

Ongoing project:

Murasaki Shikibu and Royall Tyler (trsl.), The Tale of Genji.
I managed to read the first 100 pages that I should have read in January. It’s fascinating, but also very strange – a completely unfamiliar world for a European reader, like me, without much knowledge of Japanese culture and history.

Poetry:

  • Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry.
    I’m almost done with this great selection. Pondering on what poetry to read next.
  • Emily Dickinson and Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), Final Harvest.
    I’m reading this one when I’m in Bavaria, as the Irish Poetry book is too huge and heavy to lug around. Dickinson is one of my favourite poets; I really need to get her collected works one of these days.

Short Stories:

Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King: Selected Stories of Rudyard Kipling.
Most of these stories just blew me away, they were so good. I was skeptical when I started as I expected stuff about “the white-man’s burden” and other imperialist rubbish, but these stories are not only set in India (and those that are, aren’t about those ideas). There are some powerful stories with fantastic elements, some stories set during WWI, lots of stories set in England. Some of them are almost gothic. The more of them I read, the better they got. My prejudices where just that, prejudices. Kipling was given the Nobel Prize in Literature and I guess these stories illustrate why. I think I’ll write about a few of them in more detail in a later post. A strong recommendation!

Non-Fiction:
Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books.
A short book about the meaning of reading in the author’s life. Thought-provoking and interesting for fellow life-long readers.

Novels:

  • Laurie R. King, A Letter of Mary and The Moor.
    Installments 3 and 4 of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Rereads, both of them, very enjoyable. The Moor is set in Dartmoor and one of my favourites in the series (of the books that I’ve read so far).
  • Sally Wright, Publish and Perish and Pride and Predator.
    Around the middle of February, I had to spend a whole half-day doing a meaningless but necessary task for work and on the side I was listening to BookTube channels. I came across this series, which is a crime series set at a University (at least the first one) and I couldn’t resist, as I love mystery novels of that sort. There are 5 books in the series, and I plan to read them all. It was reward for my horrid workday – I shouldn’t have started another series. But no regrets!
  • Jane Harper, The Dry.
    This was a book club read. A crime set in a small town in the Australian outback, where flora, fauna and people suffer from a years’ long drought. It was full of suspense, but also just slightly predictable – even I got an inkling as to the motive, and I’m usually not very perspicacious when reading crime novels. The book contained two crimes, one set in the protagonist’s past and never solved, one set in the present of the novel. Not bad.
  • Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader.
    A lovely short novel about what happens when the Queen (Elisabeth II) turns into a serious reader. Cozy and funny and heartwarming.
  • Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose.
    A brilliant novel. A reread, as I last read it while still at University. I started in January, but read most of it in February. I really should read more by Stegner; I love his style in this novel.

Graphic Novel:

Marguerite Abouet, Aya: Life in Yop City.

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I wasn’t meaning to read a graphic novel, but this turned out to be the February selection of the Goodreads “Read Around the World” group. It is about the life of a group of teenage girls a suburb of the city of Abijan in the 1970. Abijan is the largest city of the Ivory Coast (the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire). Some of their experiences are incredibly like teenage experiences in Europe and America. I say “incredible”, because we stupidly always seem to see the African experience as somehow different, usually negatively different. This is, of course, a stupid view and this graphic novel helps to break it up. These universal teenage concerns about school, family, relationships, careers take place in the specific cultural space of Yop City (the suburb) at a certain point in time (the 1970s) and so the details of their lives are different to, say, my teenage experience. I found these cultural specifics engaging and enjoyable. I now feel the need to read the sequel of this graphic novel, as the first part ends rather abruptly, leaving stories unfinished.

In sum it was a good reading month. As for reading from my TBR, I had had Angle of Repose on Kindle since December 2018, so I guess that counts. On the other hand, all the other novels (except for the Laurie R. King ones) and the non-fiction book were new, so I’m not making much inroads on my collection of unread books.

As in January, I’m planning to write more detailed reports on some of the books I read (hopefully in the next few days).

Keep safe, world.

Monday Miscellanea

We had a lovely 10 days in Bavaria. The weather was great, slightly freezing and foggy in the mornings until noon and bright, sunny and warm in the afternoons. It was perfect weather for walking with Curious Dog. I am again trying to teach him not to pull so much on the leash and after the first three days where our walks took ages because I kept stopping whenever he pulled and only started up again when he stopped (and came back a few steps), I fancy I’m seeing results. If I keep it up the entire next month, maybe it will stick.

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Otherwise it was a fairly quiet week. The only exciting thing that happened was that I got an SMS from the Bavarian Vaccination Centre (Bayrisches Impfzentrum) where I had registered my mother in preparation for getting a vaccination appointment. The SMS said that I could book an appointment, so I went online and got one for last Friday for Mum’s first vaccination. She’s now got the first shot of the BionTech-Pfizer vaccine. She felt a bit woozy and headachy for the first two days, the injection site on her arm also hurt for a couple of days and now she’s still feeling a bit weakish, but on the whole, it seems to have gone very well. Hope the weakness will fade quickly.

I was expecting this huge vaccination centre, sort of like those they’ve been showing in the news on TV, but ours was actually quite small (which is no wonder, since our county town isn’t very large either). Not sure what I was thinking. In reality it’s just a handful of containers set up at the fairground where the county and town summer fairs and festivals and usually take place (not much of that has been going on in the past twelve months as we all know). There was no queue and no waiting. We got there a bit early, and Mum was allowed to get her vaccination straight away. The only weird thing was that Mum was asked to hang around outside in the parking lot for ten minutes afterwards, to see if she would have an adverse reaction. That felt rather improvised. What if it had rained? You could wait in the car and there was a very small tent nearby so not too bad, but still, I’d expected a kind of waiting room.

The appointment for the second vaccination is next time we are going to be in Bavaria, so that worked out perfectly. I’d kind of expected that I’d have to take any random appointment at any time and would have to drop everything and take Mum to Bavaria for the shots, so it’s very nice that that’s not necessary. Mum still has her main residence at our old family home in Bavaria, that’s why she’s getting her shots there. For myself, I got a letter from the government of Baden-Württemberg that basically said that it will take an unspecified amount of time until it’s my turn and they will be in touch…

Last week I learned that the Winter in Germany was too warm, despite the very unusual cold spell we had in February, with -15°C to -20°C in places (it only got to -15°C at my place). And then, following the cold spell, we had a very warm spell that had the weather scientists worried. And then there was the report about Germany’s forests which said that 4 of 5 trees are damaged by drought and pests following the dry years of 2018 and 2019. I watched a documentary about the state of the forests on TV because I love the woods with the result that now I’m even more worried about climate change than before. When I walk in the woods, I keep checking for dead or sickly-looking trees. Well, we’ve got state and federal elections coming up this year – I will be having a good look at the various agendas.

Our next door neighbour is getting solar panels installed on his part of the roof. It wouldn’t make sense for my part of the roof because it has northern exposure (and anyway, I don’t think my landlady would want to invest). There are workmen clomping on the roof and drilling and whatever, making a lot of noise. Curious Dog is hiding out in Partner’s office. He is scared of the noise, poor guy. Pity it wasn’t done while we were away. At least it seems that it’s progressing quickly. As far as I can see, the work on the roof is almost finished. As the neighbour’s roof is only a quarter of the entire roof area, there isn’t a lot of space for his solar panels.

I’ve got tons of things to do at work this week, and not much time for it. Half of one day is reserved for another team workshop and another day seems to be reserved for some HR-required administrative stuff to do with goal setting and people development. We had two years’ of respite from formal goal setting (of course we had goals and we even did very well on them), but now they’ve decided that we have to return to documenting everything. Not sure why, except that HR likes to switch things up every now and then. Goal setting is the pits. First you have to come up with them, then you basically forget about them until it’s time for a review and then you spent ages painting yourself and your accomplishments in the best possible light so that you’ll get a glowing report from your manager which then hopefully translates into a substantial pay raise in the next year. A dreadful bore. We managed just fine in the last couple of years without the administrative overhead. We knew what we had to do, we did it, the company did fine and the raises were underwhelming as almost always… Still, I shouldn’t complain, as I do quite like my job and it has been safe during the pandemic.

Keep safe, world.

Cormoran Strike 1

As I mentioned in my January Reading post, I read J.K. Rowling’s (writing as Robert Galbraith) first Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo’s Calling in 2013. I’d quite liked it, but never got around to reading any sequels. This year, I decided to finish up some of my unfinished series and so, to start off, I reread The Cuckoo’s Calling and then went on to read The Silkworm.

I find the character Cormoran Strike very intriguing. There’s his complicated private life with his estranged rock star father, his dead groupie mother, the aunt and uncle who brought him and his sister up – this already has a lot of potential for interesting storytelling. In addition, he also has half-brothers (and maybe sisters, I’m not sure) to contend with (or ignore) and a tempestuous relationship with his ex-girlfriend, with whom he has, it appears, finally broken up. They had a strange co-dependent dysfunctional relationship and it will be interesting to see if this will surface again in later books of the series. There’s also the fact that one of his legs has been amputated and how he deals with this disability – mostly by ignoring any issues with the leg until it becomes so bad that he has to be hospitalized.

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The plotline that Cormoran is the son of this famous rock star but doesn’t want to capitalize on it is well done. I can imagine that it is hard for the children of famous people to build their own independent identity. I can’t help but think that maybe the author has her own children in mind, who probably find it hard sometimes to have such a famous and controversial figure as their mother. Anyway, I like how Cormoran keeps his independence and insists on paying back a loan he got from his father, who pressured him to pay it back although he’s rolling in money. It’ll also be interesting to see if the father ever makes a more direct appearance in the series. Such potential for later novels are part of what make series so addictive to me (if they are well written – if I don’t like a novel, for whatever reason, no potential will entice me to keep following the series).

Robin Ellacott, Cormoran’s partner in his struggling private investigator business, is also a well-rounded, complex character who has a background that is only slowly and tantalizingly being revealed. Will she manage the jealousy of her fiancé, who doesn’t want her to continue working for Cormoran? Why did she break off her university degree in psychology?

In the first novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robin joins Cormoran as a temporary secretary for a week, but stays on longer at reduced pay because she finds the job so interesting, much more than the higher-paying HR job she is supposed to take up. Cormoran has just broken up with his girlfriend and moved into his small office because he is broke and can’t afford a flat. He tries to hide this situation from Robin, and she tactfully pretends not to notice. The main case of the novel is brought to him by the brother of an old deceased school friend. It’s about proving that the death of an adopted sister, Lulu, a well-known model, was not a suicide, but murder. So Cormoran, with support from Robin, investigates Lulu’s last day, all the people she had contact with, her family and friends. Another person is killed, raising the stakes.

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In the second novel in the series, The Silkworm, takes place in the publishing world. Cormoran is hired to find a missing novelist, who disappeared after his slanderous and brutal murder novel was leaked to a couple of publishers, agents and others connected with the publishing world. During the investigation, the relationship between Cormoran and Robin is strained because Robin feels unappreciated by Cormoran and she is also under pressure by her fiancé, who doesn’t like Cormoran (he’s still jealous) and who still wants her to give up the job.

I liked how the mysteries played out in both the novels. I found the supporting characters well drawn and enjoyed the thrilling bits. Am looking forward to reading the next three books.

I am aware that J.K. Rowling is criticized because of some of her statements about transgender issues. I know that some readers have decided not to read her books any longer, but I researched the controversy and discovered that on some points I agree with Rowling while on others I agree with her critics. Therefore, I’m going to continue reading Rowling and will make up my own mind about her work. I’ve always very much enjoyed the Harry Potter books, although there’s lots of things one can argue about in them (that’s half the fun in the case of the Potter books). I’ll have to see how the Cormoran Strike series plays out, but I didn’t find anything heinous in the first two books.

I think that deciding not to read an author because of their opinions is a difficult decision anyhow and needs to be individually determined by each reader. Where do you draw the line? What about classics? They often contain ideas or judgements that were either already obnoxious in their times or later became so. But they also contain brilliant stuff. I think reading about things that I don’t agree with helps me to find my own stance on issues and hones critical thinking skills about what is worth reading and what isn’t. I’m sure there are also cases where the decision is pretty clear-cut, but I don’t think that is the case with Rowling. In any case, I prefer to decide for myself and not rely on others’ judgements.

Keep safe, world.

Love Medicine

By Louise Erdrich. I read this novel early (very early) in January. It is the first part of the Love Medicine series, which is about a community of Ojibwe families who live on or around fictional reservations in Minnesota and North Dakota. The families are the Kashpaws, Lamartines, and Morrisseys as well as the Pillagers and the Lazarres. I’ve copied the family tree in the book and enhanced it with some additional information. The red circles with the numbers refer to the chapters.

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The novel is made up of 16 chapters (with the 17th as a postscript) and each chapter focuses on different characters. Some of the characters don’t have their own chapters but turn up as supporting characters (so to speak). Some of the main characters are explored in more than one chapter. The novel has an episodic structure. The first chapter deals with the death of June Morrissey in 1981 and the final chapter shows the reunion in 1985 between her son, Lipsha Morrisey, and Gerry Nanapush, her lover, who is on the run from the police. In between, the chapters range in chronological order from the 1930 to the 1980 (each chapter is labelled by year).

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The novel contains the stories of four generations. Each chapter, while focusing on one or two characters also shows additional characters, as they are all part of the community. Quite a few chapters deal with Marie Lazarre Kashpaw and Lulu Nanapush Lamartine, who are the matriarchs of their families and who are connected by their love of Nector Kashpaw, who is married to Marie, but has an affair with Lulu. The two women start out as enemies who forge an unlikely friendship in old age. The other chapters of the book deal with the lives of their children and grandchildren. They are all very different people who live very different lives. Some of them are soldiers, some are criminals; there’s an entrepreneur and a kind of shaman. Some are likeable, some are horrible, all are multifaceted and rounded, none are just cardboard cutouts. Some of the stories are tragic, some are funny, all are engaging. There are spiritual and supernatural touches from Native American and Catholic religions and folklore, but there’s also just normal everyday life. The stories that make up the novel weave a kind of web or create a mosaic. Despite the episodic structure, it’s easy to follow and there’s a sense that the parts form a whole; everything fits together.

I very much enjoyed it and it is definitively a novel that bears rereading, as it is so detailed and full of life. I’m looking forward to meeting the characters again in the next novels in the series.

Keep safe, world.

Island of Shattered Dreams

This novel by Chantal T. Spitz is the January selection of the Goodreads group “Read Around the World Book Club”. It is set in Tahiti (French Polynesia) and is a translation from the French by Jean Anderson. It was originally published in 1991 and was the first novel published by a Mā’ohi writer. It shows the effects of colonization on the Tahitian society through the history of one family from diverse cultures.

The book contains many ancient myths and beliefs and the reader is shown how these ancient myths clash with the new religion and the new way of life brought by the colonizers. The clash of civilizations brings about unrest not only between the Europeans and the Islanders, but also between the Islanders themselves, as some of them align with the colonizers for various reasons, not least a desire for power and money:

Mā’ohi of today, you stand amongst
Those who do not think any more
Those who just follow orders

Those who copy others and reject their own identity
Those who kill their own souls and sell their Land
Those who sell off their homeland for as song
Those who admire the foreigner
And think their neighbour is the better man
Those who bow before injustice
Prostrating themselves before those who despise them.

Mā’ohi, what have they done to you?
Mā’ohi, what have you done to yourself?

Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams, Kindle location 243

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The novel contains myths and poetry interwoven with the story of the family. The family story starts with Tematua, who grows up traditionally on one of the islands. As a young man, he and some of his friends and peers are enticed away to fight in Europe in WWI (or maybe it was WWII? I’m not quite sure, the novel doesn’t mention details) for the French. Some of they are killed, and Tematua is traumatized on his return, although he finds healing of sorts on his island. Later, he falls in love and marries Emily-Emere, a mixed-race child whose mother is Mā’ohi and whose father is a rich English landowner. The love between her mother and father is doomed, because her father is already (albeit unhappily) married to a white woman. Tematua and Emere build a life that mixes Mā’ohi tradition and the European way of life. They have three children, who spend their childhood living on an island in the traditional way, but then move to the city for further schooling and to France to study. There’s the first-born boy, Terii, a daughter Eritapeta and Tetiare the third daughter. Sadly, all of them grow up to find it hard to reconcile their Mā’ohi background with their European schooling:

Emere and Tematua’s children, a mixture of two cultures, will never be whole. When their minds and spirits come to understand the world of the white people, their souls will cry out with the pain of their Land and their People. Eternal uprooting of the spirit. Immortal anchoring of the belly.

Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams, Kindle location 1043

Later on in the novel, Tematua and Emere lose their land to the French, who build a nuclear testing facility on the site. Their family tries to fight against this decision, but cannot prevail, as the land belongs to Emere’s father, who is keen on making money, and because the corrupt local government accepts money from the French authorities instead of supporting their own people and saving their own land.

The reader is shown how the nuclear facility is built and how the Europeans who run it are isolated from and look down on the original owners of the land. One of the scientists, Laura Lebrun, tries to build a relationship with the Mā’ohi and falls in love with Terii, who returns her love. But their love too is doomed, because Terii cannot live with a lover who is responsible for testing nuclear bombs. Neither of them can bridge that deep gap and so they part again. Meanwhile, Terii and Tetiare study and work to learn about their own Mā’ohi culture. Tetiare eventually wants to become a writer, to tell her people their history and give them back dignity and hope. Terii tells her (because she is having doubts about the writing):

“You have to publish your story. It doesn’t matter what the critics say, and they won’t be kind, you can count on that. The dream passed on by oral tradition is dying because we can’t remember, and we must bring it back to life through writing. Others after you will write a piece of the dream and in the end it will become a reality.”

Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams, Kindle location 2194

The novel ends on a sad note with the separation of Terii and Laura, but Tetiare’s writing gives hope that things may improve for the next generations.

The novel’s mixture of myth, poetry, political criticism and one family’s story is very creative and quite unusual (at least to me, I can’t remember having read a novel like this before). Very powerful and very moving and also differentiated, finding good and bad on both sides of the cultural divide. Very though-provoking. I found it tragic in places. The vision of hope at the end seems only tentative, but at least there is some hope.

Keep safe, world.

Chain of Associations

On the morning walk with Curious Dog last Friday, I was distracted and followed CD to the left at the top of the hill in the woods where we usually go right. So, we ended up on a trail that we don’t walk too often (mainly because it’s dog-walker central and I usually like to take the paths less travelled). And I found, screwed to a tree (hope the screws aren’t bad for the tree), a wooden sign (see the photo) saying in German:

Hoffnung ist nicht
die Überzeugung,
dass etwas gut
ausgeht, sondern
die Gewissheit,
dass etwas Sinn
macht, egal wie
es ausgeht.

Having googled it, I found that it’s a quote attributed to Václav Havel. I also googled the English translation:

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

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That sign hadn’t been there the last time Curious Dog and I walked that trail which was either in December or January. I spent good part of the rest of our walk wondering who the quote was by, who had put it up and, most importantly, whether I agreed with the definition. I rather think I don’t. Hope isn’t a “conviction” and it definitively isn’t a “certainty” and I don’t see what “making sense” has to do with it, either. Still, it’s intriguing and fun to discover a random quote in the woods.

In my warm and cozy bed this morning I was reading my daily poems, not from my Irish poetry anthology, because that was too unwieldy to lug to Bavaria, but from a smaller paperback called Final Harvest, a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems which was given to me years ago by my American Literature professor. I came across poem 254:

254

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of Me

I prefer this way of defining hope to Václav Havel’s.

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And then I remembered a short novel I’d read a couple of years ago, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter. It’s a very short, poetic novella (although I think it was also produced as a play) about a father and his two young sons who must deal with the sudden death of their mother and wife. Desolated, they are visited by Crow, a kind of trickster figure from the poetry of Ted Hughes. I remember very much liking the novella and being inspired by it to get a copy of Ted Hughes Collected Poems, which I started reading in October 2019. I put it down for a while early 2020 because I found it heavy going and hard to understand. I do want to take it up again, it’s still on a heap of books next to my bed. It’s probably something that needs a lot of rereading.

I like it when things lead to other things, books to other books. It’s part of the magic of reading, seeing connections, going down odd paths to be delighted by things one might otherwise never have stumbled across. And isn’t it amazing when such a chain of associations is started by a random quote one finds nailed to a tree in the woods?

Keep safe, world.

Piranesi

This was the first novel I read this year. It is the second novel by Susanna Clarke, the author of Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell and it was published in autumn last year. I wanted to read it already last year, but didn’t get around to it, which was strange, because I had been anticipating its release all year.

Now, I had a rough start with JS & Mr N. I got it as a hardcover in 2004, right when it was published (maybe even as a present, I can’t quite remember). I thought it would be right up my alley, a lovely thick fantasy novel. I saved it up for my annual autumn vacation on the Baltic and then… I got bogged down after maybe the first third. I didn’t pick it up again until 2019, and then I loved it. I guess my tastes had evolved.

I think I didn’t get into it on my first reading, because it isn’t written like a typical fantasy novel. It’s written like a 19th century novel and I wasn’t into reading such a huge book in such a style at the time. It’s also not pure fantasy but also a kind of alternative history of England during the Napoleonic Wars with fantastic elements. It’s all about how England used to be a magical place, full of fairies and magicians, but from which the magic had gradually disappeared. Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange are the only real magicians left and they revive the practice of magic in England. They have a tumultuous relationship as master and pupil, rivals, and friends. Fairies (pretty terrifying ones) and fairy realms also play an important role. The novel has hundreds of footnotes referencing made-up works of history and magic which gives the world-building verisimilitude. It’s intricate and detailed and sometimes a little slow going, but it grows on you. When I started it again in 2019 I loved it so much that I looked up the author and found her short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu. The eight stories in the collection are also set in the world of JS & Mr N and explore women magicians (who had not played a role in the earlier novel). I also loved these tales.

So, I was thrilled to find that a new novel was to be published in 2020. I got Piranesi for Christmas from my Partner and started reading it early in January.

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The novel is about a character called Piranesi, who lives in a strange, partly ruined House. The House seems to take up all the space in Piranesi’s world, at least he has never seen anything else. The lower floors of the House are drowned in seawater, the higher ones are partly fallen down and open to the sky. The sea contains fish and seaweed which is what Piranesi lives off. There are also birds and another person called “Other” by Piranesi. The Other is preoccupied with the search for a secret knowledge in the House, and Piranesi helps him with the project. Oddly, the Other occasionally brings Piranesi food and clothing that seems like it could have come from our world. Also, the Other isn’t always in the House. Piranesi spends a lot of his time exploring the House, which is like a maze, full of huge rooms that are full of statues that depict ordinary things and people from our world as well as from mythology. There are also the skeletal remains of (I think) 13 people, that Piranesi reverently looks after, kind of like someone might look after the grave of a loved one. At the beginning of the novel, Piranesi is a lovely, slightly strange and absent-minded person, who seems a little simple. But during the course of the novel, he gradually finds out more about the Other, about himself, and about the world beyond the House (and so does the reader). This gradual revelation or uncovering of secrets by Piranesi is very well done. Later in the book, the action speeds up and becomes thrilling. In the end, Piranesi has undergone a psychological transformation and is no longer Piranesi.

The novel is set in our time (it ends in 2018). Like JS & Mr N it contains many details and a few fake books that are mentioned in the text (I always like that). It’s also about the relationship of magic and reality, and the question where the magic that used to be in our world has disappeared to. It has a few allusions to The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis (one of the Narnia books) – there’s a quote from the book at the beginning of the novel (together with a quote from a made-up book). The House in Piranesi reminds me of the city of Charn, the place where the White Witch in the Narnia novels hails from. It is also partly ruined and partly filled with statues. But the House seems benevolent, while Charn was chilling. Another parallel from The Magician’s Nephew is the “Wood between the Worlds”, which the House is also reminiscent of and then there is a theme about ethics in science, which also has echoes in The Magician’s Nephew. But really, these are just vague allusion that help to give a depth to the tale, but the novel can easily be enjoyed without noticing these parallels. But it’s nice if you are a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia.

Piranesi is a great read and I was only sorry that it is a slim novel compared to JS & Mr N. I finished it in two days (and that was savouring it – I could have read it in one sitting). If you like reading about magic elements intertwined with our mundane world or about explorations both geographical (the House) and psychological (Piranesi’s journey to self-knowledge) or about murder and deceit, all in one book, then it’s a great read.

Piranesi inspired me to read The Genesis and Geometry of the Labyrinth, mentioned here, because the House was like a maze and mazes remind me of labyrinths…

Keep safe, world.

Striking Poems

I wanted to quote a couple of poems (though the first one is just an excerpt) that resonated with me when I recently read them.

Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

[…]

By Billy Collins in Janet E. Gardner (ed.), Literature: A Portable Anthology. 4th Edition.

That’s exactly why I started this blog (ok, some other things crept in but my original urge was to keep a kind of book journal). Pity I didn’t start sooner.

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Here’s a poem that speaks to me whenever I hear of the latest lapse by politicians and other influential people, although it applies to myself and everyone else, too:

The Design

Goodness is required.
It is part of the design.
Badness is understood.
It is a lapse, and part of the design.

Acknowledgement of the good
and condemnation of the bad
are required. Lapses
are not understood.

By Thomas Kinsella in Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry.

Keep safe, world.