Beloved by Toni Morrison review

Beloved needs no introduction, and is written in such poetic form that any words I contribute are reductive at best. However, as it left me reeling and slightly broken, I’ve attempted a longer than usual review to do it justice.

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Beloved, from one of my favourite bookstores, Imprints.

It is about the impact of slavery on one woman, Sethe, and is dedicated to

‘Sixty Million

and more’.

Sethe is free in the sense that she escaped from her owners at Sweet Home, but she is traumatised, both physically and mentally – she trying to hold onto herself but her idea of her ‘self’ is wrapped up in her dead baby girl; she does not think of herself as a person apart from that. The taking of this – the effect of slavery on her psyche – is particularly cruel.

She is left with memories that she cannot face, scars from hell, and a constant fear of returning.

Such was Sethe’s trauma that she killed her daughter when she saw white men coming to take her children away. Her daughter’s ghost, ‘Beloved’, haunts the house she shares with her surviving girl Denver.

How much pain can a person bear and still be themselves? Another survivor, Paul D, asks Stamp Paid something like this in a poignant scene late in the story, which I do not want to spoil. But I found this to be at the heart of the novel, that a person could endure slavery and survive it, in that their body is there, but what is left when their innocence, their faith in humanity, their songs and their children have been taken?

A rooster named Mister was the breaking point for Paul D:

“Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was. Even if you cooked him you’d be cooking a rooster named Mister. But wasn’t no way I’d ever be Paul D again, living or dead.”

Thus Morrison tackles the idea of freedom and the way that slaves were deprived not only of their physical freedom but the ability to be themselves.

Baby Suggs (Sethe’s mother-in-law), a great character and the soul of the novel, expresses this. Tired to the point of ‘marrow weariness’, she tells Stamp Paid of the day the white men came for Sethe, “They came into my yard.”

Much later, he understands:

“The heart that pumped out love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn’t count. They came in her yard anyway and she could not approve or condemn Sethe’s rough choice.”

As the best novels do, Morrison has us empathizing with the characters without judgment. Sethe has killed her daughter, whom she heart-breakingly calls ‘crawling already? girl’ and is haunted by the ghost of baby Beloved, and then by a girl of the same name.

I don’t enjoy supernatural elements in books, but I read this part as a way of showing the trauma Sethe has suffered: a lifetime of atrocities, pushing her mind to breaking point.

Like the approach Kurt Vonnegut took in Slaughterhouse Five, some horrors are unspeakable, can only be alluded to, and manifest themselves in other ways or forms. He (and Paul Beatty in The Sellout) used humour, but a great darkness lies beneath it.

Stamp Paid can hear the murmur of the ghost(s) in the house. This is how Morrison describes him standing at the front door, listening to the voices:

“The people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons.

What a roaring.”

There are echoes of the voices in a later scene, which I won’t spoil.

The notion of evil runs through much of the story, and the hypocrisy of the people who perpetrated this evil while suggesting it was black people not they, who were less than human. Morrison manages to explore this with subtlety and nuance but it is relentless at the same time. She also touches on the effect on white people of their own evil.

“Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle.

But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it.”

There is also much kindness – from the white girl who helps Sethe, to Stamp Paid’s good deeds and the women who help Denver towards the end – and moments of tenderness.

The language is strong and exquisite throughout, the form inventive but always in a way that feels necessary, not neat or contrived. Morrison has a superb ear for voice and renders grief as a physical thing. It is visceral and heart-breaking.

I read this for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge: read a classic by an author of colour.  I would love to know if you’ve read it and what you thought. Now I have to go and recover!

10 Books to Read Before They Become Movies

Exciting news for book and film lovers: there are some great adaptations coming in 2018.

If, like me, you can’t read the book once you’ve seen the movie, get onto these now!

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Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.

An exception, I’m seeing the film on Tuesday but would still happily go back and read the book, as Christie is my escapist happy place.  The new film stars Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz and Judi Dench and looks wonderful.  All aboard!

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Crazy Rich Asians.  Pic: Entertainment Weekly

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.

The Adelaide Book Club read this for our trip to Hong Kong this year – a fun read that has been described as Dynasty on steroids.  One of those books that I did not love but think it will be better as a film.  Good news –  the film, starring Constance Wu, will be out in August 2018.

 

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Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

The movie, directed by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) is out in the UK and already generating Oscar buzz.  This is a coming-of-age story as Elio (17) falls for his family’s house-guest Oliver.  The book has the feel of a Guadagnino film, full of atmosphere – languid Italian summer days – and all the intricacies and faltering steps of first love, with the added complication of being gay.  It dragged in parts, but it evokes being young and self-absorbed, and the feel of a long summer, pierced with moments of intensity.

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Reese Witherspoon is adapting this for television and I think it’s another one that I’ll enjoy more on screen than I did on the page.  There is a lot of heart and soul in the book and a good portrayal of privileged and troubled teens, whitebread parents, and the town of Shaker Heights (suburbia on steroids). Mystery surrounds Mia and an adoption dispute troubles them all. It felt contrived at times, Mia too saintly, Mrs Richardson too brittle and the ending corny, but definitely one to watch.

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In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Another Reese Witherspoon adaptation.  I could not put this down – a smart thriller for our time with diverse characters. The clever structure worked well. I thought the hens night a little twee at first, but so did Nora and Nina.  Interesting point about how the past can define us.  A good easy read, I’m looking forward to The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Lying Game next (both also being adapted for the screen).

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Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

One of my top books for 2017.  I loved this.  Wonderfully assured with a great premise – terrorists in Latin American country try to kidnap the President at a party, but he’s stayed home to watch his soap opera. The guests are held hostage. Beautiful, strong writing with music & a sense of humour running through. It strikes the perfect tone. I loved the sensibilities of the characters (Japanese, French, Russian), very funny but still sympathetic.  I can’t wait for the movie with Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Chaffer and Annie Barrows

I enjoyed this book as a cosy read, with an interesting history of the occupation during World War II and island setting.  We spent some time in Guernsey last year so I’ll be fascinated to see the movie set there.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

I did not love this book but might have to revisit.  Maria Semple is very funny and her observations are spot-on (see for example the first sentence of her recent book Today Will Be Different).  The upcoming movie of Where’d You Go Bernadette stars Cate Blanchett and Kristen Wiig so that’s enough for me!

For Younger Readers

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A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

This is a children’s classic, which I was lucky enough to be given when I was young and very much enjoyed, although I don’t usually like fantasy or science fiction.  The film starring Oprah Winfrey (looking incredible) and Reese Witherspoon comes out in March 2018.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I read this in one sitting. Spirited 16-year-old Starr has to face an adult world of racial violence and unrest, trying to find their identity amidst gang warfare and the ignorance of her ‘white people school’ peers. An important and enjoyable read. Angie Thomas is a former rapper with a poetic voice & wonderful ear for dialogue, & accepts flaws in her characters while letting the truth shine through.  Filming has begun on the movie starring Amandla Stenberg.

What book would you like to see made into a movie?  I read Sea of Poppies this year and thought it would make a great, colourful film, although it’s perhaps too unwieldy.  Another one I’d love to see on screen would be Mothering Sunday (the rights have been optioned by Film 4, so fingers crossed).  Closer to home, I think The Dry would be gripping on screen and cinematic with its rural Australian setting.

It looks like there will be a few fun cinema outings next year!

 

 

 

 

 

Read Harder Challenge 2017

Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge has definitely broadened my reading horizons in 2017.  Since my progress report in May I’ve braved fantasy, artificial intelligence and a graphic novel  – I hardly know myself anymore!

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Read a book about books

The New Life by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Guneli Gun

The narrator reads a book & goes off to find the meaning of life & win his beloved Janan. Slow to start, I was soon immersed in Pamuk’s rich, lyrical prose. His sentences are intricate, but so exact they stop you in your tracks. I love the layers of meaning & imperfect characters. (My full review is here).

Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean

I love the originality of Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s work (although rooted in the tradition of such greats as Gabriel Garcia Marquez), and his rhythm – taut & lyrical, the prose flows beautifully with a wistful tone: “the nostalgia for things that weren’t yet lost”.  He creates a strong sense of place – Colombia from the 1960s to 1980s – and a story within a story. Antonio’s slow, believable decline is matched by the sympathetic characters Ricardo, Elena & Maya.

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Read an all-ages comic

Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chang, Matthew Wilson and Jared Fletcher

Not my usual genre!  This was a fun, beautifully illustrated, fast-paced comic. I loved the strong protagonists (12 year old girls), smart, sometimes wrong, dialogue – showing the 1980s era – and detailed pictures. The inventiveness took me back to my youth, but it’s unlike anything I read when I was young.

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Read a travel memoir

The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold by Tim Moore

Tim Moore has the somewhat mad idea of riding a 1967 shopping bike from the German Democratic Republic the length of the Iron Curtain (20 countries, 9,000km). The result is a mix of travelogue and memoir of a previous trip in 1990, mixed with history. Moore has a wonderfully self-deprecating style; it’s often laugh-out-loud funny. He paints a dismal picture of soviet Russia, and is glib at times, but also savours moments of friendly goodwill. A unique trip.

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Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

A slow start but I enjoyed this – in the end the thoughtful writing, immersion in the desolate landscape and determination of Hester kept me reading. The isolation, and the settlers’ cruelty to the Aboriginal inhabitants of South Australia depressed me (knowing it’s based on fact). Would be a good discussion for book clubs.  My full review is here.

Read a fantasy novel

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

I struggle with fantasy because it requires that extra suspension of disbelief, but Philip Pullman succeeds in creating a rich world with human concerns.  I’m glad I read this, inspired by Kate and Rob from Adventures with Words, who are (re-)reading the series in anticipation of The Book of Dust, with La Belle Sauvage due out on 19 October.  Lyra is a great protagonist: a strong, street-smart but caring 11-year old girl who goes on a quest to save her friend and uncle.  Pullman creates vivid, alternate Victorian England and Lapland settings and nuanced characters.  A well-crafted fantasy with much to think about.

Read a non-fiction book about technology

It’s Alive! by Toby Walsh (to be published in the US as Machines That Think)

Artificial intelligence & the possibility of ‘thinking machines’ is fascinating – & happening faster than we think.  Robots can already write poetry and make music, so there is no reason they cannot learn to be more creative. We don’t know how conscious they can become though. My brain starts to hurt when I think about this.

Toby Walsh cuts through the hype to explore the likely advances, the benefits and dangers – in particular he warns against autonomous weapons, or ‘killer robots’, in war. Wonderful engaging style, clear writing & he brings expertise & thoughtfulness to the topic. Recommended.

Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (banned in Chicago schools and challenged in other states)

This is Marjane Satrapi’s story of her childhood in Iran during the revolution and Iran-Iraq war.  It has not been banned or challenged in Australia to my knowledge, but it was a great prompt to read a book I would not otherwise have discovered.  The beautiful pictures capture movement and emotion and her words are honest, to the point and unsentimental, with wry humour.  I loved the feisty narrator and was troubled by the parents’ decision to stay when they had the choice to leave, amidst oppression and war.

Read a book about war

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

The story of children in a Warsaw ghetto in the Holocaust. Aron falls in with a gang, but he is still an innocent, troubled child: his relationship with his mother is beautifully described.  A sense of sadness & foreboding pervades the book. There is humour early on in the kids’ teasing & banter but this fades, as they move into survival mode & watch friends & family die. Dr Korczac is a hero to his orphans. An unflinching portrait.

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Read a book published by a micropress

Mikumari by Misumi Kubo, translated by Polly Barton, foreward by Naomi Alderman

Fantastic, I recommend it.  Strong writing, the protagonist schoolboy is funny but sympathetic and his lover, Anzu, a cosplayer, is interesting.  Kubo has been compared to Han Kang and this reminded me of Murakami in the best sense.

 

Read a collection of stories by a woman

Fen by Daisy Johnson

An extraordinary collection. Spare, accomplished writing with wonderfully controlled weirdness. Characters are raw, honest and sometimes turn into animals. Despite these magical elements, the stories feel poignant, true and rooted in the earth.

Nearly there – I have five tasks to go, so will update again soon!

 

 

10 New(ish) Australian Books

Award winners, future classics and some personal favourites are listed here in my top 10 new Australian books.  In alphabetical order:

1.  Common People by Tony Birch

I bought this recently, prompted by doing this blog post and realising I had no books by indigenous Australian authors.  This is a gap I need to redress, especially given one of the joys of reading is to gain a different perspective from my usual sheltered existence.  Tony Birch has won multiple awards and this short story collection has received rave reviews.  I shall report back once I’ve read it!

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Two award-winning indigenous Australian authors (and an echidna)

2. The Strays by Emily Bitto

Inspired by the Heide artists, this perfectly evokes the time and place of 1930s Melbourne and captures their bohemian lives.  Lily and Eva’s friendship feels like those of our teens, when a friend’s house was a wondrous playground, as they experience the thrills and risks of growing up.  The dark side (lack of parenting) is explored too.  Thoughtfully written with well-crafted characters, this won the 2015 Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing.

3. First Person by Richard Flanagan:

This is a bit of a cheat as it’s not released until October 2017, but I predict a 5-star read.  I loved The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014 Man Booker prize winner), a thoughtful but unputdownable read with vivid prose and great humanity.  And his earlier novel Wanting, a story of Matthew Franklin (explorer and Tasmanian governor) and Charles Dickens, was a beautifully woven and original tale.

4. The Dry by Jane Harper

I really enjoyed this thriller. A smart protagonist and some realistic local characters, with a strong, well-paced story. Harper creates the atmosphere of a small Australian country town, both the sunburnt landscape and a community on edge. Some bleak aspects but it kept me guessing.

5. The Good People by Hannah Kent:

A widow in 1820s Ireland struggles with her deformed grandson. Doctors are beyond reach, the church no help so Nance offers to cure the boy with herbs & fairy rites.  As in Burial Rites, Kent brings to life women forgotten by history. The language is full of vigour & poetry, she evokes the way of life & land beautifully & the characters, with little to hold onto but their beliefs, feel real. Mary the maid has dignity & resilience, Nora is unflinching & Nance is firm in her wisdom but lives in poverty.  A little slow-paced for me, but thought-provoking and her prose is a treat.

6. An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

Shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award. Another rural Australian thriller, this is distinctive for putting the women front & centre: Chris, whose sister was murdered, & journalist May.  Maguire sustains the constant feeling of threat that men potentially pose to women, and the ambiguities & blurred lines in relationships. She also reflects on the sadness of women having to be on their guard, sometimes putting up defences against men who are trying to love them. None of the characters are simply good or bad though, and this attention to nuance is one of the strengths of the book. Chris is a memorable character and this is a strong, honest book.

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A stack of books by Australian women.

7. Music and Freedom by Zoe Morrison

A beautiful debut, intelligently written.  We follow Alice from her rural Australian youth to Oxford, then to old age.  Her bad marriage is hard to read but so sympathetically described and much is left unsaid.  Subtle and infused with music: Zoe Morrison is a pianist and her knowledge and love of music adds depth to the story.  Brava!

8. Taboo by Kim Scott

This is the latest by Kim Scott, twice a winner of the Miles Franklin award, and looks wonderful (the cover, for a start!).  The first page is strong and, like Common People, his voice has the ring of truth and authenticity.

9. The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton

Another 5 star prediction from one of my favourite authors and four-time Miles Franklin award winner.  I loved Cloudstreet, an epic family saga and modern Australian classic, and the distilled perfection of Breath.  Winton is a masterful writer and I highly recommend all of his books.

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A trio of my favourite Tim Winton books.

10. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

I will admit that this has been sitting in my shelf for two years now because I’m too scared to read it.  Winner of the Stella Prize and Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2016, it has been highly recommended as an important, thought-provoking read, and is described as ‘feminist horror’ story of women who are drugged and imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of nowhere. I promise to brave it and report back soon!

And that’s a list of ten, hopefully diverse, Australian books that we should all be reading this year.  Who are your favourite Australian authors?

10 Books for Women in Translation Month

Here are my top ten books by women in translation.  It is Euro-centric, so if you have some more diverse recommendations, please send them my way!

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  1. Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernandez Cubas, translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts: Strange, compelling stories set in Barcelona and Madrid.  Assured writing, the stories portray realistic families and homes (a girl and her ‘special’ sister, a woman mourning her husband) but twist and turn with elements that make you question reality or the narrator’s state of mind. It’s not often that fiction surprises.  Her fearless exploration of the human mind reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abanonment.
  2. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein: I recommend all four books in the Neopolitan Quartet (this is the first).  Her writing is clear and lyrical, with a sense of urgency that propels the story along.  I loved the friends Lenu and Lila, the one studious, the other fierce, both vividly described so you can hear them speak, and see them gesticulate; you feel the heat, poverty and everyday violence of their neighbourhood.  I love the girls’ strength, the feeling of being in Italy and Ferrante’s honest depiction of that place and time.  IMG_9426
  3. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: actually, everything by Tove Jansson.  I loved the Moomintroll books as a child, there is something so cosy, comforting, gently funny about them and together with her illustrations, they tap into a child’s imagination in the most delightful way.  In this book, a six year old girl spends a summer with her grandmother on an island in Finland.  It has a wonderful sense of place and nature, and a story that is compelling but lightly told.  She is so economical and her writing deceptively simple.  It leaves much to think about, but most of all her characters are quirky, unsentimental but completely lovable.  She’s an icon, what can I say! IMG_9353
  4. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith. A beautiful book.  Set in World War Two, it describes a family who flees Paris and moves to the countryside, and the tensions that arise when they have to host a German soldier during the occupation.  Irene Nemirosvksy, then a celebrated author, wrote this in in the French countryside during the war, and tragically died in Auschwitz in 1942.  I was swept away by the story of Lucile, and the contrast between the perfectly observed domestic scenes and constraints of village life, and the dangers of war, all written with musical fluidity and a sense of humour.  Nemirovsky was an impeccable writer and this is her masterpiece.  Read it!
  5. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Adriana Hunter. I loved this novella about working at Yumimoto Corporation in Tokyo.  Amelie Nothomb has a wonderful, wry sense of humour but also a deep understanding of Japanese culture.  Her empathy for her colleagues and ability to laugh at herself make for terrific, laugh-out-loud comedy and an at times poignant study of the constraints of life in Japan working for ‘the company’.
  6. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Osagawa, translated by Stephen Snyder: The housekeeper goes to work for a maths professor whose memory, damaged by an accident, lasts only 80 minutes. He communicates in maths terms: she is less educated but sensitive, and learns to appreciate his love of numbers. The professor is kind to her son & they share a passion for baseball. Much is unspoken (what was his life like before the accident?), but there is a gentle message to treat people with respect, not condescension. I liked her carefully drawn characters and clean writing style.
  7. In Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda, translated by Peter Bush: A five-star read.  Set in Barcelona, this is the story of Pidgey, her marriage to Joe and her daily struggles to survive in the civil war. Told in a dreamlike prose, which is not normally my style, but its raw beauty, the urgency of the story and the characters won me over. A wonderful evocation of 1930s Barcelona but Pidgey’s quiet strength and the trauma of war have a timeless quality. Very moving. I loved this & will read more of Rodoreda’s work.
  8. Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre, translated by Ben Faccini: I picked this up in Waterstones just before we visited Barcelona, and am just reading it now.  It’s set in the civil war, but told with an originality and perspective (a village girl who is supposed to become a maid, until the war intervenes) that makes the story fresh.  I like her dark humour and the character of Montse, now a spirited old woman but telling the story of her youth.
  9. The Door by Magda Szabo, translated by Len Rix.  Szabo was arguably Hungary’s foremost female novelist.  The narrator (who I think remains unnamed) hires an older housekeeper, Emerance.  She is a strong, eccentric character, and we don’t know what drives her but gradually learn about her past: the reader’s sympathies ebb and flow between the narrator and Emerance. It highlights the way older people are treated in society, and the afterpains of war. Slow at times but rich and satisfying, told in finely crafted prose. The singular characters and some vivid scenes have stayed with me long after reading it. Related image
  10. Subtly Worded by Teffi, translated by Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler: I enjoyed these stories very much.  Deftly written, Teffi has a deceptively light style, handling poignant subject-matter with elegance and a sense of humour.  These stories open a window into the Russian literary circles of the early 1900s – fascinating in itself, not to mention her encounters with Tolstoy and Rasputin, which are wonderfully recounted.  Teffi was forced to leave Moscow in 1917 and I recommend her memoir of this period, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea.

What are your favourite books by women in translation?

10 Books Set in Spain

Hola!  We were lucky enough to visit Sitges and Barcelona as a family in July, so I’ve been hunting down Spanish literature.  I discovered some wonderful books and even managed to read some, in between the usual kids’ shenanigans.

July was also ‘Spain’ month for the Read Around the World challenge, hosted by the fabulous Jen P of The Reader’s Room.

I must say that it wasn’t easy to find books by local authors set in Barcelona – the exception being The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafron, which is excellent and on every list, but I had read already.  However, I had some good tips and found more while I was there (= luggage problems).  So here they are!

The following list covers fiction and non-fiction – you’ll experience the Civil War, get to know Picasso, Miro and Gaudi and see changes in Barcelona pre- the 1992 Olympics.

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  1. Barcelona by Robert Hughes: a wonderful ride through Catalan history and tour of Barcelona, especially its architecture.  Robert Hughes is a knowledgeable guide with a fluid, muscular writing style.  I found this dense at times – so much (art) history – but I like Hughes’ honesty and unflinching directness.  For example, the kitsch additions to the Sagrada Familia “could have been done by Mormons, not Catholics.”  Liable to offend – but Hughes liked to rail against modern ‘sensitivity’.
  2. Spain by Jan Morris: interesting and full of the colours and contradictions of Spain, in Jan Morris’ usual lucid prose.  I love her idiosyncratic style: she gives you a sense of the history guided by her own curiosities.  She wears her knowledge lightly and elevates travel writing to a lyrical narrative, filled with personal anecdotes.
  3. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell: Orwell’s highly engaging account of his experience in the Spanish Civil War.  He was involved in fighting and later had to go into hiding in (and escape from) Barcelona as his group were suspected of being fascist spies.  His wonderfully dry, understated style makes it a pleasure to read: for example, “The point about firewood was that there was practically no firewood to be had.” On the long periods of quiet: “I began to wonder whether anything would ever happen to bring a bit of life, or rather a bit of death, into this cock-eyed war.”
  4. Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toibin: wonderful guide to Barcelona.  Toibin devotes chapters to each of Picasso, Gaudi, Dali and Miro, and the civil war among other things.  It’s not as heavyweight as the Hughes nor as lucid as Morris (Toibin is a fiction writer first and foremost) but interesting because he has lived there on and off since the 1970s, so he gives us insights into its people and some memorable anecdotes.
  5. Off Side by Manuel Vazquez Montalban: I loved this literary crime novel.  Pepe Carvalho is a PI with colourful friends and contacts, authenticity and a love of good food.  Great sense of place as he sees Barcelona changing but still has a grudging affection for the city.   Poet-murderers and cynical business interests are at play and Carvalho questions his relevance in the new Barcelona.  Not pacy, but a great read.

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    Reading Off Side at the Sitges Tennis Club.
  6. The Tenant and The Motive by Javier Cercas: two novellas by Cercas (whose novel Soldiers of Salamis I want to read).  In one, a university professor (the tenant of the title) fears he is being replaced by a new academic who shows up his failings. It made me want to read The Double by Dostoevsky, which I think has a similar theme.  In The Motive a writer obsessively watches his neighbours to gain material for a novel, but takes things too far.  Witty and spare, I liked these and the somewhat abstract plots reminded me a little of Murakami.
  7. Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias:  An immersive, layered story set in Madrid in 1980, tracing the ripple effects of the Civil War on a movie director & his circle of friends.  I’ve been wanting to read Marias for a while, and enjoyed his beautiful, melodious writing.  Male-centred, the men are interesting & powerful whereas Beatriz is seen more as a sex object, which bothered me. However, it is thought-provoking. The prose flows like classical music once you get used to the long sentences: “And those who had lost preferred to forget the atrocities committed, either by them or the still worse ones committed by the other side – more enduring, more brutal, more gratuitous – and they certainly didn’t tell their children … for whom their one wish was that nothing similar would ever happen to them and that they would be blessed with a boring, uneventful life, albeit a life lived with head bowed and no real freedom, because one can live without freedom.  Indeed, freedom is the first thing that fearful citizens are prepared to give up.
  8. No Word from Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza:  This was wonderful! Laugh-out-loud funny, quirky characters (aliens) in Barcelona setting and poignant observations of human behaviour. Strong writing, witty and playful. A touch of the absurd highlights the everyday strangeness of human lives.
  9. In Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda: A beautiful book. Set in Barcelona, this is the story of Pidgey, her marriage to Joe and her daily struggles to survive in the civil war. Told in a dreamlike prose, which is not normally my style, but its raw beauty, the urgency of the story and the characters won me over. A wonderful evocation of 1930s Barcelona but Pidgey’s quiet strength & the trauma of war have a timeless quality. Very moving. I loved this & will read more of Rodoreda’s work.
  10. Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre: Still to read!  It centres on Montse, a 15 year old girl living in a small village.  She is supposed to become a maid but her life changes when the civil war arrives.  It sounds original with a wry sense of humour.
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Visiting Montjuic and the Joan Miro Foundation.

 

Special mention also to Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom – I loved his The Following Story so am keen to read this one.  And Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernandez Cubas was recommended by a bookseller in Barcelona as her favourite Spanish author.

Hope this inspires you for your next Spanish trip, or read (or both)!

Book Club Takes Hong Kong

More Hangover than handover, the Adelaide Book Club visited Hong Kong last month, so I thought I’d share some of our highlights, and a reading list.

(A pause here to acknowledge that with our book club being how it is, the actual reading list comprised Elle, Vogue and Who magazines.  But nominally our book of the month was Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, which I reviewed here).

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Hong Kong on and off for the last ten years and become familiar with its bright lights, sights and smells (and smog, humidity and impatient pressing of the close-doors button in lifts).  I love the Donkey Kong high-rises and the view over the harbour, and there is an abundance of bars and restaurants to indulge in, with new places opening all the time (too many, and too much indulgence, you could say).  Where to start?

The Jade Market

We went from the airport straight to the Jade Market, to catch Irene of stall 278 before she left for Japan to stock up on pearls.  Nothing if not dedicated, we shopped here for two hours before checking into the Conrad!  Sandy’s Pearls (around stall 400) is also very good.

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Shopping hard at the Jade Market – hotel check-in can wait…

Le Garcon Saigon

We had a great dinner here on the first night.  It’s in the Star Street precinct with I really like: old-school factories mixed with independent Western boutiques (increasingly so, and some might say it’s losing some of its original character, but for me the balance is still okay).  French-Vietnamese with a buzzy atmosphere, outdoor tables and people watching.

We took a walk down Queen’s Road East after dinner and ended at Lee Tung Avenue – prettily decorated with red lanterns – and had a negroni at Ophelia.  This is a luxe bar with a peacock theme and glamorous dancers in cheung-sams performing and posing.  I don’t think I could spend too much time there, but it’s very Hong Kong.  Another bananas bar by the same people is Iron Fairies, 1 Pottinger Street, Central (on the corner with Hollywood Road) – I recommend the watermelon daiquiris.

Sevva

A favourite roof-top bar, with a great view of the harbour and the light-show at 8pm.  We had a pitcher of Sangria, possibly a mistake – I would recommend the lychee martinis next time.

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At Sevva

Ho Lee Fook

A fun restaurant in Central, with great food.  Asian fusion with Momofuku influence, wonderful flavours.  The prawn toast and XO noodles are a must.  No bookings (unless over 6 people) but they’ll drink sake with you while you wait, or you can take a drink on the terrace at Chom Chom across the street – we had a delicious mint chilli cocktail there.
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At Ho Lee Fook.  Kathy and Nicola each bought a lucky cat to take home, so they are sure to have good fortune this year!
Sunday brunch here is a must.  Free-flowing champagne, impeccable Japanese food and a fun crowd – what’s not to love?
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Zuma – the best Sunday brunch.

Cafe Gray Deluxe

I love this restaurant.  It has a fabulous bar overlooking the harbour, beautiful fit-out and the food is always great: I am still dreaming about that steak (I don’t eat much meat and rarely order steak but this was perfect).  Highly recommended for a special night out.

… and now for rest and recovery … and that means books!  I haven’t read as many books set in Hong Kong as I would like, but these stand out:

Myself a Mandarin

by Austin Coates

A charming, funny memoir of Austin Coates, who was appointed a magistrate in Hong Kong unexpectedly in 1949.  I found this book thanks to Simon Winchester, who mentioned it in The River at the Centre of the World.  Highly recommended.

The World of Suzie Wong

by Richard Mason

A classic.  A story of a man who meets a woman on the ferry from Kowloon and stays in a hotel/brothel in Wan Chai.  It has some wonderful descriptions of old Hong Kong and romance at its heart.

Fragrant Harbour

by John Lanchester

This novel does a great job of evoking Hong Kong from the 1930s to the 1990s, starting with a young man who travels there from England for an adventure.  Through him you have the first impressions (eg the blunt frankness of the Cantonese language, the smells of the harbour) and we then meet other characters and see Hong Kong through their eyes.  Well-observed.

The Expatriates

by Janice Y. K. Lee

This novel from the point of view of three American women in Hong Kong captures the expatriate experience in all its superficial glory.  Told with compassion and an eye for the small details that make up Hong Kong life, I found it sad but compelling.

If you have any recommendations for books set in Hong Kong, please let me know!