A year ago, I surveyed my media habits after six months of pandemic living. I looked at bookish blogs, YouTube channels, and podcasts. My podcast consumption had suffered the most, since I didn’t drive anywhere. I was also feeling too burned out and disconnected to keep up – imagine, we weren’t even in the second wave yet! Now, from deep in the fourth wave, it’s time to take stock.
Lately I find myself drawn to podcasts. They lend themselves to projects, conversation, and retrospectives, rather than roundups and book hauls, and the tone tends to be more soothing than your average YouTube video. My only frustration with podcasts is that, unlike blogs and YouTube, there’s no comment section.
But that’s the whole point of a blog, right? Spouting off unqualified opinions? Who needs a comment section!
A new bookish podcast launched this month, and it seems tailor made for me. Mr. Difficult is a podcast devoted to Jonathan Franzen, both his works and his public persona. The “project” is reading and discussing Franzen’s novels in order of publication, culminating in Crossroads.
The hosts, writers Erin Somers and Alex Shephard, plus producer Eric Jett, are not fully fledged Franzen stans. In the first episode, they acknowledge that he is difficult to love, and easy to dunk on. Alex says he’s “attracted and repelled” by him, and Erin says she’s somewhere between a lover and hater. Personally, I find his dunkability endearing, but that’s just me…
Independent People gets the half-page treatment in the 1,001 Books (as opposed to some of the other books I’ve covered this summer, e.g. Tristram got a two page spread with illustration from a c.1760 edition, The Fox a full page with author photo, and Wise Children a full page with original cover art), not giving me a lot to go on. Contributor Jonathan Morton gets a little dig in by calling the main character Bjartur “often idiotic”, but otherwise sums up the plot, touches on the historical backdrop of WWI and the rise of socialism, and describes the epic and mythical tone of the story. He also reminds us that Laxness wrote many other books and remains the “undisputed master of Icelandic fiction” more than twenty years after his death (only 8 years at the time of the write up, but still).
Not much to disagree with there! But I was interested by that “idiotic” description, and it reminded me that the introduction to my edition, by poet and novelist Brad Leithauser, goes a bit too easy on old Bjartur: “Occasionally it is borne in upon Bjartur that his women are tortuously unhappy” being one example of the passive voice, which to be fair, might be ironic or meant to show how oblivious he is, but made me laugh out loud, given that Bjartur leaves one wife to die alone in childbirth, despite her protests, and begrudges the other any comfort in a life marred by constant pregnancy, stillbirths, and illness. Leithauser does concede that Bjartur is at once “petty-minded and heroic; brutal and poetic; cynical and childlike” but seems just a bit too in awe of both the character and Laxness himself to write an introduction that can inspire or interest the new reader. At least he acknowledges it, calling Independent People the “book of [his] life”, a book so close to him that “evaluation becomes a niggling irrelevance”.
August is Women in Translation month, or #WITmonth. Created and hosted by the tireless Meytal of Biblibio since 2014, and this year debuting a shiny new website, #WITmonth is just what it sounds like: a month celebrating women, transgender, and nonbinary authors who write in other languages. It’s also just a great way to discover books that are off the beaten path.
Due to unforeseen circumstances (my own poor planning), I will not be reading any women in translation this August. Deciding to read from the 1,001 Books list this summer was my first mistake. If you think the canon is bad for including women, wait until you see how many women writing in other languages there are! I’m not counting, but not many! So I will take this opportunity to hype the three qualifying books I read earlier this year.
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell: I’ve read all three of Schweblin’s books in English translation, and this may be an unpopular opinion, but I like Little Eyes the best. Fever Dream was a bit too vague for me, and Mouthful of Birds, like most story collections, suffered from unevenness. They were both a bit too showy with the magical realism as well. I’ve read a lot of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, so my expectations are pretty high on that front! But Little Eyesis the perfect blend of dystopia, speculative fiction, and character study. It’s also halfway between a novel and a story collection in a way that I found captivating. The premise, that a Furby-like toy could allow an anonymous person to watch your every move, lends itself to questions (would you try it? Would you be a keeper, who is watched, or a dweller, who watches?) and unexpected fallout for the keepers and dwellers we get to watch. This is as good as Margaret Atwood at her speculative best (and Schweblin doesn’t bristle *quite as much* at the genre label, though she doesn’t quite embrace it either).
The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison: It’s been several months since I finished this International Booker Prize winner, and I don’t think I’ve processed it, so there’s not a lot I can say, except that it’s one of the most powerful and bleak books I’ve ever read. Though I am seeing several parallels to my current read, Independent People by Halldór Laxness. Both are centered on isolated farming families who are barely hanging on financially, and are then struck by losses both animal and human. Laxness’ story is from the perspective of the patriarch (thus far) while Rijneveld gives us a child narrator. Coming of age, and father-daughter relationships, are also central to both. I’ll think about this more once I finish Independent People, but in the meantime, I can’t recommend The Discomfort of Evening enough, though I do suggest you brace yourself.
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen, translation from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman: I know these are memoirs, but they read like a more direct and subversive version of Neopolitan Novels. Less flowery and lyrical than I expected from a celebrated poet, but full of perfect images and sentences, I flew through this book and desperately wanted more. Ditlevsen was a prolific writer, but there’s not a lot more out there in English. Hopefully, the success of this trilogy will spur publishers and translators to give us more.
Tristram Shandy is a tough book to summarize, let alone in the couple of paragraphs granted each 1,001 Books entry. Contributor Drew Milne makes a good attempt, touching on the absurdities of a book about “the life and opinions” of a man who isn’t even born until several volumes in, and the experimental nature of Sterne’s writing, which acknowledges the futility of trying to capture life on the page.
In a nice contrast with the first of these comparisons, I completely agree with 1,001 Books contributor Anna Foca that Wise Children is a “joyously exuberant unraveling of purity, legitimacy, and other cultural fantasies” and that it “gleefully documents the comic hybridizing forces of worlds colliding”. I honestly don’t know that I can put it better than that.
The Fox is a borderline novella, 86 pages in my wide-margined and illustrated edition. The 1,001 Books write-up begins by contrasting the length of this book with Lawrence’s major works, calling it “too brief and too self-contained” to include much more than plot. I can’t argue that it’s brief, though I would argue that there’s plenty of the “symbolism and mysticism” the reviewer found lacking, right where you’d expect it – the titular fox, who poaches chickens from two women running a small farm, is transposed onto the returning WWI solider who disrupts their solitary life:
“But to March he was the fox. Whether is was the thrusting forward of his head, or the glisten of the fine whitish hairs on the ruddy cheek-bones, or the bright, keen eyes, that can never be said: but the boy was to her the fox, and she could not see him otherwise.”
“The book is always better than the movie” is right up there with “life’s too short to read books you don’t like” when it comes to embarrassing bookish sayings. The latter is subjective, but the former is asserted as a universally-acknowledged truth. The main gripe with film adaptations of beloved books is that they aren’t scene-for-scene re-creations, but why should they be? Different media, different techniques, and often, different audiences.
And in fact, several movies ARE better than the books, particularly when the plot is the point. A plot-heavy, thrilling story is often better told in a visual, fast-moving format. Like, say, Jurassic Park or The Bourne Identity? This isn’t a hill for me to die on, as I don’t read many thrillers (I’ve read neither of the above, I’ve just heard that Jurassic Park the novel is bad, and can’t imagine Bourne without Matt Damon), but it makes intuitive sense that some movies are better than the books upon which they’re based.
One of the most thrilling stories I’ve read in recent years was adapted into a movie last year, and while the movie is enjoyable, I urge you to read the book, whether before the movie, after, or even instead of.
“Calm with Horses” is a novella among short stories in Colin Barrett’s collection Young Skins. About 80 pages long, it reads like a novel, in that it’s a fully contained universe. It’s also a tightly-plotted story full of violence and reversals of fortune that seems ripe for a movie adaptation. The movie is, well, different. Upon first viewing, I told Rachel this felt like a different story with the same characters. After a second viewing, it feels like different characters in the same circumstances; the story takes a different turn because the characters react to those circumstances differently.
I didn’t read the book or film summary before starting this review, but they actually illuminate a lot of what went wrong in the adaptation. The book summary tell us about “Arm, a young and desperate criminal whose destiny is shaped when he and his partner, Dympna, fail to carry out a job” and, referring to the collection as a whole, the “local voice [that] delineates the grittiness of Irish society; unforgettable characters whose psychological complexities and unspoken yearnings are rendered through silence, humor, and violence.” In contrast, the movie tells us that “ex-boxer Douglas `Arm’ Armstrong has become the feared enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers family, whilst also trying to be a good father to his autistic five-year-old son, Jack.” It’s that “trying to be a good father” that already tells us there’s going to fewer “psychological complexities” and believe me, everyone’s yearnings are spoken.
The first bad sign I became aware of was the title change for the North American market. “Calm with Horses” has that “cellar door” quality, it just feels good to say. “The Shadow of Violence” on the other hand, sounds like a generic crime movie. Which this is not. Or shouldn’t be. Even the movie posters have a distinctly different feel:
Or, let’s be realistic, 10 books of summer if I’m lucky. Last year I made a stack of twenty books, read ten (eventually), and reviewed four (the last review appearing in December). Let’s see how my late pandemic brain does compared to my early pandemic brain, I guess?
If you’re not familiar with this event, Cathy of 746 Books is our host and it’s as simple as it sounds. You have from June 1 through September 1 to read and review your books, but there’s lots of flexibility in terms of quantity, substitutions, and the definition of “summer” (good thing, we have snow in the forecast!)
This event is being hosted by Cathy of 746 Books, who is known for celebrating all things literary and Irish. Moore’s Irish connections are always jarring to me, as he’s well known as a Canadian author here. In reality, he was a wanderer, living in many places in Europe and North America, and spent more time in the United States than anywhere. So I guess it’s not that odd that I read a “New Canadian Library” edition of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a book about Ireland, with an afterword by Australian writer Janette Turner Hospital. Actually, Hospital lived in Ontario for thirty years, later moving to the States, sharing a claim on Canadian identity and a nomadic spirit with Moore.
Hospital uses that connection, and familiarity with being “from away”, to bring forth themes of displacement in her brief afterword to this edition. Miss Hearne lives a very circumscribed life in Belfast, but Hospital shows us that she actually goes on an epic journey, including romance, hope, dashed expectations, and a crisis of faith. The afterword was illuminating, but to me the more interesting themes were those of hunger, desire, and rage – or, you know, passion – and specifically the rage of the middle aged woman. These themes reminded me of Jean Rhys’s writing, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that the same editor who shepherded Wide Sargasso Sea into the world, Diana Athill, was a champion of this book.
Miss Hearne’s dreary bedsit put me in mind of Good Morning, Midnight‘s heroine Sasha’s awful hotel rooms. Both characters are without family, of little means, near starving, drink to excess and fall prey to depraved men. If anything, Sasha had less hope than Miss Hearne, lacking an object for her anger (other than herself), with no church to storm and no one to ask for forgiveness. Sasha had only lately fallen on hard times, while Miss Hearne had been sidelined her whole life, first by her tyrannical Aunt, and then by poverty. In The Lonely Passion, we see a woman who has been made invisible her whole life finally demand to be seen.
I have mixed feelings about tags, but I love that this one is straightforward and book focused (none of that “name a book that has an orange tea cup on the cover” or whatever), and I was tagged by the lovely Naty, so here we are!
Give at least one recommendation for each of the prompts below
If you don’t have a recommendation, talk about a book you want to read
Tag your friends
I will additionally challenge myself to mention recently read books, or at least, ones I haven’t talked about much.
A book about friendship
Days by Moonlight by André Alexis is a roadtrip novel about unlikely friends. A troubled young man accompanies an older friend of his deceased parents on a quest to find a reclusive poet, and their travels through Ontario take them to some weird places. I was about to call it a fever dream of a novel, when I remembered their destination ends up being a town called Feversham. Alexis is the type of author who can pull this off.