Monday, 1 October 2018

№ 16 reading list | Black History Month (UK)

№ 16 reading list | Black History Month (UK) · Lisa Hjalt


Libraries are my happy place. Or so I thought. Last week I was at the library with a notebook, in which I have written down some of the titles I would like to read. As you can imagine, on my way there I was like a little kid going to Disneyland. As I walked up the stairs and entered the floor of the humanities (this is the university library, it's big), I was in a state of bliss, walking between the rows of bookshelves. Browsing books, touching books. Removing books from the reading list I already had in my mind to make space for books that demanded to be on it. Putting books back on the list to perhaps remove them again. Normal library behaviour.

Then something happened, something I was not prepared for: I experienced a moment of panic. For a few seconds, as I stood by the first row of shelves of American fiction, it suddenly dawned on me how many books there were on that floor, on all those shelves: In this lifetime I would never be able to finish my to-read list, which keeps getting longer. I cannot be the only book lover who has experienced this fear. No way. There better be an afterlife, with a library that has all your unread titles just waiting for you. There better be.

№ 16 reading list:
· Blue Nights  by Joan Didion
· Go Tell It on the Mountain  by James Baldwin
· Sing, Unburied, Sing  by Jesmyn Ward
· The Human Stain  by Philip Roth
· Stet  by Diana Athill
· Train Dreams  by Denis Johnson
· The Bookshop  by Penelope Fitzgerald
· Do Not Say We Have Nothing  by Madeleine Thien
· The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick  (ed. by D. Pinckney)


On Saturday - you may have seen it on Instagram already - I read Didion's memoir Blue Nights in one go. She wrote the book after the death of her daughter Quintana, who was only 39 when she died. (She wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after the death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne.) I liked Blue Nights. It's not a sob story that makes you reach for the tissue. Didion's style isn't emotionally overloaded. She is just trying to make sense of it all. Trying to find answers to questions that cannot be answered.

October is Black History Month in the UK (February in the US). I'm showing my support with two novels on the list, by James Baldwin and Jesmyn Ward. She won The National Book Award 2017 for Sing, Unburied, Sing. It was her second win; in 2011 she won for Salvage the Bones.


Thursday, 13 September 2018

Reading journal 2017: Roy, Mahfouz, Athill ...

Reading journal 2017: Roy, Mahfouz, Athill · Lisa Hjalt


I had almost forgotten how much I enjoy September, mainly stolen moments on the patio with books and coffee. Reading under the awning, viewing new books online or listening to books podcasts, hours can pass without me even noticing it. As long as no one interrupts. Yesterday, two longlists for the 2018 National Book Awards were announced. I was excited about the translated literature, which is a new category. In my notebook I had already written down two books on the list: Disoriental by the French-Iranian Négar Djavadi and Flights by the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk (her book won The Man Booker International Prize). Today they announce the longlists for poetry and non-fiction, and tomorrow for fiction. If you are looking for reading ideas you may want to take a look. A few words about my 'Reading journal': If I don't like a book that appeared on one of my reading lists don't let it discourage you from reading it. I have my own opinions and tastes, but I'm not interested in telling you what to read and not to read. As long as people are reading and books are being published, I'm content.

№ 11 reading list (6 of 9):

· The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. I wish I could tell you that I liked this novel, her first in twenty years, but I didn't even finish it, gave up around page 200. It's political, which doesn't surprise when the author is a known activist. However, it felt as if she were trying to cast a light on every single social problem in India, as if I were encountering a new one on every page. Perhaps readers who have kept up with Roy's non-fiction and activism are better equipped with understanding what she's trying to convey in this novel. In my opinion, the style felt overloaded and chaotic. From what I read I cannot recommend this novel but I liked her first, The God of Small Things, which won the 1997 Man Booker Prize.

· Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. Unfortunately, because of our move from the UK, I had to return the book to the library before I could finish it (I have about 150 pages left). Nobel Laureate Mahfouz is a wonderful storyteller and this book is the first in his Cairo trilogy. It starts in the city in 1917, where we follow the life of the Al Jawad family. The father is a tyrant who goes from one extreme to the other: at home he uses the teachings of the Koran to control and oppress his family, while at night he abandons his 'beliefs' to discover the pleasures of the city. This book isn't always a fun read and it has its share of Muslim stereotypes. It has pushed many of my buttons and taken me through the entire emotional scale, but I'm definitely going to finish the reading. And then I intend to read the other two books, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street.

· The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch. I also had to return this one to the library and I hadn't read that much to be able to talk about it in detail. I will pick up another copy later and perhaps comment on it.

· Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The prose of this epistolary novel is beautiful. To tell you more about it I think it's best to quote President Obama in conversation with the author back in 2015:
I first picked up Gilead, one of your most wonderful books, here in Iowa. ... And I’ve told you this—one of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named John Ames, who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through. And I was just—I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book.
For the entire conversation, please follow this link: The New York Review of Books. I highly recommend Gilead for readers who are not always looking for a plot or action.

· Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. I have already told you about the setting of this second novel of the Israeli writer and how it came to me. If it weren't for its introspective passages, which slow things down, it would read like a typical thriller: A doctor driving home from his shift accidentally kills a man with his SUV and flees the scene. When the dead man's wife shows up at his door you know that his life is about to change drastically. I won't say more. (Translated by Sondra Silverston.)

· Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill. This was a rather disappointing memoir, mainly for its uninteresting content, not the writing itself. She spends the first hundred pages or so talking about her childhood and then she goes to Oxford. There are so many pages wasted on an engagement that ended - I failed to sympathise with it - and her sex life in her 20s, which probably shocked some readers in 1962 when the book was published originally. It hardly raises eyebrows for modern readers. For me, it wasn't until towards the end, in chapter 14 which starts on page 168 (of 224), that the book became interesting, when she stepped into the world of publishing. The final pages of the memoir turn into some kind of a travelogue and the writing feels slightly scattered. I have already started reading her second memoir Stet. It focuses on her life as editor at André Deutsch (a publishing company no longer operating) and has received much praise. You will find it on my next reading list.

image by me, appeared on Instagram, 04/09/2018


Friday, 24 August 2018

Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson

Book review: Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson · Lisa Hjalt


Can I tempt you with a captivating book cover and great content? Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson is a book about his adventurous and dangerous travels in Pakistan, where he covered the War on Terror for The Daily Telegraph. Wilkinson is an excellent pen, witty and observant, free of the egoistical style that sometimes characterises travelogues. He takes the reader all over Pakistan and shares insightful accounts of its exotic culture ('the mysterious world that I was so eager to capture before it disappeared'). The author understands and cares deeply for the country, but isn't blind to its problems. This was my favourite read of 2017. It's now available in paperback and I urge you to grab a copy if travel writing is your genre.

In the book Wilkinson shows us the range of Pakistani society; people going about their daily lives, holy men, warlords, crooks, and other oddities in a country that is changing fast. His approach is educating, unpretentious and fun. Here he visits an old fort close to a tribal area:
Sitting in the courtyard, I could almost feel the modern age clamouring at its walls, wanting to bash down its gates and slay its lord, who I imagined would have gone without a murmur, accepting his fate as the natural order of things.
He is true to his subject and doesn't judge harshly. His observations of people and places ring true. There are literary references in the book and this one made me laugh: he has a meeting with a 'bloody-minded tyrant' who refuses to 'go gentle into that good night'. I never thought I would associate poet Dylan Thomas with a feudal warlord in the Baluchistan region! By the way, the warlord dies. Sometimes the book reads like fiction; in excitement I turned its pages almost holding my breath. At some point I had to remind myself that there would be no book if the author hadn't survived the ordeal. This book is for readers who want to see a different side of Pakistan than the one reflected in Hollywood productions. This is real stuff.

Book review: Travels in a Dervish Cloak by Isambard Wilkinson · Lisa Hjalt
A photograph in the book by Chev Wilkinson: A teacher and his pupils in Kashmir, 2005

If you follow the world news you probably know that a new government has been formed in Pakistan, led by Imran Khan who seems committed to reform. (If we look at the current occupier of the White House I guess a former cricket player for PM isn't the worst option for a nation.) I still remember the shocking news in December 2007 when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated while rallying in Rawalpindi. It always felt promising to me that a female had served as PM of a Muslim state, twice. Two months earlier, Wilkinson was close to the horrific scene in Karachi when she survived a bombing, but in Ireland when her injuries were fatal. He had been expelled from Pakistan for an editorial about then-President Pervez Musharraf, but allowed to return the following January. His horrible driver greeted him at the airport with 'hideous orange flowers'.

The driver Allah Ditta is one of the book's many colourful characters. His name means 'Gift from God' and I can only say that God must have a weird sense of humour. His cook Basil is no better. These two do not get along and the result is hilarious domestic warfare in the Wilkinson's household. My personal favourite is his brother Chev:
'You can't hang about here like a mixture of a wannabe Lord Byron and Lord Fauntleroy waiting for the next cup of tea or bout of diarrhoea. Pick a spot on the map and let's be off,' he said. ... His presence was reassuring. He's always stuck by me, whatever my failings. He doesn't mind sharing a bed with me, as long as there's a pillow between us lest I grow amorous in my sleep. And he's good at pointing out if I have food round my mouth before I interview people.
Chev, a photographer, is the ideal travel companion. More importantly, when Wilkinson is forced to leave Pakistan because of kidney failure we learn that it was Chev who saved his life: He donated a kidney.

I wish I could tell you that another travelogue was already in the making but Wilkinson has had two kidney transplants and probably won't be venturing into unsafe places. I thoroughly enjoyed the rich storytelling of Travels in a Dervish Cloak, a book full of wit and spices, which was shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award. If you judge a book by its cover I can assure you that this one delivers.


Travels in a Dervish Cloak
By Isambard Wilkinson
Eland
Hardcover, 256 pages, illustrated
Buy hardcover | paperback


images by me | black & white photograph by the author's brother, Chev Wilkinson | cover illustration: Dorry Spikes


Friday, 17 August 2018

Reading journal 2017: Modiano, DeLillo, Bedford ...

Reading journal 2017: Modiano, DeLillo, Bedford ... · Lisa Hjalt


What are you reading these days? I'm reading The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal from my latest reading list and already looking forward to sharing my next one. You see, I just purchased books and I also found plenty of books that I have wanted to read in the library's online catalogue, e.g. Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop. I doubt the film release has escaped any book lover. I love it when the world of literature appears on the screen and cannot wait to see Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in The Wife, based on Meg Wolitzer's novel. Enough about literary films for now, let's continue with the '2017 Reading journal'.

№ 10 reading list (7 of 9):

· The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. There are some fine stories in this collection but, in my opinion, the title story stands out: A novella with an air so thick you can almost touch it, touch the tension on the horizon. This quote says it all: 'This was not a fight to hash over and talk about afterwards; people went home and pulled the covers up over their heads.' The main character, Miss Amelia Evans, will permanently be etched on my memory.

· Patrick Modiano: Two books by the French novelist and Nobel laureate were on the list, Pedigree (translated by Mark Polizzotti) and In the Café of Lost Youth (translated by Euan Cameron). The former is the author’s personal story, about his parents. I didn't write down any quotes in my journal, only that the book felt sad. The latter immediately transported me to the streets of Paris. For me, Modiano's writing is more about mood than story. Reading him often feels like watching a film; he makes certain characters very vivid on the page without verbosity. The book I want to read next is The Occupation Trilogy.

· Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. This short novel is one of those that isn't everyone's cup of tea. It didn't grab me on the first page but the more I read, the more I got hooked on the prose. It's a conversation between Marco Polo and the Mongolian ruler Kublai Khan. Polo is describing the cities he has visited, when in fact he is always describing the same city, Venice. (Translated by William Weaver.)

· Stoner by John Williams. I loved this book. Loved William Stoner but couldn't stand his wife, a character that pushed all my buttons. Stoner is a poor Missouri farm boy who enters university and discovers literature. Those scenes are the book's beauty, a thrill for bookworms. However, Stoner's life is filled with disappointments, so much so that it can drag the reader down. It might be the reason why the book wasn't a success, which is the subject of this interesting article that appeared in The New Yorker.

· Point Omega by Don DeLillo. This short novel went straight to the list of my favourite reads in 2017. I loved the writing; its texture. The story mainly takes place in the Californian desert and turns into a mystery when one of the characters disappears. I intend to buy myself a copy one day and read it again.

· Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education by Sybille Bedford. It's not easy to write about this partly autobiographical novel in a few words. If you read it I find it likely that it will stay with you. Bedford grew up in Germany with her father and with her mother in Italy after his death. She was educated in England and spent the 1920s travelling between England and the south of France (her mother and stepfather had moved there to escape the rise of fascism). Despite being completely unreliable and flawed, her mother is a fascinating character with great interest in literature ('I must have read (with earnest marginal notes) and my mother re-read half of Balzac, most of Maupassant, some Zola ...'). In France, the family lived a cultural, bohemian life; their circle of friends included the Huxleys (Aldous Huxley was Bedford's mentor; she wrote his authorised biography). This is a coming-of-age story set between two world wars but it's so much more than that.

image by me, appeared on Instagram, 27/06/2017


Thursday, 2 August 2018

№ 15 reading list | #WITMonth

№ 15 reading list  | #WITMonth · Lisa Hjalt


A heatwave has set in. I hope we will be rid of it soon, for I cannot read in this heat, cannot concentrate. I was born close to the Arctic Circle, for crying out loud, I don't do heatwaves. These days we use ice cream and TV shows to cope. The reading list, which I meant to share sooner, has gone through many changes: I have e.g. removed two rereads and The Human Stain by the deceased Philip Roth. The library didn't have it so Roth will have to wait.

№ 15 reading list:
· Enduring Love  by Ian McEwan
· Draft No. 4  by John McPhee
· Under the 82nd Airborne  by Deborah Eisenberg *
· The Hare with Amber Eyes  by Edmund de Waal
· Cheerful Weather for the Wedding  by Julia Strachey **
· Comet in Moominland  by Tove Jansson **

* My copy is unavailable. The link leads to a different collection, which contains the same stories. ** Rereadings.

I bought John McPhee's book in spring and finished it weeks ago, but I wanted to include it on the list; recommend it to anyone interested in writing. It's not a typical writing style guide with examples and bullet points, but a collection of essays. Professor McPhee uses personal anecdotes to share his insights into creative nonfiction, as he refers to it. On the list is artist Edmund de Waal's family biography. It was textile designer Lisa Fine who recommended the book here on the blog and it's time to read the copy I purchased in Scotland last summer.


August is Women in Translation Month, presented with the #WITMonth tag on social media. It was blogger Meytal Radzinski of Bibliobio who took the iniative and introduced it in 2014. I have never partaken in it, probably because being an Icelander I have been reading translated books by women (and men) since I can remember. Reading translations comes natural for people born in countries where English isn't the mother tongue. To acknowledge #WITMonth I decided to add one Moomin book to the reading list: Comet in Moominland by Finnish author Tove Jansson, translated by Elizabeth Portch.

A fun fact: The Icelandic word for a comet is halastjarna, literally a star (stjarna) with a tail (hali). In Iceland the book is called Halastjarnan (the definite article) and was translated by the late Steinunn S. Briem, a woman who was a prolific translator.