Friday, 24 February 2017

A year in reading - part 1

A year in reading - part 1 · Lisa Hjalt

Here it is, the blog entry I have wondered whether to write or not, the one with comments on a few books that appeared on my 2016 reading lists. First I thought of writing these notes in a comment under the list in question but later thought it best to keep them separate. I see no reason to repeat comments that I have already made on certain books, or to comment here on the ones I reread; I only read books again if I like them or they hold a special place in my heart.

Speaking of rereading books: Scottish author Ali Smith was recently featured in the 'By the Book' column (NYT), where she said something that reasoned with me:
[A] rereading can feel like a first-time read in itself, which is another great thing about books and time; we think we know them, but as we change with time, so do they, with us. (Sunday Book Review, 12 Feb. 2017)
I saw this feature a couple of days ago and noticed that she mentioned the book Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. If you are following me on Instagram you may have seen it in a photo I shared last Sunday. It so happens that I borrowed it at the library on Saturday and it will be on my next reading list.

Below are some of my ideas about books that appeared on my № 1, 2 and 3 reading lists. On my first list I included design books but later decided to only include novels, auto/biographies, travel books, etc. Let me add that it's not my intention to steer you away from the books I unfavourably comment on, or those I didn't finish. Our literary tastes are different, so are our cultural and social backgrounds, and I certainly don't want to appear as an authority on what to read and not to read. However, I know that I have blog readers who are using my lists as a guide to books, which is why I think it only fair to mention those that perhaps didn't live up to my expectations.

№ 1 reading list (2 of 8):
· The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski. I read a few chapters before putting it away, only because Africa by John Reader has been on my list for some time and I wanted to read it before reading other Africa-related books on my to-read list. Polish journalist Kapuscinski covered Africa for decades and I believe that one day I will pick up his book again and finish it.
· The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. The biggest disappointment of my 2016 reads. Started brilliantly with an observant and humorous Theroux - I could hardly put it down. At some point his tone becomes annoying, as if all he can do is complain. I lost both my interest and patience, and tossed it. A travel writer that doesn't inspire me to travel has no place in my bookish heart.

№ 2 reading list (1 of 6):
· Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady. Lost my patience and gave up. Way too revealing and not in a good way. The times were different but it astonished me how she allowed Neal to disrespectfully treat her right from the start of their relationship. The first chapters are a good lesson in how not to pick a husband.
[Another from the list: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (see separate blog entry).]

№ 3 reading list (2 of 6):
· Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir. The first volume of her autobiography, in which she covers her early life, her childhood in Paris and her Sorbonne years. My only fault with it was her serious narrative; her tone of voice was too intellectual for a child but fitted better as she grew older. The other volumes will appear on my reading lists in the future.
· Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. In my opinion, overrated. In the beginning the narrator is a young girl which means an easy read with a simple vocabulary, and there is plenty of humour (the mother is priceless!). The author lost me when I reached the last third or fourth part of the book (when the girl leaves home); the narrative became sloppy somehow. This was one of those books that I really wanted to like and be able to recommend but it left me rather disappointed.

'Part 2' is coming soon, with comments on a few books from the № 4, 5 and 6 reading lists.

[Update: click here for part 2.]

Monday, 13 February 2017

A last sentence by Tanizaki | Virginia Woolf

A last sentence by Tanizaki | Virginia Woolf · Lisa Hjalt

I don't know about you but in bookshops I often find myself reading the first sentence of a book or its first paragraph; never the last sentence, as it could give away the ending, but I know people who do. In January I finished reading The Makioka Sisters by the Japanese writer Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965), translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (an Everyman's Library edition). Without giving away its plot, I have to share with you the book's last sentence: 'Yukiko's diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo' (p. 498).

Do you need to read it again? I did.

Usually when I finish reading a book I contemplate on the characters, plot, theme, etc., and perhaps write a few lines in my notebook. This time my mind was going, Okay, is there a chapter missing? Is this the ending? I honestly turned the book upside down - I believe I even shook it gently - in the attempt to find that missing final chapter. And when I realised that this was it, this was indeed the last sentence, I just burst out laughing. This is the single most memorable last sentence I have ever come across.

I'm still looking at that page and laughing; this last sentence is so unexpected.

The prose of The Makioka Sisters is very calm (during the reading I told friends it often felt like meditation). I don't remember a book with such a quiet prose. It's quite long, divided into three books, but I enjoyed it. Basically, it's about the search of the Makioka family for a husband for the third sister so they can marry off the fourth and youngest, who already has a suitor. The theme is like any Jane Austen novel but the style is completely different. It's an interesting social study of Japan, its culture and customs, in a certain era: It starts in 1936 and ends in April 1941; Europe is already at war but the attack on Pearl Harbor hasn't happened. When you finish reading the book you know that there are major changes ahead.

The Makioka Sisters was on my № 6 reading list and I told you then that I was noting down ideas for a Japanese list. On that one you will find The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese classic from the 11th century, often referred to as the world's first novel, translated by Tanizaki into modern Japanese. On the list you will also find Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles - I won't tell you more until I share it.

From a Virginia Woolf feature, 'Bloomsbury & Beyond', Harpar's Bazaar UK, March 2017, pp. 324-25

You may already have seen the Vanessa Bell feature I shared on Instagram last week, from the March 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar UK. It's been months since I last bought a fashion magazine but almost ran to the shop when I learned that the cultural section of this one included both Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf. The Woolf feature is called 'Bloomsbury & Beyond' and opens with a photo of her desk at Monk's House, her home in Sussex (spotted in my top image), and ends with her short story The Lady in the Looking Glass, which appeared in the magazine's January 1930 issue. An inexpensive Penguin edition of The Lady in the Looking Glass also includes her stories A Society, The Mark on the Wall, Solid Objects, and Lappin and Lapinova. The last one appeared in the April 1939 issue, which you can spot in the top-left corner of my image above. If short stories are your thing I believe all the ones by Woolf are available online.

images by me | credit: Harper's Bazaar UK, March 2017 · Harry Cory Wright | map of France from the book Map Stories: The Art of Discovery by Francisca Mattéoli (Octopus Publishing Group) © Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

№ 7 reading list | Vanessa Bell exhibition

№ 7 reading list | Vanessa Bell exhibition · Lisa Hjalt

In an old notebook of mine there is a quote that always makes me laugh. Actress Emma Thompson was featured in NYT 's By the Book and when asked about the last book that had made her cry, she said: 'I was on holiday years ago with “Corelli’s Mandolin.” Rendered inconsolable and had to be put to bed for the afternoon' (Sunday Book Review, 23.09.2012). I adore Emma Thompson. It's time for another reading list and Bernières's book is on it, a Vintage Books edition, beautifully illustrated by Rob Ryan. There is also a novel by my favourite Icelandic author, Sigurdur Palsson, whom I often spotted at cafés in Reykjavik, always impeccably dressed, usually wearing a patterned silk scarf or a beret (he studied in France). I have already mentioned Doris Lessing and me rereading Little Women. Here is the № 7 reading list, the first of 2017 (for convenience I have numbered the lists):

· Fictions  by Jorge Luis Borges
· The Grass is Singing  by Doris Lessing
· The Golden Notebook  by Doris Lessing
· Captain Corelli's Mandolin  by Louis De Bernières
· Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend  by Diana Athill
· Local Souls  by Allan Gurganus
· Parísarhjól  by Sigurður Pálsson (Icelandic)
· Little Women  by Louisa May Alcott
· In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris, 1900-1910  by Sue Roe

I almost feel guilty for not having read Athill's memoir, Instead of a Letter, but when I saw Instead of a Book on sale at Waterstones I knew it was going on my list. It contains the letters she wrote for over thirty years to the American poet Edward Field, who kept them and wanted them published. In the introduction, Athill wittily observes:
Usually when someone's letters are published the writer is dead. In this case there was a problem: Edward is six years younger than I am, but since I'm ninety-three that doesn't make him young. If he waited until I was dead he might be dead too. (p. vii)
Kudos to writers who crack you up in a bookshop! Gurganus is an author I have never read. I bought his book after listening to Michael Silverblatt's conversation with him on the Bookworm (from Nov. 2013) and ended up listening to all their conversations. I thought about keeping it on the shelf until I had read Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, but it kept pulling and on the list it went. I was delighted to find Roe's book at that library. At this point I cannot say much about it, but I do wish it had more illustrations (in my image you see Modigliani's painting Caryatid, 1911).

Vanessa Bell, Nude with Poppies, 1916

Sometimes I wish I lived closer to the London area. If I did I would hop on a train to see the Vanessa Bell exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery that opens today (a short train ride from central London). Artist Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) belonged to the bohemian Bloomsbury group and was Virginia Woolf's sister (the photo of her in my image above is taken at Charleston in 1925). The exhibition closes on the 4th of June. There is an accompanying publication, Vanessa Bell, edited by Sarah Milroy (Philip Wilson Publishers) that I would like to have. If you are a Bell fan perhaps the March 2017 collectors' edition of Harper's Bazaar UK will interest you, exclusively available at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

PS. Thanks to blogger Diana Mieczan of exPress-o for her delightful entry about my blog. She is correct, my coffee cup is almost every time set on a cloth napkin. I have been doing this for a long time and like to believe the coffee tastes better.

top image by me | photo of Vanessa Bell appears in the book Charleston: A Bloomsbury House & Garden | Amedeo Modigliani's painting appears in the book In Montmartre © Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris | Vanessa Bell art via Art UK © 1961 estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett, Swindon Art Gallery

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Map Stories by Francisca Mattéoli

Book review: Map Stories by Francisca Mattéoli · Lisa Hjalt

Remember your first world atlas, your very own? Apart from images of the globe, the cover of mine was black with white letters. I was ten or eleven years old and devoured it. Maps have a strange attraction and seem to offer a possibility of great adventures. I have always had a soft spot for vintage maps, especially the illustrated ones that are far-off geographically. Throw in sea monsters and sailing ships and they become even more enchanting. You can only imagine my excitement when a few months ago I received the latest book by travel writer Francisca Mattéoli, Map Stories: The Art of Discovery, published by Octopus (Ilex). Through a wonderful collection of historical maps and twenty-three stories, Mattéoli takes us on an adventure all over the globe where we meet cartographers, geographers, explorers and dreamers. For me it sometimes felt as if entering a dimension where Bilbo Baggins meets Indiana Jones.

Map of the Nile Valley drawn up by Nicolas de Fer and published in 1720, pp. 44-45

Mattéoli isn't a scholar in the field of geography and her book shouldn't be read as a textbook. In the preface she writes: 'It is a book that invites the reader on a journey from map to map, to let their imagination run free' (p. 7). That's indeed the book's charm.

Mattéoli's journey starts with the rediscovery of the lost city of Petra and ends in China via the Silk Road. In between we find ourselves on the Inca trail, on the mysterious site of Machu Picchu; racing to the South Pole; on Route 66; searching for the source of the Nile River; on board the Orient Express; perhaps wondering if Nessie the monster is hiding somewhere in Loch Ness. These are only some of the destinations.

Map Stories by Francisca Mattéoli · Lisa Hjalt
Planisphere by the Venetian monk Fra Mauro, c. 1449, pp. 100-101

Depending on your interests and historical knowledge, some of the twenty-three stories will be more familiar than others and some might teach you something new. I was intrigued by the one about the search for the source of the Nile River - the expedition of Richard Burton and John Speke - that reads somewhat like a mystery with a dramatic ending. The following is a description (from a photo) of the Map Room of the Royal Geographical Society:
[It] is plunged in a dusty half-light and decorated with maps, as one might expect. An enormous terrestrial globe fills one corner. On the upper floor, dark wood shelves are stacked with carefully arranged documents and books. On the ground floor, two large display cabinets protect the most precious objects and on a long table standing in the center of the room, pages lie spread out as if waiting to be consulted by some very serious gentleman. This was the setting that would soon be at the heart of the scandal. It was here, or at least in a similar room of this distinguished institution founded in 1830 that, around a hundred years ago, a disagreement broke out regarding the source of this fabled river, which would soon turn into a downright controversy and then a brutal confrontation. (p. 42)

Map of the South Pole, 1912, pp. 120-121

Some of the adventurers we meet on Mattéoli's journey are Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who was the first to reach the South Pole, and Peter Fleming (brother of Ian Fleming), who in 1932 joined an Amazon expedition after seeing an advertisement in The Times (his book Brazilian Adventure, first published in 1933, is still in print).

Map Stories enables us to admire the work of famous cartographers like Fra Mauro (see my 2nd image above), Fernão (Fernando) Vaz Dourado, Nicolas de Fer (see Nile Valley map above), Willem Blaeu and his son Joan, Martin Behaim, Pedro Reinel and Lopo Homem, Jodocus Hondius, Guillaume Le Testu, and John Speed, just to name a few.

I believe this book has something for everyone. And if you find yourself online looking up old travel trunks, or other vintage travel paraphernalia, I completely understand.

Map of Chile, 1884, p. 157

I am particularly fond of the design of the book that is a beautiful addition to my coffee table. The map on the cover is embossed and the endpapers are an old world map with illustrations of principal mountains and basins of rivers (see map). The layout of the text is clear and at the top of the left pages are the coordinates for the place being discussed. The maps are either on a single page or spread across two. I wanted to cut some of them out and frame them, which, unfortunately, would have ruined the book.

Travel writer Francisca Mattéoli
Travel writer Francisca Mattéoli is the author of many books, which have been translated into many languages. She has also written travel pieces for magazines, including National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveller, and Air France Magazine. Her personal blog is written in both French and English. She resides in Paris but was actually brought up in South America with Chilean nationality (Scottish mother). She is already working on her next book.

Map Stories: The Art of Discovery
By Francisca Mattéoli
Hardcover, 176 pages, illustrated

Map Stories by Francisca Mattéoli · Lisa Hjalt
Part of a map of Europe for use in primary education, dating from 1880, p. 143

images by me | except for No. 2, 4-6, courtesy of Octopus Publishing Group (No. 5 edited by me) | maps - credit: No. 1 (cover) © akg-images/North Wind Picture Archives; No. 2, 4-5, 7 © Bibliothèque Nationale de France; No. 3 © akg-images/British Library