Friday, 23 March 2018

№ 14 reading list | Non-fiction in spring

№ 14 reading list | Non-fiction in spring · Lisa Hjalt

A fool's errand to the University Library is the reason for my sharing the № 14 reading list later than intended. I went there to borrow the books by Martin Amis and Joan Didion - I wanted to photograph the entire stack of books - but I forgot a paper one needs to collect the library card. I still haven't had time to go back but thought it best to share the list before I finish reading the other books on it, all non-fiction. Every now and then I leaf through the notebook containing the books I want to read (I'm constantly adding more titles) and try to prioritise; Amis's The War Against Cliché is one of those books and I wanted to reread Didion's The White Album. Some may ask why waste time rereading books when there are so many unread. Well, I believe some books demand rereading. I haven't read everything by Didion, but let's say it's on my list. The publishing house Diogenes provided the German book on the list and for that I would like to thank them. It's a delightful read, with stories related to bookshops (see further below).

№ 14 reading list:
· The Prime of Life  by Simone de Beauvoir
· Letters to Friends, Family & Editors  by Franz Kafka
· The White Album  by Joan Didion
· The War Against Cliché  by Martin Amis
· Der schönste Ort der Welt: Von Menschen in Buchhandlungen  (German)
· Þúsund kossar  by Jón Gnarr (Icelandic, 'Thousand Kisses')
· Orðið á götunni  by Margrét Bjarnadóttir (Icelandic, 'The Word on the Street')

To embrace my inner bibliophile, and to improve my German, I was grateful to receive a book from the Diogenes Verlag to add to the list: Der schönste Ort der Welt: Von Menschen in Buchhandlungen. In English the title reads: 'The Most Beautiful Place in the World: From People in Bookshops'. It contains twenty bookshop stories collected by Martha Schoknecht, narrated by authors Mark Twain, Penelope Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert, Patricia Highsmith, and Ingrid Noll, to name a few. For those of you who have read, and hopefully loved, Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road (for more, see my blog entry), I was delighted to find in the book some of the letters she wrote to and received from the Marks & Co. booksellers in London. She is just as wonderful and funny in German.

As someone who admits to often judging a book by its cover, I have to comment on the book design. Whenever I enter a bookshop here in Germany I cannot help but swoon over the white paperbacks published by Diogenes. The cover of this book is especially beautiful: a vibrant and colourful painting, Union Square Bookstore, by artist Patti Mollica.

Bookshop stories, Der schönste Ort der Welt: Von Menschen in Buchhandlungen, published by Diogenes · Lisa Hjalt
Bookshop stories, Der schönste Ort der Welt, published by Diogenes

A note on the Icelandic books: The first is Jóga's memoir, who is a well-known massager in Iceland and, among other things, ran a popular and unique clothing boutique in Reykjavik. As a young woman she was seriously injured in a car accident in the US, followed by a legal battle, which drastically changed her life. The book is written by her husband Jón Gnarr, a famous actor and comedian; from 2010-14 he was the Mayor of Reykjavik. The second book is quite an interesting piece of work by Margrét Bjarnadóttir (who happens to be the sister of a dear friend, who gave me the two books). During the period of May 2009 to December 2013 she collected phrases that she overheard on the street, at cafés, etc. Each page has one entry. Usually it's just a short sentence or a question, and this makes such a fun read and philosophical.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Reading journal 2017: Japanese literature I

Reading journal 2017: Japanese literature I · Lisa Hjalt

In the coming weeks I intend to do my best to wrap up my '2017 Reading journal' and today I'm sharing my thoughts on the books that appeared on my first list of Japanese literature. It always gives me pleasure learning that my blog readers are actually using my lists as a guide to books; even more so when they have read and enjoyed them. I have already been asked when I will be sharing the second Japanese list and my reason for postponing it is the fact that I still haven't finished The Tale of Genji (see below). The draft of my second list contains The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, another classic from a lady of the court, and I want to finish Genji before I read that one. This means that my blog readers will have to wait a little longer.

№ 9 reading list:

· First Snow on Fuji by Yasunari Kawabata. During the reading, I had the feeling that my limited knowledge of Japanese culture stood in the way of me fully enjoying this collection of stories. I also felt that I first should have read some of Kawabata's novels (one will appear on my second Japanese list, and some day I will very likely return to this story collection). There were mainly three stories that appealed to me: 'Silence', 'Nature', and one that gives the book its title, 'First Snow on Fuji'. The Fuji one remains my favourite, about two former lovers who go on a trip together, where the mountain can be seen from the train window. (Translated by Michael Emmerich.)

· The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima. When I shared the list I was about halfway through the novel and told you about its, what I found to be, repulsive protagonist. Mishima has turned into fiction the story of the monk who set fire to the Golden Pavilion back in 1950. I don't think I have ever been as repelled by a fictional character. I had zero sympathy for the guy and the more I read, the more I loathed him. That is probably the book's brilliance. I cannot say it was a fun read. An interesting read would better describe my reading experience. (Translated by Ivan Morris.)

· Some Prefer Nettles by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. A short novel about cultural conflicts, in which the old Japan meets the new. It gives you a glimpse into the Japanese puppet theatre. Apart from the ambiguous ending, I liked it, I liked the prose, but I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to his work. The Makioka Sisters remains my favourite Tanizaki, and one of my all-time favourite books. (Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker.)

· The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. On the reading list I had two translations and ended up buying the one by Edward G. Seidensticker, an Everyman's Library publication. As I said above, I haven't finished it. Not that it doesn't appeal to me, I simply felt I needed a reading companion to understand the world it describes. A long time ago, I enrolled in a world literature course that I didn't finish and Genji was on the curriculum. I realised I still had access to the lectures and material online so I decided to pause my reading. Unfortunately, the course didn't cover the book chapter for chapter, but the lectures gave me a better insight into its world. Now I like reading one or two chapters at a time and contemplate on them before continuing. The book is a mix of prose and poems and depicts ancient Japanese culture (the Heian era), the politics and society of the court. These customs were completely foreign to me, but now the book has begun to make more sense. I'm fascinated by how the characters communicate with poems - lovers, mainly - and the role of calligraphy. The work has so many botanical references and I often find myself going online to look up images of the plants.

· My Neighbor Totoro: The Novel by Tsugiko Kubo. This wonderful book for children (of all ages) contains the original illustrations by director Hayao Miyazaki (the Studio Ghibli animation was turned into a novel). If you are tired of, what I call, noisy children's books then I like to believe this one will surprise and delight you. It's the story of how the 11-year-old Satsuki and her sister Mei discover Totoro, a forest spirit with magical powers. (If noisy animations make you lose hope for humanity I can highly recommend the animation, My Neighbour Totoro (1988).)

Those who follow me on Instagram may have noticed some of my new books. Soon I will be sharing the № 14 reading list; I just need to visit the Bremen University Library to grab two works that I would like to be on it. To be honest, I get the feeling I will lose all self-control and borrow more than those two.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Book review: Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Book review: Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo · Lisa Hjalt

Now that Ayobami Adebayo's debut novel Stay with Me has come out in paperback, it's time to share the book review I had promised (published by Canongate; on my № 12 reading list). To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of contemporary fiction, and, apart from the ten years, I tend to agree with author Karl Ove Knausgård, who recently said in an interview: 'I think contemporary fiction is extremely overrated, but I can’t start to name, because I’m also a part of the hype. I think there are maybe one or two great books every 10 years' (Guardian, 11 Feb. 2018). The beautiful cover design (by Rafaela Romaya) attracted me to the novel but I wasn't sure if the subject matter really interested me: a marriage threatened by infertility. I was also slightly wary of the good reviews it was receiving and thought perhaps it was yet another hype. My love for the writing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was the reason I decided to read Adebayo's book; I was curious to discover another talent from Nigeria.

Stay with Me is a beautifully written story that deeply moved me. Unfortunately, given the subject matter, it contains one too many tragedies, which didn't bother me after I had finished the book, only during the reading. Because of its plot, and how important it is to avoid spoilers, it's not an easy book to review. The synopsis reads thus: 'Yejide is hoping for a miracle, for a child. It is all her husband wants, all her mother-in-law wants, and she has tried everything - arduous pilgrimages, medical consultations, appeals to God. But when her relatives insist upon a new wife, it is too much for Yejide to bear. It will lead to jealousy, betrayal and despair.' Despair is the key word. The extreme measures Yejide takes to conceive are heartbreaking.

The setting is mainly tumultuous Nigeria of the 1980s. We have two narrators: the naïve Yejide, pushed to the edge in her despair to get pregnant, and her husband Akin. Other important characters are Akin's brother Dotun, their mother Moomi (who pushed all my buttons; she reminded me of the mother-in-law in Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun), and Funmi, the second wife. What made the novel a page-turner was that each time I thought the plot was becoming predictable, the author surprised with a new twist to the story that I never saw coming. To do this so masterfully, she needed the two voices of Yejide and Akin.

Their marriage is based on a lie and whether you, the reader, believe their story depends on your willingness to accept this lie when it's revealed (hinting at what it is would ruin the reading experience). In spite of the novel's many tragedies, I eagerly turned its pages, but have to admit that I paused and doubted when I reached the revelation of the lie. I then continued reading, convincing myself that Yejide's gullibility was based on the fact that she had been raised without a mother to guide her ('I had watched them arrive and evolve in my father's house, all those different mothers who were not mine').

Despite the adversities faced by the characters, there is plenty of beauty in the novel, and some humorous circumstances. More importantly, Nigerian culture and folklore. Ancient stories, beliefs, and superstitions that will raise the eyebrows of Westerners. An example is a scene where Yejide climbs up 'the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles' and dances with a goat - and breastfeeds it! - in a desperate hope for a miracle ('I needed a miracle fast. The only way I could save myself from polygamy was to get pregnant before Funmi'). One cannot help but wonder how unnecessary pain and suffering could have been avoided had Yejide and Akin only sat down and had an honest conversation.

In the end, we are all humans and have to deal with what our society expects of us. We have the choice to let those expectations control our lives or find our own path. To discover what Yejide finally decides to do you have to read the book. While you're doing that I will be waiting for the announcement of Adebayo's second novel. A new talent has arrived on the literary scene.

Stay with Me
By Ayobami Adebayo
Hardcover, 304 pages