Over the last 10 days, I have hardly read. I finished Jacob Ross’ Black Rain Falling (excellent, absolutely excellent) and since then: nothing. I am depressed and quite badly so at the moment and for the most part of the day, when I am not working, I sort of just stare into space unable to settle on anything.
So here I am blogging, mainly because writing a blog post is a tangible thing that I did, when I mostly feel that I don’t achieve anything. Who would have thought that I’d use blogging as some sort of coping mechanism…
Anyway, let’s talk about the arcs that I have and what my thoughts are, why I requested them and that hopefully will inspire me to sit down and read some. I know it will make me feel better, so here it goes.
Die Bagage by Monika Helfer
It’s an autobiographical historical fiction novel which was nominated for the Austrian Book Prize and is currently on the shortlist. The prize will be announced in November. I doubt I will read it before then, because this month I am only reading books by Black Authors (well, currently not reading… but hey). It is set in rural Austria in a mountain village. While the father of the family is fighting in a war, the mother has a liason with an incomer that leads to a pregnancy and so the mother of the author is born. I am a sucker for these kind of stories, set in rural Austria or Germany, questions of belonging etc. It sounds like my thing.
Herzklappen von Johnson & Johnson by Valerie Fritsch
This book is slightly out of my comfort zone if I am totally honest. I don’t often read fiction with a medical theme. It either frightens me (we all have our personal horrors) or I am worried it pushes towards the melodramatic. I don’t think the latter will happen here, but I am still unsure how I will react to the book. Longlisted for the German Book Prize.
Putzt Euch, tanzt, lacht by Karin Peschka
Another provincial story. A mixture of grief and mental health, the claustrophobia of rural life, the lack of options – it’s like she took all the things I am fascinated by and wrote a novel.
Streulicht by Deniz Ohde
Don’t worry, dear English reader, I will also share books in English. Deniz Ohde was also on the German Book Prize longlist and it’s another “working class narrative”. It’s a story of a mother abandoning the family though, so, those are always tricky for me. Still, I am willing to give it a go.
The Mountains Sing by Que Mai Phan Nguyen
A Vietnamese family generational story exploring the impact of war and the devastation it has reverberating through the generations. I am always interested in these stories, I think we yet understand very little on how trauma is passed down the generations and it is something I am interested in.
Why the Germans do it better by John Kampfner
I started it in September, but put it aside for Black History Month but I am keen to continue. I have often issues with this type of book, because in my mind this kind of superlative does not apply to any country and certainly not to my home country. Despite the fact, that I think that there is a lot that Germany does well, I doubt this kind of generalised statement applies. I am curious to see if he picks up on this and how. I think the comparison is with the UK in general, so it will be fascinating to see how much I nod along, too.
Das Palais muss brennen by Mercedes Spannagel
A debut novel described as a reckoning with the right wing elite in Austria. I am here for it. A friend of mine read it and said it was incredibly funny (am I the only one who goes through life thinking that Austrian humour is definitely the best humour?)
Homecoming by Colin Grant
A series of interviews with men and women who came from the West Indies to Britain in the 1940s – 1960s. I heard great things about this book. I am particularly interested in how people arrived were treated here in Birmingham, so I hope there are several accounts in this book from the Midlands.
How we met by Huma Qureshi
Huma grew up in Walsall, here in the Midlands so that is the main reason, I wanted to read this book. As much as I don’t feel at home here at all, I am still seeking out “local” stories. Go figure.
When I took a portrait of my daughter over the weekend, she complained that putting her head on the book was uncomfortable.
Jokingly I said: “Sometimes art hurts.”
To which she replied with: “It’s art?”
It made me think a lot about my return to photography and this renewed urge to take pictures pretty much on a daily level. At the moment, I look at everything wondering “would this make a good photograph”. It’s both enjoyable and painful, e.g. when you drive past something wonderful and you cannot stop and take a picture. Or thinking about a possible picture and then remembering that we are in the middle of a pandemic.
Ever since the Brexit referendum, this country has no longer felt like home. Prior to 2016, I would have said without hesitation that the UK is my home despite the fact that I had and have no citizenship. I realise that this is a statement full of privilege and problematic beyond belief but it’s the truth, I felt at home here and the fact that my skin colour is white made assimilation fairly easy. On the surface, I fit in. White, well-spoken, hardly an accent. It’s not that it was all smooth prior to 2016, but certainly the fact that at least my legal status was not in question was a huge aspect and yet I did not even appreciate it. Such is privilege, right? I am thinking daily of all the people who constantly have to fight to belong even if they have a British passport, let alone if they don’t.
Ever since 2016 I felt more and more like this is not my home, withdrew more and more from all community work I was engaged with until I stopped altogether. The feeling of “I don’t belong here” echoeing through every thought and every day like a dull pain. Some of this totally homemade but the majority due to witnessing the rise of an increasingly hostile atmosphere. Yet, for me personally, apart from the legal status nothing had changed, I am still white, still well-spoken, hardly an accent, I sort of fit the picture and as people keep telling me, I am the right kind of foreigner. Not something that makes me feel better for a whole host of reasons (oh, so neighbour X is also a racist, great.). I also get told to move “back home” a lot, when I complain about things in a whole range of tones. It’s a regular reminder that really this was never my home, even if at some point I considered it this. This remark also usually comes from people who never moved further than a few miles from where they grew up. So in essence, I don’t really talk to a lot of people, I don’t consider this place my home anymore, don’t take part in stuff and yet, I know I will have to live here until the kid is done with school and as you can imagine that is not exactly a recipe for happiness.
In comes the photography. I was watching the kdrama Encounter (I kid you not) and Park Bo-gum takes pictures with a film camera and I thought: “Oh look that’s something that you used to love.” And just like flipping a switch, I started taking pictures again. Mostly street photography, capturing in pictures of how I feel about this place. I think the pictures are fairly good representations of my frustrations, my disilusion and how sad I am. I am unable to process any pictures in colour at the moment, in fact, when I look at them in colour the world feels strangely wrong and unfamiliar, but in greyscale, the world somehow is recognisable again.
Art, in its broadest sense, is a form of communication. It means whatever the artist intends it to mean, and this meaning is shaped by the materials, techniques, and forms it makes use of, as well as the ideas and feelings it creates in its viewers . Art is an act of expressing feelings, thoughts, and observations.
Author unkown, link to source provided above
So if art is an act of expressing feelings, thoughts, and observations, then I am most certainly doing art. I am not sure if the fact if it can be considered art or not even matters to me. The act of creating matters. The fact that I am leaving the house matters. The fact of sharing the images on instagram matters. The thinking about what kind of images I want to take matters. The associations and pieces of information around the image matter.
I once read that art connects you to your deepest roots. And as someone who does not feel any roots holding her in place, this act of rediscovering photography is giving me something to hold on to. It’s a tenuous link but a link nonetheless.
As a funny aside: I live in an area called Bearwood and the other day I chuckled when I realised that the ancient Bear Goddess Artio has the root of the word “art” and woods have roots… so it felt somehow even more apt to think about photography in the way I do at the moment. Art seeking roots in Bearwood. I find that somehow poetic.
Naturally, most of you reading this will just think, this is the middle-class whining of a middle-aged white woman. And it is most certainly that. Because in reality what do I even have to complain about. Yet, I cannot help feeling this sadness, it’s just there and it just won’t go away. So exploring roots and belonging may be just the ticket to get me to a calmer place.
I am so not ready to return to YouTube but I want to make a TBR, what does one do? Naturally, I share a lot of the bookish things on instagram, sometimes on twitter, but then I thought: Hang on, I could literally write about the books I am planning to read on this blog. Mad concept, but there you go.
October is Black History month in the UK and is often overlooked due to its US cousin which happens in February. I mean, I say overlooked, there are plenty of people talking about it, just I always feel the YouTube community forgets about it a little bit.
Naturally we all should always pick up writers of colour in all the months of the year, but if so far you haven’t join me this October by only reading Black authors. My decision to only read Black authors was inspired by Didi, Denise and Karen who frequently do “black out” reading where they only read Black authors. So this October this is what I am doing: most books are by Black British authors (one German and one American are in the mix) but all books are by Black authors. And so I cast aside all the Deutsche Buchpreis and Oesterreicher Buchpreis reading… good job, that books don’t come with a use by date.
The next book is a debut novel set for release in early 2021 but I got the arc and I am in the mood for it, so I am including it here. The Conductors by Nicole Glover is – as much as I gather – an alternate history of the Underground Railroad. It created quite the buzz when it was announced and I am curious to see what I make of it. US fiction and I have a temptestuous relationship, so fingers crossed it’s my cup of tea.
Terraformed by Dr. Joy White is a non-fiction book that has been lurking on my TBR since May. Dr. Joy White is a researcher into a whole range of social topics which include aspects like social mobility and urban marginality and this is essentially what Terraformed is looking at. She is using the example and her experiences of Newham, London to examine the wider implications of austerity and social exclusion on young Black lives.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo … clearly needs no introduction: everyone has read it, but me. Something that will be remedied this month.
A German non-fiction by Noah Sow “Deutschland Schwarz Weiss” (Germany Black White) is a book that I probably should have read years ago. I think the realities shown up in this book will be a reality check on my home country.
From the Jhalak Prize in 2017, I have two books left over and so I decided to pick them (finally) up.
Irenosen Okojie’s Speak Gigantular is a short story collection that sounds as if the stories are bordering on the weird genre in places and those who know me, the New Weird is something I quite like. However, I might be completely wrong and only reading it will have me finding it out.
And finally, the other Jhalak Prize 2017 book is Jacob Ross’ The Bone Readers a crime novel, described as literary, highly praised by many and the winner of the inaugural Jhalak Prize. Set both in the Caribbean and in London, it sounds quite dark, so I hope I won’t have to sleep with the lights on.
I have always loved taking photos. As a teenager when I got the “point and shoot” camera from a family friend, I would spend some of my hard earned cash on developing films. Over the years, the cameras got better and then in 2008, it became a profession. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but turning my photography hobby into a means of earning money was probably one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made (the list of mistakes is long though and the competition is fierce).
Society likes to tell us that if you are good at something and enjoy doing it, it has to somehow become profitable. Now, don’t get me wrong, of course, I am all for people loving what they do, it’s just that I don’t believe that the flip side is that all the things we enjoy doing have to become something that we have to sell to others, almost as if money is the only validation for our interests.
As for most photographers, wedding photography is the biggest earner, so I turned my focus on that. I have always loved taking portraits of my friends, so weddings seemed like a natural route to embark on. If you are a wedding photographer, let me bow in front of you, because no one really appreciates how hard this job is. I mean the taking pictures bit is the “easy” part, it’s all the rest that was not for me. I am not a people person by a long shot. As a wedding photographer, you have to 100% be a people person. You are the person the couple will spend the most time with on their special day, you have negotiate the relationships and frustrations at a glance (I am an empath, so recognising it was easy, but also draining) and make the best out of often really tricky situations. Half the wedding party will insist that they never look good in photos, whilst the other half will do their best to be in nearly all the shots. Then people get drunk and you have to deal with some people getting too touchy. I ended up really not liking weddings. But that was not the reason why I gave up on the photography business in 2013. The reason was burn out. I started to really, really hate having to take photos. This was not helped, by the fact that from the moment I made the decision to to give up, I had to shoot about loads more weddings, the most draining months. So after the last wedding was shot, edited and the album delivered to the client, I put the camera away and never picked it up again.
I never thought, I would ever pick it up again. Until a few weeks ago, when I was watching a kdrama called Encounter and Park Bo Gum has a film camera and takes black and white photos. It’s not even the major plot point of the drama, but I logged into my flickr account for the first time in 7 years and looked at the pictures I took for fun back then. And suddenly, I wanted to take pictures again. Like really, really wanting to take pictures again. It was the middle of the night and I could not sleep because all I could think about was to take pictures. The next day, I charged the digital SLR battery, cleaned my lenses. I ordered some film for my film camera. I discovered that my Holga is broken, goodness knows how that happened. But then I went out and took some pictures.
And now, I love it again. Love that I can tell little stories with images. Love the walking around and taking pictures of how I see the world and what I see in the world. I had forgotten how it feels to take photos. How happy it used to make me.
Technically, I am a bit rusty. Any skill without use will get lost, that’s just how it is. But it is coming back. And right now with that Covid and Brexit winter looming ahead of us, I think I will need those moments of taking pictures more and more.
Like a lot of readers, I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a good book a good book FOR ME. It’s often hard to really put my finger on why a book worked for me and why it did not. Yes, characters and story are of course important, but if pressed, I would have to say that a sense of place is probably one of the biggest pulls for me when it comes to reading. Quite often, even when the book as a whole may have not worked for me, the books with a strong sense of place will be those that I remember the longest.
I was reminded of that recently when I read the short story collection “Things we lost in the fire” by Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell). Despite the fact that the stories on the whole did not work for me all that well (still not that much of a short story lover), I was impressed with the sense of place in all of them. I could smell the smells, feel the heat or the rain, hear the doors close, cars driving… I felt it all. And it’s that impression that is so valuable to me as a reader – especially right now where all of us are mainly not going anywhere. So today, I thought I share some books I love for their sense of place.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim is one of those comfort books I have often turned to when stressed or depressed or both. The thought of escaping miserable, late winter rainy London to spend a delightful spring month in Italy in a Villa is just always an attractive proposition. I share below one of my favourite passages from the novel, I don’t know about you, but it stirs such a longing in me to be in Italy. Oh, Wanderlust in times of Covid.
All down the stone steps on either side were periwinkles in full flower, and she could now see what it was that had caught at her the night before and brushed, wet and scented, across her face. It was wistaria. Wistaria and sunshine . . . she remembered the advertisement. Here indeed were both in profusion. The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce colour. The ground behind these flaming things dropped away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig-trees, and peach-trees, and cherry-trees. The cherry-trees and peach-trees were in blossom–lovely showers of white and deep rose-colour among the trembling delicacy of the olives; the fig-leaves were just big enough to smell of figs, the vine-buds were only beginning to show. And beneath these trees were groups of blue and purple irises, and bushes of lavender, and grey, sharp cactuses, and the grass was thick with dandelions and daisies, and right down at the bottom was the sea. Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of colour piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers….”
Elizabeth von Arnim “Enchanted April”
It’s been well over 20 years since I read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I don’t remember all the details of the story, but I have never forgotten the smells and the tactile feel of the quilt as well as the overwhelming sense of community. Community is a place and this book demonstrates that so well. The quilt is of course a metaphor for the community and the coming together, but I often wondered if the community was not the real metaphor, the longing in all of us for a space we belong that if hardship comes knocking on our door, we can be stronger together.
I always jokingly refer to “Like Water for Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel (translation by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) as the book that will make you hungry beyond anything imaginable. Yet, it’s not just the descriptions of the food but the process of making the food that are so evocative in this book. So often books with a food themes are all about the eating, but here it’s a lot of the preparation, the kitchen as a space of love and that just really spoke to me. Home as a sense of place and probably the only book I ever read where “love” in all its forms becomes a place of its own, too. It’s been decades since I first read it and I have not touched it in at least 10 years, but in my mind it’s as alive and fresh as if I read it yesterday.
Nada by Carmen Laforet (translation by Edith Grossman) was written in the 1940ies with Spain fully in grip by the fascists. No explicit mention is made in the book about this fact yet the spaces and places evoke this sense of claustrophobia and lives are lived devoid of nearly all hope. The run down apartment which was formerly glorious becomes alive and is such a vivid space, it almost becomes its own character. I felt as if I could sit down at the table and look at them all. Contrasted are the moments when our main characters can feel a sense of freedom from oppression: wide open spaces, sunshine, wind. Masterful in my opinion.
My obsession with Asian countries is an old one. (It started with Taiwan which I declared my favourite country age 16, in case you wonder). I bought The Glass Palace by Amitav Gosh in the week it came out, because as you may gather around the year 2000, I was obsessed with Burma. My favourite bookseller in Munich, one day said: oh there is a book coming out, historical fiction set in Burma, that should be your cup of tea… Aah, booksellers are special people, when they get you it’s the best thing ever. But back to the sense of place. This book is set during the British invasion of Burma and you feel everything as you read it. The heat, the humidity, the rain, the sounds, the languages, you are right there. It’s such a wonderful book, the first sentence drew me in and although it’s been 20 years since reading it, it has stayed with me in great detail. This is the opening passage:
There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what that sound was that was rolling in across the plain, along the silver curve of the Irrawaddy, to the western wall of Mandalay’s fort. His name was Rajkumar and he was an Indian, a boy of eleven – not an authority to be relied upon.
The noise was unfamiliar and unsettling, a distant booming followed by low, stuttering growls. At times it was like the snapping of dry twigs, sudden and unexpected. And then, abruptly, it would change to a deep rumble, shaking the food-stall and rattling its steaming pot of soup. The stall had only two benches, and they were both packed with people, sitting pressed up against each other. It was cold, the start of central Burma’s brief but chilly winter, and the sun had not risen high enough yet to burn off the damp mist that had drifted in at dawn from the river. When the first booms reached the stall there was a silence, followed by a flurry of questions and whispered answers. People looked around in bewilderment: What is it? Ba le? What can it be? And then Rajkumar’s sharp, excited voice cut through the buzz of speculation. “English cannon,” he said in his fluent but heavily accented Burmese. “They’re shooting somewhere up the river. Heading in this direction.”
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was my first Ugandan novel written by a Ugandan author and we read it for Read Around the World Bookclub. Apart from having written an engaging novel, the thing that stuck with me was the descriptions of landscape. I have never been to Uganda and yet, I weirdly now feel as if I have seen it all and it’s really thanks to the author’s descriptions (her latest book is just as brilliant at evoking a sense of place). But the true magic of the sense of place in this book is that the characters themselves are so bound to the place they inhabit, that their actions and their thoughts reflect on their place within that space. Some authors make you jealous with their skill.
Another obsession of mine is Scotland and yet His Bloody Project by Graeme Macree Burnet was a book that I had written off for a long time as a “not for me” book. A buddy read made me finally pick it up and what a read it was. If you have ever been to the Highlands, maybe even to remote places like Gairloch or similar, you may have stood still on a walk and looked across the landscape and wondered how people would have lived in this place 100 or more years ago. On hikes, we often come across ruined hamlets and settlements in places where I shudder to think what life might have been like. Despite being an excellent thriller, Burnet has such skill at making the landscape instrumental in depicting the absolute hopelessness of the life of those crofters working land that is not their own, no hope for ever owning anything or improving on their status.
I have fallen in love big time with Indonesian literature this year and this book is where it began. The Birdwoman’s Palate by Laksmi Pamuntjak (translation by Tiffany Tsao) is essentially a “road” trip of an epidemiologist tracking down suspected cases of avian flu whilst experiencing Indonesia with some friends by eating a lot of food. Food is the ultimate in sense of place, nothing can transport me better somewhere than descriptions of food and also the places the food is served in. I loved this book, it made me hungry, filled me with a longing to go to Indonesia and made me buy more books written by Indonesian authors.
The New Year sees me continue to host the Read Around the World Bookclub on Goodreads. We are approaching the completion of our third year of reading one female author from a country around the world. I can’t begin to express how much joy this bookclub brings me. I love everything: Researching the books, creating the polls and of course reading and discussing the books.
Have I loved every book so far? No. Has it been worthwhile reading all of them? Absolutely.
And very often you come across a gem. Like The Remainder. This January we travelled to Chile. In fact, no matter which book would have been chosen, we would have read a book from this country, the situation in Chile is far from good and so it felt important to me to read a book from the country.
I am no stranger to Chilean authors, the first Chilean author I ever read was Isabel Allende back in the 1980ies, my boyfriend’s mother gave me The House of Spirits when I was knocked out with tonsillitis and I gobbled the book up. Sadly not something, I was able to recreate with the rest of her work. But back then, I went on a mission to read a lot of South American literature which included some Chilean authors, known quantities such as Neruda, Mistral and Sepulveda and much later also Bolano. I also delved into non-fiction on the topic back then and have been fascinated by the country ever since.
So it is fair to assume that sooner or later I would have gotten to The Remainder on my own steam, but I am glad that it was sooner because this is an incredible book. Told from the viewpoints of Iquela and Felipe, we explore a complex connection between family friends that spans decades right back to the end of the Pinochet regime to almost the present day. Felipe, obsessed with tallying up the official numbers of deaths caused by the regime with the “inoffical” number, the dead he sees everywhere, he tries to get to zero, but he just cannot make it work. Iquela, his friend, whose family partially raised Felipe seems to live in denial about the past, dreams of escape, yet is completely bound to Santiago. Then Paloma arrives in Santiago to bury her mother who had lived in exile most of her life.
For me as a reader, I have certain hot topic buttons when it comes to fiction: Family, grief, belonging, sense of place… all of these make me engage with a piece of fiction if they are well done, then I am yours and you got me hooked and this novel does this so well. The title could have not been chosen better, a mathematical term for “the amount left over after a computation” or generally: something that is left over after having dealt with everything else. Iquela, Felipe and Paloma are what is left behind from the generation before who tried to bring change, to resist, to overthrow and yet who failed. And what is left is a broken second generation. If you look at Chile now, you realise that nothing has been resolved at all and in this book you can feel the anticipation of the conflict we are seeing right now.
The translation is wonderful and I admire the skill shown by Sophie Hughes navigating the no doubt difficult decisions of how to translate the linguistic play between Chile born and bred Felipe and Iquela and Paloma whose Spanish is a bit more flimsy and stilted. It’s these kinds of details that make the difference between a translation and a great translation, so easily lost between the two worlds.
Paperback, 193 pages
Published October 4th 2018 by And Other Stories (first published January 1st 2015)
My year of reading Asian fiction had a really great start so far, with a clear focus on Japan thanks to #japaninjanuary.
In the past few months, I have fallen in love with Japanese mysteries and Keigo Higashino is hailed by many as the master of the genre. If the two books, I have read by him so far are anything to go by, then I can see where his reputation comes from.
Normally, I would stay clear of gritty crime. I prefer my mysteries to be neat and tidy, more in the Golden Age tradition. Yes, I want good characters, but I am mostly there for the puzzle.
It’s fair to say that the fact that I love this book came as a big surprise to me. It’s gritty, there are things in this book that are hard to swallow and tropes I normally stay clear from, the portrayal of women is often flat… yet, I found myself pulled in and flew through these nearly 500 pages in the span of two afternoons (don’t you love the Christmas holiday).
First of all, I liked the puzzle. A murder happens in a construction site ruin, the victim: a pawnbroker. Quickly some suspects emerge but they have to be eliminated due to airtight alibis. It’s fair to say that as the reader you have your suspicion fairly early on, much like the detective, but there is a part of you that thinks: Surely not. In the course of the novel and during the following decades, we follow the lives of some of the involved people and slowly but surely the whole grim tale unfolds.
What impressed me the most was how Higashino placed everything in front of us. All the details were there, but what they meant becomes clearer much later. If you were in my house while I was reading it, you may have heard me utter: “oh, sh*t” a few times in sheer astonishment.
I have another Higashino book waiting for me, but it will be a while before I pick it up. As much as I enjoyed my second book by him, I don’t think they lend themselves to be read one after another. Yet, I love that it sits there on my shelf. It may well come on holiday with me, I can see myself curled up somewhere in Scotland (hopefully) at Easter and the open fire going and reading another Higashino. Bliss.
Paperback, 539 pages
Published October 8th 2015 by Little, Brown (first published August 1999)
As mentioned in a previous post, January is Japan In January month, an instagram readathon hosted by Lauran aka End.Notes. With my ambition to read my way all through Asia this year with a strong focus on Korea, China and Japan, I was keen to join in. I created a modest TBR of 4 books, but hope to get to about 8. After all, there is no shortage of Japanese lit on my shelves.
The first book I picked up was Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. I have been aware of this book since about the mid 1990ies when it came out in Germany. I have seen it on booksellers’ tables for over two decades, yet, for some reason I have never picked it up. And that’s not because I did not read much in terms of translations, I always picked up a fair amount of translated fiction, but for some reason this book always stayed on the bookseller’s table no matter how many times I looked at it.
Last year, with my descent into the rabbit hole (Asian Literature) of epic proportion, I finally picked it up. And what a good decision this was because I absolutely adored it. Kitchen is made up of two stories, one entitled Kitchen, which is a novella and the second is Moonlight Shadow, which is a short story. Both stories have themes of transsexuality, mothering, what makes a family, love and grief. Stories about love and grief in particular always get my attention, I am fascinated by how one cannot exist without the other and I love when literature explores this. In Kitchen, I loved how the love language was food, the preparation of meals, being in the kitchen together, meeting each other in the kitchen as one person passes into the apartment, the other person leaves. In particular, a scene will stay with me where Mikage cleans out the old flat where she had lived with her grandmother and cleans the kitchen and the sadness of a kitchen that is not in use. It is quite the writer that can pack so much meaning in a few short sentences.
There is a notion that a book tends to find you at the right time. I know that if I read this book in 1994 when it was published in Germany, I probably would have not appreciated it that much. Now in 2020, I have loved and lost a lot more, embraced grief and got out the other side, I guess you could say that life experience has made me a better reader of this book.
The only problem is now which book to pick up next by her, she has written so much that I am certainly spoilt for choice.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, Megan Backus(Translator)
Paperback, 160 pages
Published March 1st 2018 by Faber Faber (first published January 30th 1988)
In 2018, I only read 6 books in my native German. This shocked me to the core because it was the lowest number I ever achieved since moving to the UK and mostly reading English books. A lot of it has to do with accessibility, I lack a German library (although the Onleihe by the Goethe Institut is great), I lack German bookshops (yes, one can order through the internet, but browsing in bookshops is what informs you about what is coming out etc.) and I just stopped reading reviews in newspapers and magazines (mostly because I don’t have access to magazines and also because I ended my Spiegel subscription). So I set out into 2019 with the firm conviction to read more German books again. In came a subscription to Skoobe, sort of like scribd but in German, which allowed me to browse, try things out and abandon books if I don’t like them. I also started reading reviews again and watched German-speaking literary TV programs. This resulted in 31 books read last year, which is quite the improvement.
However, I have been around long enough to know that you have to keep the effort up if you want to maintain an achievement. It is too easy to rest on your laurels. So this year, I started with my fellow booktuber and fellow German Britta Boehler a year-long “reading challenge” (I personally prefer the word “project”, but who nitpicks at words… surely not I) to Read More German Books in 2020. We have set up a Goodreads group because public accountability and all that shenanigans but also we felt that people should generally read a few more German books, I always think that German classics and contemporary fiction does not get enough airtime on YouTube, heck, it does not even get enough airtime on German Book TV shows, but that is a rant for another blog post.
My aim for 2020 is to read at least 25 German books, that would account for about 10% of my reading, however, my secret goal is to not just surpass the 31 from last year but to get to 50 and thus making German books account for 20% of my reading. In the lofty realms of future me, I would like to get it to 25%. I also plan to read more books translated into German from languages other than English (because I read them in English naturally), but I won’t count these in the German-language category for obvious reasons.
So what better way to start the year than by reading a German-language book and so I finally picked up my second Vea Kaiser: Makarionissi oder Die Insel der Seligen. Her Blasmusikpop (Oompah Pop – you can read a translated excerpt here) was one of my favourite reads in 2018, so it is fair to say that expectations were high and I am happy to report that my expectations were justified because I loved the book.
In essence, the book is about family bonds and migration and what happens to a family when parts of the family have to leave the home village to make their way in the world. This is a topic that fascinates me seeing that I am someone who does not live in the place where I was born and have not done so for nearly 30 years.
The story starts in a Greek mountain village and takes us to Hildesheim in German, St. Poelten in Austria, Chicago, Switzerland and to a Greek Island. I think the best way to describe this book is that it is a Pop-Melodrama in the Greek Heroic tradition. Yes, that’s definitely it. I also loved Kaiser’s look at migration, she presents us with various forms of migration: Economic, political and personal. Naturally, many Greek left the country in the 1960ies for economic reasons, many came to Germany, but then with the advent of the military Junta, many left-leaning or outright communist Greek had to flee the country to save their lives and became political migrants. Another character much later in the book leaves the country because of a broken heart. She presents us with these migration stories without bashing us with them around our heads, yet, they really left a deep impression on me and will be what I will remember about this book.
I also loved the characters in the book, trapped in a cycle of always never quite making the right choice yet somehow finding a bit of happiness here and there, but life always messes it up just when things are going ok. I think Vea Kaiser wants to say that life is a tragedy with happy moments, which naturally makes those fleeting times all the more precious.
I am pretty sure that 2020 will see me reading Rückwärtswalzer oder Die Manen der Familie Prischinger and that would then mean that I have read all her books, leaving me hoping dearly that she will soon bring out a new novel.
Makarionissi oder Die Insel der Seligen by Vea Kaiser
It’s been roughly 6 months now since I ventured into the giant rabbit hole that is Korean and Asian fiction in general. I happily report that I plan to stay in the said hole for the foreseeable future. This January, I am taking part in “Japan in January” hosted by the lovely Lauren (End.Notes on instagram) and I am rather enjoying myself. Next month, I plan to read a huge amount of Korean books. Life is good, life is good.
Instagram is truly a wonderful social media platform for readers. By using hashtags to label pictures of books you allow other readers with similar interests to find you and thus recommend books to you. I love this aspect of social media so much and thus any thought of going offline and deleting all the apps are usually short-lived. It was through such a recommendation, that I came across the Yeoyu collection published by Stranger Press and as luck would have it, the Husband asked me the same day if there are any books I specifically want for Christmas. So naturally, this is what I asked for.
This may take the element of surprise out of gifts (although I still had a couple of surprises) but it ensures that I get something I want. Win-win. And yes, I read them all already. What I liked about the stories is that they introduced me not just to Korean authors, but also to translators of Korean. I read work translated by Deborah Smith before and I have already Emily Yae Won’s translation of “I’ll go on” by Hwang Jungeun (who also had a story in this collection) waiting for me.
You could say this type of collection works almost like a business card, a “nice to meet you, now I shall remember you, maybe we can have a coffee some time.” A few of the authors have no other work translated as of yet (Cheon Heerahn and Kang Hwagil) – or at least as far as I could find out – but all the others are available with other works. Most notable Bae Suah’s new novel “Untold Day and Night” is getting some great advance press and I, for one, cannot wait to get my fingers on a copy.
The set comes with 8 titles, you can buy individually, but who would do such a thing?
These are the titles
EUROPA by Han Kang // translated Deborah Smith
FIVE PRELUDES… by Cheon Heerahn // translated Emily Yae Won
LEFT’S RIGHT… by Han Yujoo // translated Janet Hong
MILENA, MILENA… by Bae Suah // translated Deborah Smith
OLD WRESTLER by Jeon Sungtae // translated Sora Kim-Russell
KONG’S GARDEN by Hwang Jungeun // translated Jeon Seung-Hee
DEMONS by Kang Hwagil // translated Mattho Mandersloot
DIVORCE by Kim Soom // translated Emily Yae Won
I love the production value of them a lot and I know that is not what counts or should count, but I appreciated that they reminded me of the zines of my teenage years in the 80ies. They are lovely to hold and read which definitely makes me happy. It is the content, however, that matters and here the collection absolutely convinced me: It was just wonderful. There was not a single story that I hated. The Old Wrestler is probably the one I liked the least, but I still liked it a lot. On the other end of the spectrum was Divorce and Five Preludes and a Fugue, which I loved so much that I cannot stop thinking about them. In particular, I admire the ease of the translation in Five Preludes so much, sheer brilliance.
I also think that in general publishers should always provide information about each translator in each translated book, some already do, but often we have no information at all, especially for older works when books are republished. When I like a translator, I want to read more by them, in many ways this is no different than finding an audio narrator you like: Yes, you are here for the novel written by the author, but it is the voice of the narrator that pulls you in just as much and any lover of audiobooks will know how a bad narrator can utterly destroy an otherwise brilliant book. With audiobooks, we have the option to pick up the print version, however, with a translation we are totally at the mercy of the translator: their voice is the one we hear and that either works for us or not.
I have already asked The Husband to get me the Japanese collection for my birthday in May… if I can wait that long. Stay tuned.