I am an incredibly nosy person. Most of my life I have to actively hold back asking questions. I have learnt (the hard way) that asking questions about personal matters is not a done thing. Don’t worry though, I have learnt to filter most of the nosy questions.
Yet, I am still nosy, or as I like to put it more gently these days: I am curious. I am curious about everything and so you’d think that memoirs would be a great way to explore what other humans do and think, what happened to them and how they dealt with it. Yes, you could think that but most memoirs leave me frustrated because they don’t answer my questions, they just add more questions and then, obviously, those remain unanswered.
Now and then though, a memoir comes along that just answers all my questions. A memoir that is honest and clear, straightforward (which I imagine comes at a cost) and beautiful.
How We Met is the story of how Huma, a Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage from Walsall, met Richard, an English man. I loved how Huma described her upbringing, a loving family, a tight-knit community, yes with its rules but also its comforts. Her education, her ambitions, her struggles, she did not hold back and laid it all bare in front of you. Like she did a big sweep with her arm and say: all of this made me the person I am today.
Often when we see stories of Muslim meets Non-Muslim, we expect fights, abandoning of faith and family, running away and the whole dramatic spectrum. I am not saying that these stories don’t happen, but I am very glad Huma wrote her story which had still its conflicts, pain and struggle but also showed the love and the concern of those around her, but also, as her friend, who encouraged her to write the story said: “Your happy ending.”
I can already hear the naysayers, who will say things like: why did she define herself for so long trying to get married, why did she not try to be a happy single. Nonsense of course, above anything else, beyond the cultural pressure, I got the feeling that Huma just really wanted a person to share her life with and I, for one, cannot see anything wrong with that. Feminism is also the ability of a woman to choose a union with another person as part of her fulfilment. Yes, of course, we should also be able to be alone, but I think for many of us, sharing a life with someone who gets us, is just something we aspire to and I am glad that Huma found that person in Richard.
I also loved the display of faith and religion in the book. Faith that is interwoven in daily life, a religion that is part of you and you are part of it. We are often confronted with the extreme ends of religion and faith, so it was nice to see how it is so different for most believers of any faith: it’s just part of who you are.
Needless to say that I loved this book. I read it in one sitting. Interesting to think that the main reason I picked up this book is because Huma is from Walsall and I have this urge to pick up West Midlands authors to support them (and I am not even from here, let alone from this country), but I just do. I have seen that Huma has another book coming out later this year and you can bet that I will pick it up, too.
It has been nice to see so many people picking up the Shardlake series recently on booktube and instagram. I remember when I first read Dissolution many years ago, I was so smitten with it, I immediately started looking for books that were similar. And this has continued to this day. So I thought I share today some of the books that I think may appeal if you like C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series, set in Henry VIII’s England. (new edit: 11/12/2020)
S.J. Parris’ Giordano Bruno Series
The first book in the series is called “Heresy” and sets the tone nicely for the overarching theme of the book: Religious tensions leading to political intrigue. We are in Elizabeth I’s England and the religious situation for those of Catholic (or other faith’s) is difficult in England and all over Europe religious tensions are growing. Giordano Bruno was a real person and he really came to England and Parris weaves a wonderful fictional world around him. A former monk, he was on the run from the Inquisition in Italy and sought refuge in England. Officially, he is in England to take part in a debate about Copernicus’ findings, but then some grizzly murders happen and he starts to investigate.
There are currently 5 books out and book 6 is scheduled for publication later in the year.
PF Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey Series
We stay in Elizabethan England for this series, but venture north. Sir Robert Carey is another real historical figure and with a modicum of creative license Chisholm brings him alive wonderfully in this series. I was instantly smitten with this daring, intelligent man – even though he is also a bit stupid. His father was the first cousin of Elizabeth, some rumours say half brother, Tudor family politics are nothing if not complicated. In 1596 towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Carey is appointed as Warden of the Middle Marches which is essentially the border region with Scotland. An area of great unrest at that time, skirmishes between Scots and English on a daily basis, chief amongst them cattle theft. In the books, Carey arrives into a badly managed fort with people on his forces that have rather different allegiances and priorities than serving their Queen.
There are 9 books in the series, the most recent one only published last year.
Published by Head of Zeus and Poisoned Pen Press.
Ellis Peter’s Cadfael
Before there was Shardlake, there was Cadfael. I discovered the Cadfael series as a teenager back in the 80ies and I was a loyal devotee from the first book. The series was hugely popular in Germany, Germans do love historical fiction set in the Middle Ages and you will find the historical fiction section full of titles like this. What I loved the most about Peter’s books was the sense of place. She evokes Shrewsbury of the 12th century so vividly, it is just such a joy to read. We follow Cadfael a Benedictine monk, a conversus who only joined the order in his 40ies and was a warrior in the crusades before. As someone who always has been interested in herbs and their properties, I loved the little side notes on Cadfael’s herbal preparations for healing. Peters sets Cadfael’s chronicles in the year’s of the Anarchy, 1137 to 1145, a turbulent time and in particular what is now Shropshire saw itself frequently torn between the factions. Needless to say that murders happen in each of the novels, but Peters skilfully weaves the wider historical aspects and conflicts into the story. A joy to read.
There are 20 books in the series and some short stories.
Publisher, various imprints, now Macmillan
SG MacLean’s Alexander Seaton series
We are leaving the Middle Ages behind and move to 17th century Scotland. Alexander Seaton is set to become a minister of the Kirk, but due to a revelation of an event in his past, the Session rejects his application. Set in Banff in the 1620ies, Maclean masterfully brings Scotland alive, no dashing Highlanders sweeping time travellers of their feet, but a young scholar plagued with guilt desperately trying to redeem himself and to get a grip of his guilt. When one of his last remaining friends is accused of murder, Alexander tries to prove his innocence. I have rarely read a book that both gave me such insight into events of a historical period I had little idea of, but at the same time also really made me understand how people thought at the time. I read all the books in this series in short succession and then moved on to her next series (which you will find below).
There are 4 books in this series and the series is complete.
Published by Quercus
SG Maclean’s Seeker series
Yes, I mention the same author twice, because I truly love her books and in my personal opinion her books are far too underrated and deserve a wider audience.
Damian Seeker is an officer in Cromwell’s army. The series starts in 1654 during Cromwell’s Protectorate (which ends in 1660 with the Restoration of the Monarchy) and a murder happens in one of London’s new coffee houses. Seeker investigates as it may be linked to a wider conspiracy to bring back the King. Intrigue, betrayal and murder. I love how we get to know Seeker slowly, he is a mystery that needs to be solved as well, some excellent female characters in this series too, in particular a female villain, we love to hate.
There are currently 3 books in the series and book 4 (The Bear Pit) is coming out in July 2019
Published by Quercus
Ruth Downie’s Medicus series
I am currently listening to this series after having read them a few years ago. Highly addictive material. Ruso, a doctor with the Roman Legions, arrives in today’s Chester virtually broke, just having lost his father and divorcing his wife. He was not particularly keen to end up in this outpost of the Roman Empire, but needs must. Within days of his arrival, he finds a female corpse that no one wants to deal with and then he saves a slave girl and that adds to his troubles. His boss, Deva is also constantly on his case and, yes, he continues to be broke. I absolutely love this series and how Downie imagines Roman Britain.
Currently 8 books in the series, the most recent one published last year.
Published by Bloomsbury
Abir Mukherjee’s Wyndham and Banerjee series
Instantly won over by this historical mystery series set in 1920ies India. Sam Wyndham is a newly arrived English police captain working for the Imperial Police Force. He lacks understanding of India and despite being clearly able to spot injustices, unfairness and racism, he does not really do much because he is one of those infuriatingly loyal men who by trying to do the “right, correct, proper” thing ends up doing mostly wrong things. I am curious to see how this continues, but already love it and it has to be on this list.
There are more books I could talk about, but I think I keep it at this length for now. Any books you want to add? Any series, I should be aware off? Any great new first book in series coming out? Please let me know in the comments.
There are currently 4 books in the series.
Published by Vintage
Cay Rademacher’s Frank Stave series
Translated from the German by Peter Millar, this series startes in the coldest winter of 1947. Frank Stave is a re-instated police detective trying to solve a murder while negotiating the “red tape” of British occupation, a city in ruins and full of refugees and displaced people whilst surviving himself. There is one thing knowing what post-war Germany must have been like, there is another thing reading it so brilliantly conjured up. I was told the translation is excellent, since I obviously read it in German.
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.
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