31 January 2015

Why can't the translators get to work on Herman Koch?

I was going to write about Herman Koch in a Bits and Bobs post but as I started to write I realized I had more to say about his work than would fit either in a bit or in a bob. Koch is a Dutch writer and actor and so far only two his six novels have been translated into English. Hopefully his recent success and a possible Cate Blanchette adaptation of The Dinner will bring his back catalog into the English speaking world.

When Simon Savidge visited Washington back in August he put The Dinner in my hands while we were browsing a bookstore. I was slightly dubious about this since he had also given me a copy of Gone Girl which I was somewhat loathe to read and the cover blurb on The Dinner was by Gillian Flynn. But I did buy it and read it and it turns out I kind of loved it. So much so that soon after I read it I was in a bookshop and bought his latest Summer House with Swimming Pool in hardcover without hesitation. I ended up liking that one even more than The Dinner. Based on those two novels he has been added to my must buy list. Not many authors end up on that list.

The Dinner
One of the things that intrigued me about The Dinner is that the entirety of the novel takes place over a single meal. Turns out there are many flashbacks that take the reader away from the dinner table but the book does feel like it takes place over one long meal. There is something very interesting about the arc of the plot and the arc of emotion all happening over dinner.

In the book, Paul Lohman and his soon-to-be Prime Minister brother and their wives have dinner in a high-end restaurant in Amsterdam. It is almost impossible to say much about this book without giving too much away. In fact the only thing I can really say is that by the end of the book you will have had moments of hating almost every character that passes through the pages.

In my mind, the restaurant De Kas was the setting for The Dinner. Having eaten here for a special occasion a few years ago, it popped into my head and never popped out. According to at least one source, this was the basis for the setting of the novel.
Summer House with Swimming Pool
Since I am a Johnny-come-lately to Herman Koch I had a peek at some reviews of his work in the esteemed mainstream press. Among other things, this exercise reminded me why I don't read professional book reviews. Even when they are positive they always seem to me like they are written by authors bitter that they have to write reviews to help eke out a living writing. The benefit of reading these reviews was that they shook loose in my brain how I feel about Koch's writing. His books have commercial appeal (i.e., they are readable) but I think they provide deeper psychological insight and observations than most commercial fiction. I think Koch is clever without ever seeming like he is trying to be clever. His books don't feel like they have been workshopped to death in some MFA program. 

Like The Dinner, Summer House with Swimming Pool includes a medical premise that is factually incorrect. And it isn't some small technical detail, but a great big whopping medical impossibility that seemed immediately wrong. Although these instances of taking poetic license with medical science gave me a bit of cerebral indigestion (how's that for a medical mixed-metaphor?) they did not bother me. In fact, after some thought, I think they even added to my enjoyment of the books. Koch could have come up with a much more plausible way of making Dr. Marc Schlosser more maniacally unethical than he already was, but instead he chose to go for the impossible. Or was he sloppy? I don't think so. I think he knew he was making a mistake and just willed us all to go along with it. Doing so allowed me a freedom I don't normally experience. I have chronicled more than once how factual errors in fiction can make my head explode. (I'm looking at you Julia Glass.) But there is something so over the top about Koch's mistakes that I kind of enjoy how bold they are. Kind of like Peter Cameron's book Andorra which I loved. He put the real land-locked country of Andorra on the Mediterranean 200 km from where it actually exists.  I think the threshold for me is, get the small, mundane details correct and I will give you a wide berth if you want to twist reality. In the case of Koch's books I felt liberated to let fiction be fiction, and in the case of Dr. Schlosser I enjoyed how Koch played with that line between good and evil.  It isn't a fine line, its a bloody great thick line in most cases, but sometimes it gets crossed without notice. Not every evil menace is Adolf Hitler. Sometimes it is the trusted family doctor or the quiet cat owner next door.

Another reason I think Summer House with Swimming Pool and The Dinner work is that one can never trust Koch. Not his characters, not his plots, not his scenes, and not his "facts". They are like like Rorschach tests, the reader see what she wants to see. In my case I see how seemingly good people can cross that wide line between good and evil and am thankful that I never even get close to the line.

24 January 2015

Context is everything

The other day when I was snuggled up in bed reading while the rain pattered on the roof, I came across a line that made me laugh with delight. So much so, I Tweeted the line and posted it on Facebook.
Far-off on the hill a sheep coughed.
After I posted it on Facebook and said that it was the best line ever, my friend Barry--in fact the same friend who I mentioned in my last post--wrote: "Are you being sarcastic? It sounds to me like a line written by a 10-year old who has hopes of becoming a novelist."

When I saw this response I was a bit taken aback. Barry was right, but the author who wrote the line is one I revere and the book I was reading was one that I really liked. Although the line struck me as funny when I first read it, it didn't strike me as bad writing. But out of context I can't blame my friend.

In context I think the line works, and while still funny, doesn't seem like bad writing. In fact, it reminds me of when John and stayed in a farmhouse in the Cotswolds and we enjoyed listening to the sheep bleating on the distant hillsides each evening. I don't remember any of them coughing, but that's not to say they didn't. Here is the full context, the scene is a large, remote country house in Ireland in the early 1950s.
Sally came up from the dark kitchen stairs into the house, empty, still, and flooded with sunlight. Charles and Violet had gone out of course; Violet would be in the walled garden examining the ruins of the roses with Cammaert [the gardener]. With something like relief, with a tremor of fear, Sally thought, I'm all alone here. She stood on the threshold of the library as if waiting for some decision which would take her inside, to her grandfather's desk. Far-off on the hill a sheep coughed.
What do you think? Bad writing? Okay, but not great? Middle brow? 1950s chick lit? Does it matter? The writer is my beloved May Sarton and the novel is A Shower of Summer Days. Her work pleases me so much and this novel ranks in the upper middle range of all the novels of hers that I have read.

But what about the book?

Violet and Charles, a 50-something couple returns to the wife's ancestral home in Ireland after Charles is pushed out of his industrialist position in Burma. Soon after they return Violet's estranged sister who lives in America sends Sally, her college-age daughter, over to stay with them in the hopes she forgets about her actor boyfriend.

I can't say too much more without giving too much away. I will say that I think that there is a gay subtext that comes really close to pushing through in a few places that would make the novel make more sense than the more abstract issues Sarton focuses on. The subtext is independent of the quasi-Lesbianic idol worship that Sally has for Violet. Or is it? I don't really know. But I do think if Sarton had felt more comfortable being open about the subtext the story might have made more sense. Without doing so meant that much of the book's climax and resolution was based on some fairly opaque conclusions that I am not sure someone as literal-minded as I am can be happy with. This would seem like a fairly big flaw, but I still enjoyed the book quite a bit.

17 January 2015

Imagine if these shoes were books

Back in November I came across this story about a shoe store that was frozen in time. Somewhere in the U.S. a family inherited a building that just happened to have a shoe store in it that hadn't been touched since the 1960s.

In true Internet style the story appears to have been a retread (sorry) of something that happened at least a year earlier, but the pictures are real enough.

I was mesmerized by the photos and shared them on Facebook with a caption about how I wish it had been a bookstore frozen in time. A friend who is a reader but not a book junkie commented that he didn't think a bookstore would be as interesting as the shoe store. It was only when I started to write a response that I began to really think about how cool a bookstore frozen in time could be. Let's just assume the discovered shoe store was from 1963. Based on some of the truly old fashioned shoes and a lack of more modish stuff I think the store must have been early 60s. So let's say 1963. Imagine what you could have found in a bookstore frozen in time in 1963.

It was in the U.S., so there probably weren't many vintage Penguins.

But there probably would have been more than a few Signet Classics paperbacks.

Although these are probably older than the 1960s, there may have been a few Vintage paperbacks on the shelves as well.

But what about some books that were actually newly published in 1963?

After doing A Century of Books, the 1960s was not exactly my favorite decade. If you factor out D.E. Stevenson and Margaret Drabble, I didn't have much luck with the 60s. Especially if you consider that the loathsome Catch-22 and A Clockwork Orange were likely on those shelves. I probably would better appreciate a store frozen in time a decade or two earlier. What would be your dream year?

09 January 2015

Doing everything on this list might make me crazy

All of these are sane on their own, but taken together? Might be a little nuts.

1. Blog at least once a week. I really got off track last year. Granted, I did the blog about our house project (which I haven't updated in a while), but I didn't have a job until mid-September so that ain't no damn excuse. (grammar police look the other way) In some ways not posting very much on My Porch last year made me feel a little disconnected from the online reading world.

2. Read 100 books. I've done it a few times before but last year was not such a good year. I had tons of time on my hands. Too much I guess. I only made it into the low 60s. And as of the 9th day of 2015 I've only got one under my belt. I better get busy.

3. Keep up with my blog reading. Oy, I've been bad about this recently. By the time I get around to catching up there are so many posts to look at I ended up shutting down and ignoring way too many interesting posts.

4. I'm stealing this one from Simon Savidge who noted on episode 116 of The Readers that he plans to look at no screens after 10 pm. That means no TV, no computer, no phone, no iPad, etc. I'm not sure if he plans to do it on the weekends as well, but I am going to limit my limit to Sunday through Thursday nights. So far I have managed to do this but it takes being a little conscientious for sure. When I am about to press play on something on the DVR I have to look at the time to see if it will finish by 10. So far, so good.

[I interrupt this list to note that I just went to Google something about reading challenges for 2015 and came across a blogger who is, I'm sure a lovely person, but has a blog so cloyingly annoying (clannoying?) that I feel compelled (but will not) leave a snarky comment on her blog. Consider this editorial aside to be a sort of safety valve in that regard.]

5. Read all of Anthony Powell's 12-book, 4-volume series The Dance to the Music of Time. Annabel is bound and determined to do it this year and I am going to try and join her. The most challenging bit is that I don't feel compelled to read them yet. You know how you can have something on your shelves for years and then one day you just feel like it is the right time to give it a go? I feel that in my head right now, but I don't feel it in my gut. Stay tuned.

6. I think I have have participated in James' TBR dare ever year that he has done it, save one. And I was late in signing up, but since I haven't broken any of the rules yet, I figure I still qualify. This one may turn out to be easier to do this year since I am now reunited with all of my books unpacked and in one place and so I have a lot of unread books to choose from. More than enough to keep me happy.

7. Go to a movie once a month. This may sound easy, but, much to John's chagrin I don't see many movies these days. For the 11 months we lived in our temporary apartment we lived only 3 blocks from a multi-plex and we only went once.

8. Finish sending Amanda the rest of those Penguin post cards I started sending a year ago. I thought for sure I would send all 100 over a year, but I still have about 30 or 40 yet to send. Now that we are settled back into our house, I might find that easier to achieve.

The pile of postcards last January. I really should take an updated photo with at least half the stack gone.

The box and first post arrived in Georgia last January.

9. Participate in at least one of the two Dewey's Read-a-thon weekends. I'm not a fan of all the cheerleading and memes and such, but I still love the event and the wide range bloggers who participate.

....looking back at the list, and thinking of no other items to add I'm beginning to think I may actually accomplish all of these. The only one I am doubtful of is the Powell.

01 January 2015

The library that is, the year that was

The row of grey Persephone books mark the end of the fiction. The two rows below that are various non-fiction books that have yet to be organized. I ran out of time.
There is so much that is overwhelming about moving back into a renovated house after eleven months away and with just five days to go until Christmas. Certainly much to be happy about but also much that is stressful and discombobulating. The holidays, work, impending appraisal and mortgage closing, aggravating punchlist items, frustrating utility providers, and the list goes on.

All of this makes it a little hard to get motivated to blog about the fun stuff, like organizing my new and improved library, and recapping my favorite reads for 2014. To aid my efforts, I have decided to use two handy crutches: photos and lists.

Top Five Yawns of 2014
Some of these titles had some redeeming qualities, but the overall impression they left was boredom, especially when viewed through the lens of a year-end recap.

Same fireplace when we first moved in and were thinking about a grey paint for the library.

After over a year of living with those color swatches on the wall, I decided just go ahead and paint the library even though it would be torn up in a year. It was also a good experiment in what turned out to be a color and color direction we really didn't want to go in the new library. The shelves to the right of the fireplace were not replaced. I gained some additional shelf space elsewhere in the library, but I will miss this odd bit. It's where I kept most of my TBR.

Looking the same general direction showing a bit more of the shelves. We ended up going with a much warmer grey with a little more brown and green in it.
Top Five Pleasant Surprises of 2014
All of these novels were written by authors who were new to me. Three of them were recommended to me and two (Leary and Cameron) were just ones I thought I would give a go. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed all of them quite a lot.

All of the books had already been put on the shelves, but they weren't in any order. It took me most of a day to just get the fiction set right.

I haven't read any of the stories in these Everyman collections, but their covers have been too darn pretty to pass up. 

The end wall shelves are deeper and will house mainly art, gardening, and coffee table books.

Early in the process. I was still on the Bs.
Five Books I Knew I Would Like
With all the upheaval in my life in 2014 it is no surprise I sought out some comforting authors to get me through it all. The Brookner was part of my re-read of all her novels while the rest are authors I have been able to rely on when I need a good, cozy read. Big surprise, all are British and all are women.

Another 'before' picture for comparison. I'll admit this is looking pretty cozy.

Five Favorite Spy/Thriller/Intrigue Novels of 2014
There have been many years when I wouldn't even have a single title that could fit this category. But this year I got a bit of a bug and a good tip off on Eric Ambler. What they all have in common is they are a bit old fashion and don't have much, if any, violence. I unequivocally loved all of these.

One of the challenges I faced as I organized the fiction was whether or not to keep certain well-loved editions of books together or integrate them in alpha order with all of the other novels. In the end I kept the Persephones together but the NYRB and Viragos were split up.

Top Five Reads of 2014
In no particular order.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I picked this one up with a bunch of other new hardcover fiction to get a bit more current stuff into my TBR. In the end this was the only one I ended up liking and I really ended up liking it. It made me go out an buy all of her other books.
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A wonderful, if often tragic novel.
  • Birds of America by Mary McCarthy. Best known for her novel The Group, McCarthy has lots of other novels that are well worth reading. I took a particular shine to this one. I loved the main character and I love the fact that I picked it up by chance at a second hand book sale.
  • Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym. Not surprising a Pym makes the list. Full of Pym's amazing character observations and witty prose but with a rather bleak outlook. Think of Brookner with a sense of humor.
  • The Human Factor by Graham Greene. Easily the best of the thriller type books I read this year and a close second to The End of the Affair which I read in 2013.

This has nothing to do with the library but everything to do with cute.