My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

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Summary from Goodreads:

When the unconventional Durrell family can no longer endure the damp, gray English climate, they do what any sensible family would do: sell their house and relocate to the sunny Greek isle of Corfu. My Family and Other Animals was intended to embrace the natural history of the island but ended up as a delightful account of Durrell’s family’s experiences, from the many eccentric hangers-on to the ceaseless procession of puppies, toads, scorpions, geckoes, ladybugs, glowworms, octopuses, bats, and butterflies into their home.

In a word: charming. In two: charming, delightful. This will be my new go to for when readers at my bookstore ask for a happy, easy read. A memoir-cum-natural-history-diary that reads like a comedic, absurdist novel (think Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons).

Depsite being so young at the time of the events described, Durrell is quite capable of plunging his reader into the world of mid-century Corfu. His depictions of the natural world of the island are so evocative you feel like you’re getting an animal’s or insect’s perspective of a world overflowing with all sorts of delightful flora and fauna. This will definitely appeal to animal and nature lovers as 10 year old Durrell constantly anthropomorphizes the creatures around him – the family pets (some of which are conveniently listed in the Goodreads description) are just as much characters as Durrell’s siblings.

And believe me, his siblings are characters. Look at this description of Durrell’s oldest brother Larry:

If any member of the family had a problem, Larry knew the best way to solve it; if anyone boasted of an achievement, Larry could never see what the fuss was about – the thing was perfectly easy to do, providing one used one’s brain. It was due to this attitude of pomposity that he set the villa on fire. (Page 186) 

I’m usually quite critical of those looking for a bright, easy summer read (don’t they know the best books are the tragic ones?!) but Durrell’s voice is so light-hearted and the world he inhabits is so evocative its hard to think of a criticism for this one. Recommended.

 

Scattered Thoughts on a Scattered Collection of Books

I’ve decided not to post a review for every book I read – to be honest, sometimes I just don’t have enough to say. I do, however, want to keep a record of my thoughts and feelings of everything I pick up. If only to avoid picking it up again.

The Pigeon by Patrick Suskind

Recommended by a colleague and friend, this was actually a pretty good read. It traces a day in the life of bank security guard Jonathan Noel who experiences an existential crisis after finding a demonic pigeon on his doorstep. At 80 pages its more of a novella than a novel so if you need a good “Kaffee und Kuchen” book (as my friend Anna would call it) then definitely pick this one up.

Can We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

A graphic novel/memoir tracing the last few years of the lives of Chast’s parents. An honest, funny, and tragic look at elderly care and the loss of one’s parents. Recommended.

Bolshoi Confidential by Simon Morrison

History of Bolshoi Ballet in Russia. DNF. Meh.

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

I was pretty excited to read this one after being recommended it by a colleague whose opinion I trust completely. It also suited my current reading mood which has been demanding books in translation. However this one is a DNF for me. In the introduction to my copy, William Boyd says that “the hilarious absurdity of the human predicament was as obvious to [Pessoa] as its inherent, melancholy pointlessness.” I’m as big of fan of melancholy pointlessness as the next person but this was relentlessly nihilistic and self-pitying. I didn’t make it far into this one so If I’m missing out by not giving it a proper chance let me know!

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler 

Although I was more critical of this one than Anna I’ll just give you the link to her review as it’s better written than whatever I would put out :):  https://thetsundokist.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/a-whole-life-robert-seethaler/

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

A re-read of the Canadian classic for a book club. Have to admit it didn’t quite live up to my memory of it. Still a great read but definitely overwritten at points – fewer metaphors and adjectives never hurt anyone.

Have you read any of the above? Please disagree with me! I love a good book debate 🙂 

 

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

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“I think its important what you’re doing… For anyone to understand a regime like the GDR the stories of ordinary people must be told.” (Pg 144)

SUMMARY FROM GOODREADS:

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell; shortly afterwards the two Germanies reunited and East Germany ceased to exist. In this book, Anna Funder tells extraordinary tales from the underbelly of the former East Germany, including the story of Miriam, who as a 16-year-old might have started World War III.

So this book combines two of my latest obsessions: Australia and Germany. I’m currently learning  German and plan on moving to Berlin in the next couple of years so even the slightest mention of the country sends me into a tizzy.

First off, Stasiland is very readable – when Funder recounts personal experiences I forgot I was reading non-fiction. Funder balances out these stories with a broad overview of German politics during the Cold War and I definitely felt like I walked away having learnt something. Notably, did you know that East Germany use to “sell” dissidents to West Germany?

But I do have to admit to being slightly disappointed overall. I think I was expecting something more in the vein of Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time with its plethora of experiences and perspectives. I really wanted more personal anecdotes about living in a divided Berlin. Another complaint: this might be me being overly sensitive but I cringed every time Funder used the word “cripple” as a noun.

Although I enjoyed the book and it definitely piqued my interest I can’t say I was ever really sucked in completely. Well-written but not addictive.

In The Darkroom by Susan Faludi

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According to Goodreads, In the Darkroom is “Susan Faludi’s extraordinary inquiry into the meaning of identity in the modern world and in her own haunted family saga. When the feminist writer learned that her 76-year-old father—long estranged and living in Hungary—had undergone sex reassignment surgery, that investigation would turn personal and urgent.”

Faludi’s book has been making a few appearances on “Best Of” book lists for 2016 and this, coupled with the stranger than fiction synopsis, had me immediately intrigued. Right away let me warn you that there is a lot tucked into one book here: biography, investigative journalism, WWII, Holocaust, and Hungarian history, identity politics (especially as it applies to women, transgendered persons, and Jewish people), art history, and myth-making to name a few. This is yet another biography that goes beyond the simple bounds of that genre. Faludi is thoughtful about all the topics she broaches, looking at them from both a personal and a universal perspective. Expect to walk away from this one with a lot to think about.

Beyond the politics, one of my favourite aspects of this book was the anecdotes of her father’s skill as a conman. He may be an asshole but he’s also quite impressive: managing to save his parents from the Nazis and manipulating the system so he could be approved for sex reassignment surgery. It is insanely depressing to think about how many stories we’re losing from the 20th century as the population ages. Most of the people Faludi interviews are at least 70 years old.

Few minor complaints: photography and manipulation of image are two very vital topics in both the life of Faludi’s father and the book – which left me perplexed at the absence of photos included in the story. Another issue: unsurprisingly I didn’t agree with Faludi’s views all the time and at points I thought she was quite judgemental about certain identities (especially transgendered ones). I chalked up her most confrontational moments to the influence of her father – how can one be unbiased when it comes to their own flesh and blood?

Has anyone else read this one? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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Summary from Goodreads:

One night Melanie walks through the garden in her mother’s wedding dress. The next morning her world is shattered. Forced to leave the comfortable home of her childhood, she is sent to London to live with relatives she never met: Aunt Margaret, beautiful and speechless, and her brothers, Francie, whose graceful music belies his clumsy nature, and the volatile Finn, who kisses Melanie in the ruins of the pleasure garden. And brooding Uncle Philip loves only the life-sized wooden puppets he creates in his toyshops. The classic gothic novel established Angela Carter as one of our most imaginative writers and augurs the themes of her later creative works.

Carter hardly needs an introduction. Her works have, alongside those of her contemporaries Rushdie, McEwan, and Ishiguro, become canonical. I’ve read her previously for pleasure and for Uni but I was especially excited to dive back in after reading  Edmund Gordon’s brilliant biography The Invention of Angela Carter. Seriously, if you haven’t read it get it right away – even if you’re not a Carter fan.

The highest compliment I could pay Carter is that I could never confuse her writing with someone else’s. Her stories, her imagery, even her sentence structure is just so original and so HER (you’ll know what I mean if you’re at all familiar with her work).

I found myself thinking of Carter’s collection of re-imagined folk tales, The Bloody Chamber, quite often while reading this one – perhaps in part due to her repeated mentions of Bluebeard. But even without these overt references its pretty easy to spot the influence of folklore on Carter’s writing: orphans, a baby being fattened up, the scary paternal figure, the rogue-ish lad, a setting that is both childlike and menacing, explorations of pubescent sexuality, etc.

I know Carter didn’t like to be pigeonholed but I can’t help but define her writing as a style of subversive feminism. She is obviously interested in the female perspective but explores it in such an uncomfortable way. Does this make sense or am I rambling? No matter what your perspective, conservative or liberal, I believe that Carter’s writing will have the power to make you feel uncomfortable. And this is a very good thing. Recommended.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

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Summary from Goodreads:

It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

Another debut! This one has gotten a lot of buzz at my bookstore so I was eager to give it a go (especially after loving debut novel Homegoing). But, alas, this was destined to be merely a good read rather than a great one. I don’t think the story will end up staying with me. All the elements were there: it was interesting, well-written, I was invested in the characters. I especially liked Bennett’s use of first person plural with “The Mothers” – the female elders at the local church who open each chapter as a sort of Greek chorus. I was also heartened by Bennet’s ability to stear clear of cliche – the young girl is not ruined by abortion; the black man wants to be a present father. But… I ended up feeling quite meh about the whole thing.

SPOILER ALERT – highlight below if you want to see. 

Especially the affair storyline and the ending. I was left unsatisfied by the whole thing and I didn’t quite buy into either romance: Luke and Aubrey or Luke and Nadia. 

SPOILERS OVER

Any other opinions? Am I being too harsh? I didn’t hate it; I just didn’t love it either

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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Spanning two continents and over three hundred years of history, Homegoing tells the story of two half-sisters, one sold into slavery and the other married to a white slaver, and their descendants. The novel alternates between the two bloodlines (don’t worry, there is a convenient family tree in the book so you can keep everyone straight) and manages to pack a wealth of stories, and histories, in a fairly compact space.

Wow. Just wow. What a debut. I’m usually quite skeptical of critically acclaimed first-time novelists (especially when they are as young as this – Gyasi was only 26 when this was published!) but this is deserving of all the hype. Engaging on so many levels – I loved the characters, the details, the myriad of experiences and perspectives on offer. The structure is incredibly inventive and effective – my only complaint would be that I wanted to read even more about each of the individual characters.

Race, gender, politics, power – Gyasi doesn’t provide easy answers or simple condemnations but expect to be engaged in discussions of all of the aforementioned. As I said before, it’s incredible what Gyasi manages to fit in such a small space (the novel is only about 300 pages long) but it never feels forced or overstuffed and she never loses sight of the personal stories in the interest of politics. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Playing Catch-Up: 5 Mini Reviews

So I haven’t been neglecting my reading but I’ve definitely been neglecting my writing. Here are a few books that I’ve read recently.

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey

Steeped in gambling debt and on the run from her creditors, Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda climbs a tree and, shortly afterwards, disappears. Her english translator, Emma, quickly flies to Brazil to solve the mystery of “her author’s” disappearance, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend and Yagoda’s daughter. Another brilliant recommendation from a co-worker – hilarious, fun, inventive, quick novel that revels in a love of language (reminded me in that regard of my favourite childhood book, The Phantom Tollbooth).  Highly recommended.

East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands

After being invited by Lviv (in Poland btw) University to give a lecture, writer and international law academic Philippe Sands explores the history of this extraordinary city in the 20th century: the birthplace of his grandfather and home of the originators of the legal concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity. I’m really not doing this book any justice by giving it such a short review. It is absolutely incredible. It explores both the personal and the political as Sands investigates the origins of international human rights alongside the personal stories of his family and the Nazis involved in oppressing the citizens of Poland. Highly intellectual and vigorously researched, this book is still immensely readable as Sands never loses sight of the human element. Highly highly highly recommended.

The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos by Dominic Smith

Alternating between 17th century Holland, 1950s New York and Sydney in the 90s, this novel explores the fate of the “last painting” of Sarah de Vos, the first woman to be recognised as a master painter by the Guild of St. Luke’s. I seem to be on somewhat of a roll recently and I was pleasantly surprised by this offering from Australian novelist Smith. I expected this to be a fairly fun and shallow read (and don’t get me wrong, it isn’t exactly groundbreaking or profound) but I was not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. I’ve admitted to being a bit of an art history nerd before so that probably had a role in my enjoyment but even if that isn’t your cup of tea I still suggest you check this one out. Recommended.

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

Following the death of both parents, orphans Julie, Jack, Sue and Tom create their own set of rules for living. But how long can they keep the outside world from looking in? Examining the not-so-innocent aspects of childhood, they don’t call him Ian Macabre for nothing. Not for the faint of heart. Another recommendation from a co-worker. I’m fairly familiar with McEwan’s work so I knew what to expect with this one. Short, unsettling, brilliantly written – I saw this as a modern fairy or folk tale. Orphans, death, sex, and cruelty – what more could you ask for? My major complaint would be that the more I read of McEwan the more I can see him coming. Is it just me or do most of his books seem to have the same sort of unsettling atmosphere to them?

The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch by Thomas Thwaites

I’m just going to leave you here with this short description from Goodreads and a picture of Thwaites as the “goat-man.”

In The Toaster Project…Thwaites set out to construct, from scratch, one of the most commonplace appliances in our kitchens today: a toaster. The Toaster Project takes the reader on Thwaites s journey from dismantling the cheapest toaster he can find in London to researching how to smelt metal in a fifteenth-century treatise. His incisive restrictions all parts of the toaster must be made from scratch and Thwaites had to make the toaster himself made his task difficult, but not impossible. It took nine months and cost 250 times more than the toaster he bought at the store.

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

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Thien’s novel spans the latter half of 20th century, looking at China through the multi-generational stories of an extended family. The political and personal reverberations of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the student protests in Tiananmen Square are carefully retold by two young women, Ai-Ming and Marie, who try to piece together their family histories.

I have a confession to make: I almost didn’t finish this one. I tried to read it immediately following The Sellout but the two were so disparate that I need a couple of books break between them. I persevered on my second attempt as I was excited to read a heavily praised work by a Canadian (yay Canada!) author.

I ended up admiring the book much more than I enjoyed it. It is beautifully written and perfectly marries the personal and the political – it definitely made me enthusiastic to read more about Revolutionary China. Her use of motifs, recurring images, and, oxymoronically, untrustworthy omniscient narration was nothing less than masterful. I could see myself writing countless essays on these topics alone.

But, and it’s a big but, I was terribly bored by the end of the novel. Although I’m usually a sucker for a sad story, the melancholy and detachment with which the story was told left me cold. I only found myself really invested in the characters a handful of times.

I truly wanted to love this book more than I did and I have a feeling my opinion leaves me in the minority as far as it’s concerned. At this point I have read all but one (My Bloody Project) in the Booker shortlist and The Sellout and Hot Milk remain, by far, my favourites. Any other opinions out there? What is your Booker 2016 top pick?

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

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Another book in translation! This was recommended by a co-worker and wow, what a recommendation. Written in 1937 but not translated into English until 1994, this compelling, strange and beautiful novel deserves a much wider audience.

I’m struggling to provide even a brief synopsis so forgive me if this falls short of the mark: newlyweds Mihaly and Erzsi are honeymooning in Italy when Mihaly divulges the history of his group of childhood friends who were strangely wound up in a world of make-believe that married eroticism and death. From there, things slowly but surely start to fall.

Thoroughly Modernist and thoroughly European, Journey by Moonlight is definitely a product of the inter-war period. A sense of detachment and disillusionment pervades the whole novel and at points it descends into absurdism. I loved it but if modernism isn’t your thing you may not enjoy as much. That being said: there were echoes of Victorian gothic fiction at play so don’t write it off completely if you enjoy mysticism. It also acts at points like a traveller’s guide to Italy so also don’t write it off if you enjoy travel literature.

I cannot recommend this book enough and I have to stop throwing adjectives at you so I’ll just leave this here: READ IT READ IT READ IT.