Sunday, December 9, 2018

European Reading Challenge 2019 Signup

Gilion at Rose City Reader is again hosting her European Reading Challenge. Since this is the challenge I most went over the top for in 2018, of course I'm going to be doing in 2019.

The idea is take a trip around Europe visiting different countries, a book a country. For full details see her challenge post. I'm signing up for the Five Star (Deluxe Entourage) level, which means five books, the same as last year, though, as I said, I got a bit carried away the last time...

I may get to one more book yet for this year's challenge, but if not, I've got Iceland, Montenegro, Sweden, and Denmark all piled up by my reading chair already.

Thanks to Gilion once again for hosting!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Antonio Tabucchi's Time Ages In A Hurry

Antonio Tabucchi was an Italian professor of Portuguese who taught at the University of Siena. Probably his most famous novel is Pereira Declares (also translated as Pereira Maintains) which is set in Portugal in the early years of the Fascist dictator Salazar. In it the detached and literary Pereira gradually begins to resist the Fascist regime. It is a great novel.

Tabucchi died in 2012 and until then I used to see his name on shortlists for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Time Ages In A Hurry is a book of nine short stories that came out in Italian in 2009 and was translated into English, by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani, in 2015. The stories relate, as you might guess from that brief synopsis of Pereira Declares, the intersection of the personal and the political.

For example, "Clouds," my favorite of the stories, is a dialog between tired Italian ex-soldier in his 40s and a precocious young girl. We gradually learn that she's an orphan, from Peru and adopted by an Italian family, and he served as a peacekeeper on that very beach where there is now the resort where they're staying. Presumably this is Croatia, though it's never specified.
-Don't you like going in the water? she asked. I think it's special.
-Special? the man repeated.
-My teacher told us we can't use awesome for everything, that sometimes we might say special, I was about to say awesome, for me going in the water at this beach is special.
In another, an elderly Jewish father in a Tel Aviv nursing home is visited by his son; the son is on a research sabbatical in Rome; the father is only intermittently aware he's no longer in Bucharest.

A public defender of political cases in Communist Poland is pained at the ironic joke of his career, but still manages to do good.

A Stasi agent looks up his own file and discovers his wife had been sleeping with his boss.

László, a Hungarian officer from a military family, manages to hold off the Russians for three days in 1956, even though everyone knows it pointless. That military action is the defining moment of his life.

Very good.

European Reading Challenge. Hungary is the one of those I still need.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Quentin Reynolds' The Curtain Rises

The Curtain Rises is a collection of the war dispatches Quentin Reynolds filed for Collier's Weekly in 1943. He goes to Moscow via North Africa and Iran and is in Moscow from April through June of that year. Then he heads back to North Africa again transiting through Iran; by the end of July he's in Palermo, on Sicily, now controlled by the allied armies. He's on General Mark Clark's command ship for the invasion of the Italian mainland in September; it's here he gets closest to the fighting of any of his stops along the way. With the allied armies on the Italian mainland, Collier's calls him back to the U.S. and by the end of the year he's home in New York.

It's an interesting book. Reynolds is not an analyst and doesn't pretend to be one; he's more a high-class merchant of gossip. His best stories, I thought, are the ones taking place just behind the lines: he meets (and drinks with) Ernie Pyle, John Steinbeck, FDR, Jr., Bob Hope along the way. He drinks lemonade with Monty--Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery--who was a teetotaller. Who knew? One of the best pieces describes Easter of 1943 in Moscow; the Soviet Union has captured the German 6th Army at Stalingrad not that long before.

I pulled this off the shelf for the 1944 Club, and started it at the end of that week, but didn't finish it in time. But it's a fascinating look at the period and it's interesting to see what they didn't see. It also makes a great pairing with John Hersey's A Bell For Adano, because one of the better pieces is about the allied military government in Sicily.

But he doesn't see, and part of the reason I slowed down in reading it once I'd missed finishing it for the 1944 club was precisely his political blindness. Reynolds seems to have been left-wing, but not Communist; Wikipedia tells me he got into a legal squabble after the war with the conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler, which Reynolds seems to have won. Maybe he felt he needed to say nice things about Stalin so long as Stalin was our ally. But one of the pieces is about the recently (in 1943) discovered Katyn Forest massacre, and Reynolds is so miserably wrong-headed about it, I couldn't bear the book for a while. In 1943, he couldn't know that the Polish officers had been murdered by the Soviets; he couldn't know about the secret codicil to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; he couldn't know about the funk that Stalin fell into after the surprise of Operation Barbarossa. But he could have known there were things he didn't know, and he didn't.

Anyway, interesting enough for its view of the time, and for its gossipy look at war as a boy's own adventure.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone

"Where can a person go when he doesn't know where to go?"
The protagonist of Jenny Erpenbeck's novel Go, Went, Gone is Richard, a retired professor of classics who spent most of his professional career at a university in East Berlin. He's a lonely man. Widowed and childless, he has friends, but at first even they seem to be drifting away. He had a mistress, which made the marriage not an entire success, but now she's gone, too. At the beginning of the novel he's just wrapped up all the rituals of retirement.

He passes, without at first noticing, a protest in a Berlin plaza; a group of African refugees are living in the plaza, Occupy Wall Street-style, trying to draw attention to their plight, and maybe acquire residency and work permits. Richard sees the events on television he'd scarcely noticed in person, but decides to draw up a plan for a sociological inquiry, and uses his emeritus status to get the authority to pursue it. Does he mean to do actual research? Not really. It's just to satisfy his curiosity and give him something to do.

And not a lot happens. He interviews refugees. He becomes more involved, maybe does some good, assuages his own loneliness a bit. The novel ends with the refugees no better off than they were 250 pages earlier, but at least not sent back to Italy, where there is poco lavoro, nor to their various home countries in Africa, where they would be at risk of their lives. They've fought the German bureaucracy and didn't win, but at least weren't utterly routed.

Why do we read novels? There's no one answer to that question, of course. There are different answers for different people and even different moods. I read Mrs. Pollifax on Safari a couple of days ago, and today this--very different, and enjoyed both. Sometimes I read for story, or for escape. But then one of the reasons I read novels is to experience and understand the problems of societies, both of others and of mine own. This novel is as close to purely political, even didactic as almost anything I've read, and yet it's still powerful and affecting; part of that comes from the deep, lonely sadness of Richard as he claws his way back into something like life.

Go, Went, Gone came out in German in 2015 and the translation by Susan Bernofsky came out in English last year. Germany is one of the better European countries on accepting immigrants, or at least Angela Merkel made it so, pledging to take in a million asylum-seekers, quite possibly it seems at the cost of her political career and the rise of the party Alternativ für Deutschland. And yet, at least according to Erpenbeck, maybe not all that welcoming. I don't quite know the timeline of all this because I believe it was also 2015 when Merkel made her pledge, so it's likely Erpenbeck was looking at Germany before Merkel's action. In any case the novel shows plenty of institutional resistance to admitting refugees.

Canada patted itself on the back for taking in just 25,000 Syrian refugees (and I entirely approved of that). As for the U.S., well...

A fascinating book.

She's German and it's very caught up with contemporary Germany, so it definitely fits...

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Nicholas Blake's The Corpse In The Snowman

A cheesy cover for a cheesy mystery.

The Corpse in the Snowman (1941) takes place at a country house during the winter of the phoney war. There are a few references to blackouts and gas rationing, but the war hasn't really impacted anything, including the plot of the mystery, which feels like the thirties or even the twenties.

Now Nicholas Blake is the pen name for Cecil Day-Lewis, who went on to become the Poet Laureate of the UK, so it is to be presumed he can write. He was a friend of Auden at Oxford, and maybe had some connection with sophisticated bohemian circles. But he knows nothing about drugs, and that's a problem.

Because his plot is structured around assumptions he must have garnered from repeated viewings of Reefer Madness and titillating articles in the yellow press. The first victim, Elizabeth, has had her life ruined after she was offered a marihuana (sic) cigarette in high school and was thereby turned into a sex maniac. And now it's about to happen to the next generation of children, her niece and nephew. Oh, noetry!

She (and the suspects) are gathered at her older brother's country estate. Did he murder her because of the scandal? Or his wife, because her inheritance would revert to her older brother? Did her younger brother do the deed because he was obsessed with her fall? Or is her demonic drug dealer to be found among the houseguests? Oh, dear. I have the feeling I gave something away.

It's not quite as obvious as that, but still Day-Lewis is not as clever as he thinks he's being, and regular mystery readers will foresee the last reversals without too much trouble.

And Nigel Strangeways, the genius detective, is just not that interesting here. I first became interested in the series because Strangeways was supposed to be based on W. H. Auden. This is the fourth I've read (out of fourteen). The connection between Auden and Strangeways grew less after the first novel and it's hard to see at all in this one, the seventh. Instead Strangeways is just another eccentric, but without any particularly interesting eccentricities and little skill at dialog.

Other mysteries in the series have been better, I thought. This one was a weak entry.

But it is definitely a December sort of read. And it's the last category I need for the My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Gold challenge:

Gold. When. During a weather event. There's a convenient snowstorm which both isolates the country house so that we know no outsider could have committed the murder, and provides an oversized snowman as a convenient place to hide a dead body...

Read it again, Sam 2019 Challenge Signup

And one more challenge signup from the smorgasbord of reader's challenges hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block: it's the Read It Again, Sam challenge.

Part of the reason I keep all these books around here is because I say I'm going to read them again. And sometimes I even do! But just to make sure...

Bev offers several levels for this one. I'm taking 16+, Living In The Past, the highest level. That's what I did this year, and while I've got one more book to go, I'm quite sure I'll finish the challenge this year.

Mount TBR 2019 challenge signup

The Mount TBR Reading Challenge is hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block and it challenges the reader to knock off those unread books that are piling up at home. The full rules are found here.

It's a challenge I need. Somehow new books continue to arrive. (How do these things happen?) I signed up for the Mt. Ararat (48 book) level this year and since I'm going to make that, it's time (in the words of Emeril Lagasse) to kick it up a notch. This year I'm going for Mt. Kilimanjaro, the 60-book level.

I have occasional thoughts about what books I might read in advance, but I never really know. The list will be determined in real time...

Thanks, Bev, for hosting!