Bret Easton Ellis and The Other Dogs by Lina Wolff

bret easton ellis and other dogsTranslated from the Swedish by Frank Perry.

This is a book set in Spain told (mostly) by teenager Araceli about (mostly) the life of Alba Cambó, a fictional short story writer and Araceli’s downstairs neighbour. It’s definitely not about Bret Easton Ellis. (The blurb on the back is somewhat misleading – the part with the dogs happens at the end and isn’t a main part of the book in any way).

It feels more like a collection of inter-linked stories with Alba Cambó as the thread, rather than a novel. Information is very gradually revealed, often in other characters’ stories about themselves, and as the reader you piece together Cambó’s life, particularly her impact on others and what they think about her, although she’s still mostly elusive by the end. Although there are male characters, and male narrators, this is very much a book centred on the women and women’s stories.

I really liked the writing style and I found it an enjoyable read, so I’m not sure why I didn’t love it. It may be because I’m not into reading short stories at the moment, and this had a short story feel to it, but also because I wasn’t particularly interested in the character’s perspective in the final, largest, section. It’s the one part of the book which centres the kind of male character the rest of the book purposefully de-centres. I think Wolff does this at the end in order to further centre the women and solidify her themes, but I don’t think she pulls it off. Ending with a chunk of something I didn’t care about left me without any strong feelings about the book either way, and I had to think back to remember how much I’d enjoyed earlier sections and characters.

An enjoyable, well-written book, that almost-but-not-quite brings it all together.

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The Wall by Marlen Haushofen

The WallTranslated from the German by Shaun Whiteside

An unnamed women goes to visit friends in their remote cabin. She decides to stay behind when they go to the local village for the evening, and when she wakes the next morning finds they never returned. Outside, she is surrounded by an invisible, impenetrable wall, with no sign of life on the other side.

This is one of those books in which nothing really happens (except the last page or so), but, at the same time, in that nothing everything happens: the monotonous, hard work of mental and physical survival. Though she occasionally reflects on her isolation and the nature of humanity and its relationship with the world, the narrator is mostly just getting on with the physical labour of feeding herself and her animals. It’s also the kind of book you could have a lot of fun pulling apart and analysing to figure out what the wall is a metaphor for. It could be the lonely distance between people, the distance between modern human lifestyles and nature, or simply between humans and animals/the environment.

The Wall is written in the form of a diary the narrator is writing at the end of the book, looking back on her first few years of survival. The voices of the narrator in the past and the narrator in the future are both written in present tense, within the same paragraph, which does get confusing at times, particularly in the first half. I found the first half a bit of a struggle to get through, and I wonder if this may in part be due to the translation. It often felt like it needed editing, particularly where identical bland phrases or descriptions were used within a few sentences of each other but not in a ‘literary device’ way. I didn’t notice this much in the second half, which makes me think something Haushofer was doing in the first half just didn’t come through in Whiteside’s translation.

There are no chapters and no breaks indicated anywhere. This works well in terms of creating a feeling of days flowing into each other endlessly and removing the normal ways we mark time. I always prefer books with chapters, preferably short chapters, because I sometimes struggle to read without them. However there were paragraphs which felt like beginning a new ‘section’, which absolutely helped, but you just don’t know until you get there.

I’m in two minds about The Wall. I enjoyed the second half, and liked how the book as a whole focused more on the struggle of survival rather than seeking explanations for the wall itself. But the first half was not as well-written as the second, and a bit of a struggle to get through. It came highly recommended, so I suspect this may be one to read in the original German, if you can. I think it’s a book that you will either connect with profoundly or find a bit ‘meh’, depending on what you’re looking for. Though there was something in it that I loved, The Wall didn’t quite reach the profound level for me.

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang

the vegetarianTranslated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Yeong-hye is an unremarkable and mostly passive woman, living an unremarkable and passive life with her husband. Until she has a bloody and frightening dream. She becomes vegetarian (really vegan), in a culture where vegetarianism is rare, trying to find a way to atone for and live without the violence in the dream. Her family react negatively, aggressively, as Yeong-hye finds giving up meat isn’t enough for her, and goes further.

The story is told in three parts: from the perspective of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. The reader only gets a glimpse of Yeong-hye’s own voice in the brief re-telling of her dreams in part one. Sometimes when authors do this it makes the central character one-dimensional or caricatured, but it works really well in The Vegetarian. All of the people around Yeong-hye think they know and understand her, but they’re either unwilling or unable to actually hear her, and as a result project their own expectations and desires onto her, pushing her further away. As the reader, we feel like we know better than these narrators, but we don’t, not really, because we are unable to hear her either. Despite never getting a true understanding of Yeong-hye and her reasons for her behaviour, she still feels like a whole, real character.

The women in this novel are often oppressed by the expectations and/or violence of the men in the novel. In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, is successful and works incredibly hard, but also realises that her whole life has been working around, and occasionally placating the violence of, her husband and her father, and that perhaps this isn’t the life she wanted. Yeong-hye is beaten by her father as a child, raped by her husband when she is no longer ‘dutiful’, and sexually fetishised by her brother-in-law. It’s clear that the world of the book is patriarchal and misogynistic, but it’s not clear what Yeong-hye’s actions mean. Is it about taking control of her body for herself, regardless of what they may mean for her life? Or is it more about a kind of self-destruction in reaction to the world in which she lives? Perhaps it’s a little of both.

I loved the writing style. It has the kind of brevity and space to breathe that I like, but also some truly beautiful sentences. Each section, though each is told as a continuation of the story from the last, is written in a slightly different tense. Though this can be a little jarring at first as you orientate yourself, it helps you to adjust to a different perspective.

I don’t know anything about South Korean culture, so I have no idea if The Vegetarian is a comment on society there. But I actually don’t think that matters. It’s a book broadly about trying to understand a seemingly incomprehensible other person from your own perspective, about the relationship between humans and nature, about misogyny, about violence, about mental health, and about wanting a different kind of life.

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July reads 2016

What I read in July:

the lie treeThe Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (novel)

I have no idea why this won the Costa overall book of the year in 2015 (a rare thing for a children’s book). The first half of the book is surprisingly slow-paced, and what’s described in the blurb on the back doesn’t happen until half-way through, when things actually get going and become a bit faster-paced and engaging. Whilst the idea of the lie tree itself is interesting, the main themes and images in the book are laboured and repetitive. This leaves no space in the text for you to think and consider ideas so it all just washes past you. I read this for a book club, and someone there said that the book would be better written in the first person (from Faith’s perspective) and if it had started half-way through. Completely agree.

the emperor of all maladiesThe Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (non-fiction)

I spent most of my month reading this and I’m really glad I did. It’s a history of cancer and cancer treatment, from the first known recorded instances of what we now call cancer, through to modern developments in individualised targeted gene therapy, and includes some of Mukherjee’s experiences with his own patients. It’s written for a non-medic to understand, but never talks down or ignores complex scientific ideas. In this way it’s a book that basically answers the question ‘what is cancer?’ with ‘it’s complicated’, but as thoroughly as possible (it’s a long book with tiny print, but there’s still a lot he had to leave out. He talks a bit about some of the missing topics in an interview in the back of my edition). It’s the kind of book you describe as ‘ambitious’ and reminded me a bit of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari in its attempt at scope. I did find it a little too dense at times, and some parts could have been edited down without losing what it was trying to convey. As it’s quite dense, I’d recommend reading it alongside other books but it’s definitely worth your time if you have even a passing interesting in how medicine progresses (occasionally haphazardly) or in cancer and cancer treatment.

I'll sell you a dogI’ll Sell You a Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos translated by Rosalind Harvey (novel – Spanish in translation)

I really like Villalobos’ writing style – deceptively simple that can be read purely at surface level as an engaging story but with a layer of social and political satire hidden underneath. It’s effortless. I’m not that familiar with Mexican history, so I’m certain I missed some things, but even so I got a lot from it. It’s funny and smart and deals with class, artistic snobbery, older age, and revolution. Down the Rabbit Hole is still my favourite of Villalobos’ novels, but this one is still worth your time.

Currently reading: August is Women in Translation month (you can follow the hashtag #WITMonth on twitter) so I’m going to mostly read books in translation by women next month. Female authors are translated far less than male authors (seriously, the percentage is about 30% female to 70% male), so the idea is to increase awareness of female authors in translation, find some new books to love, and share them so other people can find them too. Below is my rough TBR for the month (plus a couple of non-WITMonth reads for books clubs) which I’m very excited to get stuck into. I haven’t been reviewing on here lately, but I’m going to try and review most/all of them in full, so watch this space!

Photo 29-07-2016, 14 14 54

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June reads 2016

I barely read in June. It was one of those months where I just didn’t feel like it, and mostly re-watched Battlestar Galactica. I don’t mind when that happens – sometimes you want to do other things – but happy to be getting back into it again (and enjoying what I’m reading, which wasn’t really the case in June). So, this month – a few comics and one novella:

kitchenKitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (fiction, Japanese in translation)

Translated by Megan Backus. I don’t understand why this is so lauded, at least, I don’t understand why the English-language version is lauded. I don’t read Japanese, but I’m pretty sure this was a terrible translation. It felt like it had been translated directly, word for word, rather than the kind of artful co-creation translating fiction needs. Though there was a small glimmer of the quality of the writing at the beginning of the short story at the end (Moonlight Shadow), it meant the book was clunky and repetitive and didn’t read well at all. And, although I know it was written in the 80s, I wasn’t comfortable with the constant mis-gendering of the trans character, Eriko, like this passage –

“There aren’t many men who will open a car door for a woman. I think it’s really great.”
“Eriko raised me that way,” he said, laughing, “If I didn’t open the door for her, she’d get mad and refuse to get in the car.”
“Even though she was a man!” I said, laughing.
“Right, right, even though she was a man.”

..even though she was a man…*massive eye roll*. If you want to read this, either read it in the original Japanese or find a different translation, and make sure your brain is turned on.

the beautyThe Beauty, volume 1 by Jeremy Haun & Jason A. Hurley (comics – fiction)

I really like the cover art, though the artwork inside is just generic comic book style. And I like the concept – an STD that makes you physically attractive, so people are trying to catch it, which turns out to be a very bad idea. The story, characters, and dialogue can be a bit thin at times, but it’s an enjoyable read and I’ll definitely pick up the next volume.

sex criminals 3Sex Criminals, volume 3 by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky (comics – fiction)

I’m not sure what I think about this. I enjoyed it, but also feel like it’s lost its way a bit. I like the meta elements of the way Sex Criminals is written, but they were very over-used in this volume. There was also little progression of character or plot, in a way that felt like Fraction/Zdarsky don’t really know where they’re going with it – like they had a fun concept but didn’t think much further than the first volume or two. I will pick up volume four, but if that one feels the same I probably won’t carry on the series.

bitch planet 8Bitch Planet #8 by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine de Landro (comics – fiction)

The only problem with this book is that the delays between issues sometimes lessen the impact. I really liked the subtle way Mr Makoto realised he was being lied to (made better by the note in the back pages about why the particular piece of music was chosen). Also from the essay at the back, DeConnick & de Landro actually spoke to trans women about including trans characters, and then made changes based on their feedback. A too rare thing. The next issue is called ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’. I am definitely here for that.

ex machina 2Ex Machine, volume 2 by Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris (comics – fiction)

I read this at the beginning of the month and can’t remember anything about it, except that it didn’t blow me away. I want to love this, and like a lot of the ideas, but it feels a little formulaic somehow. I have the third volume on my TBR shelf, which I will get to, but after that? Who knows.

Currently reading: The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukkerjee (non-fiction) – this is really excellent so far.

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May reads 2016

It’s already June! I didn’t do a lot of reading in May, and it was a bit of a mixed bag enjoyment-wise. In the order I read them:

a brief history of seven killingsA Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (novel)

This is one of those rare longer books that I don’t think could be any shorter. It’s not an easy read, but it’s worth your time. Brutal and violent and messy and genius. Full review here (though the competition has now closed).

Einstein's dreamsEinstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman (short stories)

This is an inter-linked short story collection that reminded me a bit of Sum by David Eagleman. I didn’t like Sum. Though I thought this was better written and more interesting, it hasn’t really stuck with me a few weeks later. If you liked Sum, check this out, but if you didn’t, give it a miss.

All SoulsAll Souls by Javier Marias (novel, Spanish in translation)

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. I’m a sucker for a campus novel, particularly those from the perspective of slightly disgruntled professors. There’s not a lot of plot to All Souls, but I really enjoyed much of the writing in this. It’s often very controlled and Marias has an excellent way of writing small set-pieces centred around minor characters. I particularly liked the section on the ageing porter who places himself in a different year/decade every morning. But despite this, I often also felt unsatisfied. I’m not sure whether it’s Marias’ style or Costa’s translation, but sometimes the writing would lose its control and a paragraph would go on a couple of sentences too long and labour the point/observation for no apparent reason.

a long way to a small angry planetThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (novel)

This isn’t as good as all the hype would suggest, and the writing style was too exposition-y and the pacing was a bit off. But, I really enjoyed it. It was absolutely what I needed when I was feeling under the weather and I’m definitely going to pick up the sequel. Full review here.

Currently reading: Ex-Machina by Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris (comic – fiction)

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

a long way to a small angry planetRosemary, trying to escape her past, joins the mixed-species crew of the Wayfarer, just as they take on a lucrative, but dangerous, job building a new hyperspace tunnel near a distant, violent planet. She’s hiding a secret, but so is nearly everyone else.

This, and the blurb on the back of the book, makes it sound like an action-packed sci-fi adventure, but it’s much more of a slow examination of how different kinds of people and races find their way together, with bits of action now and then which provide a framework. The book explores how people from vastly different cultures and races find ways to interact and work together, as well as issues around gender and sexuality. A Long Way is very optimistic, especially for sci-fi, as to what the future of human race will look like and how well different species/races accommodate each other. It sounds patronising, and I don’t mean it in a bad way, but I’d call this ‘cosy sci-fi’, in that, although some bad things happen, generally everyone is trying to do their best and get along with everyone else.

I wasn’t a fan of the writing style as it’s very exposition-y and everything is explicit. Chambers definitely tells more than she shows, and often does huge paragraphs of info-dumps. I think it would have been a better book with more editing and tightening up, and more trust that the reader can infer some of what she was trying to say. The pace also didn’t quite work. Whenever there was any tension or any problems, it would all get wrapped up very quickly and then largely forgotten about. It felt more like a television series – short episodes with a vague overarching plot.

A Long Way isn’t as good as the amount of hype around it, but it was exactly what I needed when I was feeling under the weather and, even though I didn’t like the pacing or the writing style, I’ll likely still read the sequel when it’s out later this year. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, pick this up if you’re looking for an easy, enjoyable optimistic read in which the characters make an effort, and show you how, to think and be with all kinds of people.

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