Monday, 9 January 2023

№ 34 reading list: Annie Ernaux

On my № 34 reading list, A Man's Place by Annie Ernaux · Lisa Stefan

Happy New Year! I decided to start the blog year with a new reading list which will also be the final one in this format. I'm thinking about giving the lists a break or turning them into round-ups where I recommend some of the books that I have read. Part of me will miss this format because it disciplines me to know what I will be reading a few weeks ahead. At the same time, it takes away the spontaneity when I get a new book that I want to start reading right away, but feel as if I first have to finish the books on my current reading list - a luxury problem, I know. Another reason for the change is that I would like to read more in German to get a better grasp of the language.

№ 34 reading list:

1  A Man's Place  · Annie Ernaux
2  Of Time and the River  · Thomas Wolfe
3  Letters of Leonard Woolf  · edited by Frederic Spotts
4  Útsýni  · Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir [Icelandic]
5  Dichter im Café  · Hermann Kesten [German]

Translated by: 1) A Man's Place: Tanya Leslie

Last year the French writer Annie Ernaux received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her book on the list, La Place in French, is about her relationship with her barely educated father and the gap that gradually forms between them as her education takes her onto the pathway to the middle class. A recurrent theme throughout the narrative is the importance he attributed to language: she describes an incident where he needs to sign some documents in the presence of a notary. The shame he experiences when he realises that the has misspelt a short phrase is way out of proportion. In this compact book of only 100 pages, Ernaux sometimes pauses to tell us a few words about the writing of it or to share her thoughts related to a certain memory. I read the English translation published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, which has already made 8 books by Ernaux available in English.

Books & coffee on a December morning (№ 34 reading list) · Lisa Stefan
A December morning with books & coffee

I fell for Annie Ernaux when I read The Years (№ 20) for the first time, a kind of memoir that vividly captures a certain period in history, remarkably narrated without the personal pronoun I. Last autumn I bought the German translation, Die Jahre, so I could read the book yet again with the English translation as support. I have also read I Remain in Darkness, which is about her mother who died from Alzheimer's. Reading it sometimes felt like being punched in the stomach because of the raw and revealing writing.

If you are interested in Ernaux I can recommend an episode of the TLS podcast (min. 27:40), broadcast after the Nobel Prize announcement. The writer Lauren Elkin was a guest and mentioned e.g. Ernaux's interest in the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. I first became familiar with his ideas when studying Museology and now I keep him in mind when reading Ernaux.

On my № 34 reading list: A new Icelandic novel, Útsýni, by Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir · Lisa Stefan
A coffee moment in January with a new Icelandic novel by Mínervudóttir,
a Christmas present from a dear friend

images mine, appeared on Instagram 28/11/22; 01/01/23; 02/12/22

Friday, 18 November 2022

№ 33 reading list: Keegan and COVID symptoms

On my № 33 reading list: Small Things Like These by the Irish writer Claire Keegan · Lisa Stefan

I have been holding off sharing this reading list because, instead of using Instagram pics, I wanted to use my camera to photograph the books with a cup of coffee and fresh flowers, perhaps. But I haven't been in the mood. Five weeks ago, I caught a mild version of COVID. I mainly slept due to exhaustion. The worst part is that I lost my sense of taste - 5 weeks without the taste of coffee! - and all books seemed boring. Should I take back the mild-version part? Let’s look at the books on the list, as I have yet to finish only one.

№ 33 reading list:

1  Pain  · Zeruya Shalev
2  Small Things Like These  · Claire Keegan
3  Night  · Elie Wiesel
4  Nemesis  · Philip Roth
5  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind  · Yuval Noah Harari

Translated by: 1) Pain: Sondra Silverston; 3) Night: Marion Wiesel

Claire Keegan's book, nominated this year for the Booker Prize, is a little gem set in an Irish town in 1985. It deals with a delicate subject: how the Irish Catholic Church got away with using young, pregnant girls as labour in convents and taking away their newborns after birth. Keegan says all that needs to be said, making the content of her 116 pages richer than many longer works of fiction. (I can recommend the film The Magdalene Sisters (2002; Peter Mullan), which deals with the same subject.) Another short but rich book on the list is the one by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He shares his experience in the concentration camps, Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and the reading is often painful. For years I have avoided reading the book; until now, I lacked the courage to pick it up.

In Nemesis, Philip Roth imagines a polio epidemic in his home town Newark in 1944, threatening the lives of children. Given that we are still dealing with the COVID pandemic, I wasn’t sure this was the right time to read about an epidemic breaking out. But it was fine. The book is well written (it won the 2011 Booker International) but perhaps a little too short for my taste. In the third part, we have reached 1971, and the narrator gives only a brief account of events since the outbreak. In this part, something was missing, and the sudden ending left me needing more.

I am wary of hyped books and tend to avoid books everyone seems to be reading at a given time and referring to as must-reads. Sapiens by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, translated into many languages, falls into that category. Yet, something kept pulling me, so I bought it for my son, thinking I could borrow it one day. I have now leisurely read the first part of four, and the book is promising. Harari’s approach is multidisciplinary; his writing flows easily.

The cover of Pain by Zeruya Shalev, on my reading list · Lisa Stefan
Pain is a novel by the Israeli writer Zeruya Shalev

I have a strange relationship with contemporary fiction. I keep up with news from the publishing world but rarely get excited about new novels. When I’m excited, it could be the book cover enticing me. The reading often leaves me disappointed, even frustrated or impatient. I decided to read Pain by Zeruya Shalev after reading a short interview with the French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani, in which she praised Shalev's writing. Pain is about an Israeli woman who survived a terrorist attack ten years prior but still is dealing with the consequences. It starts well but soon becomes one of those novels that I finish only to be able to express my opinion. Shalev’s writing has plenty of decent strokes, no doubt, but let's just say that I won't be rushing to the nearest bookshop for more. That is entirely on me.

I mentioned boring books above. One of those was supposed to be on the list, In Patagonia, a travelogue classic by Bruce Chatwin, but I gave up after a few chapters. At first, I thought my all-books-seem-boring COVID symptom was why I found the book uninteresting. But as I continued the reading when no longer bedridden, the writing style did nothing for me and its short chapters, more like anecdotes than chapters, felt too disjointed for my taste. I have said before that life is too short and precious for books that don't make the reading heart beat faster.

images mine, appeared on Instagram 31/08/22 and 14/09/22

Monday, 26 September 2022

№ 32 reading list: Woolf, Hardwick & new books

№ 32 reading list: The cover of The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Williams Maxwell, 1938-1978 · Lisa Stefan

Here is the reading list I promised. Perhaps I should have combined two lists into one because I have started reading books that will be on my next one. And I confess that I'm already looking longingly at books that will be on the list thereafter. One of those is Letters of Leonard Woolf. That would be the husband of Virginia, the man to thank for the access to her personal material, letters, diaries, etc. I enjoy reading letter collections, especially literary ones. Warner and Maxwell's letters on the new list, and in my image above, are gold. Each letter is well crafted and shining through is the mutual respect these writers and friends had for one another.

№ 32 reading list:

1  The Years · Virginia Woolf
2  Virginia Woolf · Hermione Lee
1  A Room of One's Own · Virginia Woolf [rereading]
3  The Uncollected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick · edited by Alex Andriesse
4  A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick  · Cathy Curtis
5  De Profundis and Other Prison Writings · Oscar Wilde
7  The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and
William Maxwell 1938-1978  · edited by Michael Steinman

On my new list is Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, which I'm about to finish and can highly recommend to all Woolf fans. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend Woolf's novel The Years. More on that disappointment later. My blog readers know that Elizabeth Hardwick is a favourite; on the list is a new essay collection and the only available biography of her. Now, let's look at a different list, my wish list.

The cover of Memoirs, the autobiographical writing of Robert Lowell
The cover of Come Back in September by Darryl Pinckney

Left: The autobiographical writing of poet Robert Lowell was published in August;
right: Elizabeth Hardwick on the cover of Darryl Pinckney's new book

The wish list keeps getting longer and I would like to mention two new additions. Come Back in September by Darryl Pinckney comes out in October. The book is about his friendship with Hardwick and the editor Barbara Epstein. Both founded the literary magazine The New York Review of Books and were best friends and neighbours on W 67th Street in New York. Memoirs came out in August, a collection of the autobiographical writing of poet Robert Lowell (he was Hardwick's ex). Critics have highly praised it.

My coffee table with books appearing on my next reading list · Lisa Stefan
A nod to my next reading list

images mine, appeared on Instagram 03/08/22 and 17/09/22