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Tag: 20 books of summer challenge

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

I bought this when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize but didn’t get around to reading it right away. And then it won! So I put it on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. A novel originally written in Arabic by a woman author from Oman, it features multiple female characters and tells the story of social change in a little-understood region of the world. All this ticks a lot of my boxes, and the professional and GR reviews were very respectful, if a little mixed.

I’m glad I read this novel, and I’m still thinking about it, but I can’t say it was a fully satisfying experience. The theme is the social change of the country and the people through the 20thC, with an emphasis on three generations of women in an extended family and kin network. The reviews tend to single out three sisters in one generation (and they appear to be on the cover), but their mothers, grandmothers, daughter, and servants (formerly slaves) play equally important roles. We also read about the lives of the men in this community, most notably Abdallah, who is the father of the sisters and who gets the most POV pages.

The women’s stories focus on feelings and events surrounding marriage, childbirth, and their relationships with their parents, spouses and children. Even London, the daughter/granddaughter who is the youngest of the group and who becomes a doctor, spends more on-page time agonizing over her love interest and potential husband than anything else. Some of the writing about weddings and childbirths is very compelling. There is a description of the bridal and wedding process for one sister that gave me flashbacks, and there is a startling and effective childbirth scene. We spend a fair amount of time with Mayya after she has given birth and gone back to her family home for her post-partum rituals. If you aren’t familiar with extended family and kin networks in religious societies, you’ll learn a lot and even if you are familiar the characters’ stories will draw you in.

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20 Books of Summer: Books 1-3

It’s almost July and I’ve only finished three of my 20 books. Ack! Oh well, better than zero I suppose. One was for the Romance TBR Challenge and two others were on my list.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr.

So many people have raved about this book, including Barb and Liz, that I was sure I’d love it, and when I found a gently used copy in my local used bookstore I snapped it up. It has sat on my shelf for quite a while, though, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to dive it. It is a short book, more of a novella, and it was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1980.

I don’t know why I expected this to be a relatively spare, unemotional book because it’s quite the opposite. The language is lush and the reader is immediately enmeshed in the atmosphere of a Yorkshire village just after WW1. The narrator, Tom Birkin, is a veteran who has come to this village to uncover a mural buried under coats of whitewash in a village church. He is separated from his wife, suffering the aftereffects of battle, and generally at a not-great place. As he works on the mural he slowly makes connections with villagers and with another veteran who is working there and comes to a more peaceful place. The novel has been described as elegant and poetic, and it is that.

It took me a while for the book to work its magic on me, perhaps because I was (for no good reason) expecting a different style. I didn’t warm immediately to Tom himself, but when he started to interact with the villagers and become part of the community, it came to life. There are some sad scenes and some quite funny scenes (e.g. when Tom substitutes for Mr. Ellerbeck at a church meeting). Overall, though, it felt like a book written in mid-century, not the late 1970s. Reading Carr’s biography it is clear he was an unusual person, so that might account for the tone. Anyway, it was excellent, even if I appreciated it more than was captivated by it. I imagine if I read it a second time I will start raving about it too, though.


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Weeknote 10

Things are starting to heat up, what with getting ready to go on vacation, doing California house stuff, and herding cats I mean colleagues for work.

Work

I could just cut and paste from last week: admin, advising, etc.

I did get a book chapter sent off, though, so I can add something to the “my own damn work” side of the ledger.

Reading/Watching/Making

The biggest Reading/Watching event was the Champions League final between Tottenham and Liverpool, which Liverpool won comfortably. The score was 2-0 and Tottenham did press them, but a penalty to Liverpool 22 seconds in (inadvertent handball, but still a handball) meant the game took on a set cast very early. It wasn’t a pretty or exciting game, but I’ll take it, thank you very much. The team was fantastic this year and they deserved to come out with a major trophy at the end of it. Somewhere between 250k and 500k people jammed the streets of Liverpool for the victory parade, which is pretty impressive given the city population is 550k, and I’m pretty sure there are some Everton fans living there.

What does this have to do with reading, you might ask? Well, I’ve been reading David Peace’s wonderful novel about legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, Red or Dead, since it was published in 2013. I start it, get 100-300 pages in, put it down, come back to it, rinse and repeat. It’s a book for literary footie fans, which can’t be a huge demographic. But I find it wonderful and fascinating and I don’t want it to end. I picked it up again this spring and I’m more than halfway through (it’s over 700 pages of minute details about Shankly and the football seasons). The repetition makes it hypnotic and almost zen-like, and Shankly is the hero we wish we had these days. Far from perfect but utterly admirable. I think I’ve been unable to finish because I don’t want it to end, but now that we’ve won a trophy again and look like the team Shankly created, it might be time to finally read the whole thing. And I can always start over when I’m done, right?

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My 20 Books of Summer

I am once again joining Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, which she hosts at her blog. I’ve sworn off most reading challenges, but this one is a fun way to mark summer reading. There’s no pressure and you can choose whatever you want. Since I read 6-7 books a month anyway, it’s not about the volume for me so much as thinking about what to read in the stretch of the year where I know I have more time for all kinds of fiction.

The Man Booker longlist will come out in late July and that will create a bit of a crunch because I plan to read as much of it as I can, but I’m going to list 20 books anyway and see how far I get.

Translated Fiction

  • In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina: Yes, I’ve been reading this for ages. This is the summer, I swear it.
  • Compass by Mathias Énard: Énard’s most highly acclaimed novel and the one which most thoroughly engages with his interest in Orientalism.
  • Fox by Dubravka Ugrešić: This was on a bunch of awards lists and comes highly recommended.
  • Celestial Beauties by Jokha Alharthi: This just won the Man Booker International Prize. I bought it when it was longlisted but haven’t read it yet.
  • Valley of the Fallen by Carlos Rojas: A 1970s novel about Spain during Goya’s and Franco’s times. Recently translated by Edith Grossman and well reviewed but has not been talked about much.
  • Not to Read by Alejandro Zambra: A book of essays about reading, authors, and literature by the always-worthwhile Chilean writer.
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Devices and Desires and my problem with AU

I’ve read four more books this month. It hasn’t felt like that many, but one was in process, another was an audiobook, and a third was a reread from way back. So only one book really felt like a slog, and unfortunately it was the one I was looking forward to. I read and enjoyed Pamela Sherwood’s novella, The Advent of Lady Madeline, and Janine and SonomaLass both really liked the full-length novel that follows it, Devices and Desires, so I decided to try it even though I had mixed feelings about the sample. The novel was written before the novella and is modelled on the film A Lion in Winter (the author’s notes in both the novella and the novel are explict about that, calling it a “retelling”). The film, of course, is the film version of a play which fictionalizes the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their relationships with their children at a specific point in time. So you have a three-steps removed retelling of a famous historical relationship about which our information is decent but far from definitive, given that they lived in the 12thC. Moreover, the characters in the film are embodied by famous actors, who become fused with the characters themselves in our understanding of the latter.

I’m laying all this out because as I was reading I was experiencing the text at a variety of levels:

  • as a genre romance with a central relationship embedded within a family saga;
  • as an AU (Alternate Universe) version of real people as well as of a specific film version of those people;
  • and as a story set within a specific historical context, i.e., a ducal castle in Yorkshire, England in Christmas of 1888.

I had mixed feelings about the sample because the types of anachronisms I had observed in the novella seemed to be cropping up here as well, and on top of that I wondered about a couple of more substantive logic issues in the story. Gervase, our hero, rejects being a barrister and instead decides to become a solicitor because he doesn’t want to be dependent on either his father or other people for his income. But to be a solicitor requires three to five years of being an articled clerk to a solicitor (something the text notes), which the clerk not only has to pay for (to the tune of hundreds of pounds), but during that time he is not remunerated, or at least not enough to live on. So who is supporting Gervase while he qualifies?

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