Friday, 27 February 2009

Friday miscellany

Anyone who also visits Mark Thwaite over at ReadySteadyBlog will know that the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced this week (Mark is one of the judges). One of my unofficial reading goals for 2009 is to read more fiction in translation so I’m happy with anything that gives me more of a clue about what’s out there. I’ve recently read two of the books on it (The Armies and How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone), both excellent but of which I preferred How the Solider Repairs the Gramophone. I’m happy to see it on here, as I think it’s a book that deserves to be much more widely read. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it makes it to the short list. I’ll also try and write up my thoughts on The Armies at some point.

This week also the announcement of the winner of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Writing - Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. I found out from Stephen Mitchelmore over at This Space (one of the judges) that one of my current reads The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman was the runner-up. Although Stephen didn’t notice any coverage for this book it did win the 2008 Index on Censorship Book Award, which is how I heard about it. So far so good, but I'll write up my thoughts properly once I've finished it.

But back to business with my thoughts on Fethiye Cetin’s My Grandmother: A Memoir (introduction and translation by Maureen Freely). I read this slim book in one sitting and very much enjoyed this spare but powerful story of how one woman survived the Armenian genocide in Turkey. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a personal insight into an often overlooked area of history.

As a child growing up in provincial Turkey, Fethiye Cetin knew her grandmother Seher as a loving, resourceful Turkish housewife at the heart of the family. This selfless woman thinks only of others and is available to all, acting as the provider of everything from "candles for the newborn to coffins for the dead". But as Fethiye gets older she slowly realises that this stalwart of her family and community has a story more extraordinary than anything she can imagine.

For most of her life, Seher's true identity as a Christian Armenian has been suppressed. She was born Heranus, to a well off family eventually caught up in the events of the genocide. After witnessing a massacre, Heranus is forced onto a death march in 1915 with her mother and brother. Both herself and her brother are ripped away from their mother, given Muslim names and sent to live and work in different Turkish households. As Seher (as she's now called) grows up, the memories of her true family and identity stay with her. But, for her own safety and the safety of her family, she keeps them hidden. Her tragic story is made even more moving by her knowledge that her parents managed to reunite in America, to be joined by her brother after his escape from Turkey. She lives, and eventually dies, with the knowledge that her remaining family continued to live many thousands of miles away from her.

Once Seher reveals her secret to her granddaughter, Fethiye discovers that her family’s true history acts as a microcosm of one aspect of the formation of modern Turkey. But politics doesn't interfere with the telling of what is ultimately a story about the strength of the human will. Maureen Freely's introduction also contextualises the story, reminding the reader how courageous Cetin is to write this story, in a country that not only doesn't acknowledge the genocide but also has severe repression of free expression.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone - Saša Stanišic

At the heart of Saša Stanišic's debut novel lies the real massacre of Muslim Bosniaks by their Serbian neighbours in the Bosnian town of Višegrad in 1992. The events are refracted through the eyes of the adolescent narrator Aleksandar Krsmanovic. Aleksandar wants to become as good a storyteller as his paternal grandfather Slavko by taking his grandfather's advice to "imagine the world better than it is". Using this child's perspective, Stanisic takes his readers on a tremendously imaginative journey through Aleksandar's childhood, as Tito's Communist dream finally turns to ash, though his adolescence, as ethnic tensions start to build, to his young adulthood, returning from exile in Germany to compare his memories to reality.

Slavko's death at the start of the novel is the young Aleksandar's first opportunity to flex his imaginative muscles, with an attempt to magic his grandfather back to life using the magician's hat and wand his grandfather had given him. But in spite of his childish belief in his powers, and in his grandfather's belief in him, this is Aleksandar's first taste of the futility of the imagination in the face of incontrovertible reality.

Aleksandar tries so hard to imagine a better world, in which his beloved river Drina can speak and his neighbours and relatives' stories co-mingle with his own like the Drina's tributaries joining her waters. His repeated desire to magically alter reality - "If I were a magician who could make things possible..." - becomes a moving reminder of how nothing can undo the events that overtook his life. Because just like the river, and just life life, his stories must move relentlessly forward.

At the emotional heart of the story is Aleksandar's protection of a Muslim girl with the "wrong" name. He and the girl, Asija, are playing together in Aleksandar's apartment building even though the building's overrun with Serbian soldiers, a brief reminder of how childhood continues even in the face of the horrors of war. When a soldier asks him their names he has a moment of clarity, when he clearly sees the power of names, of words, to alter the course of events, and protects this girl with a life. The fate of this girl - he never even found out her surname - haunts him even after he's fled to Germany with his family. From exile, he writes her letters that convey his dislocation and his desire to find out her story, what did her future hold?

The fabulous language jars with the brutal events at the novel's core but it also gives the novel its power. The fractured, anecdotal nature of the story heightens the horror Aleksandar's gradual understanding of the violence bubbling up in his ethnically mixed town and family. By using a child's perspective to narrate real historical events Stanišic emphasises the tragic absurdity of constructs like religion and ethnicity, while bearing witness to the horrific events that ripped through southern Europe only 17 years ago. Such a perspective also puts this novel in a tradition of writers that have used such perspectives to tackle historical atrocities (I kept thinking of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, despite this book being worlds away both in time and style). I also have to commend Anthea Bell's translation from the German. It's so skillfully done that at no point did I find myself self-conscious of the translation.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Emerging from the undergrowth

I've been silent on here for too long, especially since I've never planned on taking such a long break from blogging. But as the days turned into weeks, then months, my lack of posting developed into a block of sorts - the more I thought about posting the less likely I was to post. I had notions about using the new year as a chance to get back into blogging (I even had my first blogiversary as an added incentive) but I got sidetracked. Between having visitors and moving from Brighton back to London my reading was sparse enough in January, let alone finding the time or inclination to post. But, since I've been reading some tremendous books recently and my life has calmed down after a few unsettled months, I've realised it's time for me to emerge from the undergrowth and start to pay some attention to my space on t'interweb.

So this quick post is my way of doing some pruning and general tidying up before I resume business as usual.

Books read 2008:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi - Half of a Yellow Sun
Adiga, Aravind - The White Tiger
Atwood, Margaret - Cat's Eye
Baldwin, James - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Barker, Nicola - Darkmans
Barker, Pat - The Ghost Road
Barry, Sebastian - The Secret Scripture
Bioy Casares, Adolfo - The Invention of Morel
Boyne, John - The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Capote, Truman - Other Voices, Other Rooms
Cormier, Robert - The Chocolate War
Danziger, Danny & Gillingham, John - 1215: The Year of Magna Carta
Ferris, Joshua - Then We Came To The End
Gaskell, Elizabeth - Cranford
Ghosh, Amitav - The Sea of Poppies
Gladwell, Malcolm - Outliers
Grant, Linda - The Clothes on Their Backs
Hensher, Philip - The Northern Clemency
Jones, Lloyd - Mister Pip
Kelly, Julia - With My Lazy Eye
Kongoli, Fatos - The Loser
Lessing, Doris - The Fifth Child
MacCarthy, Cormac - No Country for Old Men
McCabe, Patrick - Winterwood
Miller, Candi - Salt & Honey
Pollan, Michael - The Omnivore's Dilemma
Samarasan, Preeta - Evening is the Whole Day
Sexton, Anne - Transformations
Stubbs, John - Donne: The Reformed Soul
Thackeray, William - Vanity Fair
Toltz, Steve - A Fraction of the Whole
Yates, Richard - Cold Spring Harbour
Yates, Richard - Revolutionary Road
Yates, Richard - The Easter Parade

Total: 34

Of which:

Fiction: 29
Non-fiction: 4
Poetry: 1
Debut: 12
Children/Young Adult: 2
Works in translation: 2
Female writers: 11

Some of the things my first year of blogging has taught me:

1. I don't "do" reading spite of loving them as a concept, I just can't seem to finish them. Mainly because I love the excitement of choosing books - such a good excuse to have a book-buying splurge! - but as soon as I "have" to read them I'll do nearly anything to procrastinate actually picking them up. Not a good trait to have with reading challenges so I'm going to avoid all challenges for 2009. Instead I'll try to finish some of the books I said I'd read for 2008 challenges, and possibly read some of the books picked out in other challenges (I love the list of recommended titles over at The Year of Reading Dangerously 2009

2. I read far too little non-fiction - a paltry 4 books in 2008. I've always thought of myself as an avid reader of non-fiction, especially history. I even did a joint English & History degree because I couldn't choose one over the other! But tracking what I read on here has forced me out of my self-delusion. I'm facing up to the fact that I'm primarily a fiction reader. Perhaps it's because most of my non-fiction energy is taking up with the daily paper, the Economist and the New Yorker? Who knows?

3. I read even less fiction in translation - an even more paltry 2 books in 2008. But I've already set to work rectifying this in 2009 (I'm currently reading How the Soldier Repairs the Gramaphone by Sasa Stanisic)

4. I love Richard Yates. He'd hovered at the edge of my consciousness for so long but when I finally read Revolutionary Road in early 2008 I was blown away (I even enjoyed Kate Winslet acting Leo Di Caprio off the screen in the film version). Since I've enjoyed two of his other novels in the past year I think I can officially declare that he's my current literary crush. I was also really impressed with Nicola Barker's compelling Darkmans and so am tentatively planning to read something else by her this year.