I sorted fiction not by country but by the language it was originally published in. So the category English includes American, Australian, Canadian, &c. and Spanish of course includes most of Latin America… (PC-minded people, you’ll have to ease up if you’re going to read this blog. :) )
Most of the books you’ll read about here are so-called ‘literary fiction’ – a term that makes me cringe. But as I’m not at all averse to reading ‘genre’, that’s here too. Plus the odd children’s book. What you’ll never find here is romance and ‘chick-lit’!
We live in the future that we used to read about: our smartphones bear more resemblance to The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy than to Bell’s telephone and there are people living on a space station above our heads.When I first read about helicopters and submarines in Jules Verne at the age of twelve, they were already reality; it was then difficult to grasp that to the author all this had been a fictional future. Good for Verne. There are plenty of contrary examples: books in which the authors were so wildly off the mark that we can only wonder at what they were thinking. Science-fiction? In many cases, the word science ought to be crossed off.
Thirty-odd years ago I thought that the French author Montesquieu was enlightened, witty and clever. I based this opinion on reading his Persian Letters, an epistolary novel which details the experiences of two Persian travellers, Usbek and Rica, in France in the early part of the 18th century. Last month I picked up Persian Letters again… and found out what a change thirty-odd years made.
I started to look at photos of the soaring church towers of Spain the other day, thinking of turning them into a photo post, but by a series of those associations that you afterwards can never explain, I ended up with my tattered and bath-soaked copy of Graham Greene’s best novel in my hand instead.
Okay, so your work sucks and you only live for the holidays, right? Or maybe your work is the best thing ever, but even so you do go on holidays sometimes – right? So you need a book to read that’s just the right length for a short-haul flight.
(I’ll let you know my recommendations for long-haul when I’ve managed to get further than three hours’ flight.)
When I picked up El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha by Cervantes last week and opened it on the first page (okay, in my edition that would be page 113), and read,
En un lugar de la Mancha,
de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo…
In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen…
…I felt the heady effect of a sudden shift in time and space: all at once I was somewhere in La Mancha, under a harsh sun, confronting whitewashed windmills.
(Cervantes once looked at these.)
—¿Qué gigantes?—dijo Sancho Panza.
—Aquellos que allí ves —respondió su amo— de los brazos largos, que los suelen tener algunos de casi dos leguas.
—Mire vuestra merced —respondió Sancho— que aquellos que allí se parecen no son gigantes, sino molinos de viento…
“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.
“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”
“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills…
It is not often that you pick up a book – no matter how old, how famous – and you’re transported with such urgency before you even finished reading the first half sentence. But the unassuming En un lugar de la Mancha… must be the most well-known and memorable first line in Spanish-language literature – ever.
Somehow it doesn’t quite work the same way in other languages.
While reading a history of the Latin language recently, I came across one of the fables of Aesop – translated into English from Nahuatl. In case you’ve never heard of Nahuatl, it was the language of the Aztec empire and in consequence the lingua franca of Central-America up to the 16th century; it is still spoken in parts of Mexico.
The book in question is Ad infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler and I wouldn’t recommend it to the general public although if you do happen to be interested in historical linguistics and especially in Latin, it’s fine; all the more enjoyable if you can actually know Latin of course (sadly I don’t).
But what has a Nahuatl version of the fables of Aesop – who after all was Greek – got to do with the history of Latin?
Two years ago I read No One Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba) by Gabriel García Márquez on the train en route for a day’s hiking. (It was just the right length.) Yesterday it was the first genuinely nice day of the year, so we went hiking; and I re-read No One Writes to the Colonel on the train.
I mean the first time round I thought it was brilliant and my Spanish is two years better now.
A cross to keep away the ghosts from Gibbets Hill
View from Gibbets Hill
The Devil’s Punch Bowl
St Bartholomew’s Church
(The day’s hiking wasn’t bad either.)
There’s only one problem with No One Writes to the Colonel: I feel completely discouraged from picking up any of García Márquez’s other books ever again: there’s no way he could have surpassed this one.
In a city under siege, the bodies of gruesomely murdered young women begin to appear. And at every spot where the police finds a corpse, a bomb has fallen. Is there a connection?
This is the (brutally simplified) premise of The Siege, a historical novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. A novel set in Cádiz during the French siege in 1811 and 1812, in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, two years during what the Spanish call the War of Independence.
En una ciudad bajo sitio aparecen cadáveres de jovencitas asesinadas en una manera horripilante. Y en cada lugar en que el policía encuentra un cadáver, ha caído una bomba. ¿Hay alguna conexión?
Eso es la premisa (simplificada de manera brutal) de El Asedio, una novela histórica por Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Una novela ambientada en Cádiz durante el asedio francés en los años 1811 y 1812, la era de la Guerra de la Independencia.
There’s an Argentinian cartoon from the late 1960s-early 70s, about a little girl called Mafalda, whose exclamation, ¡Paren el mundo, que me quiero bajar! (Stop the world, I want to get off!) became an internationally known phrase. As we all have moments in which we want to get off (I did, yesterday afternoon), perhaps it might be a good idea if you keep The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at hand?
As the title suggests, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the only – electronic – book you’ll ever need if you should actually succeed in getting off by hitching a ride on a passing UFO. It will also provide you with light relief while you’re waiting by the roadside, as it were, with your thumb stuck in empty air as those heartless aliens are driving by without stopping.
Over a year ago I read an article by Mario Vargas Llosa, who was at the time engaged in re-reading War and Peace by Tolstoy. It was so damnably well-written that not only it made me re-read War and Peace myself but it also made me to read Mario Vargas Llosa.
El año pasado leí un artículo por Mario Vargas Llosa (enlace al final del post), quien en aquel momento se dedicaba a releer la Guerra y paz de Tolstói. Y estaba tan condenadamente bien escrito, que no sólo me causó volver a leer Guerra y paz, sino también me animó leer el propio Mario Vargas Llosa.
Last year I borrowed the title of this well-known spaghetti western of my childhood for an end-of-year post, choosing a book for each category. I don’t see why I shouldn’t cast a look back at this year’s reading and do so again… (And I hope you appreciate that I’m sparing you an embedding of Ennio Morricone’s theme tune to play in the background while you’re reading this!)
Okay, so there are books and there are philosophical books and when you hear the adjective philosophical in this context, you slam the book shut and run a mile or more, without so much as looking back – and by god, I don’t blame you. Twice I had to study philosophy at university and twice it bored me to tears.
Hay libros de los que no hay nada que escribir porque todo se ha dicho ya. Y hay otros de los que no hay nada que escribir porque lo único que puedes hacer es citarlos. Impresiones y paisajes por Federico García Lorca es uno de esos últimos.
La noche tiene brillantez mágica de sonidos desde este torreón. Si hay luna, es un marco vago de sensualidad abismática lo que invade los acordes. Si no hay luna…, es una melodía fantástica y única lo que canta el río…, pero la modulación original y sentida en que el color revela las expresiones musicales más perdidas y esfumadas, es el crepúsculo… Ya se ha estado preparando el ambiente desde que la tarde media. Las sombras han ido cubriendo la hoguera alhambrina… La vega está aplanada y silenciosa. El sol se oculta y del monte nacen cascadas infinitas de colores musicales que se precipitan aterciopeladamente sobre la ciudad y la sierra y se funde el color musical con las ondas sonoras… Todo suena a melodía, a tristeza antigua, a llanto.
Three quarters through War and Peace (for the fourth time; I’m blaming Mario Vargas Llosa),I’m in need of some light entertainment. You know the kind I mean: the sort of book in which you can just keep moving your eye along the line, keep turning the pages and never once be bothered by a single thought arising. A chewing gum for the mind.
So I dug out an outrageous space opera by Stephen Ames Berry.
My teenage daughter borrowed my copy of The Old Man and the Sea and read it one afternoon. I had been about the same age when I first read it, thirty years ago. “You’ll either love it or it will bore you to tears,” I warned. “It’s that kind of book.”
“I’ve finished it,” she said later at dinner, looking a bit sheepish.
“You didn’t like it.” It wasn’t hard to divine. She knows that it’s one of my favourite books. “You didn’t click.”
“No,” she said. “It’s just about an old man who went fishing. It’s boring.”
One of the bloggers I read writes a Twitter round-up for a proper website. I usually ignore it – I mean it’s a Twitter round-up, for god’s sake! – but the other day I decided to take a look. This had three immediate effects on me:
I had a fit of hysterical laughter – are these tweets for real?!
I congratulated myself for never having signed up for a Twitter account – I always knew no-one possibly can have anything worthwhile to say in 160 characters, especially on a daily basis.
I was at work – and I was angry. Somebody else c**ked up hugely, I was left to cope with the fallout and it was just all getting too much.
We all have days like that of course. Some people get so angry on such days that they end sticking the kitchen knife into the person responsible for their misery. (If you ever feel this way inclined, you’d better avoid taking a job in a kitchen – you’ll do much better in life.) I do stop short of knifing incompetent idiots at work but I was very angry so to take my mind of it I went to fetch a glass of water and sneaked a look at the next Everyday Inspiration prompt on my phone. It was, “Let the Scene Write Itself”.
How opportune when I’ve just read a book titled A Day of Anger.
Life is short and bookshelves are long… and it’s too easy to get suckered into a book, keep turning the pages, start philosophising or daydreaming and forget to live. So here’s five books you should avoid like the plague if you don’t want to become a book addict:
In 2001 the Belgian journalist Dimitri Verhulst was commissioned by a Flemish magazine to write an article and, in order to gather material, he had himself locked up in the asylum-seekers’ centre at Arendonk. His sojourn there clearly gave him more material that he needed for a simple article for he ended up writing a whole book: Problemski Hotel.
I came to read this book as a direct consequence of the recent Brussels bombing. I felt then, and I still feel, that if we allow terrorists to dictate the agenda, they half won the battle. And so I invited you all to take part in a reading challenge – to read a Belgian book. If we were going to talk about Belgium, I’d rather talk about Belgian literature. Of which, I had to realise, I knew absolutely nothing.
… other than being invaded in two world wars? (No disrespect, God knows they weren’t the only ones.) Admittedly, it also plays host to the EU but that’s probably on the Canberra basis – they couldn’t agree which, so they picked one in between. At least, that’s my theory.
On account of the EU, Brussels in recent years has acquired status as a swearword in most countries in Europe; or at the very least as a synonym for… well. Any number of negative things since the EU’s faults are many: lack of democracy, bureaucracy, common agricultural policy… [insert your problem with the EU here]. Playground swings which due to health & safety considerations will not actually swing (not to mention they even look the same all over Europe)!
When I travel anywhere I like to take a book that relates to the place I’m visiting. It’s usually a novel set there or a book on the history of the place – or more likely, one of each. Walking down Milsom Street in Bath after you read Persuasion becomes that just a little bit more special. The Torre de Oro in Sevilla seems far more impressive when you know its history. And so, planning to visit Venice soon, I recently embarked on re-reading the Alatriste series of Arturo Pérez-Reverte because Book VII, The Bridge of Assassins, is set in Venice. Those famous churches, bridges and canals will acquire a certain sinister significance when viewed through the eyes of the would be assassins of the Doge.
There’s a song by the English comedian stroke musician Mitch Benn titled The Hardest Song In The World To Find. Of the song in question there is only one copy left, and that’s stuffed in the wrong sleeve in a second hand record shop on Camden High Street. Although my interest in obscure music records is nil, I can fully sympathise with Mitch Benn’s sentiments because there’s a book that I couldn’t track down, not in thirty years.
I have recently read The Noise of Time, the new book about the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich by Julian Barnes, which my husband acquired on the very day it was published. He devoured it in a day or so and passed it on as he thought it would be of interest to me on account that I like Shostakovich’s music – well, some of it, at any rate – and because I grew up under communism.
Moscow Stations by Venedikt Yerofeev is one of those quirky… no, strike that… one of those weird, modern books that I’m not supposed to like. And, generally, I don’t like them. But every now and then something modern comes along – in my vocabulary that would be anything written after World War II although my detractors will cry ‘after the 19th century’ – which works for me. There was, for example, Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That has been a long time ago, but more recently there was Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, and now, Moscow Stations.