Catching Up on 12 Germans in 2016

12GermansIn2016

I’m a bit embarrassed that I’ve let my own reading challenge slip, but it is what it is. Thankfully, August is Women in Translation Month and my chance to catch up. So here’s the plan:

You will have my review of Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar at the end of July, and in August, I’ll review Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, Julia Franck’s The Blindness of the Heart, and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina. That’ll put me back on track.

bronsky.pngAlina Bronsky was born in Russia. Her family moved to Germany in the early Nineties, where she first studied medicine and then worked as copywriter and editor. Her debut novel Scherbenpark (Broken Glass Park) was nominated for several literary prizes. Die Schärfsten Gerichte der Tatarischen Küche (The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine) was longlisted for the German Book Prize.

franckJulia Franck was born in 1970 in East Berlin, moving to a refugee camp in West Germany when she was 8 years old. She has worked as editor for and contributor to various newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 5 novels and a short story collection and the editor of one anthology. For her novel Die Mittagsfrau (The Blindness of the Heart), she won the German Book Prize in 2007. Check out this interview with Julia Franck on The Ledge.

bachmannIngeborg Bachmann was born in 1926 in Klagenfurt, Austria. After receiving her university degree, she worked for an Allied radio station, which published her first radio dramas. She became part of the legendary literary circle Gruppe 47. During her lifetime, she was mainly known for her poetry, but after her death in 1973, her prose work gained popularity, particularly among feminist readers. The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is one of the most important awards for literature in the German language.

The Book That Made My Slump Worse: Just Mercy

20342617It’s been a while since I last visited my own blog. I’ve been feeling rather depressed lately, and I just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for reading or writing. As you can imagine, that just made me feel worse. Books are my escape from the real world, and I’ve been miserable not being able to enjoy delving into other lives and worlds. Of course this slump happened right when I desperately needed a break from this messed-up world we are living in.

My slump started back in May, right around the time I read Just Mercy for the Nonfiction Book Club hosted by Doing Dewey. Just Mercy is a book that everyone should read. I have been thinking about it a lot for the past 2 months, and I have had long discussions about it, both with others and with myself. It has had quite an impact on me.

I believe in the death penalty. On a purely theoretical level, far removed from any exposure to any kind of jail or inmate and against what my faith tells me, I believe that there are crimes that deserve to be punished by death. Yet reading this book has convinced me, finally, that the death penalty cannot exist. Unless we can guarantee that the people who are involved in death penalty trials can be just, no one should have the power to decide whether a fellow person should live or die. And how can we possibly guarantee complete impartiality?

This question did me in, because, sadly, these days, we don’t have to look far or search hard to see that justice is hardly ever the first thought in people’s minds. How easy people are to form opinions and judge—whether they know anything about a situation or a person’s circumstances or not. It is trivial when it is about a celebrity’s wardrobe choice, but it can have lasting consequences when we are judging a person’s action in or reaction to a situation we know little about and often don’t want to know about. Whatever happened to giving someone the benefit of the doubt or the concept of being innocent until proven guilty? It is easy to claim that something is done for the good of the people, but it is often even easier to realize that these are empty words, a cliché that is used because it sounds good. Then we bicker endlessly over laws and regulations that in the end are just as likely to hurt people as they are to help them.  Can’t we use our brain power more efficiently?

None of the facts presented so eloquently in this book surprised me. What a depressing and saddening realization that was! Maybe it is simply part of human nature that we can so easily be blinded by greed and personal grudges, by racism and a false sense of superiority that we see nothing wrong with prosecuting people who need help rather than condemnation. I don’t want to think like this. I want to believe that people are better than this, but I see little evidence of it on a daily basis.

In the end, one fact mentioned in the book has stood out more for me than many others: Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison was built in the United States every 10 days. Every 10 days! That’s approximately 550 prisons. Just think if those had been schools instead, or even just after-school programs. How much brighter the future could look for so many young people if they had access to a good education and something potentially useful to occupy and challenge them.… Well, I could go on and on here, but I am rather sick of being sick of society.

I am slightly encouraged by my increasing awareness that at least I am not alone in my despair over the state of humankind. I could even smile a bit about the fact that my native language, known for extra long nouns, has provided the perfect word to describe that desperate state of mind. We’ve also just had a wonderful long weekend, spent with family and friends and little time for the news. It has reminded me that people can disagree, but still be nice to each other and have a good time. How could I let myself forget that? I vow not to let that happen again.

With that being said, I hope to soon shake off this slumpy feeling that has hung over me for far too long. I am yearning to lose myself in a good book once again. Do you have any recommendations for me?

Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, Heather Fowler

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When Melanie at Grab the Lapels asked me if I wanted to take part in a blog tour for a book called Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, I agreed mainly because of the book’s title. It’s unusual—as unusual as the novel’s premise:

Born with the looks and violence of a primate, Beautiful is raised on a compound that includes friends who are paid to praise her, designer clothes, and a mother and father who shield her with elaborate lies. No one dares risk her displeasure, so when she escapes on a road trip to meet her idol—radio host of the Strong as Animal Woman Show—it’s with the reckless confidence born of having never been held responsible for her impulsive behavior. Beautiful’s instincts cause mayhem, while her genuine belief in her own superiority colors her perspective.

I’m so glad that I took a chance on this book. It was such a wild and fun read—unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. Yet while there were lots of hilarious moments, there was also lots of serious stuff to think about. I truly admire all the imagination that went into this novel, but I think the best part is the perfect balance the novel strikes between fun and serious.

Seventeen-year-old Beautiful comes from a rich family; her every wish is fulfilled. She dresses in designer clothes and has access to anything she might want. She is completely unaware that actions have consequences. It takes Beautiful a long time to realize that having “friends” who are getting paid for being around is not a good thing. But you can’t blame her for it, since this is the way she was brought up. Do you blame her parents then for creating a person who can’t possible function outside of their compound? You can’t really, since someone who looks like an ape yet is aware like a human being couldn’t possibly lead a “normal” life anyway.

My unease about how Beautiful was raised and about what getting away from her current life might mean for her was balanced by all the comical events that take place when this self-assured, yet unaware, character decides to leave her parents. I don’t want to give away too much, but let’s just say that her interactions with a greaser, the police, a pair of drug users, a driver who isn’t quite sure whether he wants to be a man or a woman, a mysterious lover and possible mobster, and the radio show host who inspired Beautiful’s ideas of how life should be lead to some pretty wild situations that are full of astute observations, social critique, and hilariousness.

Truly, I hope you will take a chance on this book as I did. Most likely, it won’t be like anything you’ve read in a long time either. (You can purchase the book through the publisher, Pink Narcissus Press.)

I’d like to thank Heather Fowler, the author, to answer some of my questions about Beautiful Ape Girl Baby.

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My biggest question: Where did Beautiful come from? How did you come up with such a unique character?
I think Beautiful came from my rejection of the notion that women should have to accept a thousand slurs a year and consider this as the normal state of female existence. With her character, I wanted to display and upend that kind of invisible expectation. So Beautiful is a thinking person’s response to the idea that society can reasonably expect a double standard of degradation and devaluation based on gender to be blindly accepted by women.  She is kind, loyal, and strong—but takes no shit. Maybe her response to others who try to either take advantage of her or demean her  is overzealous at times, violent, powerful, as her magical/fabulist strength permits, or exaggerated for humor or satirical purposes, but she emerged, as a character, from my need to confront the idea that benign acceptance of media roles for women (sexy, soft, thin, harmless) is not natural at all. Nothing could be more unnatural.

The great “nature vs. nurture” debate certainly plays a role in your story. In addition, it’s a touching coming-of-age tale. But Beautiful’s adventure also fits in with the “Great Road Trip” theme, which can so often be found especially in American literature. In fact, I kept thinking of Thelma and Louise while reading the book. What inspired you to write this story? Was it one of these three “themes,” or was it something else entirely?
Thanks for this question! It was love. Love inspired me to write. Whether it was love for the idea of a stronger self hiding inside every woman or love for a world where Utopias can exist, I’m not sure. The travel trope came in because often I believe that an individual has to leave habit to reconceive every landscape. Road trips and travel change people. While there may be the same types of people everywhere: the cons, the criminals, the drug addicts, the sweet friends, the caring but oblivious parents, etc., when a person leaves “home” it is his or her reality in transition. Vibrancy of life and exploration are magnified. Beautiful had basic goals for herself when she left home—to know love, to feel acceptance, to really live in a way she hadn’t lived before.
Perhaps that alone is a recipe for humor and tragedy, wanting simple things so much and thinking that receiving them should be easy.

I really got a kick out of the parts where Beautiful turns into a therapist to help people deal with their problems. Those scenes were probably my favorite ones. Which part of the book was the most fun to write?
I like Thomas’s brief transition to female out in the desert—that was fun to write. But the whole book was a blast. I forbade myself nothing ridiculous. Here’s a funny thing, due to the humor in the text and how wild and free I felt as I wrote, I couldn’t even edit this book with people in the house. So much laughter from the typist is bound to draw questions, so writing near others often devolved into hilarious social interactions.  In terms of writing, most writers can tell you this is a strange outcome—where the act of writing increases the social narrative, rather than the opposite.

I could not guess the ending of your story until it happened. Did you know where the story would take you when you started writing? Or did the storyline change while you were working on it?
I knew from the beginning that the novel would build to a climax of a confrontation at Beautiful’s mentor’s house, which would further strip her illusions, but I did not know what her exact ending would be until I wrote it. Once I wrote it, however, I knew it had been foreshadowed all along.
I also knew that at the heart of this narrative, for me, was a question: If you know you cannot live in a society that champions fairness, or that a fair society is impossible based on the current state of affairs, do you go down outlaw style, on your own terms, or slowly wait to be assimilated?
Beautiful would not be assimilated.

This is your first novel, your previous publications being story and poetry collections. Was writing a full-length novel different from writing stories?
Oh, yes!  Writing a novel was dramatically different.  For one thing, since I’ve written hundreds of stories and poems, they are my go-to forms.  The novel was terrifying, represented commitment.  And there are times when you’re writing a longer text that you despair it will never see the light of day and/or wonder if it ever should.  But I had a lot to say with this book.  I’m glad I pushed through and allowed myself to live with these characters.  It opened the door for more long-form work.  Of course, I am also writing plays and librettos right now.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I am hoping readers are willing to take a risk and pick up this book because something I think about often is how much I cherish a text that makes me laugh aloud.  So much of literary writing doesn’t have exuberant humor.  It’s a wonderful thing when a book can cause convulsive physical reactions while registering as smart and deep at the same time. Maybe, in that way, I wrote the book I wanted to read.  I hope readers enjoy it, too.
For updates on Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, and other work in progress, I invite readers to drop in at my website www.heatherfowler.com,  Facebook, or Twitter and say hello.

Thanks again, Heather. I encourage readers to also check out the other stops on this blog tour. I particularly enjoyed reading about the book’s path to publication, which is discussed on Read Her Like an Open Book.

Recommended Reading for Anytime

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

I have Naz and his Diverse Books tag to thank for some wonderful time browsing my book shelves. For each of his prompts, I’ve listed one book I’ve read and one I would like to read.

Find a book starring a lesbian character.

Read: Frog Music, Emma Donoghue (“lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes”)
To Read: Fingersmith, Sarah Waters (“hypnotic suspense novel awash with all manner of gloomy Dickensian leitmotifs”)

Find a book with a Muslim protagonist.

Read: Ms. Marvel, G. Willow Wilson (Kamala Khan is no ordinary girl from Jersey City)
To Read: The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Mohja Kahf (“charts the spiritual and social landscape of Muslims in middle America”)

Find a book set in Latin America.

Read: Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Marquez (“the agelessness of the human story as told by one of our most evocative writers”)
To Read: The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Luis Alberto Urrea (based on Urrea’s real great-aunt, who had healing powers and was acclaimed as a saint)

Find a book about a person with a disability.

Read: Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, Sara Baume (a misfit man adopts a misfit dog)—my review
To Read: The Giant’s House, Elizabeth McCracken (the love story of a lonely librarian and a younger man forced into loneliness because of his monstrous size)

Find a Science-Fiction or Fantasy book with a POC protagonist.

Read: Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor (aliens in Nigeria)—my review
To Read:
Fledgling
, Octavia Butler (“the only vampire novel that explores modern-day racism”)

Find a book set in (or about) any country in Africa.

Read: Life & Times of Michael K, J M Coetzee (“goes to the center of human experience”)
To Read: The Memory of Love, Aminatta Forna (In contemporary Sierra Leone, a devastating civil war has left an entire populace with secrets to keep.)

Find a book written by an Indigenous or Native author (use tribal names if possible).

Read: The Dance Boots, Linda LeGarde Grover (an Ojibwe community struggling to follow traditional ways of life in the face of a relentlessly changing world)
To Read: The Swan Book, Alexis Wright (“reminds readers that the misery and upheaval promised by climate change has already come to Australia’s first people”)

Find a book set in South Asia (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc.).

Read: The River’s Song, Suchen Christine Lim (“like the immersion in a vivid dream”)—my review
To Read: Before We Visit the Goddess, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (a masterful, brilliant tale of a family both united and torn apart by ambition and love)

Find a book with a biracial protagonist.

Read: Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi (confronts the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold)
To Read: Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson (“an action-packed adventure into the world of the jinn”)

Find a book starring a transgender character or about transgender issues.

Read: Annabel, Kathleen Winter (In 1968, a baby is born who appears to be neither fully boy nor fully girl, but both at once.)—my review
To Read:
The Unintentional Time Traveler
, Everett Maroon (Jack suddenly finds himself in the body of a girl who defies the expectations of her era.)

My 15 Books of Summer

15bos

Cathy over at 746books is once again hosting her 20 Books of Summer challenge, running from June into early September. I’ve had such a hard time settling down with one book, any book, for the past few months that I am planning to be a little flexible with my choice of books. I’m also taking advantage of the 15 Books option. I’m also for now only listing 10 of the books I’d like to read. So, here we go…

For my 12 Germans in 2016 project, I plan to read Julia Franck’s The Blindness of the Heart, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Why We Took the Car, and Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.

For my Back to the Classics project, I would like to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (readalong over at Dolce Bellezza in June!), Dorothy West’s The Wedding, and Gertrude Bell’s A Woman in Arabia.

For the #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks project, I picked Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, and Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare.

I have Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition, and Sarah-Jane Stratford’s Radio Girls to finish.

And in August, I want to focus on women in translation again, with Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain, Nina Berberova’s The Book of Happiness, and Marguerite Duras’ The Lover.

Ooops, that’s 15 books right there. Well, we’ll see how it goes and what might strike my fancy as we go along.

Which books do you plan to read this summer?

Assignment in Brittany, Helen MacInnes

20160525_092613I bought this book on a whim last year, mostly because I got a kick out of the cover. The book was written in 1942—I was curious to find out what constituted “a haunting novel of romance and suspense” almost 75 years ago. When I came home with this book, I found out that Helen MacInnes was quite a prolific writer of espionage thrillers; her Wikipedia entry lists 22 books. Her 1944 book The Unconquerables carried such an accurate portrayal of the Polish resistance that some thought she was using classified information given to her by her husband, who worked for the British Military Intelligence. Assignment in Brittany was required reading for Allied intelligence officers who were sent to work with the French resistance against the Nazis.

No surprise, this is what the story is about. After France capitulates to Germany in WWII, Martin Hearne parachutes into Brittany to take the place of Bertrand Corlay, who is currently recovering in an English hospital. Hearne is to find out what the Germans are up to and whether the Bretons’ fierce sense of independence could be used to fight the Nazis. Hearne and Corlay look remarkably alike, and Hearne spent hours interviewing Corlay before leaving England. At first, everything goes remarkably well, and Hearne makes good progress spying on the Nazis. But Corlay had failed to mention that he is not in love with his fiancé Anne, that he is a selfish bastard who looks out for himself rather than for others, and that he might not be too upset about the Nazis’ arrival in Brittany.

While Hearne might be Corlay’s twin physically, emotionally, he is his opposite. He empathizes with Corlay’s mother, sympathizes with the suffering villagers, and—naturally—even falls in love with Anne. So not only does Hearne have to seamlessly fit into a stranger’s life, he also has to spy on the Germans while juggling being a nice guy impersonating a bastard. The story’s strength definitely lies in this psychological challenge.

At a time before cell phones, computers, and satellites, the spying was done mainly on foot, by asking questions and trying to figure out who to trust without acting suspiciously. All this is set up quite masterfully by MacInnes, although I thought Hearne’s frequent nightly excursions slowed down the pace of the story at times. That man spends a lot of nights running across fields! I was also more than two thirds through the book until I could say with certainty that the woman on the cover must be Anne. The relationship between Hearne and Anne went from 0 to 60 in an extremely short time—it was entertaining, but not entirely convincing. Thankfully, it was saved from too much melodrama by a little twist at the end.

HMThere were times when Helen MacInnes reminded me a little bit of John Le Carré, and if you like spy thrillers that are built on human interaction rather than gadgets and high-energy suspense, then give MacInnes a try. A lot of her books have recently been reprinted by Titan Books.

I read this as part of my Back to the Classics challenge and the Classics Club’s Women’s Classic Literature event.

Book Club Book: Room by Emma Donoghue

7937843I have finally found another book club! I am very happy about that. It’s nice to have a bunch of ladies to read and gossip with again. The first book I read for the club was one on my Women’s Prize Project list that I had dreaded a bit because of its subject matter: a young woman held captive for years, together with the child she conceived by her rapist. Thankfully, while I was emotionally vested in the story, it wasn’t as grim and horrible as I had feared. I will mention some things that happen in the second half of the book, so if you don’t want anything spoiler-y, you might want to stop reading now.

First, I have to say that I was surprised by the fact that the story is told from the child’s perspective. I didn’t expect it, and I was skeptical at first. I think it’s very hard to portray realistic child narrators, and since I have a child the same age as the narrator, I knew that I couldn’t help but be critical. But I felt that Donoghue pulled it off well. The particular voice of the narrator took a little while to get used to, but aside from that, I found it convincing. There were a few times when I thought the child acted older than his age, but heck, the circumstances would naturally have him act older at times. Simultaneously, they explain his naiveté at other times. All book club members agreed that it was a good thing we got to see everything from the child’s perspective, because otherwise, the story probably would have been too devastating. This way, we had some distance between us and the constant rape and threats.

Second, I was surprised that mother and child escaped halfway through the story. I assumed that would happen at the end, and again I was skeptical. But Donoghue proved me wrong here as well. It was fascinating to read about the adjustments to real life the two, especially the child, had to make. I would have loved more detail here, but the child narrator was the perfect way to keep some things relatively superficial. More detail probably would have bogged down the story. As it is, we got just enough to keep us thinking: the boy’s need to learn how to walk up and down the stairs or his eyes needing to adjust because they are not used to seeing anything at distance. There were a lot of little things that never occurred to us would be affected by the deprivation both mother and son experienced.

Naturally, the child also has to adjust mentally. His mother had to make up a lot of stories to explain a world that supposedly consisted of only one room. Most of those stories are of course unrealistic, and so the boy is in a constant state of wonder after the escape—much to the exasperation of many of the adults around him who are constantly confounded by his skewed sense of the world. It was a bit heartbreaking to see how well he could spell and do math, but how he didn’t know how to interact with other children on the playground.

My edition of the book came with an interview with Donoghue in which she explained her inspiration for the story. Not surprisingly, it was based on a real event, and sadly, most readers will probably have heard of that or a similar story. What did surprise me was that according to Donoghue, some readers thought she exploited the people who were held captive by copying their story. Personally, I had no issue with it; if anything, I felt greater compassion reading this book than reading a sensationalist news story (a point touched upon in the book, when some of the boy’s innocent observations make it obvious how hard people have to work to uphold the victims’ privacy).

Book Club verdict: The book is well worth reading and, in my opinion, deserves its spot on the 2011 shortlist for the Bailey’s Prize. And as I have been told by the one movie-savvy mom in our group, the movie is pretty good, too.