The Verdict and Other Stories (Das Urteil und andere Erzahlungen) – Franz Kafka

German Lit Month big Franz Kafka has been on my TBR list for some time and finally I decided to take the opportunity and read some of his work as part of German Literature Month, an event hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The book I have is an old but well-preserved Romanian translation printed in 1969 with a beautiful sepia color bordering each page so that the words seem encompassed in a sort of frame, a painting without the picture.
There are nine stories, and the first, The Verdict (Das Urteil), pulled me in right away with its beginning – a young man writing a letter to his friend who had gone to Russia years ago where he was supposedly working hard for some business or other. We also find out the young man, Georg Bendemann, lives with his elderly father and is engaged to a girl from a rich family. It’s not until the dialogue between father and son that something begins to feel amiss – it’s like suddenly getting a whiff of an unknown scent coming from a place we can’t pinpoint. It’s unsettling, slightly disturbing, and forced my mind, which until that point had a fairly linear thought process, to take a leap. I felt like I had to take sides – is it the father who has lost his mind or is it the son? Even the last sentence of the story adds more to the uncertainty and I loved that about it.

DSC01270 The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) is my favorite story from the book. I could very well argue that this is a horror story because how can it not be? Can you imagine waking up as a human size bug one morning?
Gregor Samsa’s nightmare begins when he realizes his shocking change just as he wakes up to go to work. The cause of the metamorphosis is never explained but through plenty of detail the reader is introduced to Gregor’s life following this amazing misfortune. Or is it not a misfortune after all? If you have read the story you might think I’m slightly off (or more than slightly) but it is clear the whole family went through a metamorphosis. Perhaps Gregor, as the dutiful son and breadwinner got the short end of the stick; it is however just as captivating to see his family’s reaction and the changes they go through as they adjust to their new life.
Interestingly enough, both The Verdict and The Metamorphosis begin in the morning. I found this clearly defined frame of time to add a realistic tone to the story ahead.
“Bug” may not be the best term to describe Gregor’s transformation. The edition I have refers to it as an “insect-like” creature. We have a specific word for that in Romanian which perfectly fits Kafka’s description.

On a personal note – I’ve had a couple of unfortunate encounters with bugs, the most recent one when I found one in my jacket pocket while taking a stroll through a park, not long after I finished reading this story. Maybe it was a reminder.

In A Country Doctor (Ein Landarzt) the author present us with a moral dilemma told from the point of view of an elderly country doctor who is called away suddenly to the bedside of a patient. An unexpected help presents itself – a man with two horses, ready to replace the doctor’s own horse that had died the night before. The doctor’s housemaid, a young woman named Rosa, helps the man with the horses but it’s clear the man can hardly wait for the doctor to leave so he can abuse the girl. The doctor doesn’t want to leave Rosa behind but somehow the horses take the carriage away before he can get down and he can hear her screams as the man breaks down the door. From this moment on the story takes a fantastical turn – the horses become agents of evil, and the patient, a young boy, is dying of a terrible wound.
Has this been just a wasted call? Did the bell, which rang in the night and whose voice the doctor always obeyed, lead him not to save a life but to lose two? Is this an allegory for something that happens in life? I found myself totally captured by the story and utterly immersed in the doctor’s predicament.

Some of the stories are quite short but not less powerful. Up in the Gallery (Auf der Galerie), which is something that brought to mind an “if – but” story (a term I just came up with), is a two page story that describes a scene at the circus. The urgency of the image presented is not less potent than a story sprawled across a dozen pages. It is the precision of every word and their capability to surge forward that create an emotion which cannot be explained easily. Not by me, at least.

Before the Law (Vor dem Gesetz) is the story of a peasant trying to gain access to the law. The way is barred by a guardian who, every time the peasant tries to go in, comes up with clever excuses to delay him – from warnings to accepting bribes to other ways in which he shows his power. This goes on for years when, at last, the peasant asks the one question which prompts a revealing answer from the guardian. The end is abrupt, and while we don’t find out why the peasant wanted to see justice done, it is, somehow, satisfying.

Eleven Sons (Elf Söhne) is a father’s description of his sons. It’s a case of a man who is never satisfied – one son is clever but not good looking, another is very handsome but lacks courage, yet another is nearly perfect but for the fact that he travels through the world, self sufficient and content, ignoring his father’s wish of starting a family, and the list goes on. Reading this story felt like watching a man who, no matter how many gifts is given in life still finds fault with all of them.

In A Report to an Academy (Ein Bericht für eine Akademie), a man is called to recount his experience as a monkey in front of distinguished members of an unnamed academy. He launches into lengthy descriptions of what he calls “his past life as a monkey”, starting with allowing himself to be captured by people, then talking about how he finally learned to do whatever was necessary to please his captors. I find this story more than slightly ironic, as if Kafka was poking fun at the origins of the human species by claiming the man’s life as a monkey ended but five years prior to this confession. Also, the amount of detail makes it hard not to believe the man – the story seems entirely plausible.

At first glance, In The Penal Colony (In der Strafkolonie) is a story of an execution. A famous explorer is invited to witness the execution of a man whose offense is punished by death. But beneath this obvious story there’s another layer, deeper and even more troubling than seeing a man being crushed to death by a man-made machine. It’s the story of a belief, an absurd belief, and a man willing to go to great length to show his devotion to it. Aside from The Metamorphosis, this was the most disturbing story in this collection because there was no way I could have guessed the horrible turn it took. And I could also argue that this one as well is a great horror story.

A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler) is the story of a man who fasts for days while being exhibited like some kind of freak in a cage, while people come to watch him. The fasting goes on for forty days, a period of time set by his manager as being the maximum time people will take an interest in this curious form of art. Of course this brings to mind the famous “15 minutes of fame” so prevalent these days. This could also be interpreted as a man choosing to display himself in front of others, risking their admiration, distrust and revulsion. It could also be a way of trying to get their attention by choosing to stand out from their midst, a person who’s doing something others don’t. I find the title very apt – aren’t many artists after all courageous people who are willing to brave people’s displeasure by displaying their art?

I loved my first encounter with Kafka. He scared, delighted, and surprised me. He’s fascinating, bold, and his attention to detail is worthy of the highest praise. I didn’t know what to expect from his writing and I confess to reading next to nothing about his books because I like to start on a new author with a blank slate and form my opinion of them with as little influence as possible. I will, however, read more of his work in the future, although I confess I’m a little uneasy (but also delighted and fascinated) by the prospect.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Read from September 29 to October 06, 2015

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November is German Literature Month

October was quite a slow month reading-wise. Life took over to such an extent that I simply could not focus on the printed word for too long. I managed to review a couple of books for R.I.P. XThe Ruins by Scott Smith and The Birth of Venus by Jarl Nicholl, both perfect for this event.

I’ve also participated for the first time in writing the Stephen King Message Board Halloween Story, a great project in which a few message board members contribute a segment to a story that gets posted on the forums on Halloween. This year the story had werewolves, gypsies, some great fighting scenes, an evil dwarf and, of course, a cemetery. I had a lot of fun and hope to replicate that next year as well.

German Lit Month big

This month I will be participating in German Literature Month, an event hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. I knew about the event for a few years but the last two were taken up with NaNoWriMo. This year however, I’m not joining in the mad, wonderful, exhilarating rush to write 50,000 words in 30 days so I decided it was about time to broaden my horizons by reading German literature. So far I’ve finished a collection of short stories by Franz Kafka, which includes “The Metamorphosis”, a story I’ve wanted to read for a very long time. It was one of the best stories I’ve read. I’ve also completed “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” by Erich Maria Remarque, whose wonderful dialogue will probably stay with me for a long time. Reviews coming soon.
As for future reading plans, I have The Black Obelisk by Erich Maria Remarque and The Trial by Franz Kafka. I’m rather favoring the former but we’ll see if time allows for both of them.

Are you participating in German Literature Month? What do you plan on reading?

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The Birth of Venus – Jarl Nicholl

I first came across Jarl Nicholl’s stories when Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat sent me a link to Unsung Stories, an online magazine that publishes fantasy, science fiction and horror. His story, Eternal Sleep caught my eye and soon enough I was deep into the world of an unreliable narrator living alone in a ‘rustic little house’. Here, in a windowless room he finds a statue, and the mystery of its provenance begins to burden his already tormented mind. You can read the story here. This sentence stayed with me – perhaps because I knew exactly how the character felt.

His skeleton felt as though it wanted out from under his flesh and he suffered from alternate bouts of hot and cold sweating.

Not long after that Jarl sent me The Birth of Venus for review. He can be found here, where he occasionally posts short stories like this disturbing little piece which can be read in one sitting Microfiction – On the Generation of Animals.

The Birth of Venus The Birth of Venus – Jarl Nicholl

Some horror stories are bizarre, like an image seen through a thick glass behind which fantastic shapes move in slow motion; others, like The Ruins by Scott Smith, are quite straightforward – you get a few surprises along the way but soon enough it is clear which way the story is going. The Birth of Venus belongs to the former category.

Maya, Breanna and Paul, are three teenage friends. Paul is older – he’s seventeen and he likes Maya, his sister’s friend. Breanna, Paul’s sister, doesn’t play a major role in the story; it is here and there that we get a glimpse of her as a thin thread that has brought Paul and Maya together. From childhood games like hide-and-seek, to playful teasing, the relationship between the two of them is innocent and in time could lead to something more. But Paul is shy and awkward and he can’t quite bring himself to do anything besides acting like a big brother.
It’s not until Paul sees Maya with a strange older boy that something really seems to start going wrong. Maya’s mother is suddenly afraid for her daughter’s life. Her ex-husband, Maya’s father whom she managed to run away from years ago, seems to have found them, despite the woman’s efforts to disappear. As his presence looms closer, Sandy, Maya’s mother, begins to remember terrible things from her childhood, things she had managed to somehow forget. And Paul suddenly plucks up the courage and feels it is his duty to protect Maya from anything bad that might happen to her.
It is not exactly clear what Sandy’s memories are, besides the fact that they hint at something that would leave deep psychological scars – images, actions, even incest is hinted at, but the image stays foggy, the glass opaque, hiding the horrors. Sandy’s story and Paul’s sudden courage bring about a rush of events that precipitate the end, a part I confess left me a little baffled. The author plays with time, manipulating the story and even though I liked the story overall, the end left me shocked, in awe, watching those fantastical shapes moving around with no clear idea of what they are. But then, maybe not all stories are meant to be understood. For some, it is enough to be read.

Image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

Image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

Many thanks to the author for providing me with a copy of the story for review purposes.
I’m including this in the R.I.P. challenge, an event that ends on Halloween.

My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Read in October 2015

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The Ruins – Scott Smith

Image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

Image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

R.I.P. X or Readers Imbibing Peril is my favorite event of the year. Not that I need another excuse to read horror, because I read it all year-round, but because this event brings together so many great bloggers and I get to read a lot of reviews and take notes for new books to add to that ever-growing to-be-read pile.

The Ruins is a great horror story. It delivers fast paced action, has interesting characters (more on that later) and it concludes in a perfectly shocking way. As I came to the last couple of pages and finally realized where the story was going I could not believe it. Between wanting to throw the book out the window (as if this could, in any way, change the ending) and simply stare anxiously at the next words, this has kept me on the edge of my seat for days. It’s not a story about characters, or sprinkled with purple prose like Adam Nevill’s House of Small Shadows which is also an excellent read – it’s a straightforward narrative brimming with horrifying events that seem to escalate with every page.

The Ruins It starts quite innocently – two young American couples, having a great summer adventure together before heading off to university, dreaming of weeks spent lazing around on a beach in Mexico. They become friends with the Greeks, two guys who seem to be looking for a good time, just like their little group. Then they meet Mathias, the quiet German whose brother had left for a mysterious place, leaving behind a note with a hand drawn map. Together they decide to go and find the place, a Mayan archaeological dig at an old mining camp. And so the horror begins.
There are signs, subtle at first, then more obvious, that the place they’re trying to find should, in fact, be well left alone. Their bus driver tries to warn them, the people in a village try to warn them, but due to their inability to communicate clearly why they shouldn’t go there, the travelers choose to ignore them. If you were on your way to a mysterious place on your holiday, would you heed the warnings or keep going, hoping for adventure? That’s an interesting question. I felt that the author used the language barrier conveniently not only in this case but also when it came to the Greeks who didn’t speak any English, yet adding another layer of doubt and discomfort for me as a reader.

The travelers arrive at their destination. They find Mathias’ brother but this is more a case of “be careful what you wish for” rather than occasion for celebration. The tension is palpable, and this adventure pushes their limits, both mental and physical. There’s the heat, thirst, hunger, and the mental distress of facing a situation with little hope of positive outcome. How they react, what they do – and don’t do – life and death decisions that must be made, discoveries they stumble upon as the truth of what that place is starts to sink in, it all adds up, escalating in a finale of horrific proportions. It’s true that the characters act stupidly at times, their flaws obvious in the decisions they make, but I can forgive that – they are after all, young and just looking for a bit of adventure. Who goes on a relaxing three week holiday to the beach thinking they’ll have to go through a terrifying ordeal? Still, this was the main reason why I didn’t give this a 5 star rating.

I kept closing the book and picking it up again and again. As much as I love horror – and telling myself this is just a story – at times I found it difficult to keep reading. There are graphic passages and disturbing scenes so this is definitely not one for the squeamish. But curiosity and an engaging narrative won. I got to the end. It was unexpected. It was perfect. And it was terrible.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in September 2015

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Guest post – Stefanie

There’s not much left of October. Fall has been quick in coming to this corner of Europe but summer has made a brief visit so we had a few nice warm days lately. I had planned on writing a post or two for R.I.P., which is my favorite event of the year, but I’m still working on that one as a few more stories have come my way and I’m very excited to read them. In the meantime, I’d like to introduce my guest blogger for this month, Stefanie, whose blog So Many Books, is a place I stop by with the greatest pleasure. She’s also a blogger who loves to interact with her readers, a fan of the outdoors, and she has a garden, a cat, and works in a library. Thank you, Stefanie, for being my guest for this month, and for the lovely pictures of your library.

1. Who are you?

That’s a loaded question! Seriously though, my name is Stefanie and I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota with my husband and two cats and next spring will be adding a small flock of chickens to the party. I have been blogging for twelve years and it has been great fun. I work as a librarian by day and in my free time I am an avid gardener and cyclist. I’ve also been vegan for over twenty years.

I didn’t know you were a vegan. Obviously I will have to read your blog more often. Did you post any vegan recipes? I’d love to see them.

2. Why do you blog and what is your blog about?

I started blogging because I didn’t have anyone to talk about books with except my husband and while he’s great, our reading interests don’t overlap much. Over the years I have “met” so many wonderful people and made a good many friends, something I never expected. It’s been so much fun I keep going and will continue until it stops being fun. My blog is about books and reading and all the stuff that goes along with that. A couple years ago I began dedicating Sunday posts to what was going on in my garden and this year when my casual cycling enjoyment exploded into passionate pursuit, I added biking stories to my Sunday posts as well. The rest of the time it’s books, books, books.

IMG_1002 3. Favorite books/authors/genres.

It’s easier to say what my favorites are not than what they are, but here goes. My go-to favorite genres are literary fiction, science fiction/fantasy, essays and poetry. Favorite authors include Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, Ann Leckie, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Adrienne Rich. As for favorite books, those would be ones written by my favorite authors.

I’ve heard of Ancillary Justice but didn’t know the name of the author. Thanks for mentioning Ann Leckie, as a fantasy enthusiast this must go to my TBR list.

4. Kindle or paper book?

I like both. I have killed two Kindles in seven years. Frustrated by that and Amazon’s horrible business practices, I now have a Kobo Touch. I pretty much only read digital on my public transit commute to and from work as well as during my lunch breaks, or if I am traveling somewhere. Otherwise paper is my preference.

Some people may find this question boring but I’m always curious to see what people choose. All my friends who have Kindles actually prefer paper books. Looks like the Kindle wins for convenience but not much else.

5. Three things you learned from a book.

How to create a permaculture garden (Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway), how to build a chicken coop (How to Build Chicken Coops by Samantha Johnson), and how to make a vegan chocolate cake (Simply Vegan by Debra Wasserman)

Simply Vegan – another book to add to the TBR pile. Thank you.

6. Best book to take with you on a desert island.

An e-reader with a solar charger and a wireless connection. Is that cheating?

Only a little bit. But you get points for creativity. 🙂

7. Best book to use as a doorstop.

The American Heritage Dictionary in hardcover. Though I would never actually use it as a doorstop, it is an impressively huge and lovely book!

IMG_1003 8. Favorite quotes.

“The words loved me and I loved them in return”

from the poem “For Mama” by Sonia Sanchez (I am going to have this quote tattooed on my arm for my birthday next spring, I can hardly wait!)

“If you have a garden and library, you have everything you need” (Cicero)

I love both quotes, though I’d have to add “chocolate” to Cicero’s. That would be perfection.

9. Three tips for bloggers.

Be part of the community — comment on other’s blogs and reply to comments on your own blog. Don’t worry about how everyone else does things, find your own way.
Be yourself.

Great advice. I appreciate bloggers who respond to comments. Not all of them do.

10. Best/worst blogging experience.

When I was contacted two years ago by Oxford University Press for permission to print one of my blog posts in a college textbook for freshman composition classes.

That is a wonderful accomplishment. Congratulations! I’ve read the article and agree with it even though I am a meat-eater. But maybe that will change.

11. What are you most passionate about?

Besides books – libraries, free speech, organic gardening, climate change, sustainability, animal welfare and bicycling.

12. Last book that made you cry.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Why?

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Guest post – Dolce Bellezza

Last month I was complaining about the heat. In the humidity of Bangkok, brought on aplenty by the rainy season, life was monotone and stifling. Now, as I’m writing this from an apartment back home in Europe while tree branches are literally knocking on my window and autumn has brought on the cold and rain, it’s difficult to believe that only a few weeks ago I was in such a different world. But such is life, and many times I got what I wanted but not exactly the way I wanted it.
Now, as I am trying to construct a semblance of a routine, between hospital visits, cooking, reading, and occasional meetings with friends and family, I am reminded that life does go on and so will this blog and it’s time to introduce this month’s guest – Meredith, who blogs about books over at Dolce Bellezza. I have liked her blog for quite some time for many reasons, one being that she reads so many wonderful books I’ve never heard of, and another, equally important (perhaps even more important) is the quality of her posts which often leave me wanting to read more. Thank you, Meredith, for being my guest blogger this month.

 

1. Who Are You?
Many of you know me as Bellezza, some of you know me as Meredith. When I began blogging about books in 2006, I wanted to be anonymous as I didn’t quite know where this would go. Now, 9 years later, it doesn’t seem to matter so much any more. I send my address to publishers on a regular basis, and I’m sure the postman thinks someone named Bellezza lives in our house.

I live in a suburb of Chicago even though my heart resides in Italy. (The first time I left Italy, when only 8 years old, I cried so deeply I can still remember it acutely. I hold on to a hope that someday I can live there full time.) I have taught elementary school since I graduated from college, a whole career of time, so my job and my parents keep me here. It’s important to me, though, to be with my family and fulfill my professional obligations until I retire in 2018.

 

2. What is your blog about?
The identifying tag for Dolce Bellezza reads “~for translated and literary fiction”. Perhaps it is because I have such a passion for the world abroad that I love translated fiction the best. My passion grew when I hosted the first Japanese Literature Challenge and became fully aware of famous Japanese authors as Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogawa and Yukio Mishima. Then, when I read as part of the Shadow Jury for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for the last three years, the world of translated fiction became a broader spectrum. Events like Stu and Richard’s Spanish Literature Month, or Tamara‘s Paris in July are wonderful opportunities to read translated literature. Eagerly I anticipate Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month coming this November. We all enrich one another in this book blogging world.

 

3. Kindle or paper?
Although I love my Kindle, and Nook(s), and iPad, nothing will replace the scent of a book, the feel of pages turned. They may be cumbersome, they may be heavy, but I will always love a real book best.

 

4. Favorite quotes:
If I would tell of the book from which I record the most quotes, I would say the Bible. However, lest I turn this into a post on Christianity rather than literature, let me share with you some quotes from a book I enjoyed so much this summer: Where the Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jodorowsky:

“Wisdom above all, acquires wisdom. Make it great, and it will make you great. It will confer an adornment of grace to your head, a crown of beauty will it yield you.”

“If a wise man is one who knows that he doesn’t know, then at this moment I’m a wise man.”

“If you wish to possess everything, you must not possess something that is nothing. Leave what you have behind.”

 

5. Best book for a doorstop.
Anything by Nora Roberts.

 

6. Favorite books.
I had a hard time with this question because I can never narrow down my very favorite books! I guess if I had to answer I would say:

1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (for the atmosphere)

2. Possession by A. S. Byatt (for the ending)

3. The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood (for the ways each character faced Zenia, a disastrous woman)

 

7. Best book to take with you on a desert island.
That would have to be the Bible.

 

8. Three tips for bloggers.

Don’t think about stats.
Write about your passion.
Visit others and comment as often as you can.

 

9. What are you most passionate about?

my family
Christianity
books
teaching
the woods
blogging
origami
quiet time to reflect
French perfume
beautiful shoes

 

10. Last book that made you cry.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I think that it will win the Man Booker this year for the power of emotion it is able to elicit from its readers. The wonderful women with whom I participated on a Shadow Panel formed by Frances were divided on this book. Some felt that technical errors in writing, including its enormous length, keep this from being a contender. But, it is included in the Booker short list, and I eagerly await October 13 when the winner will be announced.

Finally, a few pictures from my study. My husband and I put it together this summer, converting it from my son’s room into a place where I can read and write. I wish you could sit with me in it now, and we could discuss all the wonderful books we know.

 

library 2 easy chair

 

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Guest post – Lynn

I don’t know where August has gone. It seems as if it almost never was and here we are on the last day of the month, which means it’s time for the guest post. This month’s guest is Lynn, who blogs at Lynnsbooks. She is one of the most prolific bloggers I know and how she manages to read and review so many books in such a short time is a mystery. Many thanks to Lynn for agreeing to answer the questions.

1. Who are you?
Lynn! I have a blog called Lynnsbooks.

2. Why do you blog and what is your blog about?
I started blogging after the electronic book diary I had been keeping was accidentally deleted. Blogging was an easy way for me to write up what I felt about a book and for it to be more permanent for me as a record. At the time, I never expected anybody to read any reviews to be honest. It was purely for personal reasons. My blogging is mainly book related. I review the books I receive or buy. I also take part in various events and challenges throughout the year which are all book related and a good way of keeping focus on the books I like. Occasionally I write about films or travel.

3. Favorite books/authors/genres.
This is too difficult – too many to choose from. I’ll go for something slightly different – Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – these were all teenage novels that I read and loved and had an impact on my reading. Tolkien – for my love of fantasy, Du Maurier for a love of great writing and Mitchell for epicness – let’s not forget the romance with this one (although I’m definitely not a big romance reader).
Three authors – Neil Gaiman, Mark Lawrence and Patrick Rothfuss – basically I love their books and their writing style.
Genre – mainly fantasy, occasionally sci-fi and sometimes horror. Basically, I love a bit of escapism, sometimes I enjoy something a bit different and on the odd occasions I like to be scared and given the goosebumps.

4. Kindle or paper book?
I would normally say paper book for this – because I love the feel of the book and the smell of it, the cover, the pages, just everything. Paper will always be my first love but electronic is more and more becoming my first choice – it’s great for reading epic fantasy because it doesn’t have the same weight; it’s great on your bookshelves; you can take a whole bunch of books on your travels rather than choosing just a few; you buy a book and it’s with you immediately; it’s easy to bookmark things, make comments or look up words. Yeah. I do tend to choose electronic books more often than not these days.

5. Three things you learned from a book.
Obviously reading helps your grammar and vocabulary but for the moment I don’t think I could pinpoint anything in particular for this one.

6. Best book to take with you on a desert island.
That would have to be a collection of stories by one of my favourite authors – that way I can cheat and take more than one!

7. Best book to use as a doorstop.
Well, reading fantasy usually means reading rather huge books. Not sure I’d use the books I love as a doorstop though – I’ll perhaps go instead for War and Peace. I haven’t read it but it does seem to be a huge book.

8. Favorite quotes.
A lot of my quotes come from The Lord of the Rings‘Fool of a Took’, for example. I’ll go for:

‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door…’

(Lord of the Rings)

‘There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife’

(The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman)

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’

(Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

9. Three tips for bloggers.
Enjoy what you do. Don’t overtask yourself. Take the time to chat with other bloggers.

10. Best/worst blogging experience.
The best experience for me with blogging is the overall one of meeting other bloggers and being introduced to new books that I would probably have never picked up. The blogging community is a great place. I feel like I connect with people all the time about the books I enjoy and want to discuss and it’s great having a means to vent all your book discussions with like minded people.

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Mr Mercedes & Finders Keepers – Stephen King

Mr Mercedes Mr Mercedes is a departure from the usual shiver-inducing stories of Stephen King that I am used to. There are no spirits or other supernatural elements. For once, this novel doesn’t feel like a piece of fiction written for the delight of horror fans, although King has written some novels that are not horror. Nevertheless, when I say Stephen King my mind goes straight to Needful Things, Salem’s Lot, Misery and of course The Shining, one of the scariest stories I have read.
In spite of that, Mr Mercedes, King’s first hard-boiled detective novel (the first in a trilogy), still manages to infuse the reader with a sense of uneasiness. It’s a very real uneasiness, because it feels so anchored in reality it’s scary. Perhaps King has decided that some monsters are real. This is the fictional story of one of them.

Bill Hodges is a retired detective who spends his days watching TV and playing with his father’s gun. The idea of suicide is never far from his mind, if only he had the courage. But one day he receives a letter that shakes him from the torpor he had been steadily sinking in. It’s a taunting letter involving an unsolved case. Suddenly Hodges has something to wake up for in the morning.

Brady Hartsfield is an apparently ordinary guy working two jobs which provide him with ample opportunity to study the people living in the neighborhood and their habits. His relationship with his alcoholic mother verges between that of a dutiful son and something else. Something not quite right. But then, there are plenty of things not right with Brady, and King is masterfully showing the readers just how messed up this character is. One of the things I like about King’s villains is how he manages to make them sympathetic to the reader to some degree. It’s a murky zone – I want to hate the guy for what he had done and also what he plans to do, but in a tiny corner of my mind I can’t, not completely. Brady is a meticulous planner – what he has in mind is destruction, and he doesn’t care what happens after. Unfortunately for him, his careful planning backfires a few times. Luckily for him, this also creates problems for his enemies, so all is not lost.

It’s a race against time that plays nearly to the end of the novel, as Hodges tries to avert a disaster that is going to destroy many lives. Two people are helping him, Jerome and Holly, unexpected allies in this battle against evil. Ultimately, this is what this novel is, good versus bad, those who try to destroy lives and the ones who try to save them. It’s a good action packed thriller, and my only complaint is that this is a little too close to real life. People are shooting each other these days, planes crash, bombs go off, and terrorist attacks are not just a thing of imagination. This is real, this is the world we live in. For my part, I’d rather read about a haunted hotel or a loved one come back from the dead. Or even a crazy fan willing to kill for the books they love. Which brings me to the second book in this trilogy:

Finders Keepers Finders Keepers

John Rothstein is living his old age on a farm in New Hampshire, when one night three masked guys break into his house and steal his precious treasure, his notebooks that contain a lot of unpublished material written since he went into seclusion, years ago. Now it’s 1978 and just like Annie Wilkes in the famous novel Misery, Rothstein is about to meet his greatest fan.
This time however, there will be no prisoners, and this time Rothstein’s greatest fan is a guy, Morris Bellamy. Morris has a plan – to steal the writer’s notebooks and perhaps discover another novel about the famous Jimmy Gold, the character who made Rothstein famous. Morris isn’t happy with the way things ended for Jimmy Gold. He is, in fact, quite upset and disappointed, but then maybe the notebooks will reveal what he had been hoping for – a comeback of his favorite character as the former badass that he was.

Things veer off course for Morris, and the carefully constructed ambitious plan falls by the wayside. The irony, Morris thinks as he spends the best years of his life locked up, is that he isn’t even jailed for what he did that night but for something he doesn’t even remember doing.

Years later, when he gets out of prison, all he can think about are those notebooks and how he’s going to read them, unpublished material read by only one pair of eyes: his. But what he doesn’t know is that once again, plans don’t work out the way you want to just because you want them to. And Morris is still the same guy, stopping at nothing to get what he wants, not caring if people might get hurt in the process. Morris Bellamy’s obsession had become his life goal.

Like in Mr Mercedes, there is a part of me that doesn’t like the bad guy but also a part that pities him. I love books totally and completely, I love being lost in a story, and I could see (to some extent) why Morris did the things he did just to hold in his hands the work of a beloved author. I feel that this is the very idea that sits at the foundation of this story. Like in the first book, King doesn’t shy away from unpleasant scenes – if you’re squeamish about graphic scenes you’ll be uncomfortable at some point in reading this book.

There is no strong connection between these two stories – the only thing they have in common is three of the characters who now work together to solve a new case. These characters have an emotional connection but knowing their background is not necessary to enjoy this story. In fact, I’d say that I liked Mr Mercedes more because I felt the suspense King created was dispersed in good doses throughout the story and the finale was worth waiting for. King also left room for more creepiness to come, so it didn’t feel like a finished story. Finders Keepers however, feels complete.
I’m really looking forward to reading the third installment in this trilogy, End of Watch. One of the characters from Mr Mercedes is going to make a comeback and I can’t wait to see how it will all end.

*Read in July-August 2015
*My rating: Mr Mercedes 4/5 stars                                                                                                Finders Keepers 3/5 stars

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 6 Comments

How to save a wet book

I had an interesting weekend. We were supposed to go to the beach but due to car problems we had to put that on hold. Saturday evening, when I came home from the city, I saw something that filled me with joy and horror in equal parts. A book, lying just inside the yard, soaking wet because it’s the rainy season and it’s now pouring daily, even twice a day; near the book, scattered white bits of paper – the remains of a torn envelope – with a bookmark and a note from Book Depository.
The book was a gift from my blogger friend Priya, one that I’d won in a giveaway (second book I’ve won this year, that’s something) and one I had been wondering about for days. Well, I wondered no more. I picked up the book which was now so wet I was able to squeeze water out of it, then proceeded to think about how to restore it to a readable shape. This is something I hoped I never had to learn – how to dry a wet book.

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About 80% of it was as wet as it could be, while the remaining pages were by some miracle only partially wet. It’s a good thing it’s a thick book, otherwise I may have had to peel it from the tiles. I stood it up in front of a fan, trying to see if I could separate the pages. I was afraid they would be stuck together dry and I would never be able to pull them apart without ripping. Needless to say, I gave up on that pretty soon. After a few hours, when it wasn’t that soggy anymore, I used my hairdryer. The book spent the night in front of the fan.

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The next day I checked on it from time to time, rifling through the pages, which to my joy and eternal gratitude did not stick together, then put it on the balcony to get some sun, while keeping an eye on it. I wasn’t going to let a second downpour ruin my efforts and I was able to take it away before the next sudden storm made a mess of it. The book spent a second night in front of the fan.

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By now it’s pretty much dry. It’s been raining on and off these days and the humidity is giving me curly hair, not to mention giving the book curly pages. I am relieved and happy that I was able to save the book. I’m going to need to use some glue on the back cover but I’m waiting a couple more days before I do that.

How did the book get to be on the ground instead of in my mailbox? And why was the envelope shredded so thoroughly only a few pieces remained? That mystery was solved upon closer inspection of the book. I found teeth marks, courtesy of my dogs who love chewing on paper. Fortunately the marks are in the upper area of the book and not on the text. I guess they got bored pretty easily once they saw it wasn’t edible. My guess is that the postman stuck the book in the iron-wrought gate, then the storm came and the book fell. My dogs took over from there and disposed of the envelope in a very efficient way.

I am not mad at the dogs but I am mad at the postman. How do you leave a paper package stuck in a gate during the rainy season? Why didn’t you leave me a note in the mailbox so I could go pick up the book at the post office like I’ve done before?
Well, no point in dwelling on the why’s now. I have a new book to read. And this one’s been through a lot, which makes me love it even more.
Many thanks to Priya for her lovely gift. This will be my first Salman Rushdie book and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

Posted in Giveaways | 12 Comments

Guest post – Andrew Blackman

IMG_0271_2 This month’s guest is Andrew Blackman, author and blogger. He has written two novels, On the Holloway Road and A Virtual Love and I’ve read both, the latter being the first book I read in electronic format. He was also the first author who continued to respond to my emails making me believe there isn’t an actual parallel world where writers create unbelievable works of fantasy and we the ordinary mortals are just lucky to read said works. He was also the one who encouraged me to submit my novel for publication, therefore prompting me to finally finish the thing which would have taken a lot longer to complete otherwise. I know writers are very busy people and so I was very happy when he agreed to do this interview.

1. Who are you?

I’m a writer from London. I’ve had a couple of novels published in the UK, as well as hundreds of short stories, essays and articles. I used to live in New York, where I was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, but now I’m travelling long-term around Europe with my wife, and we’re paying for the trip by doing freelance work online as we go. My third novel is in progress.

2. Why do you blog and what is your blog about?

I started the blog back in 2008 because something terrible was happening to me: I was reading lots of great books, and then discovering that after a year or two I had no memory of them whatsoever. I wanted a place to blog about my reading, so that I had a record of what I’d read. Since then it’s expanded a bit — after becoming a published writer I started to write more about writing, and also to do a bit of awkward self-promotion for my latest books — but still it’s writing about books that I enjoy the most. In fact I almost never refresh my memory by reading old posts about old books, but the process of writing the reviews, and of discussing the books with knowledgeable, enthusiastic fellow bloggers, solidifies them in my memory anyway.

3. Favorite books/authors/genres

I can’t give an honest answer to this kind of question. I love Jorge Luis Borges, Milan Kundera and John Banville, but if I name them as my favourite three authors, then what about Joan Didion, or Vasily Grossman, or Kazuo Ishiguro, or R.D. Laing, or George Orwell, or Edward Said, or Jamaica Kincaid, or… It’s just impossible. I’ve never been the sort of reader to fall in love with one writer/book/genre and read in that little corner over and over again—I prefer to read widely, always looking for the next new discovery.

4. Kindle or paper book?

This is something I’ve blogged about a couple of times. The bottom line is that I’ve had a Kindle for a few years now, but still prefer real books. Because I am living an itinerant life, I am almost exclusively buying ebooks at the moment. But when I’m settled in one place, I think I’ll go back to buying almost exclusively print books, only using the Kindle for an occasional 99p punt on an author I’m not sure about.

5. Three things you learned from a book.

When I was about eleven or twelve I read War and Peace, probably my first “adult” book. I discovered how a good writer could create a whole new reality. It took me months to get through the book, and I really felt part of that world, which was so different from my suburban London reality. It made me want to create those worlds myself.

When I was much older I read Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, and discovered that fiction was a much more malleable thing than I’d realized. Many of Borges’s stories are not stories—they use non-fiction forms, or deliberately misquote from other books. He plays with form and narrative structure, writes mysteries and detective stories as high literature, and has stories with no real plot at all. The book completely redefined for me what short stories could be.

I’ve also learned a lot from non-fiction books about the way life really works. I studied history at Oxford University, but there were massive gaps in what we learned. I had to read Eric Williams’s Capitalism & Slavery to discover how extensively British economic development was financed by the profits from the slave trade, Britain’s Gulag by Caroline Elkins to discover the mass imprisonments, killings and torture administered in the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, and so on. It’s not just Britain, either—all around the world, most of what we now consider to be normal has some pretty ugly origins.

6. Best book to take with you on a desert island.

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. There’s lots in there about acceptance and serenity, which I imagine would be quite important if you’re stuck on a desert island.

7. Best book to use as a doorstop.

A Game of Thrones. I’m enjoying the TV series, but couldn’t stomach the book. And the good thing is that when one doorstop gets tattered, you can work your way through the rest of the series!

8. Favorite quotes

I love it when a book begins with some beautiful prose that just makes me feel I’m in good hands. These are not necessarily my favourite quotes, but they are some of my favourite opening paragraphs:

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

(Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)

I am, therefore I think. That seems inescapable. In this lawless house I spend the nights poring over my memories, fingering them, like an impotent casanova his old love letters, sniffing the dusty scent of violets. Some of these memories are in a language which I do not understand, the ones that could be headed, the beginning of the old life. They tell the story which I intend to copy here, all of it, if not its meaning, the story of the fall and rise of Birchwood, and of the part Sabatier and I played in the last battle.

(John Banville, Birchwood)

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.

(Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing)

9. Three tips for bloggers.

1. Don’t check your visitor stats. Or if you must do it, only do it once a month at most. Early on, I used to be quite obsessive about my stats, and it was a waste of energy. Now I try to follow a quote from the Tao Te Ching: “Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”

2. Remember why you’re doing it. It’s easy for blogging to become a chore or an obligation. If you’re not enjoying it, just ease up on your schedule, or even stop for a while, and only return when you’re feeling enthusiastic about it again.

3. Never write a “Sorry I haven’t posted for so long” post, or an “I’m giving up blogging” post, or an “I’m back again two weeks later” post. Just write when you have something to write, and be silent when you don’t.

10. Best/worst blogging experience.

The best part of blogging for me is not so much a single experience, but the cumulative effect of thousands of little interactions over the years. A comment here, an email there, and gradually I’m getting to know people from all over the world who share nothing in common but a love of reading. It’s a wonderful thing, and although my life circumstances mean that I’m not as active now as I was a few years ago, it’s something I treasure.

The worst blogging experience for me has been when I have a book out and am hoping to get reviews. It takes my relationships with other bloggers to a place I don’t like. I worry that they feel under pressure to read my book and review it. Of course I hope to get good reviews, but when I do, I wonder if they’re genuine or if the bloggers are just being nice because they know me. And if they don’t review it, I assume it’s because they hated it. Basically it’s not a process I enjoy. Being published, yes, but anything to do with publicity, no.

11. You are also a writer. Tell us more about your books.

Holloway Road cover final My first novel, On the Holloway Road, is a story about two young Londoners who are inspired by Jack Kerouac’s famous 1950s novel On the Road and try to create a spontaneous, free existence in the more limited world of contemporary Britain. The book was inspired by my own feeling of alienation and suffocation when I moved back to London after living in the U.S.

A Virtual Love Cover My second novel, A Virtual Love, explores relationships in the age of social media. It’s a love story of sorts, but one based on constructed identities and therefore crucially undermined. Although I love blogging and enjoy other social media to a certain extent, I do feel that we perform and are not our true selves when we construct these online identities, and the novel examines what happens when those dishonest, often idealised identities cross over into “real” life.

12. What is your writing routine like? Do you have one?

I write first thing in the morning, which is odd because I’ve never considered myself to be a “morning person”. I think it’s because to write good fiction, you need to access the subconscious, so it helps to be half-asleep!
I keep a regular writing schedule, every day from Monday to Friday, usually three hours a day, but it depends on what else I have going on. My routine has been disrupted this year by all the travelling, but I still aim to do at least some writing first thing in the morning, even if it’s only an hour or even half an hour. It’s important to keep the rhythm going. When I lose the habit of writing, it’s hard to get it back.

13. Three tips for writers.

1. Have a purpose. George Orwell said that writers’ four main reasons for writing are aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, political purpose, and sheer egoism. Understand your own motives. If you want people to read your stories, you should at least know why you’re writing them.

2. Be humble. Nobody would expect to sit down at the piano and immediately play like Chopin, but because we can all type, we think we can write a great novel with no practice, study or effort. It takes time to be good at anything, and becoming a good writer is a lifelong commitment. Read a lot, write a lot, and stick at it for a long time.

3. Be arrogant. To be a writer, you have to believe that despite all the millions of books out there and the thousands more being published every month, what you have to say is important and the world needs to hear it. In other words, you have to be unbelievably arrogant. So embrace that arrogance: be bold, be ballsy, and say something the world needs to sit up and hear.

14. What are you most passionate about?

Social justice. As a middle-class white British man, I’m aware that I enjoy a lot of unearned privilege. It disturbs me that so many people in my position refuse to acknowledge the fundamentally unfair ways in which we’ve chosen to structure our societies. So many of us live in a bubble, refusing to accept the reality that our comfortable existences are being propped up by the suffering of millions of others who will never get the chances we had, and more importantly refusing to do anything to change things. It reminds me of how Orwell ended his book Homage to Catalonia, giving a beautiful description of a train ride through the bucolic Kent countryside in which everyone was “sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

15. Last book that made you cry.

I’m not sure if it was the last one, but I know that Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman made me cry. He described a village in the Ukraine having all its grain confiscated, and the villagers digging for worms, boiling their cats, making bread from acorns, eating rats, and making noodles out of shoe leather. Reading about people slowly dying made it impossible not to cry, especially because I knew that in some form it was a true story, and also because it was so beautifully written, so that the beauty of the prose clashed horribly with the brutality of the subject matter. Grossman’s Life and Fate also made me cry, and I preferred it overall, if you’re looking for a reading recommendation.

Ask me a question.
What’s your most daring ambition?

Over the years I’ve asked myself the same question. To travel the world while writing, to see and experience and live a freer existence. I guess this sounds familiar since this is the life you are living. But if you ask me to sum this up to one essential thing, that would be to one day see my novel in bookstores around the world.

Posted in Guests | 10 Comments