Sunday 3 April 2011

Reading Highlights - March 2011

March was another very good month reading wise.  I managed to read six books and listen to another four on audio.  It was a satisfying mix of new authors with some old and new favourites.  I succeeded in keeping up my East European Challenge and managed to read another book in Spanish.  This was Ojos de Agua, by Domingo Villar.  It is also available in an English language translation as Water-blue Eyes.  Ojos de Agua is the first novel by Villar, who is a Galician and wrote the novel originally in Galician.  He himself translated it into Spanish.  The novel is set in Galicia, in and around Vigo.   A young saxophonist is found brutally murdered and local inspector Leo Caldas and his new colleague from Zaragoza, Rafael Estevez are charged with solving the crime.  Which they do, but not before exposing some of the hidden and not so hidden traditions of Galicia.  A  very witty and well written book.  Caldas and Estevez make for an odd couple and their interplay is one of the strengths of the novel.  Very good first novel.
Another crime writer that was new to me is Louise Penny who has written a series of books featuring Chief Inspector Gamache from the Sureté de Québec.  Dead Cold is the second in the series and revolves around the murder of the rather appalling CC de Poitiers in the middle of a bitter winter in the otherwise charming village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships area of Québec.  There is an old fashioned air to this book, which though set in Canada is probably more olde worlde English than anything.  The village is set in the English speaking portion of Québec, though Gamache and his colleagues are French speaking Québecois.  This may be one of the attractions of the series, for Penny, who herself lives in Québec, is clearly sympathetic to the Francophone society in the province.  Gamache of course speaks fluent English, while many of the residents of Three Pines speak fluent French.  So, for a complete outsider like myself, the novel offers an interesting and more positive insight into life in present day Québec than is usually presented in the media.  Back to the book.  Gamache is a bit of an old time detective and likes to let things take their course and avoids rushing to erroneous conclusions.  This also of course allows Penny to let the main characters in the village to come to life in all their complexities.  A lovely book and I’m already looking forward to the rest in the series.
Two contrasting books set in the earlier part of last century were unexpected surprises.  The first was Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada, a German writer who lived in Germany throughout the Nazi era and wrote this novel shortly before he died in 1947.  The novel is a fictional account of the true story of a middle aged couple who between 1940 and 1947 waged their own silent protest against Nazi rule.  They did this in response to the death of their only son, who was killed in France in 1940.  Though many people did make brave and noble resistance to the Nazis, this tale is not one of them.  The Quangels, the name given to the couple in the novel, are a not very attractive or likeable couple.  They make no effort to establish contact with any other resisters.  On the contrary they do everything possible to keep their protest secret.  Their chosen method of protest - to drop hand written postcards with anti-Nazi comments all over Berlin - was spectacularly unsuccessful.  Just about all the cards were immediately handed in to the police and they seem to have had no effect whatsoever on the wider public.  What makes the book such an interesting and fascinating read is that just about all the characters are in fact pretty ordinary.  There are no charismatic characters and very few trully noble people in the novel.  This is a tale about the ordinary working people of Berlin during the war years.  And what a bleak, fearful, poverty stricken place it was.  Everyone seemed to live in fear of someone else - anyone could be an informer, your neighbours, work colleagues, even family members.  As one of the characters puts it - “we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone.”  This is a very compelling novel which conveys in a simple, straightforward way what it was like to live and survive in a soul destroying regime such as Nazism.  Though the Quangels ultimately achieved nothing, they did resist.
The Calligrapher’s Daughter, by Korean American author Eugenia Kim is also set in the first half of the last century.  In this case in Korea and the timespan is much longer, covering the period from 1915 - 1945.  This was the period in which Korea was occupied by Japan, and it is the disastrous effects of this occupation on all Koreans which forms the background to the novel.  The Calligrapher’s Daughters tells the personal story of Najin, born in 1910 as the first child of a privileged, aristocratic and cultured family.  Narrated alternately by Najin herself and by a third person to fill us in with events which Najin did not experience personally.  The novel is thus both a highly personal account of the trials, sufferings and tribulations that faced Koreans during this period and a broad history of the period.  Suffering and privation there is aplenty in this tale, more than enough to match the bleakness of Alone in Berlin.  Not only does the horrendous effects of the Japanese occupation get worse and worse but Korea also suffers the effects of the global crisis of the 20s and 30s.  In addition Najin has to face her own personal battles against the traditional, Confucian based customs of her father.  Though the family is Christian, part of the growing Methodist community in Korea, her father is very proudly and stubbornly attached to the centuries old traditions of Korea.  He wants to marry her off when she is just 14 years old.  With the help of her mother she manages to avoid this fate, and to get a good education.  But whenever things look like improving for Najin, something goes badly wrong.  However neither Najin nor the rest of her family ever despair, no matter how desperate life becomes.  With enormous resilience they somehow manage to survive with honour and greater respect for each other.  This is ultimately a life enhancing tale. It also offers the reader a fascinating introduction and insight into a little known society and a little known period of recent history. 
The other books I read during March were the following:
Fatherland, by Robert Harris
Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin
Involuntary Witness, by Gianrico Carofiglio
The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth
Absolution, by Caro Ramsay
A Small Weeping, by Alex Gray

I enjoyed all of them, with the possible exception of Involuntary Witness, which was a tad too rambling to be really good.  Absoluton, by Caro Ramsay was my first book by this writer, another of Scotland’s blooming and booming female crime writers.  For the future I have signed up for another reading challenge this time the Nordic Challenge.  There are five levels and you only need to read two books to make the first level - so no excuses.  You can include any book by any author born in a Nordic country or a book set in a Nordic country. The book can be from any genre.  Good reading to all, whatever you read.

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