Sunday Salon: Twenty Books of Summer, a Taste of Spring in Illinois, and anticipation for the International Booker Prize Winner.

It’s great that Cathy allows flexibility in her Twenty Books of Summer challenge because I have been tossing around lists in my mind since she first announced it. “Should I cull all the books I’ve wanted to reread?” I asked myself, for they are legion.

“Or, should I read all the review copies which have been sent my way this Spring while I was focusing on the International Booker Prize list?” (and what an exceptional list it is!).

“Maybe the best thing to do is open the Japanese literature books that I gathered for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15 but never got around to reading…,” I thought, and that is how I’ve decided to begin.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is, of course, a reread for me. But, all the others are new, especially Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda. The WSJ says this of it: “Part psychological thriller, part murder mystery – it is audacious in conception and brilliant in execution.” I am so eager to begin this book sent to me by Bitter Lemon Press.

I must confess to already beginning Me by Tomoyuki Hoshino, as I have been listening to it on my walks. Publishers Weekly says, “Hoshino’s ambitious novel is pleasingly uncomfortable,” which indeed it it. It seems there is a bit of unreliable narrator going on, and I can see that it will look deeply at what our identity is. I particularly anticipate the afterword by Kenzaburo Oe. (You can find a review on Tony’s Reading List, who clearly has read it before I have.)

The rest include The Roads to Sata, Lonely Castle in the Mirror, and people from my neighborhood. Each one calls my name in its own way, as I am so hungry for Japan. Perhaps some of these may appeal to you, too?

May I show you a few pictures from our walks this Spring? Truly, Illinois has its beautiful moments. Before we get to our ghastly summers, which my husband aptly calls Hell’s Front Porch.

Finally, this week brings us the winner of the International Booker Prize, which will be announced on Thursday, May 26. Our Shadow Jury will declare our winner before that, and I will tell you they are strongly inclined to choose Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell, or Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur. I, however, will never sway from my opinion that Jon Fosse’s Septology is far and away the best I have read in years. So much so that when I finished A New Name it was many weeks before I could even read another book.

Sunday Salon: Midway through the International Booker Prize 2022 longlist, and wondering about books which shock us

Herrick Lake

Reading has always been an open path for me. It is the route to escape, joy, adventure, companionship, and with my appreciation of of translated literature, developed about ten years ago, the understanding of other cultures. So, reading the #IBP22 long list is a special anticipation for me every year.

This year’s list, in my opinion, is particularly brilliant. I am only half way through it, but I have read of mothers with Parkinson’s and manic depression, daughters who love them, Polish Jews from the 1700s, and a head coming out of a toilet made of fecal matter and trash. Wait, what?

There are those readers who thrive on bold writing. Writing in which the author knows no boundaries in imagination, vivid imagery, and horror to capture our attention in conveying their point. While I admire the audacity required to write like this, I personally struggle with feeling disgust at the same time.

Brave souls in our Shadow Panel adore this kind of writing, the kind written by Fernanda Melchor and Bora Chung. What does it say about me who likes other books better? Do I expect the world to fit into a neat concept of “ironed tablecloths, bone china, and polished silverware for tea”? No, our world is full of rags, chipped pottery, and no utensils at all for food which can scarcely be found. I know that…

I read for pleasure. I read for increased understanding. I read for enlightenment and new awareness. But, I inwardly struggle with books which highlight the grotesque. Do you?

The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman, translated from the French by Leslie Camhi (International Booker Prize 2022 Longlist)

This is the third novel from the International Booker Prize long list, out of the five I’ve read so far, which has a mother and daughter relationship at its core. (More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, and Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro, are the other two.)

We were used to Maman’s sporty driving habits. She was constantly running late, and she sometimes climbed onto the sidewalks when the roads were backed up, a time-tested method for avoiding traffic jams. Cigarette dangling from her left hand, she’d scream at pedestrians: Get out of my way! We’re late! … It was no surprise that Maman drove like a madwoman, the rules of the road were purely theoretical to her, and pointlessly annoying, although she would, if she saw a truck bearing down on us as we swerved into the wrong lane, retreat: Oh well, he’s rather big, that one!

(p. 2-3)

While it begins rather humorously, The Book Of Mother quickly reveals a painful side. This is what it was like living with a manic- depressive person, myself. They are the life of the party until they aren’t. It is up to the steadfast family members who dwell in the shadows to pick up the pieces and fit them back together. In this case, it is Maman’s daughters, Elsa and Violaine.

Not once did this novel become a long whine into “poor me.” It kept me riveted throughout, to the encroyable antics of Maman, Catherine, and the enormous compassion and strength that her daughters displayed. I could feel the profound love the three had for each other, flawed as the relationship may have been.

Violaine’s book is written in first person; it is autofiction, a combination of autobiography and fiction, and therefore deeply personal as well as engaging. Yet, isn’t it always autofiction when we tell our life stories? Which of us is able to relate our past experiences with anything other than our own perspective? And surely, mine is not objective.

The Book of Mother made me think of my own mother. Not because she is even vaguely as volatile as Catherine was, but because she is a free spirit deeply loved by me.

The last page of the book has a poem which Violaine wrote to her mother when she was in school. Violaine finds it in one of her mother’s desk drawers, folded in half, which she can hardly read through eyes blurred with tears:

Maman, Maman,

You who love me so

Why, without telling me, would you go?

My deepest desire is to express to you

How deeply I love you!

(p. 211)

That is exactly what Violaine Huisman does in this magnificent book. I found it deeply moving and wonderful, far more than I can express in this silly post.

More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen “You choose dead man over living girl? What sort of mother are you? What sort of woman are you? What sort of person are you?”

I told him: ’I am not mother anymore. I am not a woman, I am not a person. I am nothing. Mother and woman and person Novak Vera is dead. You killed her reason to live. I won’t sign for you. Do what you want.

(p. 217)

This is what Vera tells the ”doctor colonel” toward the end of the novel. It has taken a long time to get here, the built up secret that Vera knows, but her daughter doesn’t.

Except, she does. What child is unaware of the decisions her parents have made, whether they are voiced or not? We don’t need words to indicate whether we’ve been abandoned or betrayed.

This is how Nina has felt since she was six and a half, sent to live with her mother’s sister and husband, without really understanding why. And where was her mother, Vera, for roughly two years? She had been sent to Goli Otek, a prison on a rocky island, because she would not sign that her husband was a traitor. It didn’t matter to her that her husband was already dead; she would not destroy his name, his memory, the person he was.

Vera loved her husband more than her daughter. She loved her husband more than she loved her own life. Her decision cost her dearly. Not only did she suffer on the island, forced to stand over a fragile plant to protect it from the brutal sun, but her daughter suffered in her mother’s absence. So wounded was the little girl, that she could not be a good wife or mother to her own daughter.

The strength of Vera is brought forth in spectacular description. She was inspired by Eva Panic Nahir, a well-known and admired woman in Yugoslavia. ”Eva became a symbol of almost superhuman courage, epitomizing the capacity to sustain one’s humanity under the harshest conditions.” (Acknowledgments)

Yet my admiration for her is reserved because I think it takes far more courage to be a steadfast mother.

Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle (“What name do you give a woman with a dead child? I’m not a widow, I’m not an orphan, what am I?”)

Elena knows that her daughter was murdered. She doesn’t know who did it or why. She can’t figure out the motive. She can’t see it. So she has to accept it when the coroner and Inspector Avellaneda and Roberto Almada all say it was suicide. And she knows everyone else says it silently to themselves. But it was raining. She’s the mother, and it was raining. That changes everything. But she can’t prove it on her own. She won’t be able to do it by herself because she doesn’t have a body.

p. 50

The story begins with Elena’s struggle to take the train into the city. No, it starts even before that, when Elena tries to lift her foot to walk.

The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimetres off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it. That’s all it is, Elena thinks. But she thinks this, and even though her brain orders the movement, her right foot doesn’t move.

p. 1

Elena has Parkinson’s, which she has nicknamed Herself, ”because when she thinks about it, she thinks ’fucking whore illness.’ And a whore is a she, not a he.” The activities of the day must be scheduled around her medication since it takes so long for the levodopa to work, and it will only give the directions to her limbs for a certain number of hours. That is why Elena is taking this trip, to Buenos Aires, to see Isabel Mansilla, to recruit another body to help her.

Elena knows that her daughter, Rita, is dead. Rita’s body was found hanging from a rope in the church belfry, but Elena knows that somebody else killed her. Because it was raining the day Rita died, and she avoided going near the cross on a rainy day.

And Elena thinks, she knows, that this couldn’t have just changed all of a sudden, even on the day of her death. Even though no one will listen to her, even though no one cares. If her daughter went to the church on a rainy day it was because someone dragged her there, dead or alive.

p. 26-27

Our library has labeled this book with a sticker which reads Mystery. While it is a mystery, it is so much more than that. At the core, I read to discover how Rita did, in fact, die. But I also want to discover why. In the journey I take with Elena, I am a victim of Parkinson’s myself. Every nuance of the disease is portrayed so skillfully, I wondered if I would be able to lay the book down and walk to the kitchen for a fresh drink of water. I felt encumbered myself, by a disability beyond my control, just from reading Pineiro’s pages.

At the end, I marvel at Elena’s courage. Her undaunted strength carries her to the very edge of Hell, and yet she faces her life bravely and continues on.

Without her daughter.