Friday, October 14, 2016

My Chitalka has moved!

From now on, I will be posting at!

The focus of my blogging has also changed to reflect my current interest in contemporary Russian, French and world literature.

Happy reading! 

Friday, April 22, 2016

(2016 International Man Booker Prize Longlist) "Man Tiger" by Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia)

Rating: 2 out of 3

This is a novel about a grisly murder committed by a young man in rural Indonesia. The twist here, though, is that the reader already finds out who killed whom from the very first sentence. What the novel aims to tell us over the next 172 odd pages is why.

I actually ended up liking this novel a lot more than I expected to. It was a rare glimpse at rural Indonesian life, and less of a murder mystery than a look into the issues surrounding two families that led to the fatal, murderous event.

The main character (and murderer) Margio was in particular, well written, although I found all of the characters to be subtly, but well fleshed out. The narrative was interesting, sufficiently well paced and suspenseful enough to keep me engaged all the way till the very end, when the final secret surrounding the murderer's motivations was revealed.

All in all, an interesting read that I would recommend to those interested in world literature.

UP NEXT: 1) 2015 "Big Book" Prize Winner "Zuleikha Opens her Eyes" 2) Marie NDiaye's "Ladivine" 3) yet another International Booker Longlister (this one set in China) 4) the first work to be featured on mychitalka by famed Russian writer Ivan Bunin and 5) the 2015 Prix Medici winner.

(RNL List #92) "Whose Nose is Better" by Vitaliy Bianki (Russia)

Rating: 1 out of 3

Not much to say here. A very short children's story about a group of different birds, showing off their noses and trying to establish which one is better. I must say that the ending was unexpected, but not in the best of ways.

(2015 Prix Renaudot Winner) "D'apres une histoire vraie" by Delphine de Vigan

Rating: 2 out of 3

My next review is of a book that met with a lot of commercial (and critical) success last year - Delphine De Vigan's "D'apres une histoire vraie."

The book is purportedly about de Vigan (a famous writer) writing about herself fretting about what to write next, after the success of her last, deeply autobiographical book. De Vigan seems pressured by all sides to write another true life story, however, she continually returns to the question of whether it is really so important to a reader for a story to have really happened. Can a reader connect just as deeply with a story that is not true? Or perhaps, only partially true?

This is of course, the central idea behind the book. However, the narrative itself is dominated by the relationship between de Vigan and a mysterious fan, whom de Vigan chooses only to name L. The woman mysteriously meets with de Vigan and they form a sort of clandestine friendship. Though the friendship starts out harmlessly enough, L. eventually gains a frightening grip over de Vigan.

The novel eventually explores which parts of the narrative are in itself fact or fiction.

Now, I know that this novel was nominated for the Goncourt, and ultimately won the Prix Renaudot. I also admit that it was an interesting, easy read, however, for me personally, it didn't have the depth to really stand out as a prize-worthy novel. I give it a 2 out of 3 and would probably recommend it to friends, however, its not a novel that stands out for me.

(RNL List #89) "Terrible Divination" by Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky (Russia)

Rating: 2 out of 3

This is the story of a young officer in love with the wife of another man. He is desperate to have her for his own; so desperate in fact, that he accepts the assistance of a 'mysterious stranger' who almost miraculously assists him getting what he wants.

Very soon, however, the officer realizes that what one wants may never be worth the price to be paid...

In brief, the story was very interesting...until the final denouement. For the most part, the tale was suspenseful, eery, and the 'mysterious stranger' in particular was very captivatingly written. All of this having been said, the last few pages were a bit of a disappointment. Its a shame, and I do wish B-M has been able to give this fine short story a more deserving ending.

All in all, however, the story is still worthy of a solid 2/3.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

(RNL List #84) "Daylight Stars" by Olga Berggoltz (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Now to be honest, I hadn't expected to like this book as much as I did, however, I must admit that I was won over by Berggoltz's semi auto-biographical book comprised of snippets from her childhood during the Revolutionary War all the way up till Post-World War II.

The writing is very bright, hopeful and idealistic - in brief- rather characteristic of Soviet prose of the era, and in sharp contrast to the bleak, terrifying conditions that Soviet society faced at the time. Among other reminiscences, Berggoltz writes of her memories of two wars, the horrible siege of Leningrad that resulted in the deaths of innumerable soldiers and civilians, and she even makes a slight reference to her own, deeply personal personal tragedies (the loss of her husband, children and a terrible episode in the 30's during which she was arrested by the Soviet government).

Through all this, Berggoltz remains optimistic, hopeful of the future and in love with humanity. It seems a little naive now, it seems a little surreal to our jaded 21st century sensibilities, but there's something really beautiful about the Soviet spirit, and this is reflected well in Berggoltz's prose.

This is a novel that belongs to another age, and that will likely be forgotten, although it is worth a read.

NEXT UP: Yet another book on the exile of 'rich' peasants in Soviet Russia (this time, by an award-winning contemporary author), the first book to be featured on mychitalka by an Indonesian author, another short story by Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, last year's winner of the Prix Renaudot and a unique French novel by one of France's most decorated female authors.

(2016 International Booker Prize Shortlist) "The Vegetarian" by Han Kang (South Korea)

Rating: 2 out of 3

This book has become a real fan favorite amongst readers of the 2016 International Booker Prize Longlist (and perhaps for good reason) The story is an incredibly unique look at a woman who, as a result of mental illness, unexpectedly becomes a vegetarian. The renunciation of meat, however, only marks the beginning of the woman's mental decline, which is witnessed from three different perspectives; from the point of view of her incredulous and unsympathetic husband, her awe-struck brother-in-law, and her caring and sympathetic older sister.

Now I really enjoyed the first part of the novel (the part of the story told from the perspective of the vegetarian's husband.) The last two thirds of the book, though not bad persey, were nowhere near as striking. In fact, I found the last third rather disappointing, as to me, it provided too many explanations and justifications for the vegetarian's actions, taking away (in my view, unnecessarily) a lot of the mystery that made the first part of the novel so engaging. In short, I would have liked to have used a bit of my imagination to piece together what may have led to the vegetarian's decline, rather than having had it spoon-fed to me.

Nevertheless, I am certain that this novel will be one of the top contenders for the 2016 International Booker Prize.

Monday, April 11, 2016

(RNL List #90) "The Academy of Pan Kleksa" by Jan Brzechwa (Poland)

Rating: 3 out of 3

Now this is a lovely, lovely children's book by famed Polish author Jan Brzechwa. It is a charming tale of a magical academy run  by the mysterious Pan Kleksa (an eccentric little man with a penchant for freckles!). Among other oddities, the academy only accepts children whose first names start with A. The academy is also closely connected through magic passageways to all sorts of famous fairytales and as a result, the children's lives are filled with all sorts of fantastical adventures.

The real star of the novel for me was a very interesting fairytale of the author's own creation involving a king of wolves. However, I greatly enjoyed the overall uniqueness of the tale, which ended with a beautifully touching and rewarding finale that bridged our world with this fairytale world in the most satisfying manner.

I can't help but repeat, in conclusion, that is a really lovely children's book that I would highly recommend.

(I'm not sure if this book is available in English. I read it in Russian)

(2016 International Booker Prize Longlist) "Death by Water" by Kenzaburo Oe (Japan)

Rating: 2 out of 3

This is my first novel by Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburo Oe, and I must say, that its my favorite so far of the 2016 International Booker Longlisters. It is also the only book of the three I've read so far that I would consider nominating for the short list.

The book is essentially a quasi-autobiographical story of the author writing about himself writing about himself. The first part of the novel concentrates on the 70+ year author attempting to write his last, crowning work; an autobiographical account of the drowning of his Father. At the same time, the author is collaborating with a talented avant-garde theatre group who have an interest in dramatizing some of his earlier works.

The novel, as the title would suggest, focuses on all of the characters coming to terms/accepting death: for example, the author is trying to come to terms with his Father's death, as well as his own impending death and the possibly impending deaths of his wife and son. The novel also explores themes related to the death of the nation after failed historical insurrections, as well as after the dethronement of the Emperor.

There is also a parallel plot involving one of the brightest stars of the theatre troupe; a daring young woman named Unaiko who is determined to come to terms through theatre with a sort of death that she herself experienced in her youth.

The novel is slow moving, which has motivated many to abandon the novel midway through, but I ultimately found the novel rich, multilayered and very rewarding. This is clearly the novel of a very talented writer and it shows.

Smart and thought-provoking. These are two words I would use to describe this novel.

H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq (France)

Rating: 3 out of 3

The Michel Houellebecq readathon continues. This time, I visit one of Michel's first works; an essay on H.P. Lovecraft.

Now I must admit, I am no great Lovecraft fan, however, I love to read Houellebecq describing Lovecraft. I mean, how could you not with little gems like these interspersed throughout the novel?:

"When we love life, we don't read. We hardly go to the cinema as well, moreover." (self-translation)


"He would preserve throughout his life a typically aristocratic attitude consisting of mistrust for humanity in general, combined with extreme kindness towards individuals in particular." (self-translation)

Now this is a fine literary analysis, covering both Lovecraft's style, philosophy and life. Its well worth reading if you are a Lovecraftian, however, it is just as well worth reading if you are only interested in Houellebecq's fine writing style.

(RNL List #81) Petersburg - by Andrey Beliy

Rating: 1 out of 3

It took me months, literally months to get through this one! But I finally did it!
Now let me just say that "Petersburg" is a tremendously long, mammoth volume that you would either love to pieces (like Nabokov) or lament ever having started (like me).

It follows the lives of the wealthy Ableukhov father and son over the course of a few pivotal days in chaotic, pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg. The world around this father and son pair is going topsy turvy. The old order is being threatened by daily worker's strikes, and even Ableukhov junior is taken in by the new doctrines. After meeting with failure in love, he even gets involved in a conspiracy plot to kill his Father...

The novel is an extremely wordy, intellectually top-heavy, jarringly slow moving account of the days between Ableukhov junior getting involved in the plot and its final denouement.

Now there are dozens of pages of notes appended to this novel given the multitude of references to intellectual theories, books, historical personnages, etc...

This is an intellectual's fest perhaps, but if you are just an ordinary reader looking for a story that doesn't require you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of early 20th century St. Petersburg intellectual trends, this is all going to be very trying.

You might also find Beliy's excessively poetic take on writing rather irritating after awhile. Say, after the 300th page when he obsessively re-describes the same thing over and over again for poetic effect, or perhaps to show us, once again, how much of a groveling fanboy he is of Nikolay Gogol.

Now I'm not saying that Beliy is not a good author. He is, and some sections of the book I really enjoyed. However, this was far too long, and ultimately trying a novel for me.

(RNL List #119) "The Escape" by Mikhail Bulgakov (Russia)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

Again, I'll leave the biography of Bulgakov for next time....

The work I'm about to review is a play written by the author of "Master and Margarita" fame. Its about the retreat of White Army sympathizers out of Russia and into Crimea, Paris and other exotic locales...

The play explores the disorderliness of the sympathizers' escape from Communist Russia. It also follows the exiles in their miserable emigre lives; short of money and forced to take on degrading work such as street vending and prostitution. Finally, the play culminates with each sympathizer making the choice of whether to run back home to Russia and face the consequences of their escape or remain in hostile, far off lands abroad.

While it wasn't a terrible play, persay, I wasn't particularly touched or moved. A 1.5 rating for me.

(2016 International Booker Prize Longlist) "Mend the Living" by Maylis de Kerangal (France)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

A surfing accident gone horribly long leaves a young man clinically dead. The harvesting of his remains begins and this...this is the process that this novel endeavors to follow.

The writing style is extremely longwinded, often bombastic. A lot of readers had a problem with the writing style (particularly those who read in English, as in French it just comes off better). However, my problem with the novel was that it was simply okay. To me, the book was as entertaining as an ER sitcom on the subject could well be. However, there was no stunning originality or big ideas here. It was simply a story of parents coming to terms with the loss; and doctors working to restore life in the lives of others with the help of the man's organs...

Recommended for fans of medical drama.

(2016 International Booker Prize Shortlist) "A General Theory of Oblivion" by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (Angola)

Rating: 0.5 out of 3

Now I really wanted to like this book. Its my first by an Angolan author. It was also nominated for the International Booker Prize this year, so it must be worth reading (right?) The book also started out really promisingly; a young woman walls herself up in her apartment during the Angolan civil war.

I was hoping to read more about how her isolation would affect her and what she might have to do to survive...

However, things started to get incredibly chaotic in a 'magically-realistic' manner. The book introduced us to many new characters whose destinies hurtled towards each other throughout the novel in the most improbable ways...

Since the characters were so thinly fleshed out, and since the plot began to get a little too all-over-the-place for me, by the end of the novel, I really ceased to care about the characters, the plot, or about anything else in the book.

I didn't really get what it was all about. And to be quite honest, I didn't particularly care. Its telling that for me, the only character that I really ended up feeling for, to the end, was the monkey.

(RNL List #88) "The Red Cloak" by Aleksandr Bestuzhev-Marlinsky (Russia)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

Now, I'm desperately behind on reviews, so I'll leave the biography of B-M till my review of his next work.

I briefly want to mention that this short story is a lyrical tale of love, told through the eyes of a young artistically-inclined man. He is captivated and inspired as he watches a young muslim woman lament the passing of her Christian lover.

A very short story for fans of the lyrical genre...

"The Sixth Hour" by Vasily Belov (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Just a few words on the final volume of the trilogy I have been reading on Soviet collectivization. This was a moving finale to the chronicle of an entire village turned upside down by the political and economic upheaval of Soviet Russia.

The frightening thing about this book is that it is actually based on true life events. The book is said to have been inspired by a real-life village (which coincidentally no longer exists). In the afterword, the book reminds us all that Russia was, in fact, 90% composed of peasants. This class, due to their sheer hardiness and resourcefulness, was the backbone of serfdom, the Russian army and consequently, was the class that suffered the most to build communism.

I must emphasize (although if you have been reading the books up to this point, it will come as no surprise), that there are no happy endings in this book. Each villager met with a varied, but equally horrific fate. And perhaps that matched reality. Whoever wasn't killed off by work camps, privations and imprisonment was simply finished off by the Second World War.

And since many of the villages were wiped off the map, it is only thanks to chroniclers like Belov that the memory of these villagers remain.

"The Sixth Hour" is, in summary, a powerful and edifying book that is well worth reading, and its sad that it will likely never be translated into English. Yet another forgotten Russian classic...

"The Pursuit of Happiness" by Michel Houellebecq (France)

Review: 3 out of 3

This mini-review is of Michel Houellebecq's first compilation of poetry. Michel started out as a poet,  and as such, his poetry is a big part of his literary canon.

Now, I've never been a very big fan of poetry, but I love Michel's. This is poetry that I read and re-read; that I commit to memory...poetry that resonates in my heart.

Its also poetry for the modern person- the themes of the poetry are mainly isolation and depression. However, its interesting that a volume of poetry with such dark subject matter is entitled "The Pursuit of Happiness".

Perhaps because, suffering is the eternal precondition for happiness?

(2008 Prix Goncourt Winner) "The Patience Stone" by Atiq Rahimi (Afghanistan)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

This is a wonderfully touching book that follows an Afghani woman as she cares, over the course of several weeks, for her paralyzed freedom fighter husband. The character of the woman is wonderfully fleshed out (though she is deliberately never given a name).

She is a strong woman, who has been forced (due to the patriarchical regime) under a veil of silence and submission. The fact that her husband is (at least for the moment) paralyzed, allows her to speak out for the first time and give a sort of confession of all of her innermost feelings and secrets.

This experience is liberating, but also dangerous...

The book could (and I believe should) have been made into an excellent play. (Coincidentally, it was dramatized in 2012). It was a very moving look at the world of a woman filled with humiliation, suffering and hard choices....

This is an excellent book; well deserving of the Goncourt, or really of any literary prize. 

(2014 Nobel Prize Winner) "In the Cafe of Lost Youth" by Patrick Modiano (France)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

The world became acquainted with Patrick Modiano after he won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. (Although I must add, that prior to this, he was rather popular in France.) I decided, in turn, to acquaint myself with this author, whom I had never read before, by picking up at random this little novel.

This book is in brief, a nostalgic look at a Paris of bygone years (prior to gentrification), where you could still find some eclectic cafes where you could spend the night in drink and conversation. Specifically, it follows the life of a beautiful young woman who, addicted to freedom, chooses to grow up on these Paris streets. Any attempt made by her (or others) to have her settle down, ends up in failure. As an example, she leaves a marriage to a perfectly nice and decent fellow, only to run off again into her free, bohemian lifestyle.

Now, this novel to me was okay. It had a really nostalgic ring to it, and I'm sure that you would particularly appreciate it if you were actually from Paris and could visualize the neighborhoods Modiano was writing about. You might also appreciate the novel if you could muster up any sympathy at all for the female protagonist, whom I thought, to be quite frank, was completely egotistical and undeserving of any regard or sympathy.

I wouldn't say its an unpleasant novel to read, but a rather forgettable one.

(2016 International Dublin Literary Award Longlist) "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgramage" by Haruki Murakami (Japan)

Review: 1.5 out of 3

I read this book several weeks ago but was rather uninspired to post my review. I suppose that anyone who at least marginally follows contemporary literature is acquainted with the name Haruki Murakami. He's Japan's most famous literary export and is raved over, simply raved over by readers the world over.

As such, I was naturally quite excited to read one of his books.

Now I must say, the synopsis was so promising... a young man, whom all of a sudden, with no explanation, is told by his best friends that they no longer want to be best friends with him. This news, of course, traumatizes him and, just as he is embarking on a new long-term relationship, he realizes that in order to move forward, he has to piece together his past.

Now, as I was reading through the novel, there were many interesting pieces that seemed to promise some sort of exciting future denouement. For example, that mysterious jazz pianist in the hot springs, carrying around a mysterious bag; the mysterious university student that the main character would go swimming with; that mysterious young woman from the main character's... etc. etc.

Basically, I was waiting for Murakami to connect all of these 'mysterious' pieces together into an awesome finale. However, I was really just left holding the bag. Now, perhaps I missed some extremely subtle thread that connected everything together, but - all things said and done - its only been a few weeks since I finished the book, and I've already forgotten the ending. That's how little of an impression the ending, and this book by extension, made on me.

Monday, March 14, 2016

"Rester Vivant" by Michel Houellebecq (France)

Rating: 3 out of 3

"A dead poet can no longer write. Hence the importance of staying alive." (self translation)

I present yet another review of a book by an author whom I truly love. "Rester Vivant" (something like "Staying Alive" in English) was one of Michel's earlier books. This tiny little novel was published in 1991 and even predated Michel's first novel "Extension du domaine de la lutte", which I reviewed earlier this month.

This little novel is narrated by someone who provides advice to the aspiring poet. This unnamed narrator also provides insights into his own reasons for putting pen to paper.

Like all of Michel's works that I've read to date, this novel is deeply touching and draws you very close to the author/narrator as a result of its sheer honesty and force of emotion. The passages in the book are, as well, simple, yet so beautiful and profound that they resonate within you. I, for one, couldn't help but note down many, many passages to re-read again and again at a later time. They say that writing something simple but profound is 100 times harder than writing something wordy and ornate, and I would have to agree. Michel is one of those great authors with the gift of being able to write works that are often so simply worded, but so captivating and exquisite to read at the same time.

Some of my favorite lines:

"As you reach the truth your solitude will increase, The building is splendid but deserted." (self-translation))

"The truth is scandalous. But, without it, there is nothing worthwhile." (self-translation)

(RNL List #82) The Republic of ShKID" by L. Panteleyev and Grigori Belikh (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

I know that its been a long while since I've posted any Russian language book reviews on mychitalka. Don't worry, Russian literature is still a prime focus of mychitalka. I do, however, read multiple books at a time (2 Russian, 2 French and 2 English), thus sometimes, depending on the length of the books I'm reading,  it may take longer for the Russian language book posts(!)

But at any rate, enough with the preamble and straight on into the book review! "The Republic of ShKID" is a classic work of youth literature that every Russian-speaking person has likely heard of. The novel was even made into a very successful film in 1966 by LenFilm.

The novel was originally published in 1927. It is a (partially) autobiographical account of the experiences of two boys (Pantaleyev and Belikh) who grew up in a School-Commune for Difficult Teenagers in 1920's Russia.

The novel is rather long and recounts scenes from the lives of the two boys, their schoolmates and their teachers. It begins with the opening of the boarding school itself by a remarkable pedagogue named Viktor Nikolaevich Sorokin (also based on a real-life person who, by stressing education, character development, self-government, civic-duty and what not, raised model Soviet citizens out of his petty criminal wards).

We follow the kids and Viktor Nikolaevich from one episode in their lives to another, that is; through the early days, when we find the kids primarily occupied with thieving and trouble making; then later stages when Viktor Nikolaevich declares the school a 'republic' and institutes self-government; then Viktor Nikolaevich's fueling of the children's passion for writing and drawing, etc. etc....

There are some particularly brilliant episodes, such as the one about a new classmate who starts up an elaborate 'bread lending' scheme. This results in the creation of a class society within the republic of ShKID that includes serfs and a ruling class.

All in all, the novel is a nice breezy read, particularly for a young person, and poignant for every reader, particularly towards the epilogue when we learn about how all of the boys turned out. Its touching and inspiring that this book is actually based on real events and real people. And it is sheerly incredible the influence that one dedicated teacher had on a group of 'hopeless' children, and consequently- through the book and movie-  on entire generations of teachers and pedagogical organs.

One of the cutest things about the novel is the kids' unique use of slang and invented jargon that peppers the entire narrative. Of particular note are the sheer number of acronyms that the kids think up for almost everyone and everything, as an attempt to emulate the newly formed Soviet government's penchant for 'acronymizing' long and difficult titles. For example, ShKID in Russian stands for "Dostoyevsky School". Even the teachers, including Viktor Nikolaevich have been 'acronymized (VikNikSor).

Unfortunately, I doubt that this book was ever translated into English. It may be possible, however, for a non-Russian speaker to watch a subtitled version of the aforementioned 1966 movie, however, though I hate to repeat an old cliche, despite the superb acting, the book is much much better than the movie.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

(2010 Grand Prix du Roman de l'Academie Francaise winner) "Nagasaki" by Eric Faye (France)

Rating: 2 out 3

Now this is a sweet little novel by French writer Eric Faye that bagged him the 2010 Grand prix du roman de l'academie francaise. Briefly, Eric was born on December 3, 1963 in Paris. His first work of fiction was published in 1992.

This very short novel is based on the true life story of an elderly Japanese woman who secretly lived in other people's homes after losing her job and becoming homeless. The novel recounts how the woman was finally found after being 'trapped' by one of the homeowners (an elderly loner himself by the name of Shimura). The later part of the novel, now told from the woman's perspective, is all the more poignant and interesting.

The novel is a novel about the isolation people in big cities may experience, and their longing for home, and some sort of meaning to life that would anchor them to this world.

There's nothing all that deep and grand here, but its a nice sweet little novel too read on a winter's day.

(2016 International Dublin Literary Award Long List) "The Incarnations" by Susan Barker (UK)

Review: 1.5 out of 3

I'm going to do a brief review of a book I read a few weeks ago. This is a book written by half-Malaysian, half British author Susan Barker. A book about China that the author spent some time living in China to write.

The book ("The Incarnations") chronicles the life of a taxi driver named Wang who starts receiving mysterious letters from an unknown person who claims to be his soulmate and to have had several previous lives with Wang. The mysterious 'pen pal' subsequently sends Wang letter after letter chronicling each of these lives (all of which end very badly).

Through these letters, the book takes us to the Emperor's Chambers, into the lives of imperial concubines, to a doomed childhood friendship during the peak of the Cultural Revolution, etc. etc. Its all rather interesting storytelling, but only just. I was hoping that, given that the book was nominated for a major book prize, that there would be some deeper substance or meaning to the novel, however, I was left a bit disappointed with the ending (basically you could interpret Wang as having simply inherited his Mother's madness, or you could choose to believe that there is some weird supernatural link between Wang and the mysterious letter writer).

1.5 out of 3

"Extension du domaine de la lutte" - by Michel Houellebecq (France)

Review: 3 out of 3

I'm slightly behind at this point on my reviews, as I've been doing a lot more reading as opposed to reviewing. I'd like to catch up, however, with a review of another Michel Houellebecq book. This time, I'm reviewing Michel's very first novel "L'extension du domaine de la latte" (very regrettably, in my opinion, translated as "Whatever" in English).

This was Michel's first book, and a book that rightfully established him as one of contemporary literature's big stars. This was a book that Michel wrote in his thirties, but it too explores many of the same universal themes and questions that Michel explores almost 30 years later in "Submission".

The book is on a surface level about two men who are sort of on the fringe of society because they are unable to find love, and they are unable to find the will to continue on in the 'fight club' that is life. However, the story of these men is Michel's platform for deeper reflections on the meaning (or lack of meaning) of life in our modern-day, individualist society.

Now, compared to other great authors, Michel has had a rather modest output (only 6 novels to date). However, its easy to understand why. He really prioritizes quality over quantity. His books are so quotable. As was the case with "Submission", I found myself highlighting sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph of simple, yet profound observations interspersed throughout the novel.

For example:

"Generally, on weekends, I don't see anyone. I stay at home. I do a bit of tidying up. I get lightly depressed."(self-translation)

"But I don't understand exactly how people are able to live. I have the impression that everyone should be unhappy; you see, we live in such a simplistic world. There is a system based on domination, money and fear- a primarily masculine system, let's call it Mars; and there's a feminine system based on seduction and sex, let's call it Venus. And that's all. Is it really possible to live and believe that there's nothing else? When it came to the realists at the end of the 19th century, Maupassant believed that there was nothing else and that led him to raving madness." (self-translation)

Now, critics often accuse Michel of writing about himself. That he is his characters. I'm not sure if I believe that at all, but I can understand the accusation. Its just that there's so much emotion, honesty and soul in Michel's characters that its easy to feel that they are real and not simply constructs for the conveyance of an idea. You feel so deeply for them. Michel's books are so full of deep, honest (often painfully honest) reflections that the reader is unable to not feel close to the characters, and by extension, to the author. The ending of "L'extension" literally moved me to tears and I could think of nothing else for a week. (Sign of great novel). My first thought as well, after reading the novel was to read it again (Sign of another great novel).

I have to say that Michel is truly in a class of his own amongst contemporary authors (as far as I am concerned). I will definitely be returning to Michel's work in upcoming weeks.

3 out of 3, all the way.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

"Submission" by Michel Houellebecq (France)

Rating: 3 out of 3

A regular reader of mychitalka might have noticed that I give three out of three ratings very rarely. What is a three out of three rating, in my estimation? It is a book that leaves me stunned, speechless and to the point where I can do nothing else but think about the book for hours and sometimes days. The essence of the book haunts me, it has made its mark on me, and has forever become a part of my thoughts, a part of my inner world.

Obviously, there are few books that can ever meet this high qualification. This is especially true of contemporary novels, and so...I was pleasantly stunned, moved, shocked, blown away, etc. etc. etc. etc. to add one more book to the list of books that meet my highest standard. And this book is, I can say with full sincerity, perhaps the best contemporary book that I have read; that is the point to which I have been impressed.

And so, the book's title? "Submission". This is the (in?)famous French author Michel Houellebecq's latest offering. Now I would usually preface a book review with some details from the author's biography, but no- not in the case of M. Houellebecq whose private life has been muddled and maligned enough in the press. His works have been misinterpreted, misconstrued numerous times by people who undoubtably have either not read or not understood what he has been trying to say. In fact this book, "Submission" has been labelled as racist, as decadent, as who knows what, but I can say that it is none of that. It is, in brief, a brilliant, concise and captivating summary of the ultimate problems facing Western society.

The book and M. Houellebecq have been rather unfairly labelled in the press as Islamophobic, given that the book is set in a not-so-far-off alternate future wherein France elects its first Muslim majority government. Though the ruling government is ultimately moderate, the changes lead to a growing islamization of society.

This having been said, however, my reading of the book is not that it is a criticism of Islam. The book instead points to the real issue; the impotence, the lack of identity, and the lack of social cohesion which have plagued Western society, particularly since the recession of Christanity. Without a uniting belief like Christianity, a civilization will ultimately fade and be absorbed into a civilization that is more robust and united.

Even before the book reached its powerful conclusions, I was drawn in by the captivating writing. I was highlighting gems of writing here, there and everywhere... Houellebecq is really a reader's author. His prose makes you feel so close to him, as if you were in the presence of a friend, and the book- far from being a dry, political treatise, was a pleasure to read. I was disappointed, in fact, to finish it so quickly.

I expect that Houellebecq's writing may not be for everyone, and some may take issue with his fearlessness to tackle some very serious issues facing society, however, for those who appreciate the 'idea' novel, I couldn't recommend more a read of "Submission".

Houellebecq is definitely an author that my chitalka will be returning to in the future. (I read the original in French but the book is already available in English).

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

(International Dublin Literary Award 2016 Longlist) "Look Who's Back" by Timur Vermes (Germany)

Rating 2.5 out of 3

"Look Who's Back" was (is?) a German novel published in 2012 to some amount of controversy as the novel broaches a rather controversial subject - what if Hitler didn't die at the end of World War II and somehow, was able to come back to life in modern day Germany?

Based on this premise, the novel follows Hitler around as he adapts to modern day German life. The beginning of the novel is just plain funny, for reasons not so much to do with Hitler, himself, as they are just concern "____ insert any historical figure from the past here" getting shocked and disoriented by all of the technological advancements and political changes in modern day life.

Hitler's horror at finding out that modern day people eat pressed grain (granola bars) would have been  just as funny had it been Peter the Great or Gengis Khan, for example.

In the novel, Hitler rather quickly finds fame as a TV show and Youtube celebrity. He is generally 'likable' in the novel; a patriot who is 'fanatically' obsessed with the prosperity of the country. Its only when he starts talking about anti-Semetism and racial purity that things get unsettling...

But this likeability of Hitler is very important to the narrative. As Hitler points out himself in the novel, he was democratically elected. Obviously, he had appeal, and to the reader, he is also appealing, for many reasons, until...

And this is what the novel successfully conveys to us; how easy it is to elect a monster to power if one ignores some key tenets in his philosophy because of the attractiveness of the rest of the platform. It also points out to us that we're not really so far from electing another Hitler in the future...

I give it 2.5 out of 3, but more for the idea than for the execution.

NEXT UP: 1) Still getting through Beliy's "Peterburg"; 2) Another IMPAC longlist nominee; 3) another 'controversial novel (this time, French) and 4) a lighthearted book about post-revolutionary Soviet orphans

"A Death in the Family" by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norway)

Rating: 2 out of 3 

This book has been sitting on my 'to read' pile for so long, as I have been anxious to find out what all of the excitement has been about. Any contemporary literature enthusiast would know that Knausgaard has been a regular fixture on all of the literary award longlists for the past few years, thanks to his magnum opus - "My Struggle". This 'fictionalized' series of biographical books have won Knausgaard fame, but have also gotten him into a lot of hot water with relatives who haven't taken so kindly to being 'fictionalized'...

But at any rate, what did I think of part one of 'My Struggle' (titled "A Death in the Family" in the English translation I read). Well, at times it is a very long, rambling stream-of-conscience that can be difficult to get through. Knausgaard is not afraid of at times describing the most trivial of everyday actions (e.g. making coffee) down to the very detail. This does at times make the narrative dry and more difficult to get through, but it also contributes to the feeling that you, the reader, are sort of shadowing Knausgaard through his day to day 'struggles' with life.

The novel begins with some ruminations on Knausgaard's relationship with his Father as well as with some memories of Knaugaard's childhood which are at times interesting, and at times tedious to get through, for the reasons stated above.

However, the novel really picks up towards the end with the death of a family member. This is where you are sort of 'dying' for Knausgaard to give you more and more detail on what has happened, as the death is not at all straight forward. What particularly draws the reader in are all the gory details of how Knausgaard and his brother clean up the house after the death, and how the brothers slowly realize that there is more to the death than at first meets the eye (particularly as concerns Grandma Knausgaard).

I wouldn't say that this novel was the one of the best contemporary novels I've read. I wouldn't say that this is the best stream-of-consciousness/reality show type novel I've read (I preferred Roman Senchin's "Information"). I wouldn't even say that I have the endurance or interest to read the subsequent novels in the "My Struggle" series. However, I felt that the book was worth reading to get some insight into the Norwegian life and psychology.

"The Year of the Great Breakthrough" - Vasily Belov (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

After having read the first part of Belov's sweeping trilogy on forced collectivization in Russia, I couldn't help but read part 2, "The Year of the Great Breakthough". This book continues the stories of most of the main characters from the first book, i..e the Rogovs, the Sopronovs, the Shustovs, etc.

This book is well-written (you will continue to feel for the positive characters in the novel, just as much as you will continue to despise the baddies), and the novel is just as depressing (if not more so) than the first novel. In fact, incredibly enough, things get far far worse for all of the positive protagonists. The even more shocking aspect of this story is that it is based on true life facts. The forced collectivization and relocation of 'rich peasants' actually happened. Millions of people were wrested from their homelands, and lost everything and/or died due to the madness of an elite who prioritized collectivization, regardless of the human costs.

Reading this novel, I couldn't help but shudder at the millions of brilliant, hardworking Russians who may have been lost as a result of the politics of the 1930's (chillingly described at the end of the novel by Belov as 'living firewood').

This is, in short, a much recommended novel for those would like to learn more about collectivization in 1930's Russia. Its a pity that the book was seemingly never translated (it was, I believe, published only in 1994 when the West's interest in Russia seemed at an all time low).

I will be reading and posting a short review of the final novel in Belov's trilogy, in upcoming weeks.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

(2012 Prix Renaudot Winner) "Notre Dame du Nil" by Scholastique Mukanga (Rwanda)

Rating: 2 out of 3

Mychitalka travels yet again...this time (and for the first time!) to Rwanda. This is only the second book I have ever read by an author of African descent (the first was Achebe's "Things Fall Apart"), and I am glad to broaden my horizons through reading...

"Notre Dame du Nil"'s author, Scholastique Mukasonga, was born in the province of Gikongoro in Rwanda, and experienced, first hand, the ethnic violence and political conflict that ravaged Rwanda in the last half of the 20th century. These conflicts forced Mukasonga and her family to eventually immigrate to France in 1992.

For this book, "Notre Dame du Nil", Mukasonga received the 2012 Prix Renaudot.

And so, what is "Notre Dame du Nil" about? It is actually about a group of elite high school girls who are attending the Notre Dame du Nil catholic school during the the time of ethnic conflict in Rwanda. In particular, the story follows several young girls in the graduating class; some are Tutsi, and thus resigned to a life of fear and discrimination; while others are part of the Hutu majority that now rule both the school and the newly formed nation of Rwanda.

The book is divided into little episodes, where we follow the girls as they, for example,  set out on a pilgrimage to the source of the Nile, visit local magic men/women, or the neighboring Belgian weirdo, obsessed with Tutsi history. The story of the girls itself, and how their interactions are contaminated by the burgeoning racial conflict and hatred around them, is in itself interesting. I also learned a lot about Rwandan geography and history. It was easy to draw the conclusion, from reading this book, that Rwanda was yet another country irrevocably messed up by colonial powers. The novel speaks to how European invaders had a crucial (and perhaps fatal?) role in moulding the Rwandan identity. They brought catholicism, they divided the population into racial types (Hutu/Tutsi) and initially introduced the idea of Tutsi superiority. As noted by one of the novel's heroines:

"Do you know what happened to us, the Tutsis, when some of us agreed to play the role that the Whites conferred us? Its my grandmother who told me this: when the Whites arrived, they found that we were dressed like savages. They sold women, the women of chieftains, glass beads; lots of beads and lots of white cloth. They showed us how to wear it and how to do our hair. And they made them Ethiopians or Egyptians that they had come to look for before arriving here. They had their proof. They dressed us in the image of their delusions." (self-translation from the French)

At the height of the conflict, however, when needed most, Rwanda's former colonizers offered little interference. As mirrored in the novel:

"In the empty classrooms, the Belgian teachers stayed in at their desks, trying manifestly to assume what could be in such cases, good countenance. The French teachers were gathered together in deep and passionate conversation."

This was an enjoyable book and a unique book that touched on a massacre by following the lives of an elite girl's school (as opposed to directly chronicling the actual conflict). Despite the fact that the book was set almost completely within the auspices of the school, the crucial points surrounding the reasons and the repercussions of the conflict were well transmitted to the reader.

The book isn't too difficult to read in the original, but is also available in English.

NEXT UP: Still finishing up Beliy's "Peterburg", part 2 of Belov's Soviet collectivization trilogy and part 1 of Knausgaard's "Struggle". Also to come soon are a look at two of the most controversial books to be released in recent years.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

L'Hygiene de l'Assassin - Amelie Nothumb (Belgium)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

I'm excited to be reviewing the first work by a Belgian author to be featured on mychitalka. I picked up this novel based on a recommendation that it would be an interesting and suitable book to read for an intermediate speaker of French. I must say that I much enjoyed this novel. It is diabolically unique and refreshing, and I hope to read more of Nothumb's work in the future.

Perhaps you have already heard of Madame Nothumb? She is one of the most famous contemporary francophone authors. Her biography, in fact, rivals the 'out there' subject matter of her books. Northumb was born in Etterbeek to diplomat parents. She grew up in Japan a case of life imitating art.... her first novel "L'Hygiene de l'Assassin" was (partially?) based on her childhood experiences. As a child, she and her older sister feared growing up, puberty and all that that entailed to the point where they starved themselves for a period of time. When they both began eating again, both sisters developed a real 'hunger' for writing. The rest is history...

In truth, no one can fault Nothumb for a lack of originality. "L'Hygiene de l'Assassin" is about as strange and unorthodox a novel as you can get your hands on these days. It is about a reclusive, obese, terminally ill Nobel prize winning author who decides to grant a select group of journalists interviews (one by one) before his death. Now in the beginning, the novel seems to have a rather simple plot; the crabby, but wily old author has his fun with each of the journalists (none of whom are his match or have even read his works!). He mocks them, belittles them and sends them away in various states of physical or mental distress. However, things take a far more interesting (and bizarre) turn when the author finally meets with the last journalist. This journalist has done her homework. She has actually read all of the author's 29 books but in addition to that...she has unearthed the long buried sinister past of the author.

This journalist's interview with the author is filled with revelations; for the reader, the author and even for the journalist- as she realizes that she is to assume a far greater role in the life of the author than she anticipated.

And so what is the book about? Let me take a stab at this? Perhaps the fact that authors and creative geniuses, in Northumb's mind, are a race apart. They live in a different dimension and under different (aesthetic and moral) laws than the normal populace. There is of course a great beauty and a burden to this that can not easily be understood.

I suggest reading this novel and arriving at your own conclusion to what the book is about. It wouldn't be too hard of a read in the French for an intermediate to advanced French speaker. The book is available in English as well. Much recommended.

2.5 out of 3

NEXT UP: mychitalka travels the world with: 1) another tome on Soviet collectivization; 2) Beliy's "Petersburg" (still working my way through...) 3) a Norwegian bestseller; and 4) the first book by a Rwandan author to be featured on the blog

Friday, January 29, 2016

(RNL #83) Professor Dowell's Head - Aleksandr Belyaev (Russia)

Rating: 2 out of 3

We return to the world of early Soviet science fiction with another work by Alexander Belyaev- "Professor Dowell's Head". This is another book based on 'mad science', where two scientists have discovered a means of keeping decapitated heads alive after death. Greed inspires the more 'evil' of the scientists, Dr. Kern, to claim the discovery for himself...through murder.

A young assistant hired by Dr. Kern soon learns of the terrible medical secrets his lab contains. As the 'head count' increases in the lab, the young assistant's life is placed in more and more peril as the evil Doctor stops at nothing to win fame for being the first, true-life Dr. Frankenstein.

This book is short, interesting enough and can be read in a few hours. Similar philosophical questions to those posed in Belyaev's other book, "Amphibian Man", are posed here. In both books, scientists claim that their frankensteinian work is ultimately for the better of the humanity, as it will eventually result in human evolution or the prolongation of human life. But is the advancement of science always for the greater good? Throughout "Professor Dowell's Head", the (other) scientist, in fact, aids Dr. Kern simply in the interests of advancing science, despite knowing that Kern is a man of no scruples who would have no qualms about misusing his discoveries for more sinister purposes.

I would recommend "Professor Dowell's Head" for intermediate learners of Russian. You should have no difficulties here.

NEXT UP: The first Belgian author to be featured on mychitalka

Saturday, January 16, 2016

(RNL #75) "The Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum (USA)

Rating: 2 out of 3

I think I honestly would have given this book a higher rating had I not read it a thousand times when I was a child. The novelty of the story was gone, after countless re-reads and having seen the film. I'm also not even going to bother describing what the book is about as its so well known...but perhaps I'll mention a few words about the author.

The book was written by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), a native New Yorker and son of a wealthy business man. Baum grew up on a large estate which he looked upon as a sort of paradise. He was a young, sickly, daydreamer of a child who was schooled mostly at home. He started writing early in life and was even bought a cheap printing press by his Father.

In adulthood, Baum became a prolific writer and had a love for the theatre, often acting in plays. Later in life, Baum moved to South Dakota and apparently, his description of Kansas in the "Wizard of Oz" was based on his own experience in drought ridden South Dakota.

"The Wizard of Oz", by the way, was published by Baum in 1900 and was a big success. Baum later went on to write many sequels to the novel. "The Wizard of Oz" is, however, a lovely book for those who haven't read it, and much recommended. The only lingering question in my mind, is why on Earth didn't the good Witch tell Dorothy that she had what she needed to come home to begin with? (Was she simply using her to get rid of the other Evil Witch?)

Interesting fact: in 1905 Oz reportedly declared plans for an Oz amusement park. He apparently meant to buy an island of the coast of California for the purpose.

(RNL #76) Jonathan Livingston Seagull - Richard Bach (USA)

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

Our next book gives us a glimpse into the (possible?) lives and aspirations of the common seagull. "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" was a famous novel written by American author Richard Bach (1936 - present). I suppose the book was inspired by Bach's own lifelong love of flying and aviation.

Bach was born in Illinois, then served in the US army in various capacities (including as a pilot). "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" (to be further referred to as JLS) was a number one best seller in the States and made Bach famous.

And so now, the book is very very short. (In fact, I think that there were more illustrations of seagulls in my copy than text!). It is about a seagull named Jonathan Livingston who decides that he wants to live for something more than eating and keeping oneself safe from predators. He decides to break with convention and dedicate himself to learning learning difficult flying maneouvres. Jonathan's orthodox ways (predictably) do not go well with the rest of the seagull flock, and as a result, the young seagull is unceremoniously banished for life.

However, in exile, things start looking up for Jonathan once he has 'a close encounter with another kind' and realizes that he's actually not alone in considering his pursuit of aerial perfection the ultimate goal in life.....

The book later branches off into reincarnation and other new age subject matter; about the continuous reincarnation of seagulls until they ultimately do realize the true meaning to their lives and then start to perfect themselves instead of just living to survive.

Now, I find reincarnation a fascinating subject, however, this book was for me far from fascinating. It was very short, lacking of meat or character development and in my view, really far from one of the greatest works every written. It wasn't terrible, but more one of those "Chicken Soup for the Soul"-type reads, as opposed to being a classic.

1.5 out 3 for me.

Friday, January 8, 2016

(RNL #79) "Eves" by Vasily Belov (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Now I must admit, I wasn't too fond of the compilation of short stories I read not too long ago by Vasily Belov and sort of wondered if he even merited a place on the Russian National Library List. However, the book I'm just about to review, "Eves", has completely changed my opinion on the matter.

"Eves" is a very interesting novel that follows an entire Russian village that is forced into collectivization in the 1920's. (It is actually the second novel I have reviewed here on the subject; the first being Sergey Antonov's "The Ravines".)

Now, Belov introduces us to the village almost all at once, as the villagers are about to celebrate a holiday Though as a reader, I was slightly overwhelmed at first with the sheer number of people Belov was introducing me to, it was a very interesting literary technique and Belov really succeeded in making me feel as if I was actually in the village, seeing all of the villagers swarming around me. Throughout the novel, I appreciated how Belov continued to immerse the reader in the daily lives of villagers, allowing the reader to observe them at their daily work and on various holidays.

And to be sure, there are some rather memorable villagers in "Eves". Among others, there are layabouts, hardworking peasant families, an impoverished former aristocrat, a 'revolutionary' priest, some average villagers and a group of  government officials charged with collectivizing the village.

In contrast to Antonov's kinder and more forgiving portrayal of government officials, it is fairly obvious from Belov's overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Soviet government officials that he didn't at all approve of what they were doing. Ignaty Sopronov, who leads the charge to collectivize, is in particular portrayed as a wicked, antisocial little man with absolutely no redeeming characteristics. (There are few people that I have despised more in literature!) He is juxtaposed against the main 'hero' of the novel, a hardworking young man named Pavel Rogov who works day and night to realize his dream of building a windmill for the village. Despite having done nothing to deserve it, Sopronov despises Rogov more than anyone, as likely for Sopronov, Rogov symbolizes everything to be envied and thus despised.

Another main character is a one of the higher ranking village officials, a young man named Mikulenok. Although he is portrayed as an easygoing, non-vicious sort of person, his lackadaisical disinterest in anything aside from his own superficial interests proves ultimately to be almost just as harmful to the villagers as Sopronov's active venom.

And as such, be warned. The book is a very interesting glimpse into a long-gone period of history, however, it is by no means up-beat. Belov introduces you first to a happy, healthy village with laughter and dreams, but there is no doubt of how things will come to their predicted and inevitable bad end.

It is of note that "Eves" is actually the first part in a trilogy of books by Belov that I will most definitely continue reading. 2.5 out of 3 for me.

NEXT UP: "The Wizard of Oz", "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and Andrey Beliy's "Petersburg"