Month: May 2018

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Posted May 17, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 3 Comments

Flights by Olga TokarczukTitle: Flights (Goodreads)
Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Translator: Jennifer Croft
Published: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017
Pages: 410
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2018
Shortlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature 2018
Longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2018
Longlisted for the BTBA 2019

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk was the final novel I have to read for the Man Booker International Prize shortlist, and what a book to go out on. Tokarczuk is a Polish writer that has not gotten much attention in the English-speaking world until recently. She has won the Nike Award (which is a Polish literary award) twice for her novel Bieguni in 2008 and Księgi jakubowe (The Books of Jacob) in 2015. Curiously, Flights is the English title for Bieguni which I believe roughly translates to Runners.

Sitting here, I find it very difficult to write a review of Flights, it feels more like a novel that should be experienced rather than written about. It is an experimental novel that focuses more on travel writing rather than an actual plot. The narrative is musing on what it means to travel the world rather than her story. However, this works really well, and I wonder if this is the type of book that should be in the seat pocket of every plane for the travellers to read and reflect on their own experiences.

I am a fan of the postmodern novel so I am never disappointed if there is a lack of plot or character development, provided that the author is doing something interesting enough to keep my attention. If I was to compare this to any other book on the Man Booker International Prize longlist, I would compare it to The White Book. Simply because this is the fragmented musings of a writer on a particular topic, in this case travel. Exploring the oddness of modern travel, the airports, hotels, public transport and even guide books. There is so much to meditate one, I am actually surprised she was able to spend so much time with this one topic and cover so many different aspects.

The narrator describes herself as a pilgrim and I found myself to be her companion. I had an intimate knowledge of every thought and feeling she had. I have heard that this book shares so many similarities to Moby Dick and I have never wanted to read this Herman Melville classic more. Although I might simply read Moby Dick just so I can reread Flights.

To say I was enchanted by Flights might be an understatement, at times I was transfixed, and I never wanted to leave this book. I know Jennifer Croft probably has a busy life but I really hope she translates some of Olga Tokarczuk’s other novels. I recently found out that she was a founding editor of The Buenos Aires Review (which has not released new content since December 2017) along with Pola Oloixarac (who wrote the amazing Savage Theories) and Heather Cleary (who has translated a few Sergio Chejfec novels for Open Letter). My love of Argentinian literature is pleased to find that this is bilingual magazine. Croft has also translated August by Argentinian author Romina Paula, which I have recently ordered from Feminist Press. Now that I have finished being distracted by the translator, I cannot recommend Flights enough, especially if you are interested in travel writing.

Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina

Posted May 16, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 4 Comments

Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz MolinaTitle: Like a Fading Shadow (Goodreads)
Author: Antonio Muñoz Molina
Translator: Camilo A. Ramirez
Published: Tuskar Rock, 2017
Pages: 320
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018

In 1968, James Earl Ray evaded the authorities after shooting Martin Luther King Jr. by using a fake passport and making his way to Portugal. During his last days of freedom, he wanders around Lisbon rehearsing his fake identities. In Like a Fading Shadow, Antonio Muñoz Molina reconstructs Ray’s final days, but it is also a meditation on the city that also inspired his first novel A Winter in Lisbon. Turning this into a blend of historical fiction and memoir, Muñoz Molina’s tries to weave his own experiences in with that of a man on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Everything about this novel sounded so appealing from the premise but reading it was so difficult. First of all, I thought the idea of having the James Earl Ray narrative interwoven with that of Antonio Muñoz Molina’s did not work as well as the author might have hoped. In hindsight, it would have been better to just read A Winter in Lisbon and then search the internet about Earl Ray’s final days. Secondly, I felt like this book kept going in circles and never really progressing in any satisfactory way. Which is disappointing because I think this was one of the books on the Man Booker International Prize longlist that I was excited to read.

This is so disappointing, the idea to make a fictionalised account of what might have happened when James Earl Ray was in Portugal sounds amazing. I was fascinated that he was able to sneak across the border to Canada and use a fake passport to get to London and eventually make it all the way to Lisbon. He spent his time trying to get to Angola, which alone would have made for an interesting narrative; why is a pro-white supremacist trying to get to Africa? Then you have this memoir-like narrative of Antonio Muñoz Molina trying to write his first novel, A Winter in Lisbon. Separately this could be stimulating to explore the writer’s process and the emotions behind creating a novel. However, as a combination it ended up to be too little of each and together it never came together.

The Man Booker International Prize longlist has been focusing on narratives the blend fiction and non-fiction and I can see why this book was picked but I do not see the appeal for it to make the shortlist. I wanted to love this book; I went in with high expectations but I ended up struggling through this. Between this and The Imposters (which is very similar in many ways) I almost found myself in a reading slump. Thankfully Flights by Olga Tokarczuk was there to save me.

Vernon Subutex, 1 by Virginie Despentes

Posted May 15, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Vernon Subutex, 1 by Virginie DespentesTitle: Vernon Subutex, 1 (Goodreads)
Author: Virginie Despentes
Translator: Frank Wynne
Series: Vernon Subutex #1
Published: MacLehose Press, 2017
Pages: 352
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018
Longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2018

Having read Virginie Despentes previously (Apocalypse Baby) I have to say I was a little worried about reading her Man Booker International Prize shortlisted book. I was worried that Despentes was aiming for to shock, but this novel seems to be a cutting-edge social novel looking directly at the punk sub-culture in France. The book is the first in the trilogy and it focuses on Vernon who is feeling ambivalent about his fast approaching half century. He started working at Revolver, a hip Parisian record store in his twenties but now he is reflecting on his own life. Vernon Subutex, 1 explores the rapidly changing social scene of music and the punk rock lifestyle.

The record store once boasted a legendary status but now, in the 2000s, it is struggling. However, in a throwaway comment, the internet believe that Vernon is in possession of the last filmed recordings of the famous musician Alex Bleach. Beach recently died from a drug overdose and now people from all walks of life are after Vernon and this supposed recording.

I view Vernon Subutex, 1 as the beginning of an epic journey. Often, we read an epic as a story that follows a family through their generations but this is more of a social epic. It follows both Vernon and the music industry as their worlds rapidly change. What drew me to this novel is the music references, there are so many bands and songs referenced in this book that I remember fondly. Before becoming a book nerd, I spent a lot of time listening to music, and the punk scene was one I closely followed. While I still listen to music, I do not have a finger on the pulse anymore. I have borne witness to the changes the internet brought to the music industry. Music stores closing everywhere as the rise of piracy and streaming quickly spread. However, it is important to remember that the revival of vinyl has helped indie record stores survive nowadays.

For me, there was just too much that I could relate to in Vernon Subutex, 1 and I found myself loving the reading experience. While I was never into the drugs and alcohol consumption that is associated with this sub-culture, I could identify with the social disconnect, music obsession and laziness that characterised Vernon. Then Virginie Despentes starts to dive into a darker side of the sub-culture, dealing with violent tendencies, racism and sexual identity. Despentes previously was a sales clerk in a record store and a freelance rock journalist, which plays a big part in helping shape this novel. Although her past careers as a sex worker and pornographic film critic have also influenced the plot. She seems to explore themes of youth marginalisation, the sexual revolution lived by Generation X, music and pornography within Vernon Subutex, 1 and Apocalypse Baby, which leads me to suspect this is common in all her novels.

Virginie Despentes may have found a place with French authors like Emmanuel Carrère and Michel Houellebecq and while I was not blown away by Vernon Subutex, 1, I will be continuing with book two when it is released into English later this year. I feel like there is still more of the story left to explore and I hope that it all comes together in the end. Right now, it feels incomplete and something I would not recommend to anyone, unless they love the music. There is a Spotify playlist which features all the songs and artist mentioned in the trilogy which has lead to discovering some new French bands. If it was not for the Man Booker International Prize longlist, I may have never given Virginie Despentes another chance, but I am glad I have.

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Posted May 14, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Horror, Literary Fiction / 4 Comments

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed SaadawiTitle: Frankenstein in Baghdad (Goodreads)
Author: Ahmed Saadawi
Translator: Jonathan Wright
Published: Oneworld Publications, 2018
Pages: 272
Genres: Literary Fiction, Horror
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindleWordery (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018

There has been a lot of buzz around Frankenstein in Baghdad, even before being spotlighted on the Man Booker International Prize longlist and now shortlist. Ahmed Saadawi’s novel is an intense portrayal of Iraqi life in post invasion Baghdad. The violence never stopped after the American invasion and junk dealer Hadi collects body parts lying on the streets and patchworks them together. However when a wandering spirit of a guard who was a victim of a car-bomb explosion finds the corpse, he is quick to possess it, giving birth to a monster known as Whatsitsname, who sets out to seek vengeance for all the victims that make up this monster.

Two hundred years ago Mary Shelley published Frankenstein and Ahmed Saadawi’s nod to this classic serves as celebration of the genre Shelley has created. I am often sceptical about a remake or reimagining of a classic, especially when that book is so close to my heart. However I was drawn to Frankenstein in Baghdad, but that might be my love for books in translation. There are elements of this novel that almost mirror Frankenstein but with a more modern spin. Take for example the opening chapter, rather than Captain Robert Walton writing to his sister to setup the story, we have an activity report from the Tracking and Pursuit department. Letter writing is a dying art form but a military report perfectly modernised the novel’s setup.

The war on Iraq is a topic that is often talked about in western society. A war that President George W Bush claimed was successful in the Mission Accomplished speech held on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003. Yet it was not until the end of 2011 when all U.S. troops were officially withdrawn. I say ‘officially withdrawn’ but the U.S. have still had troops in Iraq, most notably the American-led intervention of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2014 and Operation Conquest in Mosul in 2016. The war on Iraq lead to the Iraqi Civil War which led to America’s involvement again in what they call the war on terror. I do not know much about the conflicts in Iraq apart from the information shared on the news.

I cannot expect the news to portray an unbiased account of everything happening in Iraq so it was nice to learn a little more with Frankenstein in Baghdad. While this is a surreal and fantastical novel, the book did confirm what I have always suspected. That war and violence do not lead to peace. Everything I knew about the war on Iraq had always made it out to be that America is spreading democracy and peace to the Middle East. However all the evidence points to a creation of a new monster, one that wreaks havoc on Baghdad, one that used the power vacuum and hatred to gain a foothold. Not Whatsitsname, but the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Frankenstein in Baghdad transforms from a novel of pure horror based on the actual horrors faced every day. However this novel is not as depressing as you might expect. Ahmed Saadawi has managed to convey so much of the world he lives in without scaring the reader away. Frankenstein in Baghdad reads more like a black comedy, a satire of the current state of the Middle East. Taking the themes found in Frankenstein of the way society turned a creature into a monster and turning it back onto the world showing us all the monster that has been created.

While this may not be a direct connection, it is a connection I found in the novel. While Whatsitsname is possessed by righteous fury, going about slaughtering those who have turned Baghdad into a slaughterhouse, this might work for the real life Frankenstein. Although we could argue that they are bound by the same motivation. I will leave any political opinions up to the reader to interpret. This is a stunning novel that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. There is something about Ahmed Saadawi’s story that makes this a must read. Whether his attentions were to compare Frankenstein with that of ISIS is entirely up to the reader. Novels are always subjective, this is the connections I made. I am left with anger towards the U.S. treatment of Iraq and I never had a high opinion in the first place. Without getting too political I want to leave you with one question to think about, should any country force their own values on a culture that is vastly different from their own?

This review was originally published in the literary journal The Literati

Do Reading Statistics Inform My Reading?

Posted May 8, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 4 Comments

The only advantage to becoming obsessed with reading so late in my life is that I have been able to track all the books I have read. However I often wonder if this is an advantage at times, does tracking my reading have value? When I load up my reading spreadsheet, I see a list of every book I have read since 2009 – all 1020 books. It is pretty impressive, and I do love looking at statistics, my main concern is the simple fact that these stats are starting to inform my reading life too much. I do agree that it is useful to be balanced in my reading but worry that it is dictating all my reading.

I have become obsessed with reading books in translation and in 2017 one of my goals was to read 50% translations. An admirable goal, except the only reason I started reading more books in translation was because I saw that 50% of all books read were from American born authors. Only 5% were from my home country of Australia. I thought it was strange that my reading life was so out of balance and I set out to rectify that. Now the stats are slightly better with only 46% from American authors (20% in 2017).

The main reason I question the stats is because I feel like I am letting the statistics inform my reading choices rather than allowing myself to pick up books I want to read. If I was to be completely ignorant of how many male authors I read verse how many female authors I read (overall 70/30) would I focus on closing the gap. I am not saying that reading diversely is bad, I just wonder how much of my reading choices are based on restoring the balance.

For me, I would love to read to have an even balance between male and female authors, I would love to read less books from America but should this be my primary focus. I have to admit to myself that without knowing about this imbalance I might never have discovered how much I love books in translation. I do believe that being able to see the imbalance has lead me to make better choices, I have started to actively seek out women in translation and I am aware of the imbalance in the publishing world.

In 2018 I decided that my reading goal for the year would be no reading goal. I have thought about removing my statistics so I would not be influenced by it but I do want to have a better balance between male and female authors. In 2017 I managed to achieve 45% female authors and I hope that in 2018 that will be better (I am yet to find a non-binary author to read). I want to use my spreadsheet to keep myself accountable. But do I want to I want to be influenced in any other ways.

Looking at my spreadsheet I see non-fiction makes up only 12% of my reading. I have only re-read 3% and my fascination with Russian literature only equals 3.3% of my reading. 20% of the books I’ve read are from the library and 34% are audiobooks. 70% of all books read are from a new author I have never read before, which means I rarely read another book from an author I really enjoyed. 45% of the books I’ve read are published after 2010 and only 9% are books longer than 500 pages. 15% are books from the 1001 Books you Must Read before you Die list, which means I have a long way to go before achieving my life long goal of reading all the books on this list.

I look at all these statistics and I cannot help but wonder if they are necessary. Sure, it is nice to have reading goals but do the goals and the statistics get in the way of reading what you want to read? When I first got into book blogging and then BookTube, the amount of books I read greatly increased. In 2011 I read 150 books or 41580 pages, and these numbers increased in 2012 and 2013. While it is awesome to be reading so much, I think the problem was I was picking quantity over quality. In fact 50% of all my reading are books under 300 pages. I was a new reader who did not know what I liked so I explored many different genres and read the books I thought I should read.

Reflecting back on this time, I know that being a literary explorer was a good way to discover what I like and do not like but I hate the fact that I have read more YA (3%) than I have read short stories or poetry (1% each) combined. The fact that I have read more pages in fantasy than memoir shocks me because I don’t even like fantasy. I am not saying that reading these genres are wrong, they are just wrong for me. I have explored all the genres and I now know what I like. I am fully aware that these stats will change as I read more and eventually it will be a better reflection of my own reading tastes, I just mourn all that lost reading time.

If I had no idea about all the statistics, how different would my reading be? I wonder this far too often. I have learnt so much on my reading journey and I am pleased to discover new things on the way. There is far too much to read and not enough time to worry about balancing out all the statistics. Will my year of reading with no goals be fruitful? I am not sure but I am sure I will read some good books along the way.

I write this because I am curious to know how many others track their own reading statistics and has that informed your own reading. I do hope that the balance with translated books remains in my reading life but I probably need to focus a little more on the gender balance. Apart from that, I hope that no other stats inform my reading. I want to read what I want, when I want. I want to be able to consume quality over quantity and not be influenced by the hyped books.

Happy reading everyone.

This article was originally published in the literary journal The Literati

Distracted by Other Books

Posted May 1, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Monthly Reading / 2 Comments

My Thoughts and Reading in April 2018

Earlier in the month my wife was suffering from a major headache, so lying in the dark I decided to pick up my kindle to avoid disturbing her. I had The White Book on my Paperwhite and I knew it would not take me that long to read. Reading in the dark I was transfixed by the light of my Kindle. There is a line in the book that really stayed with me, “Certain objects appear white in the darkness. When darkness is imbued with even the faintest light…” There is something to be said about reading a book at the right time, because the experience alone made this book enjoyable. I love sitting in the dark but normally hate reading on my Kindle, the combination of darkness and talking about white just meshed well.

However that experience pales in comparison to reading The 7th Function of Language. Have you ever read a novel that you think has been tailor made for you? This was my experience with The 7th Function of Language. Everything about this book ticked my boxes, from the mystery element, to the literary criticism. I loved every minute reading this one and I cannot wait to re-reading it in the future. This reminds me of my favourite Umberto Eco book, Foucault’s Pendulum. I had to laugh at the fact so many people were calling this novel ‘too pretentious’ but others were comparing it to Dan Brown.

I often wonder if my literary tastes are the direct opposite to the norm, because I tend to love so many books others are regularly dismissed. Not that I mind at all. It helps with my pretentious literary credibility. Although I think The 7th Function of Language is not pretentious and would make for an exciting audiobook. I have not read hhHh but after reading this one, I am keen to find a copy. Although that novel is more war based, I am still very curious. It did get a lot of hype and attention, which might mean I will be disappointed by the novel.

This month marked the start of my very own podcast, Lost in Translations. My wife and I have been planning this for a very long time and by planning I mean procrastinating. But this we finally released the first episode which is an introduction episode. I was very nervous but beyond thrilled with just how well it turned out. I am surprised how much support I got on a project that has just launched. I am looking forward to releasing the first official episode where we discuss a book I loved last year (no spoilers into what it will be). My wife will be my first guest and while we have not recorded the episode yet, I hope to have it release in the middle of May.

I have loved reading the Man Booker International prize longlist and I am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially after finishing Like a Fading Shadow and Vernon Subutex 1. It has been a bit of a letdown for me. There are so many books on the list that I thought were so-so but not much I loved, besides The 7th Function of Language, Frankenstein in Baghdad and Die, My Love. I will read the next Vernon Subutex book, and I did have a lot of fun reading it but it was not a standout. I am starting to be distracted by other books and itching to read other things. I am not married to the idea of completing the entire longlist but I thought it was a great opportunity to be part of the community. I am yet to read Go, Went, Gone and Flights, which are on my TBR, so they will get read. I am in the middle of The Imposters and have not brought a copy of The Flying Mountain. So that is four books from the longlist that I would love to complete but the only one I am positive I will read soon is Flights.

The BTBA longlist is looking very tempting.

I re-read Frankenstein again, I received a beautiful edition of the 1818 text and thought it was time to read again. I did use this as an excuse to write a piece on how Frankenstein has impacted my life. Surprisingly I think I learnt a little about myself writing that piece and I am always astounded by what I discover about myself while writing. I think there is something therapeutic about writing and it often unlocks connections I have not thought were there. Writing about Frankenstein helped me understand a little more about my past. That piece will be in the next issue of The Literati which is released very soon.

Finally I picked up The Diving Pool to read, which is the pick for a bookclub I am apart of on Goodreads. I love being a part of a Goodreads group reading books in translation, but not many people are interested in communicating. I love a good forum but I think maybe they have run their course. People join but quickly lose interest. I love the idea of talking about books, especially translations but maybe Goodreads groups are not the right spot. What is the future for the forum format? Is it Discord? Or maybe it is a Facebook group.

I feel like this month has been less productive than other months. Only six books read and hardly any writing getting done. I am happy to see my podcast become a reality so I should not complain. I have The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart on the go, which I need to read for my IRL bookclub but I have not planned what else I will be reading. I like to read on a whim and maybe the Man Booker International prize longlist messed with that and has put me into a little of a slump. Although I hope to break out in May and get back to all the books that keep distracting me throughout the month. We are housesitting so I do not have access to all my books, which might mean a little control but I hope it does not keep my slump going any further.

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