Sunday, 23 July 2017

№ 11 reading list | Middle Eastern and crime fiction

№ 11 reading list | Middle Eastern and crime fiction · Lisa Hjalt
№ 11 reading list | Arundhati Roy and my Persian cat · Lisa Hjalt


Sunday morning coffee, a new reading list and Gilead by novelist Marilynne Robinson. Take my word for it, it's an excellent start of the day. July hasn't finished and already I'm presenting a new list, the second in one month. The reason is simple: there were many short books on the last one. The new list has a taste of the Middle East. For years I have wanted to read Palace Walk, the first book in the Cairo trilogy by Egyptian author and Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Another first for me is the Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. A fellow lover of literature on Instagram recommended her second novel Waking Lions (translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston) and gave three reasons: 1) It takes place in Beersheba (Beer-Sheva), which, according to him, is unheard of in Israeli literature. 2) It's the perfect setting for the characters, living on the margins of society. 3) The story sheds some light on racism in Israel; it revolves around Eritrean and Sudanese refugees. I was sold and luckily my library had a copy when I picked up the new novel by Arundhati Roy.

№ 11 reading list:
· The Ministry of Utmost Happiness  by Arundhati Roy
· Palace Walk  by Naguib Mahfouz
· Waking Lions  by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
· The Black Prince  by Iris Murdoch
· Gilead  by Marilynne Robinson
· So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood  by Patrick Modiano
· The Redbreast  by Jo Nesbø
· Instead of a Letter  by Diana Athill
· Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls  by David Sedaris


I am still reading Jigsaw by Sybille Bedford that was on my last reading list but I have already finished The Redbreast by the Norwegian Jo Nesbø on the new one. At some point this third book about Detective Harry Hole (the first in the Oslo series) became a page-turner and I couldn't put it down. Crime fiction isn't exactly my go-to genre but occasionally I have read everything available by a particular crime author (mainly the Nordic authors; it all started many years ago with the Icelander Arnaldur Indridason and his Detective Erlendur). Nesbø's Harry Hole is an interesting character and I intend to see what happens in Nemesis, the next book in the series.

I have started Sedaris's book but I had to stop reading it before bedtime because my son, who likes to read with me, was unable to concentrate on his book because of me laughing. This is tears-running-down-your-face laughter. I tried to stifle it but it didn't work. Sedaris is, simply put, dangerously funny and I cannot wait to pick up his Diaries. Marilynne Robinson is an author I'm revisiting; I read Home when we lived in Luxembourg. I don't understand why it has taken me so long to pick up Gilead (both books take place in the same period and town, also her work Lila). The prose of Gilead is beautiful; no wonder it brought her the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005.
№ 11 reading list | Middle Eastern and crime fiction · Lisa Hjalt


I would like to finish with a quote by author Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) that I have already shared on Instagram and wanted to keep on the blog as well. Asked about her method of composition in an interview that appeared in the summer 1990 issue of The Paris Review, Murdoch replied:
Well, I think it is important to make a plan before you write the first sentence. Some people think one should write, George woke up and knew that something terrible had happened yesterday, and then see what happens. I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin. I have a general scheme and lots of notes. Every chapter is planned. Every conversation is planned. This is, of course, a primary stage, and very frightening because you've committed yourself at this point ... [Moving on to the second stage.] The deep things that the work is about declare themselves and connect. Somehow things fly together and generate other things, and characters invent other characters, as if they were all doing it themselves. (Issue 115, Summer 1990)


Sunday, 9 July 2017

Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt


Earlier this year, the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, an American-Korean author, was published by Head of Zeus (Apollo). My review copy appeared on my № 8 reading list. It's a story about a Korean family in Japan, about their immigrant experience, their struggles and resilience, spanning eight decades in the 20th century. My feelings about the book are slightly mixed, mainly for its quick pace - its 490 pages read very fast - and the fault I found with the lack of character development. However, I think the book's message is important and historically valuable, for the author casts a light on a social problem I was unaware of: the treatment and oppression of Koreans in Japanese society for decades.

The title of the book, the word pachinko, needs explanation. It first appears halfway through the book. Pachinko is a pinball game and the pachinko parlors are a huge industry in Japan, with a larger export revenue than the car industry. The pachinko parlors were one of few places that would hire Koreans. What is more, the only housing solution for Koreans was a tiny shack in ethnic ghettos for no one wanted to rent out properties to them.

Pachinko tells the story of four generations, beginning in 1911, in a fishing village in the south-eastern part of the Korean peninsula, the year after Japan's annexation of the country. To fastforward slightly, a love affair with a married man leaves the fifteen-year-old Sunja pregnant. Her family is saved from ruin when Isak, a Christian minister from the north, offers to marry her and take her with him to Osaka, in Japan, where they arrive in April 1933.
Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt


At the start of their journey, around page 80, the story really takes off and becomes somewhat of a page-turner. The writing style is plain and because of conversations the pace is quick, which is also the book's main flaw. Instead of developing the characters, giving them more depth, and allowing the reader to stand still with them to gain a better insight, it feels as if the author is constantly moving the story along, perhaps to fit it into historical context. Min Jin Lee's story is certainly interesting but the storytelling lacks density.

She divides the book into three parts: The first two are mainly about the immigrant experience, about Sunja and her family's struggles in an ethnic ghetto, and on a farm during the war. The third part starts in April 1962 and mainly deals with her descendants. At that point the family is financially more stable, and the younger members later prosper with the help of the pachinko business. In my opinion, this is where the author derails; the third is the novel's weakest part. Min Jin Lee introduces a new set of characters - few of which I grew fond of - and leaves a gap by almost abandoning the older generation. Sunja and the older family members seem to fade into the background, as if they are no longer of much importance, when in fact it seems to me that so much if left untold of their story, especially of their feelings.

Sunja is a character that I grew to love and hoped to get to know better in the third part. About hundred pages in, finally, came this glimpse of insight into her mind: 'All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer—suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother—die suffering. Go-saeng—the word made her sick. What else was there besides this? She had suffered to create a better life for Noa, and yet it was not enough' (p. 420). Alas, it was short-lived. The author took us straight into conversations and moved the story along.
Book review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee · Lisa Hjalt


Even though Pachinko isn't a literary masterpiece, one has to honour the author's effort. Part of me wants to root for the book because of its themes and its relevance to the times we live in: immigration and identity, and the treatment of immigrants and refugees. This is where I think Min Jin Lee is at her finest. There is scrutiny of Japan but she avoids feeding opinions to her readers and the pit of letting them see things in black and white. I completely trust her research for the book, of the Korean experience in Japanese society, and I believe she leaves it to the reader to pass judgement.

Readers who are only looking for a story will enjoy this book, enjoy its fast pace. But I'm afraid readers who turn to literature for the writing style, for sentences one wants to read again, and even write down, will be left a bit empty-handed.

Pachinko
By Min Jin Lee
Head of Zeus / Apollo
Hardcover, 490 pages
BUY HERE

Pachinko appeared on my № 8 reading list.


Sunday, 2 July 2017

№ 10 reading list: rediscovering Modiano

№ 10 reading list: Modiano, book stack, latte · Lisa Hjalt


Sunday morning, latte, book podcasts, and a new reading list. When the skies are grey this is a delightful way to start the day. There are nine books on the list, which to some may seem a lot, but many of these are short and I have already finished a few, e.g. that second Patrick Modiano, In the Café of Lost Youth. My new favourite author. [Update: I changed the title of this entry when I realised shortly after posting it that I had indeed read Modiano before, years ago. It was this German edition of Villa Triste. I still remember buying it, in a small bookshop in one of those narrow cobblestone streets in Zurich. I need to reread it; I don't remember the storyline.] He is a French novelist who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014. Luckily, many of his books have been translated into English, and are available at my local library.

№ 10 reading list:
· The Ballad of the Sad Café  by Carson McCullers
· Pedigree  by Patrick Modiano
· In the Café of Lost Youth  by Patrick Modiano
· Invisible Cities  by Italo Calvino
· Stoner  by John Williams
· Point Omega  by Don DeLillo
· Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education  by Sybille Bedford
· The Captain's Daughter  by Alexander Pushkin
· Dancing in the Dark: My Struggle 4  by Karl Ove Knausgård

It is time to continue with Knausgård's struggles; I was beginning to miss his voice. The only book in the stack that belongs to me is Bedford's Jigsaw, which is partly autobiographical. A fellow book lover on Instagram recommended it and something tells me I will soon be picking up her memoirs Quicksands.

I meant to include Arundhati Roy's new fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, but I'm still waiting for the copy I ordered at the library. It will appear on the next list. Earlier this week she was a guest on the Guardian book podcast. Besides talking about the book, she also talked about her activism in India, which I found fascinating. The legal cases against her are many and ridiculous, but she has a wonderful sense of humour and doesn't hesitate to make fun of her opponents.

I have finished reading all the books on the Japanese reading list (№ 9), except The Tale of Genji (the one under my cup). It's long and I told you I would be reading it slowly. In case you were wondering, yes, I'm enjoying it very much. I still owe you two book reviews and some notes from my reading journal (right before sharing it, I accidentally deleted the draft of my Pachinko review! I sort of knew it by heart and I just have to finish typing it again). I hope July will be a good month for reading.


Wednesday, 21 June 2017

summertime 2017 | new books

summertime 2017 new books, peonies, coffee cup · Lisa Hjalt


The longest day of the year is upon us and on the west coast of Scotland we have clouds and some rain. The ideal weather for mentioning new books, don't you agree, and for inhaling the scent of the peonies on my desk. I ordered two of these titles from the local library and hope I can add them to my next reading list:

· The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton). After twenty years, finally, a new fiction from Roy! Her novel The God of Small Things, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1997, is one of the most memorable books I have ever read.
· Theft by Finding: Diaries: Volume One by David Sedaris (Little, Brown). Quite recently he was a guest on The NYT Book Review podcast, talking about and reading from it, and there I was in the kitchen laughing out loud. He is simply hilarious.
· House of Names by Colm Tóibín (Viking). An author I still haven't read. On my to-read list is his novel Brooklyn, which I wanted to read before seeing the film (2015), starring Saoirse Ronan. Couldn't wait and am so glad I didn't. It's a beautiful film that I can watch over and over again.
· The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich (Penguin). She received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015. This is the long-awaited English translation of her classic oral history of Soviet women's experiences during WWII. Published in July.
· Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri (Faber). About a man, interestingly named Amit Chaudhuri, who returns to Bombay, the city of his childhood. Published in August.


Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Tale of Genji translation by Seidensticker



'In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others.' So begins The Tale of Genji, written in the beginning of the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese lady of the court (the Heian period). Two translations were on my № 9 reading list, the one with Japanese literature only - at the time I wasn't sure which one I would read. Now I'm the lucky owner of an unread, second-hand copy of the Edward G. Seidensticker translation, published by Everyman's Library. Even the ribbon marker hasn't been pulled out.

I have almost finished reading the other works on the list and may share another reading list soon. I like reading multiple books at a time and given The Tale of Genji 's 1184 pages, I find it likely that I will read the first 250 pages or so and then a chapter or two daily alongside other books until I finish. Unless I become completely immersed in it.



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Thursday, 1 June 2017

№ 9 reading list: Japanese literature I



Months ago the idea of a Japanese reading list started sprouting in my mind, and once I began writing down authors and titles in my pocket notebook I realised that there would be more than one list. Despite the word snow appearing in one of the titles below, it somehow felt right to ease into the summer reading Japanese literature. This first list is slightly shorter than intended, for the simple reason that one of the books I ordered hasn't arrived and at the last minute I decided not to include two works by the same author. It means that a novel by Yasunari Kawabata, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, will appear on the next list. My blog readers will recognise Tanizaki, but his novel The Makioka Sisters was on an earlier list. I love the fact that at least one blog reader read and enjoyed it as much as I did.

№ 9 reading list:
· First Snow on Fuji  by Yasunari Kawabata
· The Temple of the Golden Pavilion  by Yukio Mishima
· Some Prefer Nettles  by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki
· The Tale of Genji  by Murasaki Shikibu (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker)
· The Tale of Genji  by Murasaki Shikibu (translated by Dennis Washburn)
· My Neighbor Totoro: The Novel  by Tsugiko Kubo (illustrated by Hayao Miyazaki)

As you can see, there are two unabridged editions of The Tale of Genji and I still haven't decided which one to read. The Washburn translation is a new paperback edition by W. W Norton & Co, the other an Everyman's Library edition. I'm trying to order the translation by Seidensticker through my local library, which is the main reason I have postponed sharing the list. If it fails to arrive I'm not sure at this point which one I will purchase. On my Instagram account you may have noticed that I'm already reading The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Mishima. He fictionalised the story of the monk who in 1950 set fire to the Golden Pavilion of Kyoto, erected in the 15th century (the American airplanes spared the temples during the war). This was a shocking event. During the trial the young monk said he was protesting against the commercialisation of Buddhism. However, scholar Donald Keene writes in the introduction that 'he may have been directly inspired by nothing more significant than pique over having been given a worn garment when he had asked the Surperior of the temple for an overcoat'! I'm more than halfway through the book with the pavilion still standing, and troubling the mind of the rather repulsive protagonist.


Have you seen the animation My Neighbour Totoro (1988) by Hayao Miyazaki? It's one of the Japanese favourites in our home. Last year my son and I were sitting at the café of our local Waterstones when he spotted the book on a shelf. We didn't even know it existed and learned then and there that the film had been turned into a novel, featuring Miyazaki's illustrations. It's a beautiful book and of course we walked out of the bookshop with a purchased copy. My son loved reading the story and now it's my turn.


Saturday, 13 May 2017

reading journal 2017 | Lessing, Athill, Borges ...



The other day I came across a fantastic word you won't find in a dictionary: readlief. It means when you finally get around to start a book you have been meaning to read for years. My reading lists have led to many readliefs. It's rewarding to cross a book off the list, more so when it's a good read. My to-read list doesn't get any shorter, though, as I'm constantly coming across books to add to it. The book lover's dilemma. Below I'm sharing some thoughts on books from my № 7 reading list, which I posted in February. I have created a new category for these kinds of blog entries that I call Reading Journal (the year in the title indicates when that particular list appeared on the blog).

№ 7 reading list (6 of 9):

· Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. This short story collection, described as original, is literary and philosophical, and not for everyone. I have never read anything like it. The first two stories didn't quite grab me but as soon I started the third one, I was hooked. That one is called 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote' (appeared in the Argentine literary journal Sur in May 1939), about a man who rewrites Don Quixote by Cervantes, line-for-line. The idea is brilliant.

· The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. When I finished the book my first thought was: powerful. Since then I have heard other people use that same word about the book, which was Lessing's first novel, published in 1950. It starts with the murder of the main character Mary Turner and as you read on you learn about her background and what led to the tragedy, basically the disintegration of her life on a farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Lessing grew up there and masterfully describes the African landscape. It's been months since I finished the book and I'm still thinking about it. A good psychology study.

· The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. This one has become a classic but it's not for everyone. There were parts that I struggled with, parts that I found either repetitive or too long, and it took me quite some time to finish it. However, one cannot argue with the fact that this is an influential literary work. Its good parts have really stuck and I'm glad I finally took the plunge and turned it into a readlief.

· Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis De Bernières. I read somewhere that this was a novel with heart and that is exactly how I would describe it. The only thing that bothered me just slightly during the first 100 pages or so were the character introductions (each gets a chapter), which were unavoidable because the novel has so many. Bernières made up for them with delightful, and often comic, details, especially descriptions of life in the village (it takes place on a Greek island during WWII).

· Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend by Diana Athill. I'm fond of reading letters but towards the end of this collection I was growing a bit weary. Athill and her friend were getting old and the later letters had too much talk about health issues, which is perfectly normal between close friends but isn't a fun read. She comments on this in the postscript and it's the reason she didn't include more letters in the book. Her work Stet is on my to-read list and I have heard nothing but praises, so perhaps you should consider starting with that one if you would like to read something by Athill.

· Local Souls by Allan Gurganus. I decided to postpone the reading. In my blog entry I wrote that I wanted to read his book Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All  before reading this one, and that is what I decided to do.

· In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris, 1900-1910 by Sue Roe. I'm not an art historian but I think this book was well researched. I found it interesting but I would have preferred more photos of the art pieces (I was constantly looking up the works in the text online to make sure I had the right ones in mind or to see the ones I didn't recognise). I enjoyed reading about Picasso, Matisse and other artists but sometimes there were stories about people related to them that, in my opinion, were of no importance. Each time I came across these stories, more like snippets, I felt the book could have benefitted from another round of editing.

Have you experienced any recent readliefs?

Currently I'm finishing the books on my № 8 reading list and will be writing two reviews, about Astrid Lindgren's war diaries, A World Gone Mad, and the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.


Monday, 17 April 2017

remembering Karen Blixen



Happy Easter! Today is the birthday of Karen Blixen (b. 17 April 1885, d. 7 September 1962), a Danish author who wrote many tales under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen (Babette's Feast and Other Stories, Shadows on the Grass, Seven Gothic Tales, Winter's Tales, and Last Tales). She was a gifted storyteller, best known for her book Out of Africa, often described as a lyrical meditation on her life in Kenya, where she had a farm, a coffee plantation (the book has no chronological order). Most people know of Blixen because of Sydney Pollack's film adaptation: While the film may give you an idea of Blixen's life in the stunning African landscape, only by reading the book will you experience its true atmosphere. For me it depicts an Africa I will never experience. A bygone era.

In one of my journals there is a quote by Blixen. Once she was asked how a story begins for a writer and this was her reply, in Danish:
Det begynder med atmosfære, et landskab, der for mig er vidunderligt skønt, og så – så kommer menneskene pludselig ind i billedet. Med det er de der, de lever, og jeg kan lade dem leve videre i bøgerne.
Basically, she is saying that first comes atmosphere, a landscape, which she finds wonderful and then, suddenly, people enter the scene. With that they are there, they live, and she can let them live on in the books. (I found the quote on the FB page of Karen Blixen Museet.)

In February came great news for Karen Blixen fans when it was announced that her book Out of Africa will be turned into a TV series.

image by me | the photo of Karen Blixen appears in the book Letters from Africa 1914-1931


Monday, 10 April 2017

a talk with textile designer Lisa Fine



The late American photographer Ansel Adams once said: 'You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.' One can apply his words to any kind of creative art and I used them to start an email conversation with textile designer Lisa Fine. On the blog I have already described her as a designer with a sense of history and I stick to my words. She has a knack for colours, for patterns, and it feels as if each fabric by Lisa Fine Textiles tells a story. She was born and raised in Mississippi. Today she lives in New York with her dogs and travels widely, often to India and other exotic places. Miniature paintings have inspired her career, and so has painter Henri Matisse.

Wherever possible, also in direct quotes, I have added links to e.g. short essays on museum websites that I found interesting and educational. Except for the Matisse paintings, all the images were chosen by me.

[Fabrics by Lisa Fine Textiles shown in my top image (click each for info): Cairo, Kashgar,
Luxor, Malabar, Malula, Mandalay, Pasha, and Rajkot. See the books further below.]

Persian miniature: Mir Sayyid 'Ali, Night-time in a City, c. 1540, Tabriz, Iran, Safavid Period

To go back to Adams's words, what has left its mark on Lisa Fine (given how much she has discovered through her work and travels).
LF: My life is very much about people, however, books and art not only inspire and teach but are the best refuge.

My favorite painter is Matisse. I love his mix of color and pattern, especially in his orientalist portraits. Irving & Fine [collaboration with textile designer Carolina Irving] peasant blouses were very much inspired by his work. I also love the Fauvism movement.
Her other two favourite artists are Kees Van Dongen and Amedeo Modigliani.

Henri Matisse, Zorah on the Terrace, 1912

She doesn't have a favourite Matisse painting but said: 'I love his Moroccan period most, especially the portraits.' Later I found his work Zorah on the Terrace in my inbox with the words: 'Love Moroccan portraits.' The other two by Matisse followed, the one below with the words: 'Love odalisque series.'

Saturday, 1 April 2017

colourful fabrics by Lisa Fine Textiles



Motifs, patterns, textiles, colours. Having recently received a batch of samples from Lisa Fine Textiles, I have spent my latte moments with hand-printed, colourful fabrics and textile books spread all over my desk, as captured in my images. Here we have three designs she introduced last year, Kalindi, Cochin and Ayesha Paisley, which are a beautiful addition to her exotic collection, inspired by her travels. Soon I will be sharing with you a little chat I had with Lisa Fine herself through email, about books, art and other inspirations.

Cochin by Lisa Fine Textiles, colour in foreground: rose

Of these three designs, the floral fabric Cochin is the one that has won my heart and soul, especially the colour rose with a saffron background. The pattern is hand-printed on 90% natural linen blended with 10% nylon, available in four colours: rose, cinnabar (the red and blue one - see image above, top-right), burnt sugar, and saffron (with pink flowers). Many of Lisa Fine's designs bear an Indian name. Cochin is the colonial name of the Indian city Kochi, situated on the southwest coast in the state of Kerala.

Ayesha Paisley, colour in foreground: ruby

The Ayesha Paisley fabric is hand-printed on 100% natural linen, available in four colours: ruby, sapphire, coral, and spinel (I don't have a sample of the last one).

Ayesha Paisley, in the foreground: sapphire

In foreground: Kalindi in every available colour (under my cup are two samples of the fabric Luxor)

The Kalindi fabric has a floral pattern with dots, hand-printed on 90% natural linen blended with 10% nylon. It's available in five rich colours: monsoon (the light blue one), indigo, saffron, dusty rose, and lipstick. I'm assuming the fabric is named after the Kalindi River in the state of West Bengal in eastern India.

To view the full range of fabrics, visit the website of Lisa Fine Textiles.


Perhaps some of my readers are in the mood for a new look for one of their spaces or even thinking about redesigning their home. In an interview that appeared in Lonny a few years ago, when her guest flat on the Left Bank in Paris was featured in the magazine, Lisa Fine gave a solid advice: 'Never be a victim of trends. If modern is in style and you love Victorian, go Victorian. Style is an expression of yourself and not what fashion dictates' (Inspiration India, Dec/Jan 2010). In the same feature she shared a few design tips and this one could help you start: 'Similar to how many designers will start with a rug and then build a room, choose a fabric to inspire the space and work from there.' My choice of fabric would be clear.