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Posts Tagged ‘Zoë Jenny’

I am coming to the party nearly a month late, but here I am finally. Here are my favourite books and my favourite reading moments from last year – books which were amazing, writers who were fascinating and everything in between with some fun facts thrown in along the way.

First a small description of how my reading year went. I started off quite well, but at some point after a month or two, I got into a reading slump. And this led to a blogging slump, and though I managed to recover from the reading slump during the second part of the year, with the exception of German Literature Month, I couldn’t come out of my blogging slump. I have never had a blogging slump like this since I started blogging more than seven years back. I hope the worst is over and I hope I will be a better blogger this year.

Fun Stats

I read fifty books last year. I thought because of my reading slump, I hadn’t read much, and so I was surprised when I discovered that it was not as bad as I thought – it was a typical reading year by my standards 🙂

The breakup goes like this : Novels : 17; YA : 3; Short Stories : 7; Fairytales : 1; Plays : 1; Graphic Novel : 2; Comics : 10; Anthology : 1; Poetry : 6; Memoir : 2. That is pretty diverse – not bad.

I read 33 books by male writers and 15 books by women writers – I aim for a 50-50 split and so that was bad. It was probably because all the comics I read were by male writers. There were two books that I didn’t count here – one was an anthology which had excerpts, stories and poems by different writers and the other was a poetry collection.

With respect to the countries from which the books were from (that is the nationality of the author – not the country where the story happens), the breakup went like this : America : 10; Britain : 7; Germany : 7; Belgium : 5; Italy : 3; Switzerland : 2; Chile : 2; Japan : 2; Canada (French) : 1; Canada (English) : 1; Russia : 1; France : 1; Finland : 1; Norway : 1; Lebanon : 1; Austria : 1; China : 1; India : 1; Greece : 1; Romania : 1.

I considered Vladimir Nabokov Russian, Rabih Alameddine Lebanese (though both of them probably were / are American citizens and wrote their novels in English) and Zoë Jenny Swiss (though she has started writing in English now and might have a British passport).  I also included Canada (French) and Canada (English) as separate categories because French literature from Canada is so ignored these days. Even Canadian readers don’t seem to know their French authors. It is so sad, because French-Canadian authors are so wonderful. (Nicole Brossard is my favourite.)

In terms of the language in which the books were originally written, this is how it went : English : 20; German : 10; French : 9; Italian : 3; Japanese : 2; Finnish : 1; Norwegian : 1; Chinese : 1; Tamil : 1; Greek : 1; Romanian : 1.

Most of the books were from the four big European languages – so, Hello, need more diversity here 🙂

Books I Loved

These are my favourite books from last year – books I absolutely loved. I couldn’t review many of them because of my blogging slump, which is unfortunate.

(1) The Pollen Room by Zoë Jenny – The story of a teenage girl and how she copes when her parents break up. The prose is beautiful and haunting, the story is moving and sometimes heartbreaking with some happy moments.

The Pollen Room By Zoe Jenny

(2) The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault – A beautiful epistolary love story between a Canadian postman and a Guadeloupe woman, this book is also a love letter to the Haiku poetic form.

The Peculiar Life Of A Lonely Postman Denis Theriault

(3) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (graphic novel version) – The graphic novel version of Gaiman’s classic story of a boy who is brought up by ghosts in the graveyard. The story is beautiful, and in this edition the galaxy of artists assembled deliver a stunning work of graphic novel art. A must read for graphic novel and Gaiman fans.

TheGraveyardBookByNeilGaimanPart1TheGraveyardBookByNeilGaimanPart2

(4) New and Collected Poems by Mary Oliver – Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets and this collection has poems from many of her books. Beauty in the form of poetic art.

NewAndCollectedPoemsMaryOliver

(5) The Summer Book by Tove Jansson – Tove Jansson’s love letter to the Finnish summer, it is also the story of a young girl and her grandmother and their experiences in an island. Though it is a whole book, it can also be read as a collection of individual short stories. My favourite story was about Moppy the cat. It is one of the finest evocations of summer that I have read, alongwith Ray Bradbury’s ‘Dandelion Wine’.

SummerBookToveJansson

(6) An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine – The narrator of the story is a woman who used to work in a bookshop (and who is now retired). She is shy and introverted and spends most of her day reading. Every year she translates one or more famous world classics into Arabic. While telling her story and sharing with the reader what she does everyday and stories of her past, the narrator also shares her thoughts on books, reading, literature, writers, the art of translation and everything else that booklovers love to talk about and think about. This book is a love letter to reading, books, literature, translation and everything in between. I am so glad that I discovered it.

AnUnnecessaryWomanRabihAlameddine

(7) Cassandra by Christa Wolf – A retelling of the Troy legend from the perspective of Cassandra the prophet, it makes one realize how different things are when we see them with a new perspective. Wolf’s stunning prose leaps out of every page and I couldn’t stop re-reading my favourite passages again and again after highlighting them. One of my alltime favourite books.

Cassandra

(8) A Time to Love and a Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque – There are a few scenes in Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ in which the main character goes home on furlough for a few weeks. Remarque takes this small part, moves the setting to the Second World War and expands it into a whole book. After a slow start, Remarque’s trademark prose flows beautifully, the plot moves smoothly and the main characters’ thoughts on war are quite fascinating. And the heroine of the story – Elizabeth – is one of the most fascinating heroines from any war novel. This is not just a wonderful war story but is also a beautiful love story. I can’t wait to read more of Remarque’s books. I read this for the Literature and War Readalong hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. I promised myself that I will write a proper review of this book one of these days and I hope to do so soon.

ATijmeToLoveRemarque

(9) Wild Words : Four Tamil Poets – This book has poems by four Tamil women poets who first came to prominence more than a decade back, because the patriarchy threatened them. Our heroines, of course, defied them, and have published many wonderful poetry collections since. I loved this passage from the introduction to the book – “It is perhaps useful to remember that the traditional values prescribed for the ‘Good’ Tamil woman were accham, madam and naanam (fearfulness, propriety, modesty or shame). Our poets have chosen instead, the opposite virtues of fearlessness, outspokenness and a ceaseless questioning of prescribed rules. It is surely significant that at different times and variously, they have claimed as their foremothers, role models and equals, Avvai, Velliviidhi and Sappho; Anna Akhmatova, Sylvia Plath and Kamala Das. And Eve, above all, who defied divine authority to pluck the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Bad Girls indeed, all of them.”

WildWords

(10) Letters of a Peruvian Woman by Françoise de Graffigny – It is the story of a Peruvian princess who is abducted by Spanish invaders who take her to their ship, but who is later rescued by a French ship and taken to France. There her rescuer takes her to his home, tries to teach her French language and culture and treats her like family. Our Peruvian heroine becomes best friends with her rescuer’s sister. The whole story is told as a series of letters that our Peruvian heroine writes to her fiance, who is the Peruvian king. Her observations on the differences between the two cultures are very insightful and humorous, Graffigny’s prose is beautiful and the surprise in the end takes us unawares – must have been stunning when it was first published in 1747. This books deserves to be more widely read, because it is so good.

LettersOfAPeruvianWomanGraffigny

(11) Making Movies by Sidney Lumet – The director of such masterpieces like ’12 Angry Men’ and ‘Network’ shares his thoughts on how to make a movie and the challenges involved. Though the technology he talks about is dated (because the book was published in the 1990s and Lumet mostly worked in the pre-digital era), his insights are wonderful. This book is a wonderful education in the art of film-making. A must-read for all movie lovers.

Making Movies By Sidney Lumet

Honourable Mentions

The following books deserve special mentions. It is really an extended list of favourites.

(1) Dylan Dog comics – This is a comics series which I discovered last year and which was originally published in Italian. The stories are mostly set in England and the characters are supposedly English, but our hero Dylan Dog wears stylish Italian suits and it is so hard to believe that he is anything but Italian. The artwork is stunning and the stories are interesting – mostly murder mysteries or strange happenings, some of which have logical explanations and others which seem to have supernatural causes. Umberto Eco says this about Dylan Dog – “I can read the Bible, Homer and Dylan Dog for several days without being bored.” Well, I am in good company 🙂

DylanDog

(2) A Little, Aloud – It is an anthology of prose and poetry for reading aloud to someone we care for. I didn’t read it aloud though and I read it to myself. It has poems, short stories and excerpts from novels and memoirs and other books. This was the book which got me out of my reading slump and so I have a lot of affection for it. My favourite from the book is a story by Saki called ‘The Lumber Room’ – it is so beautiful and the main character is an adorable and charming naughty boy and we love him from the first page and the ending made me smile 🙂 If you are interested you can read it here.

ALittleAloud

(3) A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – A beautiful story about love and loss and how a boy copes with it. And there is a monster in the story, which teaches him the truths of life. What is not to like? I have to thank Claire from ‘Word by Word’ who recommended this beautiful book to me.

MonsterCallsPatrickNess

(4) The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart – It is the story of a young boy who is suffering from cancer. He discovers that the cancer has come back and there is no escape this time and decides to leave home, take his dog with him and climb Mt.Rainier. It is beautiful, charming, happy, sad and has a wonderful ending. A book I read in a day.

TheHonestTruthDanGemeinhart

(5) Poems that make grown men cry – The ‘men’ in the title made me hesitate (what about poems that make grown women cry) and most of the poems in the collection were by male poets and that also put me off, but I browsed the book and the poems were wonderful and I couldn’t resist getting it and reading it. It is a beautiful collection and I loved many of the poems, especially Billy Collins’ ode to his mother and Harold Pinter’s love poem. There is a companion volume which is expected this year and it is called – you guessed it – ‘Poems that make grown women cry’. I can’t wait for that.

PoemsThatMakeGrownMenCry

(6) The Death’s Head Chess Club by John Donoghue – I don’t know anyone who has read this, but the fact that it had ‘chess’ in the title made me read it. It is the story of a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp who is the chess champion among the prisoners and an SS officer who is trying to start a chess club among the officers. When word of the legendary chess champion inmate reaches him, the SS officer can’t resist introducing a championship between the champion officer and the champion inmate. Of course, this can never go well. Whether they do here – you should read the book to find out. A love letter to chess and how small things like this can build bridges between people who are on opposite sides of the divide. This book deserves to be more famous.

TheDeathsHeadChessClub

(7) The Marvels by Brian Selznick – Brian Selznick brings his unique style of storytelling again, combining pictures and artwork interspersed by words which move the plot to tell the parallel stories of a family of actors and a young boy who runs away from school to stay at the home of his uncle, who turns out to be odd, and in some way connected to this actor family. The artwork is stunning and the story is nice.

TheMarvelsBrianSelznick

(8) Bluets by Maggie Nelson – I have to thank Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’ who first told me about this book. I don’t know whether to call this book a long essay or a memoir. In it, Maggie Nelson talks about love and longing, while also meditating on the colour blue and what it means to us today and what it meant to us across history. She quotes philosophers and writers who have written about everything blue and her style reminds us of Alain de Botton’s – with the book having no chapter divisions and each paragraph being numbered.

BluetsMaggieNelson

(9) Children’s Stories from Rumanian Legends by M.Gaster Delia from ‘Postcards from Asia’ told me about the Romanian legend of Harap Alb and when I thought about it, I realized that I had a collection of Romanian fairytales (which is unfortunately, out-of-print today). So, I took it out and read it and it was wonderful. I loved the fact that things were not black-and-white in these fairytales – in one story the main character falls in love with a beautiful woman (who loves him back) and then discovers that she is a demon and both the lovers run away to escape the clutches of her demon-father; in another story, there is an adorable little-devil who is always up to some mischief, creating trouble for humans. I hope to read more Romanian fairytales in the future.

RumanianLegends

So, that is the long (and hopefully not boring) account of my reading year in 2015. How was your reading year in 2015? Which were your favourite books?

 

 

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I know that it is not November yet, but the German literary wind has started blowing early in these parts of the blogosphere 🙂 Here is how I discovered Zoë Jenny’s ‘The Pollen Room’ and what I think about it.

 

I discovered Zoë Jenny’s ‘The Pollen Room’ by accident. I wanted to read something by Judith Hermann, and before getting one of her books, I thought I will read about her in Wikipedia. There I discovered that there were a group of contemporary German women authors who were known together as ‘Fräuleinwunder’ and whose works have won awards and who were critically acclaimed. Other than Judith Hermann, there were some familiar names there – Julia Franck, Juli Zeh, Jenny Erpenbeck. Then there were Felicitas Hoppe and Zoë Jenny. I have never heard of both of them. Felicitas Hoppe’s works are hard to get in English, though she is famous in Germany and has won the Büchner award. Zoë Jenny’s first novel ‘The Pollen Room’ came out in 1997 and has been critically acclaimed and is a bestseller. I was able to get it and thought I will read it.

 

Memory is, of course, an unreliable thing. We think we discovered something in a particular way and then we find out that we were wrong. Keeping that in mind, I did some research and surprise, surprise – I discovered that my friend Caroline (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) has recommended Zoë Jenny’s book in this post on German women writers. Also my friend Andrew has reviewed Zoë Jenny’s book here. All this can mean only one thing – that I first discovered this book earlier, before I re-discovered it again. The fascinating things that one learns about one’s memory everyday… 

The Pollen Room By Zoe Jenny

Now about Zoë Jenny’s book. I started reading it yesterday and finished it in one breath. When I say that, you probably know what that means – I loved the book. More about that later. First about the story. ‘The Pollen Room’ starts with the description of life at home by the narrator called Jo, who is in kindergarten. She tells us that her parents are separated, and she is living with her father. Her father prints books, but because they don’t sell he makes ends meet by driving a truck during the night. Jo meets her mother during the weekend. Her father, meanwhile, meets a new woman gets married to her, and then things don’t work well with her too and this new wife leaves him too. Jo’s mother takes her aside one day and tells her that she has fallen in love with someone she met and she will be moving to a new country. And then Jo doesn’t hear from her mother for the next twelve years. The scene then shifts to the current time and Jo is living with her mother. She has graduated from high school, and has taken a gap year to spend with her mother. Initially, she had planned to visit her mother for a short period of time, because she was hesitant whether her mother would be ready to talk to her. Her mother, though, welcomes her with both her arms. But sometime after that, her mother’s new husband dies in an accident, her mother has a depression and Jo ends up taking care of her. And that gap year stretches to more than one. The rest of the book is about nineteen year old (I am guessing the age here) Jo’s account of her everyday life and her reminiscences of the past.

 

That is the barebones plot – Jo’s account of her life with her dad and with her mom. She also talks about a couple of young men who were attracted towards her – and to whom she was attracted to. One of them rapes her and gets her pregnant and she has to have an abortion after that. Another of them wants to become a singer. Jo also describes her relationship with a girl she becomes friends with, Rea, who is from a rich family, but who rebels and becomes a street musician.

 

That is all about the plot of ‘The Pollen Room’. That is not the reason I loved it, though. The book has beautiful images and thoughts and descriptions from the first page. Starting from the first page in which the narrator describes her dad’s work till the last page when she describes the snow falling on to the ground and melting on impact, Zoë Jenny never lets go – she creates beautiful scenes, thoughts, ideas one after the other and floods our hearts and minds with dollops and dollops of beauty. The whole book was a bundle of exquisite, delightful beauty like a newborn baby. I thought that at some point – maybe fifty pages into the book – Zoë Jenny would slacken up a little bit with respect to the style and will get on with the narration of the story, but thankfully, she never lets go till the last page. To me that was the greatest strength of the book and the source of its greatest beauty and joy.

 

Zoë Jenny’s writing style made me think a lot about another of my favourite writers, Alexis Smith, and her book ‘Glaciers’. Both the writers have a remarkably similar sensitive style, bringing out the delicate beauty and joy of everyday scenes and objects and happenings, though Jenny wrote in German and Smith wrote in English. That legendary scene from Alexis Smith’s ‘Glaciers’ in which the introverted heroine holds a hot cup of coffee to warm her hands – that is there in Zoë Jenny’s book too. I really loved that. I also wondered what would happen if Zoë Jenny and Alexis Smith met and had a conversation. I would love to be part of that conversation, though I would probably be doing most of the listening. They will probably sit quietly for most of the time, in beautiful companionable silence, and wrap their hands around a hot mug of coffee, enjoying its warmth. 

 

It is early days yet, but I think ‘The Pollen Room’ will be one of my favourite reads of the year. It is perfect in every way – it is short, it has beautiful prose, thoughts, ideas and images, the plot is contemporary and sums up a time, there are book-ish scenes in the story, and most of the characters are likeable, though complex. It is a delicate, elegant work of literary art. This is a book that I will definitely be reading again. 

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

The darkness crept out from every corner like a starving beast. I went to the kitchen, flipped on the light, sat at the table and wrapped my fingers around his coffee cup, empty but still warm. I scanned the rim for brown splotches of dried coffee. If he didn’t come back, they would be the last signs I had of his existence, his life. As the cup gradually cooled in my hands, the night pervaded the house completely spreading into every cranny.

I lean forward and watch the water pour over the edge in a fat stream, a polished rod of crystal that shatters with a roar into a cloud of white slivers at the bottom.

I close the book with resignation and watch the smoke from my cigarette take on the shape of animals. The little creatures climb from my lips to the ceiling, which is a field for them to play in, though most never make it that far. They erase themselves before they get there. I try to blow them out in big enough puffs that they will survive the trip.

I imagine that the earth that I tread on is the top layer of skin of a living creature, perhaps some sort of sea lion. Somehow this idea makes me feel at peace…

The words Rea and Milwaukee shrivel up into tiny balls of anxiety. I am stuffed so full of such balls that they stretch and disfigure me, and I am in danger of bursting at the seams on every side. Each and every one of them is an independently functioning organism. They fight with one another constantly, as each of them wants me to itself. The Lucy ball is the biggest. Sometimes it goes away, but its here now and growing within me, battling against the others.

When I sit down on a bench nearby, they look over at me. There is nothing friendly in their eyes. I know I’m bothering them, but stay where I am nonetheless. I don’t tell them that I’m sitting here just to watch the snow fall to earth. This kind of snow doesn’t stick at all. It doesn’t coat the ground in a layer of pure white, because it melts as soon as it hits the earth, always keeping me waiting for the next flake, for the microsecond when it hits the ground but has not yet melted. I will wait here with the ladies for the snow to coat the ground in a layer of pure white, a white blanket of snow.

Have you read Zoë Jenny’s ‘The Pollen Room’? What do you think about it?

 

Other Reviews

Andrew Blackman

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