I‘m delighted to have Susan from A Life in Books on the blog today to chat about the books that have made her the blogger and reader she is today. Susan’s blog is fantastic, I love the books she chooses and her reviews are always so insightful. Susan is also the source of my greatest temptation with her fantastic monthly posts about great new books to look out for. As anticipated, she has chosen three great books here.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (translated by Carol Brown Janeway)
It took me some time to catch on to the idea that the translator was as important as the author in translated fiction although it’s obvious when you think about it. All the more crucial in poetry, I’m sure. Appropriately enough, The Reader was the first book I read that was translated by Carol Brown Janeway. It’s the story of Michael Berg who begins a passionate affair with Hanna, a thirty-six-year-old woman. At first the affair is purely physical but when Michael starts to read to Hanna, it becomes an essential part of their lovemaking ritual. One day Hanna disappears from Michael’s life. When he next sees her, he’s a law student and she is on trial as an SS camp guard. Michael becomes obsessed by the trial, convinced that in loving Hanna he is also guilty. I liked the clean, crisp prose of Janeway’s translation which let this striking story speak for itself. It seemed to me that she had paid attention to both sense and style, staying as close as she could to the spirit of the book. Sadly, Janeway died last year but I have a few more translators that I look out for, in particular Jaime Bulloch and Charlotte Collins. I’d love to hear of any others that bloggers can recommend.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
My taste in writing runs to the spare, elegant and pared back: less really is more in for me. Whenever I need an example to illustrate this I turn to Kent Haruf. As with all his novels, Plainsong is set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. It’s not the first in the Holt series but I’ve chosen it because it’s the first Haruf novel I read. It’s about a mere handful of characters: Tom Guthrie bringing up his two young sons alone, a pregnant teenager kicked out by her mother and taken in by the elderly Macpheron twins, and Maggie Jones who introduces the twins to her. These are ordinary people living in a small American town coping with whatever life lobs at them but Haruf’s writing is so quietly compassionate, his characters so simply yet sharply drawn that Holt comes vividly to life, entirely convincing in its prosaic sometimes heroic daily life. Haruf wrote only a handful of novels – his first, The Tie That Binds, was published in 1984 and his sixth, Our Souls at Night, came out in 2015, the year after he died. For me, he sits alongside William Maxwell, Colm Tóibin. Mary Costello, Alice McDermott and John McGahern as an example of how to make every word count.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
I’m a very recent convert to short stories; A Manual for Cleaning Women played a large part in that conversion. Lucia Berlin died in 2004 having written intermittently over a long period stretching back to the ‘60s, fitting her stories around a multitude of jobs from teaching English to cleaning houses. She drew heavily on her own life when writing her stories and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. Her stories are richly diverse, from a young girl helping her dentist grandfather extract all his teeth, replacing them with his masterpiece, to the titular story in which a cleaner mentally runs through her clients on the bus home, tossing in helpfully bracketed tips to her colleagues. There’s a wonderful immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. I’m not going to claim that I now snap up every short story collection that comes my way but I’m certainly reading more, rather than simply dismissing them as not for me.
I love these choices from Susan and her rationale for picking them. Plainsong also had a very profound effect on me and I loved the simple beauty in Haruf’s tale of quiet lives.
Are any of your favourites here?
As it is Reading Ireland Month this month, I also asked my
victims contributers what their favourite Irish book is and Susan has gone for John MacGahern’s That They May Face The Rising Sun.
I haven’t read it yet – possibly one for next years Reading Ireland Month!