Wednesday, 26 December 2018

2018 Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge

The Summary

click on the image to go to the
challenge post on Escape With A Good Book
1 January – 31 December 2018

An Alphabet of Book Titles

There are only few days left until we start yet again into a new year which means that it’s time for me to take stock of the books presented here on Edith’s Miscellany during the past twelve months. This time I made the reviews my biweekly contribution to the 2018 Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge to which I signed up on Dollycas’s blog Escape With A Good Book in January, but in fact, I read four books more than the twenty-six required for My Alphabet of Book Titles. I must admit that choosing my reads for the challenge was a bit tricky with regard to certain letters like J, O, and above all X although I was lucky enough to be able to fit in quite some novels from my virtually infinite wish list, too. Almost by accident, I made the thirty books on my review list deal with recurrent themes.

As a matter of fact, I opened as well as closed the year 2018 on a somewhat artistic note although the books that I picked could hardly have been more different. The first read of this year was the Catalan novel The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Ángels Anglada that made me pass time with an as zealous as gifted fictional Jewish luthier in one of the cruellest concentration camps of Hitler’s Third Reich. In contrast, the last book on my review schedule was Clara and Mr. Tiffany by the late American writer Susan Vreeland who shed (partly fictional) light on the life of designer Clara Driscoll and the women in her team producing between 1892 and 1908 the famous leaded lampshades along with other artwork for Tiffany’s in New York and never getting the definitely deserved public recognition for it just because as women they weren’t accepted in the trade.

In 2018, I also reviewed other novels related to arts, notably Open City by Teju Cole in which a psychiatry fellow every so often ruminates expertly on a whole range of them starting with literature. Many of my reads included writers, all fictional ones except in Youth by J.M. Coetzee that is the author’s memoir. In The Door by Szabó Magda and Quicksand by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro successful fictional authors tell each the story of a woman they knew. Journalists in disconcerting times are the protagonists of Cyclops by Ranko Marinković, Train to Budapest by Dacia Maraini and The Earth and the Fullness Thereof by Peter Rosegger. And in Jalna by Mazo de la Roche, Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Atherton and in Island of Shattered Dreams by Chantal T. Spitz an ambitious poet, a journalist and a future chronicler of Tahitian family history respectively appear as more or less central characters.

Music-related like The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Ángels Anglada were the holocaust memoir The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman, a true story of survival in German-occupied Warsaw, Islands of the Dying Light by Rolf Lappert about a guitarist searching for his sister and Monique by Luísa Coelho as the late reply to a homosexual pianist who jilted his wife in the letter that was Marguerite Yourcenar’s debut novel. Apart from Clara and Mr. Tiffany, I reviewed two novels related to the visual arts. The Naked Lady by Vicente Blanco Ibáñez portrays a fictional Spanish painter of the late nineteenth century who dreams of producing a celebrated nude picture like Goya. The other is The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay surrounding a teenage girl who paints the bomb ruins of post-war London because after years in the French Resistance she feels more at home there than in her father’s pristine mansion.

Quite obviously, war was another recurring theme of my reads this year. The protagonist of X Out of Wonderland by David Allan Cates fights in various fictional wars that bear clear resemblance to the bloodiest carnages of the twentieth century. As for real wars, there are World War I reaching the Isonzo valley and Trieste in the final chapter of Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo and World War II sweeping over Croatia towards the end of Cyclops by Ranko Marinković as feared. The horrors of World War II come cruelly alive in The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat as well as, to some degree, in The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay and in Train to Budapest by Dacia Maraini. The latter also deals with the holocaust even though not in the same evocative way as The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Ángels Anglada and The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman.

Not at all at the centre of the novels, but nonetheless important for plot and character development are the civil wars appearing in The Letters Which Never Reached Him by Elisabeth von Heyking, My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard by Elizabeth Cooper, The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore, and Frog by Mo Yan. World War I plays a certain role in the past of the protagonists in Jalna by Mazo de la Roche and Vipers’ Tangle by François Mauriac as does World War II in The Door by Szabó Magda, in Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and in Island of Shattered Dreams by Chantal T. Spitz. In the latter the Cold War, too, has noticeable impact on Tahiti’s history. As for The Road to Gandolfo by Robert Ludlum, it’s about a disgraced Vietnam War hero planning to kidnap the Pope to secure his living in peace times.

This leaves three novels that don’t quite fit in because they seem to be completely unrelated to both arts and wars. There is The Convent School by Barbara Fischmuth, an Austrian novel depicting a girl’s coming-of-age in the extremely conservative 1950s when World War II and the holocaust were a preferably repressed memory and not talked about as a result. Blue Jewellery by Katharina Winkler, on the other hand, is an Austrian novel about a woman born on a farm in the Anatolian mountains whose blindly jealous and always short-tempered husband beats her half to death more than once even after the family has long immigrated to Austria. In a way The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch, too, is a story of domestic violence given that her husband forced the protagonist to live in seclusion on her estate, but it’s rather the appropriate background for the Gothic novel than its theme.

Sticking to my resolution to Read the Nobels and to make regular contributions to the pretty dormant perpetual challenge of Aloi aka the Guiltless Reader, I reviewed this year four novels by laureates of the Nobel Prize in Literature, all of them male because I’ve run out of female ones who wrote prose fiction. I picked the classics The Home and the World by Indian author Rabindranath Tagore (winner of 1913) and Vipers’ Tangle by French writer François Mauriac (winner of 1952) along with the contemporary works Youth by South African-Australian author J.M. Coetzee (winner of 2003) and Frog by Chinese writer Mo Yan (winner of 2012). In addition, I presented the epistolary novel The Earth and the Fullness Thereof from the pen of Peter Rosegger, a triple Nobel nominee from Austria (1911, 1913 and 1918) whose copious literary and journalistic production is quite forgotten today in Austria and abroad.

Apart from Peter Rosegger’s just mentioned classic that was first released in 1900 and that illustrates somewhat realistically how backbreaking and worrisome the lives of most Austrian mountain farmers were at the time, I could link five more reviews to the 100 books on My Long Longlist of Epistolary Fiction. Only two of them – Monique by Luísa Coelho and Frog by Mo Yan – were contemporary works, while the others were all written and published long before, i.e. between 1903 and 1932. There were the novels The Letters Which Never Reached Him by Elisabeth von Heyking and My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard by Elizabeth Cooper that both combine fictional letters written around 1900 and evoke China in a time of unrest. The letters from the early 1930s in Vipers’ Tangle by François Mauriac are the legacy of a French bourgeois who always felt misunderstood and ignored by his greedy family.

And which of these thirty novels did I like best? It wouldn’t be like me at all to declare the lightest and most amusing reads on this list my favourites! In fact, for the first place I waver between a history of the siege of Malta during World War II from the point of view of a priest and the colonial history of Tahiti by example of three generations of a family, i.e. between The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat and Island of Shattered Dreams by Chantal T. Spitz. My close runner-up to these two is the holocaust novel The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Àngels Anglada. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and Blue Jewellery by Katharina Winkler were very much to my taste, too, not to forget the memoirs The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman and Youth by J.M. Coetzee. Very serious, if not sad reads all of them.

And here’s now the list of my 26+4 books reviewed in 2018 in alphabetical order by their titles including dates of first release and original titles if they aren’t English:

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on all that reading, reviewing, and completing the challenge. I always enjoy your reviews. I hope you see my occasional comments.


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