German Return- Stones from the River

So, after an absence of four months, I returned to my sister’s book club in Germany for the first time in a year.  As i suspected, being out of a book club after my return from Australia has been tough – I miss my group very much and have looked on at their forthcoming book choices with envy.  I was pleased to be invited back to the Cologne group, it is a smaller group with a more intimate feel, mostly because the members are regular and they have no one-off participants.  It is also held at a member’s house rather than in the pub which feels more homely, and there’s plenty of home cooked food to eat as well which is always a bonus!

The book choice for the month, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, was one that I struggled with in its opening stages. The main narrator of the story, Trudi Montag, is a dwarf growing up in a fictional rural German town.  The first few chapters highlight her issues with her disability and the abuse she suffers as a child in one particular horrifying event that I won’t spoil here.  It also starts to describe the people of the town of Burgdorf, some in little potted portraits, others sketched in more depth.  These characters weave their way in and out of the story as it progresses.

The first 150 pages or so I found a bit of a drag, not really engaging fully with the narrative.  But once the spectre of World War II approaches, the pace starts to quicken and the character building that has gone before starts to fall into place.  The fascination of this tale for me was twofold.  One, how each character reacts as the Nazis begin to take a stranglehold on society.  Some turn the other cheek, others actively resist and are removed from the town without warning, Trudi and her father secretly help others to build a tunnel to hide those in danger. Second, was how the regime didn’t insert itself with fanfare and a great explosion, it was much more insidious than that.  Rights were encroached upon slowly, quietly, and curtailed in small increments.  To start with, some agreed with these restrictions, through coercion or fear or belief.  Then, as things got worse, they realised how much had been lost, but far too late.  The regret this caused led to some characters making awful decisions that destroyed lives and families.

Hegi explores these two themes with great skill – the town almost feels like a character in itself, how it changed from a bucolic village to one of fear and oppression.  The heightened state of events gives the narrative pace and the middle third of the book contains its most powerful passages.  How each character makes their stand is fascinating, and their decisions are always explained with empathy, if not approval.

The last section of the book dragged a little, and I think overall the book could probably lose 50-100 pages and improve for it – the love story involving Trudi and Max could have been cut down and its conclusion was rather obvious – but on the whole I enjoyed the book, and most of all, thought it was an excellent discussion piece for native Germans, who are only a generation or two removed from these events.  It was fascinating to hear how modern Germans approach the Nazi regime, how comfortable they are to discuss it, how it happened.  I felt from the discussion that the struggle to reconcile their feelings on the monstrousness of Nazism is still going on, along with a still lingering sense of guilt and shame over what happened. For this book to bring these issues into public discourse is to its great credit.

 

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2016: The Reading Year

When I joined Goodreads earlier on this year, I decided to set myself a reading challenge.   For no reason other than it’s a nice round number I went for 100 books for the year.  And though I didn’t quite get there, I’m still pretty pleased with 94.  I did it more to gain a yardstick for how much I do actually read, but undertaking the challenge did have an effect on my reading habits.  100 books equates to nearly two a week, so unless you’re both voracious and very quick, anything of length is out of the equation.  So I found it a bit limiting, and the reason I probably did fail is because I got caught up in a couple of 700+ page books which slowed me down considerably.

I did enjoy doing it, as it is nice to have something to focus on, it sharpens the mind.  But I don’t think I will be attempting to read as many books in 2017.  I already have a couple of hefty tomes in the queue for January and it will be pleasant to be able to immerse myself in them without worrying about falling behind.

So, of those 94 read, here are my ten favourites of the year, in no particular order:

Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings.  A bit of a cheat this one as I started it in December 2015, but what a book for my first completed novel of 2016.  A sprawling epic of Jamaican society set against the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.   Multiple characters drawn expertly by James, stunning dialogue and patois, and some intense scenes of violence that take your breath away. A masterpiece.

Cormac McCarthy – All The Pretty Horses.  I had the pleasure of reading the entire Border Trilogy this year and for me the opening novel of the three is the best.  McCarthy’s descriptions of landscape in the American West are breathtaking and break your heart at the same time.  The love story at this book’s core is beautifully written and tinged with a sadness that left a lump in my throat.  Take a couple of weeks and read all three, you won’t regret it.

Willy Vlautin – The Free.  I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen about this bloke since I read his first novel The Motel Life many moons ago.  Why? His books talk of the American underclass with a kindness and compassion that is incredibly uplifting.  Which is something we can all use at the best of times.  His band Richmond Fontaine are great, too.

Michel Houllebecq – Submission.  This novel about an Islamic takeover of the French political system is everything you want this type of fiction to be – controversial, amazingly prescient, thought-provoking and angry.  Best of all for me is amongst all this is some of the darkest, funniest prose I’ve read in many a year.  A stunner.

Raymond Carver – Elephant and other stories.  He’s not the best short story writer there’s ever been for a laugh, you know.

Donald Ray Pollock – The Devil All The Time.  Discovering a new writer when they are as good as this is always a joy.  This dark, ultra-violent slice of American Gothic hit me like a sledgehammer when I read it, such is it’s visceral force.  Pollock worked in a paper mill for over 30 years before being published which gives me hope, too!

James Crumley – The Last Good Kiss.  Resdiscovering Crumley has been a highlight of the year. I read some of his books years ago and filled in a couple of gaps in 2016.  This, the first of the C.W Sughrue novels, is a bona-fide classic which contains possibly the finest opening paragraph in crime fiction history.  Read it with alcohol.

Ross Macdonald – The Galton Case.  I thought long and hard before including this but it deserves a spot.  Macdonald’s books are briliantly plotted and run so perfectly you can’t see the joins.  Couple this with stark, lovely description and brilliant dialogue and you have some of the finest detective fiction ever written.

Ryan Gattis – All Involved.  The Los Angeles riots of 1992 provide the backdrop for this multi-dimensional novel.  The narrative voice is exceptional, and the sixteen characters never become repetitive or blur into each other.  A great, great book.

William Boyd – Any Human Heart.  The novel as journal can provide an intimacy that can hook the reader immediately.  This does that and more, and the life of Logan Mountstuart draws you in and chops away at your heart bit by bit.  I think about this book a lot –  a really tremendous read which I would recommend to anybody.

It was also good to tick off a couple of classics in Anna Karenina and The Three Musketeers, and I also delved into Lawrence Block’s back catalogue and had an enjoyable few weeks with his unique style of noir.  Hhhh by Laurent Binet was a highlight that just missed out, and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was also close.  All in all reading has been the same comfort this year as it always has, and I continue to be very grateful for the unadulterated joy it gives me.