Category Archives: Translated books

Julia – Otto de Kat

I have a soft spot for translated books, slim books and books with a wartime setting. At 168 pages, Dutch author Otto de Kat’s Julia, ticked plenty of boxes. The copy I read was a brand new one from my library which was an added treat.

Julia is a story that is as elegant and sparse as its simple title suggests. Throughout there is a sense of regret and melancholy and by the end, real sadness.

In 1938, Chris Dudock is living and working in Lübeck Germany. He is Dutch, has a girlfriend and family business waiting for him back home. The rise of Nazi power is evident, beginning to infiltrate the daily life of the German people. Chris meets and falls in love with Julia, a vibrant and free spirited German engineer who isn’t afraid of speaking out against the regime. When her brother is arrested, she pleads with Chris to leave Germany, claiming he is putting her at risk by remaining. Chris makes the biggest mistake of his life and returns to Holland.

Fast forward many years and the mature Chris Dudok has done what was expected of him. He married and took over his father’s business. On the outside he has lived a reserved yet fairly ordinary life. On the inside, there has been real emptiness – he left part of himself behind in Lübeck all those years ago.

Light on detail, Julia is a book about living with loss and the impact that one decision had on Chris Dudock’s life. The narrative (always in the third person) flicks between 1938 and the present time (1980s) with snippets of the years in between. The mood of the book reminded me of Sandor Marai’s Embers and Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl – both intense stories on the subject of loss.

This story won’t be for everyone as it has a slow, reflective style rather than one with a lot of plot. I thought it was dignified and quite beautifully written. I read it as part of Iris on Books Dutch Literature Month. It looks as if it has been a popular choice.

Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke

2011, 168 pages

Therapy – Sebastian Fitzek

Head down and totally engrossed, I missed my train stop this week. Getting off the train at the end of the day is a bit of a priority so that is a real endorsement for this book. Therapy (A slim, page turning crime mystery/psychological thriller – clever and entertaining.

It doesn’t seem that easy to get hold of but I was lucky enough to pick up a copy in the library after discovering it at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life.

As well as being an excellent thriller, Therapy allows us to step into a mentally unwell mind – a combination that makes for a genuine page turner.

The story is about Viktor Larenz, a world renowned psychiatrist who suffers a breakdown after the mysterious disappearance of his 12 year old daughter Josy. Four years on,with his life in tatters, he retreats to an isolated North Sea Island to deal with his grief. Here he encounters a woman suffering from schizophrenia, begging Viktor to take her on as his patient. Her case is unusual. A novelist, she claims her characters come to life. One of her characters is a 12 year old girl who has disappeared – the details make it impossible for Viktor to turn her away. As inconceivable as it seems, could this woman know something about the disappearance of his daughter?

There are two major plot twists in Therapy. One of these is hinted at fairly early on and to really enjoy the story, requires acceptance of this twist. Not everything is as it seems though and the other excellent twist occurs right at the end.

A very enjoyable read.

Translated from German by Sally-Ann Spencer

352 pages, 2008

Catching up – thoughts on four books

In the spirit of starting the New year with a clean slate, (something I love to do in theory), here is a little housekeeping post about books I have read this year but for various reasons didn’t write about at the time.
Anatomy of a Disappearance – Hisham Matar

Attracted by the cover and the totally deserved glowing reviews from fellow book bloggers, I read this on kindle a few months ago. I was on holiday at the time so didn’t write about it straight away and then somehow it got left behind.

Drawing on what must be the terribly painful events in his own life, Hisham Matar’s novel is narrated by the dignified and elegant teenager, Nuri, living with his father in exile in Egypt. Their country of origin is not named, perhaps it is Libya if true to Matar’s own circumstances. After the witnessed but never completely explained death of his mother, Nuri is aware his father has secrets, that men from their country may be looking for him, that he is at risk and they must be careful. There is loss and the threat of further loss permeating Nuri’s life. At the same time, Nuri and his father both fall for the same woman. Nuri as a boy meets and lays an adolescent claim to her first but knows he cannot be any match for his father. Still this infatuation stays with him for many years and for many years he seeks to understand the nature of his many losses.

It seems such a cliche to describe a novel as ‘beautifully written’ but this one really is. I plan to read Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men soon. If it is anything like this novel, I’m expecting it to be graceful yet sad and at a deep level.

2011, 256 pages

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

My first thoughts about Muriel Barbery’s best seller were that it was pretentious with a precocious 12 year old character mature and insightful beyond her years in a way that was not believable. For the first few pages I couldn’t get a grip on all the words I hadn’t heard of and on principle I wasn’t prepared to constantly interrupt my reading to look them up… so first thoughts were not good..

But slowly it grew on me. The 12 year old Paloma, deciding if life had enough to offer to deter her from committing suicide on her 13th birthday, remained a little unrealistic but her co star in this story was a delight. Renee, the concierge of a Parisian apartment block, pretending to be everything she expected a woman of her station to be but being the exact opposite was like the ugly duckling turning into a swan. Well perhaps she had always been a swan but it took a death in the building and a new arrival to spot what others hadn’t and the ensuing frivolous cat and mouse game was like a modern day fairy tale.

The ending of the book changed the context of the story completely and I wanted to immediately start again at the beginning. I didn’t and I probably won’t get to it anytime soon but still it was a lovely read eventually and worth writing about.

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

2009, 320 pages

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

I’ve read three I think it is now of Haruki Murakami’s novels; he entertains and challenges me with his writing. Whilst committed Murakami fans were devouring his latest offering, the mammoth three volume, 1000+ paged 1Q84, I was kind to myself, set that one aside for another time and dipped into his slim and much more manageable thoughts on running, travel, writing and little bits of philosophy on life.

It is a candid and modest account of how he took up running at age 33 after selling his jazz bar to write full time. He speaks of his preparation for several races, of the parallel between his writing and his running and how important his daily run is to his writing output. Murakami has run over 25 marathons, an ultra marathon and numerous half marathons and shorter distance races.

What I find fascinating is how surreal and imaginative Murakami’s stories are contrasted with how routine based his daily life is. He is a man who knows what works for him and goes to lengths to make sure he doesn’t need to deviate from that. I’m also amazed at how modest he is considering he is writer whose work is loved by so many people.

I guess you could say Murakami’s musings are a little repetitive- I’m not sure it would be of the same interest if he wasn’t who he is but I guess that’s the point – it’s a revealing and therefore generous insight by Murakami into what makes him tick, especially generous I think as he is honest about what he considers are his limitations as well as his strengths and especially as he is a person who values his privacy. Being a runner and a Murakami fan would be a bonus when reading this but not essential I don’t think – I really enjoyed it.

It is to me more than a book about running and writing – it’s about simplifying life and eliminating the non essentials. Murakami’s goal is to write and running helps him to do that. If you are so inclined this little book could be seen as an example of how to live a peaceful and successful life.

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

2008, 192 pages

Headhunters – Jo Nesbo

And now onto a book that didn’t quite work for me.

Roger Brown is a headhunter, ruthless and at the top of his game. So good, his referrals are all by word of mouth. He plays his candidates in a finely tuned routine that guarantees his success. Unfortunately, Roger Brown has an exquisite expensive wife he feels he doesn’t deserve. To keep her in the custom she is used to, he needs to supplement his income – and that’s where it all gets interesting and eventually a bit far fetched.

There is a fast paced plot and I’m not sure that I followed every twist and turn as closely as I needed to. Roger Brown finds himself in some sticky situations and I have to admit that I found it a bit unrealistic and lost concentration in the second half of the book. He was an entertaining character though and I liked the narrative style a lot.

This novel is not related to the Harry Hole Inspector Series. I like the Harry Hole books – not sure if Jo Nesbo has written any other stand alone novels but I think I will stick to Harry in the future. He and I are a better match.

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

2008 (English 2011), 272 pages

The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun

The Artificial Silk Girl is a treat to read, not just for the delightful yet achingly lonely voice of it’s narrator Doris but for the historical context in which it is set (early 1930s Berlin), in those pre WWII years. This is a time when the first hint of the horrors that would follow are starting to appear. A sense of discomfort bubbling beneath the surface and ‘politics’ starting to be discussed in everyday life. This book was banned by the Nazis along with all of Irmgard Keun’s work. There are not a lot of political references in it, just the odd little comment, snippet of conversation or attitude to come through. I think this makes it all the more powerful, especially as it was published in 1932. It was a bestseller when published, reading it nearly eighty years later with the knowledge of what followed, is a real privilege. A big thank you to Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat for writing about this author as part of German Literature Month – I hadn’t heard of her before.

The Artificial Silk Girl is Doris, young and beautiful, living in Cologne. She wants desperately to be a star and as her story progresses, wants desperately to be loved. She dreams of being in films, takes great pains with her appearance and writes a diary in which she is the star attraction. There is no pretense from Doris, she is candid in her diary about what she wants, and that includes a man who can pay for all the material trappings she associates with success and therefore craves.

“Heavenly Father, perform a miracle and give me an education – I can do the rest myself with makeup”

Most of this story takes place in Berlin where Doris and her newly acquired (stolen) fur coat arrive looking for fame. The Berlin she finds is one of contrast, glitz and glamour alongside ruthlessness and poverty. Doris has certain standards, she will sleep with a married man without regret but is offended by swearing and the word ‘pimp’. Sadly and frustratingly she comes close to needing the services of this pimp, her diary entries reflecting a reoccurring pattern of seemingly landing on her feet and living it up before needing to flee and finding herself homeless and wondering where her next meal will come from. She keeps hold of her kind heart and dreams throughout and it is easy to care for her.

There is a slightly superficial feel to Doris’ dilemmas as she has a mother and a home back in Cologne – although there is the issue of the stolen fur coat and probable arrest to deter her from returning.

The Artificial Silk Girl is a slim book which ended just before Doris’s youthful optimism and breathless narrative style had time to become tedious. It is one of those books where I wanted to highlight passages all the way through – a gem.

At times Doris reminded me very much of Sophia in Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – both innocent, optimistic yet gullible, mistreated by men, dealing with poverty – both stories set in the 1930s but in different cities (Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is set in London).

Both books are excellent especially from a historical perspective – a slice of life from the 1930s.

A belated huge thank you to Caroline and to Lizzy for hosting the German Literature month. I didn’t quite finish this one in time but am inspired by all the great posts and recommendations to explore further.

Translated from the German by Katharina von Ankum
194 pages, 1932 (republished in English in 2002)

The Weekend – Bernhard Schlink

I didn’t want November to come to an end without reading at least one book for German Literature Month – which is being lovingly hosted by Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life and Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

I’d been meaning to read something by Bernhard Schlink. The Reader is one of those books that was everywhere for a while, but I’ve never been that keen to try it. The concept of The Weekend though was more appealing, a short novel, set over a period of three days, the reunion of a group of old friends/colleagues more than 20 years later. The reason for the reunion? The release from prison of one of their number after 24 years. The common thread amongst them all – they had been Baader-Meinhof activists/sympathisers.

So far so good – except I hadn’t yet opened the book and that was when things went a little awry. Despite being set over a period of just a few days, the scope of the book is massive, encompassing the individual stories and history of the characters along with the collective sense of responsibility they carry for the historical actions of their country.

It all sounds very intense but unfortunately it wasn’t. For me there was something uncomfortable about the pacing of the story, after the briefest of introductions to the reader, the characters almost immediately launch into intense revelations, conflicts and intimacies with each other. Secrets are revealed in a way that seemed a bit too casual. I don’t very often say this because I appreciate shorter books but I think it could have been longer with time for character development and time to build tension. There is also reference to the September 11 attacks which I don’t think worked at all.

So it probably sounds as if I really didn’t like it which isn’t quite true – I never considered not finishing it and there were glimpses of brilliance. The idea of rebuilding friendship and trust in the symbolic setting of a run down old house that is itself in need of rebuilding I liked. The fear of a man re entering society after nearly a quarter of a century and being torn between reforming his life or continuing where he left off as a hero to the cause – on some level I can appreciate. Unfortunately though it all seemed a bit wooden and I came away not feeling much for any of the characters.

The book though has inspired some further reading. The Baader Meinhof Complex by Stephan Aust looks to be an excellent non fiction account of the Baader-Meinhof group. Perhaps I should have read that first.

Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside

215 pages
2008, (English 2010)

Woman with Birthmark – Håkan Nesser

I’d like to thank Jo at Bibliojunkie for her enticing review of this book, one I hadn’t heard of before but couldn’t resist seeking out – like Jo I read it in a couple of days and really enjoyed it.

I seem to be reading a bit more crime lately. Woman with Birthmark is a murder mystery featuring Inspector Van Veeteren and is set in what I presumed was a city in Sweden. It turns out that the setting is in a fictional place in an unidentified country- one thing is clear, it is bitterly cold. The bleak weather combined with post christmas lethargy makes it difficult for Inspector Van Veeteren to feel much enthusiasm for his work. Being the old hand that he is, one seemingly unremarkable murder is hardly worth leaving the warmth of home for. Then a second murder..and a third… and suddenly Inspector Van Veereren is fully engaged as he and his team search desperately for the connection between the victims and attempt to protect those still alive.

The beauty of the story is in its simple narrative style and level of suspense. It doesn’t have an especially complicated plot or a lot of police procedural detail. We have a good idea of the motive about half way through. There is also no secrecy around the identity of the killer (to the reader at least) as she is the first character we meet, the sole mourner at her mothers funeral. The mother’s last words to her daughter set off a chilling chain of events:

Don’t cry. Whatever you do, don’t stand there bawling at my funeral. Tears have never been any use in any circumstances, believe you me. I’ve sobbed bucketfuls in my lifetime. No, do something my girl! Take action! Do something magnificant that I can applaud up there in heaven. “

An exciting read. We have the perspective of the killer, the police and the potential victims – and the added twist of the victims knowing they are at risk but not being able to admit it to the police. It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the killer and admiration for her tradecraft.

This is one of a series of novels featuring Inspector Van Veeteren and if you enjoy a sleuth with a good dose of cynicism and a dry sense of humour then definitely give this one a try. I’m not sure that I do but I found it a great read anyway. I have the Inspector lined up again for one of those cold Sunday’s in January – the perfect time to experience him I imagine.

Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson

1996, (English 2009)
256 pages

Nemesis – Jo Nesbo

Three books in and I can say without doubt now that I am a Jo Nesbo fan and will probably end up reading all his books. To be honest I was probably a fan after reading the first chapter of The Snowman but it’s good to still feel the same a few books in. Normally crime thrillers wouldn’t be my first choice- but these books at 600+ pages are really hard to put down. I’m also quite fussy with chunksters, often preferring shorter books so am especially impressed at how easy these are to get through.

So Norwegian police inspector Harry Hole returns in Nemesis, the second in the series of books available in English. I read the first, The Redbreast earlier in the year (that was my least favourite of the three so far) and Nemesis sits in the middle. It will be interesting to see how the next two go and if the tempo changes at all. The fifth in the series, The Snowman, seemed to have a more dramatic style, I’m wondering if there will be a gradual build up towards that.

Hole is a struggling alcholic with unorthodox methods and a high crime solving success rate. His peers are not without their faults, minor and major and on the whole they tolerate Harry only because they have to.

The parallel cases taking up Hole’s attention in Nemesis are a bank robbery/murder and the murder of Anna, an old flame of Harry’s. To complicate things (there always seem to be complications in Harry Hole’s life) Harry finds himself implicated in one of these murders.

I’m noticing a few patterns now in the series, one being that Harry becomes personally involved in the murders or with the murderers he is investigating and the second that he has an especially skilled female officer assisting him in his cases. I’m not sure how realistic the personal involvement each time is but I don’t mind, it makes for an exciting read.

Hole’s assistant in Nemesis is Beate, young and talented, she has the ability to remember every face she has ever seen. Her father had been a police officer before being killed in the line of duty and it’s not hard to figure out that this will be relevant at some point in the story.

There are a host of other characters including a cunning inmate with knowledge crucial to the case and an ongoing storyline that started in The Redbreast. On that point I would recommend starting with The Redbreast for anyone thinking of trying the series, each book has a separate case and is quite readable on its own but there are characters that reappear with spoilers if the books are read out of order.

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

2002, 695 pages