June 2019 Wrap-Up

Miracle in the Andes [2006] by Nando Parrado ★★★★★

This non-fiction book impressed me the most in June. Nando Parrado tells of his survival journey when he became one of the people breathing after their plane crashed high in the mountains of Andes in 1972. Parrado and others had to confront and battle inhumane conditions to stay alive and then finally have the courage to venture outside their crash site to seek help. Parrado’s account is modest, moving and unforgettable – this book will stay with me for a long time. 

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey [1953] by Sybille Bedford ★★★★1/2

Sybille Bedford wrote about her experience of Mexico in the early 1950s in the format of an exciting story full of larger-than-life characters and colourful descriptions. Insightful, humorous and beautifully-written, Bedford’s account of her journey throughout Mexico is a true classic of travel writing. 

The Seven Madmen [1929] by Roberto Arlt ★★★★1/2

In this book, we follow Remo Erdosain in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a man who leads a pitiful existence and who is prone to fantasy. He has just been exposed as a thief at his place of work, and his friends and acquaintances, including deranged “Astrologer” and cruel “Thug”, start to slowly lead him off the life’s straight path. Erdosain soon sinks deep into the life of deprivation and crime, especially when he becomes the brains behind a plot to kidnap his nemesis Barsut. At times metaphysical, the novel can be viewed as a story of one who surrounds himself with “unholy” fools, while trying to preserve some aspects of his soul “pure”. Los Siete Locos or The Seven Madmen is a top-notch existential satire where Arlt attempts to draw attention to the workings of one part of society rarely seen in fiction – those wretched people who are in constant war with themselves. The apparent randomness and slight incoherence of the story only underline the chaos that reigns in the heads of the main characters as they struggle with the absurdities of their existence. 

A Man Asleep [1967] by Georges Perec ★★★★

To want nothing. Just to wait, until there is nothing left to wait for. Just to wander, and to sleep. To let yourself be carried along by the crowds, the streets….To have no projects, to feel no impatience. To be without desire, or resentment, or revolt…Minute by minute, hour after hour, day after day, season after seasons,  something is going to start that will be without end: your vegetal existence, your cancelled life” [Perec/Harvill, 1967/90: 161]. 

This strange novella tells the experience of one lonely twenty-five year old student living in Paris. This student decides to go through life being indifferent to the happiness it can provide or to the sorrow it can cause, with his whole existence being essentially reduced to some elementary natural mechanisms of breathing in and out. Very introspective and meditative, this puzzling novella is written in Perec’s idiosyncratic style as the author tries to show what it is like to live a life of near immobility and complete apathy. It was a curious read, but more repetitive than I would have wanted. I think I would have enjoyed the novella more had I read it in the original French language.

Golden Child [2019] by Claire Adam ★★★

Claire Adam tries to cover a lot of ground in her debut book Golden Child, and she largely succeeds. This is a tale of a family in Trinidad who has fallen on hard times, but who tries to do their best for their twin sons – one (Peter) who is academically brilliant, and another (Paul) who has learning difficulties. The family’s intention to do the right thing seriously backfires when Paul goes missing. Set against the backdrop of social deprivation and crime in rural Trinidad, this interesting and often tense story is about difficult parenting choices, the nature of twinship and family sacrifices. 

Trap for Cinderella [1963] by Sébastien Japrisot ★★★★

When two girls are found burnt beyond recognition at a beach house – one dead and one alive, the authorities have to ascertain what had happened. The survivor does not remember anything and has to rely on others to tell her who she is and what her relations with others were. Is she a victim, a witness or, possibly, a murderer in this situation? The author delves into the interesting issues of personal identity and psychology of a complete amnesiac. Although too unbelievable sometimes, Japrisot’s twisty thriller is also unputdownable and, strangely – very memorable. 

His Bloody Project [2015] by Graeme Macrae Burnet ★★★1/2

I may be harsh with my rating for this book, but after superb The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, I guess I set my standard too high for Graeme Macrae Burnet’s books. This Man Booker Prize nominee tells the story of a poor crofter Roderick Macrae, living in rural Scotland in 1869, who gets charged with the murder of three people in his small village. This deceptively straightforward case has its complexities. The story is told through witness statements and interviews, as well as through the narration of Roderick himself (can he be an unreliable narrator?). Like Burnet’s debut novel, His Bloody Project is a very atmospheric read which benefits from the author’s clear and concise style of writing.

One of the issues is that I thought the story borrowed much from Albert Camus’s The Outsider [1942]. In both books, we have the same apathetic and indifferent narrator who has just been charged with a murder, and the court scenes, as well as romantic and friendship situations, are similar in both stories. The first person narrations are also alike, especially when we read such sentences in Burnet’s book as “he asked me if I was sorry for what I had done. I told him I was not and, in any case, it mattered little whether I was sorry or not, what was done could not be undone” [2015: 44]. This sentence could as well have come from The Outsider, though both Burnet and Camus’s stories were also clearly inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment [1866]. Overall, even though the story started interestingly and paid much attention to the character and to the examination of truth from different perspectives, I have to admit I expected much more from Graeme Macrae Burnet, especially regarding the ending to His Bloody Project, which I thought was blunt, predictable, unimaginative and underwhelming. 

Hotel Silence [2016] by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir – ★★★1/2

I am a forest, and a night of dark trees: but he who is not afraid of my darkness, will find banks full of roses…” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra). 

Translated from the Icelandic, this short novel tells of Jonas, a middle-aged man who finds himself in the middle of an existential crisis, having to face the troubles of his mother, an elderly woman suffering from dementia, and his failings as a father. Depressed and grappling with the meaning of his existence, Jonas decides to go and spend time at Hotel Silence in one unnamed country torn by war, not even realising that this journey can show him “the light” at the end of his tunnel. Quirky and philosophical, Hotel Silence may be a sombre novel, but it is also thought-provoking and full of hope. The downside is that even though the first half of the book is introspective and somewhat poignant (full of Nietzsche quotes and talks about renewal through scarring), the second half reads more like an average theatrical play and has a predictable conclusion – someone realises that life is worth living because other people have it worse than him and he is still capable of helping others.

Bitter Orange [2018] by Claire Fuller – ★★★1/2

Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange is a novel full of rich descriptions of one abandoned house in England, where a young couple befriended a lonely thirty-nine year old woman who, in turn, is there to research garden architecture. Though falling short of a truly original or eerie read, Bitter Orange is still sufficiently intriguing and interesting. 

Black Sugar [2017] by Miguel Bonnefoy★★

This was the most disappointing book I read in June. Bonnefoy’s “allegorical” tale Black Sugar, translated from the French by Emily Boyce, is readable, but the story was also very rushed and was not about any pirate treasures as such – we are first introduced to the Otera family – Ezequiel and Candelaria – who have a daughter Serena; that dreamy daughter grows up, and meets and falls for a treasure-seeker Severo Bracamonte, whom the family agreed to provide shelter to in return for a percentage of Henry Morgan’s treasure that Bracamonte is still to find. There is then the story of this family’s child. Black Sugar may have some vivid descriptions, but ends up to be a tale of virtually nothing of essence adventure-wise, let alone of treasure or pirates (both feature only briefly at the very beginning and the end).

Have you read or would you like to read any of the books listed above? How was you reading month of June?

14 thoughts on “June 2019 Wrap-Up

  1. I probably liked His Bloody Project better then you (I think I gave it four stars), but I do agree that is was a bit predictable in the plot. But it was a really interesting concept, and I didn’t think to relate it to Crime and Punishment, but you’re right that it is similar in plot.

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    1. I wanted to give it four stars, but it just fell slightly short for me, maybe because of that ending. I was astonished how similar it was to Camus’s “The Outsider” – in concept, style and characters. In my opinion, Burnet basically re-wrote “The Outsider”, but set it in a different location and forced us to question the already established version of events.

      Also, as in “Crime & Punishment”, we are basically persuaded to sympathise with the narrator whose actions are indefensible – he committed the worst action possible – murder. If in “Crime & Punishment”, we are thinking more about the boundaries of morality and about the atonement of the main character, in Burnet’s story, we are thinking more about maybe it was all a big misunderstanding or there is another “truth” somewhere there.

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        1. Exactly, I do not know people reviewing it and I always want to bring attention to those books that are off the radar or slightly forgotten but deserve their spotlight, especially “old”, foreign-language literature. Have you read “One Deadly Summer” by Japrisot? This one is next on my to-read list.

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          1. So wonderful to know that, Diana! Will look forward to reading more of your reviews of off-the-radar books. I haven’t read ‘One Deadly Summer’ by Japrisot. Glad to know that you are planning to read it next. Will look forward to hearing your thoughts. Happy reading!

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