When is a TBR Pile not a TBR Pile?

Library Voices LogoAs I wandered around the library recently, browsing the ‘just returned’ and the ‘new titles’ shelves, I spotted a couple if books that had been on my mental ‘to read’ list ever since going to the authors’ readings. One of my favourite cultural activities is attending author readings and discussion sessions, sometimes as part of a literary festival, sometimes as standalone events. My actually having read any work from a particular author before an event is not a pre-requisite. Indeed, going along to hear a reading or an interview is often a fantastic way to get into a new writer. I have often added a new author to my repertoire on the strength of an interesting evening of extracts and bookish discussion. I can highly recommend putting the literary cart before the horse, so to speak. Although, I have to say that I’ve rarely been disappointed when I’ve done it the other way round and gone along to listen to one of my favourite authors.Dublin UNESCO Logo

The regular Dún Laoghaire Rathdown ‘Library Voices’ series of readings and talks has often proved to be a very fruitful source of inspiration in the never ending search for new authors. From these events, I have acquired (so to speak) Peter Carey and Alex Miller, though I have also taken the chance to listen to old favourites such as Joanna Trollope and Audrey Niffenegger. The Peter Carey event featured a reading from his latest book The Chemistry of Tears and when I later went on to read the book I could hear Carey’s voice in my head telling the story. I probably would have enjoyed the book anyway, but I think that having heard Carey discuss his work piqued my interest. As it turned out, I read 30 days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account before coming to The Chemistry of Tears, which convinced me that Carey was a writer to treasure. Before reading 30 Days, I didn’t have the slightest interest in Sydney, but Carey brought its history and culture alive, peopling it with a fascinating cast of characters. All ‘wildly distorted’ no doubt.

Another fruitful series of events has been the Dublin City Council run, European literature event ‘Words on the Street’ that I attended for the second time this year. Mind you, one of the attractions of this event has been listening to Bryan Murray who is such an enthusiastic reader. Last year he read an extract from The Dinner by Herman Koch and this year (in St Anne’s Church, one of my favourite venues), he read from Caesarion by Tommy Wieringa. It did however take me around a year to catch up with The Dinner, so I expect it to take a similar amount of time to read this year’s batch of European literature. I was not greatly enthused by The Dinner when I finally got around to it, although it was well written, but it wasn’t really Bryan Murray’s fault.IMPAC Logo

Similarly, I have not yet caught up with the IMPAC 2014 prize-winning novel, despite attending the announcement of the winner and a reading with the author and translator. I thought Juan Gabriel Vásquez made a brilliant acceptance speak and after hearing him read from and discuss the Sound of Things Falling, I was determined to read it as soon as possible (well as soon as the TBR Pile allowed anyway). I think I need another dose of serendipity; if I see it there in front of me on the shelf; it must be waiting for me. Of course, if I had been quick enough to snaffle a free copy at the Pearse Library IMPAC event, it would be on my actual TBR Pile and not my virtual one. However, such is life. A new entrant to my virtual TBR Pile is Richard Ford who gave a reading at Trinity College Dublin (where he is an adjunct professor) this autumn from his latest novel Let Me Be Frank.

Now, I can see that unless I stop attending literary events my TBR Pile stands even less chance of shrinking than it did before. Alas, it is a cure that I don’t want to contemplate…


Books and Grief: Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman

A recent addition to the Landing Bookshelves has been Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves (courtesy of the publishers, Pushkin Press). It has, I admit jumped the queue over longer residents of the TBR Pile but I hope you’ll let that pass. I became acquainted with Neuman’s work a couple of years ago when I read Traveller of the Century. This was Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English and I was delighted to discover that it has been voted onto this year’s IMPAC short list. If you haven’t come across it yet then skim back to last year’s post on Neuman’s book. He also did a brilliant Q and A for The Landing.

Talking to Ourselves

An emotional landscape…

Talking to Ourselves is a spare and compact novel; quite a contrast to the previous book’s Enlightenment wanderings, but it describes a journey nonetheless. Or rather, it describes the emotional and spiritual journeys of the protagonists as well as a physical one. Three people alternately narrate Talking to Ourselves: Mario, his wife Elena and their ten-year-old son Lito. Mario is terminally ill and his wife has agreed that he can take Lito on a road trip in a truck (called Pedro) to create a special father-son memory. Lito is thrilled to be going on the trip and does not realise that his father is so ill. He thinks that Mario has just had a virus infection, as Mario has been careful to keep his illness hidden from his son. Whether that was the right thing to do or not is a question that Mario cannot answer.

Neuman’s powerful book tackles the difficult topics of loss, grief, loneliness and aging. This sounds depressing, but it’s not; moving and thought provoking are nearer the mark. Communication, sex and books are the weapons that the adults try to use to reclaim life and self from sadness and loss. Lito’s joyful thoughts at being on the road trip provide a sharp contrast to his parents’ concerns. Watching as someone you love suffers and changes is hard for the carer to deal with, and Elena struggles with her feelings. She has always been able to find solace and answers in reading. The book is peppered with quotations from the eclectic range of writers that she explores and Neuman has included a list of the authors cited at the end of the novel. This could feel very forced and clunky, a self-help manual for grief, but in Neuman’s skilled hands this technique works well.

At times, I had to stop reading Ourselves because of the intensity of the plot, so even though it’s only a short novel (156 pages) it took longer to read than I expected. Life can throw harrowing things at us that simply we don’t want to or feel able to face. This novel describes a couple trying to find ways of facing the one thing that any parent of a young child dreads. How do you deal with grief and the way illness affects everyone? How does this affect the moral compass of the healthy person? And is there a viable future? I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot so I’m just going to give a snippet from each of the protagonists to give a flavour of the novel.

Here is Lito just before his adventure with his father and Pedro begins,

I ask Dad when we’re leaving. Right now, he says. Right now! I can’t believe it. I run up to my room. I open and close drawers. I drop my clothes on the floor. Mum helps me pack my backpack. This is going to be awesome.’ Lito sees the trip as a huge excitement and relishes the chance to miss out eating salads in favour of junk food.

Elena is anxious about the trip but has no choice about it, knowing how important it is to Mario,

If Mario accepted the limits of his strength, we would have told all our friends the truth. He prefers us to be secretive. Discreet, he calls it. A patient’s rights go unquestioned. No one talks about the rights of the carer. Another person’s illness makes us ill. And I’m in that truck with them, even though I’ve stayed at home.’

As I said above Mario has refused to publicly acknowledge his illness which has ramifications for both Elena and Lito:

‘I’ll explain, bah, can I explain this?, you’re at your grandparents’ and you don’t know why, we’ve sent you there until the end of the holidays, I’m meant to be travelling, we talk every day, I try to sound cheerful, am I deceiving you, son? yes, I’m deceiving you, am I doing the right thing?, I’ve no idea, so let’s assume I am’.

I hope that I’ve managed to convey at least a small sense of the power and scope of this beautifully written and challenging novel. The translators have played no small part in this achievement: Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia who also translated Traveller of the Century have again done an excellent job. As someone whose ‘O’ level Spanish is very rusty indeed I’m constantly amazed at the skill translators apply to original texts, making the resulting words flow as if they were in the author’s native language.

Fingers crossed for Traveller of the Century in the IMPAC contest (one of five translated novels on the shortlist). I’ll be back with another Landing Bookshelves selection soon but meanwhile, drop me a line if you have any IMPAC recommendations.

Credits: Thanks again to Pushkin Press for a copy of the novel.