Whew! And cut! That’s it for May! A lot has happened in May. At the start of the month, I was finally able to travel by plane after nearly two years. I noted that things were starting to return to normal. The Philippines also held its national elections which saw the return to power of one of the most storied political families, not just in the Philippines but also in the world. After nearly four months of being unemployed, I am once again part of the corporate world. I was anxious at the start for it is a new environment with its own set of challenges. I soon picked up my groove and my anxieties were replaced by excitement as I look forward to the knowledge and experience I can gain from my new job. How about you fellow reader? How did your May shape up? I hope you are doing well and that the year has been kind to everyone.
Even before May started, I already planned to read works written by European writers mainly because they were starting to pile up on my bookshelves. Some of these books were also part of my current reading challenges. European literature has been a mainstay since I started reading. This vast part of the literary world has provided me with some of my most memorable reading journeys. This was evident in my May reading journey which transported me to various parts of the continent, from Scandinavia to the United Kingdom to Italy to Central Europe to the Balkans. It was, as always, a scintillating experience marked by equally thought-provoking works. I was so engrossed by the books I read I barely noticed how many books I was able to complete before the month ended. I completed eleven books making May 2022 one of my most productive reading months of all time. If I include the last two books I read in April, that would be a Here is a peek into how my May reading journey went.
My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologizes by Fredrik Backman
Kickstarting my May reading journey was the work of a familiar writer in Swedish Fredrik Backman. I have previously read A Man Called Ove and Anxious People, both of which I adored although I was reluctant at first. Going into my third novel by Backman, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, I have become more confident; I knew he was going to provide me with a very compelling story. The book followed the story of seven-year-old Elsa. Compared to her peers, there was something about Elsa that made her stand out. She was more precocious and smarter than most kids and she also had this quirk of correcting everyone’s grammar. She was also very close with her grandmother. The crux of the novel, however, was what transpired following her grandmother’s death. Through a series of apology letters to individuals wronged by her grandmother, Elsa learned more about her grandmother. Running parallel to the main storyline is a fairytale story conjured by her grandmother which came across more as a distraction rather than as an integral element of the story. Despite this, it was still an interesting work that showcased Backman’s storytelling prowess.
Family Sayings by Natalia Ginzburg
From Scandinavia, my reading journey took me to Italy, which, I have learned, was a place I haven’t fully explored yet, at least in terms of its literature; the first names that come to mind are Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. Anyway, my next read was by an author who was unfamiliar to me. Family Sayings was my first novel by Natalia Ginzburg, a name I keep coming across through online booksellers. I didn’t have much of an expectation going into the book except maybe that it will provide me a different literary experience. For sure it did because the book, which had autobiographical elements to it, grappled with fascism in Italy and the early post-World War II years. It depicted the daily life of Ginzburg’s family. Ostensibly steering the family was the patriarch, Giuseppi Levi, who I learned was a renowned histologist. Apart from the intricate details of the family’s life, what drew me in was the vast cast of characters that included individuals who played seminal roles in contemporary Italian history. Writer Cesare Pavese was a prominent presence although, interestingly, he barely uttered words or interacted with any of the members of the Levi family.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
My first immersion into the work of Czech writer Milan Kundera was a memorable one. The book in question? The Unbearable Lightness of Being which was a very interesting title and a very interesting book. I would have loved it more had I not been weighed down by the repeated image of lust and sex. This, however, did not stop me from reading more of the controversial writer’s prose. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had a title that was not difficult to miss. But while the latter had a straightforward structure, the latter was different. Rather than a formulaic story, the novel was divided into seven parts, with each part introducing a different cast of characters and dealing with a different story. In essence, it was a collection of seven separate short stories but it worked for these parts were connected by recurring subjects of history and politics, with particular emphasis on communism. Life in the Czech Republic during one of the most contentious periods in its history was vividly portrayed by Kundera.
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way is one of the books that have been sitting for the longest time on my bookshelf. I obtained a copy of the book back in 2015 but I had to put off reading the book after I learned it was part of a seven-volume novel, the remarkable In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past. Before I start reading the book, I wanted to obtain the rest of the books. And now that I have six of the seven books, there are no more reasons to keep me from reading the book. Swann’s Way is the first volume of the seven-piece novel and it was palpable that it was written to set the tone for the rest of the other books. The novel was narrated by an unknown narrator who dives deep into his childhood memory to recount his first encounter with Charles Swann in their family’s country home in Combray. The book’s heart, however, was the story of Swann’s love affair with Odette de Crecy, a former courtesan. It was a push and pull love story as Swann was uncertain of his position in Odette’s life. I assume these are elements seminal in understanding the succeeding volumes. Despite the seemingly tedious paragraphs, what drew me in was the beauty of Proust’s language.
The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
From France, my reading journey made me travel back to Italy with my second novel written by Italo Calvino. Calvino first captivated me with his postmodernist novel, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler. It was a book that exceeded my expectations. Four years after reading my first Calvino novel, I finally made good on the promise to read more of his prose with The Baron in the Trees. The novel commenced on June 15, 1767, in the fictional village of Ombrosa on the Ligurian Riviera. This was the day when Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the eldest child of Baron Arminio Piovasco di Rondò, decided to live the rest of his life living in the trees surrounding the village after a disagreement with his father. He vowed never to step down the trees. While shrouded by the trees, Cosimo encountered several interesting and unusual characters: a young girl who he fell in love with, a bandit who loved to read, and an entire Spanish family excommunicated by the Pope. The story can certainly be interpreted as a form of resistance to conformity. It is about outcasts and the refusal to be weighed down by the expectations of society. It was a promising work but never quite reached its full potential.
Berta Isla by Javier Marías
My interest in the Spanish writer Javier Marías was piqued after he was recommended by a fellow book reader. However, it was another book that he recommended: A Heart So White. I tried to find a copy of the book but Berta Isla was the title readily available so, without more ado, I obtained a copy of the book. I took it as a means of preparing myself for his most popular work. Berta Isla had an interesting premise. Set during the twilight years of the Cold War, the titular Berta Isla was the wife of Tom, or Tomás, Nevinson, an agent working for the British intelligence. He kept his occupation a secret from his Madrilenan wife. Meanwhile, Berta was left to look after their children while Tom was away. There was a sudden shift when Tom’s two worlds started to collide, pushing Berta to ask the important questions. I was enamored by the discourses on the double life Tom led and the hypocrisy of governments but the repetitiveness left me weary in the end. There was also very little action as the story was built around the discussion between husband and wife.
The Accident by Ismail Kadare
From the Iberian Peninsula, my literary airplane took me to Central Europe and the Balkans through controversial but highly heralded Albanian writer Ismail Kadare’s The Accident. This was my second novel by Kadare, after The General of the Dead Army. I was impressed by my first Kadare, hence, I looked forward to reading more of his prose. It was no secret that I had high expectations of The Accident. The titular accident happened on Marker 17 of the airport autobahn in Vienna where two Albanian passengers, later identified as Besfort Y and his partner Rovena St., perished. The only survivor was the taxi driver who sustained serious injuries. After several interrogations, the only thing that left an impression on the driver was the couple kissing moments before their fateful death. The novel was built around a belated interrogation of an unnamed Albanian “researcher-cum-investigator”; the accident was questionable because of the two characters’ current works. The writing was fine but the story was a little confusing. The idea of a conspiracy was built brick by brick but, eventually, none of that materializes. The ending was ambiguous and none of the mysteries was solved to my satisfaction.
The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal
The New York Review of Books gave me some of my most memorable reads, such as Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio and Magda Szabo’s The Door. I was hoping for a hattrick when I picked Bohumil Hrabal’s The Little Town Where Time Stood Still as my next read. Interestingly, Kundera called Hrabal one of the greatest Czech writers which made me want to read Hrabal’s work more. I had very little iota on what the book was about and I have never read any of Hrabal’s works previously. The novel was basically two novellas, with the first part, Cutting It Short, commencing in 1930s Czechoslovakia. It was narrated by Maryška, the flamboyant wife of Francin, the local brewery manager. She was strong-headed and easily stood out. She was also a strong drinker. The second book had the same title as the book and was set eight years later. Maryška and Francin, who struggled to have a child, were finally able to have one, a boy whose perspective moved the second part forward. Overall, the novel was an interesting study of the European countryside, with emphasis on how the dawn of communism started to alter the landscape.
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
I first encountered British mystery writer P.D. James over a decade ago when I received one of her works as a gift from one of my aunts. During that time, I was engrossed with works of suspense and mystery fiction. I have since obtained two more of her works and I even made Death Comes to Pemberley part of my 2022 Beat the Backlist Challenge. I was basically shooting two birds with one stone. When I started reading the book, I was surprised to learn that it was inspired by a very familiar book in the world of literature. Apparently, the novel was an extension of Jane Austen’s very popular work, Pride and Prejudice. In James’ novel, Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are now parents. However, Darcy’s relationship with Wickham was still sour. The crux of the novel happened on the eve of a ball that was to take place in Darcy’s Pemberley estate. On the way to drop off his wife and Elizabeth’s younger sister, Lydia at Pemberley, Wickham and his friend Captain Martin Denny figured in an altercation that ended with Denny’s untimely demise. The story had promise but ended but hackneyed and predictable.
The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
From the United Kingdom, I traveled farther north, back to Scandinavia. I can’t recall reading any novel by a Norwegian writer and I was hoping to redress this by reading Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace. Prior to starting the book, I learned that Vesaas is considered a literary titan in his native Norway. First published in Norwegian in 1963, The Ice Palace is considered a classic work of Norwegian literature. The novel charted the story of two young girls whose paths converged in a rural Norwegian community. Siss and Unn couldn’t be any more different. Siss was vivacious while Unn, a newcomer into the community, was more reserved. Despite meeting for the first time, they warmed up to each other. However, the day following their initial meeting, Unn skipped school because she wanted to avoid meeting her new friend. Instead, she went to see the titular ice palace, a castle-like structure that was formed due to the freezing of a nearby waterfall. The novel, despite being slender, is a broad exploration of loss. It did remind me of Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. But what really stood out for me was the novel’s poetic language.
Atomised by Michel Houellebecq
Concluding my May reading journey is the work of another French writer. I have never read any of Michel Houellebecq’s work before and I was even reluctant to start with Atomised because of what I perceived as references to science; I am still trying to find my footing in science fiction. Nevertheless, I always look forward to the prospect of reading the work of a new-to-me writer. Alternatively titled The Elementary Particles (US release), the novel charted the story of two half-brothers, Bruno Clément and Michel Djerzinski born of a hippie-type mother. They were raised separately, with Michel growing up in the care of his paternal grandmother while Bruno didn’t have much luck. At the onset, I was thrown off by the sexual overtones of the book. Masturbation, sex, and lust filled up about three-fourths of the story. Interestingly, Michel was a molecular biologist focused on cloning that essentially removes the element of love from the process of reproduction. The novel redeemed itself as the story drew to a close.
Reading Challenge Recaps
- My 2022 Top 22 Reading List: 9/22
- 2022 Beat The Backlist: 7/15; 42/50
- 2022 Books I Look Forward To List: 4/10
- Goodreads 2022 Reading Challenge: 48/70
- 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: 2/20
- New Books Challenge: 6/15
Book Reviews Published in February
- Book Review # 343: Harlem Shuffle
- Book Review # 344: To Paradise
- Book Review # 345: Kitchen
- Book Review # 346: There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job
- Book Review # 347: The Memory Police
- Book Review # 348: Hear the Wind Sing
- Book Review # 349: The Lake
- Book Review # 350: The Woman in the Dunes
- Book Review # 351: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids
- Book Review # 352: Pinball, 1973
For the fourth consecutive month, I was able to complete at least ten book reviews, an achievement of some sort. This was driven mainly by my desire to complete all my pending book reviews from 2021. Because of this concerted effort, I am now down to less than 20 books, from about 50 at the start of the year! Hurray! Earlier today, I published my last pending book review from July 2021. I just now have to work on about 17 book reviews while, at the same time, ensuring that I don’t bury myself in 2022 book reviews. I have also been ticking off book reviews from January 2022 and I think I am down to my last three. I hope that I sustain the momentum I have built in the past three months despite me getting back to work.
And before I forget it, I published my 50th review of the year in May! I am now up to 53 which is remarkable considering that we are barely midway through the year. What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that this number is nearly 70% of my total output in 2021. I completed 77 book reviews last year, which is my currently the most I had in a year. But to be honest, my target for 2022 is actually at least 100 book reviews. I am crossing my fingers that I get to accomplish that.
For my June reading journey, I have decided to continue immersing myself in the works of European writers. I have realized that I have quite a lot of works of European literature still waiting to be read; this is separate from the works written by Nobel laureates in literature which I decided to dedicate a separate month later this year. I am currently reading my third novel by Italian writer Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Loana. After that, I will again be alternating the works of new-to-me and familiar writers. I am looking at the prospect of reading the works of familiar writers such as David Mitchell, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and Marcel Proust. I am also looking at reading the works of new-to-me writers such as Colm Tóibín, Emma Donoghue, Cesare Pavese, Aleksandar Tišma, and Angela Carter. I am just hoping to cover as much ground as I can.
And that was how my May reading journey concluded. How about you fellow reader? How was your own journey? I hope you enjoyed the books you have read. For now, have a great day and weekend. As always, do keep safe, and happy reading everyone!