Adding it up: My Reading in March

Month: Mar 2014

Books completed this month: 7 (4 ebooks, 2 library books, 1 pdf download)
Books completed year to date: 20 (13 ebooks; 3 hard copy; 2 audio; 1 part hard copy, part ebook; 1 pdf download)

Abandoned this month: 1 short story – too graphically violent
Abandoned year to date: 2 books; 1 short story

Short stories completed this month: 5
Short stories completed year to date: 14

Best reads this month: The Spinning Heart (Donal Ryan); A Darker Domain (Val McDermid)

Completed this month for the various challenges:
Reading round Munster – 1 (Total year to date 5/6 – runs from Nov 2013 to Sept 2014)
Full House Challenge – 2 (Total year to date 10/25)
Back to the Classics – 0 (Total year to date 2/10-and-a-movie)
Read Scotland – 1 (Total year to date 2/1-4)
Africa Reading Challenge – 1 (Total year to date 1/5)
Deal Me In [Short stories]: 5 (Total year to date 14/52)
Non-Fiction: 4 (Total year to date 7/6-10)
I Love Library Books: 2 (Total year to date 2/3)
Audio Books: 0 (Total year to date 2/1-5)
Ebooks: 4 (Total year to date 13/25)

Comments: This is the end of the first quarter!  My overall total is much higher than I expected at the start of the year.  And I’m over 25% for all my challenges except Back to the Classics and the Africa Reading challenges, which are running just a little behind.  No need for drastic action yet, though I do hope to finish two for Back to the Classics in April.

#20. Road Tripping in America (Lisa McNamara and Paul Olson)

Book: Road Tripping in America: Short Stories from a Long Road Trip, by Lisa McNamara and Paul Oulsen

Genre: Travel

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 162 pages

Briefly, it’s extracts from a blog kept by a couple who left their corporate jobs, sold their apartment, and toured around (western) USA in a Toyota Sienna for a year.

Comments: The authors, from the outset, declare themselves cynical about the “business” that generates from road-tripping, especially the blogging, the book, the self-advertisement.  So their blog posts / book chapters are sometimes a bit cynical, and sometimes left me feeling a bit cynical.  Not always, though.

A lot is left out in this short book, particularly details of how they made decisions about where to go next, or when to move on.  It’s really just a selection of incidents, snapshots more than a movie.

Two things struck me: first, it must put huge strain on any relationship to live in such close quarters for a prolonged period of time, with nowhere else to go.  And second, I read a lot of travel books and so I really should read the classic On The Road by Jack Kerouac.

Challenges: Ebook reading challenge 2014; non-fiction reading challenge 2014.

#19. Red Zone Baghdad: My War in Iraq (Marcus Fielding)

Book: Red Zone Baghdad: My War in Iraq, by Marcus Fielding

Genre: War Memoir

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 303 pages

Briefly, it’s an account by an Australian embedded military officer of his experience on a ten-month tour of duty in Iraq, Aug 2008 to July 2009.

Comments: Colonel Marcus Fielding feels strongly that the reality, and the quality, of the service of Australian military personnel in Iraq is neither well-known enough nor appreciated enough, especially in Australia itself.  So he wrote an account of his term there, as an officer embedded with the US military, “in the senior coalition headquarters in Baghdad, which managed coalition forces on a grand scale and laboured to try to rebuild a country of 26 million people.”

He paints a vivid and interesting picture – much of the actual information had to remain undisclosed, of course, but we learn something of the pressure, the challenges, the unceasing activity of the war machine… the description of the constant stream of computer information which was fed to his office 24/7 is amazing.  Fielding was very mindful of the lives of the “ordinary” Iraqi people and did what he could to help them in personal ways over and beyond what was strictly required by his post.

I am one of those people less than enthusiastic about western military intervention in other countries, with all its neo-colonial implications.  This account, coming from an Australian, was probably easier for me to accept than would be a similar account from a soldier of one of the bigger military interventionist countries.

I am spurred to read more about Iraq now, and particularly some contemporary Iraqi literature.

Challenges: Full House Challenge, for the category “Theme / issue you think is important”; Ebook Reading Challenge 2014; Non-fiction Reading Challenge 2014.

Short Story #14. An Snámhaí (Katherine Duffy)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: This is the story that I read to replace the Kafka one that I abandoned earlier this month.

Story: An Snámhaí, by Katherine Duffy.  This is an Irish language story (An Snámhaí = “The Swimmer”) which I downloaded free through

Comments: I learned Irish going to school (as does more or less everybody who goes to school in Ireland), but have barely used it since then.  Although it is officially the first language of the country, it’s possible to live without ever needing to use it.   A Celtic language, completely unrelated to Latin-based languages, Irish is usually considered “difficult”.  I’d been thinking that I should dip into something contemporary, to see how much I remember and whether I can still manage to read it.  What better for this than a short story?  So I tried – and was delighted to find that I could indeed read and follow it.  I didn’t understand every word at the first reading, but I certainly got the drift.  I read it a second time with the dictionary beside me.

This is a mid-life crisis story.  The unnamed narrator (let’s call him N.) is on holiday with his partner, Jo; it’s their first holiday without their son, who has persuaded his parents to let him go to a summer camp this year.  N. sees a report in a newspaper about an old friend of theirs, Eamann – N., Jo and Eamann had been buddies in art college, but have drifted apart over the years.  Eamann has now won a prestigious art prize, which will gain him fame and wealth.  For some reason that he can’t explain, N. does not tell Jo about this.  Instead, he tells her that at the end of the holiday, he’d like to stay on in this seaside resort for another week, while she goes home.  He’s enjoying himself, and there’s no need to rush back to his business which is not doing so well in these times anyway.

N. sets himself the challenge (again without telling Jo) of swimming out to a small island, about half a mile from the shore.  He is a strong swimmer, and trains a little more, and one evening sets out to accomplish this swim.  Quite a bit of the narration is in the form of the thoughts in his head during this swim.  He makes it to the island, though he does experience a bit of a cramp on the way.  The story ends with him sitting on the island, with the lights which are beginning to come on in the houses on the shore beaming their congratulations to him.  And, of course, with the knowledge that he must now swim back again.

Eamann, it seems, represents what N. might have been, but didn’t become.  Eamann was travelling the world, sending postcards from exotic places back to his friends, while they were setting down together, having their son, being preoccupied with buying a house and caring for it and for the garden.  Eamann is a producing artist, while N. worked first in advertising and now as a buyer for art collectors.  Eamann has achieved wealth, while N’s business is precarious due to the economic downturn.   We learn that sometime recently N. has actually bought a piece of Eamann’s work, an abstract picture which now hangs in his study (Jo wanted it in the sitting room, N. prevailed by saying he’d buy another piece to hang there, but now remarks wryly that they probably won’t be able to afford it, because the price of Eamann’s work will sky-rocket).

So: failed dreams, a marriage which may be showing a few first signs of wear and tear, a lack of satisfaction – of all of which N. is only barely conscious.  The self-imposed challenge of swimming to the island, to prove something to himself, though he knows not what… a veritable mid-life crisis.  We are left to imagine for ourselves the possible outcomes… Does N. get back to the shore safely?  What does he tell Jo?  What are his next moves?

I really enjoyed this story, and was intrigued by the main character.

I also really enjoyed connecting with the Irish language again, particularly with some contemporary work (this story was published in 2010).  I haven’t been able to find out anything else about the author, but I’ll keep my eyes open.  The story won an award in a competition organised by Orieachtas na Gaeilge in 2011.

Short Story #13. The Coming Out of Maggie (O. Henry)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the eight of spades.

Story: The Coming Out of Maggie, by O. Henry – it is widely available; I read it here.

Comments: O. Henry is one of those famous authors with whom I’m not at all familiar!  So I didn’t know what to expect here.  The story is set in a working class New York neighbo(u)rhood around the turn of the 20th century.  Guys and gals are pairing off, but Maggie has no young man… until she turns up one Saturday night at the weekly dance with Mr. Sullivan.  Sullivan turns out not to be all he seems, and the local guys quickly force his exit.  This seems to lead up to Maggie being even more humiliated than she had formerly been… but there’s a twist at the end.  Yet the twist itself is rather open-ended, and posed more questions for me than it answered.  Did everything work out okay for Maggie?  She certainly made a name for herself that night, but did it rebound on her later?  Who knows?

The author uses a very lofty style, employing language which would not be the regular currency of the young Irish-American workers of the story.  But he uses it in a self-mocking kind of way, and so he gets away with it.

#18. The Spinning Heart (Donal Ryan)

Book: The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan

Genre: Contemporary fiction – longlisted for the Man Booker prize, 2013.

Where I got it: Won it!  (To be strictly accurate, I bought the Kindle version of the book with a voucher that I won).

Length: 160 pages

Briefly, it’s set in a small Irish town in the aftermath of the economic collapse.  A builder/developer goes bankrupt, and the consequences are far-reaching…

Comments: This is an excellent book.  Each chapter is narrated in a different person’s voice.  The title of each chapter is simply the name of the person narrating that chapter, so potential confusion is avoided.  A picture builds up slowly, each perspective adding some new information, but above all adding a different slant.  Not everything is spelled out, the reader has to make some imaginative jumps, but that’s part of the appeal.

The one thing that I did not like was the continual use of the colloquial construction “they do be” – they do be saying, they do be eating, etc.  It seemed overdone, stage-Irish.  Even if it is how people really speak in Ryan’s part of the country, I could have done with less of it!

Nevertheless this is a great book; a big story in a short number of pages.

Challenges: Full House Challenge, for the category “Won or borrowed”; Reading Round Munster personal challenge, for Tipperary (Donal Ryan’s native county); ebook reading challenge 2014.

Short Story #12. The Eyes of the Statue (Camara Laye)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the King of clubs.

Story: The Eyes of the Statue, by Camara Laye (translated from the French by Una MacLean), in The Granta Book of the African Short Story.

Comments: Camara Laye (1928-80) was a Guinean writer.  This story features a nameless young woman and a nameless old man in a nameless abandoned city which is reached by traversing a nameless desert.  The characters talk about the Meaning of Life.  It’s largely an “existential angst” portrayal, with a bit of unpleasant sci-fi at the end, not forgetting overtones of Shelley’s Ozymandias.  It is written in simple language, easy to follow.  The twist at the end hit me like a wallop on the head – I wasn’t even sure that was the end, I turned the page to see if there was more.

At no time was I conscious that I was reading a story in translation, which is a mark of a good translator.

#17. Rainbow Diary: A Journey in the New South Africa (John Malathronas)

Book: Rainbow Diary: A Journey in the New South Africa, by John Malathronas

Genre: Travel

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 362 pages

Briefly, it’s a “chronicle… (of) a journey in one of the most beautiful countries on Earth.”

Comments: Behind the author’s lightness of style (I wondered at first if it would be all just an account of nightclubs, doing drugs, and gay pickups) there is a wealth of material about the history, geography, politics and social reality of South Africa in this book.  I was often reminded of my first introduction to the various South African states through a childhood stamp-collecting album, where I came across the names such as Transvaal, Orange Free State, and Rhodesia.  What a tragic history.  What a long, long way the people of South Africa have to go.  More than ever I want to read a good biography of F. W. de Klerk.

Challenges: Ebook reading challenge; Non-fiction challenge

#16. A Darker Domain (Val McDermid)

Book: A Darker Domain, by Val McDermid

Genre: Crime / mystery

Where I got it: Local library

Length: 392 pages

Briefly, it’s a missing person / kidnapping story with lots of twists, set (mainly) in Scotland during the miner’s strike of 1984.

Comments: This was a great read!  It drew me in right from the first pages.  All the characters are well-depicted, the plot is engaging, and I was completely carried along by it.  I’ll read more of this author.

Challenges: Read Scotland 2014; I Love Library Books challenge.

Short Story #11. The Half-Skinned Steer (E. Annie Proulx)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the seven of spades.

Story: The Half-Skinned Steer, by E. Annie Proulx (I read it here).

Comments: According to online sources this story was originally written at the invitation of the Nature Conservancy, which asked Proulx to visit one of its preserves and then contribute a story, inspired by her visit, to Off the Beaten Path (1998), an anthology of short fiction.  The Half-Skinned Steer deals with themes of death, family, and memory.  And old man learns of his brother’s death, and sets out to drive to the funeral at the family home that he walked away from many years earlier.  The half-skinned steer of the title is a symbol of bad fortune and ultimately of death.  The general tone of the story is pessimistic: life is harsh, and there’s not much possibility of getting away from whatever situation we were born into.  Good notes can be found here.

I found it hard to warm to the story, or to any of the characters in it.  It’s quite a different kettle of fish than Brokeback Mountain or The Shipping News.