Learning A New Culture

January 13, 2013 at 8:15 am (Book Commentary) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

My book resolution, last year, was to read translated works. I wanted to explore other countries and cultures and since I only speak/read English, this was the easiest way for me to do so.

I started and ended the year with two short story collections that were written by a lawyer and originally published in German. Crime and Guilt by Ferdinand von Schirach. The stories he wrote are derived from real life offenses. Both books were best sellers in Germany and deal with crime and the effects of such. They are bleak, often despairing little stories that made me think of bigger issues like love, hate and redemption. Von Schirach’s writing is dry and, on occasion, ironically witty. The characters come alive on the page and, though I would never want to meet most of these strangers, I do understand them. His is a grim view of humanity and what both fascinates and scares me is how close I could come to being one of these deviants. The line between me and them is thin and blurry. The line between any of us and what we are capable of is thin and blurry. What would you do to get what you want?

The next book I tangled was a Yiddish children’s novel; Suddenly In the Depths of the Forest by award winning Israeli author Amos Oz. This is a fairy tale about a boy and a girl and their journey as they wander seeking truth in the forest.

Once upon a time there was a village. The village had no animals, no cows, dogs or pigs, not even worms, fish or spiders. None of the adults are willing to speak about their misfortune, and at night they bolt their doors for fear of Nehi, the Mountain Demon who is blamed for the adversity.

No one dares go into the mountain except two kids Maya and Matti.

This is an enchanting tale and would be easily read to children as a bedtime ritual. It is a small book that explores big questions. Night after night, the story would unfold and secrets would be discovered and conversations would ensue. What is the message to be uncovered here? Read, remember, question, speak.

Callander, Scotland

Then, I got sidetracked, waylaid; no, stymied! I get my books from the library and library books are not cataloged based on whether or not they’ve been translated from another language. Thus, if I didn’t have prior knowledge of a foreign book that I wanted to read I had to search for them. Being it was now March and cold and yukky, I didn’t want to expend that much brain power on what was supposed to be a pleasurable task. So, I relaxed the rules to include books from English speaking countries that I’m curious about.

My next book was published in Great Britain. The author lived in Cumbria, England, was born in Hartlepool, England and had an English degree from Oxford University. The Woodcutter is a thick, heavily involved psychological thriller about a man accused of a crime he claims he did not commit. The whole of the novel deals with the question of did he or didn’t he. The landscape of Cumbria is an enormous presence in the book and helped me to understand how this man was a product of his country and culture. The author, Reginald Hill, is a popular British author whom I had never heard of.

From Cumbria I traveled next to the age-old city of London. London in all it’s glory and greatness is a major player in Blue Monday by Nicci French. Psychotherapist Frieda Klein walks the streets of London at night in an attempt to quiet her brain. Blue Monday is the first of eight novels which are set to star psychotherapist Frieda Klein. Nicci French, is the pen name for the husband-and-wife writing team of Sean French and Nicci Gerrard and well they don’t live in London it is evident that they love and understand that complicated city. I will definitely be reading the next seven novels.

Glascow Night Club

From London, it was only a short hop over to Ireland. Paperboy, set in the 1970s, is about a boy growing up in Upper Shankill, Belfast, which was then in the heart of the conflict between Nationalists and Republicans. Bombings are on the evening news, rubble lies where buildings once stood, and rumours spread like wildfire about the IRA and the UDA. But the boy is more troubled by acne and first love and the neighbourhood’s wee hoods then by the troubles. Tony Macaulay writes a memoir that reminds me that, no matter where you are, teenagers are teenagers and growing up is never easy though it can be unintentionally humorous at times. I may not know his country but the teenage culture of the 1970s was touchingly familiar.

From Ireland, it was back over the sea to Scotland (a country I recently visited and where my father’s father was born). Birthdays For The Dead by Stuart MacBride is dark and depressing tale reminiscent of Scotland’s reputation as a dark, rainy place. (When I was there, the sun shone every day and even Glasgow seemed not gloomy). You don’t want to read this book if you have daughters.

Callander CCTV

The spring over I was back to reading books that were originally published in a language other than English. My summer reading consisted of young adult novels and a graphic memoir.

The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis is a young adult novel set in East Germany. I picked up the book because of the stark, minimalistic cover. Naive middle-class seventeen-year-old Anna becomes enthralled with her poor, mysterious, drug-dealing class-mate Abel after she overhears him telling an enchanting but dark fairy tale to his younger sister whom he cares for alone. What is true? Is anyone safe? Can love conquer doubt? Click here for the book trailer.

I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti deals with a boy in rural southern Italy who learns about crime firsthand when he discovers that his own father is part of a kidnapping gang. It is about innocence lost and a child’s sense of loyalty. It is set in rural Italy and made me understand why my step-aunt would leave everything she had in Canada to follow her lover to rural Italy.

Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky is also set in Germany (I read a lot of German books last year). Here we travel to Berlin through the eyes of a young, Russian emigre. This is a lively debut novel with a cheerfully cynical narrator, first published in Germany in 2008, from Russian-born Bronsky. The focus of the narrative is the consciousness of Sascha Naimann, a 17-year-old emigre from Russia to Germany. She’s skeptical, witty, loving, intimidating, vulnerable and understandably furious that her stepfather, Vadim, murdered her mother a few months before the story opens.

The graphic memoir I read was set in Poland. Marzi [graphic novel] : a memoir  is by Marzena Sowa.

“I am Marzi, born in 1979, ten years before the end of communism in Poland. My father works at a factory, my mother at a dairy. Social problems are at their height. Empty stores are our daily bread.I’m scared of spiders and the world of adults doesn’t seem like a walk in the park.”

This collection of episodes from Sowa’s childhood form an engrossing picture of growing up in Communist Poland on the cusp of the 1970s prelude to revolution. I can’t help but think that this could have been my life if my mother’s parents had not left Poland to come to Canada.

Loch Lomond, Scotland

Sara Foster’s book, Beneath The Shadows, took me back to England, to Yorkshire to be exact. The author is Australian and the book is set within both London and Yorkshire. In this thrilling gothic suspense debut, a young mother searches Yorkshire’s windswept moors for the truth behind her husband’s mysterious disappearance. I loved the story but wonder which culture was dominant, the English or the Australian. Intriguing book trailer here.

December brought me back to Germany and the short story collection Guilt (see first paragraph above)!

Isle of Skye, Scotland

So, what did I learn?

I learned to love Google maps. It was great to be able to input a city’s name and follow the characters journeys through their home cities/countries as I read books set in unfamiliar places. I would have enjoyed the books without the maps but not as much.

I learnt, that no matter the language, I mostly read mysteries and suspense. I am a fan of the dark, the bleak and the despairing views of life. I am intrigued by storytellers. The authors who create the stories and the characters who tell them.

My sensibility seems to be Eastern European pragmatism along with Scottish practicability. I am a product of my upbringing. Both sets of grandparents were practical and pessimistic in their outlooks. What my Canadian parents gave me, I guess, was my optimistic, down-to-earth questioning outlook.

I can enjoy my dark, despairing reading choices because my life is safe and I am optimistic that I will never have to face these events head-on and make these sorts of choices.

The journey into other cultures continues.  Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 waits patiently in my to-be-read pile. It’s a long book, I think I’ll save it for the summer. The summer is, I think, a good time to explore the Japanese culture.

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