2015 • Svetlana Alexievich • Voices from Chernobyl

Up until recently my knowledge of Chernobyl was pretty fuzzy. I remembered that there was a disaster when I was a kid and more recently seeing some articles (or maybe even listicles on Buzzfeed) about the abandoned schools and government buildings that had now been taken over by nature.

After all 1986 was a busy news year. There was the Challenger Disaster in January - which pretty much traumatized every school kid in the US as most of us watched it all on live tv - and that whole year America was celebrating the Centennial of the Statue of Liberty. There was lots going on and I was only 12 years old anyway.

So in the back of my head, I knew something bad had happened in Chernobyl but didn’t think much of it. That is until I started watching the recently aired tv series “Chernobyl”. It was only then that I realized how close the world - with Europe in particular - had come to utter devastation.

After watching the first episode, I remembered that I’d once worked on a book about Chernobyl, back in my publishing days. I worked over in the production side and had been tasked with ordering a reprint of “Voices from Chernobyl” by Svetlana Alexievich. Those of us saddled with doing reprints would automatically receive a copy of each reprint done by our printers, which meant that for some titles, we’d have multiple copies of each book laying around. We’d quickly run out of space so we’d donate the extras to organizations, or to friends, or to ourselves.
A quick glance through my bookshelves and I spotted my paperback copy, still in pristine condition after 13 years and 3 apartment moves - including one across the Atlantic ocean!

I decided to read it whilst I watched the tv series and soon spotted that some of the series had been directly based on Alexievich’s book.

Most of the Nobel Laureates of Literature have been novel writers or poets or playwrights. Not a lot of non-fiction writers in the 100 plus list.

“Voices from Chernobyl” subtitled “The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster”, is Alexievich’s non-fiction account of what actually happened to the “liquidators” - workers sent in to “clean up” the disaster - and their families, what the government did (and didn’t do), and how great the suffering was (and continues to be).

I was going to write that it’s the kind of book that needs to be read little bits at a time, lest we become overwhelmed by the unimaginable tragedy and obscenity contained within its pages. But this is a one of a kind book. Uniquely told by the people who lived through Chernobyl, their own words, their own excruciating feelings. The only book that I know of that even compares is “Hiroshima” by John Hersey. But that’s a tiny slim book - it was originally published as an article in The New Yorker after all. It can be read in one sitting, even though it’s cruel and terrible and life-changing.

But this book can’t - and shouldn’t - be read in one sitting. Time is needed to ponder what one has read. There were many times that after reading one particular section, I was left completely shaken by the terror that some people went through.

There’s a tendency in our western culture to watch horror films for fun. Every time we go to the movies, there seems to be a horror-du-jour flick playing alongside the latest dramas and cartoons. Our culture seems to enjoy being scared, to be titillated by criminal doings and gore.

This book eclipses the worst imaginable in all of those. Except it all happened, it was all true.
Europe came very close to becoming a permanent wasteland and millions of people came very close to dying.

The Soviet Union was to blame for the disaster - through incompetence, and cronyism, and laziness - but they were also the ones who saved everyone in Europe, by sacrificing countless young men to their likely death in order to bury all of the contaminated ground.

There’s imagery here that will stay with you forever:

Bands of hunters engaged to “liquidate” any and all family pets left behind in the exclusion zone.

A liquidator suffering from radiation sickness whose own wife calls a “monster”, such is his face so terribly transformed - even war-experienced nurses refusing to help him.

The liquidator that brings back his work cap and thoughtlessly gives it to his young son to play with and ensures his boy’s early death.

The children born without eyes.

The children who aren’t born at all.

The old ladies who refuse to leave their land because they can’t see the radiation and besides, they’re old anyway.

The low level bureaucrats that daren’t do anything outside of their wheelhouse.

The scientists that defied punishment in order to warn friends and family of the coming carnage…and weren’t believed.

It’s all a litany of horrors. 

But Alexievich brings it all to life, exquisitely performing the duty of storyteller, that of an impartial witness, to preserve for the ages all that these people went through. So that hopefully next time - and surely there will be a next time - we can all remember some of what was told and in this way help to prevent some future suffering.


Voices of Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
written by Svetlana Alexievich
translated into English by Keith Gessen
published in the US by Picador, May 2006

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2015
Svetlana Alexievich “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”


1998 • Jose Saramago • Small Memories

Small Memories (2006)
Small Memories is not the first book I’ve ever read by Jose Saramago, the Nobel Laureate and only writer working in the Portuguese language that’s ever been honored by the Swedish Academy. It’s not even the second or third.

Let’s just say that I’ve read quite a few books by Saramago and have many more sitting on my bookshelves, simply awaiting a moment of my free time to be read. He probably holds the record in my library for most books written by one author. This came about twofold. 

First, I like his work a great deal and so naturally have gravitated towards it over the years. And secondly, a few years ago an innovative online bookshop sadly went out of business and I gobbled up everything they had by him. I’m hardcore. ;)

Having said all that, his prolificacy has ensured that barring being a Saramago scholar, one can still be surprised by little volumes that might pop up here and there. That’s how I came to read Small Memories.

I’d started a now-defunct blog and during one of the months - it was a monthly blog - I’d decided I would read as many books by Camões Prize winners as I could. 

That exalted number ended up being two.

Yep, two books.
But they were both really good books.
And one of them was a little discovery by my old favorite Saramago.

This isn’t a novel, or a collection of short stories, or a play, or a collection of essays. All of these he has written - many of each kind in fact - but instead a memoir. 

He’s also written a series of those, most famously about his latter years. They’d come out every year or two and would chronicle his life post-Nobel with his wife Pilar, spent in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, off of Spain.

A Portuguese Nobel Laureate living in Spain? He famously decamped to Spain, after a famous snafu involving the current President of Portugal - Cavaco Silva - back when he was still the Prime Minister. A European literary competition - the Aristeion Prize - wanted Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ to represent Portugal. The PM saw the book as sacrilegious and stopped it being included. Saramago, not too unfairly really, felt like his country did not appreciate him and decided to self-exile. He of course returned for visits, but he would never again permanently live in Portugal after this official slap on the face.

But I digress.

As I said before, Saramago has written plenty of memoirs, but I feel this one is a precious little gem. It tells of his childhood and adolescence, spent between a small village in Alentejo and Lisbon - of small slights that stayed with him for decades, of the hunger for literature when there is none to be had.

It was a joy to read, filling me up with longing for my own childhood also spent in Lisbon, in some of the same places he mentions, and in one particular case, the exact neighborhood I started out my own life in.

A very young José Saramago
Picheleira, an oft forgot working-class area, nowadays overlooked by its’ more well known neighbor Olaias, was the first place the Saramago family lived in when they moved to Lisbon. I can’t begin to explain how much this small fact overwhelmed me. I’ve always felt a special affinity with Saramago and to find out that we both spent our early childhood dwelling amidst the same old buildings I so well remember, filled me with joy.

But well, that’s just me. You, dear reader, are unlikely to share this little factoid with Saramago, so why should you pick up this little tome?

Because it’s wonderful and lovely and sad and true, even when it isn’t.

“Sometimes I wonder if certain memories are really mine or if they’re just someone else’s memories of episodes in which I was merely an unwitting actor and which I found out about later when they were told to me by others who had been there, unless, of course, they, too, had only heard the story from someone else.” p.53

More often than I like, this has happened to me. A well remembered childhood detail come to be debunked by an older relative - “A Fiat? In the 70s? Your uncle never owned a Fiat.” But yet where did my so very clear memory of riding inside one come from? Watching films? Hearing a story about someone else?

Saramago talks of his first inkling of lust, of his preference for his maternal grandparents, of being so thirsty to read, anything at all, that he’d devour the newspapers glued to the wall that some poor people would use as wallpaper. He tells of a whole lifetime, because yes, one’s childhood is a whole other lifetime away, in a small little volume.

“There you were, Grandma, sitting on the sill outside your house, open to the vast, starry night, to the sky of which you knew nothing and through which you would never travel, to the silence of the fields and the shadowy trees, and you said, with all the serenity of your ninety years and the fire of an adolescence never lost: “The world is so beautiful, it makes me sad to think I have to die.” In those exact words. I was there.” p.120

There is so much more, but really just go and read it for yourself. You can thank me later.


2005 • Harold Pinter • The Homecoming

The Homecoming (1965)
So I had to start somewhere as far as the first laureate is concerned. I'd been accumulating a few Nobel winning authors for a while, so i figured I'd just pick one at random and begin the beguine :o)
I thought a play might be the way to go. Ease myself into the reading of massive novels and historical tracts by starting light. Yeah, light. What was i thinking?

I chose Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, first produced on Broadway in 1967, written in 1964 and published in 1965.
This was a most baffling play. Called a masterpiece in Absurdist theater by some, i simply found it unbelievable.
Wait a second, you kind reader might be saying? But isn't Absurdism partially exactly about that? Well, i guess it turns out i don't get Absurdism... or at least not this particular example.

OK, so here's the basic set up. A house in North London, with a missing wall which some critics have taken to symbolize blah, blah, blah. Yeah, I'm not buying that particular line of thought. So onwards. 

We have Max, the 60-something patriarch, his bachelor 60-something brother Sam, and his two 20-something sons, Lenny and Joey.
Max is a retired butcher who now seems to fill up most of his time by cooking everyone's din-din, Sam's a well-respected chauffeur, Joey works in demolition during the day and moonlights as a boxer and Lenny, well Lenny is a pimp.
Ah, happy family.

Into this wondrous family unit, drop in Teddy, the prodigal son gone to America to become a Philosophy Professor and his wife Ruth. Just on their way back from Venice for a delayed honeymoon (they already have 3 sons), they pop by unannounced. Have I mentioned Teddy hasn't contacted his family for six years? But he still has a key to the house and so lets himself in  for the evening and settles in upstairs with Ruth for the night.

And then hilarity ensues.

No, not really.

I read a quote by a critic about how in this particular play, the pauses are of all importance, as well as the position of chairs and the symbolism for a demolished archway. OK, sure. But here's the thing, i read the play. I didn't watch it. So maybe if i watched a performance of it, a whole other layer of amazingness would appear.

Once Teddy and Ruth come down those stairs on the next morning, the whole thing just goes a bit wobbly. Up till then, we'd been treated to the foul-mouthed diatribes of Max directed at the rest of his family. Some of it might seem shocking, unless you've grown up in a severely dysfunctional family. But i could still buy all of it. 

But within moments of meeting the family, Teddy's wife Ruth, is being man-handled by the brothers and called a "stinking pox-ridden slut" by the father. Teddy doesn't object to his family's treatment of Ruth and even more importantly, neither does Ruth.

Although it stretches the imagination, I could understand Teddy being overwhelmed by his Alpha-dog brothers and father, and so remain passive while they practically make love to his wife on the living room floor.
But the idea that Ruth would welcome this attention and encourage it just defies any sort of believability and understanding of women.

And maybe that's the point. That it's completely ridiculous that eventually the family is talking about putting her 'on the game' (prostitution). But i guess I'm just a simple reader when it comes to certain things, and Ruth's reaction and actions just didn't ring true in any way, absurd or not.

I'll likely try to hunt down a filmed version of the play (or even better, see it in person) and if i do so, I'll update this post. For now though, i have to admit 'The Homecoming' wasn't quite for me.

P.S. For some insight into Pinter's literary and political views, go and read his Nobel Lecture. It's quite an interesting read.


Mo Yan is the 2012 Nobel Laureate in Literature!

Well, the speculation is finally over.
No Philip Roth, no Alice Munro, no Murakami, no, heavens forbid, Bob Dylan ;o)

Instead the Swedish Academy chose a Chinese writer that the Chinese government is actually proud of.
Hmm, not sure if that's a good thing or not. He seems to write mostly historical novels, so I guess those can be apolitical...i guess.

Still, will refrain from any preconceptions about him and I look forward to reading him sometime within the next Nobel year. I thought I knew for sure which of his books to read - Big Breasts and Wide Hips (teehee) - but seeing as it's 500+ pp., maybe I'll end up picking up something else. We shall see.

Now onwards to the reading!


1976 • Saul Bellow • Humboldt's Gift

Humboldt's Gift (1975)
***Warning: Spoilers ahead***

I wanted to like Humboldt’s Gift – I really did. I was so pleased when I saw that a member of my book group had picked it as our latest selection. 

And as I started my Nobel trek and then quickly (and unfortunately) had to put a hold on it, I was glad indeed to be able to kill two literary birds with one stone – read Humboldt for my book club *and* for my Nobel project. 

Sigh. I was naive then. How little I knew ;o)

Anywho, let’s get right to it, shall we? This book frazzled me like no other has done in quite a while. I kept on seeing its amazing potential and then one page later it would once again descend into nonsense. So many great passages and then something like 30 pages of practically unpunctuated page long paragraphs of random facts…but not even random facts. Because see, that sort of thing would actually interest me, being that I’ve been known to read silly trivia books in one sitting. No, this was more like random factoid-ettes, a seedling of a factoid cut off in its prime to be left as an incomprehensible snippet, ala Lenin’s uncle. Sigh. Some of those pages, many times ‘philosophical’ in nature, reminded me of that song by Billy Joel ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’, except not fun. 

But then he’d come back with some brilliant observation, referring to America as a ‘didactic country whose people always offer their personal experiences as a helpful lesson to the rest’, thoroughly foreseeing our current era of confessional memoirs as bestsellers.

Or later Charlie would mention how’d he’d been a ‘passionate morbid little boy…’, bringing me back to my own childhood when (for I don’t know, fun?)I’d imagine a world without my mother, which would quickly reduce me to a slobbering mess.

And then we’d be back to tangents on top of tangents, just making me want to fling the book across the room.

I found Charlie to be just beyond sympathy which is another thing that made reading this book quite an endeavor. There was not one sympathetic character in the bunch. Now, I don’t have to like a character in order to enjoy reading the book. But it went beyond that – I just didn’t really care what happened to any of these people. I cared about what happened to Hannibal Lecter when I read ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, so it’s not about someone being bad or evil. It’s about them being blah. I couldn’t really get into any of them. I found myself endlessly annoyed by Charlie, but that was far as it went – I didn’t actually care about him though.

Particularly when he’d attempt to guess Renata’s thoughts, imagining them to be solely about wealth and possessions – how presumptuous of him. And even at the end, ‘…the beauty of a woman like Renata was not entirely appropriate. It was out of season…’ – after everything that’s happened to him, after Renata has left him and attempted to show him what he’d done wrong, he still doesn’t see her as a person. He still sees her as a symbol rather than a human being.
As for what the gift was – yawn.

Humboldt leaves him a Hollywood treatment. After all this tangential nonsense and shoe-gazing, that’s what we get? Boo.

I don’t want to judge Saul Bellow solely on this book. It wouldn’t be fair.
After all, some of my favorite authors have had off books as well. So I’m hoping that’s what happened with ‘Humboldt’s Gift’ and Bellow’s other books are just brilliant…or at least not inane.


2006 • Orhan Pamuk • Snow (Inaugural Post - Whoo-hoo!)

Snow (2002)
So I had to start somewhere, pick one first out of the 104 laureates, and then one book out of the first one i selected. As I mentioned in my first post, i decided to first read whichever authors i already had in the house. I happened to have quite a few books by this author, although i had yet to read any works at all by him. I think i might have read a piece of his in the New Yorker, but that was about it.

I happened to pick up a few of his books back when Coliseum Books, a sorely missed NYC institution, was going out of business. They held a sale to get rid of their reduced inventory and I spotted a few of his works and paid up. But I don't think I actually picked up my first selection until a bit later, when I received a lovely book as a birthday present, but that I unfortunately already owned. I trudged to Target to exchange it, looked through their small book selection and picked up a couple of titles, including Snow by Orhan Pamuk which became the inaugural title. I actually finished reading this about a week ago (first time i get a chance to write it up) so hopefully not too much of it will have left my brain.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this novel, since again, I hadn't read much by Pamuk beforehand. I knew it was set in Turkey, it dealt with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, but that's about it.

I initially really enjoyed the book, particularly the dialogue. But a third of the way in, I felt like there was a change in translators (at best), or the author just decided to give up on believable dialogue. It started to feel clunky, which is why I wonder if it was a translation error. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The basic plot (which mostly takes part over only 3 days in the life of a small Turkish town and most importantly, in the life of a minor exiled Turkish poet) concerns the visit of a poet - Ka - to the small town - Kars. It's very much an insulated town, quite literally demonstrated by them ending up closed off from the rest of the world, i.e. Turkey, by a heavy snowstorm which starts as Ka is arriving.

He's come to town to ostensibly interview the families of some dead young girls, who have allegedly committed suicide b/c they'd been asked to remove their headscarves while at school. Turkey is a secular state and outward signs of religion such as Muslim women wearing headscarves are discouraged, and outright forbidden in universities and public buildings up until recently. In response to this 'outrage' demanded of them while in university, some girls in Kars have killed themselves which has made them martyrs to the movement and encouraged ever more rebellion.

Ka goes around posing as a journalist, interviewing the family and friends of the dead girls, but the reason he's really decided to return to Kars is that a girl he fancied while a student, happens to now be living in Kars, and is newly separated. He thinks this is his chance to get her to marry him. Yep, you read right. He hopes to convince her to marry him and go back to Germany (where he's been exiled for political reasons he no longer believes in), even though they haven't seen each other since their student days. Have i mentioned that he's only in Kars for 3 days? And that they were just casual friends while in school?

But i digress. So Ka is walking around asking to speak to everyone...which sparks the curiosity of well, the whole town, particularly the officials in charge who decide to track his every move. He also manages to get the Islamic fundamentalists interested and gets himself into all sorts of unexpected circumstances. He ends up being one of the only witnesses to a terrorist assassination...which he quickly runs away from; he meets with the leader of the Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, who may or may not have ordered the assassination Ka has just witnessed, as well as many others beforehand; he performs at an event that ends up being the stage (quite literally) for a coup...Ka really gets around.

Up until this point, I followed the book rather well and was enjoying it. But then it started to just go a bit batty for me. For one, I've never seen the word 'atheist' written so often and referred to so much in a book outside of a Christopher Hitchins polemic. It's apparently what Islamic fundamentalists, at least those living in Kars and Greater Kars, are obsessed with. 'Is so and so an atheist?' 'Are they themselves atheists if they have even moments of doubt?' and again 'Is so and so an atheist?' It started to drive me mad. Mostly b/c I couldn't imagine spending so much time of my life thinking about what someone else who did not follow my views (whatever they happen to be) thought of my own. If one has deep beliefs in god, the Easter bunny, aliens in space, then what does it matter what someone else thinks, particularly if they're not confronting you on the matter and don't give a fuck? Sigh. That's not a slight on the author at all, it was just a frustrating thing to realize that people across the globe dedicated so much of their time to thinking about such inanity. Just live your own life and let others be.

As for the theater troupe coup plot...honestly, that bit just defied belief. A theater troupe comes to town and stages a coup from the stage, taking advantage of the fact that the town is snowed in? Really?

But i suppose my biggest problem with the novel, and that really, really bothered me as a plot point, was how 'in love' Ka becomes with Ipek, the grown-up crush of his student days. In three days. Now, we've all had crushes that were very intense and very quick, and most of us have fallen in love, and sometimes relatively quickly, but three days?! No, didn't believe it for a moment. I mean, he's professing his love for her, upon seeing her again for the first time in 20 years or so. I just didn't buy it - it just felt so shallow. And the fact that he kept on referring to her beauty (and not much else) didn't exactly help his case. Then again, i just found him a shallow character period. He's involved in various traumatic events and all he can think to do is run and write poems? I'm all for submitting to one's muse, but right in the middle of a dangerous crisis? It was mad. But perhaps that was the point - to show how art can take over one's senses.

Ok, before i end up writing a tome on this book (and give away the ending), I'll try and wrap up. Pamuk's work challenged me, with characters that bugged me and acts that baffled me. But the writing was solid and the subject was engaging, even if it lost me a bit towards the end. And notwithstanding the heaviness of most of the book, it did have some light moments, like the city newspaper editor who would write up the news a day early :o)

I don't know if I'd recommend this particular title to most, but I'll definitely be dipping into my small Pamuk collection in the future and reading a bit more by him. But now i have to figure out which author i should read next...


So I got it into my head to start a new blog...

I knew of some people who were attempting to read through all of the Pulitzer prize winning novels in a year, or the Booker winners in a year, and thought that sounded like a great idea.
A way of exposing oneself to some (allegedly good) literature that one wouldn't necessarily pick up on one's own.
But i didn't want to copy-cat their idea. I considered a few of the big prizes, or even some of the big publishers' lists (Penguin Classics and the like - too large and overwhelming) and then decided to go for the gold of literary prizes and attempt to read all of the Nobel laureates in literature.

It'll be a bit harder both in the scope and depth of this venture, partly b/c the Nobel is given to a body of work, rather than to a specific piece. So not only would i have to read something by each writer, i'd also have to do some research and pick a particular work as well - one that i thought embodied their body of work. Although as I've already spotted, this might prove somewhat easy for some writers, as there's only one of their books in English translation. I'm not giving myself a set time frame since I'll also continue one of my book club memberships *and* will continue to read for fun as well. I'd like to put it at about 2 years beginning now, seeing as there are 104 laureates which works out conveniently enough to about 1 a week for 2 years. Having said that, and already admitting that I'll also continue to read for other reasons, I'm not sure if this is completely doable. So let's say that 2 years would be nice and something to strive for, but I won't exactly be broken-hearted (or too surprised) if I'm not able to finish by then.

I won't be reading them chronologically as i think that would drive me mad. My first ten writers or so will be determined solely by the books i already have in my collection (or have picked up in the last month or so) and in whatever order I feel like. After I've exhausted the few I already own, I thought I might use different methods to select the next title to read. Might throw a dart at a world map and choose this way or maybe have a little survey on the blog and my readers (hope to hoodwink at least a few friends into checking it out - 'Yes, this site is full of: [insert the following] kittens, naked chicks, naked guys, cheat-sheets for Grand Theft Auto IV') can pick choice A, B, C, or J ;o)

We shall see - it'll be an ever developing project. I hope to have some pics thrown in of yours truly (always in disguise - Why? B/c it'll be fun) reading the selection du jour in various spots, a bit like Where's Waldo for the literati (er, i'm not really this precious, i promise).

But enough intro, they always bore me to tears and I usually end up skipping them. On to the first book...