Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is Karen, who blogs at Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Karen lives in East Anglia with her husband, but is Scottish by birth, though most of her life has been spent in exile! When she isn’t working she loves reading, listening to music and blogging — and has endless fun attempting to control the ever-increasing piles of books in the house.

She’s worked mainly in places involving finance (bank, accountants, bursar) which may be why all her outside interests are artistic ones (she has been known to craft a bit)!

Without further ado, here are Karen’s choices:

Life-a-users-manualA favourite book: Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec

This is a difficult category when you’ve read as many books as I have and have a wealth of favourites to choose from! However, I’ve gone for a relatively recent discovery, which is a wonderful, complex and very cleverly constructed book, full of puzzles and stories and mysteries. Perec was a member of the OuLiPo literary group, whose members often employed writing constraints in their fictions, and here the book, which relates a snapshot of life in a Parisian apartment building, is based mainly on a sequence of moves on a chessboard. Despite the restrictions employed, Perec creates a rich and involving tapestry with a wonderful array of characters. One of those books you can’t put down and are still thinking about months (and years!) after reading it; and one I certainly want to read again.

If-on-a-winters-night-a-travelerA book that changed my world: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

No competition for this category at all — this is definitely the most life-changing book I’ve read! I first came across this wonderful tale in the early 1980s and it engendered a huge obsession with, and love of, the author’s work which has lasted to today. It’s metafiction at its best (and by another member of OiLiPo, as well!), full of cleverness yet utterly absorbing. It made me realise what could be done with the written word, that there were no limits and also gave me the confidence to believe that I could read and appreciate any book I wanted to. It was something of a springboard for my reading and I feel like I never looked back after it. What’s especially striking is the fertility of Calvino’s mind, the sheer amount of wonderful stories he’s capable of coming out with. I’ve re-read the book several times and it’s never lost its brilliance, which is testament to its greatness!

NothingA book that deserves a wider audience: Nothing by Paul Morley

This was the hardest category to pick for, and I’ve chosen the favourite book by one of my favourite authors. I’ve read Morley since he wrote for NME in the 1970s/1980s but this personal memoir from 2000 is something quite special. The book is about Morley’s family, his father’s suicide and the effect on them, his memories of childhood and his emotions while growing up.

I’m broadly contemporary with Morley and much of the environment he came of age in resonates deeply with me. Apart from the interest of the story, it’s a wonderful piece of writing featuring his hallmark prose (which I absolutely love) and an excellent meditation on the act of remembrance and how we deal with the past and the big events in our life. I personally can’t have enough of Morley’s writing; I think I can see a trend here in that I adore people who can play with words, turn them into prose poetry. Too many people dismiss Paul Morley as someone who merely (over)writes about popular culture, but I think if they read this book they would see a different side. Nothing is one of my desert island books — in fact, if I had to choose only one, this might well be it.

Thanks, Karen, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday! 

This is such an interesting selection of books. I’ve not read Life: A User’s Manual, but I have read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and, well, how should I say this? I wasn’t a fan (my thoughts are here). But I adore the sound of Morley’s book — I love his rock journalism, but had no idea he’d written a memoir. It seems to be out of print, but thanks for bringing it to my attention.

What do you think of Karen’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Everyman's Library, Fiction, Italo Calvino, Italy, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting

‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler’ by Italo Calvino (translated by William Weaver)


Fiction – hardcover; Everyman’s Library; 304 pages; 1993. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler was Italian author Italo Calvino’s much-lauded 16th novel. A rather clever, knowing book, it pokes fun at reading, writing and publishing. From its opening passage, I suspected it was going to be a rather enjoyable read:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

But sadly, I found this book so clever as to be pretentious, and so contrived as to be patronising. Most of all I just found reading it an incredibly frustrating experience.

The nub of the novel, which was first published in 1979, is this: a reader tries to read Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler but discovers that the book is faulty. He takes it back to the shop for a replacement, only to discover the replacement book is also faulty. And therein lies the pattern: in alternate chapters we follow the reader’s adventures as he tries to track down a perfect copy of the book. This is interspersed with the actual text of the books he acquires, none of which turn out to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.

Confused yet? I found it excruciatingly perplexing in places, particularly as the reader’s side of the story is told in the second person, so the “you” feels like it is being addressed to you personally, even though it becomes increasingly clear that that is not the case. It gets worse when characters associated with the reader, including the enigmatic Ludmilla who also bought a defective copy of the book, cross over so that they also appear in the text the reader is reading, blurring the lines between the reader’s life and the fiction he reads.

Essentially, this is the type of novel that just gets your brain in a complete muddle. And while I’m not averse to this kind of post-modernist technique, where the author also appears as a character (think Paul Auster or J.M. Coetzee), and where different literary styles and genres are “sampled” in the one novel (think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), I found If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler rather exasperating.

It doesn’t help that the alternate chapters of the book, which are presented as opening chapters of what is supposed to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler (but never are), is that they all end abruptly at a climactic moment, so you are left dangling and never find out what happens next. This happens 10 times. (At one point Calvino compares sex to reading, so perhaps these abrupt endings are his idea of a joke about failing to climax.)

Each of these 10 chapters is written in a different style or genre, so Calvino gets to show off his ability to write a satire, a romance, a thriller and so on. But unfortunately, each chapter does not feel sufficiently different to the one that precedes it, so the “trick” failed to truly work.

The saving grace is the illuminating insights and ideas Calvino presents about the intertwined and ever-changing relationships that authors and readers have with books. He makes it clear that every author is looking for the perfect reader, and every reader is looking for the perfect book.

He makes other statements about different readers wanting different things from books, and that every time we read a book we bring with it our own prejudices based on our life experiences. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that our enjoyment of reading a book can be influenced by something as inconsequential as where we are sitting (or lying) when we read it and what is going on in our personal lives at the time.

While I admire Calvino’s ambition, his ideas and his ability to turn our notion of a novel on its head, this book clearly wasn’t for me. The elegant prose and the courageous experimentation (with its nod to James Joyce), couldn’t make up for its lack of narrative drive, detailed descriptions and rich characterisation.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is one of those books that takes you right out of your comfort zone; it’s intelligent, a little bit witty, a little bit cynical but ultimately it’s too emotionally shallow to offer any real insight into the human condition.

‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’ by Italo Calvino, first published in 1979, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a ‘novel about the urgency, desire and frustration bound up in the practice of reading novels’.

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Armen

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday, a regular series that has been on hiatus for about six weeks. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers and other bookish bods to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is Armen, an Iranian-Armenian journalist, who lives in London and is a member of Riverside Readers, the book group I attend.

Armen doesn’t have a blog of his own, but he is staggeringly well read, with a special interest in world literature, history, politics and art.

Without further ado, here’s Armen’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:


Invisible-cities A favourite book: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

“From now on, I’ll describe the cities to you,” the Khan had said, “in your journeys you will see if they exist.”

But the cities visited by Marco Polo were always different from those thought of by the emperor. This is a very unusual book. It is dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai khan, the great khan of the Mongol Empire. There is no plot, no characters besides these two. It is very difficult to describe the book, but reading it was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had with a book. The great khan gets tired of stories sent by his messengers but Marco’s stories keep him interested. Marco tells him stories about cities no one has ever heard, the “invisible cities”.

City-and-house A book that changed my world: The City and the House by Natalia Ginzburg

This is the first book I read by Natalia Ginzburg, an Italian author whose books are mostly out of print in English. I’ve read most of her works and it’s such a pleasure when I read her. (I often search her name to see if there’s anything new in English, a book maybe? A play, or even an old interview!) I read this book when I was very influenced by anything Italian, cinema, literature, music and even ice creams! This is one of her last books, written in letter form.

Giuseppe, a middle-aged, depressed journalist, leaves Rome after 20 years and moves to the United States to live with his brother, a move he seems to regret. He writes letters to his cousin, ex-lover and a group of friends. These letters are about failed marriages, unhappy love affairs, frustrated family relationships. There is no hero in this book. The characters are very much like people we meet everyday at home or on the street, with usual highs and lows. The people in this book want to belong to somewhere, but are not sure where.

Death-and-the-Penguin A book that deserves a wider audience: Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

This is an eastern black comedy by a Ukrainian author! The main character is Viktor, a writer, but economic hardship in the early years of post-Soviet Union makes him write obituaries for a newspaper. He writes these obituaries in advance, meaning he’s writing them for Mafia, although he doesn’t know this in the beginning. He shares his life with a penguin, called Misha. Misha is an important figure in the book. This penguin brought lots of smile to my face!

Thanks, Armen, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

I’ve already got The City and the House in my TBR, after Armen mentioned it at our very first book group back in the summer of 2009. And I’ve promptly added Death and the Penguin to my wishlist as it sounds sort of surreal — and very funny.

What do you think of Armen’s choices? Have you read any of these books?