In my most humble opinion, there is no better way to start the summer than with an internationally televised football (soccer) tournament. Naturally, the World Cup tops my list of preferred events, but UEFA’s Euro competition is definitely #2. The group stage wrapped up earlier this week, and we’ve now moved into the quarter finals; yesterday, we saw Portugal eliminate the Czech Republic, while this afternoon, Germany goes head to head with Greece. Exciting!!
As the tournament continues, it unfortunately means that there are longer periods between games; there’s a lot of time to kill on the days and evenings when there’s no football on the television! What to do, you ask yourself? Answer: read your way around Euro! Luckily, I have a few suggestions for you.
Let’s start by visiting the Netherlands, forgetting that the team lost all three games in the group stage and returns home covered in shame. (Yes, I’m feeling quite a bit of resentment that my number one team performed so horribly, but I’m working through it.) A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein was one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read, and also the most rewarding. As Publishers Weekly states, “Dorrestein excels at describing how an eccentric family, the van Bemmels of The Hague, is tormented and finally destroyed by the growing madness of one of its members.” Other popular Dutch authors include Gerbrand Bakker, Tommy Wieringa, and Margriet de Moor.
Moving on to Portugal, I recommend Blindness by the late José Saramago. Originally published in 1995, this book was adapted for the big screen in Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness. A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness” whose victims are confined to a vacant mental hospital, while a single eyewitness to the nightmare guides seven oddly assorted strangers through the barren urban landscape. You should also try out José Luís Peixoto, Luís Miguel Rocha, and António Lobo Antunes.
My number two team is Germany, home of Herta Müller. Her novel about the Gulag, Hunger Angel, was first published in 2009, the same year that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novel traces the experiences of Leo Auberg, who, after five torturous years in a post-war Soviet Union labor camp, succumbs to a hallucinatory existence where hunger and everyday objects take on anthropomorphic qualities. Other popular German authors include Ferdinand von Schirach, Günter Grass, and Jan Costin Wagner. Of course, none of these names are as fun to shout out as German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. SCHWEINSTEIGER!
The Keeper of Lost Causes by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen is a book you may have heard of last year. This novel is the first in the crime-thriller series about Department, and was originally published in 2007. Chief detective Carl Morck recovering from what he thought was a career-destroying gunshot wound is relegated to cold cases and becomes immersed in the five-year disappearance of a politician. The second Carl Morck book The Absent One will be released this August. Reserve your copy today! I also recommend books by Sara Blædel, Peter Høeg, and Christian Jungersen.
Regardless of the fact that this team beat my beloved Dutch in 2010’s World Cup final, let’s visit Spain by reading A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Muñoz Molina. It’s the late sixties, the last dark years of Franco’s dictatorship: Minaya, a university student in Madrid, is caught up in the student protests and the police are after him. He moves to his uncle Manuel’s country estate in the small town of Magina to write his thesis on an old friend of Manuel’s, an obscure republican poet named Jacinto Solana. The country house is full of traces of the poet, notes, photographs, journals, and Minaya soon discovers that, thirty years earlier, during the Spanish Civil War, both his uncle and Solana were in love with the same woman, the beautiful, unsettling Mariana. Javier Marías, Manuel Rivas, and Arturo Pérez-Reverte are also popular authors from Spain.
Croatia’s Vedrana Rudan is a former journalist who started writing fiction when she was fired from her job for criticising the president, Franjo Tudjman. Her first novel, Night, is narrated by Tonka, a middle-aged, antifeminist feminist, who spends an entire night in front of the TV, rambling to an imaginary audience about her grievances about her own life and the world around her. She is a free-thinking woman who (finally) doesn’t give a damn, but she is also a victim of a hypocritical society to which she has no choice but to succumb. This isn’t a book for the easily offended, but those brave enough to give it a try won’t be disappointed. Other suggested Croatian authors include Josip Novakovich, Dubravka Ugrešić, and Miljenko Jergović.
Our first stop in Italy is The Age of Doubt by Andrea Camilleri. In this 14th installment (after The Potter’s Field ) of the internationally popular series set in Vigata, Sicily, Inspector Montalbano once again wrangles with local politics, mysterious strangers, and the ever-present dilemma of what to have for dinner. I also recommended stopping with Simonetta Agnello Hornby, Fabio Geda, and Niccolò Ammaniti.
The Republic of Ireland is home to many a famous author, including Colum McCann. His novel, Let the Great World Spin, was the winner of the 2009 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, hinges on Philippe Petit’s illicit 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers. It is the aftermath, in which Petit appears in the courtroom of Judge Solomon Soderberg, that sets events into motion. You may also enjoy the works of Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, and William Trevor.
Not only is England my number three team (it gets even more complicated during World Cup), it’s the home of my absolute favourite author, Sir Terry Pratchett. And it’s only fitting that he’s written a book about football, the 37th novel in his ever more popular Discworld series. In Unseen Academicals the wizards of Unseen University in the ancient city of Ankh-Morpork must win a match of foot the ball, without using magic, so they’re in the mood for trying everything else. As the match approaches, four lives are entangled and changed forever. It’s by far one of his best novels, and not just because there’s a librarian in goal. Some of my other favourite British authors include Monica Ali, Hilary Mantel, and Ruth Rendell.
I have yet to be disappointed by France’s Anna Gavalda, falling in love with each and every of her books. Hunting and Gathering, originally published in 2004 and made into a movie starring Audrey Tautou in 2007, is just a delight to read. The story follows four Parisians – a starving artist, her shy and aristocratic neighbor, the neighbor’s obnoxious but talented roommate, and a neglected grandmother – who share unexpected twists of fate that connect them to one another. If you haven’t already, you should also try books by Fred Vargas, the late Irène Némirovsky, and Claude Izner.
Andreĭ Kurkov is one of the better known Ukrainian authors, at least here in Canada. His latest mystery, The Case of the General’s Thumb, blends slapstick and political assassination. When the body of retired general Vadim Bronitsky, missing a thumb, rises over the city dangling from a Coca Cola advertising balloon early one morning, the local police, in the person of Lt. Viktor Slutsky, and Ukrainian security, represented by Nik Tsensky, both investigate. Other popular Ukrainian authors include Borys Antonenko-Davydovych, Marina Lewycka, and Sana Krasikov.
Since Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium series exploded onto the literary world, Swedish crime fiction has been terribly popular with our customers. However, Sweden is not only home to crime thrillers, as witnessed in Jan Guillou‘s Crusade Trilogy. The first book, The Road to Jerusalem, sees a Cistercian monk and former Knight Templar, Arn Magnusson, sent into the world by his master. He encounters the scheming power battles of twelfth-century Sweden and is separated from the woman he loves by a headstrong noble’s fateful mistake. The series continues in The Templar Knight and Birth of the Kingdom. And because I’m also a fan of crime thrillers, I heartily recommend any books by Liza Marklund, Åke Edwardson, and Henning Mankell.
If you’ve never read a graphic novel before, I can’t think of a better place to start than with Marzi: A Memoir by Poland’s Marzena Sowa. Told from a young girl’s perspective, Marzena Sowa’s memoir of a childhood shaped by politics is fresh and immediate. Structured as a series of vignettes that build on one another, Marzi is a compelling and powerful coming-of-age story that portrays the harsh realities of life behind the Iron Curtain while maintaining the everyday wonders and curiosity of childhood. If graphic novels aren’t your thing, why not try books by Andrzej Stasiuk, Witold Gombrowicz, and Jerzy Andrzejewski?
My high school reunion is coming up in a few weeks (egads, it’s been 25 years!). That might be why I was particularly taken with Ordinary Lives by Josef Škvorecký, my Czech suggestion. The novel takes place during two class reunions: the first, twenty years after the class graduated, in 1963, and the second thirty years later in 1996. Danny Smiricky’s loyalties are tested as secrets from the past are revealed. Other famous Czech authors include Milan Kundera, Patrik Ouředník, and Arnošt Lustig.
In the mood for something on the weirder side? Try out The Hall of the Singing Caryatids by Russian author Viktor Pelevin. After auditioning for the part as a singing geisha at a dubious bar, Lena and eleven other lucky girls are sent to work at a posh underground nightclub reserved exclusively for Russia’s upper-crust elite. They are to be a sideshow attraction to the rest of the club’s entertainment, and are billed as the famous singing caryatids. Things only get weirder from there. For those who would like something a little tamer, I suggest Boris Akunin, Vladimir Sorokin, and the late Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.
Our last stop is Greece. One of my recent finds is Stolen Time by Vangelis Hatziyannidis. A young student is selected by a group of five eccentric artists intrigued by his apparent intelligence and agrees to spend two weeks with them in a Greek hotel. The group claims it only wishes to interview him to probe the depths of his intellect, but as the sect begins to inquire into the young man’s past, the young man discovers mysterious writing on a dresser drawer and begins to uncover the secrets of the hotel–and of the group itself. You may also enjoy the books of Panos Karnezis and Nikos Kazantzakis.
Phew! Now I need to rest, and maybe watch a game. Or two. Hurrah! Hurrah! Die Deutschen die sind da!