findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the category “Reviews”

Poetry Review: May Sarton

MaySartonMay Sarton did her best to become a household name. At her death in 1995, she had written 53 books: 19 novels, 17 books of poetry, 15 nonfiction works including her acclaimed journals, 2 children’s books, a play, and some screenplays. She ran away to join the theatre aged seventeen, went bankrupt and switched to writing, was friends with Elizabeth Bowen, had tea regularly with Virginia Woolf, translated from the French with Louise Bogan. Her early work was highly acclaimed, then she fell out of fashion, though never quite out of print. Her reputation spread more through word of mouth, on college campuses and amongst feminists (especially after she came out as a lesbian in 1965). Towards the end of her life, she became better known for her frank discussion of loneliness and aging in her non-fiction.

And yet she is relatively little-known outside the world of poets and feminists. Gertrude Stein, with her meagre output and difficult style, is better-known as a grande dame of literature than May Sarton. Sarton herself blamed this on her refusal to ‘play ball’, because she did not buy into the academic world of teaching poetry or do the rounds at writers’ conferences. However, as I read her collected poems, I also thought that maybe her poetic style has something to do with it.

Her style is too simple (deceptively so), for those who like their feelings to be raw and overpowering, or else carefully hidden in layers of metaphor. She is not experimental or loud. In fact, she reminds me of a favourite middle-aged aunt: at one with nature, supremely cultured and civilised,  a delightful conversationalist, but a bit old-fashioned and unadventurous in poetic form. Yet a multitude of emotions – all human emotion – is contained within the seemingly tame confines of her verse.  All of the big themes of life: truth, beauty, love, loneliness, fear, ageing, illness are treated here. They are just not paraded about on a baroque stage, carrying out elaborate theatrical gestures.

There is pure joy at loving and being loved, careful observations of nature:

And then suddenly in the silence someone said,

“Look at the sunlight on the apple tree there shiver:

I shall remember that long after I am dead.”

Together we all turned to see how the tree shook,

How it sparkled and seemed spun out of green and gold,

And we thought that hour, that light and our long mutual look

Might warm us each someday when we were cold.

And I thought of your face that sweeps over me like light,

Like the sun on the apple making a lovely show,

So one seeing it marveled the other night,

Turned to me saying, “What is it in your heart? You glow.”

Not guessing that on my face he saw the singular

Reflection of your grace like fire on snow -

And loved you there.

CollectedPoemsMany of her poems are love poems, and also suffused with prayer and spirituality, which perhaps are topic which have fallen slightly out of fashion. Her emotions are carefully restrained and calibrated, rather than given free rein: the ‘stiff upper lip’ is perhaps not perceived as an asset in poetry. And of course, she loved classical poetic forms, although she was able to (and did, on occasion) write exhilarated bursts of free verse. In an interview, she talks about the power of metre and beat in poetry: ‘The advantage of form, far from being “formal” and sort of off-putting and intellectual, is that through form you reach the reader on this subliminal level. I love form. It makes you cut down. Many free verse poems seem to me too wordy. They sound prose-y, let’s face it…. Very few free verse poems are memorable.’

There is indeed great musicality in her poetry, as well as references to music throughout:

We enter this evening as we enter a quartet

Listening again for its particular note

The interval where all seems possible,

Order within time when action is suspended

And we are pure in heart, perfect in will.

Some poems (especially later ones) seem little more than jotted down observations, and she does not always resist the temptation of a lazy cliché or facile rhyme. At times, she even has a tendency to preach (in her poems written at the time of the Vietnam War for instance). Yet there is no doubting the sincerity of her introspection, her powers of observation of nature, or how seriously she does take her poetry. Some of her descriptions of the essence of poetry will make any poet shiver in recognition:

It is not so much trying to keep alive

As trying to keep from blowing apart

From inner explosions every day. [...]

Prisoner at a desk? No, universe of feeling

Where everything is seen, and  nothing mine

To plead with or possess, only partake of,

As if at times I could put out a hand

And touch the lion head, the unicorn.

Not showy, not immediately life-changing, but the kind of poetry that seeps through your pores gradually. I’m glad that Open Road Media are reissuing her Collected Poems. I’m also curious to read her journals now and hope they are still in print. The kind of writing to savour, to dip in and out of, like going to have tea every week with your favourite aunt.

One interesting final point about the difficulty of reading poetry ebooks.The publisher comments on this in the introduction: how, because of the shape-shifting qualities of electronic type, it is hard to see the exact visual layout of lines as the poet imagined them. I also find it much harder to remember certain poems or find them again to quote from them. I think I will stick to print copies for poetry collections of more than 1-2 poems in the future.

 

Three Book Reviews: A Matter of Empathy

Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older, but I find it easier to relate to something or someone in most books nowadays. I can even empathise with characters described as ‘weak’, ‘silly’ or ‘unlikeable’. Perhaps because I am that myself! At least part of the time… Perhaps we are all much more fragmented, at conflict, darker, ineffectual than we like to think. Perhaps there are masks which we never take off, even in the privacy of our own rooms, for fear that we have to face a gawping void in the mirror. So here are three books I’ve finished recently, and I freely admit that all of them contain elements that I can relate to.

Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, www.salon.com

Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, http://www.salon.com

Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs

Nora Eldridge is full of anger: from the spilling, thrilling outburst at the beginning to the more constructive anger at the end of the novel. She spouts invectives and hints at bleeding wounds, but then the style calms down a little. She becomes once more the ‘woman upstairs’, which in the author’s interpretation is not the ‘mad woman in the attic’ (the uncontrollable feminine power), although of course it slyly references that. In this case, it is the unobtrusive, undemanding, invisible neighbour that you barely speak to, who never complains, who lives in the service of others. So this book is a revolt of the meek. No more little nice girl! Anger becomes a productive force, as, in the wake of disappointments, failures and betrayal, Nora becomes convinced that the best revenge is to show others what she is capable of.  She will discard the paralysing sadness and fear or cautiousness which has limited her life thus far. She has spent too long in the Fun House, hoping to find the exit to an authentic life, and seeing nothing but doors closing one after another. Nora will become as ruthless and single-minded as is necessary to pursue her artistic ambitions:

I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me – before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.

While this life-affirming finale is uplifting, I can also see how the rest of the novel could be unappealing to an American audience. The weakness, ineffectual dithering and self-obsessed over-analysis of the main character with her rant of self-pity is a taboo in American society, with its emphasis on taking action, positivism, the ‘you are what you think’ outlook. Nora is not old, but she is starting to resign herself to an unproductive, unfulfilled life, especially in the stifling world of pretentious academia and modern art around Boston and Cambridge, Mass. The descriptions of her small shoe-box creations and the contrast to her friend Sirena’s grandiose, over-the-top installations are more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Are they really innovative, or just jumping on the fashion bandwagon? And the name Sirena itself: surely not a coincidence, reminding us of the dangerous, addictive song of the Sirens. To guard against it, Odysseas has to tie himself to the mast and plug his sailors’ ears with wax.

One other criticism of the book that I’ve come across is that, while it is beautifully nuanced and well written, nothing much happens, i.e. it is too literary. However, I found it exciting, beautifully paced in crescendo, with a dark sense of menace. Something bad is going to happen, but who and what will provoke it?

My-Criminal-WorldHenry Sutton: My Criminal World

This will have writers of all persuasions, but especially crime writers, squirming in recognition. Poor David Slavitt is a mid-list author, whose popularity is dipping, slaving over his latest over-due novel, intimidated by the successes of his academic wife and the disdain of her colleagues. Agent-pecked as well as hen-pecked, he goes about his everyday tasks, trying to sort out plot twists between bouts of laundry and childcare, balancing his anxieties about the required level of goriness in his novels with worries about his wife’s possible infidelity. At times his mild ineffectuality and ego are so exasperating that you are willing him to confront his wife openly about adultery. You find yourself hoping that he will act out on his murderous tendencies. The interviews at the police station, in which David is more concerned about his writing career than in proving his innocence, are absolutely hilarious.

‘We’re talking about Julie Everett, your literary agent?’

‘Yes. Though, frankly, I’m not sure for how much longer. As I think I implied earlier, my career’s not going brilliantly at the moment. I narrowly missed winning a big award. And Julie’s not very keen on what I’m currently working on. [...] She doesn’t think I’ve been promoting myself properly. You see, the market’s changed a lot recently.[.. .] And I suppose, to be honest, I’ve made a few mistakes.’

Although the ending felt a little forced and rushed to me, I found this to be a nuanced and very funny novel, not taking itself too seriously, yet with a rather profound underlying message about insecurity, delusion and reality.

StelaBrinzeanuStela Brinzeanu: Bessarabian Nights

You may wonder what I recognise of myself in this sad story about sex-trafficking of women by a Moldovan writer now living in London. It is not the beautiful Ksenia (the girl that is forced into prostitution while on holiday in Italy) that I identify with, but with her ‘blood sister’, Larisa, who is studying in England. Together with their third childhood friend, Doina, she moves heaven and earth to find out what has happened to Ksenia when she goes missing. Larisa represents a cultural bridge between East and West, feeling equally out of place in both worlds, repelled by the backward superstitions in her home country (described as a place where men are either drunk or violent or frequently both), yet not quite fully accepted or integrated into the new culture.

The British TV drama ‘Sex Traffic’ (2004) did a fantastic job of showing both the individual stories of two Moldovan sisters and the global tentacles of the human-trafficking business. However, not all that much has changed since then.  Human trafficking continues to be a major problem in Moldova and, although the government has recently cooperated more with NGOs to tackle the issue, it does not comply with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. So this is an important story which needs to be heard. Again.

The title is a play on the ‘Arabian Nights’ theme, and Brinzeanu does come across as a Scheherazade of our times, eager to share stories about her little-known country on the fringes of Europe. This is a debut novel and the author is so brimful of stories that the book feels crammed with facts. The reader may well feel at times lectured at, even if it is disguised as dialogue. The book is at its most successful in those dream-like flashbacks describing the girls’ childhood in a Moldovan village where time seems to have stood still. Perhaps, like Scheherazade, the author needs to learn to select the most relevant scenes and polish those to perfection. There are a lot of gems in there, but they sometimes get lost in the multiple anecdotes.

So over to you, dear reader! Are there any books that have particularly resonated with you lately, any characters you have related to, or does an unlikeable character make you want to stop reading? 

 

 

 

 

Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir là-haut

AurevoirFrance’s most prestigious literary prize is the Prix Goncourt. It’s awarded each year in November, and (like the Booker in the UK and the Pulitzer in the US) there is much suspense beforehand… and much dismay and controversy afterwards. 2013 saw the win of Pierre Lemaitre’s World War One epic. I had previously read (and enjoyed) Lemaitre’s crime fiction and it seems to me that much of the consternation about his win has to do with genre snobbery. This book is just too readable, too much of a page-turner to be a novel of real literary merit… it’s just not ‘difficult’ enough.

And that is exactly why I loved it. It makes sense of a difficult subject like the end of the First World War, with its inglorious aftermath of black marketeering, petty cons, appalling treatment of war veterans, rising materialism and cynicism. The first sentence immediately sets the scene:

Ceux qui pensaient que cette guere finirait bientôt étaient tous morts depuis longtemps. De la guerre, justement.

Those who thought the war would soon be over had all died long ago. In the war, of course. (my transl.)

But it also shows just how difficult this book will be to translate. The short ‘de la guerre’ could mean ‘because of’ the war, ‘from’ the war or ‘in’ the war. The title of the book itself is taken from the farewell letter written by a young soldier Jean Blanchard, who was unjustly executed for treason in 1914: ‘Till we meet again (up there), my dear wife…’. I will be very curious to see what catchy but faithful title the publisher will be able to come up with.

In the very last days of the war, the egotistic Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pradelle (that double-barrel name is very important to him and says it all about this unpleasant character) orders a pointless patrol and attack which nearly kills two soldiers, the artistic Edouard and the practical Albert. Edouard saves Albert’s life and, in turn, Albert tends to Edouard in hospital. The latter is so badly injured that he can no longer talk and becomes hooked on morphine. He wants to disappear, to take on another identity, even if that causes distress to his family, and Albert helps him with that. This odd couple then try to survive in a post-war world which is all rhetoric of gratitude towards the ‘poilus’ (the soldiers of WW1), but in practice has little kindness or compensation for them, and makes no effort to help them to reintegrate into society. So they embark upon a rather desperate con trick to make money, but they turn out to be nothing like as ruthless as their nemesis Pradelle proves to be with the war graves.

pierrelemaitreMuch of this story is true, but the author brings forth his meticulous research with a light touch. The characters and the situations flow with the ease, satire and excitement of a soap opera. But a soap opera that is more reminiscent of Balzac and Zola, with macabre moments, very dark humour and real cruelty, as well as rather beautifully written passages. A book which reminds us that wars can turn any of us into monsters, and that is consequences are prolonged and unsavoury. It’s a long book, but it just swept me along, made me growl and laugh (bitterly) and cry. Lemaitre really is a master storyteller.

MacLehose Press has already published two of Lemaitre’s crime novels (see my reviews here and here) and hopes to bring out a translation of this book too soon. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the author and was entranced with his answers.

Three British Crime Novels in a Row

This doesn’t often happen to me, but over the past 10 days I’ve read three British authors in a row (albeit with English, Welsh and Scottish roots, so a good attempt at some diversity). This is what comes of letting my children choose the next book for me to read on the tablet! They go by titles alone and, being at that zombie-loving age, of course they wanted something hinting at death or goriness. So I’ve read: Where the Dead Men Go, Someone Else’s Skin and Talking to the Dead.

Image from pcadvisor.com

Image from pcadvisor.com

Each excellent in its own way (never let it be said my boys don’t have good taste!)

It struck me that the first is very macho and masculine (gangland Glasgow, after all), the second is feminine (whatever that means; in this case it addresses issues such as domestic abuse and features a female lead detective), while the third is ambidextrous (written by a man, featuring a female detective… but one who displays very few traits which we might have been conditioned to label feminine).

LiamMcIlvanneyLiam McIlvanney: Where the Dead Men Go

It’s hard to make your mark in the Scottish crime writing landscape, crowded as it is with giants such as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Denise Mina and William McIlvanney. The last of these is the father of Liam, so it is hard not to compare the two, especially since they both deal with gangs, tough guys and drugs in Glasgow. Yet the younger McIlvanney makes his own mark with this very topical, thrilling view of a Scotland on the brink of independence, getting ready to host the Commonwealth Games in 2014, and a newspaper industry on its last dying gasp. Reporter Gerry Conway is a lovely creation: morbidly curious, dogged in the pursuit of truth, yet also a loving and very involved father. When Gerry’s younger colleague goes missing and is later found dead, he’s left wondering just how shallow Glasgow’s veneer of modern respectability is. This is taut, muscular writing – not as philosophical or lyrical as McIlvanney Père, perhaps, but as dark and addictive as very strong coffee.

SarahHilarySarah Hilary: Someone Else’s Skin

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read Sarah Hilary’s shorter fiction: she really can write, but this accomplished debut novel proves that she is a long-distance runner as well as a sprinter. This novel skillfully handles a disturbing topic (domestic violence), and introduces a resourceful if rather troubled lead investigator, Marnie Rome. Her own parents were stabbed to death by their foster son five years earlier, so she has traumatic flashbacks when she witnesses a knife-attack at a women’s shelter. However, she is a successful, no-nonsense DI and swiftly gets down to business to get a reliable account of what happened from the other women at the shelter.  Meanwhile, she is also trying to convince a young Asian girl to give evidence against her brothers, who nearly succeeded in blinding her with bleach.

It’s a fast-moving plot, with plenty of unexpected twists to keep you on your toes, but where the story really comes alive for me is in its depiction of hidden suffering. How we can never really know what lies beneath the apparently calm surface of a house, a marriage, a family. How we can never really put ourselves into someone else’s skin. And how most of the women at the shelter where Marnie and her team conduct their investigation would ideally like to be somebody else, start a new life, but are not sure how.

TalkingtotheDeadHarry Bingham: Talking to the Dead

The first in the Fiona Griffiths series, introducing a very unusual, highly intelligent but socially not at all well-functioning heroine. (We later find out she suffers from an unusual form of post-traumatic stress disorder called Cotard’s Syndrome, but this is only hinted at in this book.) The crime itself and the investigation that follows are solid enough (and the child victim whose head is crushed by a Belfast sink is very affecting), but there is a feeling of déjà vu about the plot.  The final revelations about Fiona’s past did not catch me entirely by surprise, either, but the big plus of this book is the heroine herself. The author is onto a winner with her: she reminds me in so many ways of Saga Norén,  the ever so possibly autistic Swedish investigator in the recent series ‘The Bridge’. Despite her yearning to belong to ‘Planet Normal’, Fi is eccentric, rebellious, has a problem following orders and cannot really understand other people’s feelings (or her own). She does get herself into some very dangerous situations, almost implausibly so, but it all makes sense to her at the time. I am stunned at how well a sane male forty-something author can enter the mind of a young disturbed woman.

I also liked the secondary characters: Fi’s parents, her colleagues, her potential love interest, and the indomitable Lev (surely Ukrainian?).  I will certainly be reading more in this series simply to see what Fi does next.

 

 

 

Reading with a Theme: Bad Mothers

Every now and then I happen to read a couple of books with a similar theme and then I am tempted to seek out a few more with the same theme. So I end up with a mix of fiction and non-fiction, memoir and even poetry about a topic, which gets me thinking about my own thoughts, feelings and experiences. This time the topic was: bad mothers. Or perhaps it should be called just ‘mothers’, since, as a friend of mine often says:

No matter what you do or don’t do as a mother, you will get blamed for everything anyway.

PaulaDalyPaula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You?  – may be a question most mothers ask themselves at some point during their lives (or at least once a week in my case), but the mother in question is relatively blameless compared to the ones I’ll mention below. Lisa Kallisto: she was just so overwhelmed – this is what it will say on her headstone. And who cannot relate to that? We can all empathise with her as she tries to juggle work and family life, so many plates to keep spinning. Is it any wonder that one of them may occasionally fall? Yet when one of those ‘plates’ is the daughter of your friend, who was supposed to be staying for a sleepover with your own daughter, but now has disappeared, is it any wonder you blame yourself? A seriously addictive page-turner, because it is so relatable for any mother.

Mother Mother by Koren Zailckas has been described as crime fiction, but really it’s not the mystery which keeps you reading. It’s the sheer horror of an incredibly dysfunctional family. Yet this too offers searing moments of recognition. I wish I could say I view these moments with humour (or shocked dismay), but in fact they rip open scabs on wounds I had long thought healed. Or wounds that I’ve refused to acknowledge thus far, wounds which I thought I had inflicted on myself. Although I usually despise labels and their limitations, it does help that I now have a name for something which may be involuntary, a kind of illness rather than deliberate malevolence: narcissistic mother. And no, I’m not talking about myself!

MothermotherThere is a lot of melodrama in this book, deliberate switching of viewpoints to increase the suspense, but they also help to provide a more rounded picture of Josephine, the mother in question. A monster? Yes, perhaps, but not entirely unappealing, even if her young son Will is perhaps not the most reliable of narrators. But then, who is? I would ideally have liked to see how outsiders perceived her – we only have a hint of that with the comments of the social worker who comes to talk to daughter Violet at the hospital.

This is not an easy book to read, it’s a painful dissection of dysfunctional families and the ways in which we torture and manipulate each other (sometimes with the best of intentions). I found the portrayal of Will and the ineffective husband/father particularly well written. Too little too late comes to mind, and I shudder to think how the reverberations of the events described in this book will continue to affect the protagonists for many years still to come.

Anna Gold : Bienvenue (in French)

Bienvenue_V1At the bedside of her dying mother, the narrator, Léa Blum, seeks to come to terms with her Jewish heritage and her estranged family. A story as old as the hills – the teenage girl who rebels against her upbringing, finds an unsuitable boyfriend (in this case, unsuitable because he is not Jewish) and falls pregnant. Yet the way in which the full extent of her mother’s betrayal is gradually revealed is particularly painful. Léa repeatedly tries to break through her mother’s coldness and lovelessness, tries to understand and forgive it as a trait of a Holocaust survivor, but finally she gives up. She seeks refuge instead in her literary creation, Sonia van Zijde, a Dutch Marrano Jew living in 17th century Amsterdam, who becomes friends with Rembrandt and his wife Saskia, and through them gets to know the philosopher Spinoza. The contrast between the multiple lives of the narrator: the one she was expected to live, the one she did live and the one she would have liked to live, all meet here, as we alternate between Sonia’s story and her own. Perhaps a little predictable as a story, but it ends on a hopeful note.

Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (to be translated and published soon as ‘Nothing Holds Back the Night’)

DelphinedeViganThis is not a Mommy Dearest portrayal of a monster, but a daughter and a writer trying to understand and interpret her own childhood, that of her mother, the mother’s manic depression and an unusual but rather attractive family. There is a lot of love and forgiveness in this book, a lot of painful honesty, as well as a meditation on whether we can ever be truthful in our representations of reality, or just how reliable memory is. Unlike all of the other books on this theme, this is most resolutely memoir rather than fiction (however thinly disguised some of the other fiction is). Of course memoir is interpretation, it is fiction too, and this book is not just a family history and the portrait of a troubled mother, but also a meditation on the nature of memory, of how stories are constructed and retold, of the power and dangers of silence. Out of all the conflicting family accounts from her mother’s brothers and sisters, which will the author choose as ‘the truth’? And ultimately, is there ever a single truth, can we ever know what drives a person to despair, depression and suicide?

Delphine’s mother Lucile was a beautiful child model, the third child in a large and apparently picture-perfect family.  Yet the family was touched by tragedy: the childhood death of a younger brother was just the start. Lucile marries far too early, has children when she is barely out of her teens and soon finds herself struggling to make a life for herself and her daughters as a largely uneducated single mother in Paris. As her moodiness and occasional sadness descends into delusions and paranoia, the girls struggle to anticipate her behaviour and surmount their own fears. Could anything or anyone have saved Lucile from suicide? Could her life have been better? And can we ever doubt her love for her children?

For a more detailed review of this book, see this fantastic blog.

NightRainbowClaire King: The Night Rainbow

Another depressed mother, another account of a potentially damaged childhood, this time a fictional story seeped in the sun of Southern France, as seen through the eyes of a precocious child narrator, Pea (nearly six). This could be a very dark and sad book in terms of subject matter: the rather horrific neglect of Pea and her younger sister Margot, the infuriating apathy of a severely depressed, heavily pregnant  mother struggling to overcome her own grief, the well-meant interference of other villagers, the hilarious but also dangerous scrapes the girls get themselves into (a scorpion in a jar, a haircut which goes terribly wrong). Yet all of these are counter-balanced by a delicious freedom and poetic description of country life which few children are able to enjoy nowadays. The smells, sounds, textures of the fields of hay, of the market-place, the taste of freshly-picked peaches, the breathless run through to the treehouse. It was a book filled with nostalgia, just like the de Vigan book, evoking a lost paradise (the days when Papa was alive and Maman still used to laugh, hug and cook), but here we are allowed to hope in a better ending, an improved life for all.

Have you read any of these books or others about ‘bad mothers’? And how do you feel about themed reading? Does it get too much after a while to read about the same topic, or is it fascinating to see the many different takes on it? Motherhood is one of those topics which never gets stale (although in this case it did get a bit depressing, even if I interspersed them with other reading), nor will it ever be elucidated. Complex, mysterious, complicated, joyous and troubling: our relationship with our mother is one topic which is never likely to disappear from literature.

For the Love of Your Dog

NameoftheDogHow far would you go for animal rights? In the book ‘In the Name of the Dog’, Takeshi Koizumi is prepared to go all the way. When his best childhood friend is destroyed in a dog pound, his whole life becomes a quest for justice and revenge. Along the way, he exposes the inhumane conditions of animal shelters (I use the term ‘shelter’ loosely) in Japan, as well as the cruelty and hypocrisy regarding animal rights in one of the richest countries in the world.

This may sound like a compelling thriller, but it is also a true story. Koizumi is still languishing in a Japanese prison and facing the death sentence as we speak. If the story sounds vaguely familiar to you, it may be that you read about the crimes he committed back in 2008 in Japan, or because I’ve mentioned this book before on my blog. I had read it in the original Romanian. Some of you expressed interest in the story but were not quite prepared to learn Romanian to read the book! I am happy to report that the author, Claudia Sumiya, has not been idle and has translated and published the book in English. It is now available on Amazon (see the links below). Full disclosure: Claudia is a friend and former classmate of mine, and she is also a successful writer with many published books to her name, most of them set in Japan, which she has now made her home.

claudiagolea

Photocredit: psychologies.ro

The English edition is more complete and well-rounded. It offers a contrast between the unhappy, obsessive life of Koizumi and the author’s own happy life with her pets. Told in the form of a series of letters between the author and the incarcerated man, it is also the story of an awakening to the darker, crueller side of human society and a gradual commitment to veganism and animal activism. An added twist: this links well with the eco-warriors narrative thread in the latest series of ‘The Bridge’. A book which could spark an interesting debate.

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation

AftermathThere seem to be an awful lot of books out there with ‘Aftermath’ in their titles, but I am referring to the one by Rachel Cusk, published in 2012 to a howl of indignation from many readers and critics. In it she talks with unadorned consternation and painful honesty about the breakdown of her marriage and its consequences. And she talks about it at length. Every passing mood is recorded – too much for some tastes, but it may help many women who are struggling to come to terms with separation. I am not usually much of a fan of memoir-writing (certainly not of ‘misery memoirs’) and yet I rather liked this one.

Of course it is self-centred and self-absorbed, but is it ‘infuriating and narcissistic’? Of course it represents a small sliver of life: the story of a rather privileged, well-educated woman who can come across as elitist. She does not have to go out and work night shifts as a single mother to support her children. She does not have to take her ex-husband to court for neglecting to pay child support. (On the contrary, he is the one demanding support from her, since he sacrificed his career to help raise the children. The bitterness is palpable in this section of the book and shows the battle of the sexes is still alive and well.) But does that make her pain any less valid, her struggles any more risible?

Cusk has been accused of blatant exhibitionism, but there is little detail here about what caused the collapse of the marriage. Instead, we find here a dissection of mind, heart and soul, sometimes a little fuzzy and self-justifying, but very often with scalpel-like precision. There are some interesting extended metaphors strewn throughout the book: comparisons with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; the failure of a cake she bakes for her mother’s birthday (‘the difference between what I could conceive of and what I could actually do’);  a bloody tooth extraction on the day the husband moves his possessions out of the house. These are the ‘distancing’ moments, when fiction is weaved into the fabric of the memoir, and when I feel the author is writing her best work.

There is collateral damage; the fine mesh of life is torn. He has caused unnecessary pain, and trauma to the other teeth.

Aftermath2What I found most touching were the descriptions of the effect the divorce had on her daughters. The author is constantly worried about how the separation and her own mood-swings will affect her children – it does, and it is described in a most sensitive way. It’s at these moments when Cusk becomes most alive: a mother ferocious with love, sad at the pain she has inflicted on her offspring, and nursing that eternal feeling of maternal guilt.

Conclusion: Not an easy read, but certainly a contrast to the grim crime fiction characteristic of my month of February.

Poetry Review: Drysalter

DrysalterI enjoy reading poetry very much, but seldom read it systematically, an entire volume of poems carefully conceived and published as an architectural creation by one single poet. And it’s even more rare that I actually review such a book when I do read it. So I’ll try to remedy this now.

Michael Symmons Roberts has won the Forward Prize for the best poetry collection of 2013 with ‘Drysalter’, a volume of 150 sonnet-like, rather metaphysical poems. But don’t be put off by its apparent obscurity: there are many beautiful, touching and immediately accessible poems in this volume.

I did not know what a drysalter was (an 18th century dealer in chemicals, salts and dyes, apparently), but there is a poem in this collection called ‘Wetsalter’, which speaks of all the pain and wounds an over-sensitive soul must endure. Perhaps the poet himself.

So here’s the rub: his salt, your skin.

He flays you first, then kneads it in.’

But then self-irony kicks in, there is no time nor patience for weeping and wailing:

but cured you are, prosciutto-man

your self preserved in perma-tan

It is this irreverent mix which makes such a strong initial impression: modern concepts, words with shock-factor writ large, technology creeping in at the seams and jostling alongside old-fashioned cadences, the psalmodic quality of the work, the titles and forms of the poems themselves, each perfectly executed on a single page. A rich tapestry of vocabulary, ranging from mentions of sonnets, cobalt, thou and portents to hymns dedicated to cars, photo-booths or karaoke machines.

There are echoes of John Milton or Donne to many of the verses: ‘essence of turmoil I plead and I pester’ or ‘you start and finish me, you’re my extent’ or ‘slowly, come slowly, o agents of despair/ paint the sky with portents, number my regrets’.  Just as you get caught in the beauty of the rhythm and the language, the poet turns suddenly towards the resolutely modern. ‘Email me the date’, he asks of you or states quietly ‘the resting actor hunts down his demons in the pool’.

There are three recurring themes or landscapes in this volume of poetry, all interconnected yet distinct.

1) A grey winter (English winter, which means relentless November most times), a landscape of storms, abandonment and ruins, with flaked brick walls, lit cars flashing by, but also a hint of hope, in the shape of wind-sorrell and willowherb growing amidst the concrete.

2) The desert, both physical and metaphorical: canyons with snakes and scorpions, the villas backing onto the empty, the crack that lets the desert in, tumbleweed rattling in the wind, the blanked, orphaned, vacant set of Hollywood life.

3) A post-apocalyptic world gouged by invisible fires, where you feel pursued by a guild of salters, both wet and dry, where none of the rules or normal signs make sense. You have to work out ‘what the sea could want from us’, you feel dessicated, as if ‘somebody is after me, gaining miles a day/ and unlike me they never stop to sleep.’

poetryfoundation.org

poetryfoundation.org

But it would be wrong to see just angst and despair in these grim landscapes, although the overall feel of these poems is grim and disquieting. There are some beautiful instances of trust and love, the comfort of personal relationships, such as in ‘The Vows’. Ultimately, it feels like Michael Symmons Roberts has tried to take a world which has broken into fragments ‘a world more fragile than we thought’ and put it back together to the best of his ability, with nothing wasted. There are many references to song, psalms and elegies in this collection, as a way of making sense of a world only partially perceived and understood. “Sing as if singing made sense,/ sing in the caves of your heart.’ He seeks to convey all the variety and richness of emotions, the original fury of words, a diversity of experiences until

…one day the world drops into your hands

like a bruised fruit, a-buzz with what you take

for wasps, but is in truth all human life.’

And, ultimately, is that not what all poetry is about? Trying to capture multitudes, forever seeking and asking questions, trusting to find and save a thin glimmer of truth for all time. A book to savour and return to, in times of plenitude and times of despair, like all good poetry.

February Reading: A Season of Grimness

I was offline for a couple of days and gathering my lists and reviews for February, when I realised that this short, dark month has provided me with quite a lot of grim reading. Not ‘grim’ in terms of the quality of the writing, since pretty much all of them have been very well written indeed. But the subject matter(s) has/have been relentless: child abductions, abuse, alcoholism, serial killers, cannibalism, mental illness, highly dysfunctional families, discrimination against immigrants… and an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Still, I managed to read 16 books this month, which is very good going, although I have fallen far behind in my reviewing.

1 Book Each in German and French:

Irena Brežná: Die undankbare Fremde

Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit – will be part of a larger post on mothers in fiction

5 Translated Books (and therefore worth knowing the translators’ names)

Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen: Nightmare in Burgundy, transl. Sally Pane (to be reviewed soon on CFL)

Pascal Garnier: The Front Seat Passenger (to be reviewed), transl. Jane Aitken

Shuichi Yoshida: Parade, transl. Philip Gabriel

Parade

Promising set-up: four young people who share a flat and seem to have nothing in common. Each is slightly off-kilter, dysfunctional, but not in a very obvious way. As a picture of disaffected youth, of the anonymity of city living, of friendships of the ‘chatroom type’ (even when people are living together) and of the darker side to Japanese society, it works perfectly. As a crime novel or even psychological thriller with a coherent story arc, it does not.

Pierre Lemaitre: Irène (to be reviewed), transl. Frank Wynne

Jung-Myung Lee: The Investigation (to be reviewed), transl. Chi-Young Kim

1 Non-Crime Book (More Science than Science Fiction)

Andy Weir: The Martian

Martian

Surprisingly technical, with a high level of scientific precision (and yet manages to keep it thrilling throughout). It really would make an excellent film. Lovely sense of humour of the main protagonist, plus a lot of the politics of NASA, the US and even China, keeps this lively.  Ultimately, however, this one felt just a bit too geeky to me. It didn’t have enough of the human/psychological elements to it.

4 Books from Crime Fiction Series

Elly Griffiths: The Outcast Dead (Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist)

Denise Mina: The Red Road (detective Alex Morrow)

Donna Leon: By Its Cover (Commissario Brunetti) – to be reviewed

Nicci French: Waiting for Wednesday (psychotherapist Frieda Klein)

NicciFrench

I might have known that Nicci French would not do a conventional crime fiction series. Don’t expect a police procedural (although police are involved) and don’t expect a self-contained story, as so many recurrent characters reappear and so many allusions are made to events in the previous two books. Yes, there is a distinct murder, plus an intriguing trail which could mean several more murders, but this is all much more about loss and bereavement, trauma and its psychological consequences.

4 Standalone Crime Novels (although at least 2 of them really stretch the boundaries of crime)

Lucie Whitehouse: Before We Met

Natalie Young: Season to Taste

Paula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You? – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

Koren Zailckas: Mother Mother – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

So many fantastic books this month, not a single turkey. A few frightened or even repelled me (The Red Road, Season to Taste, Mother Mother, Irène), most of them saddened me (even Donna Leon and the winemaker series were not so cosy this time round), so it was hard to choose my favourite. In the end, I opted for The Investigation, because it combines so many of my favourite things: poetry and mystery, Japanese history and the triumph of beauty and art over the most inhumane conditions.

I’m linking this to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme organised by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

Reading in German: The Ungrateful Stranger

Brezna

This is a book by a Czech writer who fled to Switzerland with her family as a teenager, during the brutal reprisals following the Prague Spring in 1968. But it is also the story of asylum seekers everywhere, of just how welcome they are made to feel, how grateful they are expected to be, how they cope with major cultural differences, how they learn (or don’t) to build new lives and new identities for themselves. Part novel, part memoir, it is written in a very candid way, showing not only the disappointments and discriminations of immigrant life, but also the naivety and sometimes mistaken obstinacy of the new arrival. Interwoven with the personal story of cultural adaptation of the young girl, we also have little vignettes of new immigrants and their misunderstandings with the social workers, the medical profession or the local authorities. The narrator has now integrated into Swiss society and acts as an interpreter for these people. These scenes are often deeply moving, sometimes quite funny, always highlighting the vulnerability of those who flee impossible conditions at home and try so hard to make something of their lives in a new country, yet fear losing their cultural identity. The host country and its people may be well-intentioned, but also often comes across as arrogant or patronising.
Irena Brežná has a style which is at once wryly humorous, indignant and yet also poetic. In the very first scene she describes how Swiss bureaucracy strips her of all the little wings and turrets (diacritical signs) from her name, as well as its feminine ending in -a.
‘You don’t need this fiddle-faddle here.’
He slashed my round, feminine ending and gave me the surname of my father and brother. The two of them just sat there speechless and allowed me to get crippled. What was I supposed to do with this bald, masculine name? I froze.
Then she is asked what she believes in (a scene which is repeated with another child at the end of the book).
‘A better world.’
‘Then you’re in the right place, little girl. Welcome!’
This was a very timely reminder of what it means to ‘become Swiss’, the week after Switzerland voted for curbing the rights of foreign workers. But I hope it will be translated into other languages, for wider circulation in a Europe of so-called free movement, where certain countries or ethnic groups are still maligned and political rhetorical fever runs high against foreign nationals who come to ‘take our jobs’ but also at the same time ‘claim all our benefits’. A painful book for both immigrants and their hosts, but one which deserves to spark deeper, more authentic conversations.

Post Navigation