#WITMonth: Lucy Fricke’s Middle-Aged Thelma and Louise Story

Although I am tagging this with #WITMonth, German author Lucy Fricke has not been translated into English, even though she is no writing newbie. The novel Töchter (Daughters) is her fourth and I’d heard quite a rumble of excitement about her previous one, Takeshi’s Skin. I had Daughters shipped over from Germany following rave reviews not only in the German press but also on the blog of Kaffeehaussitzer, who always keeps me abreast of the German publishing scene. So let me be upfront about it: I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it deserved quite such high accolades.

It is a road trip novel about two indomitable female friends, who at some point describe themselves as Thelma and Louise, except they are neither young, nor sexy, and not even oppressed. Martha and Betty have been friends for 20 years, ever since they first moved to Berlin. Both of them come from broken homes with disappearing fathers, and each of them has developed a different mechanism for coping with the trauma. Martha has married and is trying desperately to conceive via IVF before her 40th treatment (after which IVF is no longer available in Germany). Meanwhile, Betty avoids any commitment by being the proverbial rolling stone and rents her flat out in gentrified Kreuzberg via AirBnB while she travels.

Martha’s father, Kurt, with whom she has reached an uneasy truce in his old age, suddenly announces that he has a terminal illness and has made an appointment at a Swiss clinic to curtail his suffering. Could she please accompany him on his final journey? Martha, who has been unable to drive after a horrible accident some years previously, and who thinks this is a terrible idea anyway, appeals to her friend Betty. So the strange trio set off in Kurt’s clapped-out old car and this grim-sounding road trip soon takes on farcical proportions.

Author photo, credit Dagmar Morath.

As they wind their way through crappy hotels and appalling petrol station snacks, they are subjected to Kurt’s anti-feminist rants and then a sudden change of plan. Before he dies, Kurt would like to see once more his very first love, whom he lost to an Italian man on the shores of Laggo Maggiore. Betty has her own agenda for going back to Italy, since she bears a certain nostalgia for her Italian ‘Dad’, the one man from her mother’s endless collection of ‘uncles’ and ‘step-dads’ who was ever nice to her as a child.

While the themes of the story can be easily identified as friendship, parenthood, forgiveness and death, and the final message is the somewhat trite ‘you need to find joy in life itself’, this goes a bit further than typical chick lit. There is quite a bit of self-mocking going on, for one:

We spend three, four decades talking about men and then we talk about illnesses. What a waste of life!

Secondly, the story is (refreshingly) not about finding the perfect man and partner, but about making peace with fatherly imperfections and moving from being a daughter to being a full-grown woman. Beneath the comic moments and sharply satirical observations, there is an underlying sadness. The author also lampoons the road movie she is imitating in the book:

It’s not as if a road trip is necessarily full of surprises, the promise of love or sex or crime at every road station. That only happens in films and books, a coming of age story on the fast lane. In real life, things happen slowly. In real life, we spend years grieving over a single heartache, while on the big screen any loser, any clown can save or destroy the world within a couple of days, as long as he (sic!) believes in himself and his power.

Scene from Maren Ade’s film ‘Toni Erdmann’.

I think the reason this has been so rapturously received in Germany is perhaps that there is not much of a literary tradition there for Bridget Jones style humour. I actually liked it more than Bridget Jones, mostly for the social satire aspects. However, among the worthy, dramatic German women filmmakers such as Margarethe von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms of the New German Cinema period, there has always been a bit of a comedic tradition with directors and writers such as Doris Dörrie and, more recently, Maren Ade. I think this book fits in that slot – and can easily imagine it filmed (and perhaps improved in the process).

 

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Reading and Reviewing Summary 13/08/18

This is a continuation of yesterday’s weekly summary, which was threatening to become far too long. I’ve been trying to curb my book buying, but I cannot quite boast of unalloyed success in this matter. I have borrowed more from the library as well. Netgalley has also reared its ugly (I mean beautiful, tempting) head, although my feedback ratio is still only 60%.

Sent for review:

Jean-Claude Izzo: Chourmo

This was my introduction to Izzo and remains my favourite of his Marseille trilogy. Something which really shouts out in all its dark, joyous, dirty, tasty, messy glory ‘Mediterranean noir’. I have it in the French original edition and now I have it in a rather beautiful reissued edition from Europa. And it reminds me that I need to have a holiday in Marseille and Provence with my boys soon.

Books bought:

Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf started an extremely valuable thread about Malaysian writers on Twitter (and this is where Twitter’s power for the good is evident). You can catch the whole thread on her website. It inspired me to order at least a couple of the books she mentioned, as this is a part of the world I know very little about. I bought Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day, a family saga in gorgeous prose, and Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, with its links to Japan and the Second World War. Both are chunky books, which should keep me busy for a while. I also finally gave in and got myself another translation of The Brothers Karamazov, so this will be the fifth summer in which I attempt to read it…

Library loans:

Keeping in trend with the #WITMonth, I borrowed Norwegian crime writer Anne Holt’s Dead Joker (transl. Anne Bruce). Hanne Wilhelmsen is grumpy and exasperating at times, but ahead of the field in so many ways. I’m not going to have time to write a separate review of this book, but I read it in 2 days. Suffice it to say that it’s one of those ‘impossible’ crimes committed by a dead person, and that Hanne’s personal life also takes a turn for the worse.

I also got two very different books, one for a quick read and one because I admire the author’s willingness to experiment: Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer (bonus: location of Austria) and Nicola Barker’s Happy, which is a triumph of typography and graphic publishing.

Netgalley:

I couldn’t resist the Swiss mountaintop hotel location and the And Then There Were None plot similarities, so I downloaded Hanna Jameson’s The Last. The other novel I downloaded is also kind of apocalyptical, but fits in perhaps better with my fascination for ‘dictatorship literature’: The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke, one of the foremost contemporary Chinese writers.

Reviews:

I have reviewed three books for #WITMonth already, which is a proud achievement in just over a third of the month. Two are on my blog: the dark Norwegian tale of descent into mental hell Zero and a Brazilian attempt to reconstruct memories and reconcile oneself with the past I Didn’t Talk. The third review is of Teresa Solana’s irreverent and utterly zany collection of short stories The First Prehistoric Serial Killer on Crime Fiction Lover.

#WITMonth

I still need to review Lucy Fricke, but I have three more books lined up for Women in Translation, so am doing better than I had hoped (I think I planned about 5 overall for the month of August, and now it looks like I might have 8). I’m in the midst of Tsvetaeva’s diary, and will embark soon upon Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir and Veronique Olmi  La Nuit en vérité (untranslated).

 

Cultural Summary 12 Aug 2018

No big events or travels this week, but I did get to see four films – unheard of record! These are not serious or lengthy reviews, merely my initial reaction to them.

Ocean’s 8

I so much wanted to love this, and it was indeed an entertaining, frothy caper, but it felt rushed. There was too much focus on the heist itself and not enough on the relationship between the women, so it really was a bit of a waste having so many talented women together in the same room (literally and metaphorically).

45 Years

Superlative acting by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, a film that really takes its time and explores nuances. It’s almost a play – very few characters, mainly composed of the dialogue between the couple. The way the wife puts up with all the grumpiness and eccentricities of her husband (aside from the drama that befalls their marriage). One scene that critics have not commented upon but which really struck a chord with me was that scene with Kate helping out on a tourist tour on the Norfolk broads – and all the visitors are old women. So many people stay in an unsatisfactory marriage for fear of being alone in old age – and yet for most women that will be the case anyway. Made me glad that I only wasted 20 years on a marriage instead of 45…

Mary Shelley

Luminous performance by the two young leads – Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth, but full of historical and biographical inaccuracies which irritated me. I can see the point of some of them, how they were used to heighten dramatic structure. For instance, Mary did not meet Shelley in Scotland and knew from the start that he was married, since he came to dinner with his wife at her father’s house. She had more than one child who died in infancy. Others elements were excluded because they were inconvenient truths – even nowadays. Her relationship with her half-sister, Claire Claremont, was not quite as loving and caring as portrayed and there was a lot of jealousy there (plus, there was another half-sister on her mother’s side who also fell in love with Shelley and committed suicide). Shelley’s first wife had two children with him and fell pregnant at the same time as he was embarking upon his relationship with Mary.

Other film choices are harder to understand. Why use a boring generic manor house instead of the actual Villa Diodata on Lake Geneva? Lord Byron was camp rather than charismatic – Tom Sturridge has the looks and acting chops to make him more subtly menacing and attractive, but the part was not designed that way. Also, the group did actually get to read their stories in the evening in 1816 and also got caught in a storm on the lake which is like a premonition of Shelley’s untimely death.  Most annoying: the interpretation of Frankenstein as being about a woman feeling abandoned is a bit simplistic. There is a lot more depth there: social commentary about how we treat outsiders, science vs. humanism, the dangers of trying to play God etc.

Mamma Mia – Here We Go Again

Question: with so many Skarsgård offspring in the acting profession, why couldn’t any of them have played their father as a young man? A missed opportunity there. Other than that – well, it’s incoherent, milking the franchise, but a jolly bit of musical fun.

No more room to tell you about my book haul this week, so I’ll post about it tomorrow!

Friday Fun: Sheds of Famous Writers

It seems that you don’t have to have an all-singing, all-dancing, all-mod-cons shepherd’s hut to write a book. Who’d have thunk that? Here are some garden sheds where magic happens.

Roald Dahl’s well-known writing shed in Buckinghamshire.
Philip Pullman seems to be working in your average garden shed from B&Q.
Cressida Cowell’s writing shed seems a little more romantic and airy. From Booktrust.
The interior of Neil Gaiman’s treetop shed, complete with dog.
Unnamed writer’s retreat from bobvila.com
Charles Dickens started the trend, with his Swiss chalet themed shed. (In spite of having an enormous library/study in the house as well).
Mark Twain’s octogonal shed was designed to resemble the pilot house of a Mississippi steam boat.
Joanne Harris often mentions her shed on Twitter, although it’s the imaginative rather than the physical one. Here it is on the Shedworking site.

 

#WITMonth: Beatriz Bracher – I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris

This book, which I received as my title for July for my Asymptote Book Club subscription, ticks a lot of boxes:  #WomeninTranslationMonth, #TranslationThurs, an abiding interest in Brazil and a secret (or not so secret) hankering for what might be called ‘dictatorship literature’, i.e. literature about living under a dictatorship. It is something I can relate to very easily, and am always curious to see how much of the experience is the same, regardless of where you are in the world, and how much is country (or dictator) specific.

The story is outwardly simple: In present-day Sao Paolo, Gustavo is a professor (and former school principal) who is now retiring, selling the old family home and moving to the countryside. He must clear out all the papers and personal belongings in the house. Meanwhile, a young woman called Cecilia is writing a novel set during the years of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964- 1984) and would like to hear his stories and impressions about that period. The problem is that Gustavo has been feeling guilty all his life about the part he may or may not have played in the death of his friend and brother-in-law, Armando. Both he and Armando had been arrested and tortured by the police in 1970, but only one of them survived that ordeal. Over the years, Gustavo has been trying to convince everyone around him (and even himself) that ‘he didn’t talk’ under torture, but it turns out that he was so tangential to the protest movement that anything he might have talked about would have been useless information anyway.

So Gustavo, who is by nature disorganised and forgetful, tries to make sense of the jumble of memories, his own papers and those of the rest of his family, of the ghostly apparitions of his parents, his friend Armando and his wife Eliana. There is a sharp contrast between the private man who felt he was often invisible or cast into second place in his family life and the much more opinionated Gustavo the teacher and school principal. His riffs on education and politics are among the most interesting digressions in the book. He claims he is reluctant to generalise but is quite trenchant in his opinions.

I really distrust this excessive formalization, disconnecting us from the world. Government bodies suffer from an absence of reality, not a surfeit of it… They think they are prevented from thinking by the crushing demands, the excesses of the world. But it’s the opposite… small strategies for specific cases.

Gustavo also knows his Portuguese literature and likes to bring in long quotes to support his theories. We catch brief glimpses of past moments when he started to doubt himself (hiding the fact that people are actually buried in cemeteries from his daughter, but that her mother is not buried in Brazil, for instance) but then he remonstrates with his memory, he adjusts and examines, ponders and reinterprets until he finds justification in everything.

Author photo from AuroraEco.br

Yet his memories are challenged by his brother Jose’s writings. Jose grew up in the same household, in the same circumstances, and yet his life took a very different trajectory, he is gay and became a very different type of character. Gustavo feels betrayed and excluded in the conversations he has with his brother and in those fragments of his brothers’ memoirs that he reads. Jose (and his younger sister Jussara) remind him of the period when he was at his weakest, but perhaps also reinforce his impression that he was always the outsider, that he never quite fitted in or made himself understood.

Those were confusing times, every utterance cut short, everyone suspected, I was always half-dirty and disheveled, returning to the home I’d left four years before… it was I who was the stranger there and everywhere else.

A chorus of voices assault Gustavo and he argues with some, talks over others, sighs and cries with the rest. The very words ‘voice/speak/talk’ appear with almost obsessive frequency throughout the novel. Gustavo tries to regain the upper hand and perhaps he does, in a way, because on the last few pages, he remembers – as if in a dream – a conversation he had with his father shortly before his death. And that conversation casts the whole story in a different light. This is the story he wants to tell, he decides.

What the author tells us, however, is that in the end, there is always going to be a discrepancy between private and public truth, between different personal interpretations of the past. In the end, your story is what others make of it.

 

 

WWWednesday: What are you reading on 8 Aug 2018?

I only get around to doing it approximately once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Current:

For review:

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland

From being a very dark, existentialist writer, Finnish author Tuomainen has evolved to become one of the funniest noir writers around – yes, black humour, sometimes even slapstick. The thought of Finland’s beaches becoming the next hot tourist destination doesn’t seem so far-fetched this long hot summer, the writing is sharp and there are plenty of dead bodies, but also inept criminals, entrepreneurs who’ve seen too much Baywatch and groaningly recognisable house renovation situations to keep you entertained along the way.

For #WITMonth:

Marina Tsvetaeva: Moscow Diaries 1917-22

How do you stay sane when the world you knew is collapsing around you, when you are struggling to survive and feed your children, when there seems to be no point in producing literature anymore?

Recently Read:

Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk

Asymptote Book Club title for July was perfectly timed to arrive just before #WITMonth. Gustavo, a former school principal and university lecturer, is ‘downsizing’. The family house is being sold and he is moving out of Sao Paolo. As he goes through the paperwork, old memories resurface: of his family, his friendships, his pedagogical beliefs and how all of these fared under the military junta in Brazil. I’m planning to review this one very shortly, perhaps tomorrow.

Next:

I’ve got a craving to read something in a different language. I’ve recently finished reading a German book (which will also be reviewed shortly for #WITMonth), but I’d like to settle down with a French one. I’ve got a Veronique Olmi that I haven’t touched yet, or some Swiss Romande authors.

And Melissa Beck, classicist and avid reader, who blogs as The Bookbinder’s Daughter, has very nearly convinced me I should The Brothers Karamazov another go. This is my lasting shame: I love Dostoevsky and yet I’ve never been able to finish this book. Perhaps a different translation might do the trick. Fifth time lucky? It really gets going after the first 500 pages or so, I understand.

 

 

 

Cultural Events and Book Haul Summary 5th August 2018

Not quite sure what the tower is for, but it certainly makes it easier to spot the theatre from wherever you are in Stratford.

This week was simply working flat out and getting home at 8 p.m. – so much for my relaxation week without the boys! However, there was one event from the previous week, when I was attending a course in Warwick, which I didn’t get to write about. I went up there the evening before, stayed at an absolutely charming AirBnB in Stratford-upon-Avon and went to the RSC’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Although I’ve been to Stratford before (as a bookwormish child, I dragged my mother there on my first trip to England in my early teens; as a bookwormish adult, I dragged my freshly-minted husband there as soon as we signed the papers at the registrars’), I’d never seen a play there and the theatre looked nothing like what I remembered it from nearly two decades ago. I later learnt that it has been extensively refurbished since.

Portrait of the Man Himself in Lego bricks

It must be hard to think of a new way in which to present Shakespeare’s best-known plays – although it was rather sweet to hear a young girl say tearfully on the way out ‘I wasn’t expecting that ending’ – but this production certainly went for the modern and diverse approach. The Capulets and Montagues are two rival gangs (although not along racial lines, unlike West Side Story). The cast was very diverse, and so were their accents (although at times that made it even harder to understand the text). I really liked the star-crossed lovers: Romeo was so obviously young and rather naive, quick to anger, even quicker to fall in love, while Juliet was clearly the driving force, fragile and young, but so much more mature. However, I did not like the way Mercutio was played (or is that because Mercutio is one of my favourite characters in Shakespeare?). I had no problems with Mercutio being portrayed as a butch lesbian in leather, but I think the director made the actress exaggerate those traits so much that all of Mercutio’s fey charm, loyalty and quicksilvery nature got lost.

All of my books arrived in one go this week – the poor postman could only stuff two through the front door and just flung the others over the side gate, hoping for the best (which is fine when it’s not rainy).

Felix Francis and Lin Anderson were unsolicited ARCs from publishers, which might be a bit of a waste of hardbacks in my case, as I am unlikely to get around to reviewing them. I finally got The House by the Lake, which has been calling to me for ages. Guy Savage’s recent review tipped me over into ordering it, especially since I have Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, which is also about a house witnessing Germany’s history over the past century. So I will read the two together.

It was on Twitter that I heard about Frangello’s A Life in Men, someone saying it was one of the books that deserved to be better known, so I will persevere with it, although the title alone is enough to set my teeth on edge. It sounds a little bit like Eat Pray Love, but for younger people and with a lot more sex. Last but not least, the two at the top I bought because Influx Press was having a sale. Clare Fisher’s How the Light Gets In is in fact a flash fiction collection about modern Britain, while The Foreign Passion shows us Europe through the eyes of a non-European in equally short vignettes.