Back from holidays and sooo much work to catch up on (as well as reviews). Needless to say, I did not get quite as much writing and reading done this past week of ‘real holiday’, because I did not spend all my time on the beaches below (more’s the pity!).
Luckily for my reading/writing projects, I only had one week ‘off’. This summary represents two months’ worth of reading, because the school holidays here spread over July and August.
Women in Translation Month
In August I spent most of my time reading women in translation, trying to rely on books that I already had. I grouped some of them together for reviewing purposes (lack of time or because I thought they were made for each other), but here they are in the order I read them.
24 books, 15 in or from other languages, 9 in English, 8 crime fiction.
My best proportion of translated fiction ever, so the WIT initiative clearly works well even for those of us who believe we read a lot of women writers and a lot of translated fiction. I made many wonderful discoveries, and feel I have learnt something from each book, even though I may not have loved them all.
My crime pick of the month/holidays is Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless, because it is such a timely topic (about the way we treat asylum-seekers). My overall favourite read is also Finnish (with a Swedish twist): Tove Jansson. Well, she sets a very high bar… But honourable mentions go to Valeria Luiselli and Gøhril Gabrielsen. (I exclude F. Scott Fitzgerald from the competition.) My disappointment was the Veronika Peters book, which I thought was going to be a more in-depth account of a woman’s search for herself, for God, for inner peace or spirituality. Instead, it was an (entertaining enough) account of everyday life in a convent, with all its rivalries, good and bad bits, but a lot more shallow than I expected – both the book and the narrator.
I have stuck to a diet of women writers for this holiday month. I just felt they spoke more to me in my present situation of juggler-in-chief, squabble-settler-by-default, not-quite-amusing-enough-adult-companion and fleeting-moments-of-inspiration-scribbler.
Despite the foreign-sounding names, the first two women writers are native English speakers (married to ‘those attractive foreigners’), so their books were written in English. Although I do hope they will be translated into other languages.
Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin
This is the third installment in the Kiszka and Kershaw series, which combines police procedural with a detailed knowledge of London and its Polish community. This time, the story is very personal. Kiszka is finally getting close to his dream of convincing his girlfriend Kasia to leave her husband and move in with him. But then she disappears – as does her husband. Reluctant though Kiszka is to have anything to do with the police, he relies on his old friend Natalie Kershaw (who is suspended from active duty pending an investigation) to help him locate and save Kasia.
Of course, Lipska is too clever to make this a simple case of kidnapping, and East End and foreign criminal gangs soon get involved. Running up and down the East End and around Epping Forest, we meet an intriguing mix of characters, from a fake tan obsessed hotel-owner to a cat-loving assassin. This series goes from strength to strength, a successful blend of noir, police procedural and humour. The characters – not just the main ones and their sidekicks – are well rounded and entirely believable. But be warned: it does end on a bit of cliff-hanger…
Susan Tiberghien: Footsteps: In Love with a Frenchman
Susan is the founder of Geneva Writers’ Group, of which I am a member, and teaches many of the workshops there, so I may be a little biased. However, it’s easy to fall in love with this charming collection of memoir, prose-poems, photos and essays about life as an American expat married to a French husband, travelling all around Europe with six children in tow. There is a home-made (but carefully crafted) quality to this patchwork quilt of a life filled with laughter, tears, children’s voices and recipes. The writing is poetic, warm, witty and full of subtlety. The chapter on the potato is a masterpiece of humour and comment on cultural differences.
This is a housewife (Susan became a full-time writer only after the children left home) with sharp observational skills and a barbed tongue, even though it be dipped in honey. For example, she describes the tricky preparations for their weekend trip to their chalet in the Alps, trying to fit 6 children, a family dog, and all their food, clothes and bedsheets into their car.
Then there was the carton of food. ‘It’s much easier to arrive with everything ready,’ Pierre said. And, of course, it was no trouble to prepare and pack and take care of the children while the father was busy tidying up his desk at the office downtown.
I’d try to make it all fun. After all, it was the thing to do, to go to the mountains for the weekend. The food went behind the last seat of the car because the skis went on the top, all sixteen of them. Ski boots went close to everyone’s feet, except the driver’s. He needed lots of room. I took his boots at my feet, along with my boots and Daniel’s. I had learned long ago that there was always room.
Finally, for good measure, a book that is by an American author with a very ‘English’ name.
Jenny Lawson: Furiously Happy
An almost frenetic account of living with depression and anxiety. The author manages to make fun of herself and the people around her who have to deal with her very real problems. While the humour did seem a bit forced to me on occasion, there are passages that ring very true and heartfelt.
I wish someone had told me this simple but confusing truth: Even when everything’s going your way you can still be sad. Or anxious. Or uncomfortably numb. Because you can’t always control your brain or your emotions even when things are perfect… You’re supposed o be sad when things are shitty, but if you’re sad when you have everything you’re ever supposed to want? That’s utterly terrifying… But it gets better… You learn to appreciate the fact that what drives you is very different from what you’re told should make you happy.
Why is it called ‘furiously happy’? The concept here is of going to extremes, making the most of those rare moments of joy as a counterpoint for the extreme lows that life can throw at you. This is not about mindfulness and enjoying the small pleasures of life, but about throwing yourself whole-heartedly into new experiences and breaking the rules.
Although it was funny in parts and I genuinely liked the author’s honesty, this wasn’t quite what I expected. I was hoping for more insight and relatable moments, something a little more profound. I will be reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon instead.
Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few.
Today’s rather lengthy blog post (apologies – you may need to read it in two goes if you are in a rush) compares and contrasts two families with buried secrets: one from Norway, the other from the Netherlands. The third book I mention is not available in translation, but proves that it doesn’t take big secrets to make a family dysfunctional: sometimes the everyday grind is enough to wear one down.
Gohril Gabrielsen: The Looking Glass Sisters (transl. John Irons)
This story about siblings stuck in a shocking relationship of love and hate, and mutual dependency, has all the hallmarks of Nordic darkness and Ingmar Bergman films.
Two middle-aged sisters live together in a rickety old house in Finnmark, the northernmost region of Norway. Ragna is the older one and has spent nearly all of her life looking after her half-paralysed sister, the narrator. This is not an easy relationship: they takes pleasure in hurling insults and deliberately annoying each other. They are very different, not just physically: Ragna is practical, hard-working and would have liked to escape her surroundings. The younger sister (never named) finds refuge in books and the world of the imagination.
Childhood memories are tainted with petty squabbles; in adulthood, the tricks they play on each other take a really nasty turn. Ragna snatches away the breakfast before her sister has finished eating, deliberately occupies the toilet so that her sister is forced to wee on herself, even leaves her sister out in the cold to teach her a lesson.
For all of Ragna’s almost careless cruelty, we suspect that we can’t trust the first person narrator’s description either. She is convinced that Ragna and her new boyfriend Johan are trying to cart her off to a nursing home. She complains of the depravity of her older sister, but it only serves to highlight her own fear of abandonment. She plots and deceives, and knows exactly how to humiliate her sister in public. She loves twisting sentences around, till they become almost philosophical and very sinister.
Stupid cowardly Johan with his voice, forcedly good, pretends first that I am nothing, afterwards kills the crutch woman with his look.
First I the crutch woman am nothing, afterwards I kill stupid cowardly Johan, pretend nothing with my look, my voice.
The sentences just work. I’ve achieved the meaning I wanted. At last I can once more carry on my most precious occupation: lie on the pillows and twist the world exactly as I like.
Yet she is also pitiable in her desperation. I found it heartbreaking that there were so few happy childhood memories to nourish her. There are also moments of touching self-awareness. She comments on how thin and acidic her blood has become, and how both of the sisters have become both victims and monsters.
We do not have any other choice but to remain. We are equally frightened and helpless, and cling to each other as a defence against the outside world… poor helpless us.
I’ve chosen perhaps the more explicit passages, but the beauty of this book is that most of the story is told obliquely, through the increasingly desperate interactions between the sisters, through the younger sister’s tortured ruminations:
If that’s how it really is, the marrow can only be swallowed with the mouth held close round the hollow bone shaft, and only in the deepest abyss, in the black boggy soil, can I regurgitate the confession, hold it out:
I’m the one with horns, the one with goat’s eyes.
This is a book to make those of us who never had sisters thankful for the fact. I don’t know how Peirene manages to find these very powerful and unsettling stories to translate. But I am glad they do. [Literal translation of original title: Staggering Possibilities, No Fear]
Renate Dorrestein: The Darkness that Divides Us (transl. Hester Velmans)
A modern housing estate on the outskirts of a small Dutch town becomes ‘suburban paradise’ to middle-class families with fathers commuting to work, frustrated mothers who feel their talent and potential has been wasted in the ‘boondocks’ and therefore take refuge in Tarot and gossip, children all born within a couple of months of each other – ready-made playmates. An unconventional family then moves into the former rectory on the old village green: young Lucy, her artist mother and their two middle-aged lodgers nicknamed the Luducos (one is Ludo, the other Duco, but they were so similar that the children were never sure which was which).
At first, the children are enchanted with Lucy, who is a born storyteller:
She was the exact same age as us, but she’d already experienced so much more. She’d discovered a rusty treasure chest filled with gold ducats in the ruins of some old castle; she had battled sabre-toothed tigers; she had sailed a pirate ship, wearing a wooden leg and with a green parrot on her shoulder. She’d spilled hundreds of glasses of orange squash, too, without any dire fallout. Just watch us try that at home.
The fathers are not immune to the exotic charm of Lucy’s mother either:
… they would always get this funny look on their faces whenever we started on about the way things were done in the rectory, or explained that if something got spilled over there, Lucy’s mother just laughed it off. Then our dads would cough and leave the table to walk the dog… Lucy told us our dads sometimes lingered on the green for hours, gazing up a the rectory’s lighted windows… And then they’d head home again. Back to their own wonderful, modern houses. Saved from the nuisances of living in a white elephant…
When another family moves into the area, and their young son Thomas and Lucy solemnly declare themselves to be engaged (at the age of 5-6), it all seems quaint and charming. But then the childhood idyll is shattered: a bizarre murder takes place and the community starts to take sides. Hypocrisy and judgement rise to the fore. The children gang up on Lucy, who seems to be the harbinger of bad luck, but she refuses to tell anyone about the severe bullying. This is told with frightening candour (from the point of view of the bullies) and the gradual piling on of horrors, albeit without any graphic details, will make your head spin:
…we were beginning to hope that Lucy would finally throw in the towel? But what were the chances of that? Just look at the way she insisted on going to the loo during break every morning, although she knew perfectly well what was in store for her there. Or the way she’d drink her carton of milk very day, even though we’d put soap in it over a hundred times. Or like that time with the matches. Or all the other times… She walked into every ambush, every trap, with eyes wide open; she seemed to be courting danger on purpose instead of trying to escape it. What was she playing at? There really was no need to rub our noses in it day after day… It got harder and harder to think of something that would top the last torment.
Eventually, her family decides to escape and make a clean start on the island of Lewis. They struggle at first with the barren landscape, the language, the weather and the physical labour of peating. The difficult moments are laced with humour, so it’s not all painful reading. Ultimately, Lucy believes she finds some sense of belonging in the Hebrides, with a new ‘gang’ of children. Yet the secrets hidden deep within their family make it impossible for them to forget the past and find peace.
I found the last part of the book less convincing: when Lucy returns to the Netherland as an adult and all the pernicious secrets and mysteries are revealed. The first two parts, however, make this book an emotionally gripping, quite intense read.
Adina Rosetti: De zece ori pe buze (Ten Times on the Lips)
After the two harrowing reads above, it was a pleasure to turn to a much softer, slightly more sentimental collection of short stories about love and the death of love, children discovering the world, loss of innocence and magic. Some of the stories are linked: we get to see different points of view and how the relationships evolve over time. In ‘Sandokan, the Malaysian Tiger’ we see how a group of children frighten themselves witless with a séance, while in ‘Ten Times on the Lips’ we follow their tentative steps into adolescence, the need to show off, hide vulnerabilities, their fragile friendships and terrible moments of hurt. In ‘The Girl with the Roses’ we see two lovers in the early stages of their relationship, struggling to find common ground, while in ‘Inner Peace’ we see them many years later, married, with two children, growing apart.
There are parts that have a touch of magical realism (the first and longest story in the book is a curious blend of fantasy and reality), but there are also parts that sound so frighteningly realistic and down-to-earth that I felt I was being a fly on the wall witnessing the fights of many, many couples I’ve known personally.
It is all very readable, although the rich, flowing, verbose style and long sentences may feel unfamiliar to English-speaking readers. What the author does well is describe childhood years under Communism, without going into politics, simply the backdrop of the blocks of flats where the children play all day unsupervised. I also like the tension between the old world and the new (stressed mothers today vs. the older generation who feel that they endured far greater hardships, for example). The level of writing may not be quite there yet in terms of really thought-provoking literature, but Rosetti is a writer to watch.
The author hasn’t been translated into English, but there is a French translation of her debut novelDeadline, a mystery novel with fantastical elements.
Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good fair few. Today we’re heading over to Germany. I read this book in the original, but it has been translated very skillfully into English by Shaun Whiteside, published by Bloomsbury.
Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (The Neck of the Giraffe)
Inge Lohmark is a biology and sports teacher in a ‘Gymnasium’ (selective state school, grammar school equivalent) in a provincial town in what was once East Germany. The town is dying, as is the school, forced to close soon because of lack of pupils. Everyone dreams of escaping from that claustrophobic place to search for jobs or a better life, including Inge’s own daughter, who has been living in the States for the past 10-12 years.
Inge, however, is inflexible and judgemental. She believes in the survival of the fittest and refuses to intervene in bullying incidents. Although she teaches biological adaptation, she is unwilling to alter any of her principles and firmly-held beliefs herself. Short shrift, military in style, believing any display of emotion or affection to be a weakness, her style is perfectly captured with the short, staccato sentences, often without verbs, like barked orders. She is the teacher we all feared and loved to hate or mock at school.
Her story is in many ways the story of my parents’ generation, for whom the fall of Communism came too late and who will never be able to adapt to a new world they do not understand nor like very much. Because of my own experience with recalcitrant relatives who live in a nostalgia of a life that never really was the way they remember it, I have more patience for Inge than most readers would. Many of her acerbic observations of modern life and young students will strike a chord, perhaps provoke a wry smile of recognition. She is also a profoundly lonely person, barely sharing a word with her husband – who is immersed in his ostrich farm – and rarely engaging in conversations with her colleagues or neighbours, unless they become arguments or point-scoring exercises.
The book is presented entirely from Inge’s point of view and I have to admit that I would have liked to see her through the eyes of others at some point. There are also plenty of digressions about the animal kingdom and evolution theory, with some beautiful illustrations. These digressions are quite interesting and (of course) symbolical, albeit not always in the way Inge thinks of them, but they do become repetitive after a while. Nor is there much in the way of a plot, other than being a witness to Inge’s increasingly disturbing thought processes, which do not really translate into any major action. Finally, my main bone of contention is that Inge has not really learnt or changed as a character, there has been no development as such (and we learn next to nothing of the other characters). For a Bildungsroman, there was remarkably little ‘Bildung’ (learning).
I thought it was well-written and an interesting love-hate elegy for a lost world. Inge is remarkably clear-eyed about the GDR society and ideology as well. I thought it did a great job of giving voice to a thoroughly difficult, unlikeable and yet pitiable character. But, blame my shrinking attention span or my love for crime fiction, I did feel this book was too long at 200 pages. I think all the points would have come across, the character would have been fully described in a novella half that length.
A couple of months ago I mentioned that I discovered that we lived in the same village as a notorious mythomaniac and killer, who has been the subject of a book and a film. I recently succumbed to my morbid curiosity and read the book, which pretty much reiterated all the things I had found out from my neighbours. The author Emmanuel Carrère has been accused of romanticising Romand, but I don’t think he does that at all. In fact, he allows Romand to be condemned by his own words and actions (his coldness and lack of remorse are completely chilling), but also revealing the charm and intelligence of a man who managed to fool so many people for so long. The author is a proponent of the Catholic idea of evil residing in all of us, and that perhaps this ‘adversary’ has been so cunning in this case that the perpetrator has started believing his own lies.
Instead of a conventional book review, however, I just wanted to share a poem inspired by the whole story.
Village Blues on a Sunny Day
We lived nearby but
in the growth of tulgey wood and velvet moth
he went unnoticed.
A busy town, a hasty life.
We knew each other for hello,
discuss the weather, will it snow,
school events to plan for,
but no substance to the smiles.
I peer from my upper window now
with less envy at your hammock of ease
poolside limbs perfectly tanned
flower tubs pregnant with beauty.
For beneath the poised completeness
who knows what lies, ice fraud,
the curdling compromise of a heart fraught
with keeping up appearances.
Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few. Today I am heading to northern climes, where the nights are long and the mood is often dark (at least in crime fiction).
Karin Fossum: The Drowned Boy (transl. Kari Dickson)
With Karin Fossum you know that it’s never just about the crime and its detection/solution, it’s always about the people, the motives and the consequences. This book addresses a difficult subject: a toddler drowning and parents being suspected of having harmed their child, with the added complication that this is a child with Down’s Syndrome.
As always, the author makes us question our own assumptions. The father and mother have very different styles of grieving, but no one is unmarked by the little boy’s death. Inspector Sejer is, as always, melancholy, measured and trying hard to fight his prejudices (while also relying on gut instinct). The ending does feel a little contrived, although it will probably feel satisfying for most readers, but the journey there is what Fossum is really interested in. And what a thoughtful and unsettling journey it is.
For a guide to the previous Inspector Sejer novels, have a look at this great article on Crime Fiction Lover.
Kati Hiekkapelto: The Defenceless (transl. David Hackston)
For my full review of this book, see Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in the series featuring rookie detective Anna Fekete, a Croat of Hungarian origin who came to Finland as a child to escape the war in Yugoslavia. I am pleased to say that this second novel lives up to the promise of the first one and indeed surpasses it. The action takes place in a town in Northern Finland and, as in the previous book, we get a real feel for the place and the changing of the seasons.
The characters of the two main investigators, Anna and her ‘old dinosaur’ of a colleague Esko, are given more definition and depth. We see them both as more vulnerable and lonelier than in the first book. Although they may be said to represent the sad, loner cop cliché, they come with some added extras. Anna is unsure of where she belongs, torn between cultures, lonely but professing to like the non-interfering and aloof nature of the Finns. Like them, she doesn’t know any of her neighbours. Esko meanwhile tries to forget about his ex-wife and the pains in his chest, and dreams of escaping to a quiet, self-contained lifestyle in the woods. But, of course, they have a case to work on: in fact, several cases – drugs, gangs, murder and a hit-and-run, all ultimately linked.
The most moving part of the novel is the story of Sammy, a refugee from the persecuted Christian minority in Pakistan, who has followed the same route into Europe as the heroin that’s smuggled in (and which is no stranger to him either). When his asylum application is unsuccessful, he goes underground and starts playing with fire, Subutex and unsavoury characters.
I love the ‘social critique’ style of crime fiction which seems to be on the rise now, and this is a great addition to that school of writing.
To say that this is one of my favourite books is an understatement. It’s amongst my top ten (and I am very, very picky). Nine years in the making, revised endless times, Fitzgerald himself considered it his best work. First, here are some covers of ‘Tender Is the Night’ which I have admired over the years.
My own battered copy dating from 1983 (goodness, so I must have read it for the first time when I was quite a bit younger than Rosemary, no wonder I found it so shocking!) has a less immediately appealing cover.
It has been with me for thirty-two years now, across nine moves to a different country, fourteen house moves, my own first marriage break down, through my own darkest days of depression, through my greatest personal triumphs and it has witnessed two children growing up to be nearly the age I was when I first laid eyes on it.
But I had not reread it cover to cover in oh-so-many years now. Would it disappoint? Not exactly, but nor did it delight me quite so much as before. One critic commented that anyone who loved Gatsby would end up loving this novel even more. In my case, I’ve moved the other way. I used to prefer it to The Great Gatsby, but I am no longer sure that is the case. Gatsby is concise and leaves a lot to the imagination. We never quite find out enough about Jay Gatsby’s missing years, unsavoury connections, or the way he made his wealth. It is the subject of myth and speculation. In Tender Is the Night everyone’s back story is much more clearly spelled out (although here too, there is plenty of gossip) and the points of view shift. The style feels much less in control, even repetitive at times. Some of the characters feel a bit extraneous, although each one contributes to the atmosphere around the gilded couple.
I remembered very clearly the French Riviera and Paris locations, but had forgotten about Lausanne and Vevey, so it was rather charming to read about the locations that are now so close to me. Some of the scenes that I remembered very clearly were still there, glittering like gems of absurdity and yet extremely poignant: the anecdote about trying to cut a waiter with a musical saw, the ridiculous duel which neither participant really wants, what Mrs. McKisko witnesses in the bathroom…
But the downward spiral of the marriage and the descent into alcoholism felt much more restrained this time round, not as shocking as I remembered – perhaps because I’ve read so much about dysfunctional families and breakdowns since. Now that I’m so much older, I had more sympathy with Nicole rather than with Rosemary. In fact, Rosemary seemed to me already tainted with the allure of fame and the artificiality of the film world. Yet I still understood her youthful hero-worship of Dick Diver, and her ultimate disappointment.
Finally, what struck me is how F. Scott Fitzgerald is so aware of the deadly consequences of privilege, how he mocks both those born with money and those chasing after it (or fame), how relentlessly self-aware he is in his work… and yet in his real life he could never escape the siren call of this very world he professes to despise. Tender Is the Night recognises that man is weak, filled with self-doubt, but that he is at his best when he still seeks out perfection. Doomed to failure of course, as we finally admit that there is no perfect moment, all is transient, but oh, how we hate ourselves for giving up…
Finally, what about the chronology? There are two versions of this novel. The best-known (the one first published in 1934) starts on the Riviera and then deals with the back story of Nicole and Dick’s meeting and marriage in flashback. The second version, published posthumously, follows the events in chronological order. The original version is best, even for people like me who don’t overly like complicated flashbacks. In this case, it’s not: Fitzgerald knew what he was doing. That chapter (X in Book II) from Nicole’s point of view, taking us right back to the present – priceless!