July Reading: A Moveable Feast

Not my most productive reading month, tempting though it might have been to bury myself in a book instead of dealing with removal minutiae.

#20booksofsummer

Isabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour

Colin Niel: Ce qui reste en foret

GrażynaPlebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. by Danusia Stok) – also for WIT month, see below.

Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal – likewise, a candidate for WIT month

This is going more slowly than I expected, mostly because all sorts of other books get in the way.

Review copies:

Fred Vargas: A Climate of Fear

Ragnar Jonasson: Blackout

Anne Korkeakivi: Shining Sea

Michael Stanley: A Death in the Family

Crime fiction:

K.A. Richardson: I’ve Been Watching You – serial killer, tortured women, evil twins – not my cup of tea

Intruders:

Jaume Cabre: Confessions

Akira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs

I have a feeling the August reading will be a bit of a mish-mash too, but I’ve deliberately set some books aside for reading during packing and before unpacking at the other end. Tony Malone also kindly reminded me that August is Women in Translation month, so here are some books I have planned for that, even at the risk of it interfering with my #20booksofsummer goals.

The one I look forward to most is the one I’ve been saving up for the summer:

  • Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart (her debut novel – a reread, but it’s been so long ago, that it will feel like a fresh read)

As always, I seem to have a sizeable chunk of French (or Swiss) books:

  • Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal
  • Madame du Chatelet: Discours sur le bonheur (How to Be Happy)
  • Muriel Barbery: The Life of Elves
  • Marie Darrieussecq: Men

Two tense, thriller-like books from Eastern Europe:

  • Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu: Cutia cu nasturi (The Box with Buttons)
  • Grażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons – no, it wasn’t a thriller, I was wrong about that

And that’s probably ambitious enough already! Once things calm down in September, and the children go to school, I am planning to contribute some articles for Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September feature. Early days yet, but I was thinking of something along the lines ‘Classic novels with more than a hint of crime’ and possibly also a re-read of The Moonstone (the novel which supposedly started all this crime fiction madness).

 

#20booksofsummer: Books 8 and 9 (Poland and Switzerland)

My timing is all messed up, but luckily I can kill two birds with one stone here. These two books within my #20booksofsummer also fit in with the Women in Translation Month. So, just imagine this is August already, as I will be out of action for most of that month.

illegalliaisonsGrażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. Danusia Stok)

This is perfect grist to the mill of anti-EU sentiment: so this is what EU bureaucrats get up to with our money! Affairs, serial affairs and gossiping, jobs with meaningless titles where nobody knows what it is they do exactly… Add to that the fact that the main character is Polish (as his wife, while his mistress is Swedish of Czech origin), and you can add a ‘those darn corrupt foreigners’ to this impression.

Of course, that is not at all what the Polish author intended in this, her fourth novel (and her first to be translated into English). It was first published in 2010 and translated in 2012, but it appears to have caused very few ripples so far, despite its potentially explosive subject matter.

Jonathan decides to become a stay-at-home Dad and pursue his writing ambitions when his wife Megi gets a well-paid position as a lawyer at the European Commission. However, although he enjoys the advantages of expat life, he mocks the self-important and meaningless eurocrats. Bored and perhaps feeling slightly disenfranchised, he embarks upon a torrid affair with the voluptuous journalist Andrea, wife of his wife’s boss.

The sex scenes are frank, as is the description of a man’s growing obsession with the ‘wrong kind of woman’, and the author is frighteningly good at putting herself into a man’s shoes. Of course, the whole concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ kind of woman is debatable. Although his wife Megi seems to be exceedingly reasonable and charming, and although he is periodically wracked by guilt, Jonathan just cannot stay away from Andrea.

I enjoyed some of the cross-cultural observations, but overall the book seemed repetitive and confused to me. Perhaps that was the intention: giving us a bit of insight into the male psyche. Compared with the affair described in Isabel Costello’s book Paris Mon Amour (in many ways the mirror image of this, but described from a woman’s point of view), this felt much messier and pointless.

GILLIARD_1E_COUVValerie Gilliard: Le Canal (The Canal) – sadly, not yet translated

This slim volume proves the point that sometimes the simplest of stories can be extremely effective, if well told.

It’s a Friday in October in the small Swiss spa town of Yverdon. The weather is nice once more after a bout of rain, and people are out and about by the side of the canals which feed into the Lake of Neuchatel. An idyllic, peaceful moment, so easy to imagine. Then a little girl starts running after a dog by the side of the canal. Her mother is momentarily distracted by a phone call and the girl falls in. These facts are described quite dryly in the Prologue, and then we see the event (as well as what led up to it and what happened afterwards) from the point of view of several of the witnesses: the mother, Almina; the old fisherman who jumps in to rescue the girl; Steve, a young graduate with right-wing tendencies; Berivan, a Kurdish woman holding a baby; and an old lady who saw everything from her window and called the ambulance.

Yes, it has been done before, most famously in the ‘Rashomon’ film based on the Akutagawa story. But what I liked here is what the different points of view reveal about Swiss society today. Both Almina and Berivan are ‘foreigners’, refugees who fled to this country as children. Although they grew up in that very town, they are still regarded with suspicion. The press is quick to condemn the mother’s carelessness and doubts are soon cast upon her parenting abilities. In the end, it’s the older generation, the fisherman and the old woman with her own tragic past, who are able to reach out a helping hand. And the ending is just beautiful, without being cloyingly sentimental.

yverdon-jpg-crop_display
One of the canals in Yverdon, from mapio.net

 

Sneak Preview: The Illegalists

I found out about this project from the Crime Fiction Lover website. Writers Stefan Vogel and Laura Pierce teamed up with bestselling artist Attile Futaki to create a good-looking and fascinating graphic novel called The Illegalists. Set in 1910 Paris, it focuses on the true story of the anarchist group the Bonnot Gang, led by the poor mechanic turned revolutionary, Jules Bonnot.

I helped to fund the project via Kickstarter and received a copy of it just in time for me to admire it (before putting it away in a box). So let me share a little with you [apologies for the picture quality: I just snapped them quickly in the sunshine on my garden chair].

The front cover.
The front cover.
Frontispiece.
Frontispiece.
Sample page.
Sample page.
Information about the page process.
Information about the page process.

 

 

 

Blockbuster of the Summer: Jaume Cabre’s Confessions

cabreJaume Cabré is a Catalan philologist, possibly a philosopher, as well as a writer, and it shows in this massive doorstopper of a book, which takes you through most of the European history of the 20th century, plus quite a few centuries of Spanish history (notably the Inquisition). The translator Maya Faye Lethem must have the patience of a saint, because the plays on words, the fragments from other languages, the philological inventiveness and sudden changes in time frames must have been extremely challenging to interpret and translate.

So yes, I’m not going to lie to you: it is not the easiest thing to sink your teeth into. It is long, complex, toying with your mind, suddenly veering into another story, another character’s point of view, another point in time. Even in the middle of a paragraph. Nevertheless, it’s all done with great verve, charm and wit and remains coherent (just about) and fun. Even though the subject matter is anything but fun, and it can be quite emotionally draining at times. You do have to succumb to it and allow yourself time to read quite large chunks daily, otherwise the magic might dissipate.

It’s the story of Adrià Ardèvol, who comes to realise he was born in the wrong family, that he has always been very much alone. He writes a long letter to his beloved, a sort of examination of his life, before he sinks into the enforced silence of dementia. He talks about his loveless childhood; his father’s distasteful business practices and the blood-spattered background to the family heirloom, a priceless Storioni violin; about never quite living up to expectations; his love for the beautiful Sara and trying to meet her Jewish family. Interwoven with the personal, we find moving accounts and moments of sharp insight about the Spanish Civil War, about the suppression of the Catalan language, about medical experimentation and gas chambers in the German concentration camps, religious and ideological battles throughout Spanish history and so much more.

Some of the repetitions are funny, others moving, while yet others are occasionally annoying. The sudden stops mid-sentence and switching of topic can be off-putting. I think it’s supposed to reflect Adrià’s growing mental confusion. There is perhaps too much ‘bagginess’ in the novel’s structure, but the book rewards those who persevere and reveals its secrets gradually (and with an element of surprise which appears more often in mystery novels). Above all, it appears to be a meditation on the nature of evil: it is unbearably bleak at times, showing that evil has always existed and is inescapable.

This was not a #20booksofsummer effort (I wish it had been!), but it had been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I was intimidated by its length and reputation of being ‘difficult’, but the imminent move made me decide to tackle it (so that I can decide whether to keep it or donate it).

This has ‘cult book’ written all over it. As a teenage fan of Foucault’s Pendulum and One Hundred Years of Solitude, I think it’s a keeper.

 

Perfect Summer Read: Shining Sea by Anne Korkeakivi

Korkeakivi.ShiningSea (1)Michael Gannon is a doctor and a war hero, happily married and father of four (another on the way). One sunny day in 1962, just before Easter, while repainting the house, he has a heart attack and dies. This book is the story of his family after his death, but it’s also a condensed version of American history, covering a significant chunk of time (1962 to 2015), births and deaths, marriages and divorces, wars and grief. We travel with the protagonists from Southern California to Arizona, to Woodstock, to Massachusetts and New York, as well as London and Scotland.

We hear mostly from Michael’s widow, Barbara, and from the sensitive youngest son, Francis, who is just nine when his father dies, but it feels like we get to know and understand other family members as well: older daughter Patty Ann, who marries early, and whose oldest son Kenny becomes his grandmother’s pet; Mike Jr. who becomes a doctor like his father; Luke and Sissy, who leave home far too soon and never come back.

It’s an ambitious project, with many voices, so it has the potential to get very messy. Anne Korkeakivi, however, navigates this with elegance and impeccable prose. I really admire writers who can telescope several years’ worth of events but then also linger on a revealing detail. The chapters are not very long, and usually skip a few years, as well as switching between Barbara’s and Francis’ POV. There is a more lengthy part in the middle of the book, set in 1984 in the Inner Hebrides, where Francis meets and joins a group of friends preparing to sail across the Irish Sea on a mission of conciliation between Catholics and Protestants – with some tragic consequences.

AnneKorkeovikiThis is a character-driven family story (and none of the characters are intimidatingly perfect, they all feel very realistic), composed of a series of vignettes of key moments in their lives. The sea runs through it as a theme, sometimes beautiful, sometimes agitated, now friend, now foe. Barbara deliberately banishes the sea from her life when she remarries and moves to the desert of Arizona. The tragic moments are sometimes on-screen, sometimes off, but we always see the long-term effects of grief and how family relationships can be impacted. We the readers gain a little extra understanding of events and people as the years pass, as do some of the characters. Yet the author also demonstrates that sometimes even the most well-meaning and loving family members can misunderstand and challenge each other, hold different political beliefs and personal values, which often drives them apart and only sometimes brings them back together.

I loved it above all for the precise, lyrical language; the dusting of poetry contained in the writing. Here, for example, is the passage describing Michael’s death:

A cool breeze. Then calm. He is not sure where he is. He is no longer walking along a body-strewn road in the Philippines He is no longer passing through winter, autumn, one season after another. He lays his whole body down flat; the breezer rushes over him. The ground beneath him feels soft and mossy. Rain begins to fall, and it is tender, warm, it is the sound of his sister’s voice… It is Barbara. Her bright eyes… her way of clasping her hands together when laughing.

He is home. He is home.

You’ve heard me say this many times: family sagas are not my ‘thing’. And yet I would recommend this: a striking portrait of an American half-century and a family which manages to be both average and remarkable at the same time. I also have Anne’s first book An Unexpected Guest, whose main character has been compared with Mrs. Dalloway, so I look forward to picking that up and losing myself in her subtle brand of writing again quite soon.

 

Bilingualism and Other Passionate Diseases

MizubayashiAkira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs (A Language From Somewhere Else)

‘This is too semblant to others.’ ‘There is no good explication for that.’ ‘I got 19 on 20 for my French test, I’m such an intello!’ are sentences my children regularly come up with, while I patiently try to correct their English. (I’ve given up – temporarily – on improving their Romanian.) But I remember I used to speak a mix of languages (within the same sentence) when I was a child. It hasn’t stopped me from being able to enjoy watching films, reading, conversing in each of those languages (separately) as a grown-up.

Besides, languages are much more than a practical tool. They represent the gateway to a different culture and mindset. Which has always been one of the most enticing things in the universe to me: learning how others think, why they behave in a certain way, what they believe, what they hold dear… How can it get any more interesting than that?

Japanese writer and professor of French Akira Mizubayashi seems to share my fascination with language as an entrance point to a whole new culture. Except, in his case, he accessed it of his own free will at the age of 19 – thanks to a passion for Rousseau and Mozart’s Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro. Much more admirable than all those multilingual children out there, as it’s so much harder to learn a new language at an advanced age.

This book documents his journey into French culture: his years spent recording French lessons on the radio and playing them over and over, imitating the accent and tonality; his first study trip abroad in Montpellier and his awkward attempts at making polite conversation; meeting his French wife; attempting to raise their own daughter with both languages. But it’s much more than an autobiography. It is a declaration of love to the French language and a fond remembrance of some of his favourite teachers. It is also a highly readable, personal way of presenting the rather dry subject we had to study at university: theory of linguistics. Thirdly, it is also an elegant meditation on language and identity, with the author finally admitting that he is both at home and yet a stranger in both languages.

From frenchculture.org
From frenchculture.org

However, what I enjoyed most were those little nuggets of insight which made me smile. For instance, Mizubayashi remarks how much French conversation relies on vocative appellative expressions, i.e. ‘mon petit chou’, ‘mon poussin’, ‘ma poule’, mon grand’, ‘mon vieux’ and all of those other terms of endearment sprinkled liberally in a conversation with friends. I might add that even in formal contexts, on the radio, I hear this direct address: ‘Sachez que…. mesdames – messieurs’. It’s also considered somewhat abrupt and rude to enter a boulangerie or post office and just say ‘Bonjour’ instead of ‘Bonjour, madame or monsieur’. The author contrasts that with the Japanese language, where you almost avoid naming the other person, by deleting the ‘I’ or ‘you’ from the dialogue (it is implied in the verb forms). The relationship between two speakers in Japanese strikes him as two beings who sit side by side and look at a landscape together, while in France they would sit in front of each other and address each other.

This book managed to sneak into my TBR pile but I am so glad it did. Mizubayashi writes like a Frenchman, but he observes like an outsider. An anthropological and linguistic treat, a must for anyone struggling with bilingualism, as well as a fun memoir!

 

 

#20booksofsummer: Books 6 and 7

After the disappointment of my 5th book choice for the #20booksof summer, Ingrid Desjour’s Les Fauves, I turned to some lighter reads on a French theme. Or at least I thought they would be lighter… They both turned out to be darker than their titles or blurbs suggested, but both of them were perfect holiday reads. Even if I don’t really have any holidays this year.

parismonamourIsabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour

Alexandra is an American woman (educated in Britain), happily married to a Frenchman and living a golden life in Paris. Or so she thinks. But then her mother puts the thought into her head that her husband might be having an affair. When Alexandra discovers that this is indeed the case, she loses control and finds herself embarking upon a reckless affair with a much younger man – the son of her husband’s best friends. You just know that it cannot end well, and indeed there is plenty of foreshadowing (perhaps a little too much for my taste), as we see in the very first chapters a contrite and sad Alexandra at some later date ruminating about her behaviour.

After reading so many psychological thrillers which deal with adultery, it was refreshing to read a book which does not make a dark mystery about it, yet is far removed from the humour and lightness of chick lit. There are many quite candid and sensual scenes in the book, but it’s not at all gratuitous sex for the sake of it (as with Maestra, for instance). It’s a grown-up look at adultery, at how we become embroiled in things we initially believe we can control before they end up controlling us. The author does an excellent job of describing how torn and guilty people can feel, yet continue to do the things they feel bad about; how they can blind themselves to any danger warnings and find increasingly absurd self-justification for their actions.

And, of course, if you are a lover of all things French, there are plenty of alluring descriptions of place (including a few of my favourite spots in Paris) and Parisian lifestyle in this book.

colinnielColin Niel: Ce Qui Reste en Foret (What Stays in the Forest)

This is the second in a series of crime novels featuring Detective Anato in French Guyana. I haven’t read the first in the series, but fellow book blogger Emma highly recommended him. When we met the author at the Quais du Polar in Lyon and realised what a lovely person he was, with a fascinating background, who knows that part of the world really well, I couldn’t resist exploring further.

Anato is of Ndjuka descent, but grew up in France, and has only recently returned to his home country. He doesn’t speak the local language well enough and is still finding out surprising things about his family and his past. He gets called in to investigate the death of a scientist, Serge Feuerstein, an ornithologist based at a scientific research station deep in the Amazonian rainforest. The researchers are ‘sharing’ the forest with illegal gold mining ventures, so at first glance it looks like it might have been a territorial dispute. But Anato and his team suspect that the easiest answer is not often the correct one.

There were so many things to enjoy about this book: a cracking plot and dogged investigation; the contrast between the wilderness of the jungle and the attempts to impose French law and order; Anato and his team, all of them with their own personal troubles, but still working together to discover the truth; discussion of the integrity of scientific research and the future of research facilities in remote locations; the futile fight against illegal mining. Plus plenty of intriguing secondary characters and learning a lot about local culture and the diversity of society in French Guyana, in the so-called DOM/TOM (overseas departments/territories).

I’ll certainly be looking out for the third in the series (already out) and hope that it will be translated into English, to reach a wider audience.

Cayenne, capital of French Guiana, from Caribbean-beat.com. Photograph © Ronan Liétar
Cayenne, capital of French Guiana, from Caribbean-beat.com. Photograph © Ronan Liétar