The Quais du Polar in Lyon was the highlight of my year back when I was living in France (and even afterwards). However, everything is different this year and of course it been cancelled, as have so many other excellent literary festivals. So Emma and I, who spent many a pleasant moment there together, have decided to post a crime fiction review on each day when the festival would have taken place – the 3rd, 4th and 5th of April 2020.
We aim to include either books by authors who would have been present at the current edition of the festival or else books that we bought – and got signed – at that festival (you may remember I splurged quite a lot back in those days).
It would be lovely if you decided to join us reading and reviewing crime fiction books by authors with links to Quais du Polar on those days. A virtual celebration of the wonderful city of Lyon, its rich cultural and gastronomic heritage. You can find a full list of authors (in English) who’ve attended the festival in the past on this page. And you can even listen to recordings of panels from previous years.
It’s always a joy to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate atBooks Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Of course, it does help if you know the starting book, but it’s not essential. And this month I don’t know the book: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. I know quite a few people were reading it in 2019 and it had very positive reviews, but I also heard that it’s about divorce and there’s only so much I can read on that topic.
However, the name Fleishman and the Jewish background of the novel reminded me of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. I personally find Bellow a far more interesting writer than those who are usually grouped together with him, such as Philip Roth or Gore Vidal, but his star seems to have faded.
Another author who was hugely popular in his time but is now very little read (less than Saul Bellow) is Horace Walpole. HisThe Castle of Otranto sparked a flurry of imitations and established the Gothic horror style mocked by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, just as much as his neo-Gothic house at Strawberry Hill created a Gothic revival in architecture. So, a real trendsetter.
I turn next to a French trendsetter, one of the creators of the realist current in literature (in contrast to the more romantic prose of Victor Hugo). He was revered by writers who followed in his footsteps, such as Flaubert or Zola and probably Dickens. I am referring of course to Balzac and I’ve chosen the book La Cousine Bette, one of his last great novels. The vengeful Bette is enchanted by the spoilt, selfish Valérie, and together they wreak havoc wherever they go.
There are undertones of lesbian attraction between Bette and Valérie, which brought to mind Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, where the attraction that the older (and unreliable) narrator Barbara feels for the glamorous art instructor Sheba has a huge impact on the story. A deeply troubling picture of a twisted psychology.
Of course if we are talking about twisted psychologies, we cannot avoid mentioning Dostoevsky’sCrime and Punishment, one of the great depictions in literature of the guilty mind, still trying to find justification for a criminal deed, and being slowly but surely hunted and driven to confession and repentance by the provocative police inspector Porfiry Petrovich.
I haven’t read the last book in this series of links, but it sounds fascinating. English author R.N. Morris has taken the character Porfiry Petrovich and created a crime fiction series with him as the main investigator. The first book in the series is called The Gentle Axe. The description sounds intriguing, so I may have to hunt around to find this one:
Stumbling through Petvosky Park one cold morning in search of firewood, an elderly woman makes a horrifying discovery. A burly peasant twirls in the wind, hanging from a bowed tree by a rope about his neck, a bloody axe tucked into his belt. Nearby, packed neatly into a suitcase, is the body of a dwarf, a deep axe wound splitting his skull in two. It does not take long for the noted police investigator Porfiry Petrovich, still drained from his work on the case involving the deranged student Raskolnikov, to suspect that the truth of the matter is more complex than the crime scene might suggest. Why do so many roads lead to the same house of prostitution and the same ring of pornographers? Why do so many powerful interests seem intent on blocking his efforts?
So this month’s travels have taken me from the United States to Britain in the 18th century, to France, a more modern United Kingdom and 19th century Russia. Where will your six links take you?
According to Goodreads, I read 44,163 pages across 148 books – so went over my target number of 120. There were times during the year, however, when I fell quite a bit behind with my reading, so it didn’t feel like I read so much. The longest book was Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Journals at 732 pages, the shortest was a novella Christmas at the Chateau, written by Lorraine Wilson. The most popular book that I read was Meg Worlitzer’s The Interestings (which did not quite live up to my expectations) and the least popular was Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, apparently read by only one other person on Goodreads (but well worth the effort of finding and reading).
I was lucky to have a bit of peace and quiet after the 22nd of December, staying alone at a friend’s flat just outside Geneva, so I read a lot for a week or so (my friend also has an excellent selection of books neatly lined up all over her flat). So that helped bring my total of books read in December to a wopping 17, quite a contrast to some previous months. This was a month of ‘free reading’, whatever catches my fancy. So I read 12 women writers, 5 men.
6 crime fiction novels (although two of those were unusual ones): Attica Locke: Heaven, My Home (nuanced and thought-provoking depiction of race relations, as usual); After She Wrote Him by Sulari Gentill (a clever, joyous metafictional romp); Katherine Bolger Hyde’s Death with Dostoevsky (a cosy crime on campus novel with a literary twist); Will Dean’s Red Snow (an immersive, glacial experience of Sweden’s far northern reaches, and a resolute, brilliant detective); The Raising by Laura Kasischke (another campus novel, looking at the dangers of the Greek societies); Sarah Vaughan’s Little Disasters (a drama which sounds far too plausible to any parents who have had to take their children many times to A&E).
3 non-fiction: Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie (a humorous, heartfelt description of Northern towns, although it feels incredibly dated at times – written in 2008, it refers to Boris Johnson as an aimable clownish politician, for example); Still Writing by Dani Shapiro (inspirational but very down to earth encouragement and advice for writers); Circling to the Center by Susan Tiberghien (the perfect book for when you need to take a step back and use writing, art, psychology to understand yourself and find a spiritual path, whatever way it might take).
2 books of short stories by an old favourite writer of mine, Helen Simpson: Getting a Life (about the slippery slope of motherhood) and Cockfosters (the even slippier slope of aging).
3 books about marriages (and their tensions): Madeleine St John’s The Essence of the Thing (written almost entirely in dialogue – sharp, bitter, spot-on regarding tone); Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson; Alberta Alone by Cora Sandel, although you could argue Helen Simpson’s books talk about that too.
2 seasonal books: one Christmas themed (although I tend to avoid Christmas themed books or films) but this one was in preparation for my Christmas on the Franco-Swiss border – Christmas at the Chateau by Lorraine Wilson (too brief to make much of an impression); and to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Romanian Revolution in 1989 – The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness
My favourite this month is probably the book that fits into none of the above categories: All die Nacht über uns (All the Night Above Us) by Austrian writer Gerhard Jäger. An apparently really simple story about a soldier on night guard at a border crossing in an unspecified part of (probably) Germany. As each hour drags on, he remembers scenes from his own life, his grandmother’s experience as a refugee, and struggles with his orders to ‘shoot with live ammunition’ if anyone tries to cross the border clandestinely. This impressive piece of work deserves a full review, once I get back home.
However, these new acquisitions will not be my top priority at the start of 2020. I intend to take part in a TBR clearout, whether it’s 20 or hopefully more, and not buy any new books until I’ve significantly reduced that pile (there may still be a few late 2019 orders arriving in January, though). I also intend to continue with my geographical wanderings every month and January is for Japan, as is by now well-established courtesy of Meredith at Dolce Bellezza. I’m not quite sure which ones I’ll pick yet, but as soon as I get home, I will plan at least 3-4 reads or rereads from my fairly large batch of Japanese books.
I still have piles of Spanish and Canadian books waiting quietly for me, as well as Malaysian and Indonesian, so there will be many more countries to visit in the months ahead. Plus, a proper French read is long overdue, right?
I’ve been reading blogs, reviews, online articles voraciously this past decade, far more than ever before. Perhaps also because for most of the time I did not have money to subscribe to any newspapers or magazines – and discovered that when I did subscribe, they ended up mostly unread in a kitchen drawer, fit only to peel vegetables on them.
The same fate has also befallen many of the reviews and articles I’ve written over the past 10 years. While they are mostly online, so not even suitable for vegetable chopping, I’ve sadly lost track of quite a few of them. So I thought I’d try to gather here a few of my favourites, in the hope that I manage to convince myself that this past decade has not been quite as wasted in terms of writing seriously (as I know it has).
Finally, I am also including some essays authored by others, which have really helped me understand myself better.
I’m also proud of my explorations of different countries for crime fiction (French and German crime fiction, Latin American, Celtic fringe, unexpected settings, holiday settings) and my Five Women to Watch annual preview of up-and-coming women authors, including foreign ones, which makes it a bit different from the more run of the mill selections. Best of all, I got to interview fabulous writers such as Pierre Lemaitre, Sylvie Granotier, Adrian Magson, Kati Hiekkapelto, Ragnar Jonasson, Michael Stanley, Dolores Redondo and many more.
I’ve also not been as prolific as I’d have liked on the Shiny New Books review site, but my two favourite reviews there were Julian Barnes’ reimagining of the hard choices faced by composer Shostakovich under the Soviet regime, and the immersive experience that was reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City.
For nearly two years I worked behind the scenes at a literary journal that I had long admired for its commitment to world literature, Asymptote. I was mainly busy with the Book Club, but I also got to contribute a few articles about my first encounter with Asymptote and how I keep on searching for the best but not definitive translation of Genji Monogatari. This latter doesn’t seem to be available online, but I have the original document and will post it on my blog at some point if anyone is interested.
Articles and essays that have inspired me:
The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser from The Paris Review, July 2019 – about having the courage to ask for kindness and appreciation
On Pandering by Claire Vaye Watkins from Tin House, 2015 – about self-censorship and writing to the (male) canon
I have no recollection of which books I read in 2010-2011, because I did not keep a record of them on a blog or a spreadsheet. I know I borrowed a lot from the library during that period, so I can’t even look at my shelves and guess from the purchases I made. So my books of the decade will in fact be the books which most stuck in my mind during the past 8 years. To be even more precise: books that I happened to read in the past 8 years, not necessarily books published during this period.
I didn’t have a set number in mind, but have come up with a list of 30, which seems like a nice round number. I did not include rereads in this category, otherwise it might have been skewed in their favour (you reread things for a reason). Not all of them have comprehensive reviews, but I’ve tried to link even the brief ones where possible.
What conclusions might be drawn from the above list? I like rather grim and sad books, clearly, preferably with the words ‘dark’ or ‘night’ in the title. I like world literature: 18 are written in a language other than English, and even the English-speaking authors include a South African, a Canadian and 5 Americans (two Scottish authors – that might count as a distinct category soon). 19 out of 30 are women writers. I much prefer fiction and particularly novels, almost to the exclusion of everything else (only five non-fiction books on this list) Finally, I am attracted to ‘difficult’, controversial subjects – poverty, death, dysfunctional families, social ills, bad physical and mental health, trauma, crime.
So, on that cheery note, here’s to next dystopian decade!
I’ll have a separate blog post for my favourite books or cultural events of the decade, but first for something rather personal. It’s been a long, hard old decade for me. I started off with a moribund marriage but tried desperately to keep it alive for another 4 years or so. Then to hide its disintegration from the children for two more years. Then another 3.5 years to finally untangle property and finances. So you can imagine I will not be looking back fondly upon this decade. However, there have been good moments, mostly relating to the five years we spent in my beloved Geneva area.
So I’ll start with my favourite posts from the blog I started in Geneva in February 2012. Not quite 10 years old, but boy, has it accumulated a lot of material! Expect a mammoth post:
Before I started this blog, I had a professional blog for my business as a coach and trainer for all matters intercultural. Some of the posts were quite business-like, but some wittered on about expat experiences and my family. Here are a few posts that bring back fond memories:
After libraries, bookshops are my second favourite place to spend time. So here’s a selection of bookshop Friday Funs that I’ve gathered over the years. And hope St. Nicholas has brought lots of oranges and chocolates in your boots this morning!