Four Women Writers

I was afraid that too many of my reading challenge choices were by male authors, so I made a point of introducing a female quota.  So here are four very different women authors, showing the variety and richness of what is sometimes disparaged as ‘women’s literature’. As it happens, I personally know three out of the four women writers whose books I feature below.  However, this has not influenced my reviews of their books – although I have refrained from giving stars on this occasion.  Sadly, the first two are only available in the original (Romanian and French, respectively).

Claudia Golea Sumiya:  În numele câinelui (In the name of the dog)

Not really a novel, more of a straightforward account of the true but surprising story of a man called Takeshi Koizumi, currently facing the death penalty in a high-security prison in Tokyo.  Back in 2008, the 46 year old unemployed man admitted his involvement in fatally stabbing a former vice welfare minister and his wife, and also wounding the wife of another former health and welfare minister in a separate incident. The reason for his crime?  Punishing the people who had ordered the detention and extermination of his pet dog, his childhood friend, in a local dog pound.  In Japan, these dog pounds are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.  An animal lover herself, the author began corresponding with Koizumi in prison and  this book combines his letters with her own impressions of the man and her growing understanding of (if not condoning) his actions.  There are probably good (legal) reasons why the story could not have been written in any other way, but I cannot help feeling that it would have been so much more powerful as fiction.

Hélèna Villovitch: Petites soups froides (Little Cold Soups)

Artist, filmmaker and writer, Villovitch experiments with form, style and content in this collection of short stories.  The title story is written as vignettes in the shape of the ‘little cold soups’ which serve as nibbles at cocktail parties nowadays, a commentary on the inability to connect to others and the separate conversations going on in people’s heads.  Other stories capture celebrity culture and obsession with appearance, cross-cultural misunderstandings and little cruelties or envies between friends.  The author has a dry humour and unsentimental style which really suits the everyday subject matter. Although the stories were rather uneven overall, I admire this author for being brave and trying out new ideas.  Sometimes it feels like there is too little ‘radical newness’ in literature nowadays.

Carmen Bugan: Burying the Typewriter

This is a poignant memoir of a family very nearly torn apart by the secret police of the Communist regime in Romania.  The first part describes the near-idyllic childhood in the countryside, surrounded by friends and grandparents.  The author is a poet, and this is obvious from the rich visual imagery and melodic phrases to describe the passing of the seasons, village life and its traditions.  Then her father buys a ‘secret’ typewriter (i.e. one that has not been recorded by the secret police and traced to its owner) and starts writing and distributing pamphlets with the rather modest basic requests: “We ask for human rights. We ask for freedom of opinion. We ask for hot water and electricity. We ask for freedom to assemble.”  The safe, happy childhood is shattered as the author’s father is imprisoned, her mother is forced to divorce him, and they become subjected to constant surveillance and harassment.  The horrors of the regime are not fully revealed, as it is all presented through the eyes of a child: far more shocking to her is the sudden loss of friends or having neighbours inform against them.  A book that moved me not just for its shared cultural language and memories, but because it brings compassion, warmth and understanding to an area and a time which is usually so bleak and unforgiving; its ghosts and echoes are still haunting Romania today. What remains after reading this book is the clear picture of the luminous, redeeming power of love, of family and of literature.

Nicky Wells: Sophie’s Run

Just what the doctor ordered, when I was running hot and cold during the night and couldn’t sleep.  An engaging heroine who never quite falls into the ditziness which can sometimes plague chick lit, mostly adorable men (despite the odd rat or two) and a story line filled with surprises and humour.  In fact, my main point of contention with the story is just how caring and supportive the men seem to be – could this qualify as fantasy?  The story opens two years after the end of ‘Sophie’s Turn’ and the characters have matured a little.  The story too has become a little deeper and darker, with topics such as depression, loneliness and forgiveness all being addressed.  I also like the travelling theme which seems to feature heavily in the Sophie novels: in this book we can undertake vicarious trips to Berlin, Scotland and a remote German island in the North Sea, as well as spend a day sightseeing in London.  Escapist literature, yes, but what is wrong with that?

 

Then and Now

I’m afraid I am reblogging myself instead of creating a new poem. Yes, to such grim depths have I sunk – with three fussy patients in the house fighting the flu.  Still, it expresses so much of what I feel about writing now.  And how that has changed in the last year or so since I got serious about writing again.

Well, as serious as you can get whilst making tea, milk with honey, chicken soup, hugging feverish youngsters and so on.

Submitted for Open Link Night at dVerse Poets Pub, the friendliest place to meet and greet poets.

Then and Now.

 

The Marseille Trilogy: Jean-Claude Izzo

Marseille
Marseille (Photo credit: -eko-)

This is the year to discover Marseille. Named European Capital of Culture for 2013, the second-largest city of France will host numerous events, open new public buildings, enjoy an overall face-lift.  I have never been there, although I have visited the South of France as recently as last summer.  Perhaps, like many other tourists, I was put off by its reputation as a messy, ugly industrial town with high youth unemployment and criminality.

Having just discovered Jean-Claude Izzo and his trio of books set in his home town of Marseille, you might think I would be even less inclined to visit the city.  The author describes a chaotic city, teeming with immigrants, noise, drugs and criminal gangs. Yet through it all you can feel his enduring love for the city, its colourful sights, huge variety of smells, the bustling vivacity of its music and its people.

The books are closely linked and chronological, so I would recommend reading them in order (although I didn’t do it myself):(1) ‘Total Chaos’ ; (2) ‘Chourmo’; (3) ‘Solea’.  In the first book, Fabio Montale is a typical product of his native town – the son of poor Italian immigrants, he falls in with a dodgy crowd, gets involved in rather dubious activities as a teenager and only cleans up his act by joining the Foreign Legion and later the police.  His two best friends, however, Manu and Ugu, and the girl they all loved, Lole, never manage to escape the brutish life of the northern (forgotten) suburbs of Marseille.  When Fabio hears of their violent deaths, he sets aside conventional notions of policing to try and uncover who killed his childhood friends. Along the way he encounters other horrible crimes, damaged lives, Mafia links and a few good women who save him from himself.

Port Autonome de Marseille
Port Autonome de Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the first book still contains a fair amount of ‘setting the scene’ (and some very atmospheric descriptions of Marseille in all its gritty beauty), the second one is a more straightforward crime story and my favourite of the three.  Feeling disillusioned and betrayed, Fabio has left the police force and spends his days fishing peacefully on the coast.  He does not want to take part in any criminal investigations anymore, but when his beautiful cousin Gelou asks him to investigate the disappearance of her teenage son, Guitou, he reluctantly gets involved.  The story of Guitou and his Muslim girlfriend, a real-life Romeo and Juliet, who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, is deeply moving.  The story is far more complex, of course, and involves the Mafia once more, but also Islamic fundamentalism as well as Islamophobic policemen, several years before 9/11 brought the issue to the fore.  Marseille was always a melting pot and therefore simmering with racial tensions which the rest of the world only find out about much later.

The third book features the journalist Babette (one of Fabio’s friends who also appears in the first book), who is uncovering some insalubrious links between the Italian and the French mafia. Fabio is once again involved in protecting his friend and her investigative work, almost against his will and with terrible consequences.  The Mafia start picking off, one by one, all of the people closest and dearest to him.  This book is all about the end of an era, the end of a town (through greediness and rampant over-development, as Izzo sees it), the end of hope and of friendship.  It doesn’t get much bleaker than this, and the author never offers a happy ending, but I was captivated by the evocative language, the charm of the main protagonist, and the haunting sense of regret, of what might have been.

The Calanque of Sugiton in the 9th arrondissem...
The Calanque of Sugiton in the 9th arrondissement of Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I loved about this trilogy was that, although it makes no excuses for crime, it does show just how easy it is to fall into temptation and into a bad crowd.  It is all about trying to live at the fringes of society – bleakness alleviated at times by tasty meals, washed down by good wine and glimmers of love, real or imagined.  Fabio is unusually honest and sentimental for a cop, but he is also a flawed human being, overindulging in food and drink, prone to quick judgements, far too susceptible to feminine beauty, convinced he brings bad luck to his friends, far too eager to run off in his boat, to get away from it all and fish in the calanques.  Someone we can all relate to, then!

The short, snappy titles, by the way, are song titles – the whole series is permeated by the variety of music that Fabio listens to (Arabic, French rap, jazz, Classical), although ‘Chourmo’ also refers to the sense of brotherhood of galley slaves, all pulling together in time on their oars, helping each other out in their shared misery.  When I embarked on this series, I had no idea they had been so popular and influential, giving rise to a whole new genre, the Mediterranean noir, nor that Izzo had refused from the outset to write a sequel to them.

The Marseille trilogy has been very skillfully translated into English by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions in 2005-2007. Unfortunately, there will be no more new works by Izzo, as he died in 2000 at the age of just 55.  However, he has a few other free-standing novels which I intend to read. And when I do go to Marseille, both he and Fabio Montale will be there with me. As will Miles Davis.

I read this trilogy as part of my Global Reading Challenge 2013, hosted by the very widely-read and knowledgeable Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise.  This counts as the first of my European books (discovering a new location or writer).

It’s All About You

Tree
Tree (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

You preen your knowledge in avian displays,

flaunt your extra years, the places you have been,

all gendered superiority. You couch advice

with such sweet terms, commands for the honey,

untroubled when your suggestions provoke susurrations.

With each look , each word you axe another shoot

off my tree, off his tree. Because an employee

is a company’s most valued asset.

Just not its roots, heartwood nor crown.

January Is Good for Thrillers

When the nights are long and cold, what could be better than to snuggle up with very dark, unsettling thrillers?  No? Maybe it’s just me then… And I don’t even feel the compulsion to check that all windows and doors are locked afterwards.  Well, not more than two or three times, anyway!

I will spend more time reviewing the Marseille Trilogy (which is part of my Global Reading Challenge) in a later post, but here are some other suspenseful thrillers I read this month.  My scoring system is perhaps overly strict: 5 star is something that only a handful of books ever, ever get; 4 star means I think you should really, really get your hands on it; 3 stars means it’s a good, solid, enjoyable book; and 2 is OK, average, nothing out of the ordinary.  At least you know you won’t get a waterfall of meaningless 5 stars here! 

1) Chris Ewan: Safe House

The only book I have come across so far set on the Isle of Man, it makes good use of its location (the isolation, the village gossip).  It starts with a simple puzzle, which then develops into a very convoluted plot. Plumber and part-time motor racing champion Rob Hale has a bad motorcycle accident.  He is concerned about the fate of his beautiful blonde co-rider, Lena, whom he had just recently met on an emergency boiler repair job in a remote cottage in the forest. However, the paramedics and police assure him that he was the only person found at the scene of the accident.  He is convinced he did not imagine the girl and uncovers a very complex tale of conspiracy.  The twists and turns keep on coming – some of them I guessed fairly early on (I have a bit of a phobia of secret services and can spot them coming from miles away), others did catch me by surprise.  The story does have rather brutal scenes, and the author seems to enjoy giving blow-by-blow accounts of horrific events.  Cleverly done, exciting to read, but a bit too vivid for my squeamishness.  My favourite bits were the more domestic scenes with Rob’s Granddad and dog. 3 stars.

2) Quentin Bates: Cold Comfort

This is the second rather than the first book in the series set in Iceland, featuring Sergeant Gunnhildur (a.k.a. Gunna). But that doesn’t matter at all: it’s all about atmosphere and characters in this series.  Gunna is tasked with two cases simultaneously: the manhunt for an escaped convict, and the murder of a gorgeous TV presenter.  She soon begins to suspect that the two events may be related.  Set against a backdrop of the near-total collapse of a country, together with its banking system, the story is a fast-paced, enjoyable read. This is not Scandinavian noir, but has a very tongue-in-cheek English humour about it (the author is English, although he lived for many years in Iceland).  Gunna is a delightful, down-to-earth character, a refreshing change from all the tormented detectives and heavy drinkers populating the northern hemisphere.  The many complicated (and similar-sounding) Icelandic names may pose a bit of a memory challenge, but it was a fun, easy read for an afternoon of similar meteorological conditions to Icelandic winters. 3 stars.

3) Pascal Garnier: The A26

You may remember that Pascal Garnier was one of my major discoveries for 2012.  I completely fell in love with two of his novels translated and published by Gallic Books: ‘The Panda Theory’ and ‘How’s the Pain?’  So I was very much looking forward to the third book that Gallic are just about to launch: they kindly sent me an advance copy. However, this one was a bit of a disappointment.  Although it is still impeccably translated and beautifully presented by the publisher, the story itself did not captivate me as much as the previous two.  Yet, to all intents and purposes, this one fits more neatly into the ‘thriller’ category.  There are more bodies, there are strange characters, there is suspense…  But there is less humour than in his other books and I found myself unable to care deeply for the two main characters, the agoraphobic Yolande and her long-suffering brother Bernard.  Perhaps if I had read this one first, I might have enjoyed it more: it certainly has all of the other Garnier characteristics I enjoy: the noir feel, the effortless and fluid style.  But I suppose my expectations were so high, that this one just could not live up to them. 3 stars.

4) Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner

This was the scariest of the thrillers I read this month.  It proves that scary can be done in a much more subtle and chilling way, because the atmosphere turns darker gradually, much like Cathy’s relationship with Lee.  The descriptions of domestic abuse and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are so realistic, so gruelling, yet they never feel gratuitous.  Certainly not a book to read when you are alone in the house!  The multiple  time frames and similarity of set-ups did puzzle me a little at first, but you soon get into the rhythm of things.  A psychological mind-twister and page-turner, I was hooked, even though I kept thinking I knew what would happen next.  It also shows just how complicated abusive relationships can be, and makes us question how we would react ourselves in a similar situation.  Hard to believe this is a debut novel, as it feels very accomplished and self-assured. 4 stars.

Plans for My Reading Challenges

I’ve been doing a bit of research for the two reading challenges I am planning to complete this year: the Global Reading Challenge (dedicated to crime fiction) and the Translation Challenge (any kind of literature).  Along the way, I have been inspired by such wonderful bloggers and review website such as: Fair Dinkum Crime, Mysteries in Paradise, Pulp Curry, Margot Kinberg, Mrs. Peabody Investigates, Savidge Reads, Crime Fiction Lover (OK, I review for them too, but I learn so much from the other reviewers there), Rhian Davies, Stuck in a Book,  and Smithereens.  And of course, the incredibly prolific reader and private investigator of world literature,  Ann Morgan of  A Year of Reading the World. Too many others to list here, but I will do so as I read each novel they recommended, and link to their reviews as well.

Of course, as we say in Romania, sums at home don’t match your sums in the market-place.  In other words, what I plan and what I actually end up doing may be quite different things. I may not find these books easily in my rural, non-English-speaking community.  And I can’t possibly buy them all.  So there may be some last-minute changes to reflect the quirks of the local libraries.

Anyway, here is my list for the Global Reading Challenge – medium level (2 from each continent):

For Europe: 

Jean-Claude Izzo: The Marseille Trilogy – a city I have never visited before, either physically or through books

Alfred Komarek: Inspector Polt series – I have yet to read crime fiction by an Austrian author, despite my love of all things Viennese.  Change of plan here, as I have heard very good things about the Lemming series by Stefan Slupetzky, also set in Vienna.

For Australia/New Zealand:

P.C. Laird: The Shadow World (NZ)

Sulari Gentill: A Few Right-Thinking Men (AUS) Have been unable to find this, so opted instead for Arthur W. Upfield and his Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series.

For North America:

M.J. McGrath: White Heat (Canada)

Penny Louise: Armand Gamache (a name which always reminds me of a dessert – chocolate ganache) – Quebec

For Asia:

Natsuki Shizuko: Murder at Mt. Fuji (Japan) I had no luck finding this, but was fortunately sent a book to review by a Japanese thriller writer who is obsessed with Spain and flamenco guitars.  So I read ‘The Red Star of Cadiz‘ by Ōsaka Gō, to be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover website.

Martin Limon: Jade Lady Burning (South Korea) Yet another change to the planned schedule, as I got to hear and meet John Burdett, so I want to read his crime novels set in Bangkok. 

For Africa:

Andrew Brown: Coldsleep Lullaby (South Africa) 

Deon Meyer: Thirteen Hours  (South Africa)

For Central/ South America:

Leonardo Padura Fuentes: Havana Red (Cuba)

Garcia Roza: Silence of the Rain (Brazil)

Seventh Continent (a new territory, outside our comfort zone):

Ben H. Winters: The Last Policeman (sci-fi)

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian (historical, paranormal)

I am a little bit worried, for instance, that for all of that magnificent continent of Africa, I ended up with two South African writers.  So if you can recommend anybody else, from another African country, that would be wonderful.  Any other suggestions or comments on my choices would also be appreciated.

Finally, for the translation challenge, there is no set number, but I would like to aim for between 5-10 of these.  Some of them are still crime fiction (am I cheating a little here?), but others are in more varied genres.  This is a live, changing list, so feel free to make further recommendations.  For instance, it’s a little light on feminine voices, so I may make up by reading lots of English-speaking women writers instead.

Petros Markaris: The Late-Night News – Liquidations à la grecque

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind

Mario Vargas-Llosa: Who Killed Palomino Molero?

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

Orhan Pamuk: The Museum of Innocence

Diego Marani: New Finnish Grammar

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast

Roland Topor: The Tenant

Miyabe Miyuki: All She Was Worth

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris

I promise to post reviews along the way.  And of course, I will have the usual books to review and books written or recommended by friends, plus lots of English writers to enjoy.  I wonder how many I will get to read this year? 52 would be a good place to start, one for each week of the year.

You Can Never Go Home

Landscape from planeIn the country where my tongue

should feel limber,

my mind goes slurry.

I hear the gasps between words,

feel the teeth in the smiles.

 

In the land of sensuous beauty,

I spy abandon, breathe in decay.

I opt for potholes while above

a sky of such wonder

casts up its blue tablecloth of hospitality,

flecked with golden smudges.

A generous hostess.

I groan in over-fed wantonness.

 

potholesIn the soft arms of my mother land

I detect only flab.

Since when did cynicism poison my well and render

my cattle so sick?

How did love grow so shallow that mere breezes

can topple the ship of my faith?

 

I don’t believe  they care much about my grimace,

or ruefully take in my artful sneers.

They live each day anew, alight

in flames I can no longer name.

I shiver unburnt.

And in the thirst

for life of my people I am humbled

out of the girth of my own navel.

Meretricious

I am always late for the event (not even elegantly late, but REALLY late), but do join us over at dVerse Poets Pub for the Open Link Night.  Today it’s all about the poetry of the everyday, the mundane, the meretricious…

 

‘Awkward,’ he said,

dashing out of her bedroom and into her brain.

Forever to measure the yokels who followed,

the husband found wanting,

the wood left entangled,

the burbling of Jabberwocks

that filtered and flitted,

never to be caught again.

 

So they lived and soldiered on,

grim lines they furrowed,

objective: silence.

Not the harmonious calm of unspoken shared thoughts

but the hush for fear of a storm.

So they dealt with the past.

Not brushed aside but lulled,

put to pasture,

With nervous asides for skittish breaks.

 

Non-mention will cicratize the wounds.

My Blogging Anniversary

anniversary-1xWordPress wished me Happy Birthday today.  Yes, it’s been exactly one year since I created this blog, although (ironically, given its title) I did not find time to post anything until the 7th of February, 2012.

I was not new to blogging.  I had been writing a blog on my professional website for 2-3 years.  But it was professional, neutral, business-like… bar an occasional foray into the vicissitudes of expat life.  It was a blog I was very keen to promote and market, as it was a way to let prospective clients know what I was doing.

This writing blog was something I was very reluctant to share with anybody else.  I started it mainly as a personal challenge.  A means of holding myself accountable for giving pride of place to the thing that means so much to me in my life. Namely, writing.  That thing which I have, nevertheless, always placed last in my list of priorities.  Perhaps because I love it so much (even when it is painful and difficult), that it feels like sheer self-indulgence to be dedicating so much time to it.  How could I possibly be selfish enough to write, when there are so many other claims on my time: money-making, laundry, children, husband, parents, friends, acquaintances, schools, society, the wider world?

Antarctica So this blog was my little stake of selfishness that I drove into the permafrost of obligation and strict scheduling that my life had become.  And I have been selfish in the way I present this blog: whatever comes into my mind, with no rhyme or reason, posting whenever I can and feel like it, following no rules.

Anything else – being read, receiving comments, making friends – has been a surprising and wonderful bonus.

For those who like facts and figures, here are some of the stats which delighted or dismayed me this past year:

  • I have had 10,500 views over the past year.  Many, many more than I ever expected.
  • I have received 1,477 comments (well, OK, probably most of them are mine, replying to your comments) – but it is humbling to find that people take the time not only to read and ‘like’ something, but also to provide such insightful andor supportive comments.
  • I have had visitors from 106 countries – so exciting for a global nomad such as myself! – with the most visitors from the US, then UK, France, Canada, Greece and Germany.
  • My most popular post was certainly not what I expected – the rather snarky, opinionated post entitled Most Overrated Books.  Meanwhile, my poor little anti-Valentine’s Day poem only got one view.  So, should I understand that my readers are hard-nosed realists and critics, with a hidden romantic tremor?

But what these statistics do not show is my gratitude to all of you, who have given me such a wonderful sense of community, who have put up with far too frequent postings followed by long periods of silence, who have stayed with me despite a lack of consistent theme.  It’s been a wonderful first year of blogging, and thank you for making it just that!

ThankYou

 

 

Confession about Betty

When I first moved to London, I was shocked at the state of student accommodation (at least for my college). However, I was very lucky to find a spacious room with a bay window in the beautiful neighbourhood of Golders Green.  I lived in the house with my landlady Betty, who was then in her 70s, but whose love of life, humour and vivacity placed her somewhere in her 20s, very close to my age.

Betty told me so much about her life, her family, about being Jewish, about war-time in Britain.  We shared a deep love for films and music, for literature and for laughter.  She gave me so much companionship that I never felt lonely in a big city and foreign country for a minute, even though I was going through some personal turmoil at the time.  She gave me so much and all she asked in return was that I keep my non-kosher food  on a separate shelf in the fridge from hers.

Old handwritten letters
Old handwritten letters

I only lived in her house for 8 months or so, before I set off to do my fieldwork abroad, but we remained friends.  I introduced her to my future husband, then to my children.  I kept moving around and kept inviting her to my new homes, but she was getting more and more reluctant to travel. We kept in touch sporadically via phone and birthday cards or Christmas and Hannukah.  She was not on email, of course, and I gradually lost the habit of letter-writing.  Fortunately, I did go to visit her in 2011, just before relocating to France.

This weekend I received a small card in response to the Christmas/Hannukah card that I had sent to Betty in December.  It was from her sister, Sybil, to say that Betty had died peacefully in her house in Golders Green in the summer.

I find myself writing through tears. Tears of sorrow for the loss of one of life’s great originals.  But also tears of guilt that I have been so bad at keeping in touch, that it took me so many months to find out about the death of a friend.  Ah, yes, the usual excuses apply – the distance, the busy-ness, the cost of international phone calls – all those easy little white lies that slither off our tongue like maggots.

But when it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than your friends, than the people you love.  Make time for them.  Because some day it might be too late.

Bless you, Betty, and thank you.  It has been such a privilege to know you. RIP.