What Makes a Book Emotionally Gripping?

I’ve just read two books that left my guts in a tangle, so emotionally wrenching were they. The third, in comparison, although perfectly competent and also in the same ‘genre’, was comparatively easier to read, process and distance myself from. So I started wondering what kind of book gives me more of a vertiginous emotional ride?

The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster, Florida. From culturaltravelguide.com
The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster, Florida. From culturaltravelguide.com

In no particular order, this is what comes to mind instantly:

1) Plot: I like my fair share of twists, but I’m not talking unputdownable five thrills a page plotting here. I’ve read books like that in one night and then forgotten about them the next day. Rather, it’s the subject: something about children suffering will always punch me hard in the stomach. I also commiserate with women going through emotional turmoil, depression, betrayal, isolation and revenge. I always find the plight of immigrants disturbing and fascinating: people who have lost everything or who are willing to risk anything to start over again in a country that doesn’t really want them.

2) Style: There is something about the first person POV and being inside a character’s head which is very compelling. Especially if that person clearly has a lot of ‘issues’ and you’re not sure if they are a reliable narrator or not – but then, who is? We all create our own versions of the story. I also like a more reticent writing style, where not everything is spelled out for you (sometimes several times within a chapter), where you have to read between the lines. I like paragraphs where every single sentence counts, sentences in which each word has its part to play. Nothing is wasted and you are forced to pay attention. I’m not offended by frankness, violence, swearing or sex if it serves the purpose of the story. I really dislike gratuitous and repetitive violence (and all of the above if it serves little purpose).

3) Character: I’ve said before that ‘likeability’ is not my main condition for appreciating a character. I always plump for ’roundness’, being believable, memorable, a world unto themselves, and having a coherent and unique voice. In real life we meet far too many boring, bland people who all merge into the background after a while. In fiction I want to meet those larger than life characters that will stay with me for years.

So, after this intro, which three books am I talking about? Here they are, in order of emotional dizziness (from strongest to most neutral reaction):

thewomanwhofedKristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs (transl. Paul Vincent)

Based on the real-life story of Michelle Martin, the wife and accomplice of notorious Belgian serial killer and rapist of the 1990s Marc Dutroux, this is a fictional recreation of her possible thought processes while in prison (with her release date approaching). This is the kind of book that you cannot really ‘like’ – the word is too weak to describe the powerful feeling of repulsion and pity that it evokes in you.

Gritty and sexually explicit (the CleanReader would have a field day with the text), told in the first person entirely from the woman’s point of view (here renamed Odette) it repulsed and attracted me in equal measure. Which is probably the writer’s intention, as it helps to put us inside the mind of a woman locked in a very disturbing relationship. The title comes from a well-known and disturbing fact in the case: while her husband was imprisoned for a minor offence, Martin fed the dogs at his home, but not the two girls he had locked in his cellar. Was she not aware of their existence, did she believe they were already dead or was she too afraid to go down in the cellar, as she later claimed? And if that is the case, does this woman deserve a second chance or is she an irredeemable monster? The real Michelle Martin was released a couple of years ago (she lives in a convent under close supervision of the nuns), a fact which provoked outrage and bitter recriminations in Belgium.

The Flemish author is known for her provocative writing and this book is no exception. It addresses all our prejudices and facile judgements head on. It does not sugarcoat or excuse behaviour, but it provides an alternative explanation which humanises someone whom it is perhaps too easy to label a monster. Odette becomes obsessed with another case of a female murderer: Genevieve Lhermitte, who killed all her five children with premeditation. Yet Lhermitte was labelled mentally unstable and was greeted with pity rather than being demonised.  Nor has Lhermitte been labelled the ‘most hated woman in Belgium’. This comparison becomes very demoralising throughout the book. In fact, generally I would advise to embark upon this book only when you are in a very strong and resilient mental state.

Little sidenote: World Editions has produced a beautiful edition here, with those rounded corners a particularly nice touch.

letyougoClare Mackintosh: I Let You Go

The first chapter already had me close to tears: a mother walking home from school with her child only to watch him being hit by a car just outside their home, with the driver then speeding away. The police investigation starts and those chapters seemed very authentic, especially regarding timelines and how long it takes to solve cases (I then discovered the author has worked in the police previously). The stresses and external temptations in a policeman’s (or woman’s) marriage were also well described.

But this is also the story of Jenna Gray, who has fled to a remote beach in Wales to recover from the trauma of the accident and try to rebuild her life. These chapters puzzled me: I thought I was reading a romance novel, there was just not enough threat or strangeness there initially, except that Jenna tends to be very secretive and overreact in certain instances. Everybody has admired and talked about the big twist that occurs about halfway through, and there are also subsequent twists to the tale. But that wasn’t what made the book compelling to my mind (although I enjoyed them). This story is more about the menacing atmosphere, the claustrophobia, the psychology of power in relationships. There are a couple of improbable elements though, which detracted slightly from my reading pleasure, but overall an emotionally draining read (in a good way).

veranoDaniel Quirós: Eté rouge (Red Summer) (transl. into French by Roland Faye)

Interesting insight into the complicated and inter-related politics of Central and Latin America, with Nicaragua, Argentina and Costa Rica all making an appearance here. Don Chepe is a former guerilla fighter who ‘helped out’ the Sandinistas in Nicaragua but has now retired to a tropical paradise on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Except the remote fishing village is beset by the relentless heat and dust of the summer… and by the discovery of the body of an Argentinian woman who runs the local bar. She has bequeathed some mysterious documents to her friend Don Chepe and he follows the trail of those documents to discover her murderer.

This is more of a political thriller rather than a straightforward crime fiction, although it starts with a dead body. It is based on real-life events, albeit heavily fictionalised. The suspense element is perhaps less sustained, but it provided me with a window into a country I know very little about. The heat of the dusty summer is almost the main hero of this book, the theme is constantly recurring, and this perhaps creates a certain distance and distaste for politics. Or perhaps it’s because the author (and Don Chepe) refer to the victim as ‘the Argentine’ throughout the entire book, or because Don Chepe himself feels old and disillusioned with politics, or perhaps because it all refers to events which took place a while ago. There is a sense of being a step removed from the action, so ultimately I found it less involving. Perhaps just as well, after the two books above.

What makes a book truly gripping for you? What keeps you turning the pages all night or remember a book long after you finish reading it? What makes you cry (if you do cry at books – I admit ‘The Little Prince’ still gets me every time)?

 

 

 

Tove Jansson: Daughter, Artist, Writer

I was rummaging around on my blog and found the beginning of this post. For some reason I never finished it. It’s about two books that I got for myself as Christmas presents, that I read and loved throughout the winter holidays, and yet I never managed to review them. These two beautifully bound books (collectors’ items) are by and about one of my favourite writers, Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of my beloved Moomins.

Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.
Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.

sculptorsdaughterTove Jansson: Sculptor’s Daughter (transl. Kingsley Hart)

These are semi-autobiographical pieces describing Tove’s childhood, her artistic parents and the great parties they gave, holidays at the seaside, being snowbound in a strange house, being ill with German measles. But in actual fact they are slightly surreal prose poems, exploring the big questions of life, death, beauty and truth, danger and safety, and the importance of art. And all is described through a child’s eyes, with limpid clarity, elegance and understatement. Jansson is a sophisticated stylist, leaving out so much in both her painting and her writing, implying more than saying outright.

tovejanssonTuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love (transl. David McDuff)

Although I had read somewhere that Moominpappa and Moominmamma were based on Jansson’s own parents, I hadn’t realised just how close she was to her family, nor how many personal difficulties and disappointments she had to face in her own life. She was very versatile: painter, illustrator, writer, stage designer, playwright, poet, political caricaturist, cartoonist – and although she occasionally complained of writer’s block (especially during the war), her output was prodigious. But her biographer can speak much more eloquently on her behalf:

‘Work and love were the things that mattered most to her throughout her life – and in that order. Tove’s life was fascinating. She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices … maintained a strict hold. She was a revolutionary, but never a preacher or a demaogogue. She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices…. When she was still a little girl she wrote that “freedom is the best thing”. It remained of utmost importance throughout her life.’

I cannot explain just how much this book meant to me. At times inspiring, at times sad and haunting, it is not only the biography of an exceptional woman and artist, but also a powerful meditation on the choices we constantly have to make as daughters, friends, lovers and creators. How to be human. She deserves to be better known for all of her work: above all, for her pared down prose and great sensitivity. But I’ll end with the inevitable:  my favourite characters in her Moomin series.

Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com
Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net

 

 

New TBR Reading Challenge – and Rereading

I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.

The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.

I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.

So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with denote crime fiction titles, is for woman writer)

1) Books in French:

P1030248All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.

Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C

Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit – the alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues  C

Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz – Ukrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain  C

Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories

Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil – finally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade – plus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid.   C W

2) Books in German: 

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Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord  – third case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude   C

Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland

Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe – the dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species  W

Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation  W

Friederike Schmöe: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events   C  W

3) Books on ereader

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Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale

John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet – the return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa  C

Sara Novic: Girl at War – child survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later  W

Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel – debut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize  W

4) Other:

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Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)

Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship

Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night – the first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America  W

Wendy Cope: The Funny Side – 101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope)  W

Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).

The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?

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Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night'; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie'; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday Fun: What Makes Me Happy

An odd rumble-jumble of personal pictures here, of things around us, places we’ve seen, the small and big things which make us happy. For those days when we don’t have the budget for chateaux, treehouses and writing sheds.

Holiday in Greece.
Holiday in Greece.
The Franco-Swiss border in the forest.
The Franco-Swiss border in the forest on my morning running route.
Gardens, shade and sitting down.
Gardens, shade and sitting down.
Spring, the far-too-short season.
Spring, the far-too-short season.
Food, glorious food. Especially sweet things. Oh, and drinks are nice too...
Food, glorious food. Especially sweet things. Oh, and drinks are nice too…
Books and creativity in all their forms.
Books and creativity in all their forms.
My cat rolling for an admiring audience.
My cat rolling for an admiring audience.
And, of course, my boys. Preferably when they are running about outside rather than playing video games.
And, of course, my boys. Preferably when they are running about (not necessarily in botanical gardens) rather than playing video games.

And if you’re wondering why Thursday has become the new Friday for the Friday Fun posts: that’s because today is Ascension and a holiday here in France. The umpteenth one for this month. I can remember a time when days off school made me happy… Tell me what makes you happy, both big things and small!

Layers in Poetry

She sits in laundry like a queen,

opinion keen on every scene.

Trois petits mois – allez hop, cancer de sein!

The jolt of the lymph node.

Drama teen of bilious skein

unraveled, stitch of strawberry roan

as playful as her foal still unweaned,

eyes aquiver, tears unshed,

jinks unsatiated.

 

Oh, dearie, don’t let the critter

fill you with jitter, nor meander

down the dreary pits.

She knelt down and sewed

a star of hope.

 

Claudia is asking us about multi-layered poetry over at dVerse Poets Pub. How do we build up the colour, texture, meaning of a poem? Poetry is all about allowing multiple truths, multiple meanings to coexist, to shimmer in uncertainty and marvel, but how do we craft that?

baumkuchen 1
German Baumkuchen, the original multilayered poem…

 

Here’s how I set about it in the example above. I started off with a simple word cloud prompt. I borrowed the first line from a previous poem of mine and formed sound associations for the main wordsor syllables in that line ‘sits’, ‘laun-dry’, ‘queen’. I came up with ‘seeds/fits/situation/jinks/snitch/pit/lit/critter’ and ‘dreary/meander/moan/roan/foal’ and ‘ream/seen/beam/skein/weaning/scene’. I picked the words that most appealed to me and continued to build on them with more conceptual associations this time, but I still had no idea what my ‘poem’ would be about. If there even was a poem lurking somewhere in all this.

A few hours later, I was waiting to board my flight at the airport and I heard three ladies behind me talking about a friend of theirs who had recently died of cancer. That planted the real seed of the poem in my mind and I played around with the words that would fit in with that idea. The first draft was quickly written, but it lacked that conversational tone that had sparked my inspiration. So from sound to content to tone, I hope that finally the poem is a little closer to the confusion, uncertainty, wish for hope that is always present around the C word.

It will need a few more iterations and layers before it’s halfway finished, though…

 

Lilac Passing

It was the first summer she was allowed to go to the seaside by herself. She was working as a guide, so there were still rules and timetables to conform to, supervision and rebukes to endure. But the clothes were uncensored, the lipstick was hers to wield. She could laugh loudly and often, she could dance as if no one was looking. Her light no longer concealed by the well-meaning protective shade of her parents’ bushel.

One dazzling older man painted her portrait. He sprinkled praise as liberally as his colours.

‘You’re not quite ripe yet. Not yet at the peak of your beauty. Give it another two or three years and you will be truly unforgettable.’

So she waited for her irresistibility to commence. All year she lived in preparation for that delicious delirium, like the lilac bush in her parents’ garden at home. The green leaves so bland to casual onlookers, but she knew it was expectant, ready to burst one day into intoxicating flower.

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By the end of the summer, she’d met the sensible young man with a future ahead of him, the kind of man her parents had always craved. By the following summer she’d persuaded herself that this was her dream too. They got married, setting up a tiny home in a capital city that was much too expensive for them. She worked three jobs at once and still their money ran out mid-month, while he pursued studies which would carve out that promising, tantalising future. In her rush from night-time proofreading to early morning classes, from private lessons to the vegetable stalls at the marketplace, from cooking to cleaning to washing to bill paying and housewife-playing, she forgot to check for her bloom in the mirror.

She made a modest name for herself, a tiny bud in a scholastic tree of excellence. Invited to study abroad, she worked even harder: to fit in, to catch up, to keep up, to maintain the respect of those who funded her. There was no more room for housewifely contortions. Her marriage withered on the stalk. She sought refuge in the life of the intellect. She scraped, she scrabbled, scoured and swept, till she rebuilt a small nest fo herself in that new country, new language, new group of friends.

Then, one day, she looked up. She paused just long enough to catch a glimpse of the person in the mirror. The lilac bush had grown blowsy, the flowers curled up with frayed brown edges. The scent was now tinged with the onset of rot.

She’d blinked and the flowering was over.

This was written as an exercise at the Geneva Writers’ Group on Saturday morning. We were discussing metaphors taken from the natural world. Did I tell you what a wonderful bookish Saturday I had? Literary workshop in the morning, going to the theatre with my younger son in the afternoon and then a poetry reading in the evening. Days don’t get much more inspirational than that.

Friday Fun: Farewell to Winter and Chalets

Chalet in Megeve, from Affinity Prestige website.
Chalet in Megeve, from Affinity Prestige website.
Converted barn in mountain area, architectureconcept.eu
Converted barn in mountain area, architectureconcept.eu
Cabin in Maine, from Decoist.
Cabin in Maine, from Decoist.
From the Dutch company De Nieuwe Generatie architecture offices.
From the Dutch company De Nieuwe Generatie architecture offices.
Renovated farmhouse at Sornay, France. From Le Bon Oeil website.
Renovated farmhouse at Sornay, France. From Le Bon Oeil website.
Chalet in Zermatt, from mountainexposure.com
Chalet in Zermatt, from mountainexposure.com

For those who need some cheering up today… more escapism than ever… or are simply thinking of buying property abroad and becoming a non-dom. It’s a sunny day, so winter may finally be over, it’s 70 years since VE Day, it’s a holiday here in France.