Virginie Despentes: Vernon Subutex 1 – ennui and more ennui

This book fits into no less than four categories of hashtags: #TranslationThurs, #EU27Project, #WomeninTranslation and #20BooksofSummer. However, it didn’t do much else for me! Which is a shame, because I’ve had a good experience, on the whole, with Despentes’ writing.

This time, however, she focuses on such a narrow category of arty-farty pretentious Parisians that it’s difficult to care about any of them. Vernon is a middle-aged loser, former record shop owner now sofa-surfing from one dubious acquaintance to the next. Besides, haven’t we had enough of French male midlife crisis, portrayed in so many French novels and films? I wouldn’t have expected a woman to write about it – although she supposedly makes fun of it. But for a figure of fun, we simply get too many details about Vernon and the people he mingles with.

Everyone is neurotic, narcissistic, racist, drugged to the eyeballs or all of the above. You switch quite rapidly from one point of view to the next, which does allow for comic effect (what people believe about themselves and how they are perceived by others vs. how people are actually perceived by others), but rarely digs beneath the surface of a character. Despentes has created unlikable narrators before, but then gradually revealed many more layers to them. No time for that in this rather futile, repetitive and overly long novel (and there are two more volumes of this!)

There are some good social observations, as you might expect of Despentes, but it’s simply not political enough, witty enough or engaging enough to sustain my interest. It must have been a bit of a challenge for the translator as well to use so much bad language – Trainspotting for the chi-chi media set and those funding them.

The cultural habits of the poor make him want to spew. He imagines being reduced to such a life – over-salted food, public transport, taking home less than 5000 euros a month and buying clothes in a shopping mall. Taking commercial flights and having to wait around in airports sitting on hard seats with nothing to drink, no newspapers, being treated like shit and having to travel in steerage, being a second-class scumbag… Screwing ageing cellulite-riddled meat. Finishing the working week and having to do the housework and the shopping. Checking the prices of things to see if you can afford them. Kiko couldn’t live like that… Guys like him never act like slaves…

Kiko’s job? Trader on the stock markets.

DNF

P.S. A French friend who works in publishing says it’s a ‘roman à clef’ with recognisable characters from the Parisian media world, but that is too narrow a satirical premise to appeal to me.

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June 2018 Reading Summary

I’ve been a little naughty about tagging my books with Goodreads lately, plus they seem to have changed their way of showing what you have read, so I hope I haven’t forgotten any here. It seems that June was an opulent reading month: 16 books finished, only 1 abandoned. Lots of lighter reading too. 7 male authors, 9 women, 5 translations. And I even got to review some of these, so bravo bravissimo me!

#20BooksofSummer Challenge

I’ve done reasonably well, reading 5 books this month, which is not bad considering that I started nearly a week late.

Zygmunt Miłoszewski: Priceless, transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones – an adventure and crime story about tracking down art treasures stolen from Poland during the Nazi occupation. Described as ‘reminiscent of Dan Brown’, I actually enjoyed it much more than Dan Brown – maybe because it is Europe NOT seen through the eyes of an American. Well researched, but the author also dares to go off on flights of (plausible) fantasy. This also fits in with my nearly forgotten #EU27Project, as an entry for Poland.

Belinda Bauer: Snap – gripping and sad by turns, another pageturner by Bauer, who is so good at creating believable children’s voices. Some implausible coincidences slightly marred it, thereby not making it one of my favourite books by her, but still a good read.

And then the three I reviewed earlierAuntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, The Single Mums’ Mansion and Bookworm.

For review on Crime Fiction Lover site:

Pol Koutsakis: Baby Blue – realistic and sombre portrait of present-day Athens and its homeless population

Eliot Pattison: Savage Liberty – historical crime set on the eve of the American Revolution, somewhat long but absolutely fascinating

Bob Van Laerhoven: Return to Hiroshima (review to come) – the after-effects of the atomic bomb, Japanese cults, expats in Japan – this one ticked all the boxes for me on paper, but did it live up to my expectations? You’ll have to check on CFL to find out.

Carol Fenlon: Mere – although it’s an atmospheric tale set in the meres of Lancashire, it’s not crimey enough, so I won’t be reviewing it for the site, although I might still do it on my blog

Then there was another book in this category which I did not finish. I had actually asked CFL to allow me to review it, as it was written by an acquaintance, but I didn’t like it. Tricky situation, telling my acquaintance that I wouldn’t be reviewing it after all.

Non-fiction

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason  – hard to believe how out-of-date this book already is, given all that has happened since it was published in 2008. It really opened my eyes to things about American education, culture and public debates that I didn’t know or couldn’t believe. Although it is quite dense on scholarship and evidence, the prose is remarkably deft and accessible.

Blake Bailey: A Tragic Honesty – this biography of Richard Yates depressed me no end – because it seems his themes and nihilistic writing are a result of personal experience. I guess it really pays not to know too much about your favourite authors! He made all the mistakes, displayed all the boorish behaviours, was a dreadful husband and friend – and yet had the ability to notice, analyse and mock all of these characteristics in his writing.

Others

Joanna Walsh: Break.up – this one got me pondering, because whilst I welcome non-plot driven novels (and loved Tokarczuk’s Flights, which is in a similar vein), this one exasperated me in parts. Perhaps because the topic of lost love irritated me – it is a strange relationship anyway that the narrator is recovering from – a bit of a non-relationship really. However there were many enchanting and pertinent observations too.

Ali Smith: Autumn – I appreciated it but did not love it; the relationship between young and old is interesting and often underrepresented in fiction, and the description of post-Brexit Britain is necessary, but perhaps it’s too soon to produce masterpieces on that topic

Marian Keyes: The Break – an impulse library loan, it was funny, occasionally painful but a little too long

John Berger: G.  – watch out next week for Shiny New Books’ special Golden Man Booker Prize features, where I briefly analyse this by now largely forgotten winner

My favourite book of the month

is actually the first one I read this month: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover. Brilliant story of an Iranian family who suffer political disillusionment, go into exile and never quite find themselves again thereafter, seen through the eyes of the daughter who is trying to continue the family line through IVF treatment. Full review to come soon on Shiny New Books. This also counts as a French entry to #EU27Project, like I don’t have enough French entries anyway!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#20BooksofSummer: Sicilian Lions, Single Mums and Lots of Books

It’s been a very busy, tiring and emotionally draining start to June, so I eased myself into the #20booksofsummer with some lighter reads.

Mario Giordano: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, transl. John Brownjohn

Not perhaps the most exciting or coherent of investigations, a lot of the detective work relies on coincidence or sheer nosiness, and there is something rather implausible and artificial about the whole story within a story set-up (narrated by the Auntie’s nephew, but as it is told to him by the woman herself). Nevertheless, this is a charming cosy crime caper set on the beautiful island of Sicily, stuffed to the gills with comic characters, some of them loud and obnoxious ones, others more than a little shady. And Auntie Poldi bridges the gap between Italian and German culture beautifully: an independent, candid woman with a passion for uniform and a lust for life that I can only hope I will have when I get to her age.

Janet Hoggarth: The Single Mums’ Mansion

This was not quite the fun read I was expecting and when I heard about the origin of the book as a blog about a difficult divorce, it made perfect sense. There is a lot of bitterness and genuine sadness mixed in amongst the obligatory chick lit references: drinking and taking some recreational drugs, lusting after men, supportive female friends and some silly mistakes as they finally move on from the broken wreckage. There were at least two things that annoyed me about this book: the unrealistic way in which these women didn’t seem to have to worry about money, feeding and clothing their children or losing their houses (OK, one of them moves in with the main character for a while, but few of my friends have houses big enough to take anyone else in). And yet they all seemed to have freelance jobs that don’t pay that well: photographer, writer, yoga instructor…

Secondly, none of them seemed to have any other interests other than getting drunk or laid.  Granted, it’s not easy to go out when you have three small children – so why not make the going out count? Or am I the only one who’d far rather have gone to a show or exhibition or a salsa class instead of drowning my sorrows in some expensive bar? Or is that the age difference talking?

Lucy Mangan: Bookworm

Not a systematic discussion of children’s literature, but simply an idiosyncratic and very personal memoir of the books she grew up with. I seem to be of a similar generation to her, as there is a considerable overlap of our books. Lucy Mangan is witty and charming, but you can’t help but notice quite a gap in her reading culture (probably not through any fault of her own, but simply a reflection of how little else was available in English at the time). She mentions Struwelpeter (giving her nightmares) and the colonial excesses of Babar, but no Moomins, no Asterix and Obelix, no Little Prince, no Pippi Longstocking, no Robber Hotzenplotz… It makes me realise how lucky I was to grow up with 3-4 languages and cultures all around me (and many more influences). She admits she was not a very adventurous reader, that she liked her world to be contained and safe, but there was something just ever so slightly too nostalgic about Enid Blyton and P. G. Wodehouse which didn’t sit comfortably with me. And yet there was so much about her account of growing up bookish that I could relate to…

I think for the next batch of #20books I might need to turn my attention to those that have been on my Netgalley shelf for a long, long time.

 

Reading, Borrowing and Buying Update

You might think that after my splurge last week at Hay on Wye, I would be more careful about buying books. Well, you would think wrong, although that’s only because I received an Amazon voucher which made Homer’s Odyssey in the translation of Emily Wilson affordable (I’d been waiting for it to come out in paperback but was really, really keen to read it.) And, once that purchase was made, the dam was broken and a lot more books starting gushing out.

You may have seen Salt Publishing’s appeal on Twitter #JustOneBook, asking their fans to buy just one book from them as they were on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, however you feel about their sudden closure of their poetry section (I have a few poet friends who were upset about the way they did it), I still want independent publishers to survive, as they are the ones who give us that much-needed variety and more experimental works. So I bought The Black Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce – anything but cheery. Then that pesky Anthony from Times Flow Stemmed mentioned Jane Bowles, so I had to track down a second-hand copy of Two Serious Ladies. I also happened to pop into the vintage Penguin section of Waterstones Gower Street and found one of my favourite Ngaio Marshes Artists in Crime, plus The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson. This latter author had been mentioned and reviewed recently by Ali, and you know what a weakling I am when it comes to your recommendations.

Other books arrived by prior appointment. Asymptote Book Club’s May offer was Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan from China – I’m a great fan of both Chinese literature and families (and bean paste, although I prefer it in my desserts usually), so this is a must-read-next. For review, I received a Greek book (perfect description of the surreal post-crisis Athens and homeless lifestyle) Baby Blue by Pol Koutsakis from Bitter Lemon Press. By way of contrast, I also received a noir novel set in rural Lancashire, Mere by Carol Fenlon, from Thunderpoint Publishing. In electronic format I received two jet-setter books (crime with an international setting) Return to Hiroshima by Belgian author Bob van Laerhoven and Dead in the Water by Simon Bower. Last but by no means least, I couldn’t resist getting Roxanne Bouchard’s We were the Salt of the Sea, because: Quebec, Orenda Books, special offer on Kindle!

In terms of borrowing, I’ve reserved Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot at my local library, but will only get to read them after the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner has been announced.

And for my #20booksofsummer update, I’ve taken just 2 days to read the delightfully sunny Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by German author (of Italian origin) Mario Giordano. It’s like an expat version of Camilleri’s Montalbano, but with a feisty middle-aged woman as the main protagonist. 1 down, 19 to go! Next one I am already halfway through is The Single Mums’ Mansion, which I thought would also be lovely comedic escapism. But alas, it’s a little too much about divorce and bad behaviours, so may not be the best escapism in my current situation!

#20BooksofSummer Books 10-13

I may have been offline for a while, but I was still busy reading towards the end of July (although things have slowed down since). I managed to finish another 4 of my 20 books of summer. I am doubtful, however, that I will manage to finish all 20 of them in the week or so that I have left for this challenge. Besides, I’m also trying to add at least one book for Women in Translation Month and then embark on my Jean Rhys reread. I also have to prepare some Classics in September for Crime Fiction Lover, so all in all, a good reading time ahead, if I can clear my clutter and get my act together.

It’s been such a long time since I finished these books (and I did not take notes at the time, which is VERY BAD practice, I’m sure you’ll agree), that all I can offer here are my unfiltered reactions to them, rather than a proper in-depth book review.

ThinAir10 – Michelle Paver: Thin Air

By strange coincidence, I read a lighter-hearted version of a climb of Kanchenjunga in Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale just a few days later, but this third highest peak in the Himalayas has had its fair share of mountaineering accidents. Above all, it is renowned for a demon or deity resident at the very top, which has meant in practice that all mountaineers have stopped just short of the actual summit, allowing the mountain to remain inviolate.

It’s on this tradition that Michelle Paver plays in this old-fashioned ghost story with plenty of claustrophobia, genuine fear and a sense of adventure. I loved the historical and exotic background, days of the Empire feel to the narrative, the slightly outdated attitude towards the ‘coolies’, the set-up of a story within a story. In short, this was fantastic scene-setting, reminding me of Jules Verne or The Woman in Black or MR James. Finally, when the climb proper starts, you never quite know if it’s altitude sickness or ghosts or fear itself… A great yarn with such a remarkable sense of place and atmosphere that I felt chilled even in this heatwave!

11 – Eleanor Wasserberg: Foxlowe

There was me – my name is Green – and my little sister, Blue. There was October, who we called Toby, and Ellensia, Dylan, Liberty, Pet and Egg. There was Richard, of course, who was one of the Founders. And there was Freya.

We were the Family, but we weren’t just an ordinary family. We were a new, better kind of family.

We didn’t need to go to school, because we had a new, better kind of education. We shared everything.

FoxloweThis book does a very good job of describing the confusion and love/hate relationship that many who grow up in a cult/commune can have with the outside world, but ultimately also with the cult itself. The inward looking language and the child’s way of reasoning and justifying even bad stuff are in equal measure compelling and sinister. What makes this particularly hard to read is because it is all about the death of ideals – how a community which started off with high principles can subvert them and turn sour – a powerful metaphor about many types of human societies and cultures.

12 – Stav Sherez: The Devil’s Playground

DevilsPlaygroundThis is the debut novel by Stav Sherez, written over 10 years ago. The scene is Amsterdam, which is becoming increasingly gentrified in its tourist centre (‘Disneyland’, as a Dutch writer told me recently), but still has a sleazy underbelly and shadowy demons of an undigested past underneath its veneer of tolerance and friendliness.

A body turns up dead in a park in Amsterdam; he has a book belonging to Londoner Jon Reed in his pocket along with his telephone number. Detective Van Hijn asks Jon to identify the body, who is presumed to be the latest in a series of murders rocking the city. All that Jon knows about the dead man, however, is that he was a homeless person whom he had temporarily taken in, and who seems to have been reconnecting with his Jewish heritage, something Jon has yet to do. The detective and Jon are helped by Suze, an American student in Amsterdam, fascinated by the art of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish painter who died in a concentration camp aged 26. They uncover that the motive for the murder appears to be the finding of a hidden trove of 49 reels of film from Auschwitz that are up for auction and the hunt is on to find them.

The concentration camp theme is still shocking, although it is well trodden ground by now, but it’s the passages about self-harming and body piercing (or body mutilation) which I found most disturbing. A call for more pain in order to escape the existential pain – it’s just something that doesn’t sit well with me, no matter how much empathy I usually have for people who are very different from myself. If you can stomach this, however, it’s an atmospheric, interesting book, although perhaps it attempts to tackle too many themes at once. The scenes describing Charlotte’s life and art were of particular interest, and have since been reimagined in David Foenkinos’ book Charlotte.

Haas13 – Wolf Haas: Komm, suesser Tod (Brenner #3)

Brenner is an ex-cop who’s become an ambulance driver and his world-weary gaze and washed-up lifestyle (so typical of a middle-aged Viennese man) informs this unusual crime novel. An unusual two-in-one murder witnessed by the ambulance crew arouses his suspicion and what emerges is a scurrilously funny and sarcastic story of rivalry between ambulance services. You probably have to be Viennese to fully appreciate the black humour and dialect, while the intrusive narrator who seems to comment on every single action or decision is an acquired taste. But, if you’re in the mood for it, it’s a wickedly funny read and probably devilishly hard to translate. [Although it has apparently been translated as Come, Sweet Death and published by Melville International Crime.]

 

 

 

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