All the Summer Reading Challenges

I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite three weeks of ‘holidays’, it’s been a difficult summer personally, and this has been reflected in my reading. I have failed in virtually all my reading challenges (not that I take the word ‘failure’ terribly seriously in this context). I’ve read more than #20BooksofSummer, but few of them were on my original list. I read a couple of books in July for Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month, but never got around to reviewing them. I’ve also read quite a few #WomeninTranlation books in August (and generally – this is probably one of my favourite themes in reading) but I have no intention to provide carefully considered, deep reviews of any of them.

I just can’t. I don’t have the mental or physical capacity at the moment. It’s a shame, there will be a gap when I look back on my reading and wish I’d done more. In the meantime, here are some very brief and hopefully pithy remarks (I hesitate to call them reviews) about each of them. I have already shared my escapist reading with you, here are the more ‘serious’ reads.

July Reading

I read 12 books that month, of which three escapist crime novels and four for work purposes (two books in German and two translations from the Catalan). I skimmed through two very interesting but simply far too long ones (for my levels of concentration and busy-ness that month): The Shadowy Third about one of Elizabeth Bowen’s love affairs and the letters exchanged and Devil-Land about 17th century Britain. Which leaves only three books, two of which fit into the Spanish/Portuguese language reading challenge.

Maria Judite de Carvalho: Empty Wardrobes, transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Two Lines Press, 2021.

I interpret the title as the emptiness that many women feel when they realise that the people or the love that they held dear have let them down, that sentiments and trust were illusory, and that they have no one but themselves to rely on. It’s a sombre yet depressingly accurate view of heterosexual relationships, shared by three generations of women in the same family, although not necessarily from a position of solidarity. Written in 1966, in a very Catholic and patriarchal Portugal where women had few choices outside the domestic sphere, there is nevertheless much that is still recognisable today. It also reminds me of Enchi Fumiko’s work, particularly The Waiting Years, although that refers to even more demeaning conditions for women in Meiji Japan.

He would arrive home, give me a peck on the cheek, drink his usual glass of whisky, then tell me all about his day in great detail, and so I thought he really loved and needed me. In fact, I was merely a convenient body beside him, an ever-attentive audience always ready to express unconditional admiration when he told me of yet another professional triumph… he needed that applause at home as well, in order to feel he was lord of a little tailor-made world all his own.

For far more detailed and sensitive reading of this book, do read Jacqui’s blog.

Gabriela CabezĂłn CĂĄmara: Slum Virgin, transl. Frances Riddle, Charco Press, 2017.

This one is the exact opposite of the quieter, more restrained style of Empty Wardrobes. It is a riot of events, characters, stories and style, with elements of tragedy, melodrama, comedy and farce all jostling for attention within its pages. Cleopatra is a trans prostitute in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, but renounces her work once she has a revelation from the Virgin Mary. Quity is an ambitious journalist keen to cover the story, but ends up falling for Cleo instead. Told in short chapters alternating between the highly individualistic voices of these two characters, filled with colourful slang, replete with religious references and superstition, we encounter a seamy, corrupt but energetic world reminiscent of Jorge Amado’s The War of the Saints.

In the extract below, Cleo is receiving all sorts of gifts from people in the flooded slum who are hoping for miracle cures:

Then with a practicality that surprised me and continues to surprise me in a person who speaks with celestial beings, Cleo told us that God loved us, that through God we could love each other, and that we should have breakfast. It was time and it was freezing cold, and first things first. We could always pray later.

Shirley Jackson: The Sundial, Penguin Modern Classics (first published in 1958)

No one can portray the suffocating qualities of a family and a house better than Shirley Jackson, a real antithesis to the wholesome image of home and hearth projected in the United States in the 1950s. This novel portrays a very strange family, all living in a sinister home with surrealist traits (like being in an Escher drawing), an ‘end of the world’ prophecy which binds them and excludes everyone outside their property. But are the dangers truly in the outside world or within their ‘safe’ house and ‘in-group’? We know that Jackson was agoraphobic at various points in her life, but we also know that she considered the family home to be the most perilous and vicious place too. I don’t want to put you off by the rather serious subject matter and the magical realism style – it is also very sharp, witty and downright funny.

Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite authors, and occupies pride of place on my bedside table: go and read her, pronto, if you haven’t already done so, whether you start with this or with her more famous (but less funny) novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House.

August Reading

This month was less busy but far worse in terms of health, worries and need for distraction. Of the 16 books I read, 13 were escapist literature. Two of the crime novels fitted into the #WITMonth category (one from Turkey, one from Romania), as did two of the more ‘serious’ reads. One was a chunkster, the International Booker Prize Winner Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated (and perhaps annotated/interpreted, as she freely admits) by Daisy Rockwell. I still hope to give it a proper review at some point, and we have a Book Club meeting about it next Monday, so I will leave it for later.

Kawakami Mieko: Ms Ice Sandwich, transl. Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press, 2013.

This is an early work by Kawakami, a slight novella about an adolescent boy starting to learn more about life and people and empathy, through his harmless crush on the unusual looking lady who makes and sells sandwiches at the local supermarket. It is an understated story of loneliness, being ‘different’, feeling unable to stand by your convictions or support the people you love. Far more restrained than Heaven, but conveys a lot in just a few pages. And, it’s a personal preference, but I really like the way Louise Heal Kawai translates Kawakami and wish that we had more of her books featuring this translator! For a more thorough review, please see Tony’s. I do love the cover, though!

Tanya Shadrick: The Cure for Sleep

I picked this one rather randomly, after some recommendations on Twitter. It is the memoir of a woman who nearly died after the birth of her son and resolved thereafter to lead a braver and more creative life, to stop shrinking away from opportunity and hide in routine. It is the most devastatingly honest memoir I have read that does not feature any descriptions of addiction or debilitating health issues. It lays bare all the ambiguities of married life and motherhood, and the eternal conflict between the anchored ‘real’ life and the creative life. I don’t think I could ever be so frank, but that is why I prefer to write fiction rather than memoir.

As someone who constantly feels that I have buried myself too much in domesticity and looking after others, I found this book quite inspiring, although just a tad overwritten at times.

20 Books of Summer

So how did I do in my fabled (and very flexible) 20 Books of Summer challenge? Thanks to my discipline in June, I managed to read 13 books overall (8 in French in June, 2 Spanish/Portuguese ones in July, 3 from the random choices in August). I am currently reading the 14th one from the list, the Berlin-set SchÀfchen im Trockenen, but I doubt I will finish it by the 1st of September. Not quite as bad as I expected!

French in June and #20Books: Romain Gary

Romain Gary in 1956, roughly around the time he would have been writing this book – there aren’t many pictures of him looking very corporate and diplomatic.

Book 7/20: Romain Gary: L’Homme a la colombe (writing as Fosco Sinibaldi)

An unusual book for my next French in June read (which I also conveniently snuck in my #20Books of Summer pile), one that I would never have come across if it hadn’t been suggested to me by Emma, inveterate Romain Gary lover and reviewer of a wide range of literature on her always enticing Book Around the Corner blog. You can read Emma’s thoughts on this book here.

I love books about international organisations such as the UN. My father worked for the UN International Development Organisation for quite a large chunk of the 1970s and 80s, so I grew up hearing plenty about the idealism and the disappointments, the successes and the nastier politicking side of things. What is surprising, however, is that Romain Gary seems to have lost his innocence and hope for the UN quite a bit sooner than most people, for he published this hard-hitting satire about the organisation in 1958 (under a pseudonym, of course). Shirley Hazzard published her satire People in Glass Houses roughly ten years later.

The Secretary-General of the UN and his two most trusted advisors (incidentally, because of the nationalities of the people involved, it sounds a bit like the beginning of a joke: a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Persian) are worried when they find out that an outsider, a man with a dove, has managed to penetrate the heavily-guarded building and set himself up in a secret location, a room that does not appear on any architectural plan, that no one seems to know anything about.

At first no one, not even the young intruder himself, seems to know what the purpose of this ‘protest’ is. Then the young man goes on a hunger strike and they are forced to conclude that he is of that rare category, a dreamer and believer in the principles of the UN. I loved the contrast between the suave, poetical Persian Bagtir and the very pragmatic Englishman Praiseworthy (while the Frenchman burst into tears dramatically and easily):

‘Instead of hiding his presence, I would suggest, on the contrary, that you tell the press. It is very poetical. Omar Khayam says that Allah only listens to the prayers in a new mosque when a swallow has made a nest under its roof…

‘That’s all very well, but if the public opinion here in America finds out that we are spending twenty million dollars per year to shelter a swallow, that could cause great trouble. Alas, America is a very prosaic country.’

The young man, the son of a Texas millionaire, is trying to demonstrate that Americans too can be idealistic, that they can die for an idea, and not just be consumers obsessed by wealth. But he isn’t acting on his own – he has his own aiders and abetters, including con-men, gamblers, a girlfriend and a Hopi chief who has become a shoeshine boy in the building, to remind people with lofty ideas that they too have feet and need to be more down-to-earth. Things don’t quite go according to plan, however – the public seems to take the man with the dove at face value, rather than understand the profound irony, and so his behaviour becomes more and more extreme.

The story is a complete farce, absurd yet with bite. There is much to enjoy in the sarcasm with which Gary describes the UN’s high officials’ plans for how to resolve the problem – a lesson for politicians everywhere!

‘Above all, we musn’t give the impression that we are against him, that the UN refuses to provide shelter to the man with the dove. We therefore have to welcome him publicly, even formally, showing our respect for the ideal he is defending, which is after all our ideals, and then channel all that enthusiasm and sympathy towards us… you can be sure that once he enters these walls, he will cease to be a problem. He will get worn out, no longer attract attention, disappear bit by bit… What is essential is that we appropriate him. After that, we no longer need to worry – he will become an abstration. After all, that is one of the reasons for our success: we transform all problems and realities into abstractions, empty them of any real content.’

As you might imagine, Romain Gary, as a working diplomat for France at the time, had to publish this book under a pseudonym. He never acknowledged the work as his own or wished to see it reissued; however, an edited version was found among his papers after his death, so he didn’t fully abandon it either. Many of us now share his disenchantment with international organisations and national governments: although it is a slight work compared to his other, later novels, it remains a sharp yet utterly readable condemnation of politics.

French in June and #20Books: Maylis de Kerangal

Book 6/20: Maylis de Kerangal: Painting Time, transl. Jessica Moore, Maclehose Press, 2021.

I read this book in parallel in French and English, because I had such a wonderful time doing this with her previous book to be translated by Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (there is also a US translation by Sam Taylor, called The Heart). She appears to be the kind of writer who develops a passion for a niche topic of research (organ transplants, building a bridge, becoming a chef, or decorative or trompe l’oeil painting) and then makes a novel out of it. In some cases it works (I found Mend the Living very moving and lyrical), but less so in others. For me, Painting Time (Un monde Ă  portĂ©e de main) did not quite take flight and soar.

It’s the story of Paula Karst, a young Frenchwoman, who realises she is not quite good enough to be a ‘proper’ painter, and therefore chooses to go instead to the ‘trompe l’oeil’ master class in Brussels. Here she not only immerses herself in the highly specialised art of imitating materials such as wood, marble, minerals, even animal realm, but also befriends the taciturn, somewhat mysterious Jonas, who becomes her flatmate, and the tall, stroppy former nightclub bouncer Kate from Scotland. We follow Paula’s steep learning curve, the hard work but also the unlearning that she has to do, so that she can see every object in a new light and take nothing for granted. She ends up appreciating the man-made objects more than the natural ones, because of all the effort that goes into them.

What follows then is a sort of meandering tale of Paula’s post-graduation freelance career, moving from one house-painting job to another, taking in some film sets in Cinecitta in Rome and in Moscow along the way, and then ending in Lascaux, where she is involved in the task of recreating the famous cave paintings for a new generation of tourists (without damaging the fragile precious heritage). I can see that the author draws parallels between a coming-of-age story and mastering one’s craft, that the fakery of the art Paula engages in, the ‘creating the illusion of reality’ aspect of her work, raises questions about what is ‘real’, what is ‘unreal’, about falling for appearances – and how that sometimes is a good thing. Also, about how we attribute value to things in general and art in particular.

However, I could have done without the in-between bits. The scenes in the book which really captured my imagination, and where the language really came into its own, were the ones where she is learning her craft in Brussels, especially when painting her end-of-year project, and then the final chapters at the caves of Lascaux. Everything else felt like filler and the characters never really came to life for me: her friends Kate and Jonas just seemed shadowy or flat, and so their friendship never felt entirely plausible or meaningful. She also tries to cram too much into this book: the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a bit of a rant about global nomadic freelancers, a desultory, passionless love affair.

This time the American edition kept the same translator – but what were they thinking with that cover?

I think this lack of attachment readers might feel for the characters is due in large part to de Kerangal’s idiosyncratic style, which doesn’t always translate well into English. She loves her long sentences, with endless clauses and subclauses, often zooming both in and out on a subject in the space of a single paragraph. Her long technical passages can become tedious if you are not particularly interested in the subject; not even her effort to equate it with a writer’s creative process can salvage it. At the same time, she is very deliberate in creating passages where the factual becomes poetical, where she tries to breathe lyrical life into those details, an intriguing mix of detachment and purple prose. This often happens when she describes someone talking passionately about something, for example, when Jonas finally loses his reserve and describes at length the layers of rocks and soil in a quarry. Or in the final section, when they come face to face with the real prehistoric paintings, a twenty-thousand old fish, and realise how transient human life, with all its violence and catastrophes, is on earth.

Original in FrenchTranslation
Lepoisson au-dessus de leur tĂȘte rĂ©vĂ©lait la mĂ©moire accumulĂ©e au
fond des ocĂ©ans, l’érosion des calcaires, le dĂ©placement des riviĂšres,
la migration des hommes, des durĂ©es qui coexistaient avec l’état de
choc du pays, la colùre, la tristesse, les chaünes d’information
continue qui écopaient le temps à longueur de journée pendant que
les deux terroristes poursuivaient leur cavale mortifĂšre : il connectait
l’histoire du monde et leur vie humaine.
The fish above their heads reveals the memory accumulated at the bottom of the oceans, the erosion of the limestone, the movement of the rivers, the migration of humans, these lengths of time that coexist with the state of shock their country is in now, the anger, sorrow, the twenty-four-hour news channels that bail out time all day long while the two terrorists continue on their deadly run; it connects the history of the world to their fragile human life.

I expected to like this book far more than Mend the Living (after all, I appreciate and think I understand art more than the minutiae of heart transplants), but in the end it did not quite gel for me. However, I have another of her books, an earlier one, called Corniche Kennedy, which is about a group of young friends growing up and being daredevils in Marseille. Let’s see if she manages to capture the atmosphere of that city as well as my beloved Izzo!

Coincidentally, I was concurrently reading Long Live Great Bardfield (available from Persephone Press), the autobiography of Tirzah Greenwood, Eric Ravilious’ wife and a talented artist in her own right. She too seemed to display the lack of confidence in her work and relationships that Paula has too. Tirzah was modest about her achievements, but she is a funny and keen observer of the egos and pretentions of their bohemian friends. She ended up specialising quite a bit in woodcuts and hand marbled papers, while she raised three children and tried to be modern and understanding about her husband’s affairs. Perhaps de Kerangal’s Paula is safer staying single and emotionally detached!

French in June and #20Books: Three Writers of Noir

It’s no secret that I like noir fiction, especially when it is not too macho and the (usually male) narrator reveals vulnerability. That’s why two of the authors below are firmly among my favourites, while Janis Otsiemi is new to me, but after hearing him speak in Lyon in 2016, I thought he sounded very interesting. All three of them are (or were) also quite politically engaged, and I wonder if noir is a response to a certain political frame of mind.

Book 3/20: Pascal Garnier: Nul n’est Ă  l’abri du succĂšs (2000) (literally: Nobody’s safe from success)

Translated as C’est la Vie (tr. Jane Aitken), Gallic Books, 2019.

This is the slim volume I was lucky enough to find signed by the author (dedicated to Marie Louise, which is ALMOST Marina Sofia, don’t you agree?) in a second-hand bookshop in Lyon. This was his sixth or seven novel for adults, although it seems to be one of the last to be translated into English. Prior to that, he had a long career as a children’s book author, and the juxtaposition of his hilarious yet slightly surreal kids’ fantasy books with his very dark and violent novels always makes me smile.

The ‘hero’ of the story (who is never a hero, if you know your Garnier) is Jeff Colombier, a has-been middle-aged writer, drinking too much, whose relationships with women have come to nothing, and whose grown-up son despises him. But then things seem to turn around for him when he wins an important literary prize. Although he makes a fool of himself on TV, he is nevertheless feted and suddenly touring all over France. He runs away from all these trappings of success to spend some time with his son (who has become a drug dealer) in an attempt to recapture his youth.

Of course things go awry, although perhaps not quite as violently as in some of the other Garnier novels. Which might be a relief for some readers, but I feel it also lacks some of the perception and depth of novels like How’s the Pain or Moon in a Dead Eye. It is in essence the dry, witty description of a man’s midlife crisis, with additional swipes at the Parisian literary world, womanising and parenting. This is his second novel featuring an author, and there possibly are some knowing autobiographical nods in this one, but I feel it was much better done in The Eskimo Solution. One for Garnier completists (and worth it for his signature alone in my case).

Book 4/20: Jean-Claude Izzo: L’aride des jours (1999) (literally: Barren/Arid Days), with photographs by Catherine-Bouretz-Izzo.

A bit of an unusual book this, a poetry collection by an author best known for his neo-noir Marseille Trilogy. Yet Izzo started out by publishing several volumes of poetry in the 1970s before switching to prose and then returned to poetry twenty years later in 1997 for the remainder of his short life. This volume is illustrated with photos by his wife, mostly close-ups of rocks and cliffs around Marseille.

In fact, you might argue that all of Izzo’s work is a love-song to the city of Marseille and the Mediterranean, without being blind to the destructive forces of either. His work has often been described as combining ‘black and blue’ – the blackest depths of noir, even the ‘blues’ (music also plays an important part in his work), but also the clear blue of the sea representing optimism, the colour of hope and dreams.

His poetry is so evocative of place, of the Mediterranean landscape in all its seasons. There is something so immediate about his descriptions, very sensual, dropping you in the middle of a grassy field, or with your fingers scrabbling in red earth, the warmth of the sun against your skin. I am afraid you will have to take my word for it, because I find it very difficult to translate poetry. It sounds rather inane when I just capture the meaning of the words but not the whole atmosphere, soundscape and colour.

No reference points around here.

Nothing but the sun.

Who says: here and now.

Our place is here, under the shoulder of the sun

on the blue stones, in the bosom of the grass,

the moan of the midi.

Izzo was a political journalist as well as a writer, but poetry seems to have been his shelter. He used to say that he loved telling stories, but that he felt most alive when writing poetry. Poetry helped keep him le plus fidùle possible à l’innocence (as close as possible to innocence).

Book 5/20: Janis Otsiemi: La vie est un sale boulot (2009) [literally: Life’s a dirty business]

This novel is a more straightforward piece of crime fiction, set in Libreville, Gabon. Chicano has just been released from prison (possibly thanks to a case of mistaken identity) after serving four years for a burglary that went wrong. He has sworn to lead a good life from now on, but easier said than done. How can you possibly hope to succeed, when you have no education, no skills, no supportive family or girlfriend, in a country where corruption reigns supreme? Needless to say, Chicano gets sucked back into his criminal gang and things go as well as might be expected.

The story is relatively simple and predictable, and it’s perhaps fair to say that it is one of the author’s earliest novels – he has written around nine of them by now, all featuring the inspectors Koumba and Owoula. But this is not really a police procedural – for the police, just like pretty much all of the public services in Gabon, are corrupt, biased and incompetent. This is not a pretty picture that Otsiemi paints of his country, but it is full of energy and wit. The noise, heat and constant movement of the city streets and marketplaces really come to life.

I also loved the examples of non-standard French being used throughout (some of them explained in footnotes, others perfectly comprehensible but making me smile in the body of the text). For example, the ‘breadwinner’ becomes the ‘manioc winner’ (gagne-pain –> gagne-manioc), underpants are ‘porte-fesses’ (buttock-carriers), the mistress is known as ‘the second office’ and so on. Despite the best efforts of the AcadĂ©mie française, the French language remains alive, diverse and constantly kicking!

French in June and #20Books: Women’s Midlife Crisis

Sophie Divry: La condition pavillonnaire (Book 2 of #20Books of Summer)

This book has been translated as Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by the very talented author and translator Alison Anderson, and the title does rather give you an idea of what the book is about. Unlike the original Emma Bovary, however, the narrator known only as M.A.(pronounced just like Emma in French) does not have an unhappy ending. Instead, we have a picture of her whole life, from childhood to death, covering around 75 years of French social history from the 1950s to roughly 2025.

If you compare it with another recent book that traces a character’s entire life story (rather than being plot-driven), A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, you might find this book profoundly annoying. Because, unlike with Andreas, no real tragedy befalls M.A.: she does not face war or destruction or even major familial dramas and losses. She has loving, if rather dull parents, she gets a chance to go to university, she marries, has healthy children, and, after some initial financial worries, soon leads a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle with all the household consumer goods considered necessary at the time. Yet, despite all this, she is often bored and unhappy, and embarks upon an affair with a work colleague. But this only brings momentary excitement to her life, and all her other attempts to liven things up – the friendships, the hobbies, psychotherapy – fall flat. This flatness is echoed in the idiosyncratic narrative style – instead of a first person narrator, we have the unusual second person – and this brings MA much closer to us. She is not a particularly sympathetic character, but her story is fairly typical of her generation (and probably ours as well) and the tediousness of everyday life is conveyed not only through the observation of all the tiny details of family life (the interruptions during supper, for example), but also with exhaustive descriptions of the fridge or the car, all adding to that sense of flatness and information overwhelm.

‘You couldn’t express clearly this sense of dissatisfaction because – as all the images from around the world kept reminding you – you had everything you needed to be happy. In your country there were no major floods, no wars, no epidemics, people died of old age, there was no bankruptcy, just a demanding career for your husband and worryies about the children’s future. Later, your mother will die in a room with dirty curtains, you will be made redundant, you will be burgled, but you will never experience anything major, you will never win the lottery or be kidnapped and have your fifteen minutes of fame.’

(my translation)

I personally much preferred Divry’s funnier and more overtly militant novel When the Devil Comes Out of the Bathroom, but I can see what she was trying to do here. It is perhaps also a good warning to not waste your life, and to realise what really matters to you and make the most of it.

Emily Itami: Fault Lines

The wife in this case is Japanese and she too seems to have everything she needs to be happy, at least on paper. Mizuki is a housewife, after a rather lacklustre singing career, with two cute children and a successful professional husband, living in a posh part of Tokyo. Yet she too is discontented with her life, seriously considering throwing herself off the balcony where she escapes to smoke a cigarette. She also embarks upon an affair, but soon realises that she probably lacks the courage or conviction to uproot her life, so it cannot last.

This story focuses on a limited time period of Mizuki’s life, a few months at most, and it is told from the first person point of view, so there is a lot more emotion, anger, poignancy and sense of yearning than in Divry’s almost clinical detachment (and near-imperatives). Mizuki feels invisible and unwanted, and she desperately longs to be loved, to feel attractive once more.

He’s made me invisible. With all the options I had, I chose him, chose him for life, for living, and he’s frozen me out into an existence that isn’t living at all. I’m in a cage without bars and I’m screaming but nobody can hear. I’m not even middle-aged yet and he’s faded me into the background.

The author suggests that the reason Mizuki is so frustrated with her life is because she has lived for a while in the United States, and has been exposed to different expectations and lifestyles, much like the author herself (who I suspect is half-Japanese and spent her childhood there, but now lives in the UK). However, I was also amused by the astute observations of the impact of American self-help gurus on Japanese culture.

All the talks are about accepting yourself as you are, being kind to yourself, seeing yourself as just one human out of many, doing your best, with as much right to be here as everybody else. I like the idea, and I find the talks relaxing, but if I think about it too much, the idea of self-acceptance jars. Some people, surely, are unacceptable, and the makers of the recordings don’t know if I’m one of those people or not. How do they know if I phone my mother regularly, or separate my recycling, or keep my terrace free of furniture that could fly away in a typhoon, or tell the truth? You can accept yourself, here, but only if you’re fulfilling your obligation to society. I guess that’s why America is the land of the free, but we have lower crime rates and litter-free streets.

I actually enjoyed this more than I expected – the adultery side of things was sensitively done, not that I am squeamish about such things in my reading (and we hear almost by-the-by that her husband had cheated on her previously too). It was certainly more heartfelt than M.A.’s pathetic self-delusions with her affair, there was a dreaminess and sweetness to it which captivated me.

I suppose these two books were a continuation of the theme of aging, loneliness, and a woman’s identity that I started reading about in Simone de Beauvoir. These stories can occasionally feel self-indulgent (when we compare them to the more traumatic stories of women’s lives in other places, classes or historical periods), but after ploughing through so much literature about white men’s midlife crisis in the past, I am willing to lend my ear to these stories as well.

August and #20BooksofSummer Summary

I did really well with my August reading – perhaps a combination of less busy period at work and the boys spending the second half of August in Greece. So I did no cooking and the bare minimum of cleaning or gardening, and instead just read a lot and watched films.

So this month I read no less than 14 books, of which the majority (eight) were for #WITMonth, and seven of them also fell into the original #20BooksofSummer plan. Eleven of the books were by women writers, four were crime or crime-adjacent genres and three were non-fiction (this last is probably a record for me, as I tend to read very little non-fiction).

In case you missed any of the #WITMonth review posts, here they are again:

In addition to the #WITMonth reading, I also read and reviewed Stamboul Train by Graham Greene and a memoir of Eton College.

However, it was very disappointing to realise that although I did get to read all of my 20 Books of Summer (with a couple of last-minute swaps), all of them on Kindle (which I still see as very much a second-rate kind of reading experience) in an effort to bring down my formidable TBR amount on Netgalley… my feedback ratio has only gone up two percentage points – from 53% to 55%. So I would say it was definitely not worth it! I also made it more difficult on myself by sticking to a different theme each month: the latest releases for June, the oldest on my Netgalley pile for July, and Women in Translation for August.

This strictly regimented approach over the past three months had me very nearly losing my pleasure of reading. There were two books I abandoned, which is still a rare occurrence for me. Throughout this predominantly Kindly experience (22 out of the total of 34 books read since the start of June), I had to alternate with some physical books, either from my own bookshelves, or more frequently random ones picked up from the library, to ease my restlessness and mounting rebellion.

Therefore, September will be a month of rest and relaxation, reading whatever I please, at whim. If the library books I fancied when seeing them on the shelves there fail to grip my imagination once I get home, I will return them unread, without a guilty conscience. My beautiful new edition of the Cazalet Chronicles is winking at me from the bookshelf in the hallway, so I might plunge into that. But am I ready for six books in a row? There are a couple of books I want to read (in the original languages) for Corylus purposes, but other than that, I’ll be free to roam…

Well, I say that, but I will be reading Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees for the London Reads the World Book Club (@LdnReadstheWorld on Twitter) and Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River for the Virtual Crime Book Club run by @RebeccaJBradley, plus I want to read a lighter book set in Durham, as if in preparation for my older son going there to university… etc etc. Or, as the French would call it, et patati et patata!

#WITMonth: Minae Mizumura and Mireille Gansel

Also #20BooksofSummer No. 18 and 19 (with a bit of cheating – I did not have the Gansel originally on my list, as it is not an e-book, but after attending the BCLT Summer School, I had to get it)

Now that I’ve written at length about all the soul searching these two books provoked in me, it’s time to actually engage with them as a reviewer. I am a bit sorry that they don’t get a review each, but I have left it too late to get all the reviews done for #WITMonth.

Minae Mizumura: An I-Novel, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter (in collaboration with the author), Columbia University Press.

It helps that Juliet Winters Carpenter is one of my favourite translators from Japanese currently working; it also helps that I had already fallen in love with Mizumura via her longer, later work A True Novel. Add to that the very relatable subject matter, and this has the potential to become a classic on my shelves. The author is a linguist and academic, and shares much of the biographical detail with the protagonist (also called Minae Mizumura) in this novel. Of course, ‘I-novels’, where it is difficult to disentangle what is fiction and what is memoir, have a long tradition in Japan, and this was published in Japanese in 1995, long before the current crop of popular ‘autofiction’ titles in English.

The story takes place over the course of a day, mostly through telephone conversations between two Japanese sisters, Nanae and Minae, sparked by the realisation that it’s the twentieth anniversary since they first arrived in the United States with their parents as 14 and 10 year olds respectively. The older sister Nanae did her best to become Americanised and blend in, while Minae mythologised the country she left behind, reading only Japanese literature, never quite mastering the English language, longing to return for more than a holiday at some point.

The format of the book was revolutionary at the time: it was printed in the style of the Latin alphabet (horizontally and from left to right), as well as being liberally sprinkled with English words and expressions, to the point where it was even considered a ‘bilingual novel’. In the English translation, these English originals are highlighted in the text by using a different typeface.

As the sisters talk, they discover new things about each other, beyond the assumptions they had about how they felt between two cultures and their relationship with their parents. Aside from the personal search for cultural identity, however, the book is also full of sharp and very candid obervations of cultural differences and racism. The Japanese tend to think of themselves as culturally and materially superior to the other East Asian nations, so it is a huge shock to the girls to discover that they are simply mistaken for other Asians.

I was forced to realize something that had never before entered my mind: I was Asian. In this country, a Japanese girl of privilege was above all Asian. To remain a Japanese girl of privilege, I would have had to stay at home on the Japanese archipelago, insulated from the rest of the world. In the wider world, only white people could be truly privileged – people who, if they were thoughtful, might bear a sense of guilt over their unearned privilege or at least feel it to be a burden.

The gradual discovery that I was Asian wasn’t shocking in and of itself. The shock I felt came from being lumped together with people whom Westerners regarded as Others – as did I… To be lumped together with those whom in some hidden corner of my mind I had always blithely congratulated myself on being distinct from was worse than shocking. It was humiliating.

There are likewise some thought-provoking scenes about what the West expects from other cultures (i.e. stereotpes, most frequently). For example, in one of her English classes with a very supportive teacher, Minae writes an essay about her favourite autumn moments, in which she relies heavily not so much on her personal experience of Japan (which she can barely remember, and which was more urban than rural), but on what she has gleaned from reading Japanese literature:

That compostion Mr Keith praised so highly might well have been a mere string of Japanese platitudes. Could commonplace emotions and unoriginal expressions… transform into something more remarkable when rendered in a different language?

Is this what is appreciated in the Western world because this is what we expect and want to see of Japan, rather than messiness, a variety of styles, Western influences and so on?

At some point, Minae starts wondering about her own almost perverse stubbornness in wanting to write in Japanese, a much less significant language than English on a global scale. You cannot help but think the author herself is expressing her own surprise at her choice, but also reiterating her commitment to her mothertongue.

The book was written at the time of Japanese economic boom, when many young Japanese were studying or living abroad. As the sisters discuss Minae’s ‘need’ to return to a Japan which may be nothing like what she remembers or desires, it felt at times like the author was laying out the pros and cons of moving back to the country for all of those young people. She points out the irony that the Japanese word for ‘hometown’ (furusato) evokes old temples and picturesque rural landscapes, but that in fact the rice paddies have been paved over and converted into cheap housing in rapid urbanisation.

Before my eyes there emerged a vision of ugly cities all alike and small towns dismal in their sameness. A nation that as it rose to become a major economic power had become more and more stunted in spirit; a nation without a soul; a nation of little people… or was my negativity toward Japan only defensive, a hedge against the predictable anticlimax of my return?

Mireille Gansel: Translation as Transhumance, transl. Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives.

Gansel grew up in France, in a family of Jewish refugees who spoke many languages and had experienced many shifts in borders over their lifetime: German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Hebrew and of course French. The German she instinctively gravitated towards was a global sort of German of the 19th and early 20th centuries, rather like the global English of today. The German of a world that is no more – word of warning perhaps to those who think that English will be the world language forever.

This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through the generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and wasy of speaking. This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language. If I were to hold on to just one word, it would be innig – profound, intense, fervent.

In the 1960s and 70s, Gansel translated poets from East Germany and Vietnam, to help the world to understand what was going behind walls or behind reports of war. She spent two years learning Vietnamese and went to Vietnam to immerse herself in the culture, as well as working with a Vietnamese poet to fully absorb the subtexts. I was just so impressed by her humility as a translator, by her willingness to always learn more, her ability to admit to making mistakes in the effort to be as truthful and loyal to the original as possible.

At that moment, I understood translation both as risk-taking and continual re-examination, of even a single word – a delicate seismograph at the heart of time.

Translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between the lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.

The third experience she writes about in this far too brief work is her attempt to retrace the steps of Eugenie Goldstern, an Austrian-Jewish anthropologist who conducted research into Alpine cultures, centred mainly on Switzerland, but in fact transcending borders and cross-pollinating, being open to all sorts of different interpretations and complementary knowledge. This is where she has her most profound insight into what it means to be a translator:

… it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other. That was perhaps my most essential lesson in translation.

I wonder if both Mizumura and Gansel demonstrate (through their biographies and their works) that the best kind of translator or cultural bridge-builder is someone who never quite fits into any of the cultural skins that they might put on. There is always a slight gap, a slight feeling of otherness and strangeness. Is it possible that, when you cease to be uncomfortable, when the skin fits too snugly, you become somewhat insensitive to nuance, blinded, and unable to convey that inner core where both similarity and difference reside?

#WITMonth: The Two Violets – One Abandoned, One Success

Also my #20BooksofSummer Nos. 16 and 17. I can count the abandoned one, can’t I, since I gave up on it about two thirds of the way through? By complete coincidence, the main protagonist in each of these novels is called Violette or Violeta.

Valérie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers, transl. Hildegarde Serle

There was something rather endearing about the Violette in this novel, a much put-upon woman with a good-for-nothing husband, who suffers that most unbearable of losses, the death of her young daughter. With her patience and openness to helping others (even when they take advantage of her), she reminded me of FelicitĂ© in Flaubert’s Un cƓur simple. Yet the author has to give the protagonist a chance at remaking her life, learning to love and live again, because the story is set in the present-day (or thereabouts – with talk of the automation of the barrier at the train crossing, which Violette was originally operating).

This is the second book about a cemetery that I’ve read in the last year, after The Field by Robert Seethaler. Although I complained that one was a little overlong, it was certainly more interesting in format, with the voices of the dead speaking to us directly. Here, the story is resolutely Violette’s, although we do get the occasional chapter from the perspective of some of the people around her.

Although I enjoyed parts of the book, I simply did not feel the urge to pick it up, and really struggled to read more than a few pages at a time. It felt predictable, the characters simply refused to come to life for me (with the exception of Violette herself) and the little philosophical observations often felt trite. I had read so many good reviews from bloggers I love that I probably stuck with it for far longer than I should have, and it impinged upon my ability to read and enjoy other books for about a week. I felt relieved when I finally gave myself permission to leave it behind.

Dulce Maria Cardoso: Violeta Among the Stars, transl. Ángel Gurría Quintan

This is more familiar territory for me: a dark, sardonic, unlikeable main character, an uncompromising experimental style that pulls you right in if you are in the right mood. I guess I just don’t do well as a reader on the more ‘charming’ side of the spectrum!

Much has been made of this being yet another example of a novel in one sentence… except that there is a reason for it in this case , for these are the jumbled up thoughts of Violeta, who has just overturned her car in an accident and sees her life flash before her eyes. Trains of thoughts come and stop abruptly, going nowhere; there are certain verbal tics and repetitions; we circle further and further back to unpick Violeta’s past and how she ended up driving so fast and recklessly. We discover that recklessness is part of Violeta’s nature, as if to counteract the image people might have of her as an overweight, plain, middle-aged woman. She is a travelling saleswoman, hawking all sorts of depilatory waxes to beauty salons (nobody wants to buy the much more expensive eco-friendly brand). She gets her kicks with lorry drivers or other strangers in the service station car parks or toilets. She is bored to death of Angelo, her dull husband ‘who never did anything exciting in his life’; she has a fiery relationship with her daughter Dora who doesn’t seem to want anything that her mother wants for her.

Alcohol and preying on strangers dull her pain momentarily, but she is all too soon brought back to earth by the disdain of others. She is regarded as a freak, but it’s not the laughter of strangers that fills her with self-revulsion and hatred of others. As we delve deeper into her family history, we find a troubled relationship with her own mother, the dreams she had to compromise early on in life, the patterns of abuse that she herself perpetuates. And throughout it all, we have Violeta, larger than life in all sense of the word, with her refusal to apologise for her sexual appetites, her relentless candour, her inability to sugarcoat anything. Yet, if we listen closely, beneath her justifications and patter, we discover all the things she is not telling us – the things she refuses to acknowledge even to herself.

There are references too to revolution and changes in the social order, as well as children out of wedlock with black men. This refers to Portugal’s not that distant past, when Angola was a Portuguese colony (until 1975) and Portugal itself was in the grip of the Estado Novo dictatorship of Salazar and his followers (which collapsed in 1974).

A breathless tour de force, which must have posed serious translation challenges. This book won’t be to everyone’s taste, but to this particular fan of dysunctional mother/daughter relationships, it rang very true.

#WITMonth: Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien

After Greenlandic youth culture and middle-school Japan, we move to a more mature milieu and slightly more touristy destination. This is also #20BooksofSummer no. 15.

Daniela Krien: Love in Five Acts (Die Liebe im Ernstfall), transl. Jamie Bulloch

Five women in their forties in post-reunification Leipzig muse about their lives and choices, and learn how to face their future in a series of linked stories.

Paula is friends with Judith, Brida is Judith’s patient, Malika is the ex-girlfriend of Brida’s ex-husband, and Jorinde is Malika’s sister. Their stories are full of the difficulties and sorrows that many women experience in their lives. They soldier on, because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Paula is mourning the death of one of her children, her marriage has broken down as a result, and she hardly dares to allow herself to be happy again. Judith distrusts men and makes fun of those she meets via online dating. She pities her friends who have to put up with disobliging husbands:

Unhappiness makes you ill, it’s as simple as that. Sometimes she’s flabbergasted by the generosity of other women. How mild they are in their judgements, how gently they devote themselves to their husbands, how magnanimously they accept and overlook their weaknesses.

And yet she has moments when she realises it is difficult to be alone and regrets her decision not to have any children.

Meanwhile, Brida rather regrets her decision to have children, because she is a writer and struggles to combine motherhood with her art. She has left her husband, but still is sexually attracted to him and suffers pangs of jealousy seeing him with his new partner. She also discovers that it’s not just the children who are affecting her creativity and this passage in particular resonated with me:

Write in peace. For years that was all she wanted. Now that she has the children only half the time, only gets half of the children’s lives, half of their joys, half of their worries, the words won’t flow. Now that joint custody… has given her the freedom to work undisturbed, the source has dried up.

Malika still mourns the end of her relationship, and feels she would have been a much more suitable wife to Brida’s ex – and a better mother. She cannot help feeling second-best in everyone’s affections, and that includes her parents, who always seem to prefer her sister Jorinde to herself. However, Jorinde, who had moved to Berlin to pursue an acting career, is far from being as successful or happy as she seems.

In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could quite easily have descended into a bit of a soap opera – and in fact, I have read novels where this is precisely what happened (e.g., Katherine Pancol may be a huge bestseller in France but I just could not get on with her work at all). However, Daniela Krien has a sober, restrained way with words and, although these are all women of similar age and background, they were very different in character and voice. You may be incensed at the ‘drippiness’ or ‘stroppiness’ of some of the women or roll your eyes at their bad choices, but this is not high melodrama or cloying sentimentality.

What this book: one that a whole swathe of readers will dismiss as ‘not interesting or relatable’, because it is about middle-aged women and mostly mothers (or those who wish to become mothers). However, we’ve been led to believe that men’s middle-aged crises are riveting to read about or watch on film. I am sure we can endure a little bit of a female perspective on that. I think it presents quite a kaleidoscope of female experience, and demonstrates that even in recent years and in developed countries, women’s choices are still not as easy or as wide-ranging as one might believe, even when they think they’ve made them of their own free will.

Her freedom had only ever been imaginary, time-restricted. Lke a sweet she was permitted to taste before it was taken away from her for good. For generations of women before her, life paths had been narrower, more fixed. Suddenly Brida imagined these women must have been happier, as they would never have lived under the illusion that they could shape their own lives, never felt the disappointment when all the open doors slammed shut at once. None of the constraints on their lives were their own responsibility. The circumstances hadn’t allowed for anything different. Brida, however, had made the choices herself.

The book not only looks at the gap between expectation and reality in the case of women’s lives, but there is also an undercurrent of the gap between hopes/promises and reality regarding the reunification of Germany. Did all the possibilities open up for those women in the new Germany? Not sure. This disenchantment is sometimes expressed in the conflict between the older and younger generation (for instance, between Malika and Jorinde and their parents) or between spouses, with Wessi husbands expecting housewives and stay-at-home-mothers far more than their Ossi wives.

A solid, interesting read. It didn’t quite wow the socks off me, like Julia Franck or Jenny Erpenback (or even Judith Schalansky), but it had depth beneath its easy reading surface.

P.S. The translation of the title is a bit unimaginative but does the job. The literal translation would be something like: ‘Love, Seriously’ or ‘Love in Case of Emergency’ – and ‘fall’ of course, although it means ‘case’, can also mean ‘fall’ (which explains the diver on the cover far better, since swimming features far less in the book than horseriding).

Two Tough Reads: Endless and Very Much Numbered Days

I’m not sure how wise it was to read these two books over the past week or so, as they were both quite harrowing in terms of subject matter. Luckily, both of them were well written and very much worth my while… but I think I will be relaxing now with some less demanding, frivolous reads.

Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days #20BooksofSummer No. 8

This is probably the oldest book I have on my Netgalley shelf (2015). It was Claire Fuller’s debut novel and in the meantime she has published three others (of which I read one, Bitter Orange) and her latest, Unsettled Ground, is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It is the story of Peggy, an eight-year-old only child of eccentric parents – a concert pianist German mother and a survivalist English father – who is abducted by her father after a family quarrel and taken to a remote cabin in the German woods. For the next nine years, her father manages to convince her that the world has ended and all the people they know have died. They have to fend for themselves – and those descriptions of the seasons and living that close to nature, with no back-up whatsoever, is miles removed from the lyrical nature writing we might have come across in recent years. This is nature at its harshest – and Peggy is completely at the mercy of her tyrannical father, whom she adores… but very gradually starts to question.

The narrative switches between two time frames. We start with the present-day, when seventeen-year-old Peggy tries to reintegrate into society and re-establish a connection with her mother and the younger brother born after she disappeared. Then we move to the child’s view of the world, the limited understanding and naivety of eight-year-old Peggy. There are hints of the shocking denouement of the novel throughout, but – call me a far too trusting reader, or else wanting to believe the best of everyone – I was completely misled by the author, believed everything she was saying, and was caught by surprise at the ending. Yet, unlike so many recent psychological thrillers that deliberately withhold information, simply to create that much-publicised ‘twist’, it felt very organic in this case and central to the story. Peggy is not an unreliable narrator because she wants to mislead us or justify her bad actions or run away from the police (as would be typical in crime fiction). It feels psychologically spot on: she is disassociating from her own experiences and still trying to figure out her own past and how she feels about it.

Quite a tour de force for a debut, and an uncompromising tale. Brutal at times, yet also hinting that so much more could have been said, that whole swathes of story or characterisation have been left out, that each character has a shady hinterland (yes, even the nine-year-old brother).

Hervé Le Corre: In the Shadow of the Fire, transl. Tina Kover

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I remain fascinated by the Paris Commune and its failures, and have read a whole array of books, both fictional and non-fictional treatments of those few months in the spring of 1871. Le Corre’s ambitious (and lengthy – 509 pages) account of the last ten days of the Commune, the so-called Bloody Week at the end of May, is soaked in blood, sweat and despair, a gruelling continuation of Zola’s Debacle, picking up just where Zola’s work tapers off.

There are so many deaths in this book, so many relentless descriptions of poverty, hunger, exploitation and killing that you need to stop every now and then and catch your breath. I admire translator Tina Kover for being able to stomach it and render Le Corre’s dense prose and vast cast of characters into something coherent. I am also really grateful that I could read it in translation, as reading it in the original French would probably have taken me a couple of months (like the Zola did).

Some of the individual stories worked better than others – the enigmatic Clovis, who has lost all belief in society and people; the loyal lovers Nicolas and Caroline who spend most of the book undergoing horrific experiences but never giving up hope that they might find each other; the brotherhood between the three comrades-in-arms Nicolas, Red and Adrien. However, that whole thread about the photographer of pornographic images and girls being kidnapped by a man with a half-destroyed face (very Phantom of the Opera, that!) felt a bit gratuitous. I suppose the intention was to add a criminal investigation to a narrative that would otherwise have been extremely depressing and predictable: we all know that the Communards got thoroughly thrashed and killed en masse (or else imprisoned and sent into exile).

Although I love crime fiction in general, I didn’t really need that particular strand in this book, as I was quite happy to read about all of the other personal and collective stories. And yet the author clearly knows what he’s doing, because in many ways, Antoine Roques, the investigator, is the most interesting character of them all.

They put the sash on him before he left the police station, assuring him that his way, his authority, conferred by the people, would be clear to all… Elected police delegate to the SĂ»retĂ© only a month ago. A bookbinder by trade. He hadn’t wanted the job, given his longstanding, deep-seated loathing of anything to do with the police. But the assemly had judged him the most sensible, the most astute.

Yet this accidental policeman becomes devoted to the idea of justice and saving people, even in the mess and confusion of the last few days of the Commune. When he hears about the abducted woman, the latest in a series to disappear from the streets of Paris, he makes it his mission to find her. What does one more dead woman matter in a landscape littered with corpses and dying ideals? That is perhaps the whole crux of the story – that kindness and respect for the individual has to matter, even in the new revolutionary world order.

Although we see events almost exclusively through the eyes of those fighting for the Commune, the author does not idealise the revolutionaries. There are profiteers and opportunistis on both sides, cowards and empty idealists as well, and we get to hear different points of view from secondary characters who have become disenchanted with the whole process. In the words of a doctor trying to deal with vast numbers of fatal injuries:

I’m afraid we’ve proclaimed a republic of words that will soon be a repbulic of he dead… It’s a bit like we doctors tried to heal injuries simply by shouting obscenities, or to cure disease using magic spells. They talk and talk at the Hotel de Ville, they gossip on the barricades; they hem and haw about what reinforcements to send against Versailles, and in the mentime Monsieur Thiers is planning his onslaught… Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken more care of the dead than the living, because at least I don’t have to lie to them about what’s coming and my inability to stop it.

The research that Le Corre has done for his book is fantastic; having myself read several history books about the Commune, I am impressed with how effortlessly he blends all that (and more) into an exciting narrative. The individual stories are less important than the vast fresco of a city in turmoil. The crowds are unruly, not everyone is truly committed to the cause, there are far too many people willing to betray them, but there are also others who put their own lives at risk to help them.

At times, some of the passages and speeches verge onto the unrealistic and didactic, but there are others where the character’s idealism and courage even in the face of defeat shines through as rather beautiful and inspiring. Here is Roques wondering if he should sneak off, leave Paris behind and join his wife and children in the countryside:

He knows the insurrection will be crushed, that this undreamt-of moment will soon come to an end. Still… This city has a unique genius for revolt and revolution. It has been starved, bombarded, humiliated, and when the powerful ones thought it was dead, it rose up, rebellious and generous, defying the old world and calling, beyond the besieged ramparts, for public well-being and a universal republic… There’s no question of leaving this city of infinite tomorrows, especially now… Paris, teh city-world where anything will always be possible.

The book is at once a eulogy to ideals whose time had not yet come, and a love story to the city of Paris, a mistress who may be old and wrinkled, full of dirt, blood and grime, but remains defiant and unbowed. Impossible to tame permanently, even if you can defeat her temporarily.