#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 I loved the historical and exotic background, days of the Empire feel to the narrative, the slightly outdated attitude towards the ‘coolies’, the set-up of a story within a story.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

 

#20booksofsummer: Books 6 and 7

After the disappointment of my 5th book choice for the #20booksof summer, Ingrid Desjour’s Les Fauves, I turned to some lighter reads on a French theme. Or at least I thought they would be lighter… They both turned out to be darker than their titles or blurbs suggested, but both of them were perfect holiday reads. Even if I don’t really have any holidays this year.

parismonamourIsabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour

Alexandra is an American woman (educated in Britain), happily married to a Frenchman and living a golden life in Paris. Or so she thinks. But then her mother puts the thought into her head that her husband might be having an affair. When Alexandra discovers that this is indeed the case, she loses control and finds herself embarking upon a reckless affair with a much younger man – the son of her husband’s best friends. You just know that it cannot end well, and indeed there is plenty of foreshadowing (perhaps a little too much for my taste), as we see in the very first chapters a contrite and sad Alexandra at some later date ruminating about her behaviour.

After reading so many psychological thrillers which deal with adultery, it was refreshing to read a book which does not make a dark mystery about it, yet is far removed from the humour and lightness of chick lit. There are many quite candid and sensual scenes in the book, but it’s not at all gratuitous sex for the sake of it (as with Maestra, for instance). It’s a grown-up look at adultery, at how we become embroiled in things we initially believe we can control before they end up controlling us. The author does an excellent job of describing how torn and guilty people can feel, yet continue to do the things they feel bad about; how they can blind themselves to any danger warnings and find increasingly absurd self-justification for their actions.

And, of course, if you are a lover of all things French, there are plenty of alluring descriptions of place (including a few of my favourite spots in Paris) and Parisian lifestyle in this book.

colinnielColin Niel: Ce Qui Reste en Foret (What Stays in the Forest)

This is the second in a series of crime novels featuring Detective Anato in French Guyana. I haven’t read the first in the series, but fellow book blogger Emma highly recommended him. When we met the author at the Quais du Polar in Lyon and realised what a lovely person he was, with a fascinating background, who knows that part of the world really well, I couldn’t resist exploring further.

Anato is of Ndjuka descent, but grew up in France, and has only recently returned to his home country. He doesn’t speak the local language well enough and is still finding out surprising things about his family and his past. He gets called in to investigate the death of a scientist, Serge Feuerstein, an ornithologist based at a scientific research station deep in the Amazonian rainforest. The researchers are ‘sharing’ the forest with illegal gold mining ventures, so at first glance it looks like it might have been a territorial dispute. But Anato and his team suspect that the easiest answer is not often the correct one.

There were so many things to enjoy about this book: a cracking plot and dogged investigation; the contrast between the wilderness of the jungle and the attempts to impose French law and order; Anato and his team, all of them with their own personal troubles, but still working together to discover the truth; discussion of the integrity of scientific research and the future of research facilities in remote locations; the futile fight against illegal mining. Plus plenty of intriguing secondary characters and learning a lot about local culture and the diversity of society in French Guyana, in the so-called DOM/TOM (overseas departments/territories).

I’ll certainly be looking out for the third in the series (already out) and hope that it will be translated into English, to reach a wider audience.

Cayenne, capital of French Guiana, from Caribbean-beat.com. Photograph © Ronan Liétar
Cayenne, capital of French Guiana, from Caribbean-beat.com. Photograph © Ronan Liétar

 

 

My June in Reading

June has been a funny old month: too busy to engage much in reading, even when I needed it most. So, only 7 books that I read from cover to cover – a record low for me. And, for the first time ever, there were two books I did not finish (in the same month!). But I have made a bit of an inroad into my #20booksofsummer list, although they haven’t been an unalloyed joy so far. So, if you are sitting comfortably, shall we begin?

Doesn't this look like the path to unimaginable riches and adventures?
Doesn’t this look like the path to unimaginable riches and adventures?

The DNF stack

Ingrid Desjours: Les Fauves – for its gender stereotypes and mediocre thrillerish treatment of a subject which could have been very interesting

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star – with apologies to Naomi Frisby, who sent me this one and whose opinions I value extremely highly. Call me shallow, call me comfort-zone reader, but it just required too much effort to follow. The made-up language was very clever (as a linguist, I appreciated the fact it had certain basic rules). I really admired the author’s inventiveness, and the energy and diversity of the young people in the story. However, I’m just not all that fond of post-apocalyptic fiction, and a combination of flu and migraine made it even harder for me to go through with it. I may still go back to it later, when I am fitter and my brains are in less of a jamble.

The #20booksofsummer pile

In addition to Les Fauves (see above), I read four more of the 20 books of summer. At the rate of 5 a month, I may not finish the challenge by September 5th.

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – self-absorbed, navel-gazing, travelling to find one’s self instead of get to know other people

Michel Bussi: Black Water Lilies – Monet, gardens, three generations of women, convoluted yawn

Emma Cline: The Girls – teenager looking for meaning and a sense of belonging, MFA writing style with glimmers of real style

Alison Umminger: My Favourite Manson Girl – another lost teenager with a dysfunctional family, strong YA voice

Found on a bookshelf

Claire Messud: The Emperor’s Children – slightly pretentious, but a sharp, sarcastic portrayal of ‘intellectual’ New York life

Jean-Claude Izzo: Vivre fatigue (Living wears you out) – oh, boy, is he depressing, but oh, boy, does he fit my current mood!

Review copy

Rebecca Bradley: Made to Be Broken – a friend, but also a talented writer who really knows her police procedures and whose work is getting better and better

Unintentionally, this has been a month of women writers – only two men snuck in. It was also, unusually, an Anglo-French month: one third French, two thirds English-speaking. So not the most varied of months.

Before I leave France, however, I want to make more of an effort to find Romain Gary at the library. And I should leave out some poetry books: poetry is always a wonderful source of comfort and inspiration even in the most insane of moments.

 

45 Years Later: the Manson Family influence #20booksofsummer

The Manson Family murders were before my time, but they were there somewhere, floating in the collective consciousness, attracting and repelling sensation-seekers in equal measure. 45 years or more after the perpetrators were sentenced, they still exert a horrible fascination upon us and have been the extreme benchmark (together with the Jonestown massacre of 1978) against which all ‘cults’ have been judged.

So what happened that summer in 1969, for those who are too young to remember or care? Charles Manson was a former convict with aspirations to be a singer/songwriter, who managed to assemble a diverse group of people, mostly vulnerable young women, around him in a sort of anti-materialistic hippy commune in the late 1960s. He either believed he was the vanguard of an apocalyptic race war or else he felt badly let down by a record producer who failed to recognise his talent, or else it was a mix of the two, plus quite a bit of LSD which the group was consuming (Manson himself far less than his followers). Anyway, he convinced his followers to carry out a series of brutal murders over the course of five weeks in 1969. Manson, his ‘right-hand man’ Tex Watson and three of his ‘girls’ (they were all under the age of 25) were finally caught, put on trial and sentenced to death (commuted to life after the abolition of the death penalty in California).

Manson family members in the 1960s, from biography.com
Manson family members in the 1960s, from biography.com

Not just one, but two books have just come out, as if to prove our perennial fascination with violence and brainwashing. Both are novels about the young women in Manson’s ‘gang’ or ‘cult’. What is clever about both Emma Cline’s The Girls and Alison Umminger’s My Favourite Manson Girl is that both of them tell not so much the story of the murders and their aftermath, but describe how it might feel to be young, troubled, running away from home and falling in with the wrong kind of people out of a desperate need to belong and to feel loved.

girls2Alison Umminger’s book is technically classed as YA novel, so it has a very distinctive voice: a snarky, snarly teenager with a dysfunctional family (absent father, mother who has become lesbian, a sister trying to become a Hollywood star), who is nevertheless touchingly vulnerable at times. It’s set in the present-day. Anna is fed up with her self-absorbed, divorced parents, helps herself to a credit card and flies to LA to stay with her older sister. But Hollywood is not quite the glamorous world she imagined, nor is her sister quite as selfless and generous as she expected. She does manage to get a job to do some research on the Manson girls for a possible future film. Although she is disgusted by the subject matter, she accepts the work and starts to find some parallels between her life and the life of the ‘girls’ she is researching.  Interestingly, the original title is ‘American Girls’ and the author says in the afterword that she only added the Manson family dimension later. So it really becomes a book about our obsession with celebrity culture, about how family members damage each other even with the best of intentions, and how the need to be loved remains so strong even when we are at our most hateful. Humour and self-dramatisation help to lighten the mood, so this is a book which you can gallop through quite quickly.

girlsEmma Cline’s book is for an older audience and this time we are dealing with a protagonist who has actually known the ‘Manson-like’ girls (the names and situations have been altered, but there is of course a strong similarity to the Manson case). Evie is a neglected teenager, inadequately parented by a well-meaning but self-absorbed mother and a mostly absent father. She is fascinated by the sense of freedom and adventure that these young girls project – in fact, her real love story is not with the Manson-type cult leader, but with one of the girls, Suzanne. She is love-bombed by the group and chooses to ignore the squalour of the abandoned ranch and the lack of food. Instead, she finds it exotic and exhilarating. There is also a shift of timeframes, as we see an older and wiser Evie remembering that heady and dangerous summer, and realise that youthful mistakes are about to be repeated (although hopefully with not such dramatic consequences).

I’m rather uncomfortable with the use of the term ‘cult’ (it’s worth knowing that Christ and his disciples were known as a dangerous cult back in the days), and feel that too many ‘new religious movements’ have been demonised as brainwashing cults. But in this case, it’s probably the right term to use! Cline’s book was not quite as startling or detailed in terms of psychological insights as I had hoped, but it was a good look (and far more serious than the Umminger book) at how vulnerable youngsters can be manipulated. And not just youngsters. The mix of charismatic leader, sexual and psychological control through a mix of love and fear, the use of drugs and being told that one is important, beautiful, about to bring world change… a potent cocktail indeed!

The style was a bit overwritten at times, so, like a cult, the book promised much but failed to completely satisfy me. Still, I enjoyed both these reads, and would recommend them. Be prepared, however, for some chills!

These books represent 3 and 4 out of my #20booksofsummer reading plan and we’re now on an upward trend for book satisfaction.