I could almost claim 14 books for April – except that one of them has been so massive that I am still reading it, and will be reading it for many months to come! That is, of course, Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji), which I’m reading along with brave Akylina.
Of the remaining thirteen, I had another epic doorstop of a book: The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica. You will find the full review on Necessary Fiction website shortly. This website, incidentally, is well worth a look for its thoughtful reviews of lesser-known authors and short story collections, its research and translation notes, and writer-in-residence feature. For now, let me just say this book is an ambitious, sprawling, almost encylopedic collection of stories and characters, from all the different sides fighting the First World War. Touching, humorous and ever so slightly surreal.
Six books were in my preferred genre, crime fiction. If you’ve missed any of the reviews, they are linked below (all except Cry Wolf, which I was not sufficiently enthusiastic about).
My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month, as hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, is very, very tough, as Child 44, No Other Darkness and Pleasantville are all jostling for position. So this time I think I’ll go for the one that kept me awake all night to finish it, which was Child 44. I saw the film as well this weekend, which simplifies some of the story lines and emphasises perhaps different aspects than I would have (if I’d written the screenplay – the author was not involved in it either). But I enjoyed it, and the actors were really impressive. If you want to see an interesting discussion of book vs. film adaptations, check out Margot’s latest blog post.
Meanwhile, Pleasantville fulfills my North American requirement for the Global Reading Challenge – I don’t often get to read something set in Houston, Texas.
A lot of online poetry this month (after all, it is National Poetry Month for the Americans) and I’ve also started a poetry course organised by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But, surprisingly, I haven’t read any poetry collection.
Three of the books I read this month fit into the historical fiction category, but the one I want to highlight is Fire Flowersby Ben Byrne, which gives such a poignant description of post-war Japan, something few of us know about.
Alongside the two translated books (from Swedish and classical Japanese), I also read four books in French (well above my monthly target of 1-2). These were Yasmina Khadra’s L’attentat, Philippe Besson’s La maison atlantique and Virginie Despentes’ Teen Spirit (which I’ve reviewed all together here). I also read Metin Arditi’s rather chilling description of a Swiss boarding-school for boys Loin des bras.
So, all in all, a good month of reading. Although some books felt a bit average, there were quite a few that impressed me. At least I no longer feel obliged to write lengthy book reviews about those I didn’t quite gel with (or even finish them). And I’m pleased that I am spending some time in Genji’s company again. It helps to slow down my world and see things from a very different angle.
In terms of writing, I’ve been less successful. School holidays and business travel have wreaked their usual havoc. I have, however, solved outstanding plot holes and know very clearly where everything is heading now. I have the post-it note wall to prove it! Although I’m still open to allowing my characters to surprise me a little…
So, how has your April been in terms of reading and writing? Any must-read books (dare I ask that question, dare I be tempted)? Anything you felt was overrated or overhyped? Let me know below!
Val McDermid wrote an article recently about crime fiction and politics. She argues that quite a lot of modern crime fiction is left-wing (voice of the little people, the poor, the oppressed), while thrillers (with their international conspiracies, nasty foreigners and arrogant governments) are more right-wing. While there are many exceptions to prove her rule, it’s true that most crime fiction is by its very nature political, because ‘crimes are an attack against society and the status quo’ (Michael Connelly). It tends to fall down, however, when the authors sets out too deliberately to make a political statement, when the message obliterates the story.
This has provoked, needless to say, a flurry of controversy, and I’m not going to add to the conversation here, other than to say that in both thrillers and crime fiction, the detecting hero is idealised (has to be!) as caring about ‘everyman’, thinking that ‘everybody counts’ equally… which to me does sound rather leftie. Meanwhile, in countries that have had authoritarian regimes, the police is regarded with fear and distrust – and crime fiction of nearly any stripe becomes unpalatable.
French audiences are quite keen on political thinking in their crime fiction, so there were many questions about this at Quais du Polar. I thought I’d summarise some of the most interesting debates and quotes here. The author pictures are all from the official programme, while additional (wobbly) pictures are my own.
From the Panel: The Americas
Michael Connelly – US: I’ve been lucky to be able to write about Harry Bosch for so many years, as my books show a man evolving in a city that’s evolving (LA). The man has certainly changed much faster than the city has. I don’t set out to make political statements in my books, but invariably, when I look back on them, they are political in some way. I am a ‘reformed journalist’, I’ve left non-fiction behind, because I believe that fiction allows you to uncover a higher degree of truth about life and people.
Emily St. John Mandel – Canada : Because noir novels look at the margins of society, the underbelly, the notion of ‘margin’ itself is a political statement. Not everyone is making it, not everyone is successful – according to society’s definition of success. Illegal immigration, people without papers, economic collapse in 2009 – it’s a shadow world most of us don’t get to see and I felt a strong urge to write about it.
Paulo Lins- Brazil: From the end of the dictatorship in Brazil in 1984, it’s only now that we’re entering a period which bears some resemblance to real democracy. We’ve opened up to the US and Europe, international trade relations have improved, a middle class has emerged and many have moved above the poverty line. But it does mean that criminals have adapted – the very local gang wars in the favelas have now become more organised crime, engulfing all of the country, not just certain neighbourhoods. We like to blame crime on drug dealers, but there’s also plenty of trafficking of weapons, and, sadly Brazil is one of the three most violent countries in South America, alongside Colombia and Venezuela. It’s hard not to feel at times that things are not changing for the better. It’s the regular families that suffer most, those are the people I want to write about. Whenever your child leaves the house, you tremble for his or her safety. Yet, in spite of all that, I do remain positive and have hope for my country.
Paco Ignacio Taibo II – Mexico: Mexico is a blend of third world and first world. There are more cinemas in Mexico City than in Paris, more students than in New York. At the same time, there are 160 people being killed by police every month. There is such urban fear, pressures from poverty, electoral fraud, no moral values, it’s a quagmire. Writing novels is my attempt to make sense of something surreal and absurd. However, reality is so much stranger and less believable than fiction in my country that I can’t help feeling at times that I am like Walt Disney…
Leonardo Padura – Cuba: It’s hard to write crime fiction in Cuba, not because of censorship, but because most of the crime is about pickpocketing, thefts, these small cons to survive, not assassination. It’s simply not worth killing anyone, as people are all equally poor, so I cannot have more than one corpse per novel. It’s clear, however, that Cuba is changing: differences are starting to appear between rich and poor, small businesses are taking off, people are moving to Havana to find their fortune. I’m not sure where all this is heading, but it will be reflected in literature eventually, it just needs a little more time to follow suit.
From the Panel: The Burden of History
Attica Locke – US: The idea for The Cutting Season came to me when I attended a wedding on a plantation in Louisiana. The idea of visiting such a place for fun struck me as incongruous, and I had a visceral reaction of pain and sadness when I got there. Then I saw all the migrants from South America working on this ‘theme park’ and realised that all we’d done was exchanged one shade of brown for another. I don’t have to try to be political, it comes naturally to me. So, instead, I focus on the story. What I want to do is shift the lens a little, get readers to view things through someone else’s eyes.
Yasmina Khadra – Algeria: I come from a family of macho Arab/Berbers and was forced to join the army at the age of 9. I grew up fully expecting to die for my country, fought for eight years against terrorism, collected my colleagues by the spoonful following explosions and felt survivor’s guilt when I finally retired from the army. Why was I the one spared? I started writing to justify my continued existence… and to serve my country in a different way. Books are all about raising awareness, waking people up, while television (advertisements, consumption society etc.) is all about lulling people into a false sense of security, putting them to sleep.
Michel Bussi – France: I have no pedagogical or educational mission. I write to entertain, but in those first couple of books (set in Normandy), I try to convey my love for my native region and its emotional scars dating from the D-Day landings. I am a geographer by profession, so for me it’s all about the setting.
Tom Rob Smith – UK: I’d never have dared to set my books in such an unfamiliar environment as Stalinist Russia, if I’d not had an experience in my youth of writing a soap opera for Cambodian television. I found out that some stories feel truly universal, that they transcend cultural influences and borders. Of course I did a lot of research (mostly based on books and archives, rather than actual travelling), but it’s all about finding that emotional connection.
From the Dialogue between Ian Rankin & Val McDermid: The Passionate Thistle
Val McDermid: Isn’t it funny how we only mention politics in a novel if it is leftwing politics? No one says anything about ‘look what right-wing views Patricia Cornwall displays in her latest book’? I’m naturally a very political creature, so of course it finds its way into my books. But if I were to set out to do it deliberately, that would be dangerous, it needs to service the story and the characters. The best crime novels have politics with a big P and a small p in them (like Sara Paretsky, McIllvaney).
Of course the Scottish Referendum will be reflected in Scottish literature. You can’t live in Scotland and not engage with it in some way. It’s like writing a book about 1914 and not mentioning the First World War. I’m always astonished, however, when people ask my opinion about current affairs. After all, I just sit in my room and write. I don’t have a dog in this fight, though I have an opinion. But so does everyone else, why should my opinion count for anything more than theirs?
Ian Rankin: I naturally gravitated more towards urban problems, so was initially attracted more to American authors (British crime fiction at the time was more cosy, set in picturesque villages or amongst the middle classes, things I couldn’t relate to). I seemed to end up reading a lot of James-es (Ellroy, Lee Burke, Sallis) – they didn’t have to be called James, but it seemed to help.
Traditionally, Edinburgh was viewed as the nice place, while Glasgow was the one beset with social problems. I didn’t grow up in Edinburgh and seldom visited it until I went to university, but I wanted to show something about the city beneath its pretty tourist facade. 30 years later, I’m still trying to discover and understand the complete city, it keeps on changing. Edinburgh is like the Tardis – much bigger on the inside.
As for the referendum, we Scots are cautious people, we weigh things up very carefully, so it was a struggle between heart and head. I tried to show that in my new novel as the difference of opinion between Rebus (who votes No) and Siobhan (who votes Yes). And the debate is continuing, it refuses to go away, a whole generation has now become politicised.
Well, if you’ve made it to the end of this loooong post, you deserve something pretty to help you prepare for the long Easter weekend (if you celebrate Easter): the German tradition of decorating Easter trees.
I’ve written a pretty exhaustive report on the panels and encounters with writers (including quotes) for Crime Fiction Lover, so I won’t repeat myself here. Let me tell you instead some of my personal highlights.
1) Max Cabanes
A few of you have noticed and complimented me on my new Avatar on Twitter. This is a very idealised portrait of myself drawn by Max Cabanes, one of the foremost artists of bandes dessinées (graphic novels or comic strips, hugely popular in the French-speaking world but with no perfect equivalent in the rest of the world), winner of the most prestigious prize in the field, the Grand Prix du Festival d’Angoulême in 1990, and a contributor to Charlie Hebdo. I had already bought his latest work, the adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale (I had dithered previously over whether to buy this or the collected works of Manchette … ended up getting both for myself for Christmas).
However, I stupidly forgot it at home, right next to where I’d packed my suitcase, so I couldn’t get him to sign it (and BD artists always draw something when they give their autographs). So I kept walking up and down in the very busy main hall, trying to find a solution (they had none of Cabanes’ other volumes). Finally, I bought another copy and explained the whole dilemma to him. He was so lovely and chatty, we ended up talking for 20 minutes or so. He went to Paris initially to become a ‘serious’ artist and sculptor, claimed he wouldn’t sell his soul to BD, until he discovered he loved telling stories… and that it helped pay the bills much more effectively. He did admit that it was much more difficult for young artists today to break into the field and make a living out of it (and he had advice for my older son, who likes writing and drawing his own BD).
Finally, although I knew that it takes at least a year to produce a normal sized graphic novel, I was stunned to discover just how long it took Cabanes to adapt Fatale – nearly 3 years! That’s because he is meticulous about his research, every little detail has to be perfect, and, even though Manchette is very cinematic in his writing, you still have to select the best ‘moments’ to illustrate. So, worth every euro, I think! He also told me he is reviewing his reworking of ‘Princess du sang’ by Manchette and will have a beautiful re-edited version published in autumn.
Meanwhile, I have a spare copy of Fatale to give away, so let me know if you read French and have a hankering for it…
2) Informal Encounters with Humans
Meeting some of the big names of literature can be an intimidating experience, especially when you are just one of the hundreds who are assaulting them at such events. Plus, I have the tendency to get uncharacteristically tongue-tied and shy (afraid I can’t think of anything intelligent to say, something they haven’t heard thousands of times before). So it really helps when you bump into them informally or somehow manage to catch them at a time when they are not being jostled into place for their next panel or signing. [It must be very tiring for them, to be honest, as the timing is very tight and you have to run from one venue to the next.]
Most crime writers I’ve met are delightfully unpretentious, warm human beings. I gushed to Sean French and Nicci Gerrard (of Nicci French fame) that I’ve been a huge fan ever since I heard them speak about the Moomins and the Martin Beck series at the Henley Literary Festival 6 years ago and congratulated Nicci on her brilliant initiative to allow family of dementia patients improved access to NHS hospitals.
You have to balance this, however, with the danger of being considered a stalker. I happened to come across Attica Locke powdering her nose and was not sure if I should approach or not. I’m glad I did, though, because she is funny, down-to-earth and politically engaged. She was signing books next to one half of Michael Stanley – namely Stanley Trollip – from South Africa (of Inspector Kubu fame) and you couldn’t have asked for nicer neighbours at the table. Stanley explained the very collaborative writing process with Michael Sears as ‘like an old married couple, we may bicker but we haven’t got divorced yet’. A bit like Kubu and his wife Joy, then!
Alongside personal hero(ines) such as Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Val McDermid and Sylvie Granotier, I also got to meet Louise Penny. I only discovered her series about Quebecois inspector Armand Gamache 2 years ago (thanks to Margot Kinberg), but she has become one of my favourite authors with her inimitable blend of cosy location, unforgettable characters, cracking plots and profound questions about the human condition, personal relationships and the nature of beauty and creation. She is so gracious, beautiful and generous: I want to be like her when I grow up!
3) Online Friends and the City Itself
But what would even a beautiful and gourmet city like Lyon be without the people you meet there? I got to spend some time with the charming Lyonnaise-by-adoption Emma, who blogs in English and has done an excellent write-up of the event.
Last, but not least, I had the pleasure of meeting once more my blogging friend Catherine, whose pictures of the event are much more professional than mine. She knows more about British crime fiction than any other French person I know, plus she is my constant source of reference for French and other crime.
I’ll tell you more about Saturday night’s Murder Ball and the city-wide Murder Mystery Trail in a future post, as well as the books I bought and the new-to-me authors. I’ll probably drone on and on about this event until you’ll start wishing I’d never gone there. I don’t get out much, you see – this is my one big event of the year, so bear with me…
In return, please keep me informed of all the other great events in the UK and US that I’ll be missing this summer!