Always a little late to the party, i.e. first Monday rather than first Saturday of the month, but always a pleasure to take part in the Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. We all start with the same book and then link it, one by one, to six other books to form a chain. There are no limits to our imagination as we use the links!
This month the starting point is Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. There was quite a buzz about this book when it first came out and it was filmed as well, although I haven’t seen the adaptation. Originally a little sceptical about the book (the blurb did not do it any favours), I was actually impressed after reading it: the unreliable narrator is done so unobtrusively well. It is set in a school and I’ve decided that this month I will stick to books set in schools or universities, because I always enjoy them (having been both a teacher and a university lecturer at various points in my life).
The first book in the chain is very similar in premise: an angry schoolteacher narrator who feels invisible, undervalued, frustrated – and is beguiled by the parents of one her pupils – by their lifestyle, their artistic freedom, their background. The book is The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud and I kept wanting to quote whole chunks from it (there is something about artistic frustration there, which is not so much present in Notes on a Scandal).
Speaking of unfilfilled teachers who nevertheless believe themselves to be always right, god-like and create their own set of favourites, the best example of that is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, set in pre-WW2 Edinburgh.
Very similar premise again, this time with a male teacher wanting to ‘open the eyes, ears and hearts’ of his students, this time through poetry, is the play Dead Poets’ Society by Tom Schulman, based on the very successful film starring Robin Williams as the charismatic teacher, for which Schulman had written wrote the original script (which won an Oscar).
Literature nerd though I am, I thought the premise of the film was overblown and elitist, and that is how I feel about The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which so many people love but which I found annoying, pretentious and almost unreadable.
Despite its age (more than 150 years old) and its moralising tone, Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes is an excellent (and sadly not at all outdated) description of elite public schools in England (in this case, Rugby), with its brutal bullying, opaque rituals and privileged idiots.
A far more appealing private school is the Chalet School (which starts off in the 1920s and relocates from Austria to the Channel Islands to Wales and finally Switzerland over the course of many decades). The series numbered 59 books in total, but my favourite is perhaps the first one I ever read (not the first in the series) The Princess of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. Perhaps because I thought Princess Elisaveta of Belsornia could have come from a small country somewhere in the Balkans that I could relate to?
No books in translation this time – which is a bit of a shame. I think the school (especially boarding school) genre is more popular in the UK than elsewhere (a legacy of all those colonialists sending their offspring to be educated back in the good old motherland, perhaps?), but there are some good school stories from other countries too, so perhaps I will dedicate my next post to that.
In the meantime, we have gone from London to Cambridge, Mass., Edinburgh to Vermont (twice!), Rugby and Tyrol. Where will your six degrees of literary links take you this month?
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?
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
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!
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.
There are too many new-to-me authors that I’ve discovered this year. They’ve all brought me surprise and joy: it would be unfair to rank them. However, the books on the list below did make me want to seek out everything else their authors have ever written.
Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters (review to follow shortly)
Thank you to the wonderful Cleo for making me aware of the reading bingo meme below. She has some wonderful selections on her own blog, do go and check them out, and I doubt I’ll be able to do quite as well, but here goes. I’ve stuck mainly to books read in 2014 and linked to my reviews of them (where available).
1) 500+ pages: Pierre Lemaitre’s wonderful recount of the end of the First World War: Au-revoir la-haut
2) Forgotten Classic: Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – I hadn’t read it since my schooldays and it was much better this time round
3) Book that became a movie: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Judge and His Hangman – adapted several times for TV and cinema, but its most famous and stylish adaptation is directed by Maximilian Schell
4) Book Published This Year: probably far too many, but one that comes to mind instantly is ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur‘ by Gregoire Delacourt
5) Book with a number in the title: 220 Volts by Joseph Incardona (review still to come) – an ‘electrifying’ account of a marriage in its death throes and a writer searching for inspiration
6) Book written by someone under 30: No idea, as the younger authors don’t usually have a Wikipedia entry with their date of birth, but I suspect that Kerry Hudson might fit into this category. I really enjoyed her novel ‘Thirst’.
7) A book with non-human characters: not really my type of reading, but Lauren Owen’s ‘The Quick’ featured vampires. Does that count? They are humanoid…
9) Book by a female author: LOTS of them, hopefully, but a special shout-out for the delightful Wuthering Heights-like epic by Minae Mizumura ‘A True Novel’
10) Mystery: Well, most of my reading revolves around crime fiction, but I will mention David Jackson’s thrilling, heartbreaking read ‘Cry Baby‘
11) Novel with a one-word title: Surprisingly, there were a number of contenders for this, but I chose Shuichi Yoshida’s ‘Villain‘ – which is also a single word in Japanese ‘Akunin’.
12) Short stories: I realised this year that I haven’t read many short story collections recently, so I tried to make up for this and read about 4-5. My favourite was Alma Lazarevska’s ‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art‘, stories set during the siege of Sarajevo.
13) A book set on a different continent: You know how I like to travel, so I have quite a choice here and went for the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean, as portrayed in ‘Devil-Devil’ by Graeme Kent.
14) Non-fiction: Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking‘ – the most honest and poignant depiction of grief I’ve come across in a long, long time
15) First Book by a favourite author: I’m cheating a little bit here, as I did not read it this year, but ‘The Voyage Out’ by Virginia Woolf surely counts? A much more conventional novel than her later work, it nevertheless contains many of her perennial themes (of trying to fit in, of the difficulties of communication, of allowing your emotions to be your guide and, finally, of becoming your own person with your own thoughts and stimulating intellect).
16) A book I heard about online: I discover many, far too many books and add them to my TBR list as a result of reading so many good blogs. Tony Malone has been the one to blame for many an impulsive purchase (usually well worth the effort!), and now he is also responsible for my obsession with Karl Ove Knausgård and his ‘A Man in Love‘.
17) Bestseller: I’m never quite sure if what I’m reading is a bestseller or not, as this is not one of the criteria I bear in mind when selecting a book. However, I’m pretty sure that ‘Norwegian by Night‘ by Derek B. Miller qualifies for that title – and it won the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award.
18) Book based on a true story: The partly autobiographical account (supplemented by a lot of imagination and memories from other participants) of the life of her mother by Delphine de Vigan
19) Book at the bottom of the TBR pile: Well, it depends if it’s electronic book or physical book. I have a massive chunk of double-shelving to get through and the one that happened to be behind all the others was a book I picked up at a library sale ‘Un sentiment plus fort que la peur’ by Marc Levy. Levy is the most-read French author, has been translated into 49 languages and currently lives in the US. I suspect his thrillerish bestsellers might not quite be my style, but at 50 centimes for 400+ pages, I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
20) A book that a friend loves: Several friends (both online and real-life) have recommended Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs‘. I can completely understand their passion for it.
21) A book that scares me: I don’t read horror fiction very much and am not easily scared. However, horrible situations or characters, such as the mother in Koren Zailckas’ ‘Mother, Mother‘, do give me the creeps.
22) A book that is more than 10 years old: So many of my favourite books are… However, one I recently (re)read was Fumiko Enchi’s ‘The Waiting Years‘, written in 1957, and depicting an even older Japan.
23) The second book in a series: Frédérique Molay’s Paris-based detective Nico Sirsky reappears in the intriguing investigation concerning a dead man’s hidden message in ‘Crossing the Line‘
24) A book with a blue cover: I am susceptible both to blue covers and to this Canadian writer’s series about Armand Gamache: Louise Penny’s latest novel ‘The Long Way Home‘
I’m not going to finish any more books this month, so I might as well do the summary now. Total number: 11
2 in French (which is why it took a while for me to read them), 1 translated from French, rest in English in original.
5 crime fiction (perhaps my lowest proportion in ages), 1 poetry
Pierre Lemaitre: Au-revoir la-haut – deeply moving account of soldiers’ return from the trenches of WW1
Dominique Sylvain: Guerre Sale (Dirty War)
The ‘dirty war’ of the title refers to the war over natural resources and selling of weapons, which wealthy countries carry out on the African continent. In this book, however, it is barely mentioned within the African context itself. Instead we see a stream of characters with links to the Congo (perhaps too many characters, it gets hard at times to keep track), all acting out their sad tale of corruption, revenge and nasty secrets on the streets of Paris. Sylvain can write a good old plot twist as well as the best of them, but the opening and close of this novel prove what a great writing style she has too. This is the fifth in the Lola and Ingrid series, and I love the dynamic between these two unconventional investigators, but this time it was the police inspector Sacha Duguin who took centre-stage.
I’ve talked about Stela Brinzeanu’s ‘Bessarabian Nights’ and Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’ in the same post, dissimilar though they are in style and subject matter. I’ve also read two other books which I’ve occasionally heard labelled as ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘book club fiction’: Nancy Freund’s ‘Rapeseed’ and Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn: ‘The Piano Player’s Son’. Women’s literature or book club fictions sounds rather disparaging if you allow it to, but this is not my intent at all. Plus, I don’t like labels (on people, books or anything, except perhaps food labelling). However, they were of the ‘family secrets and resentments’ type of story. They were certainly not of the dull school of literary fiction, where nothing much happens except admiring self in mirror or noticing raindrops on the window. The stories were certainly not lacking in incident – in fact, there was perhaps all too much incident, like soap operas almost, full of ‘he said, she said’ accusations, misunderstandings, tears, shouting, sibling rivalry etc. I want to cast no disparagement against these writers – there were some entertaining characters and quite a few passages of excellent prose there, but I have to confess that book-length is just too much for me for this type of story. I am really not the best critic, as I am not the right audience for this kind of writing, but if you like family sagas, both these authors can write well.
Tony Parsons, known for his ‘male chick lit’ type novels about the trials and tribulations of thirty-something men with relationship problems, is now crossing over to crime fiction. Can he carry it off? Well, you’ll have to wait and read my review on the Crime Fiction Lover website.
Mallock: The Cemetery of Swallows
An unusual story, straddling the Dominican Republic and Paris, with a nearly impossible set-up and a solution that seems to border on the supernatural. Reminiscent of Fred Vargas, Mallock (both the writer and his eponymous detective) has got a style all his own. To be reviewed soon on Crime Fiction Lover.
Terry Hayes: I Am Pilgrim
I don’t like spy thrillers, I don’t like lone rangers who are mankind’s only hope of survival… and yet I read this book very nearly in one sitting. It breaks all the rules… and gets away with it. The first person narrator suddenly starts telling you in great detail things that happened elsewhere and what was in his enemy’s mind, things he couldn’t possibly know. It jumps back and forth in time, from country to country, from character to character, all the while with the main protagonist pronouncing sombrely ‘And that was my mistake… this is where things went wrong… if I had only known about that…’, which adds to the sense of ominous foreboding. It is at times simplistic and racist, but at other times complex and nuanced. It is incredibly exciting, a cat and mouse chase which will leave you breathless, yet the story is nothing spectacularly new (terrorist attack through biochemical weapons, anyone?). It has disturbing graphic descriptions of torture – and also moments of introspection, of cynical realisation of the unsavoury practices of police and government agencies in every country. To my surprise, I loved it: it really is a wowser of a thriller!
So, all in all, an excellent month of reading: 3 outstanding books in 3 different genres, 4 very good books and no duds, just books that weren’t perhaps quite my cup of tea. For Crime Fiction Pick of the month I would say ‘I Am Pilgrim’, simply because it was surprising how much I enjoyed it – the magic of storytelling indeed! See what other book bloggers have chosen as their crime fiction pick of the month over at Mysteries in Paradise.
Coming up in May: non-fiction about parenting Far from the Tree, crime fiction of course, and some German and Japanese literature for a change.
Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older, but I find it easier to relate to something or someone in most books nowadays. I can even empathise with characters described as ‘weak’, ‘silly’ or ‘unlikeable’. Perhaps because I am that myself! At least part of the time… Perhaps we are all much more fragmented, at conflict, darker, ineffectual than we like to think. Perhaps there are masks which we never take off, even in the privacy of our own rooms, for fear that we have to face a gawping void in the mirror. So here are three books I’ve finished recently, and I freely admit that all of them contain elements that I can relate to.
Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs
Nora Eldridge is full of anger: from the spilling, thrilling outburst at the beginning to the more constructive anger at the end of the novel. She spouts invectives and hints at bleeding wounds, but then the style calms down a little. She becomes once more the ‘woman upstairs’, which in the author’s interpretation is not the ‘mad woman in the attic’ (the uncontrollable feminine power), although of course it slyly references that. In this case, it is the unobtrusive, undemanding, invisible neighbour that you barely speak to, who never complains, who lives in the service of others. So this book is a revolt of the meek. No more little nice girl! Anger becomes a productive force, as, in the wake of disappointments, failures and betrayal, Nora becomes convinced that the best revenge is to show others what she is capable of. She will discard the paralysing sadness and fear or cautiousness which has limited her life thus far. She has spent too long in the Fun House, hoping to find the exit to an authentic life, and seeing nothing but doors closing one after another. Nora will become as ruthless and single-minded as is necessary to pursue her artistic ambitions:
I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me – before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.
While this life-affirming finale is uplifting, I can also see how the rest of the novel could be unappealing to an American audience. The weakness, ineffectual dithering and self-obsessed over-analysis of the main character with her rant of self-pity is a taboo in American society, with its emphasis on taking action, positivism, the ‘you are what you think’ outlook. Nora is not old, but she is starting to resign herself to an unproductive, unfulfilled life, especially in the stifling world of pretentious academia and modern art around Boston and Cambridge, Mass. The descriptions of her small shoe-box creations and the contrast to her friend Sirena’s grandiose, over-the-top installations are more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Are they really innovative, or just jumping on the fashion bandwagon? And the name Sirena itself: surely not a coincidence, reminding us of the dangerous, addictive song of the Sirens. To guard against it, Odysseas has to tie himself to the mast and plug his sailors’ ears with wax.
One other criticism of the book that I’ve come across is that, while it is beautifully nuanced and well written, nothing much happens, i.e. it is too literary. However, I found it exciting, beautifully paced in crescendo, with a dark sense of menace. Something bad is going to happen, but who and what will provoke it?
Henry Sutton: My Criminal World
This will have writers of all persuasions, but especially crime writers, squirming in recognition. Poor David Slavitt is a mid-list author, whose popularity is dipping, slaving over his latest over-due novel, intimidated by the successes of his academic wife and the disdain of her colleagues. Agent-pecked as well as hen-pecked, he goes about his everyday tasks, trying to sort out plot twists between bouts of laundry and childcare, balancing his anxieties about the required level of goriness in his novels with worries about his wife’s possible infidelity. At times his mild ineffectuality and ego are so exasperating that you are willing him to confront his wife openly about adultery. You find yourself hoping that he will act out on his murderous tendencies. The interviews at the police station, in which David is more concerned about his writing career than in proving his innocence, are absolutely hilarious.
‘We’re talking about Julie Everett, your literary agent?’
‘Yes. Though, frankly, I’m not sure for how much longer. As I think I implied earlier, my career’s not going brilliantly at the moment. I narrowly missed winning a big award. And Julie’s not very keen on what I’m currently working on. […] She doesn’t think I’ve been promoting myself properly. You see, the market’s changed a lot recently.[.. .] And I suppose, to be honest, I’ve made a few mistakes.’
Although the ending felt a little forced and rushed to me, I found this to be a nuanced and very funny novel, not taking itself too seriously, yet with a rather profound underlying message about insecurity, delusion and reality.
Stela Brinzeanu: Bessarabian Nights
You may wonder what I recognise of myself in this sad story about sex-trafficking of women by a Moldovan writer now living in London. It is not the beautiful Ksenia (the girl that is forced into prostitution while on holiday in Italy) that I identify with, but with her ‘blood sister’, Larisa, who is studying in England. Together with their third childhood friend, Doina, she moves heaven and earth to find out what has happened to Ksenia when she goes missing. Larisa represents a cultural bridge between East and West, feeling equally out of place in both worlds, repelled by the backward superstitions in her home country (described as a place where men are either drunk or violent or frequently both), yet not quite fully accepted or integrated into the new culture.
The British TV drama ‘Sex Traffic’ (2004) did a fantastic job of showing both the individual stories of two Moldovan sisters and the global tentacles of the human-trafficking business. However, not all that much has changed since then. Human trafficking continues to be a major problem in Moldova and, although the government has recently cooperated more with NGOs to tackle the issue, it does not comply with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. So this is an important story which needs to be heard. Again.
The title is a play on the ‘Arabian Nights’ theme, and Brinzeanu does come across as a Scheherazade of our times, eager to share stories about her little-known country on the fringes of Europe. This is a debut novel and the author is so brimful of stories that the book feels crammed with facts. The reader may well feel at times lectured at, even if it is disguised as dialogue. The book is at its most successful in those dream-like flashbacks describing the girls’ childhood in a Moldovan village where time seems to have stood still. Perhaps, like Scheherazade, the author needs to learn to select the most relevant scenes and polish those to perfection. There are a lot of gems in there, but they sometimes get lost in the multiple anecdotes.
So over to you, dear reader! Are there any books that have particularly resonated with you lately, any characters you have related to, or does an unlikeable character make you want to stop reading?
A while ago I wrote about the wry amusement I felt when reading about ‘supportive spouses’. Perhaps writers feel the need to make such a fuss over them (and other supportive family members) when they are endowed with such a person because they know how often that is not the case. Treasure your rare speciman (usually a speciwoman).
I attended a workshop with the very poetic, sweetly unassuming yet still fiercely feminist writer Michèle Roberts at the Geneva Writers’ Group this Saturday. In a private conversation, she too confirmed that family and close friends are sometimes the least supportive of our writing. Could it be that they fear they lose us when we enter that door into fearful magic and fluid morals through which they cannot or will not follow? Or is it simply more practical, immediate needs which they feel are not being met: cooking, cleaning, admin? I can understand the fears at the uncertainty of outcome or the financial constraints. But to belittle the writing, to see it as a time-consuming hobby, which you should set aside when the ‘real issues of the day’ crop up… that is hard to swallow.
Yet that is precisely what Jane Austen did, hiding her manuscripts when visitors dropped in, as they did so often. You can barely hear the frustration in her perfectly controlled prose, but there are scenes of satire (of garrulous and silly neighbours) in every one of her books, or spirited defence of novels in ‘Northanger Abbey’.
A novel I recently read, Henry Sutton’s ‘My Criminal World’, portrays the dilemma of writerly anxieties and insecurities, especially when faced with the indifference of far more successful spouses, from the man’s point of view. This insecurity may drive a mild, rather ineffectual crime writer to contemplate a real crime. The hurt is clearly visible, under the thick layers of self-deprecating humour, and I’m not sure I quite believe the ending of the book, because I have grown to dislike the writer’s wife so much.
One of the extracts that Michèle Roberts read to us was the beginning of Claire Messud’s book ‘The Woman Upstairs’ and I was so struck by it that I bought it as soon as I got home. That unforgettable opening: ‘How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.’ I have yet to finish the book and see if it lives up to that opening, and I’ve certainly heard many readers have been put off by it. ‘Show don’t tell’, they bleat like Easter lambs, but is that because it’s a woman expressing anger, and that is still a taboo? When a man expresses anger, he is seeking to change the world. When a woman expresses anger, it’s hysteria. Of course, in Nora’s case, she is unmarried, and her parents are only vaguely unsupportive (or simply vague). So perhaps she really only has her own fears and lack of ambition to blame for her failure to have ‘Great Artist’ written on her tombstone.
Yet there is something there that I can relate to, however unlikable some readers have found the main character. It is so difficult to believe in your own talent, to allow yourself wings and the daily practice to make them become more than cumbersome appendages. The minute you venture beyond your enclosure, rejections come thick and fast. Words and muses refuse to visit. Gnawing doubts set in. How much easier to go back in the box, to think small, to believe the incessant and insistent whisper of your dear family… I so wish I could be satisfied with a job, with making money, with a decent place to live and a ‘normal’ family life.
‘Keep fighting!’ Michèle told me as we parted. Thank you, Michèle, I will, because a life without writing is too unbearable, meaningless.