Reading Challenges Update

This is a bit early for a monthly reading update, but I seem to be currently stuck in three books which will take me through right to the end of January and beyond, so it is fair to say that the ten books below are the only ones I read through January.

My only New Year’s resolutions have been my reading challenges. I have signed up for three of them – how have I fared this month? Well, it’s a mixed picture, but I’m not quite ready to give up on my resolutions just yet.

2015global_reading_challengev21)¬†Global Reading Challenge hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise: I’m making it easy on myself this year and opting for the Easy Level – one book from each of the 7 continents (Africa, Asia, Australasia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America, plus a new continent – Antarctica or a new threshold you are willing to pass – paranormal, historical, space, sea). The reason I have pulled back a little is because I want to choose really brand-new settings/authors, rather than falling back on my usual French/German/Scandinavian/South African staples. So, although I read 3 French books, 1 Japanese book, 1 German book, 1 Irish and 1 Swedish book and 1 ‘vampirish’ novel this month. I am reluctant to put any of them down as my European component. Because none of that would be new to me. Mission not accomplished.¬†Have to do better next month!

2) January in Japan Challenge hosted by Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List.¬†Not quite good enough.¬†I only managed to finish one book: Kanae Minato’s¬†Confessions¬†and am still in the midst of reading Natsume SŇćseki’s last, unfinished novel¬†Light and Dark.¬†As for my ambition to read the new(ish) translation of¬†Tales of Genji (Royall Tyler version): well, this will have to wait, but will hopefully be my epic undertaking for the year.

tbr-dare-20143) TBR Double Dog Dare  hosted by James at James Reads Books. This is a last-ditch attempt to bring some order into the chaos which is my TBR pile Рoverflowing on shelves, on the floor and threatening to inundate my laptop and tablet as well. The aim is to not buy any new books until I have made a sizeable dent in my pile of ready and waiting books. With a little cheating. i.e. borrowing from libraries just before the holidays and last minute purchasing of books in 2014, I managed to do quite well with this challenge Рvictory!

The three library books I borrowed were all in French, so they don’t count, because it’s like work (improving my vocabulary, making the most of my current location etc. etc.) They were:

  • Patrick Modiano:¬†L’Herbe des nuits

Given the blurb on the back, I was expecting more of a crime fiction type mystery, but it’s the usual Modiano fare about the reliability of memory, how well we really know people, trying to recapture the past and whether nostalgia really lives up to its name.

  • Jeanne Desaubry:¬†Poubelle’s Girls

poubelles-girls-jeanne-desaubyA touching Thelma and Louise type story of two women living on the margins of French society and the unlikely friendship which arises between them. A depressingly realistic story of the poor and downtrodden, but also quite funny, with fascinating, well-rounded characters and juicy dialogue.

  • Daniel Pennac:¬†Comme un roman

An essay about the joys of reading and how schools, parents, teachers and book snobs are in danger of killing off the joys of reading for young people. Contains the famous Ten Comandments of Reading (or the Rights of the Reader)

1. Le droit de ne pas lire. The right to not read.
2. Le droit de sauter des pages. The right to skip pages
3. Le droit de ne pas finir un livre. The right to not finish a book.
4. Le droit de relire. The right to reread.
5. Le droit de lire n’importe quoi. The right to read whatever you please.
6. Le droit au bovarysme (maladie textuellement transmissible). The right to Bovaryism (textually transmitted disease).
7. Le droit de lire n’importe o√Ļ. The right to read wherever you please.
8. Le droit de grappiller. The right to dip into books.
9. Le droit de lire à haute voix. The right to read out loud.
10. Le droit de se taire. The right to shut up.

The other books have all been from my existing shelves and most of them have been reviewed elsewhere:

  • Tana French: The Likeness – bought second-hand last year . My first, but certainly not my last Tana French book.¬†Although the plot did seem implausible in places, I really enjoyed the¬†engaging writing, poetic at times, and the genuine sadness of the failure of any idealistic community.
  • Lynn Shepherd: The Pierced Heart¬† – ebook sent to me by the author in exchange for an honest review (having reviewed a previous book of hers). The vampire story for those who do not like vampire stories (which I don’t).
  • Jonas Karlsson: The Room¬†¬†–¬†Netgalley ebook sent by publisher way back in November. A perfect modern fable about corporate life and the death of the imagination.
  • Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train¬†– downloaded from Netgalley several months ago.¬†The life of others always seems more attractive when we are making a mess of our own… and when we see them from a distance. A psychological thriller full of unreliable narrators and domestic claustrophobia.
  • girlwhowasntFerdinand von Schirach: The Girl Who Wasn’t There¬†– copy sent by publisher for review on CFL. Not really a crime novel, more of a ‘coming of age’ story, plus a courtroom drama debating issues of justice, art, trial by media and much more – beautifully written.

The final book I read this month was¬†Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment,¬†which I bought in the last few weeks of 2014 following the review by Jacqui. I had previously read the reviews by Tony and Bibliobio, but kept putting it off as far too depressing a subject. Then Jacqui gave me the final nudge. A very emotional read, engaging all your senses – abandon all rationality ye who enter this maelstrom! Will review in more depth shortly.¬†¬†¬†

 

 

Books Set in Paris

The holidays are coming up and we are planning a trip to Paris – albeit much shorter than we had hoped for! With three days less than we had originally planned, this has meant giving up on visits to the Louvre or Versailles, but it does mean that it leaves us something to do on our next trip to this wonderful city.

SacreCoeur1In preparation, of course, I’ve been reading (or remembering) some of my favourite books set in Paris.

Daniel Pennac: La Feé Carabine (The Fairy Gunmother)

Set in the lively immigrant and working-class community of Belleville, this is one of the funniest and most macabre installments in Pennac’s saga of the Malauss√©ne family, place of refuge for numerous children, drug-addled grandpas and epileptic dog.

Paul Berna: Le Cheval Sans Tête (The Headless Horse)

A children’s classic, set in a deprived post-war Parisian banlieue bordered by railway lines, this features a gang of street children whose pride and joy is their headless wooden horse on wheels, which they use to careen down the cobbled alleyways. Then some real-life criminals get involved, but nothing daunts the kids, especially not one of my favourite female protagonists ever, tough Marion, the ‘girl with the dogs’.

FranSacreCoeur2çoise Sagan: Aimez-Vous Brahms? (Do You Like Brahms?)

The title comes from the question a young man asks an older but still attractive woman, and it marks the start of a real Parisian love story. Bittersweet, with lots of meetings and discussions in cafés and galleries, concert-halls and rain-soaked streets.

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast

The quintessential guide for Americans in Paris. Hemingway captures the exuberance and sheer love of life, as well as the rivalries and cattiness of that period, 1920s Paris. For the other side of the story, read Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’, for Hemingway’s first wife’s account of the same events.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française

Not strictly speaking set in Paris, it nevertheless follows the fortunes of those who have had to flee from Paris following the Nazi occupation. Written with surprising maturity and reflection, this novel is particularly poignant when we bear in mind that it was written in the midst of the terrifying events which led to N√©mirovsky’s arrest, deportation and death in concentration camp in 1942.

MontmartreViewFred Vargas: Pars vite, reviens tard  (Have Mercy on Us All)

Many of Vargas’ crime novels are set in Paris, but this is the most memorable of them all, featuring the uncoventional Commissaire Adamsberg, but also incongruent phenomena such as a town-crier in modern-day Parisian squares, sinister cryptic messages and a possible revival of the bubonic plague.

Victor Hugo: Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame)

A much more tragic and ambiguous story of unrequited love and the plight of outsiders than the Disney version will have you believe, this is above all a love story for the cathedral itself, which Hugo thought the French were in danger of destroying to make way for the modernisation of Paris, and a panoramic view of the entire history of Paris.

TuileriesGeorge Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

Based partly on his own experiences of working as a dishwasher in Parisian restaurants, the first half of the book recounts a gradual descent into poverty and hopelessness in the Paris of the late 1920s. This is the darker side of the gilded ‘expats in Paris in the coin of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and still remarkably accurate for low-paid workers today: ‘If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.’

Cara Black: Murder in the Marais

For a lighter, more enjoyable read, this is the first (and still one of my favourites) in the long-running Aimée Leduc crime series set in different quarters of Paris. Always based on a real-life event, the books show a profound love for the streets, food, sights and people of Paris, plus they feature a resilient, resourceful and very chic young heroine with a penchant for getting into trouble. What more could you want?

ParisMetroSimone de Beauvoir: Memoires d’une jeune fille rang√©e (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter)

The first part of de Beauvoir’s autobiography, it is of course primarily concerned with her intellectual and emotional awakening as a child and teenager, but it also gives an intriguing picture of Parisian society at the beginning of the 20th century: its snobbery and limitations, the consequences of a lack of dowry for girls, the impact of Catholicism on French education. The friendship with the beautiful, irrepressible Zaza (and her tragic end) haunted me for years.

There are so many more I could have added to this list. It seems that Paris is one of those cities which endlessly inspires writers. What other books set in Paris have you loved?

 

Literary Festival on Lake Geneva

Le Livre sur les quais is a relatively unknown literary festival taking place on the banks of Lake Geneva, in the small Swiss town of Morges (near Lausanne). It started in 2010 with just 180 mainly Swiss local writers (a friend of mine who lives in Morges referred to that first year somewhat unkindly as ‘all cook books, tourist guides and crafts manuals’). However, in its 5th year, it has expanded to 362 authors, including many international authors (particularly English-speaking, to satisfy the large expat community in the area). Each year there is an honorary president – ¬†a well-known French-speaking author (last year it was Tatiana de Rosnay, this year it was Daniel Pennac – and a different geographical region is invited to be the ‘guest of honour’. In 2011 it was Quebec, Belgian Walloon region in 2012, last year it was Rhone-Alpes and this year it was Tessin – the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.

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This is a book festival for both fiction and non-fiction fans, for all genres, for all ages, and for quite a few languages. There is a huge book tent on the lakeside, where you can buy your books (at exorbitant Swiss ‘exchange rates, where 15 euros becomes 31.50 francs) and get them signed by the authors when they are not at a conference. There are said conferences, either individual or panel discussions, workshops, films, wine and food tasting, art exhibitions, concerts and, above all, the boat trips with readings. What better way to spend a sunny September weekend than cruising on Lake Geneva listening to Daniel Pennac read from his many novels, Luc Ferry ponder philosophical and ethical issues and Philipp Meyer debating the New Great American Novel with Donald Ray Pollock? Oh, and did I say that all of the events (except for the cruises) are free and that most of them don’t even require pre-registration?

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Swiss and French-speaking authors are of course predominant, but there were many authors that were interesting to me as an English speaker. These authors would have been mobbed at a literary festival in the UK – Nathan Filer, Naomi Wood, Louise Doughty, Douglas Kennedy, Andy McNab, Val McDermid, Jo Baker, Caroline Lawrence and Peter Robinson – but here they were mostly subjected to relentless button-holing by us expats, who kept telling them how much we’d enjoyed their books.

It is also a great opportunity to become acquainted with the up-and-coming authors, or those writing in other languages who have not been translated yet into English. This was a common complaint: many authors told me they had been translated into German, Italian, Swedish, Turkish, Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian etc. etc., but not into English. This made me wonder just how ‘big’ or ‘wealthy’ the publishing business is in those small countries and languages, that they can ‘afford’ to translate so much. And not just from well-known American or English authors.

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While French readers were queuing for autographs in front of Katherine Pancol, ¬†an author who writes what I would describe ‘soap opera with designer gear’ (I could not finish her book), I got to meet and have proper conversations with far more quirky and interesting authors whose books I bought (as I mentioned yesterday) or Pedro Lenz, who writes in Swiss German dialect, and Matthias Zschokke, born and raised in Switzerland but now living in Berlin, or the very candid and delightful debut novelist Lottie Moggach, whose book on online identity sounds both chilling and fascinating. (And yes, she was asked about the benefits but also the disadvantages of having a famous writer as a mother.)

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Beautiful weather (to make up for the miserable summer we’ve been having in this area) and good coffee and cakes contributed to this perfect day, as well as bumping into many friends and fellow writers from the Geneva Writers Group. In fact, many of them were running their own workshops on characterization, life writing, translations. I think it’s a given that I’ll be attending next year too!

Finally, here are a few choice quotes from the sessions I attended:

I don’t think you make a conscious choice of writing a ‘classic’ or writing a book that sells. Those authors who have written classics were not aware that they were writing classics at the time. After all, if you only sell five copies, no matter how good your book is, does it have a chance to become a classic? (Louise Doughty)

It was torture writing my book, but nice to have it written. (Nathan Filer)

I stuck to a proportion of about 90% fact and 10% fiction in my depiction of Hemingway’s life and loves, and I was afraid I would be scourged by Hemingway experts, but in the end if you are writing fiction, you need to give yourself the licence to get away from the facts. (Naomi Wood)

I don’t find it easy to write, nor do I feel a compulsion to write every day, so for a long time I thought that meant that I wasn’t a real writer. (Lottie Moggach)

I originally wrote this book in English and contacted a publisher in the US. They were initially very enthusiastic, until they discovered my age. All of my previous novels counted for nothing. They all want young and healthy writers, who can reliably produce a book a year for a long stint. (Mary Anna Barbey)

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