#6Degrees December 2022

A very appropriate starting point for our Six Degrees of Separation game this month, hosted as always by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. A wintry book set in Alaska, entitled The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, based upon the Russian folk tale Snegurochka. I’m ashamed to say that, although it is probably one of the first books I ever got on the Kindle after receiving the device as a birthday present way back in 2012, I still haven’t read it.

So my logical starting point will be another book that has been the longest on my Kindle – this time a Netgalley download. Not quite as long as The Snow Child, but The Cartel by Don Winslow has been waiting patiently since June 2015. I’ve heard very good things about it, perhaps I was waiting for the appropriate happier time when the hardcore drug wars on the Mexican/American border wouldn’t feel too depressing… and those happier times just never seemed to come!

From the oldest to the most recent Netgalley download: Haruki Murakami’s essay collection Novelist as a Vocation. I enjoyed his book about running (and writing) very much at a time when I was doing both, so let’s see if this inspires me to start writing more regularly.

My next link is to a book about a novelist that I have just read recently: Yellowface by R. F. Kuang – except that in that novel the novelist is less concerned about craft, and more about fame – and will do anything to achieve it, including stealing someone else’s work and pretending to be of Chinese heritage.

A very simple link next, another title with the word ‘yellow’ in it: Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley, his debut novel in fact and a satire of the 1920s English society and country house lifestyle. With the exception of Brave New World, Huxley seems to have fallen out of fashion recently, but I have always enjoyed this novel which is very much based upon several real-life characters who also intersected with the Bloomsbury Group (Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Dora Carrington and so on).

Another person who was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group (and supposedly the only living writer that Virginia Woolf was jealous of) was Katherine Mansfield. Perhaps her best-known short story collection is The Garden Party, but my favourite one (and the one I am linking to here) is Bliss and Other Stories. One of the stories in that collection, Je ne parle pas français, a strange little cross-cultural love triangle with homoerotic undertones, links to my final book today.

David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of essays and memoir pieces, not all of them equally appealing to me, but I do want to put a good word in for the title one, which is about the author taking French classes in Paris and the way he and his fellow classmates struggle with the language. As an expat in France, and someone who is currently murdering the Italian language with my classmates on Zoom, I find that particular story very relatable and funny.

So my six degrees have taken me from Alaska to the Mexican border, Japan to Washington DC, England and Paris. Where will your literary travels take you this month?

Creepy, Funny, Poignant, Sad: Quick Book Reviews

Each one of the books below deserves a full review, but, as I was saying just yesterday, I cannot afford that luxury when I am so far behind with my reviews. The adjectives in the title describe pretty much every single one of the books in the selection below: they all have their poignant, funny, sad moments. And all except the Sedaris are unsettling and more than slightly disturbing.

uninvitedLiz Jensen: The Uninvited

A magnificent blend of genres and styles, sinister moments alternating with lighter ones. The author cranks up the tension almost unbearably without ever resorting to graphic nastiness. A rather endearing anthropologist suffering from Asperger’s (now that’s an unlikely notion, but produces clever and hilarious results), Hesketh Lock, is hired to investigate underlying patterns of a spate of suicidal saboteurs and children turning feral and criminal. The latter, in particular, is a most unsettling notion, especially since Hesketh has a rather lovely relationship with his stepson.  This book poses many questions about the world of adults and children, ‘them’ and us mentality, wishing to remain uninvolved and also the future of our planet. So ambitious themes, but handled with great ingenuity and suspense.

metalkprettyDavid Sedaris: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Whenever I moaned about my struggles with the French language since moving to Geneva, friends recommended this book and I finally read it. It’s not all about the author’s experiences of France, its language and its people, but it certainly is very funny and relatable when it does touch on that topic. It feels at times almost like a stand-up routine: ranting with purpose and humour. Trying to remember the gender of French nouns, trying to survive language classes with a sadistic French teacher, life in a small village – I was chuckling with recognition throughout. It’s not just the French who have to endure Sedaris’ sharp tongue, his Greek father, Americans abroad, New York eccentrics and many more all come in for a share of his satire. Because we have just celebrated Easter, let me share with you this delightful passage. The classmates are trying to explain, in their broken French, what Easter is to a Moroccan friend:

The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. ‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and… oh, shit.’ She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid.
‘He call his self Jesus and then he die one day on two… morsels of… lumber.’
The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.
‘He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.’
‘He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.’
‘He nice, the Jesus.’
‘He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.’

granSara Gran: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

New Orleans is just as much the star of the show in this novel as is Claire DeWitt, a private investigator using decidedly unconventional methods (and more than a little partial to some recreational smoking). However, it’s a post-Katrina city, with many residents still missing or flooded out of their homes. It’s a city of decay and death, of criminality and corruption, and Gran spares no one’s feelings. But there is also much empathy and sadness in her heroine. Claire is a hard-boiled detective with a mystical side and an almost unearthly devotion to her former teacher and an old book of detection written by a Frenchman. It’s a colourful, intriguing and very unusual crime novel, in which the mystery is almost secondary to the fresco of life. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing Sara Gran in Lyon.

wickedgameMatt Johnson: Wicked Game

This is a book written by an expert in UK military police and SAS. And it shows, in more ways than one. On the plus side, it is chillingly plausible and conjures up an explosive atmosphere of distrust and fear. On the negative side, it is sometimes a bit too detailed and full of jargon in its description, at least for this reader without a passionate interest in weapons and combat techniques. Robert Finlay, the aging protagonist, is very sympathetic and the plot will keep you on your toes till the very end (without resorting to Hollywood film clichés), so it’s an excellent read for thriller fans. Plus, look at the gorgeous cover!