I’ll stick to the books this time and make no comments about other aspects of 2016. But even so, I have to admit it’s been a bit of an atypical year. I’ve read 167 books, Goodreads tells me, and have a couple more weeks to reach 170 or so.
But it’s not a race.
I’ve had moments of furious reading, and some months of disruption, when reading was in scarce supply. The proportion of crime fiction seems to be lower than in other years. My Top 5 Reviewed Crime Reads will appear as usual on the Crime Fiction Lover site, so I thought I would look at other books here on my blog, particularly those which were released before 2016.
I wonder if the format for reading them also added to their memorability: most of the ones featured were physical books (only four were e-books).
My overall percentage of translated fiction was perhaps roughly 40%, and the books in this category have proved memorable and contributed considerably to my ‘best of’ list (8 out of 17). Likewise, I may feel that I don’t read as much poetry and non-fiction as I would like to, but they tend to stick with me and so appear quite a bit on the list. 10 out of the 17 books were written by women, 10 of these were published before 2016.
It’s been an emotional year, so I’ve gone for visceral response rather than careful analysis of literary merits. However, most of the books below show evidence of both. Sadly, not all of them have been given the review they deserve. I’ve found that I often struggle to review those books which have meant most to me and which I want to reread. For those I haven’t reviewed, I just give a short quote from the book itself.
I had no right to refuse her help. The myth of my future was what kept her alive. For the time being, I had to swallow my pride and continue my race against time, to try and keep my promise towards her, to give her absurd and tender dreams some reason for being… I don’t feel guilty about that. But if you find that my books are cries for dignity and justice, if they all talk to such an extent about human decency, it’s perhaps because until the age of 22, I lived off the back of an exhausted and ill woman. I owe her so much.
Smile Please is Jean Rhys’ autobiography, or rather a collection of vignettes about her life in Dominica, London and Paris, left unfinished at the time of her death. She revisits much of the same ground that she has already addressed in her fiction, although it is dangerous to assume that her fiction is confessional. However, it is close in subject matter and style to her short story collection Sleep It Off, Lady, so this is the comparison I shall make.
Where Jean Rhys succeeds so well, to my mind, is how she takes a certain experience from her own life (her husband’s jail sentence, an abortion, being educated by Catholic nuns, being abandoned) and heightens it, polishing it until it catches all the light of universality.
The first tales in both books are remarkable for their vivid evocation of the Caribbean smells, sounds, heat and colours. But what is remarkable is how there is always something sinister under the lovely trappings. In Smile Please the author does allow herself some wallowing in nostalgia when describing her aunt’s estate in Geneva or carnival or riding or musical evenings, although she also mentions her terrifying nurse Meta, the Englishman who superciliously declared her ‘not a pretty little girl’, the racial tensions. But in the fictional accounts of her childhood the danger is much more apparent, the disillusionment all the more acute. In ‘Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose’ a twelve-year-old girl is inappropriately fondled by an old Englishman, a war hero, on holiday in Jamaica. In ‘Fishy Waters’ white privilege, sense of entitlement and child molestation all come together to create an unpalatable truth which is never explicitly stated, only hinted.
What we do get to see in Smile Please is Jean’s family: her opinionated, generous and charismatic father, her withdrawn, cold mother, early separation from her older brothers and sister, a slight resentment but also protectiveness towards her younger sister who ‘was now the baby, the spoilt and cherished one’, and her great sense of loneliness. She found companionship and consolation in books.
When she goes to England however (where the dominant first impression is of a grey, cold, unwelcoming place), she loses her love of books for many years. Scenes from her first encounters with London, falling asleep in the Wallace Collection, her mediocre acting career, dirty bedsits and suspicious landladies are very similar in both books and have indeed been described in other books. This is the landscape and state of mind we associate with Jean Rhys. The narrative voice so often echoes the author’s thoughts that it’s no wonder we confuse the two, yet it’s worth remembering that she liked shape and said, ‘A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’
You can detect some of this ‘shapelessness’, a meandering through memories (where one memory gives rise to another), in her autobiography, and not just in the unfinished second part of it. There is a rawness and immediacy to her work in Smile Please. The words are perhaps less carefully measured out than in her fiction, but we feel we are participating in the author’s thought processes.
Is the following truth or fiction? And does it matter? It certainly explains the self-destructive and passive tendencies of the female characters in Rhys’ novels and stories.
I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.
Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. There remains something untamed about the narrator. Her language is simple, eloquent, almost child-like in its simplicity. The narrators come across as pathetically naive at times, cynical and world-weary at other times, but they often surprise the men in their lives or the reader (and even, occasionally, themselves).
Inevitably, you’ll find the fictional account (because it was finished) far more lucid about the fear of illness and old age, the inevitable decline and raging against it, and finally some kind of troubled acceptance of death. But there is a lot more self-deprecating humour in her autobiography. Take for instance, her delightful anecdote about being a governess to a small, solemn little boy and getting lost on the way back from the park. So typical of the well-meaning but accident-prone and muddled heroines of Rhys’ novels.
Sometimes now I smile when I think there is a middle-aged, or even elderly, man in Paris with an unnecessary hatred of everything English, and vague memories of a thin Englishwoman in black who tried to kidnap him.
In today’s world, when everyone bares their soul and the kitchen sink on their blogs and in personal memoirs, does Jean Rhys’ brutal honesty still have the power to shock? Perhaps not, but it’s not about the subject matter, the relentless drabness and numbing one’s senses in alcohol. It is about transcending greyness, about turning it into luminous prose. Thank you to Eric and Jacqui for initiating #ReadingRhys week and thereby reminding us once more just what a consummate artist she is.
The 100 year anniversary of the beginning of Battle of the Somme (it dragged on for 4-5 endless months) should show the monumental stupidity and futility of war and the dangers of heeding the siren call of nationalism. Thy advanced all of five miles during those months and suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day alone, over a million deaths (on both sides) over that period.
The First World War was a war of empire and young men were used as cannon fodder, so, not surprisingly, it was also a time of ‘rude awakening’ and cognitive dissonance for those young men. There has been a steady stream of literature depicting the horrors but above all the psychological torments of that war. I remember reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ when I was 12 and shivering. If that doesn’t make you a pacifist, nothing ever will!
Here are some lesser-known novels about the First World War, which truly question in some depth the role of individuals in history, how history shapes each one of us, how we become its pawns and whether we have any choice in the matter.
Camil Petrescu: Ultima noapte de dragoste, întîia noapte de război (Last Night of Love, First Night of War) – 1930
Ștefan Gheorghidiu is a rather self-important, naive young man who falls in love and marries Ela, a woman who seems his polar opposite in every respect. He becomes increasingly jealous and suspects she is only interested in his fortune, but war intervenes and he is sent to the front.
Many present-day readers feel the book delves too much into Ștefan’s tortured psychology, but that was precisely what I loved about it. As he is confronted with the harsh realities of war, he realises just how petty his own problems are and becomes aware of the greater tragedy and absurdity of life. This book is very similar in theme to the next on the list below. It hasn’t been translated into English, but there is a French version of it.
Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End – 1924-28
This book doesn’t describe war scenes in great detail either – rather, it’s about the psychological effects of war on the people who live through it, on the front and beyond. Christopher Tietjens and his flight wife are very similar to the couple in Petrescu’s book, but the style is far more modernist and experimental. Tietjens is more infuriating than Stefan – a big block of an emotionally stunted man who seems to be a passive recipient of things, rather than over-agonising mentally. And yet, both novels show that sex and war are two sides of the same coin: when passion becomes obsession and we become overly focused on just one thought, one person, one ideology.
Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – 1929
Rather better known than the others featured here, but still not quite as popular in the English-speaking world as it deserves to be. It shows the war from ‘the other side of the barricades’, the German side, and just how unwilling and disenchanted the average soldier could be about being a cog in a very large imperial machine which had little to do with him or his life. The author makes it clear that he wants to tell the story of ‘a generation of men who even though they escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war’. The filth and squalor, the boredom and random cruelty of trench warfare are shown here quite graphically.
Liviu Rebreanu: Pădurea spânzuraţilor (Forest of the Hanged) – 1922
This is in some ways the most shocking of the books on the list. For those unfamiliar with Romanian history, before the First World War Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All the ethnic Romanian men were recruited and fought on several fronts, including against Romania, which was on the side of the Allies. The author himself was considered a deserter for leaving Transylvania during the war and settling in Romania, but the real inspiration behind the story was the tragic fate of his brother, who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and executed for treason for refusing to fight against his fellow Romanians. The Forest of the Hanged is a haunting image, apparently based on a picture of a forest filled with Czech soldiers who had been hanged for treason (for refusing to fight against their compatriots behind the Italian front). It’s not great battle scenes, however: it’s about one man’s internal journey and the awakening of his conscience. There is an English translation from 1986 – out of print now, obviously.
If any publisher would like to reconsider a translation, I’m happy to offer my services. I love this book so much!
Didier Daeninckx: Le der des ders (The Last of the Last) – 1984
The title alludes to the fact that the First World War was initially known as the ‘War to End All Wars’. So far from the truth!
This is almost a crime story set in the confused, anarchic period just after the end of the war. A former colonel hires a former soldier turned detective (René Griffon) for an apparently banal case of suspected adultery. But what Griffon uncovers is a wide-ranging case of corruption and conspiracy, which mocks all of the idealistic principles of war and fatherland. Similar to Lemaitre’s Au-revoir la-haut, but predating it by 30 years. There is also an immensely evocative BD version illustrated by Tardi, an English version has been recently published as ‘A Very Profitable War’ by Melville House .
Masterpiece of Japanese literature, world literature, medieval literature and anything else you can think of. Poetry, romance, heartbreak and sumptuous description of clothes, festivals and the Imperial Court. I did struggle with this far too literal translation (and footnotes), though, and it took me about 6 weeks to read its 1000+ pages.
Read the book, met the author and saw the movie within a few weeks of each other. I liked all three: the book had far more filmworthy scenes which never made it to the screen; the film did not have the preposterous coincidence at the end. And the author ain’t bad-looking either! (He’s also written the screenplay for the current TV mystery series ‘London Spy’).
Quite a bit of jostling in this category, although less than last year. I’ve stuck to my plan for reading beyond the obvious latest releases. This is a touching, if somewhat uneven description of life during and after the Yugoslav war.
At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to find anything in this category, but then I realised that Jeremie (who has written 5 novels by now) is still only 27 years old. This, his debut novel, was published in 2010, when he was just 22.
Again, a difficult category, but I think this counts: a sentient sea on a strange planet, who makes all the characters revisit all the things they fear most or feel most guilty about counts as a very unusual.
And a topic that goes straight to the heart of women’s suffering – just so powerful and emotionally draining. I’ve read a lot by female authors this year, but this is the one that I automatically think of when I hear ‘women’s writing’, whatever that might mean.
I read so many crime novels, yet I was really stumped for this category, as I felt I wanted to include a writer that wouldn’t fit in any of the other categories. In the end, I will dispense with originality and go with a classic that has been so influential in film and writing since its publication.
Silences by Tillie Olsen
A book that has been so influential on me as a woman and a writer – talking about all the artists who have been silenced by history, circumstances, gender or jobs, written by one of the first generation of American feminists.
Or is it too much to claim a favourite author if this is the only book I have read by her? I have just bought her latest book, though, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, and hope to read it over the holidays.
Free download when I first bought my husband a Kindle 4 years ago. I was clearing out the books I had on his Kindle and it fitted in well with German Literature Month. Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t have died if I’d forgotten about it.
Not sure I can claim Petina Gappah as a friend, but we do know each other from the Geneva Writers’ Group and she recommended this book when she spoke on a panel in Morges, saying it was the best portrayal of the UN and ‘organisation man’ that she’d ever come across.
For every inspirational quote, there is another that yanks us down to the bottom of the murky river bed. For every kind thought from a stranger, there is an sharp thrust of unkindness from a near one, all for your very own good, of course.
The way to hell is paved, crenellated, wallpapered and sandblasted with good intentions couched in cruel terminology. There is often no subtlety involved (‘obese’, ‘bags of fat on two legs’, ‘heart attack waiting to happen’), while at other times a theatrical sigh will underline that another poison arrow is striving to reach its mark: ‘I’ll only stop praying for you when you finally have found a decent job.’
Good old Dobbin, you work horse, you clothes horse. Keep on plodding and don’t take your nose out of your snuffle-bag or wardrobe until you find the right job, that makes them proud rather than you happy, the perfect dress that covers your stumps, denies your belly, turns your liabilities into assets and doesn’t cost a fortune either, into the bargain (bin)!
Then there are all of those black-and-white world views, all tinged with horrific fatality. All children of divorced parents end up drug addicts or lunatics or worse. All men cheat, all women suffer. Women punish by cutting off their noses to spite their faces. They imprison the man into vengeful marriage, piercing snide remarks, alimony payments, guilt, guilt, guilt. No matter how much men might pressure you into having babies, you will end up with the precious bundles and all their messes – they will only take the glory and successes. A boast at the office and nothing too tangly to weigh yourself down.
Meantime, princess, you’re too old, your pink too soiled, far too busy doing the things you should be doing, to waste time on creative nonsense. Life is to be endured, not to be enjoyed. We have no right to expect happiness. To be selfish. To scratch meaningless little words in short lines and call them poetry. Exchange your heels for flip-flops and wait out the ice-cube tinkling cocktail hour. Jump in and drown in the pool of your perfectly content disapproval.
We have every right to expect happiness. We were the apple, the peach, the light of our mother’s eyes. She did all she could to make us happy and was expecting you, quite frankly, to do more of the same. We cannot be happy with someone who is unhappy. What on earth do you think we should do when that happens — we’re not equipped, not trained, not interested… We twiddle our thumbs defensively. We look down, shuffle our feet, speed out the door, no longer want to be seen with this person in public. We do not want to rock the boat… unless it’s us doing the rocking. We’re worth it, but she isn’t because she wants too much, she wants the impossible. Because she is illogical, irrational, all emoting gushingness – so like a woman!
Pipe down, you shrew, your ranting is giving us all headaches! Who wants or needs feminism now anyway, when it’s proven women can have everything they want, but they don’t know how to choose wisely?
Why should we help when she ends up doing it alone anyway? How else can we prove our independence, our maturity, our love for our father, or that she is needed? These moments pass so fast, we grow up so quickly, she’ll cry later, when we leave home. She already feels the loneliness whenever we leave the house for a day, for a week, for a lifetime. She talks too much, she repeats incessantly and what she has to say we have long since stopped believing. What would each member of our family be if we were animals? A koala, a panda, a giraffe – the cuddliest and tallest all sorted. Mother? A bookworm.
Does the worm ever turn?
This piece of prose above has its origin in some family history, the great voices of feminism and the quote below from French writer Virginie Despentes.
Parce que l’idéal de la femme blanche, séduisante mais pas pute, bien mariée mais pas effacée, travaillant mais sans trop réussir, pour ne pas écraser son homme, mince mais pas névrosée par la nourriture, restant indéfiniment jeune sans se faire défigurer par les chirurgiens de l’esthétique, maman épanouie mais pas accaparée par les couches et les devoirs d’école, bonne maîtresse de maison mais pas bonniche traditionnelle, cultivée mais moins qu’un homme, cette femme blanche heureuse qu’on nous brandit tout le temps sous le nez, celle à laquelle on devrait faire l’effort de ressembler, à part qu’elle a l’air de beaucoup s’emmerder pour pas grand-chose, de toutes façons je ne l’ai jamais croisée, nulle part. Je crois bien qu’elle n’existe pas. (Virginie Despentes)
[The ideal of the white woman, seductive but not a slut, well married but not faded, working but without being too successful so as not to crush her husband, slender without becoming obsessed about food, forever young without having to resort to cosmetic surgery, a mother in bloom without being too overcome by nappies and homework, good housekeeper without becoming a traditional housewife, well-read but not quite as much as a man, this happy white woman that they keep brandishing under our noses, that we’re supposed to try and resemble (except when she goes ape-shit about insignificant things), well, I’ve never met her anywhere. I do believe she doesn’t exist.] (my translation, with apologies to the original)
My natural preference in fiction is for first or third person point of views, limited but allowing you to build up quite an in-depth picture of your narrator (and even seem some of their own blind spots). If you were to ask me ‘in the abstract’, without any examples, I would say that I don’t like books where the author can hop from one head into another, emit omniscient asides and foreshadow like billy-ho with complete nonchalance. It feels like lazy writing, I’d tell myself, it interrupts the flow and confuses me.
Yet here I am about to extol the virtues of two books which do precisely that. Which goes to show that rules are made to be broken and that I can be won over to just about anything by good writing.
Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters
This is marketed as a crime thriller, but, as is so frequently the case with Lauren Beukes, it defies any genre description. It has all the elements of a police procedural, albeit one of unnerving grittiness and despair, but also swerves into YA, horror and fantasy territory. All areas I usually stay away from, but in Beukes’ wildly inventive mind and confident hands, it works. She moves effortlessly from one interpretation of events to another, equally pitch-perfect as a teenager, a stressed female officer, a homeless drifter or journalist despising himself for writing nothing better than lists of Top Tens for second-rate websites, all in a lively, exuberant language on the brink of change.
This is a story revealing all our anxieties about the digital age and urban decay. It’s set in the almost post-apocalyptic landscape of Detroit, now fallen victim to fans of ruin porn and graffiti, hipsters trying to ‘get’ the edginess of the city and to further their careers, scavengers making their way into repossessed houses.
Detective Gabi Vesado has seen a lot of bodies in her time with the Detroit police force, even children’s bodies, but this one is shocking even by her standards. A boy cut in half, with deer legs somehow fused to him. Unfortunately, this is but the start of a sinister series of killings, all arranged artistically, as if to mimic contemporary art installations. Beukes is wonderful at mocking the pretensions of much modern art, but she also takes us into the murderer’s mind – which, disconcertingly, is the mind of an artist taken to extreme. An obsession with beauty and creating new paradigms, opening the door to a new consciousness, which sometimes makes him the most relatable character in the book (at least, to a writer/artist/creative person). He may be a monster, but he’s a broken one (I never thought I’d say this about a serial killer).
There are plenty more quirky and very well-drawn characters: Gabi’s teenage daughter Layla, who engages in dangerous games of online pedophile baiting with her friend Cas; Cas herself, who seems cynical beyond her years, perhaps discussing a much deeper vulnerability; the failed journalist Jonno who dreams of going viral with his online videos, helped by his DJ girlfriend with the wild dreadlocks; and homeless TK, who only wants to survive, but cannot sit by idly while his friend is being hurt. Each of these (and a few others I’m not mentioning here for lack of space) have a complete back story, although most of it remains hidden from us like an iceberg.
I’m a little tired of the serial killer trop, or of graphic descriptions of violence (although, to be fair, in this book it is more about the reaction of the people who get to see the violence), but this book is about so much more than that. Beukes almost crams in too much: psychology of teens and of loners, social commentary about poverty and abandonment of society’s most fragile members, the Internet as a place we can project the myths we tell about ourselves, but also a place where our own stories can be used against us, herd instinct and our love of conspiracy theories, media frenzy about the more sensationalist aspects of crime. Throughout, the author transports us into a vivid yet surreal world, a world of nightmares and hallucinations, where we lose the ability to distinguish fact from fiction.
Just as an aside: I’ve included all three covers for the book – let me know which one you prefer. I think the South African one is the most beautiful, though perhaps a bit too explicit.
Ann Patchett: Bel Canto
The blurb itself promises an unusual book, difficult to pin down in terms of degree of seriousness:
In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. His hosts hope that Mr. Hosokawa can be persuaded to build a factory in their Third World backwater. Alas, in the opening sequence, just as the accompanist kisses the soprano, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.
In this house under siege – and the siege extends to weeks rather than days – a kind of truce develops and the most unlikely of love stories spring up, while hope and despair alternate in rapid succession. Ann Patchett is a delightful mix of 19th century elegance and 21st century knowingness in this book. I loved her brand of suave humour, gracious omniscience and flitting around from one character to another, observing all human foibles but also all human aspiration for something grander, more ennobling – such as music. The opera singer, the Japanese industrialist, the talented translator, the young terrorists who have just left their native village, the idealistic priest, the hardened paramilitary leader who still has a heart hidden somewhere: these are not stereotypes, but beautifully rounded characters described with tenderness but also irony. This ‘mature and knowing narrator’ POV, filled with sly observations, reminds me of Jane Austen. Patchett has an uncanny ability to describe someone (and their way of thinking) in just a few sentences.
The international negotiator, Messner: ‘The Swiss never take sides. We are only on the side of the Swiss.’
The doctor who tries not to draw attention to himself and his profession: ‘The conclusion was that no doctors were present. But that wasn’t true. Dr. Gomez was lying in the back… and his wife was stabbing him sharply in the ribs with two red lacquered fingernails. He had given up his practice years ago to become a hospital administrator. When was the last time he had sewn a man up?.. He was probably no more qualified to do a decent job than his wife, who at least kept a canvas of petit point going all the time. Without taking a single stitch he saw how the whole thing would unravel: there would be an infection, certainly; they would not bring in the necessary antibiotics; later the wound would have to opened, drained, resewn… It would not go well. People would blame him.’
The kitchen scene of cooking coq sans vin, without allowing the hostages access to knives, is one of the funniest scenes:
Thibault, the French ambassador, one of the few among the hostages who knows how to cook, is manning the kitchen. He is trying to show the terrorists how to peel an aubergine but has forgotten that he is not allowed to handle knives. (Apologies for hte choppiness and lack of clarity in what follows: I’m skipping big chunks of text here in an effort to convey the flavour of the scene).
Thibault did not understand what he had done. He thought at first Beatriz [one of the captors] was angry that he had corrected the boy on his peeling, He thought the problem was with the eggplant, and so he laid the eggplant down first and then the knife. […]
‘Go ahead,’ Ishmael said, taking out his own gun and pointing it at the Ambassador. ‘I’ll shoot you, too, if I have to. Show me how to peel an eggplant, I’ve shot men over less than an eggplant.’ […]
What would Edith say when she heard he had been shot over an eggplant or turning on the television? If he was going to die he had hoped for a little bit of honor in his death.
‘Well,’ Ruben said, wiping his face with a dishtowel. ‘Nothing around here is a small event.’ […]
‘No one is leaving! Dinner for fifty-eight, is that what they expect? I will not lose one pair of hands, even if the hands belong to the very valuable translator… May I inquire as to the state of the onions or will you threaten to shoot me?’ […]
‘Why does he get to cook the onions?’ Beatriz said. ‘They’re my onions. And I won’t wash the chickens because that does not involve a knife. I was only sent in here to work the knives.’
Every three years or so the literary magazine Livres Hebdo in France does an IPSOS survey of not just its readers, but the wider French reading public. The latest edition of this survey (April 2014) reveals that reading remains the second favourite leisure activity of the French (after ‘going out with friends’). 7 out of 10 French read at least one book a month and about half of them claim to read every day.
However, e-readers have not made that much of an inroad yet into French reading habits. Its popularity has grown only by 3% in the last three years.
And what are the favourite genres? Crime fiction (known as ‘polars’) tops the list, unsurprisingly, followed by spy thrillers, self-help books and historical essays/biographies.
So, are there any causes for concern? Well, the French admit that reading does seem to be a pastime associated with the middle classes, the better-educated and economically better off. This finding holds true in the survey of reading habits in England commissioned by Booktrust UK. In fact, there has been talk in Britain of a ‘class division’ in reading culture, with a clear link between deprivation and lack of reading enjoyment.
But perhaps the English are further down the road of using digital media to do their reading. In England 18% of people never read any physical books, while 71% never read any e-books. A quarter prefer internet and social media to books, nearly half prefer TV and DVDs to books. Only 28% of people in England (and I think it’s important to point out that this data is only for England, not for the UK as a whole) read books nearly every day, so considerably lower than in France. Fitting in nicely with the stereotype of ‘highbrow French’ reading books with boring covers and impenetrable titles?
Worldwide surveys of reading habits do tend to confirm somewhat national stereotypes. Self-help books are popular in the US, while in the UK there is a marked preference for celebrity autobiographies and TV chefs. The Germans, meanwhile, prefer travel/outdoor/environmental books, while the French, Romanians, Italians seem to prefer fiction.
But the most interesting result may be found in Spain. Once the nation that read fewer books than any other in Europe, since the recession hit the country so hard, it seems that books have become that affordable luxury and has led to 57% of the population reading regularly. It has also become one of the biggest book-producing nations, bucking all the publishing trends. And what do they prefer reading? A very interesting mix of Spanish-speaking writers (including South Americans) and translations from other languages.
And what are we to make of a 2011 study from the University of Gothenburg showing that increased use of computers in children’s homes in the US and Sweden have led to poorer reading skills as well as less pleasure derived from reading?
At the risk of preaching to the converted, I leave you with a conclusion which has been replicated in multiple studies around the world and which refers to leisure-time reading (of whatever description):
People who read books are significantly more likely to be happy and content with their life.
Every now and then I happen to read a couple of books with a similar theme and then I am tempted to seek out a few more with the same theme. So I end up with a mix of fiction and non-fiction, memoir and even poetry about a topic, which gets me thinking about my own thoughts, feelings and experiences. This time the topic was: bad mothers. Or perhaps it should be called just ‘mothers’, since, as a friend of mine often says:
No matter what you do or don’t do as a mother, you will get blamed for everything anyway.
Paula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You? – may be a question most mothers ask themselves at some point during their lives (or at least once a week in my case), but the mother in question is relatively blameless compared to the ones I’ll mention below. Lisa Kallisto: she was just so overwhelmed – this is what it will say on her headstone. And who cannot relate to that? We can all empathise with her as she tries to juggle work and family life, so many plates to keep spinning. Is it any wonder that one of them may occasionally fall? Yet when one of those ‘plates’ is the daughter of your friend, who was supposed to be staying for a sleepover with your own daughter, but now has disappeared, is it any wonder you blame yourself? A seriously addictive page-turner, because it is so relatable for any mother.
Mother Mother by Koren Zailckas has been described as crime fiction, but really it’s not the mystery which keeps you reading. It’s the sheer horror of an incredibly dysfunctional family. Yet this too offers searing moments of recognition. I wish I could say I view these moments with humour (or shocked dismay), but in fact they rip open scabs on wounds I had long thought healed. Or wounds that I’ve refused to acknowledge thus far, wounds which I thought I had inflicted on myself. Although I usually despise labels and their limitations, it does help that I now have a name for something which may be involuntary, a kind of illness rather than deliberate malevolence: narcissistic mother. And no, I’m not talking about myself!
There is a lot of melodrama in this book, deliberate switching of viewpoints to increase the suspense, but they also help to provide a more rounded picture of Josephine, the mother in question. A monster? Yes, perhaps, but not entirely unappealing, even if her young son Will is perhaps not the most reliable of narrators. But then, who is? I would ideally have liked to see how outsiders perceived her – we only have a hint of that with the comments of the social worker who comes to talk to daughter Violet at the hospital.
This is not an easy book to read, it’s a painful dissection of dysfunctional families and the ways in which we torture and manipulate each other (sometimes with the best of intentions). I found the portrayal of Will and the ineffective husband/father particularly well written. Too little too late comes to mind, and I shudder to think how the reverberations of the events described in this book will continue to affect the protagonists for many years still to come.
Anna Gold : Bienvenue (in French)
At the bedside of her dying mother, the narrator, Léa Blum, seeks to come to terms with her Jewish heritage and her estranged family. A story as old as the hills – the teenage girl who rebels against her upbringing, finds an unsuitable boyfriend (in this case, unsuitable because he is not Jewish) and falls pregnant. Yet the way in which the full extent of her mother’s betrayal is gradually revealed is particularly painful. Léa repeatedly tries to break through her mother’s coldness and lovelessness, tries to understand and forgive it as a trait of a Holocaust survivor, but finally she gives up. She seeks refuge instead in her literary creation, Sonia van Zijde, a Dutch Marrano Jew living in 17th century Amsterdam, who becomes friends with Rembrandt and his wife Saskia, and through them gets to know the philosopher Spinoza. The contrast between the multiple lives of the narrator: the one she was expected to live, the one she did live and the one she would have liked to live, all meet here, as we alternate between Sonia’s story and her own. Perhaps a little predictable as a story, but it ends on a hopeful note.
Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (to be translated and published soon as ‘Nothing Holds Back the Night’)
This is not a Mommy Dearest portrayal of a monster, but a daughter and a writer trying to understand and interpret her own childhood, that of her mother, the mother’s manic depression and an unusual but rather attractive family. There is a lot of love and forgiveness in this book, a lot of painful honesty, as well as a meditation on whether we can ever be truthful in our representations of reality, or just how reliable memory is. Unlike all of the other books on this theme, this is most resolutely memoir rather than fiction (however thinly disguised some of the other fiction is). Of course memoir is interpretation, it is fiction too, and this book is not just a family history and the portrait of a troubled mother, but also a meditation on the nature of memory, of how stories are constructed and retold, of the power and dangers of silence. Out of all the conflicting family accounts from her mother’s brothers and sisters, which will the author choose as ‘the truth’? And ultimately, is there ever a single truth, can we ever know what drives a person to despair, depression and suicide?
Delphine’s mother Lucile was a beautiful child model, the third child in a large and apparently picture-perfect family. Yet the family was touched by tragedy: the childhood death of a younger brother was just the start. Lucile marries far too early, has children when she is barely out of her teens and soon finds herself struggling to make a life for herself and her daughters as a largely uneducated single mother in Paris. As her moodiness and occasional sadness descends into delusions and paranoia, the girls struggle to anticipate her behaviour and surmount their own fears. Could anything or anyone have saved Lucile from suicide? Could her life have been better? And can we ever doubt her love for her children?
Another depressed mother, another account of a potentially damaged childhood, this time a fictional story seeped in the sun of Southern France, as seen through the eyes of a precocious child narrator, Pea (nearly six). This could be a very dark and sad book in terms of subject matter: the rather horrific neglect of Pea and her younger sister Margot, the infuriating apathy of a severely depressed, heavily pregnant mother struggling to overcome her own grief, the well-meant interference of other villagers, the hilarious but also dangerous scrapes the girls get themselves into (a scorpion in a jar, a haircut which goes terribly wrong). Yet all of these are counter-balanced by a delicious freedom and poetic description of country life which few children are able to enjoy nowadays. The smells, sounds, textures of the fields of hay, of the market-place, the taste of freshly-picked peaches, the breathless run through to the treehouse. It was a book filled with nostalgia, just like the de Vigan book, evoking a lost paradise (the days when Papa was alive and Maman still used to laugh, hug and cook), but here we are allowed to hope in a better ending, an improved life for all.
Have you read any of these books or others about ‘bad mothers’? And how do you feel about themed reading? Does it get too much after a while to read about the same topic, or is it fascinating to see the many different takes on it? Motherhood is one of those topics which never gets stale (although in this case it did get a bit depressing, even if I interspersed them with other reading), nor will it ever be elucidated. Complex, mysterious, complicated, joyous and troubling: our relationship with our mother is one topic which is never likely to disappear from literature.
Yesterday I read my first official YA novel – because I am of that generation that didn’t have literature aimed specifically at my age-group, or paternalistic age-banding on books. By the time YA literature made its official appearance, I had grown up and preferred to go back to my childhood favourites when I was in a nostalgic mood (Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Ballet Shoes). I had no desire to relive my late teens, when back in high school all I wanted to do was be as pretentiously grown-up as possible.
But for a friend and fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group (who moreover shares my love of popcorn!), the one-woman dynamo that is Katie Hayoz, I decided to forsake my stupid genre scepticism. I find genre such a meaningless category anyway. Her book ‘Untethered’ is labelled YA fiction, as the protagonist is a teenage girl. (But then, The Lovely Bones, Catcher in the Rye and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter should all be categorised as teen fiction.) It’s also labelled a paranormal novel, which is more than a little misleading, although it does deal with astral projection.
However, this is not a post about genre fiction, fascinating though that subject may be. Instead, it is about the importance of narrative voice. The narrator of ‘Untethered’ has a remarkably clear voice of her own: self-absorbed and whiny at times, self-justifying and pretentious at others, but also sharply observant, funny and poignant. Unique and yet representative of teenagers everywhere. Or the teenager we think we remember we were.
This is the one thing that literary agents say over and over again about submissions: what makes them instantly prick up their ears and read on is this strong individual voice. Yet it is far rarer than you might think. I read so many books this year (140 at last count) and only a handful or two of those have that truly unique voice. Confidence, an above-average plot and a polished style: yes, there are dozens like that and I rank many of my favourite authors amongst these. But a voice that grabs you (even when you don’t much like it) and takes you into their world (however unfamiliar)… it is an exhilarating experience when that happens. I’ve felt that this year with Katie Hayoz’s Sylvie, Denise Mina’s Garnethill, John Burdett’s Bangkok Eight, Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy. All very different voices, but all whispering (sometimes shouting) potently in my ear.
Then I realised that it’s not just in literature, but also in music that I am bowled over by unique, strong, perhaps even unfashionable or unlikable voices. What I call ‘lived-in’ voices – people who have experienced much, suffered and not always overcome. Voices of experience, voices on the edge. Voices that you wouldn’t want to hear on your children, but in which you perhaps recognise just a little bit of yourself. Yes, I admire the perfect pitch, poise and modulations of great singers, but it’s these ‘broken’ voices, simultaneously world-weary and world-hungry, that make my heart do a double turn.
Good morning heartache, good morning Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison,
Another busy and varied month of reading… reflecting, no doubt, the busy-ness in my so-called professional (i.e. non-writing) life. I am very far behind on my reviewing, but the holidays are starting soon and I hope to catch up with myself. However, you will soon get a feel for my reading predilection, simply by looking at the colour of the book covers… Black dominates! (Even more, possibly, if you also add the books I read in Kindle or pdf format).
So here is a list and quick reviews (with possibly more to follow) or links to reviews elsewhere:
2) Martin Walker: The Resistance Man – the latest in the utterly enchanting Bruno Courreges series set in present-day rural France
3) And because one Bruno is never enough, I’ve also read the previous book in the series ‘The Devil’s Cave’.
4) Antonin Varenne: Bed of Nails – a disturbing tale of suicides that are more than they first appear to be, set in an almost dystopian Paris, like something in a parallel universe; to be reviewed imminently on the Crime Fiction Lover website
5) Bashir Sakhawarz: Maargir the Snake Charmer – poignant vignettes of life in Afghanistan before and after the Russian invasion, as well as the story of two brothers on opposing sides of the ideological struggle
6) Marius Czubaj: 21:37 – the first Polish crime novel that I have ever read, and a promising one it is too, featuring a police profiler called Heinz (‘like the ketchup’), homophobia and corrupt businessmen and church officials.
7) Louise Penny: The Cruellest Month – I enjoyed my first taste of Inspector Gamache so much, I had to try another book in the series, and this was deeper, darker and overall even better than the previous one.
8) Mark Edwards: The Magpies – a new, subtler take on the neighbours from hell scenario, with psychological torture taken to new extremes (but no blood-soaked daggers of American stalker movies)
9) Rachael Lucas: Sealed with a Kiss. I’ve been following Rachael’s blog about gardening, writing and living with children for nearly 3 years now, so of course I had to get her first book and read it. I am loyal like that. The author claims to be a little embarrassed to admit that it is chick lit, but it is delightful, funny, fluffy and sweet. And set on a remote island off the West Coast of Scotland. Yes, a little predictable, but what’s not to love?
10) Stav Sherez: The Black Monastery. Another novel by this author ‘A Dark Redemption’ was one of my crime favourites of the year in 2012, so I wanted to read an earlier one of his, especially since the setting is a Greek island. Not as good as the other novel I read, though. The crimes are rather horrendous and the atmosphere is too dark to be truly Greek, but Stav cannot write a bad sentence. Exciting, touching and more than a shade creepy.
11) Kristina Carlson: Mr. Darwin’s Gardener. All of the hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness and diversity of the quintessential English village is displayed here, in a work that is both philosophical, liberating and oddly funny.
12) Jack Kerouac: On the Road. A bit like a rich meal: it’s fine in principle, but too much in one go. A little of it goes a long way. After a while, it gets repetitive and unbearably misogynistic.
So a good month of reads, with no major disappointments among them. Eight of the 12 books were crime fiction, three of the 12 were translations. I would probably say that my crime pick of the month is Louise Penny, while my non-crime pick is ‘Mr. Darwin’s Gardener’.