Displacement and Alienation: Reading between Cultures

Moving between cultures and trying to understand or adapt to a new environment have always been subjects dear to my heart, in my personal, professional and reading life. So it’s no surprise that four of the books I’ve recently finished feature people caught between cultures, either outsiders looking in or insiders trying to see out into the wider world beyond. In reading them, I moved between France, Morocco, Belgium, East and West Germany, American Samoa and San Francisco, Russia, Serbia and London.

pantalonFouad Laroui: L’Etrange Affaire¬†du pantalon de Dassoukine

#TBR14

A fine collection of short stories by this French writer of Moroccan origin. I had previously enjoyed his (fictional) account of being educated at a French school in Morocco, and, despite the uneven quality of the stories, they are often funny and always thought-provoking, a deserved winner of the Goncourt Prize for short fiction in 2013.

There are two very distinct types of short stories in this book. The Moroccan tales told by groups of friends around a table in a cafe are full of humour, interruptions, interjections, digressions and tender absurdity. The title story tells of a Moroccan bureaucrat who’s been sent to Brussels to try to negotiate a good price to buy wheat from the EU… but loses his trousers before the all-important meeting. Faced with a new demand from the Ministry of Education to introduce swimming in the national curriculum, schools in a small Moroccan town not possessed of a single pool prove inventive and introduce ‘dry swimming’.

There are also the more global tales of displacement, of identity, of wondering about origins and the possibility of cross-cultural understanding. The story of a couple unable to quite put an end to their relationship as they meet one final time in Brussels and the short sketch featuring a philosophy teacher being chastised by her student for introducing him to a world of pain and questioning are particularly effective.

fliehganzleisFriederike Schmöe: Fliehganzleis

#TBR15

Larissa Countess Rothenstayn grew up in the GDR but managed to escape to the West and reclaim her ancestral seat in 1975. She has asked Kea Laverde to write her memoirs and Kea is enjoying her company and the peaceful palace gardens. But then the Countess is attacked and left for dead by an intruder. While the police are investigating the incident, Kea starts her own research into the family archive, trying to understand just how the Countess managed to escape to the West (her first attempt was unsuccessful) and also why she is so obsessed with the case of a young girl who drowned in 1968.

This is the second in the series featuring likeable and feisty travel writer turned ghostwriter Kea and her boyfriend, the policeman Nero Keller. This is a book I could particularly relate to, as it is a case that involves the Stasi and escape routes out of the GDR, and how we are never quite rid of the past. Perhaps a slightly more leisurely pace than Anglo-Saxon readers might be used to in their crime fiction (there is quite a bit of historical detail), but a good read and engaging characters. And I love Kea’s two geese Waterloo and Austerlitz (or Loo and Litz). What struck me was how difficult even those belonging to the same German nation find it to understand each other, given that they’ve had a different historical path and living conditions for a number of decades. The title can be roughly translated as ‘escape as quietly as possible’.

I’ve previously done a Q and A with Friederike on what got her hooked on crime fiction.

John Enright: Blood Jungle BalletBloodJungle

#TBR13

I’ve reviewed the first one in the series and always thought that I would end up reading another one, as I enjoyed the description of Samoan culture (from the point of view of a policeman who has grown up in San Francisco). This is the fourth in the series and it has an end-of-series feel to it, as by the end of the story Apelu is burnt out and prepares for retirement on his plantation.

A disquieting string of murders terrorizes the remote, lush island of American Samoa. Det. Sgt. Apelu Soifua has seen a lot in his time with the police force, but even he is unsettled by the bodies that have started piling up. At first, the murders don’t seem connected: a local transvestite found castrated and brutalized, a visiting politician who drops dead on the dance floor, a prison guard and an inmate who kill each other, a priest specialising in exorcism seems to commit suicide. As Apelu works with the hospital’s new medical examiner imported from the US, they establish a disturbing pattern pointing to a serial killer.  Although the idea of a serial killer on such a small island is a bit preposterous, what I really enjoyed about this book is that it runs on Samoan time Рthe whole investigation takes place over 2 years, which is far more realistic for a serial killer pattern to emerge.

The characters and the interactions are very well written, although the plot did feel a tad predictable and relies on some coincidences to come to a conclusion. There was a LOT of foreshadowing, to the point where I did at times feel like shouting: ‘Get on with the actual thing already!’. And it feels much more serious, elegiac almost, as external events (the war in Iraq, Christian missionaries) affect island life. A mourning for lost paradise – while still acknowledging that paradise has always been illusory.

GorskyVesna Goldsworthy: Gorsky

#TBR16

Gorsky is a Russian oligarch determined to regain the love of his youthful sweetheart, although she is now married to an Englishman. He builds a magnificent abode on the Thames in London, right opposite her own mansion, and hires a Serbian bookseller to put together the most amazing library for him. It is Nikola the bookseller who is telling the story and if you’ve spotted the similarities to The Great Gatsby, that is indeed the case and very deliberate.

I’m not sure what to make of this fan fiction. It is amusing enough to see Gatsby transposed into present-day Chelski and the London of its super-rich (and usually foreign) new residents, and I enjoyed the description of some of the treasured books Nikola digs up, but I don’t quite see the point of this. It doesn’t seem to add much to the original story, except for that foreign point of view, of someone trying to fit in with a culture that is not his own, and that he can never be part of. And, to be honest, I don’t find the lives of the super-rich very interesting at all…

 

New TBR Reading Challenge – and Rereading

I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.

The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.

I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.

So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with C denote crime fiction titles, W is for woman writer)

1) Books in French:

P1030248All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.

Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C

Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit Рthe alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues  C

Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz РUkrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain  C

Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories

Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil Рfinally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade Рplus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid.   C W

2) Books in German: 

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Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord  Рthird case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude   C

Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland

Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe Рthe dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species  W

Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation ¬†W

Friederike Schm√∂e: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events ¬† C ¬†W

3) Books on ereader

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Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale

John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet Рthe return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa  C

Sara Novic: Girl at War Рchild survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later  W

Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel Рdebut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize  W

4) Other:

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Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)

Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship

Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night Рthe first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America ¬†W

Wendy Cope: The Funny Side Р101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope)  W

Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).

The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?

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Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night’; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Showcase Sunday: Another Severe Case of Book Acquisition…

I am supposedly on a book buying moratorium, but this week I cracked and completely forgot about it. After the Chateau de Lavigny readings that I attended last Sunday, I could not resist buying  paperback books by at least two of the authors present there.

glowJessica Maria Tuccelli: Glow –¬†five unforgettable voices weaving over a century of Southern life in America; slave plantations have been built adjacent to the glades of a razed Cherokee nation. An epic novel, filled with many personal, intimate stories.

 

 

ChokeChainJason Donald: Choke Chain – Nelson Mandela said: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ In 1980s apartheid South Africa, bad parenting seems to be rife, as two young boys find out about deceit, violence and petty crime from their volatile father.

 

Then I made the mistake of reading some reviews I trust and following some writers’ Twitter stream… and got excited about the following two books, which I downloaded in electronic format.

¬†Anne Fine: Taking the Devil’s Advice – already read and reviewed¬†here

BecauseSheLovesMeMark Edwards: Because She Loves Me – a psychological thriller, filled with passion, obsession, jealousy and murderous intent. I’ve previously enjoyed the build-up of suspense in Edward’s novel ‘The Magpies’, so am curious to see what he does next.

 

I also borrowed a book in French from the library: Susie Morgenstein: Confession d’une grosse patate – a half-serious, half-humorous look at the plight and self-flagellation of an overweight woman. I later discovered it was not by a French writer at all, so there were no loving descriptions of foie gras and wine…

Finally, yesterday I attended the literature festival ‘Le Livre sur les Quais’ (Books by the Quay) in Morges in Switzerland. I had the pleasure of meeting several writers I know, admire, have read or am currently reading: Louise Doughty, Noami Wood (of ‘Mrs. Hemingway’ fame), Val McDermid, Nathan Filer. I was with a German/Swiss friend who introduced me to some German-speaking writers, while I introduced him to some French and English-speaking ones. So of course I had to buy a few books and get them signed… Sadly, none of them are yet available in English.

FouadLarouiFouad Laroui: L’√©trange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine (The Strange Affair of Dassoukine’s Trousers).

A short story collection which won the Goncourt novella prize last year, this is a wonderful mix of surrealism, absurdity and cross-cultural comparison written with great humour and compassion. I previously read and briefly reviewed this Moroccan-French writer’s wonderful book about a year in the French education system. And doesn’t this one have an irresistable cover?

 

IncardonaJoseph Incardona: 220 Volts

I love the noirish style of this Swiss-Italian writer (who writes in French) and hope he will soon get translated into English. This is the story of writer’s block mixed with marital block – a couple go on holiday in an isolated mountain chalet to try and rekindle both their relationship and their artistic inspiration. Of course, things don’t go according to plan…

 

SwissTrafficMary Anna Barbey: Swiss Traffic

The latest book by this American-turned-Swiss author, it is crime fiction with an extra literary dimension. It also bravely examines human trafficking in this wealthiest, most peaceful of Alpine countries. It is also the book that I saw several French writers reading while they were waiting for their book signings to start: always a good sign!

 

This post is linked up to the Showcase Sunday meme hosted by Vicky at Book, Biscuits and Tea. A great chance for us to oooh and aaah over our latest acquisitions. And remortgage our house to buy some more!

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November Reads; Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

What a wonderful month of reads it has been: a promising mix of both quality and quantity, despite lots of business travel and a drop in reviewing capacity. Plus a good representation of women writers, which is not always the case every month!

I have had the pleasure of discovering some debut or nearly-debut authors. By ‘nearly-debut’, I mean authors who are perhaps on their third or fourth book but have yet to be picked up by a publisher or who have only just been translated into English. I have mentioned the first four of these in my feature on 5 Women to Watch Out For in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover

cover12Helen Cadbury: To Catch a Rabbit ¬†¬†Gritty Northern crime, with a focus on immigrants and community policing – a really promising start. I can’t wait to read more from this author!

Celina Grace: Requiem   Self-published author with a solid police procedural and engaging characters.

Jonelle Patrick: Idolmaker   Celebrity cult and tsunami in Japan Рjust love the setting of this series.

Cover2Ioanna Bourazopoulou: What Lot’s Wife Saw ¬† Most inventive, genre-bending work I’ve read in a long time. Left me aglow.

Helen Smith: Beyond Belief   Fun escapism (despite the body count), excellent use of humour and irony, gently mocking spiritualism, credulity and conferences everywhere.

Cover5Alex Marwood: The Killer Next Door ¬† So well known by now, that she barely qualifies as a nearly-debut author! This is Alex Marwood’s second book, a psychological thriller with a sad twist about the unmissed and unwanted people of a large city . I’ll be reviewing it shortly in more detail for CFL, but it’s an intriguing story set in a seedy London boarding house (I’ve known a few of those during my student days). I will never feel the same again about blocked drains!

Other Crime Fiction

Georges Simenon: Pietr the Latvian ¬† ¬†Going right back to the first Maigret novel in this wonderful initiative of reissuing one novel a month by Penguin Classics. Big, burly, solid and eminently reliable, Maigret is his wonderful laconic self, springing fully-formed from his creator’s mind.

Cover 3Helen Fitzgerald: The Cry    Thank you, Rebecca Bradley and the other Book Club members for inciting me to read this gripping and very emotional read about a couple losing their young baby, and the aftermath in the media, the courts and within the family home.

Marne Davis Kellogg: The Real Thing    Elegant crime caper set in Cary Grant/Grace Kelly territory on the French Riviera.

Non-Crime Reads

Cover9Hanna Krall: Chasing the King of Hearts    Achingly haunting, low-key emotions in a pared-down, but never simplistic language. Almost unbearably sad ending Рyet so realistic. A beautiful book. just when you thought nothing more could be written about the Jewish experience during the Second World War.

Sam Riviere: 81 Austerities ¬† ¬† A debut collection by a young poet, which I picked up on impulse at Foyle’s in London. By turns prosaic, witty, funny and sad, this is an eclectic collection of glass-clear observations and surprising combinations of words and insights. The pyrotechnics of youth, certainly, but also lots of substance and depth.

Cover1Fouad Laroui: Une ann√©e chez les Fran√ßais ¬† Witty and brave take on cultural differences, as a young Moroccan boy embarks upon a year of study at a French boarding-school in Casablanca. Perfect description of the innocence and cluelessness of the boy from a country village, absolutely charming yet with sharp (sometimes sad) observations about assumptions of cultural superiority. An anthropologist’s dream.

And my Crime Fiction pick of the month, a meme hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise? Very, very tough choice, as there were at least 4-5 of the above I could have picked. In the end, I opted for ‘The Cry’ by Helen Fitzgerald.