April Showers of Reading – and a Wowser of a Thriller

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

GuerresaleIn French: 

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.

 

Poetry:

Collected Poems of May Sarton

Non-crime:

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.

Crime Fiction:

Henry Sutton: My Criminal World

Tony Parsons: The Murder Bag

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.

cemeteryMallock: 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.

I_Am_Pilgrim_-_hardback_UK_jacketTerry 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Book Reviews: A Matter of Empathy

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.

Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, www.salon.com
Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, http://www.salon.com

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?

My-Criminal-WorldHenry 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.

StelaBrinzeanuStela 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? 

 

 

 

 

Unsupportive Families

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).

michele_robertsI 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.

womanupstairsOne 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.

Geneva Writers Conference 2014

This past weekend I attended the biennial writing conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. Nearly exactly 2 years ago, during a very cold spell in February 2012, I attended my first one… and its effect on me cannot be exaggerated.  It inspired me to start writing seriously once more (every day), made me fall in love with poetry all over again and was the decisive factor in starting up this blog.

So I was eagerly awaiting the new event – and it did not disappoint, even though this time I was not quite as addicted to meeting every single person and exchanging cards. What I lacked perhaps in wide-eyed wonder, I made up for in deeper connections with fewer people. I can only talk about the sessions I attended, of course, but all of the instructors read to us during the conference dinner and I can assure you they were all excellent. Huge congratulations to Susan Tiberghien (the founder and driving force behind the Geneva Writers’ Group) and her conference committee for organising the event so well.

Mimi Thebo
Mimi Thebo

Here are some of the pearls of wisdom I have tried to capture (apologies to our tutors if I have misinterpreted or misquoted):

From Mimi Thebo, who writes predominantly for YA and children (‘it might be harder, but it’s more fun’):

We writers are not the navy, we’re pirates. I’ll tell you what to do in this class, but if you don’t want to do it, go ahead and rebel.

Young people feel as deeply and suffer everything that we do but without the power to make any changes, to make things better for themselves.

When I sell a book, I don’t get the opportunity to go home and sit on the armchair and tell you how to read the book or explain away all of my many mistakes.

We only write half the book and the readers write the rest when they read it.

Brenda Shaughnessy
Brenda Shaughnessy

From Brenda Shaughnessy, award-winning poet and just a really generous and sweet person, whom I think of as a kindred soul:

Metaphor is key to poetry. This is that – but how do we get from this to that? One of the best ways is to think of it as two balls linked with a tether and you throw them as far apart as you can without ripping the tether.

If you ask a question which can be answered, that’s too easy a question for a poem.

Write and read beyond your own comprehension level. Your poems should know more than you do.

WallisFrom Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, poet as well as novelist and memoir writer, I learnt:

Words have become devalued. In today’s world we are flooded with information and words, at such a volume that we find it hard to bring them back to their basic level, to give words their proper weight and meaning.

When you want to capture that moment ‘that needs speech’, that wrinkle in reality which catches our attention, you need to make it visible with words, but not imprison it. So don’t force your words. Trust your instincts, your impulse, take time to amble and write down your untethered impressions. You can always revisit those first words many years later, as long as you have written enough to capture that feeling.

A poem won’t fall apart with our interpretation. It can take whatever we project onto it. That’s why it’s nice to read poetry together and allow everyone to contribute.

My-Criminal-WorldLast, but not least, from Henry Sutton, author and lecturer of crime fiction, I learnt about asking that next question of your plot and characters, always digging a little deeper into yourself and your novel.

Be prepared to deviate from your plan if that allows you to find your own territory.

We always need to ask questions of why we are doing things the way we are. Why is this book being written? Why are the characters behaving this way? What is the question that best describes my WIP?

Abstract themes and broad concepts are all very well, but surely all literature needs to be concerned with that to a certain extent. It’s the specific, personal stuff that readers want, that they can project their own experiences upon. The personal stuff contains the broader stuff – and abstract concepts have to come through your character, otherwise you might as well write an essay.

I can also tell you what I did not do at this conference: attend the Q&A sessions with the agents and publishers. Not that I’m not curious to hear what they have to say, but I think I’ve heard a lot of it before, some of it on Twitter and in blog posts. And I didn’t want to hear just how discouraging the publishing landscape is at the moment, nor how the odds are stacked against me.

All I want to do is sit down and apply all this wisdom. Finish my novel. Improve my poetry. Write as well as I can, and getting better all the time. Two years is too long to wait for such an inspiring, fun and productive conference! I know that, ultimately, the hard work is down to me, but I am curious to see what effect this conference will have had on my next two years…