Reading and Reviewing Summary 13/08/18

This is a continuation of yesterday’s weekly summary, which was threatening to become far too long. I’ve been trying to curb my book buying, but I cannot quite boast of unalloyed success in this matter. I have borrowed more from the library as well. Netgalley has also reared its ugly (I mean beautiful, tempting) head, although my feedback ratio is still only 60%.

Sent for review:

Jean-Claude Izzo: Chourmo

This was my introduction to Izzo and remains my favourite of his Marseille trilogy. Something which really shouts out in all its dark, joyous, dirty, tasty, messy glory ‘Mediterranean noir’. I have it in the French original edition and now I have it in a rather beautiful reissued edition from Europa. And it reminds me that I need to have a holiday in Marseille and Provence with my boys soon.

Books bought:

Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf started an extremely valuable thread about Malaysian writers on Twitter (and this is where Twitter’s power for the good is evident). You can catch the whole thread on her website. It inspired me to order at least a couple of the books she mentioned, as this is a part of the world I know very little about. I bought Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day, a family saga in gorgeous prose, and Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, with its links to Japan and the Second World War. Both are chunky books, which should keep me busy for a while. I also finally gave in and got myself another translation of The Brothers Karamazov, so this will be the fifth summer in which I attempt to read it…

Library loans:

Keeping in trend with the #WITMonth, I borrowed Norwegian crime writer Anne Holt’s Dead Joker (transl. Anne Bruce). Hanne Wilhelmsen is grumpy and exasperating at times, but ahead of the field in so many ways. I’m not going to have time to write a separate review of this book, but I read it in 2 days. Suffice it to say that it’s one of those ‘impossible’ crimes committed by a dead person, and that Hanne’s personal life also takes a turn for the worse.

I also got two very different books, one for a quick read and one because I admire the author’s willingness to experiment: Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer (bonus: location of Austria) and Nicola Barker’s Happy, which is a triumph of typography and graphic publishing.

Netgalley:

I couldn’t resist the Swiss mountaintop hotel location and the And Then There Were None plot similarities, so I downloaded Hanna Jameson’s The Last. The other novel I downloaded is also kind of apocalyptical, but fits in perhaps better with my fascination for ‘dictatorship literature’: The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke, one of the foremost contemporary Chinese writers.

Reviews:

I have reviewed three books for #WITMonth already, which is a proud achievement in just over a third of the month. Two are on my blog: the dark Norwegian tale of descent into mental hell Zero and a Brazilian attempt to reconstruct memories and reconcile oneself with the past I Didn’t Talk. The third review is of Teresa Solana’s irreverent and utterly zany collection of short stories The First Prehistoric Serial Killer on Crime Fiction Lover.

#WITMonth

I still need to review Lucy Fricke, but I have three more books lined up for Women in Translation, so am doing better than I had hoped (I think I planned about 5 overall for the month of August, and now it looks like I might have 8). I’m in the midst of Tsvetaeva’s diary, and will embark soon upon Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir and Veronique Olmi  La Nuit en vérité (untranslated).

 

Cultural Events Summary 20 May 2018

I hope you have all been enjoying the nice weather this week. I’ve been mostly stuck inside, as we’ve been busy at work with two conferences, a workshop, becoming GDPR compliant and budget forecasts. However, sunshine is always good for the soul, and especially at the weekend. And I’ve managed to sneak in a couple of cultural events too…

On Thursday I watched the film 120 BPM (beats per minute), runner-up at the Cannes Festival last year. Filmed as a sort of faux-documentary of life as an activist member of ACTUP Paris in the early 1990s, it captures that frenetic spirit of being young (but not only), fighting for your life as well as for justice, fighting Big Pharma, public ignorance and apathy, government failure to debate, inform or provide any coherent policies. It is also a love story and, inevitably, as with any story about AIDS, there is grieving. But this is no Philadelphia or Longtime Companion, unashamed tear-jerkers, with (usually not gay) actors fading away eloquently and elegantly. This is about anger and survival, doing anything you can to feel alive, about strategy and protest and disagreements within the group, but also about coming together, solidarity and changing the world. ‘Paris were frankly a bunch of complete maniacs’, a former ACTUP London member said, and I had to laugh as I tried to imagine those protest or virulent discussions transposed in a British environment. The two male leads are extremely charismatic: Arnaud Valois from Lyon and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart from Argentina (who, as far as I can tell, are both gay, which makes it all the more realistic) make that very serious struggle look like fun.

The real ACTUP Paris in 1995.

The film transported me back to 1989-1992 when I too was young and politically engaged, although in our case it was regime change and democracy that we were fighting for. In spite of the disillusionment or flaws or failures (and the pain of watching friends die), it was an exhilarating movement to be part of (both mine and ACTUP) – and this is perfectly captured in this film. It’s all too easy to say that the world has moved on since then regarding attitudes towards AIDS and the LGBTQ+ community, but sadly, it hasn’t really progressed that much. The film is forbidden in several countries (where homosexuality is illegal) and in my own home country, alas, there was a church-organised protest when it was first screened.

A very different atmosphere on Friday when I attended an early morning viewing of the Rodin Exhibition at the British Museum. This beautifully curated, reasonably small show demonstrates that you don’t need to overwhelm museum-goers with information or exhibits if you stick to a narrow topic and present it well. Rodin was obsessed with ancient sculptures, and collected many of them himself, so it was refreshing to see to what extent they inspired his own work.  There were plenty of original plaster, bronze and marble examples of many of Rodin’s sculptures on loan from the Musée Rodin in Paris, as well as the Parthenon marbles that are already (controversially) in the British Museum.

Icarus’ sister.

I also got to hear that Lord Elgin originally wanted sculptor Antonio Canova to ‘renovate’ the Ancient Greek fragments and complete them. Luckily, Canova was wise enough to not meddle with the beauty of the original. Rodin himself was so taken by the incomplete statues, that he deliberately sculpted many of his own like that.

The Walking Man.

The links with literature were never far away. Not only was Rainer Maria Rilke briefly Rodin’s secretary, but I was not aware that Rodin had illustrated Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (one of my favourite volumes of poetry, especially back when I was in my teens). And that he intended to reproduce it in sculpture as well.

Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre…

A wonderful, calming way to start the day with art, not forgetting the quotes from Rodin about the sculptor’s ability to capture motion.

For next week, I have a very special recommendation for you: experience a piece of literature in an all-immersive annual event at Senate House on 23rd May. To celebrate 200 years since the first creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the School of Advanced Studies will present a Living Frankenstein evening, with pop-up activities, talks, films, performances and ghost stories. The full programme is here.

Finally, no weekly summary would be complete without a few books begged, borrowed, stolen or bought.

From the library I borrowed Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, the May read for the David Bowie Book Club. Written in 2007-8, it is sadly more timely than ever. I was also looking for some Richard Yates novels which I haven’t read yet, but found instead a very bulky biography by Blake Bailey A Tragic Honesty. Nicely cheery, then…

I also got Ali Smith’s Autumn, the so-called Brexit novel, and Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning. I’ve already finished the latter: this author is one of my favourite comfort reads, and Three Pines is where I would love to retire if only it existed. I also came across a strange little volume called Alberta Alone by Cora Sandel, an early Norwegian feminist compared to Colette and Jean Rhys.

Last but not least, Europa Editions are producing new editions of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy and have sent me the first volume, Total Chaos. Little do they know that it is one of my favourite French novels (or trilogies) ever and that I bribed a second-hand bookshop in Lyon to find me all three volumes in French. You can expect a close read of the book in French and in translation coming up soon. (Although my personal favourite is Chourmo, the second in the trilogy, coming out in August 2018.)

 

My June in Reading

June has been a funny old month: too busy to engage much in reading, even when I needed it most. So, only 7 books that I read from cover to cover – a record low for me. And, for the first time ever, there were two books I did not finish (in the same month!). But I have made a bit of an inroad into my #20booksofsummer list, although they haven’t been an unalloyed joy so far. So, if you are sitting comfortably, shall we begin?

Doesn't this look like the path to unimaginable riches and adventures?
Doesn’t this look like the path to unimaginable riches and adventures?

The DNF stack

Ingrid Desjours: Les Fauves – for its gender stereotypes and mediocre thrillerish treatment of a subject which could have been very interesting

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star – with apologies to Naomi Frisby, who sent me this one and whose opinions I value extremely highly. Call me shallow, call me comfort-zone reader, but it just required too much effort to follow. The made-up language was very clever (as a linguist, I appreciated the fact it had certain basic rules). I really admired the author’s inventiveness, and the energy and diversity of the young people in the story. However, I’m just not all that fond of post-apocalyptic fiction, and a combination of flu and migraine made it even harder for me to go through with it. I may still go back to it later, when I am fitter and my brains are in less of a jamble.

The #20booksofsummer pile

In addition to Les Fauves (see above), I read four more of the 20 books of summer. At the rate of 5 a month, I may not finish the challenge by September 5th.

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – self-absorbed, navel-gazing, travelling to find one’s self instead of get to know other people

Michel Bussi: Black Water Lilies – Monet, gardens, three generations of women, convoluted yawn

Emma Cline: The Girls – teenager looking for meaning and a sense of belonging, MFA writing style with glimmers of real style

Alison Umminger: My Favourite Manson Girl – another lost teenager with a dysfunctional family, strong YA voice

Found on a bookshelf

Claire Messud: The Emperor’s Children – slightly pretentious, but a sharp, sarcastic portrayal of ‘intellectual’ New York life

Jean-Claude Izzo: Vivre fatigue (Living wears you out) – oh, boy, is he depressing, but oh, boy, does he fit my current mood!

Review copy

Rebecca Bradley: Made to Be Broken – a friend, but also a talented writer who really knows her police procedures and whose work is getting better and better

Unintentionally, this has been a month of women writers – only two men snuck in. It was also, unusually, an Anglo-French month: one third French, two thirds English-speaking. So not the most varied of months.

Before I leave France, however, I want to make more of an effort to find Romain Gary at the library. And I should leave out some poetry books: poetry is always a wonderful source of comfort and inspiration even in the most insane of moments.

 

What I’ll Remember of 2013

In terms of books, of course. I know the year is not quite over, but I am stuck in a huge book, so I don’t think I’ll get to read much else. 

I’ve done a summary of my top five crime reads (books published in 2013 and reviewed by me) on the Crime Fiction Lover website. These, however, are more of a motley collection of books I’ve loved, regardless of genre, reviews, whether they were published recently or not.  And they don’t fit neatly into a list of ten.

the harbour of Marseille
The harbour of Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner     The most frightening description of OCD, conveyed with a real sense of menace. Psychological shudders guaranteed.

Jean-Claude Izzo: Marseille Trilogy    Just glorious, despite the darkness – a symphony for the senses.

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast    Damning, elegant prose, as precise as a scalpel, dissecting families and tyranny of all kinds.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers      Somewhere between anthropology and fiction lies this utterly moving book, an unflinching look at the everyday life, hopes and horrors in an Indian slum. The book that I wish more than anything I could have written.

Esi Eudgyan: Half Blood Blues     Who cares about accuracy, when it has the most amazing voice and melody, all of the whorls of the best of jazz improvisation?

English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary
English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Denise Mina: Garnethill       Another book strong on voice and characters, perfectly recreating a Glasgow which I’ve never known but can instantly recognise. Initially depressing but ultimately uplifting.

Karin Fossum: Calling Out for You     Almost elegiac crime fiction, with uncomfortable portrayals of casual racism, the cracks in an almost perfect little society/ This was an eerie and haunting tale, almost like a ghost story.

Ioanna Bourazopoulou: What Lot’s Wife Saw       The most imaginative novel I have read all year, it defies all expectations or genre categories. I felt transposed into an Alice in Wonderland world, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Bangkok
Bangkok (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

John Burdett: Bangkok Eight      Clash of cultures and unsentimental look at the flesh trade in Thailand, this one again has an inimitable voice.

Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day     If you like your humour as black and brief as an espresso, you will love the tough world of Giorgio Pellegrini. So much more stylish than Tarantino!

Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Man in Love      Perhaps it’s too soon to add it to the list, as I only read it last week, but it felt to me like an instant classic.

So what strikes me about this list?

1) They are none of them a barrel of laughs, although there are occasional flashes of (rather dark) humour in them.

2) With the exception of the Katherine Boo ethnography, I wouldn’t have expected to be bowled over by any of the above. So keeping an open mind is essential for discovering that next amazing read.

3) There were other books which initially made much more of an impression (the Fireworks Brigade, shall we say), but when I look back on what really stuck with me, what made me think or feel differently as a result of reading them, those are the books I would have to point out.

English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Ca...
English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Carl Johan Billmark 1868. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) They are each set in a different city and country: London, Marseille, a dining room in Germany, Mumbai, war-time Paris, Glasgow, Norway, the Dead Sea sometime in the future, Bangkok, Venice and Stockholm.  What can I say? I love to travel!

On that more upbeat note, I’ve discovered many new (to me) writers and series this year. Some of them are gentler, funnier reads, perfect to unwind. Here are a few that I hope to read more of: Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Pierre Lemaitre and Anne Zouroudi.

It’s All About the Voice

UntetheredYesterday 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.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin

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,

www.jimmorrissonline.com
http://www.jimmorrissonline.com

David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Maria Callas…

last.fm

The Marseille Trilogy: Jean-Claude Izzo

Marseille
Marseille (Photo credit: -eko-)

This is the year to discover Marseille. Named European Capital of Culture for 2013, the second-largest city of France will host numerous events, open new public buildings, enjoy an overall face-lift.  I have never been there, although I have visited the South of France as recently as last summer.  Perhaps, like many other tourists, I was put off by its reputation as a messy, ugly industrial town with high youth unemployment and criminality.

Having just discovered Jean-Claude Izzo and his trio of books set in his home town of Marseille, you might think I would be even less inclined to visit the city.  The author describes a chaotic city, teeming with immigrants, noise, drugs and criminal gangs. Yet through it all you can feel his enduring love for the city, its colourful sights, huge variety of smells, the bustling vivacity of its music and its people.

The books are closely linked and chronological, so I would recommend reading them in order (although I didn’t do it myself):(1) ‘Total Chaos’ ; (2) ‘Chourmo’; (3) ‘Solea’.  In the first book, Fabio Montale is a typical product of his native town – the son of poor Italian immigrants, he falls in with a dodgy crowd, gets involved in rather dubious activities as a teenager and only cleans up his act by joining the Foreign Legion and later the police.  His two best friends, however, Manu and Ugu, and the girl they all loved, Lole, never manage to escape the brutish life of the northern (forgotten) suburbs of Marseille.  When Fabio hears of their violent deaths, he sets aside conventional notions of policing to try and uncover who killed his childhood friends. Along the way he encounters other horrible crimes, damaged lives, Mafia links and a few good women who save him from himself.

Port Autonome de Marseille
Port Autonome de Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the first book still contains a fair amount of ‘setting the scene’ (and some very atmospheric descriptions of Marseille in all its gritty beauty), the second one is a more straightforward crime story and my favourite of the three.  Feeling disillusioned and betrayed, Fabio has left the police force and spends his days fishing peacefully on the coast.  He does not want to take part in any criminal investigations anymore, but when his beautiful cousin Gelou asks him to investigate the disappearance of her teenage son, Guitou, he reluctantly gets involved.  The story of Guitou and his Muslim girlfriend, a real-life Romeo and Juliet, who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, is deeply moving.  The story is far more complex, of course, and involves the Mafia once more, but also Islamic fundamentalism as well as Islamophobic policemen, several years before 9/11 brought the issue to the fore.  Marseille was always a melting pot and therefore simmering with racial tensions which the rest of the world only find out about much later.

The third book features the journalist Babette (one of Fabio’s friends who also appears in the first book), who is uncovering some insalubrious links between the Italian and the French mafia. Fabio is once again involved in protecting his friend and her investigative work, almost against his will and with terrible consequences.  The Mafia start picking off, one by one, all of the people closest and dearest to him.  This book is all about the end of an era, the end of a town (through greediness and rampant over-development, as Izzo sees it), the end of hope and of friendship.  It doesn’t get much bleaker than this, and the author never offers a happy ending, but I was captivated by the evocative language, the charm of the main protagonist, and the haunting sense of regret, of what might have been.

The Calanque of Sugiton in the 9th arrondissem...
The Calanque of Sugiton in the 9th arrondissement of Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I loved about this trilogy was that, although it makes no excuses for crime, it does show just how easy it is to fall into temptation and into a bad crowd.  It is all about trying to live at the fringes of society – bleakness alleviated at times by tasty meals, washed down by good wine and glimmers of love, real or imagined.  Fabio is unusually honest and sentimental for a cop, but he is also a flawed human being, overindulging in food and drink, prone to quick judgements, far too susceptible to feminine beauty, convinced he brings bad luck to his friends, far too eager to run off in his boat, to get away from it all and fish in the calanques.  Someone we can all relate to, then!

The short, snappy titles, by the way, are song titles – the whole series is permeated by the variety of music that Fabio listens to (Arabic, French rap, jazz, Classical), although ‘Chourmo’ also refers to the sense of brotherhood of galley slaves, all pulling together in time on their oars, helping each other out in their shared misery.  When I embarked on this series, I had no idea they had been so popular and influential, giving rise to a whole new genre, the Mediterranean noir, nor that Izzo had refused from the outset to write a sequel to them.

The Marseille trilogy has been very skillfully translated into English by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions in 2005-2007. Unfortunately, there will be no more new works by Izzo, as he died in 2000 at the age of just 55.  However, he has a few other free-standing novels which I intend to read. And when I do go to Marseille, both he and Fabio Montale will be there with me. As will Miles Davis.

I read this trilogy as part of my Global Reading Challenge 2013, hosted by the very widely-read and knowledgeable Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise.  This counts as the first of my European books (discovering a new location or writer).