Monthly Reading Summary: June in the United States

June was the first month that I experimented with my new geographical reading initiative, which means reading mostly (but not exclusively) authors from a particular country – or potentially books set in a specific country. I started off with the United States, because it is a country I often ignore in my reading. And it worked so well that I am certainly planning to continue doing this geographically themed reading at least until the end of year.

I read 8 novels by American authors, plus a biographical study of American women by an American woman – so a total of 9 books. Six women authors, including big names of the past such as Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles, popular contemporary authors such as Laura Lippman and Meg Wolitzer, and less well-known authors such as Laura Kasischke and Diana Souhami. The last of these, Wild Girls (review to come), is a book about the relationship and love life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, two wealthy American expats and artists living in Paris in the early 20th century. I first came across the chromatically restrained art of Romaine Brooks at the Barbican exhibition about artistic couples and wanted to know more about her.

The three male authors I read were Kent Haruf, Sam Shepard and David Vann, who all proved to be a very welcome respite from the rather self-absorbed American authors I have read previously (who may have put me off reading American books). Surprisingly, they all write about marginalised, impoverished or rural communities that we tend to think of as ‘typically’ American landscapes, filled with macho behaviour. Yet each of these authors demonstrate great sensitivity and empathy for human frailty.

So, all in all, quite a diverse and happy American reading experience, although I was perhaps less impressed with those particular books by Meg Wolitzer and Laura Lippman (compared with some of their others).

In addition to my focus on the US, I also had a bit of a Bristol CrimeFest hangover and read some more of the books I bought there. All three were enjoyable and very quick reads: Kate Rhodes’ atmospheric, closed island community in Ruin Beach, Charlie Gallagher’s almost viscerally painful He Will Kill You about domestic violence and Cara Black’s latest instalment in the Aimee Leduc series, Murder in Bel Air, which tackles France’s colonial past and present.

Last but not least, two books about betrayed women from very different decades: Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance set in the 1950s, while Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie is very much of the present moment and set in London. While the former remains stoic and resourceful, the latter is prone to self-destructive or self-belittling behaviour. Both books can be quite painful to read, although Queenie is also very funny in parts.

So, 14 books in total, 10 by women authors, zero in translation, which is quite unusual for me (reflects the geographical emphasis, I suppose).

Week in Review with a Book Haul

Honestly, sincerely, believe me I meant it… when I said I would start digging into my TBR pile and stop buying books this year. But accidents do happen! And this is how my week panned out…

First of all, I realised that it has been weeks since I last saw my Kindle. I have searched for it everywhere but cannot locate it. So this means no more acquisitions via Netgalley, but also no more reading of the long, long list of books I have there, including some rather pressing reviews. I would buy a new one, but I am fairly sure that the instant I order it, the old one will resurface from some cavernous depth of my house (I don’t often take it out unless I am travelling, and I have already searched my suitcase).

Secondly, I have enjoyed reviewing my first Asymptote Book Club read, Cesar Aira. A new author to me, but I enjoyed him so much that I read two other novellas by him in quick succession. He is remarkably prolific, so he might be a bit hit and miss, but so far I really like him.

Thirdly, I had a busy week at work, but it was creative, strategic work which I enjoyed, made all the better by listening to Hamilton, which I now have uploaded onto my laptop. Initially I loved all the big, obvious songs like My Shot or The Room Where It Happens, but now I am more drawn to Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story and the optimism of The Story of Tonight. ‘Raise a glass to the four of us, tomorrow there will be more of us.’

Finally, yes, OK, I admit I did get some new books this week. What?! You expect me to pile ashes on my head and put the hair shirt on? I only bought three, of which two were second-hand, and I received two more for review.

Alison Lurie: Women and Ghosts

Collection of short stories, sometimes comic, sometimes, haunting, where people’s lives are disrupted by supernatural occurrences. Not normally a fan of ghost stories, but I know that Lurie is such a keen observer of human foibles, so I think this could be good.

Jodie Hollander: My Dark Horses

A debut poetry collection that traces the troubled relationship of the poet with her mother, as well as the charms and vicissitudes of growing up in a family of obsessive musicians. I have to admit to a selfish reason for ordering this one via Waterstones: it was recommended to me by a fellow poet after she read my poems about my mother.

Nice cover, but isn’t that dress from post WW2?

Paula McLain: The Paris Wife

I’ve been meaning to read this forever, ever since it came out in 2010. I really enjoyed Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, with its portrait of bohemian expat artist life in Paris in the 1920s, but that is just Hemingway’s side of the story. And, as we all know, he wasn’t really good to the women in his life.

 

Thomas Enger: Killed

Orenda Books shares my passion for Norway and has kindly sent me the dark, suspenseful finale of this series about crime reporter Henning Juul.

Kate Rhodes: Hell Bay

This is the start of a new series by Kate Rhodes, set on the Scilly Islands (which I now want to visit). I read a sample of it after going to the Simon & Schuster launch evening last year and have been eagerly awaiting the rest of the story ever since.

All About that Bass: ‘Feminist’ Songs and Crime Fiction?

Over the past few weeks, there’s been no avoiding the infectious, 50s inspired (musically speaking) song ‘I’m All About that Bass’, sung by the talented singer/songwriter Meghan Trainor. She has made chart history in the UK by being the first act to make the Top 40 based on her internet streaming presence alone. [Just as an aside: this twenty year old has been writing music since she was 11 and has released two albums already, plus worked as a songwriter and producer for others.] I love the witty anti-Barbie doll video and ‘any body is OK’ rhetoric, but it has given rise to some controversy, with some saying that the singer is either ‘thinny bashing’ or that she does not go far enough in her feminism. Anyway, here is the song itself, make up your own mind (but be warned, it is quite addictive, so you may find yourself singing it all day).

The song did get me wondering about whether there is such a thing as ‘feminist crime fiction’. This is a trend which perhaps dates back to Modesty Blaise and the first VI Warshawski novel, and was then continued with characters such as Kinsey Millhone, Lisbeth Salander and Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox. Most of these heroines are what is known in American circles as ‘kick-ass’, i.e. they usually pack a revolver and have advanced knowledge of at least one or two martial arts.

But what about those who are more ‘everywoman’ than ‘superwoman’? I’m thinking of women who excel at their jobs (policewomen, forensic pathologists, psychologists, whatever they are) but are also ordinary and vulnerable, one of us, in short: Kay Scarpetta, Ruth Galloway, Jane Rizzoli, Lacey Flint, Geraldine Steel, Kate Daniels. I’m sure you can think of many more from TV series. Has it almost become a clichĂ© to feature the ‘strong female detective’ (or investigator with some links to the police) with a commitment problem and demons from the past constantly haunting her?

Two recently read books highlighted this similarity – and it goes beyond the English-speaking world. Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird introduces Anna Fekete, member of the Hungarian minority in former Yugoslavia, whose family came as refugees to Finland when she was a child. She is embarking on her first non-uniform criminal investigation position in the north of Finland and has to contend not just with a violent and seemingly unsolvable case of serial killings, but also sexism, racism and tense relationships with members of her family. Meanwhile, back in London, Kate Rhodes introduces Alice Quentin, psychologist who sometimes works with the Metropolitan police, who has escaped an unhappy and abusive childhood and now seems to have a knack for stumbling upon murder victims. Both women receive threatening messages, both find release in running and both seem somewhat oblivious to personal danger.

I am always excited to encounter a new female investigator, and can even cope with the clichĂ©s of lonely single life, damaged childhoods and obsession with the job or case in hand. After all, some of us non-investigators are cat owners who come home to empty fridges on occasion. But it would be a shame if this became the ‘shorthand’ for strong women and, implicitly, of feminist crime fiction. Because these women are not strong – they are still vulnerable, even though they are resilient and have overcome their past (to a certain extent). Strength is also about being content, being happy, having nothing ‘missing’, but ‘all the right junk in all the right places’ and celebrating that! Which is why I am currently in love with Cathy Ace’s middle-aged gourmand no-nonsense Welsh heroine Cait Morgan.