Kate has another challenge for us in linking books starting from Lincoln in the Bardo this month in Six Degrees of Separation. I haven’t read the book by George Saunders yet, but I do have it lined up somewhere in the cloud waiting for my new Kindle to arrive. (Yes, I can’t find my previous one, so had to give in and order a new one)
The book famously deals with American president Abraham Lincoln and his grief at losing his son. Another American almost-president who lost a son is Alexander Hamilton and I’ve been relishing the book about the making of the stage show Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Congratulations, Lin-Manuel on the birth of your second child a couple of days ago!)
The degree to which Hamilton is viewed with envy by Aaron Burr and the way the story is narrated reminded me very much of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, where Salieri also grumbles and can’t quite believe that God wasted all his gifts on such an unworthy recipient (to his mind), yet finally realises his own mediocrity.
There are plenty of books with musical connections, but one which particularly stuck with me in recent years was The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, showing three key moments in the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, his fear of the Soviet regime and his giving in to it (but forever haunted by that).
Of course, the book about censorship and destruction of culture is Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which terrified me when I first read it as a child. Perhaps because I was living in conditions which reminded me a bit of those extremes. Ah, those photocopied forbidden books, and badly dubbed bootlegged copies of forbidden films!
Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer also has a number in its title and is a tense thriller set in one of my favourite places on earth, Cape Town, and one of my favourite scruffy but reliable detectives, Benny Griessel. Not perhaps a glowing advertisement for visiting South Africa (as a young American tourist is hunted through the streets of the city), but a great sense of atmosphere.
For my final link, I will stick to another South African writer who I think deserves to be far, far better known, but whose downfall is perhaps that she writes across all genres. Lauren Beukes is one of the most creative minds in modern fiction and has achieved some recognition for The Shining Girls about a time-travelling serial killer (now that I’ve read Hawksmoor, it reminds me a little of that). But I would like to link here an earlier book of hers, Moxyland, a political thriller about race, discrimination and being controlled by technology.
So from 19th and 18th century America to Vienna to the Soviet Union and South Africa, as well as a couple of dystopian unnamed societies. Where will your bookish travels take you this month?
It’s been a year of excessive reading. Define excess? I suspect 189 books (even if a handful of those were graphic novels) fit the criteria. This has not always been reflected in the amount of reviewing I’ve done. Perhaps I used reading as therapy, to blunt the senses, stop thinking too deeply – always safer to divert your thinking to fictional problems or other people’s plight. It also keeps you snug and warm, away from writing and exposing your clumsy way with words and your fear of failing … yet again.
But I am grateful for all the books that kept me sane and balanced this year. Here are my top reads by category (not all of them were published in 2014, needless to say):
Mihaela Moscaliuc: Father Dirt – for teaching me to push boundaries and be truly fearless in my writing
Andrew Solomon: Far from the Tree – for redefining parenting and commitment to the family
3) Crime fiction:
I’m going to cheat a bit in this category and refer you to my Top 5 Crime Picks from Crime Fiction Lover. One additional book that would make the list, but which I read too late to include there was Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters.
4) Short Story Collection:
Vienna Tales – selected and translated by Deborah Holmes – for sheer variety, its unbeatable location and nostalgia value
With thanks to Tony Malone for challenging me to turn to my old love of Japanese literature once more:
Murakami Haruki: Kafka on the Shore – dream-like sequences, a library, a coming of age story and talking cats – need I say more?
Enchi Fumiko: The Waiting Years – almost unbearable depiction of the lack of choice of Japanese women during the years of modernisation and opening up to the West
6) Non-Crime Novels:
What do two sweeping, panoramic, ambitious novels, trying to encompass a multitude of voices and experiences, and a much more intimate love story between desperate people from different cultures have in common? Unforgettable voices and characters.
I also owe you a few reviews of books which I’ve only recently read :
‘Euphoria’ by Lily King – a story of anthropologists doing fieldwork in the 1920s; I want to write a longer review, comparing fiction to reality to Margaret Mead’s own account of events in ‘Blackberry Winter’
Pascal Garnier’s ‘The Islanders’ – the anti-Christmas family gathering
Tove Jansson books I gifted myself for Christmas – comparing biography to her own memoirs
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.’
There are too many new-to-me authors that I’ve discovered this year. They’ve all brought me surprise and joy: it would be unfair to rank them. However, the books on the list below did make me want to seek out everything else their authors have ever written.
Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters (review to follow shortly)
It’s very simple: for December, I’ve resolved to read only books by women authors. This did not start out as an intentional challenge. In fact, the first book I finished in December (which I had started on the last weekend of November) was written by a man. It was Mark Edwards’ stalker thriller ‘Because She Loves Me’.
However, all of the books I had borrowed from the library or that were waiting patiently from me on my Netgalley shelf seemed to be by women writers – or at least the ones that were calling out to me: ‘Read me next! Me!’
So here are the books I have read, am reading and will be reading for this month.
Nina Stibbe: Man at the Helm – I opened this instead of another book and could not stop reading
Ann Patchett: Bel Canto – because I love her writing and I couldn’t resist the hook: ‘kidnappers storm an international gathering of opera lovers at the Vice President’s residence in a poor Latin American country’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah – because, given my cross-cultural experience and profession, everyone is surprised that I haven’t read it yet (and it does sound like the sort of thing I would enjoy)
Jacqueline Saphra: The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions – when I first started writing poetry again, the wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye said that my (very modest) efforts reminded her of Saphra’s work, so I’ve been reading her work ever since and finally bought the whole first collection
Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters – because Lauren is a life-force, unpredictable and irrepressible, and boy, can she write!
Katri Lipson: The Ice Cream Man – because it’s a Finnish author, although the action takes place largely in Czechoslovakia of the 1940s/50s.
Alison Mercer: After I Left You – because it’s been on my Netgalley shelf for far too long and Cleo recommends it
Lily King: Euphoria – because it’s about anthropologists in the field caught up in a pernicious love triangle (based on Margaret Mead, who is one of the main reasons I studied anthropology)
Look how many varied and wonderful women writers there are just in this small sample!
Am I being a little over-ambitious? Am I not making any allowances for spontaneity? Well, we shall have to wait and see whether the home-made plans bear any semblance to the end result. But I do know that I have plenty more women writers to choose from…
In this, my final (and longest) instalment in Lyon Quais du Polar series of posts, I will finally share with you some of the witty or memorable conversations I heard during the panel debates (and while waiting in the queues).
Panel 1: Freedom of movement, integration and new borders in crime fiction: Liad Shoham, Emmanuel Grand, Stuart Neville and Lauren Beukes
For all of these readers, the theme of frontiers/borders was not just random or a secondary consideration, but a deliberate choice. Whether we are talking the permeable borders within Europe and how that gives free rein to criminal gangs to ply their trade (Neville and Grand), the paradox of a country like Israel, built by immigrants, trying to deal with the new exodus from Eritrea (Shoham) or the blurring of divisions between the real world and social media (in Lauren Beukes’ dystopian novels set in the near-future), it seems that writers feel the urge to write about things that make them angry. The curtailing of liberties thanks to myths that our governments tell us (like the war on terror), the over-simplification of social problems (immigrants are the ones to blame) and creation of a new kind of slavery are all controversial themes which these authors felt compelled to present through personal stories. A novel cannot offer solutions to these issues, but it can highlight them through memorable characters and their realities.
Session 2: Recording for radio/ Interview with George Pelecanos
Talking about his latest creation, part-time investigator and Iraqui war veteran Spero Lucas: ‘I’ve gone on record as saying that the Iraqi war was not just and not necessary, but I wanted to let my characters speak for themselves. Spero is much ambiguous, reflecting what I heard from many vets: we were there to kill enemies and protect our brother and sister soldiers, not to liberate the Iraqi people or spread democracy. All that veterans want after the war is to return to normalcy, to the life they had before, rather than applause, medals and gratitude of the people.’
About Washington DC: ‘I never wanted to write about the government or federal city, I always wanted to talk about the real Washingtonians who have been there for generations. The city has changed so much in the last ten years: the black Southern city has been lost, and the whole of it will turn into Georgetown soon. I try not to be nostalgic. There’s nothing worse than middle-aged white nostalgia, and it is true that crime rates have gone down and there are more jobs than before. But the spirit of the place has changed, it’s become sanitised.’
About writing: ‘People tell you life is short, but it’s not. It’s long. When I was Spero Lucas’ age (29-30), I was working in restaurant kitchens. I just wanted to write a book to prove I could do it. But make no mistake: writing is a job, writers need to work all the time. It’s not something you do cos you’re lazy. If you’re lazy, you won’t make it as a writer. What does the future hold for me? Still ten years or so of script-writing, I hope, and then more books till I die. There’s only one thing that scares me more than death, and that’s retirement.’
Panel 3: Are scriptwriters the new novelists? (George Pelecanos – The Wire, Treme; Anne Landois – Engrenages or Spiral)
Both scriptwriters agreed that the new passion for quality TV series has put the writer back at the centre of things, even though the writing is much more collaborative. Fascinating contrasts emerged between French and American styles of approaching TV series, despite the fact that Anne admitted she was hugely indebted to The Wire for her approach to Spiral. ‘Time is money’ in the US means that there is not much time for writing up-front, and a lot of changes are made on the go. There is no time to be strategic and there was no awareness that they were writing a series which would get so much acclaim. There was no big picture, they were just working inch by inch, and if they were told to write another ‘Wire’ now, it wouldn’t be possible. French TV traditionally goes for longer 90 minute episodes, so Spiral was breaking new ground with shorter episode format, but they show two episodes at once per week, so that requires much more advance writing. Writers typically spend about 2 years planning the scripts before the director comes in (which is a huge innovation in itself, as most French cinema and TV is still very much director-led). Also, Spiral was commissioned by a private channel Canal +: since viewers are paying for it, they also have high expectations for quality of its programming.
Panel 4: Dancing Machine: Music and Crime Fiction
What music do they listen to when writing? Cathi Unsworth – Barry Adamson , Ace Atkins – blues, country and jazz, George Pelecanos – film soundtracks (instrumental, so words don’t clash with his own), Marcus Malte – traditional jazz, Paul Colize – huge rock fan but needs silence to create. However, they all agreed that music is important not just because they mention it frequently in their books, but in the way they use rhythms and sounds, even in the structure of the books themselves. Each novel has a specific tone, a certain aesthetic which fits well with a certain type of music, but we respond to music instinctively, even without understanding the meaning. How can we convey that emotion with words in novels?
Session 5: James Ellroy (with his French editor and translator)
Ellroy is a showman and he did not disappoint, with his tongue-in-cheek style and provocative statements. Yet he knows how to be a charmer: he said he was very grateful to the French people for raising him to icon status. Although he is a bestseller in many countries, his book sales are highest in France, perhaps because the French invented the term ‘noir’. Yet he is still obsessed with the crazy conjunction of men and women in LA and in the US, he is still full of respect andlove for the American idiom, he loves listening to the crazy shit of his fellow countrymen/women. He cannot write about anywhere else. He is currently working on his second tetralogy set in LA (to complement the LA Quartet and Underworld USA trilogy), using many of the same characters, but set earlier, during the attack on Pearl Harbour and the Second World War. How does he explain his productivity? Go to bed early, wake up early, lots of coffee, two bouts of work and two of sleeping per day, but also his Calvinistic work ethic. Oh, and ‘my mother always said I was born for the pulpit – and my pulpit is writing.’
By the Water-Cooler
Despite my mobile-phone-less state in Lyon, I was miraculously and luckily found by my friend Catherine from Le Blog du Polar du Velda. One of the most informed and widely read crime fiction bloggers in France, she has interviewed Ian Rankin, PD James, Denise Mina, William Ryan, as well as the best up-and-coming French authors.
Through her, I had the pleasure of meeting Mireille from Polardeuse , who is equally fluent in English and can broaden your knowledge of French crime fiction. When I asked them about the ‘next big thing’, a secret recommendation that they might have, they both suggested Petite Louve by Marie Van Moere – a debut novel about rape, violence and vengeance in Corsica.
Last but not least, the two ladies above also introduced me to Anne, who had come all the way from the UK to attend the festival. In some ways, she is the most admirable of all of us, for she doesn’t blog or write fiction herself. She has no ‘professional’ interest in crime fiction, but attends purely out of love for books and the craft of writing, or, as Virginia Woolf would put it, she is ‘The Common Reader’ (which is not that common at all…).
One final impression: Although I have heard some literary agents and publishers talk with some disdain about ‘uninformed and unprofessional’ reviews by book bloggers, all the authors I met were unfailingly polite and friendly with us. I think they are already a step ahead in their awareness of the buzz that can be generated via word of mouth and social media. And that perhaps people who are not part of the system can be more honest in their opinions, and are therefore sometimes more trusted by other readers.
A great weekend in sunny Lyon, stuffed to the gills with great food, beautiful sights and above all… crime fiction!
This was the 10th edition of the annual Quais du Polar crime festival, one of France’s biggest crime fiction events, and there were many special events to mark the occasion. Although I forgot my mobile at home and was therefore unable to tweet about the event while I was in the midst of it, here are some of my lasting impressions.
1) French bookshops and publishers do remarkably well out of this event. The queues at the book signings were very long, while many popular authors or books sold out well before the end of the event (Bernard Minier’s latest novel, for instance).
2) Most crime writers are a friendly bunch, always willing to chat and share a joke with their readers, even if that means that the queue moves rather slowly. The English speaking writers also proved very understanding when I told them that I wouldn’t buy their book in French, since I prefer to read them in English.
3) James Ellroy is a consummate showman and held an opera house full of people captive with his sardonic wit and straight talking. Also, he sells 2 1/2 times as many books in France as he does in the US (France’s population is roughly 65 million, that of US 313 million), despite the challenges of translating such an idiosyncratic writer.
4) Most writers agreed that it is most gratifying to be translated into other languages and that each country has a very different approach to publishing, marketing, reading and even interviewing. In France, for instance, journalists and the reading public are much more interested in a novel’s politics or philosophy. In fact, some of the panels had worthy, but rather depressing topics. Still, most of the writers managed to inject a bit of humour into the proceedings.
5) Everything is within walking distance, so it’s a great opportunity to literally bump into celebrities as well as up-and-coming writers. Here are some of the secrets I managed to prise out of them:
Genre is such a misleading and meaningless term. We should be allowed to be promiscuous – read everything and write everything, without worrying about genre. We should be able to have one night stands and long-time love affairs, flirts and serious relationships with books, series, authors and genres.
‘I have to admit I’m not very au fait with current music. My cut off point is Kurt Cobain’s cut-off point.’ However, she does recommend London-based band The Cesarians. ‘Each of their songs is a little noir masterpiece. I never thought I would feel that passionate about a band as I did in my teens, but I do with them.’
I’ve not abandoned my detecting duo Ingrid and Lola, or my private eye Louise Morvan, but I am currently writing working on a new character, potentially the start of a new series. I wanted to try something fresh, but am struggling with it at the moment. I’ll find a way to make it work, though!
For the benefit of my Greek husband, who wanted to know if George speaks Greek, despite having lived in the US all his life: ‘I do speak it. We spoke it at home and I had to go to Greek school, which I really hated as a child. I’m glad of it now though. So when I was asked to join The Wire as a writer to consult on some Greek characters, I did now my stuff. However, when it got a bit more detailed or complicated, I would phone and ask my mother.’
I’ve sold the translation rights into English for my second novel, the follow-up to ‘Frozen’, so it should be available soon. And in the meantime, ‘Frozen’ is coming out in the US this summer. My third novel features the same investigators and is also set in the Pyrenees. I grew up in that area and cannot resist its sombre, claustrophobic atmosphere.
I will write more tomorrow about the panels I attended and the new writers I discovered. But for now, let me end with a picture of my treasure horde from Lyon: books, posters and Black Dahlia brooches to add to my memories…