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 Distanceset 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).
Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestingsis a book I hesitated over. On the one hand, it had a telescopic view of life, with more than thirty years of sheer life squeezed into its pages – this is a feat I am rather in awe of, as I find it a challenge to skip even a couple of years in my writing. On the other hand, it had the potentially rather annoying elitist vibe of ‘the chosen ones’ that I so disliked in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
But plunge in I finally did, and I gradually warmed to it. It’s the story of six teenagers who meet at an expensive camp for ‘artistic’ kids, who try desperately hard to be cool, to stay interesting and to follow their dreams in NYC. As we follow them over the years, we see of course that they’ve had to abandon their dreams (in some cases), that they meander down the wrong paths, take many a false turn, but in the end, most of them find their way back. Only three of the six are fully developed: geeky, talented animator Ethan, golden girl from a rich family Ash and the ‘gatecrasher’ Julie, an awkward girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who desperately wants to fit in with this privileged crowd. The other three are viewed mainly through the others’ eyes: Goodman, Ash’s brother, the charismatic leader of the pack, until his life goes badly off the rails; Cathy the dancer with the far too womanly body; and Jonah, the famous folk singer’s son, who remains friends with the main triumvirate but abandons his music. Jonah does get his own chapters and the readers has some insights into his way of thinking, but somehow he never becomes quite as alive as the first three, although in many ways he is a more tragic character than any of them.
For about the first quarter of the book, I found the privileged characters and their hangers-on pretentious and snobbish. I very nearly threw in the towel. As they grow older, however, we see the way life knocks their stuffing out of them and how they persevere, regardless, how they still support each other even though they may have grown apart.
There are similarities to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, but luckily without the extremely harrowing scenes which appeared fairly regularly in that book. The friends may have subtle (or not so subtle) rivalries, may vie for attention or affection, may silently undermine each other, may feel envious of the success and money that the others have, but overall they remain supportive and invested in each other.
Ultimately, I read on, not because the Interestings themselves were so interesting, but for the observation skills of the author. This is not quite the major disappointment and death of ambition of Richard Yates: the character’s lives are full of successes as well as disappointments. The author is great at capturing those shades of envy that can creep into even the closest of friendships, and there are astute observations throughout about men and women, what makes marriages work , about growing older and abandoning your dreams (or adjusting your dreams and becoming more realistic). I enjoyed the last quarter of the book far more, especially when they try to recapture some of the magic of youth and realise that it never works. I would have liked perhaps more critique or more satire of a society that, for all of its supposed opportunities for all, is far more class-conscious than it likes to believe.
Here are some quotes that I enjoyed:
I know we live in a very sexist world, and a lot of boys do nothing except get in trouble, until one day they grow up and dominate every aspect of society. But girls, at least while they’re still girls and perform well, seem to do everything better for a while. Seem to get the attention. I always did. (Ash)
… meeting in childhood can seem like it’s the best thing – everyone’s equal and you form bonds based only on how much you like each other. But later on, having met in childhood can turn out to have been the worst thing, because you and your friends might have nothing to say to each other anymore, except, “Wasn’t it funny that time in tenth grade when your parents came home and we were so wasted.” If you didn’t feel sentimental about the past, you wouldn’t keep it up. (Jules)
The camp would go on in its own fashion, and teenagers would continue to be shepherded through the gates, and then shepherded back out again at the end of the summer, weeping, stronger. They would blow glass and dance and sing for as long as they could, and then the ones who weren’t very good at it would likely stop doing it, or only keep doing it once in a while, and maybe only for themselves. The ones who kept up with it – or maybe the one who kept up with it – would be the exception. Exuberance burned away, and the small, hot glowing bulb of talent remained, and was raised high in the air to show the world.
This past month has been more diverse than most in terms of reading. I have managed to finish 12 books, of which only 7 were officially crime fiction, 4 were love stories (of a sort) and one was non-fiction but proved to be a more exciting and unbelievable read than any fiction. Two of them were in French, which makes me want to do a little dance of joy. My goal has been to read at least one book in French every month, preferably two, so as to improve my language skills, but I am sure there have been many, many times when I have failed in this mission. Finally, three of them were translations: one from Danish and two from Hebrew.
1) Sophie Hannah: The Carrier. Some of Sophie Hannah’s earlier books gripped me completely: it felt as though the author had been in my head and uncovered my most hidden thoughts. She always seems to set the reader up with an impossible puzzle, yet solves them with flourish, keen psychological finesse and not a little poetic vision. Although this was not my favourite of Hannah’s novels, it is still a good read, although perhaps not at an airport when your flight is delayed… For my full review on Crime Fiction Lover, see here.
2) Joel Dicker: La Verite sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert. Having seen and heard the author at the Lyon Crime Festival, and having seen how many awards and accolades have been heaped upon this book in the French-speaking world, I was naturally curious to read it. Well, it’s an easy-to-read, quite exciting story, with reasonable plot twists along the way, but I am puzzled as to why it has won all those awards, since it feels good but not outstanding to me. The setting is a small town in the United States, and there is nothing remotely French or Swiss about this book. There are a few cliche situations and characters, but the simple, even pedestrian language appealed to me as a non-native speaker of French.
3) Amos Oz: To Know a Woman. Perhaps not my favourite book by Oz, but he still is such a magnificent writer. He takes a widower’s story of loss and grieving, and turns it into a universal tale of love, reassessment of one’s life, trying to truly understand another person, moving on. He piles on detail after detail (about Yoel’s daily routines, his gardening, his cooking, his thoughts, his travels) and each adds a layer, but you feel that the depth really lies in what is unsaid.
4) Jonelle Patrick: Fallen Angel: An Only in Tokyo Mystery
Once again, the full review is here, but this is an intriguing insight into the world of Japanese nightlife and host clubs, written by someone who knows Tokyo rather well but still brings an external perspective to things.
5) Alan Glynn: Graveland. Not quite as enthralling as his previous novel Bloodland, perhaps because this one takes place all in the US, rather than Ireland or the Congo. It certainly feels very topical, dealing with unemployment, young protesters and the shadowy world of finance and corporations. I found the excessive amounts of web searching a little tedious, and the investigative journalist Ellen never quite grabbed my attention. However, the character of Frank, former architect now working as a sales assistant in an electronics store, and worried about his daughter in college, was quite moving.
6) Benjamin Tammuz: Minotaur. The principle of the story is similar to Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’: you get to see an unusual love story from multiple points of view, until you are able to discern what really happened and how each player in the drama justifies matters. I read this in one breathless go, but it is actually a book to be savoured slowly. It has so many beautiful passages and philosophical meditations on love, passion in life, music and fear of the unknown. It is a thriller, a love story, a history of Palestine, a hymn to the Levantine spirit, a noir.
7) Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers. This book deserves an entry of its own: it is the book I wish I could have written, as an anthropologist, yet it reads like a novel. Except that all of the events described are real. It is the heartbreaking story of everyday life, hopes, fears and disappointments of slum life in Mumbai. One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.
8) Michael Connelly: The Concrete Blonde. A mix of courtroom drama, police procedural and serial killer novel, this is a solid entry in the Harry Bosch series, with an interesting backdrop of LA after the racial riots.
9) Meg Wolitzer: The Uncoupling. I actually left this book behind me (once I finished it) in a hotel room. I was that sure that I would never want to read it again. Although I found this story of disintegrating love and familiarity breeding contempt quite compelling. I think all of us women have experienced some of those sentiments at one time or another. However, the fable element of the story and the supposedly magic spells that descends upon all the women in the New Jersey suburbs was a little annoying and artificial, especially the ending. When it stuck to the mundane, there were many funny moments in the book. It is all at once a sharply observed, witty look at modern life in the suburbs, and a universal statement about the relationship between men and women, the way they misunderstand each other and mistreat each other, even unintentionally.
11) Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard – to be reviewed next week
12) Jens Christian Grondahl: Piazza Bucarest
This was an impulse loan from the library, as I stumbled across it while searching for something else, and I couldn’t resist the blurb. The narrator tries to find Elena, a young Romanian woman who married his stepfather to escape from Communism and then abandoned him. Sadly, the book was a disappointment, and not just because the woman was unsympathetic (or because we Romanian women cannot take a bit of criticism). I was never quite sure what the author was trying to say or what the point of the whole thing was. Maybe the fact that I read a French translation of the original Danish didn’t help much either – it’s like trying to see a landscape through a doubly opaque window.
My top read of this month (and many other months) is undoubtedly ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’, and my favourite crime fiction pick? Hmmm, that’s a tricky choice, as there were quite a few good ones, although nothing exceptional. I think it’s a tie between ‘The Concrete Blonde’ and ‘At the End of a Dull Day’. Both rather macho reads, though, so I need something more feminine next month to compensate.
So I have covered quite a few of my reading challenge requirements. Although, don’t you find that, as soon as you near the goalposts of a challenge you set for yourself, you start moving them about? Taking them just a little further? Demanding just a tad more of yourself? Fearful of missing out on something?