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).

Four More American Reads

June was my month of reading mainly American authors and I’ve done quite well in terms of reading, not so well in terms of reviewing. Therefore, I’ll write four mini reviews in this post, before I turn to my attention to Russian authors next week.

Cowboyland = Sam Shepard: Cruising Paradise

Strictly speaking, geographically, this is not cowboy territory, since most of the short stories, flash fictions, fragments of prose are set in the desert areas of South Dakot and New Mexico, so cattle would starve in these locations. But it has that Western feel to it: rough and ready men (and women), loners, dreaming of escape, unable to fully articulate their feelings. Sometimes a child is observing these grown-ups and quietly damning yet forgiving them for their inexplicable yearning. Dust and gravel, shoddy motel rooms, half-abandoned diners and service stations… it’s a road trip through the America that time forgot. Anything but Paradise, in fact. Made me miss the sensitive cowboy that Sam Shepard clearly was.

More defeated adults = David Vann: Aquarium

The Virginie Despentes of the Northwestern United States, except it’s even more poignant when seen through the eyes of a twelve-year old. This is a tragic portrayal of life at the margins, for those who are barely making ends meet, for those who somehow fall through the cracks in a society that has barely any safety nets. Caitlin and her mother nevertheless have managed to find a modus vivendi for themselves – imperfect, no frills, but acceptable, with a little imaginative outlet and escape for Caitlin at the local aquarium (which takes the place of a babysitter until her mother can pick her up after work). But then their whole world falls apart when Caitlin meets a suspiciously friendly old man at the aquarium and discovers things about her mother’s past that she would rather not have known.

This was a really dark and terrible book to read. Beautifully written, completely moving, with perhaps a rather too rushed ending (with a tiny glimmer of hope that didn’t feel quite real). I was torn between feeling sadness at the mother’s almost neverending hard work and her whole mind and soul embodying anger:

Welcome to the adult world, coming soon. I work so I can work more. I try not to want anything so maybe I’ll get something. I starve so I can be less and more. I try to be free so I can be alone. And there’s no point to any of it. They left out that part.

But then I hear of the child’s bewilderment and suffering and cannot quite forgive the adult who makes her feel like that, no matter how damaged that adult is herself.

The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable. My mother’s anger extending infinitely, a rage we’d never escape. She had always been my saftey, the two of us piled together on the bed… To have this place become unsafe left nowhere else.

Not So Golden Age = Laura Lippman: Lady in the Lake

1960s Baltimore was not an integrated town and Jews and blacks are still made to feel like outsiders. Maddie Schwartz is a spoilt housewife who suddenly goes through an existential crisis and decides to change her life. She moves out of her comfortable home, takes a young black policeman as her lover and starts working at a local newspaper, determined to make her name as a journalist, becoming somewhat unhealthily obsessed with the death of a black woman whom she labels the ‘lady in the lake’. Lippman is good at rendering Maddie’s (and everyone else’s) muddy motives for wanting to investigate the murder. None of the characters are particularly endearing, even though we hear from each of them in turn, even the most minor ones. I was not smitten with the storyline, but felt it provided a nice slice of American life in the mid 1960s.

Gilded Age = Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr Ripley

I suddenly had a craving to reread this, and of course made full use of my newly acquired Folio edition from Second Shelf. Ripley falls in love with the lifestyle, the glamour, the privileged ease that Dickie Greenleaf exhudes from every pore (as well as with Dickie himself). It has also made me want to see the two Ripley films again: Alain Delon as the hugely ambiguous and magnetic Ripley in En Plein Soleil, and Jude Law as the charismatic, moody Greenleaf in Minghella’s more recent film. This is, needless to say, not the cover that I have on my Folio edition, but a pulp cover dating from soon after the original publication.

Happy Easter Book Haul

The book haul was the best part, but still only a part of my lovely afternoon in London yesterday. I went to watch Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre and, like most of the people there, I went because it starred Tom Hiddleston. But I got so much more from the play, which is about adultery and friendship and, of course, betrayal (although it did feel very ‘Hampstead set complaining about their woes’). Hiddleston not only cuts a dashing figure in a well-cut suit, but is very good as a man whose world is coming apart, and nevertheless tries to stay aloof and in control. There was an enormous (and remarkably well-behaved) queue afterwards to get autographs and take selfies with him (which I watched from a distance with anthropological detachment). I was more impressed with the very minimal staging and subtle lighting effects, which really pared down this production to the dialogue and the universal feeling of hurt.

This one’s a bit blurry, but I wanted to share the lovely tote bag with The Future of Books Is Feminist.

It was a summery day, Piccadilly Circus was full of tourists, so I decided to take a little walk and search for the bookshop The Second Shelf, which I’d supported via Kickstarter before it opened. You’ll have heard other book bloggers raving about it, and sure enough, I met Eric of Lonesome Reader fame there, who fortunately looks exactly the way he does in his videos and his Twitter profile picture.

I was shown Sylvia Plath’s purse with her lucky coin still inside, a three-volume early edition of Sense and Sensibility that belonged to Jane Austen’s friend and confidante Martha Lloyd and so many other treasures. At the more affordable level, I did not leave the shop unscathed, despite my hitherto reasonably well-enforced book-buying ban (I had a slip-up at the British Library, but that was the only time I bought books since January).

I could not resist a pristine Folio edition of the Ripley trilogy (yes, there were two novels published later, cashing in on the popularity of the series, but these are the original three). I still think Patricia Highsmith is one of the top writers of psychological thrillers ever. I’m also a fan of Stevie Smith and May Sarton, and you don’t often find them nowadays, especially not uncollected writings (including short stories and essays) and letters. Last, but not least, I am a huge fan of ballet and Allison Devers (the bookshop owner) has done such a fantastic job of tracing four volumes of this little mini-series of ballets (published in 1945), introduced and retold by Marion Robertson and Sandy Posner, with illustrations by Joyce Millen. You not only have obvious suspects such as Swan Lake and Giselle, but also two that are rarely performed nowadays: Petrouchka and La Boutique Fantasque.

I have to admit that this visit – and the thought that such a bookstore exists – has made me happier than I’ve ever been over the past 2-4 months. I’ve been without the boys this Easter holiday, but instead of focusing on what I am missing, I am having great fun reading all day! Books are my therapy, my indulgence, my luxury, my necessity. Have a lovely Easter break, everyone!

Traditional Romanian Easter Eggs, from Lumea Satului.

Crime Fiction in Holiday Locations

Everyone loves a little crime in holiday places – as long as we are reading about it and dreaming of a beach, rather than directly affected by it. This must be the reason why there are so many crime novels set in popular holiday destinations – or combining popular holiday activities, such as cruise ships. As it so happens, four of the books I’ve recently read take place in various parts of the Mediterranean. All four of them are what I would call ‘enjoyable holiday reads’, with a few disquieting elements to keep you on your toes, but not the kind that you will remember for years to come.

disappearanceAnnabel Kantaria: The Disappearance  – cruise ship

This barely qualifies as crime fiction, although it has a mystery and a missing person at its heart. It is really a book about family secrets and the dangers of allowing them to fester. It is also a loving recreation of India in the 1970s (where the main protagonist, Audrey, went to work after the death of her parent and met her husband) and Greece in the present day, where Audrey has invited her twin children on a cruise around the Greek islands to celebrate her 70th birthday. But then, on the night of her birthday, Audrey goes missing, suspected of falling overboard.

I first encountered the author online as a fellow expat writing about her experiences of living abroad, and there is plenty of flavour and colour to her descriptions of life as an expat in India. Despite some predictable moments, the book as a whole slid down the reading throat like a nice glass of Bailey’s or Amaretto: rich, indulgent, smooth. Perfect summer reading.

distresssignalsCatherine Ryan Howard : Distress Signals – cruise ship

Adam Dunne is a rather self-absorbed 30 year old who still dreams of becoming a great writer. He has said no to a regular job or a painful climb up a career ladder, a mortgage, a family and kids – so far – and has been encouraged and supported (often financially too) by his girlfriend Sarah. Then he finally manages to sell a script to Hollywood (pending some rewrites), but he has no time to celebrate, because his beloved Sarah – who had gone to Barcelona on a business trip – has vanished into thin air. Her phone is switched off, nobody seems to know about her whereabouts and the hotel she was staying at claims she only stayed there one night. Adam initially keeps trying to calm himself (and Sarah’s parents) down with plausible excuses, but becomes frantic when it becomes likely that she disappeared on board a cruise ship. The author knows the holiday industry pretty well and she has found the perfect fertile ground for crime on board a cruise ship. I had never thought about it before, but the murky borders of jurisdiction, the coming together of an international crowd for a short period of time, the sheer size of those ships making it quite easy to ‘disappear’ people… It has certainly made me more determined than ever to never go on a cruise!

ghostrunnerParker Bilal: Ghost Runner – Egypt

Makana is a former police inspector from Sudan, who has found refuge in Cairo. He lives on a rickety houseboat on the Nile and tries to forget the cruel death of his wife and young daughter back home. He makes a living as a private investigator and, as the story opens, he believes he is involved in a routine surveillance job to appease a jealous and suspicious wife. However, it turns out that the ‘errant’ husband is in fact visiting a badly injured girl in hospital, the victim of a horrific arson attack. This leads to a more wide-ranging and unpleasant investigation involving the girl’s father, who was associated with terrorism, and their home town of Siwa, an oasis in the Sahara Desert. Makana discovers the law means little in this frontier town on the edge of the great desert, nor can he count on the local police for help.

In this part of the world, the past is never quite buried, and has a way of rearing its nasty head and influencing the present. Not exactly a cheery holiday read, this novel blends topical events with a solid mystery and a noir atmosphere despite the relentless, blazing sun.

highsmithPatricia Highsmith: The Two Faces of January – Greece

January is not the name of a girl: it is the month in which the novel is set, but it is also an allusion to the two faces of Janus, and to the two main male characters, who in many ways represent two sides of the same coin. Chester MacFarlane is a con man, with many names and identities: he runs pyramid schemes, investment frauds, and disappears with his clients’ money. He is now on the run in Europe with his beautiful young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is a young American who quarreled with his father when he decided to come to Europe and stay there without doing anything much to build a career for himself. He seems to be drifting through life, but has a thirst for adventure which makes him somewhat foolishly rush in to help Chester when a Greek policeman catches up with the glamorous couple. After that fatal moment, they are fated to stay together, even as temptations abound and tempers fray.

This is not top-notch Highsmith, but even in her more average work, she remains the mistress of the innuendo, the slow psychological burn and strange love/hate competitive relationship between men. It’s not top-notch Highsmith, but it’s an interesting playing around with certain tropes and scenes, almost like a dress rehearsal for Ripley. I enjoyed the Greek setting and the unreliability of each one of the characters. Sometimes it’s completely opaque what motivates them – but isn’t real life like that too? Chester and Rydal are the two faces of the same coin, and you can’t quite decide which one of them is more despicable – and yet there is a ‘can’t live with or without each other’ aspect to their relationship which is deliciously subversive, smart, sinister story in its own right, well worth a read.

 

 

The Expat Experience: Hausfrau

HausfrauThere is a quote that does the rounds of expat circles: a man once said that when he dies, he wants to come back as an expat wife. It’s an understandable (if tactless) remark. There is a perception of an expat life of privilege in exotic locations, on a generous salary and benefits package, sitting around sipping cocktails and with nothing else to do except hatch intrigues.

While there may still be some such ‘expat bubbles’ out there, in most cases the reality is quite different. In many cases the so-called trailing spouse (most of them still remain women in this day and age, although there are some men too following the careers of their wives) has had to give up her own career, is lonely, frustrated, resentful and isolated. The expat packages have been reduced, they do not speak the language and they have to adapt to a completely alien culture, where even doing the supermarket shopping or installing a telephone line becomes an epic battle.

This is the case with Anna, the self-destructive protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau, set in a suburb of Zürich. Anna is an American woman who thought she had chosen order and reliability when she followed her Swiss husband back to his home country. Instead, she feels dead inside. Whether we can empathise with her or not, Essbaum describes Anna’s circumscribed lifestyle, her feeling of entrapment, very clearly. Anna is only just learning the language. She doesn’t have many friends, certainly not among the Swiss, and her banker husband is cold and distant. She doesn’t drive, so she is dependent on trains or on her husband’s or mother-in-law’s willingness to give her a lift.

Anna was a good wife, mostly… It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time… From Pfäffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led… the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans… Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days…

From Fodors.com
From Fodors.com

Visitors to Switzerland revel in the quaint, chocolate-box prettiness, tidiness and order, but, just as there is a malaise beneath the politeness and well-functioning machinery of Japanese society, there is something sinister about the myriad of rules and regulations in this Alpine country. Outwardly, Anna follows her rules: goes to German language classes, picks her children up from school, dutifully goes to see a psychoanalyst to deal with her depression. She is infuriatingly passive and accepting, a passenger in her own life.

Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon Rule. Where the wind blew, she went… it grew even easier with practice.

But of course one will suffocate under all those rules at times. Swiss youths rebel through drug-taking and suicide; Anna rebels by having reckless flings. The book has been compared (even by myself) with those other novels about adulterous women Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but Anna is much less guided by passion and idealism. If anything, she is far too self-aware, self-critical and analytical. Every phrase she learns in German class, every discussion with her analyst is dissected and applied to her life.

Love’s a sentence. A death sentence… The body would become ravaged. And the heart will become broken… ‘To become’ implies motion. A paradoxical move toward limp surrender. Whatever it is, you do not do it. It is done to you. Passivity and passion begin alike. It’s only how they end that’s different.

From bookpeople.com
Jill Alexander Essbaum, from bookpeople.com

Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, her risk-taking reaches endemic proportions… and then tragedy strikes. I won’t say more, except that Essbaum is a poet and her fragmented prose style may not be to everyone’s taste, while the descriptions of sex are anything but poetic. I was initially sceptical of just how relevant the German class or psychoanalyst discussions were to the main story, but they provide surprising analogies to the banality of marital breakdown and adultery. I personally loved the mix of barbed observational wit, philosophical ruminations and poetic despair. In some ways, it reminded me of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I liked this one more, even though it’s longer. It has a well-defined story arc, it’s raw and emotional and very, very honest, with none of the cold detachment of Offill’s book.

I’ve mentioned previously how excited I was to receive this book for review from Penguin Random House. A great addition to my collection of novels about expats – and a timely one, given that I am currently writing a novel about expats. Below is a list of my personal favourites among this type of novels, and the countries in which they are set. The protagonists may feel at first like fish out of water but end up being forever changed by the countries they live in. Word of caution: none of them seem to end well!

Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Chris Pavone: The Expats (Luxembourg)

Hilary Mantel: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Saudia Arabia)

Somerset Maugham: The Painted Vale (China)

Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Italy)

Christopher Isherwood: The Berlin Stories (Germany)

Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano (Mexico)

Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet (Egypt)

Graham Greene: The Quiet American (Vietnam)

Joseph Conrad: The Heart of Darkness (Congo)

Henry James: The Ambassadors (France)

Elsa Marpeau: L’Expatriée (Singapore)

 

What If Books Disappoint You?

This weekend has been a rare one of reading disappointment, when I expected it to be as comfortable as a cocoon.

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith (Photo credit: bhlogiston)

I embarked upon Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Found in the Street’ (one of her last novels, published in 1986) with the expectation that I would be intrigued, baffled, amused and chilled to the bone. In the past, I have always found her to be reliably good: slightly sinister, with dark humour and acerbic observations of people.  The sly observant eye and mordant wit were still there, but the story felt tired to me. There was not enough suspense, too many everyday chores described by several characters, too many lengthy descriptions and missed opportunities… By the time a crime was committed, I was past caring. It’s the first time that this author did not meet my expectations, which just goes to show that no one can be uniformly brilliant.

So then I turned to a light-hearted local read ‘Fric en Vrac à Carouge’ by Corinne Jaquet, a Swiss journalist turned crime and children’s novelist, who has a series featuring Commissaire Simon set in different neighbourhoods of Geneva. Even the pleasures of street- and café-spotting could not make me care for the rather slow-moving plot. I abandoned after Chapter 12 (yes, that is a new development this past year: I have been able to leave books unfinished with only a slight pang of guilty conscience).

NakedSingularitySo, if local colour and favourite authors do not provide reliable comfort, where can you turn to, how can you avoid disappointments? In my case, there was a surprising answer. ‘A Naked Singularity’ – a door-stopper of a book by Sergio De La Pava – is a book I had tried to read before a couple of months ago, but got lost. I now opened it again and was immediately captivated. It’s like a radio and merely requires a little re-tuning of the mind. Once you are on the right wavelength, it works beautifully. Early days yet, but let’s hope it continues to please.

Over to you, now. Have you had occasional disappointments with topics or authors which you thought you loved unconditionally? And what are your strategies for dealing with such disappointments?

Most Underrated Authors (Personal Selection)

Well, of course I owe it to everyone (and myself) to put a more positive spin on things.  It’s easy to vent about overrated books. It’s easy to be harsh with authors, especially when we cannot replicate their success.  But which books deserve a wider audience?  Because this is how I choose to define ‘underrated’ -not in terms of critical appreciation, but which should be better known. I try to stick to books which were either written in English or are easily available in translation. The issue of how little foreign literature is translated into English (although crime fiction seems to be the exception here) is a separate rant, which I will leave for another day.

1) Patricia Highsmith:

Yes, everyone has heard of The Talented Mr. Ripley (or at least lusted over Jude Law at his most gorgeous as Dickie Greenleaf in the Anthony Minghella film).  But Patricia Highsmith has written some of the most chilling psychological thrillers in the world.  So of course she is underrated, because she is usually shunted into the ‘just another crime fiction writer’ category.  What is perhaps most unsettling about her work is that her criminals/murderers are not evil monsters: instead, they are portrayed as confused, vulnerable humans, who find ways to justify even their most vile actions.  Very much like you and me, in fact.

2) Dorothy Parker:

Everybody quotes her witticisms, most people have heard of her ‘Men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses’, she was the most acerbic critic.  But how many have read her short stories?  They are funny and brilliantly observed, as you might expect. Her first-person monologues are as true-to-life and fresh (and as good an insight into tortured female psyche) as the day they were written (try ‘The Telephone Call’ or ‘The Little Hours’).  But they are also poignant and terribly painful at times.

3) Jean Rhys:

Speaking of poignant stories of no-hope, grim exploitation and cynicism, nobody does it better than Jean Rhys, especially in her short stories.  Like Barbara Pym (another underrated writer) she was forgotten and out of print for nearly two decades.  She is still largely unknown, with the exception of  ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife.

4) Tove Jansson:

I adored the Moomins when I was a child, but only now, when I am rereading them with my children, do I realise just how much of a craftswoman the Finnish artist and writer really is.  The books work on many levels – they are absurd, funny, highly imaginative, yet also tinged with melancholy and asking profound questions.  And she has written books for adults too!  ‘The Summer Book’ brings back so many memories of childhood, a beautiful and unsentimental description of the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.

5) Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ:

I’ve written about them before but they really are one of the earliest and best, most influential writers of crime fiction (of the police procedural type).  Whether you care for their Marxist leanings or not, you have to appreciate their realism, their deceptively simple prose, their subtlety and their questioning of all the values and treasured beliefs of society.

Looking at this list, I notice that my underrated authors are virtually all female (or a husband-and-wife team).  I wonder if there is something subconscious at work there, that I feel women’s literature (or the so-called women’s topics) are still regarded as somehow second-class.

What is your opinion?  Which authors have I missed out?  Is it easier to neglect women authors?  Thank you all so much for your honest and illuminating comments on the overrated books post.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on books and authors we should know better.