I doubt anyone will even notice I am gone during the next few weeks, but just in case you are not away on holiday or if you have a bit of time on your hands, break the safety glass and get your hands on some of my favourite older posts.
I have a feeling the August reading will be a bit of a mish-mash too, but I’ve deliberately set some books aside for reading during packing and before unpacking at the other end. Tony Malone also kindly reminded me that August is Women in Translation month, so here are some books I have planned for that, even at the risk of it interfering with my #20booksofsummer goals.
The one I look forward to most is the one I’ve been saving up for the summer:
Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart (her debut novel – a reread, but it’s been so long ago, that it will feel like a fresh read)
As always, I seem to have a sizeable chunk of French (or Swiss) books:
Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal
Madame du Chatelet: Discours sur le bonheur (How to Be Happy)
Muriel Barbery: The Life of Elves
Marie Darrieussecq: Men
Two tense, thriller-like books from Eastern Europe:
Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu: Cutia cu nasturi (The Box with Buttons)
Grażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons – no, it wasn’t a thriller, I was wrong about that
And that’s probably ambitious enough already! Once things calm down in September, and the children go to school, I am planning to contribute some articles for Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September feature. Early days yet, but I was thinking of something along the lines ‘Classic novels with more than a hint of crime’ and possibly also a re-read of The Moonstone (the novel which supposedly started all this crime fiction madness).
Bastille Day has dawned nice and sunny, but clouds are on their way in, thunderstorms are predicted, so the fireworks this evening may be a trifle muffled and damp.
For this last 14th July that I am spending in France, I thought I would bring together all of my favourite early French writers and poets in a long, long list. Hopefully, at least a few of them might be new suggestions for you.
Rabelais is like Chaucer: bawdy, entertaining, and yet with a lot of depth. In the rollicking adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel he demonstrates his optimistic belief in the innate good nature of humans and the value of education:
‘parce que les gens libres, bien nés, bien éduqués, vivant en bonne société, ont naturellement un instinct, un aiguillon qu’ils appellent honneur qui les pousse toujours à agir vertueusement et les éloigne du vice’
Translation: ‘men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour.’
François Villon is the original bad boy of French literature: a tear-away, a vagabond, convicted of assault and robbery, frequently banished, yet writing assiduously through all this. Reminds me a little of Christopher Marlowe.
Je connois bien mouches en lait,
Je connois à la robe l’homme,
Je connois le beau temps du laid,
Je connois au pommier la pomme,
Je connois l’arbre à voir la gomme,
Je connois quand tout est de mêmes,
Je connois qui besogne ou chomme,
Je connois tout, fors que moi-mêmes.
Translation: I know flies in milk
I know the man by his clothes
I know fair weather from foul
I know the apple by the tree
I know the tree when I see the sap
I know when all is one
I know who labors and who loafs
I know everything but myself.
Incidentally, there is a rather brilliant novella ‘Villon’s Wife’ by Dazai Osamu, about a ne’er-do-well Japanese novelist and his long-suffering wife, which seems to illustrate the nature of ‘genius’ and its self-justifications really well.
Mme de Sévigné is perhaps to blame for the cult of motherhood: left a widow at an early age, she devoted herself entirely to her children and wrote them the most loving, concerned, nagging yet also witty, vivacious and observant letters. She reminds me of Moominmamma, always calm, unflappable, generous and imaginative, but with a dry sense of humour.
Ideal beauty is a fugitive which is never located.
I dislike clocks with second-hands; they cut up life into too small pieces.
We like so much to talk of ourselves that we are never weary of those private interviews with a lover during the course of whole years, and for the same reason the devout like to spend much time with their confessor; it is the pleasure of talking of themselves, even though it be to talk ill.
Louise Labé was that rarity: a 16th century female poet of non-aristocratic origin (her father was a ropemaker in Lyon), well-educated, multilingual, equally talented in sports and in literature. She ran a literary salon in Lyon and there are rumours that she was a courtesan. I suspect that means she slept with whoever she pleased when she pleased. Her poetry is frank, unashamedly feminine and deceptively simple, avoiding the flamboyant artificial flourishes of her period. She reminds me of Emily Dickinson or Emily Brontë.
Je vis, je meurs ; je me brûle et me noie ;
J’ai chaud extrême en endurant froidure :
La vie m’est et trop molle et trop dure.
J’ai grands ennuis entremêlés de joie.
Tout à un coup je ris et je larmoie,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j’endure ;
Mon bien s’en va, et à jamais il dure ;
Tout en un coup je sèche et je verdoie.
Ainsi Amour inconstamment me mène ;
Et, quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me trouve hors de peine.
Puis, quand je crois ma joie être certaine,
Et être au haut de mon désiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.
Translation: I live, I die, I burn, I drown
I endure at once chill and cold
Life is at once too soft and too hard
I have sore troubles mingled with joys
Suddenly I laugh and at the same time cry
And in pleasure many a grief endure
My happiness wanes and yet it lasts unchanged
All at once I dry up and grow green
Thus I suffer love’s inconstancies
And when I think the pain is most intense
Without thinking, it is gone again.
Then when I feel my joys certain
And my hour of greatest delight arrived
I find my pain beginning all over once again.
Voltaire. How could I avoid the patriarch of the neighbouring village? He was at times an insufferable know-it-all, a born meddler, who could not sit still. But his intentions were honourable and he was so progressive for his time. His world-weary, sometimes cynical pronouncements about human weaknesses and the opium of religion have shaped so much of subsequent French writing.
Zadig dirigeait sa route sur les étoiles… Il admirait ces vastes globes de lumière qui ne paraissent que de faibles étincelles à nos yeux, tandis que la terre, qui n’est en effet qu’un point imperceptible dans la nature, paraît à notre cupidité quelque chose de si grand et de si noble. Il se figurait alors les hommes tels qu’ils sont en effet, des insectes se dévorant les uns les autres sur un petit atome de boue.
Translation: Zadig made his way amongst the stars… He admired those vast globes of light which to our eyes seemed to be mere feeble sparks, while Earth, which is indeed an insignificant blob in nature, seems to our covetous gaze to be so big and so important. And that’s how he saw humans themselves: insects devouring each other on a lump of clay.
Besides, I adore Voltaire’s ‘marriage of true minds’ with Mme du Chatelet. At her death (giving birth to another man’s child), he wrote: “It is not a mistress I have lost but half of myself, a soul for which my soul seems to have been made.”
I think this picture speaks for itself: a whole coffee table full of new books. I’ve been on a terrible crime spree and my only excuse is that I will be moving soon from France, so it was my last chance to get French books and have things signed in Lyon. Actually, speaking of moving reminds me of one good reason why I should have been more moderate in my purchases…
Anyway, no time for regrets (not that I have any). In fact, I was planning to buy more, but the lack of availability of certain titles in English or certain authors who could sign the books meant that I had to scale down.
And, as I said on Twitter, at least it proves that as long as there are people like me in the world, crime writers will not starve!
From left to right, top to bottom, here we go:
Jo Nesbø: Blood on Snow – I haven’t read the last few Nesbøs; he’s a bit hit and miss for me – I love some of his books, while others leave me cold. He was constantly mobbed by admirers, so I barely exchanged two words with him.
Pascal Garnier: Comment va la douleur? – my favourite Garnier to date, I had the English translation at home but not the original in French
Ayerdahl: Tendances – recommended by the hugely knowledgeable booksellers at the Quais when I asked about a novel set in Lyon, the author (French, despite his name) died in Sept. 2015.
Manuel Vázquez Montalban: La Solitude du manager – Spanish classic crime; sadly, many of his books are not available in English (this was a 2nd hand purchase)
Jake Adelstein: Tokyo Vice – had never heard of the author or the book, but we started chatting and of course someone who has lived 20 years as a journalist in Japan has got my full attention. The book was only available in French on the first day, but on the second day the attentive booksellers had got hold of a few English copies, so I couldn’t resist getting it. Doomo arigatoo!
Rachid Santaki: La Légende du 9-3 – if you liked Jérémie Guez or Karim Miské’s portrayal of multicultural Paris, Rachid is in the same vein, 93 being one of the most troubled departements of France (outskirts of Paris).
Sébastien Meier: Le Nom du père – rising star of Swiss crime fiction and practically a neighbour (he lives in Lausanne)
Antonin Varenne: Battues – you never know what to expect with a Varenne book – he never writes twice about the same subject and his range is amazing. After the urban milieu of ‘Bed of Nails’ and historical fiction (19th century and war in Algeria), this is a rural Romeo and Juliet story.
Hervé Le Corre: Après la Guerre – atmospheric story set in 1950s Bordeaux, this won the prize of Quais du Polar in 2014 and will soon be available in English from Maclehose Press.
Colin Niel: Ce qui reste en forêt – the second in a series set in French Guyana, recommended to me by none other than my ‘partner in crime’, Emma from Book Around the Corner, who has reviewed the first in the series.
Joseph Incardona: Permis C – I thought I was safe from buying anything by him, because I had his latest book, but I’ve met him at several festivals and he knows my by name. So when he produced a small pile of his very latest book, which has not yet come out in France, only in Switzerland, how could I resist?
Janis Otsiemi: La Vie est un sale boulot – he was on my list of more diverse writers that I wanted to attempt – life in Libreville, Gabon sounds like it could be challenging and interesting! Besides, I loved his extensive collection of hats!
Christophe Molmy: Les loups blessés – this was an unintentional purchase. I saw the author looking a bit lonely, sitting next to Deon Meyer, who had a huge queue of people to sign for. So I started chatting to him and discovered he still works as a policeman, in fact heads up the Anti-gang squad in Paris, so I asked him several questions pertaining to cross-border crime. After helping me with my novel, it would have been churlish not to buy his own, wouldn’t it?
Naïri Nahapétian: Qui a tué l’ayatollah Kanumi? – another writer on my diversity list, this is an Iranian of Armenian origin who came to France as a child and worked as a journalist reporting on Iran for many years. I have many Iranian friends and want to find out more what lies beneath the easy clichés about that country.
Jax Miller: Freedom’s Child – I’d heard rave reviews about this remarkable debut novel last year, but never got around to reading it. After meeting the larger-than-life Jax Miller at the conference, I was determined to follow her progress with every book (and I’m sure there will be plenty more).
Craig Johnson: Dry Bones – I haven’t read a Walt Longmire book in a while, but I always enjoyed them, and the author of course is an utterly lovely person. I also plan to make some effort to catch the Longmire series on Netflix or somewhere – any ideas?
Frédéric Lenormand: Le Diable s’habille en Voltaire – I saw Lenormand a year or two ago at the Quais, he wasn’t here this year; but a book with Voltaire as a detective, when I live a short walk from his chateau? You bet! (2nd hand purchase)
James Oswald: The Damage Done – I never thought I liked supernatural mixed up with my crime, but James has convinced me it works. Besides, we had a lovely chat about farming and cows and sheep (I come from good old farming stock, it’s in my blood)
Patrick Delperdange: Si tous les dieux nous abandonnent – Belgian writer who was recommended to me by a bookseller who heard me asking about Pascal Garnier books. ‘If you like Garnier, you will be struck by this book.’Besides, he had the loveliest idea for signing books: ‘Give me a word and I’ll create a sentence for you.’
Richard Price: The Whites – another outstanding noir author,with a searing (and bleak) vision of New York City, who was mortified when he spelt Sofia wrong in the dedication. As if I would be offended…
Parker Bilal: The Ghost Runner – another cross-cultural adventure, Makana being a Sudanese ex-cop turned PI in Egypt, and giving us a picture of the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11. Parker Bilal is the crime writing pseudonym of Jamal Mahjoub, who writes literary fiction under his real name.
Jean-Claude Izzo: Total Khéops – I adored the Marseille Trilogy by this author, but I borrowed it from the library and wanted to acquire my own copies. My favourite of the three books is Chourmo, but the bookseller couldn’t find it for me so he brought me the first one (2nd hand purchase).
Deon Meyer: Cobra – I’ve only found 2-3 of Meyer’s books at the library here, so I bought one of the books I haven’t got around to reading. I like this ‘not at all breathless’ thriller style and deep characterisation.
Raynal Pellicer/Titwane: Enquêtes générales – fascinating graphic book about real-life cases following a period of immersion with the anti-crime squad in Paris. Useful for my own research about French policing, as well as a work of art.
The pistol-shaped black notebook was a freebie from publishers Folio, containing best quotes from crime fiction. The other black notebook in the bottom right is a Moleskine-type notebook, which I used to scribble my impressions of each panel.
Right, now time to find some good hiding places for all these books, so that I don’t have to endure sharp criticism about money wasted, lack of space and removal terrors…
Other Quais du Polar 2016 numbers: 80 000 visitors (up 10% from last year), 130 authors of 22 nationalities, 200 events throughout town over this period and 35,000 books sold. (So not every visitor bought 24 books then!). Pretty good going though; I’d love to see the figures for Harrogate or Bloody Scotland.
What a month it has been! More snow than we’ve had all winter, amidst bursts of sunshine and flowers coming out. Helping to prepare a conference with the Geneva Writers’ Group and getting to meet so many talented writers. Getting even more impetus to work on my novel and poetry. And, of course, without fail, plenty of reading – a cocktail of flavours. Some day, I may even catch up with the reviewing…
Mary Oliver: Felicity (poetry collection) – Long Island Ice Tea
18 books, of which 10 by women, 5 in translation, 9 crime(ish) novels and one book about crime fiction. Let me tell you which of the yet-to-be-reviewed books I really enjoyed: Olivia Laing, Liz Jensen and Crime Fiction in German. Meanwhile, Sara Gran, Laura Lebow and David Sedaris were a nice diversion. One book I did not much like, although it is currently getting a lot of hype and will no doubt sell well, since it is being marketed as ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ meets ’50 Shades of Grey’ is Maestra. [The art history and fraud element in there was the most interesting part to me, and I wish there’d been more of that instead.]
While there is nothing much I can do about the books I am given to review, I should make more of an effort to read more diversely, while also reducing the piles on my virtual and physical shelves. [Although I suspect I will be buying plenty of new books in Lyon, as usual.]
Here are some suggestions for myself: Marina Sonkina, Claire Fuller, Joanna Cannon, Sarah Hilary from Netgalley; Clarice Lispector, Yana Vagner and Virginia Woolf from my shelves; Circ (written by 10 authors), Jennifer Tseng and The Devil is a Black Dog: Stories of the Middle East by Sandor Jaszberenyi from ‘books found languishing on my e-reader for far too long’. But of course, I am also eager to read the books I acquired at the GWG Conference…
Only a few more days to go before the Quais du Polar (Crime Festival) kicks off in Lyon and I am trying to create an events schedule. Really tough choices, as so many events I’m interested in are taking place at the same time in entirely different locations. So, let me ask you, what would you choose between:
An Hour with Jo Nesbo vs. Women in Crime Fiction (with Sara Gran, Jax Miller, Dolores Redondo, LS Hilton, Philippe Jaenada)
Urban Locations in Crime Fiction (with Donato Carrisi, Walter Lucius, Carlos Zanon, Richard Price and Michele Rowe) vs. New Wave Brits (JJ Connolly, Jessica Cornwell, SJ Watson, James Oswald, LS Hilton)
An Hour with David Peace vs. Crime Fiction from Quebec
An Hour with Arnaldur Indridason vs. New World/Old Continents (with Parker Bilal, Colin Niel, Caryl Ferey, Olivier Truc, Nairi Nahapetian)
The other topic which has preoccupied me this Easter weekend was alternative endings to much-loved classics. My younger son had to write a new ending to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which his class are going to be performing next week). He had Puck taking mercy on Titania and being punished for that by Oberon. Then Titania has a sword fight with Oberon and kills him for his cruelty, but the mortals rush away just in time for the Duke’s wedding. So he’s made a tragedy out of a comedy and left Titania to rule single-handedly over the fairy realm. Which shows he’s either a budding feminist or future crime writer, I suppose!
That had me wondering what endings I would like to see in some other favourites. An alternative Great Gatsby ending is too easy: just look at Tender Is the Night for what would have happened if Gatsby had married Daisy…
Most of the time, I have to admit that the writers of great classics did judge the endings perfectly and the books would have lost of some of their power if they had any different resolutions. However, there are a few exceptions (some of which will raise your hackles, no doubt):
Jane Eyre: I’d have run away from Mr. Rochester no matter what. Not realistic, perhaps, in those days.
Rebecca: A civilised separation and a settlement to enable the second Mrs. de Winter to live somewhere quietly in a place of her choosing, with equally beautiful rhododendrons and a view of the sea.
Anna Karenina: I’m not for a minute suggesting a happy ending here, but I do think that poor Anna suffers the punishment for adultery, while the men get off scot-free for the most part. I’d like both her husband and Vronsky to suffer, and for her son to grow up in a more loving environment, perhaps with Kitty and Levin.
I read the last four crime books at great speed – almost slurping them in (unlike the much slower reading of the meticulously detailed and long Six Four). Each of them was satisfying in very different ways. Yes, none of them are translations, which is a bit of a shame on a #translationthurs, but they take place in Scotland, Iceland, US and …erm… Hampstead. Does that count?
James Oswald: The Damage Done
I normally steer well clear of crime fiction which contains supernatural elements, as I feel it ‘doesn’t play fair’ with the readers and solving the case. But in this case (and it was my first Oswald novel, so I wasn’t sure what to expect), I found it woven in so plausibly and to such chilling effect, that I was won over. My full review is over on Crime Fiction Lover and I’ll be seeing the author in Lyon in April.
Guy Fraser-Sampson: Death in Profile
A quick, easy read for lovers of Golden Age type puzzles, this one is quite openly an homage to Dorothy Sayers and her most famous creation Lord Peter Wimsey. Implausible and oddly ‘outside time’ though this tale is, there is a lot of entertainment value in the sheer audacity of its set-up and fun interaction between its witty (and on the whole very well-behaved) characters, reminiscent of an earlier age. One for puzzle fans, although the author doesn’t play entirely fair at one point. I do love the Hampstead/Belsize Park setting too!
Quentin Bates: Thin Ice
I think that Bates is developing a Nordic comic noir style all his own, almost lampooning at times the seriousness and gloom that we have started to associate with Scandinavian crime fiction. There are touches of Fargo about the set-up of this latest in this Officer Gunnhildur series, which not only has the delightfully down-to-earth, middle-aged Gunna as the main crimebuster (think an Icelandic equivalent to Catherine in ‘Happy Valley’), but also a motley bunch of rogues and their victims hiding out in a boarded-up hotel in the middle of nowhere. A really fun read – for my in-depth review see here.
Joe Flanagan: Lesser Evils
Europa Editions is better known for its translated literature (some of it dark, but often simply literary), so this is a bit of a departure for them. Flanagan is an American speechwriter and freelance writer and I believe this is his debut novel. It’s a recreation of Cape Cod of the late 1950s and it’s got a great sense of time and place, as far as I can tell, having lived through neither. But this is a trope that is so familiar to us from film depictions of the US during that time that I could almost imagine Burt Lancaster, Glenn Ford or Charlton Heston brooding on by, under hats pulled low over their foreheads and perhaps laying aside their trench-coats for a minute because it’s summer after all.
The book shows us the darker side of the ‘golden years’ of America, with a detective, Bill Warren, who is well ahead of his time in terms of empathy, compassion, sensitivity and integrity. At times, it does feel a little hard to believe that everyone else in the book seems to be so rotten and corrupt, and that he is the single hero in search of justice and the truth. Too much Lone Ranger perhaps, and the undercurrent of Mafia influence and willingness to look away are overdone. Some readers will be repulsed by the child killings, although the scenes are never overly graphic. What kept me reading were the complex characterisations and motivations of many of the characters. All in all, an absorbing story, revealed in a way that felt fresh despite fitting well within the traditional noir canon.