Books That Puzzled Me

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

I’ve finished a few books lately which left me intrigued but unsure of my own feelings about them. While I cannot say I disliked them, I’m not quite sure I would say that I liked them either. And if I were to reread them, it would be not so much out of love for the book, but because I want to see if I can understand what the author is trying to achieve the second time around.

In conclusion, these are books that I admire for what they are attempting to do, but I’m not quite sure they have succeeded in doing it for this particular reader. In some cases, I have to admit that I haven’t got a clue if I am interpreting them correctly at all. Not that it matters.

Michael Redhill: Bellevue Square

The book starts out conventionally enough, almost like a thriller. Jean Mason is a bookshop owner in downtown Toronto, happily married (although there are indications that there is sourness beneath the bliss), mother of two kids. When customers start telling her that she seems to have a doppelgänger who is wandering around the Kensington Market area, she has to try and find out more. She starts a stakeout in Bellevue Square, and although she never catches a glimpse of her alter ego, who is supposedly called Ingrid, she soon befriends all of the eccentric characters, scam artists, homeless people, druggies and so on that populate the area.

Bellevue Square before its demolition.

Jean befriends Katerina, a waitress at a churros shop, who seems to have a close, but not always friendly relationship with the elusive Ingrid. Then Katerina is found dead and Jean begins to wonder if Ingrid killed her. Up to this point, you could visualise this as a Hitchcock film, following Jean’s desperate attempt to prove that she is not the murderer even when all fingers are pointing accusingly at her.

But the book veers into unpredictable territory here. We discover that Jean has a troubled background and mental health issues, and we start to wonder just what is real and what is fantasy. Of course, the theme of the ‘doppelgänger’ as an evil twin or the darker side of the same person is very well established in literature (A Tale of Two Cities, Dostoevsky’s The Double, Jekyll and Hyde, and of course Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James have eerie ghost stories about doubles). But it gets even more complicated and meta, with past tragedies resurfacing and pseudonyms appearing for Ingrid which indicate that she might be an alter ego for the author. 

The refurbished Bellevue Square has a distinctly more family-friendly vibe

So I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret this, but quite enjoyed the journey (and the description of a certain part of Toronto). Redhill is planning a triptych of novels entitled Modern Ghosts, of which this is the first, and the term ‘ghosts’ fits in very well with what Poe and James were doing.


Rachel Cusk: Kudos

I’ve been fascinated by Cusk’s trilogy, which started with a Greek Odyssey in Outline, turned into a London obsession with property prices in Transit, and now concludes with a conference or literary festival being held someplace that could be Sicily or Portugal. As usual, her protagonist Faye is such a good listener that she almost disappears from the narrative. This culminates in a very funny moment when she is being interviewed by a series of journalists, who all end up talking more about themselves than trying to find out anything about her or her work.

This final volume is more combative and political in tone. There are much sharper observations about parenting, which were almost curiously absent from the first two books. There is a particularly touching scene, which the author handles almost in passing, where Faye admits that her son often wished he could belong to another family when he was younger. Above all, however, it’s quite a battle of the sexes which emerges here, all the more ferocious because it is not explicitly endorsed by the narrator, merely expressed by other women she encounters.

I quickly came to see… that in fact there was nothing worse than to be an average white male of average talents and intelligence: even the most oppressed housewife… is close to the drama and poetry of life than he is, because as Louise Bourgeois shows us she is capable at least of holding more than one perspective. And it was true.. that a number of girls were achieving academic success and cultivating professional ambitions, to the extent that people had begun to feel sorry for these average boys and to worry that their feelings were being hurt. Yet, if you looked only a little way ahead, … you could see that the girls’ ambitions led nowhere, like the roads you often find yourself on in this country, that start off new and wide and smooth and then simply stop in the middle of nowhere, because the government ran out of money to finish building them

Rachel Cusk: Kudos, p. 192.

I loved the way the book incites me to think and the very vivid vignettes of encounters – as I said before, I find it great anthropological material, but I have my doubts about how it all hangs together and cannot help wondering if it’s just lazy editing by the author herself. (I felt there was more of a pattern to Tokarczuk’s Flights, in case you were wondering). As for the ending – that was so viscerally unpleasant, it very nearly spoilt the whole trilogy for me (although it fits in well with the Battle of the Sexes idea).


Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett: Naked Men

Well, if you want a full-on battle between the sexes and a bit of a reversal of roles, then this book is for you! It’s about middle-aged women who are wealthy enough to pay for male escorts and about men who in the austerity economy of Spain are taking on jobs as strippers and escorts. 

Irene is an odd, cold fish, a Daddy’s girl who has obediently taken over the helm at her father’s company after his death, and married for comfort and business sense rather than for passion. When her husband leaves her for a younger woman, she doesn’t really go off the rails. Or at least not at first. Because she never felt much passion, she doesn’t feel much despair, more of a wounded ego and not wanting to give her so-called the satisfaction of gossiping about her. Meanwhile, Javier is a bit of a loser, an unemployed supply teacher with ideals that fit better into his vast collection of books rather than real life. This mismatched pair will eventually get together, but it takes far too long to get to that point, and the ending is far too abrupt and rushed. 

Although the book had some interesting things to say about social class and gender differences, and although it was quite funny in parts (that passage about moving all of Javier’s books!), it felt like 90% build-up, 10% story and then only 0.0001% denouement. And, despite the extensive build-up, the psychological motivation for what happens at the end still seemed wrong. There was also the odd head-hopping that occurs throughout the book – which keeps you on your toes, as you have to figure out who is thinking that next paragraph in a scene of dialogue. I also have to admit that I was far more interested in the secondary characters, Javier’s down-to-earth friend Ivan and Irene’s more uninhibited friend Genoveva. 

Weekly Summary 16 September 2018

Back to work, school and literary life! I do love September and its routines, although this week has been very tentative about routines so far.

I was still recovering from my trip to Vienna at the start of the week and pleased that my older son is now a Mozart fan as well (thank you, Amadeus the film, despite all your inaccuracies!). On Wednesday night I was blown away by Janelle Monae live. On Thursday I trialled a contemporary dance class and enjoyed running low and artistically from one corner of the gym to another (yep, I’ll be going regularly). On Saturday I attended a workshop organised by The Word Factory and run by Isabel Costello and Voula Tsoflias on developing your resilience as a writer. A very necessary and helpful session, which I hope will act as a kickstarter for me, as I’ve stopped submitting for about a year now, when the double dollop of rejection from writing and job applications got too much. Good news, however, about the one piece I did submit – one of the pieces I wrote during the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol this July, was accepted!

Another news item which made me very happy was that two Asymptote Book Club titles are on the first-ever longlist for the National Book Award for translated literature in the US. That is a HUGE achievement in just 9 months of existence of the Book Club. We clearly have a very wise team of editors who know how to pick the right titles (I can be immodest because it is not me that is involved in the final choice). We are going to be expanding the membership to the EU countries shortly and also organising some events, so plenty of exciting work ahead! If you are thinking of joining or renewing your membership, we have a flash sale going on this weekend. To ring in our milestone 30th issue, sign up for a three-month subscription by 2359hrs today (in your timezone) and get 10% off. And if you are wondering how you can fit in 12 additional books from all over the world to add to your tottering TBR pile, there is also an ‘every other month’ subscription option if you sign up for a whole year (with the corresponding price reduction, of course).

Had to include the Italian edition, because I love the cover.

Last but not least, here are the three books which will be joining my bedside table pile this week.

  1. Asymptote Book Club’s August title is Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator, translated by Emma Ramadan, which sounds like a postmodern confection of utter delight (a translator tries to justify the changes he makes to the novel’s plot and then blurs the lines between reality and text).
  2. Endo Shusaku’s Scandal, transl. Van C. Gessel, is also about a novelist, keeping up appearances and disturbing sexual appetites (it will make an interesting comparison with Leila Slimani’s Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which I’ve just reread for a review).
  3. Patricia Laurent: Santiago’s Way, transl. Geoff Hargreaves. A huge hit and prizewinner in Mexico, this one was translated a while ago but hasn’t received much attention here. The blurb makes me think of Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen.  “Imagine that all your life you’ve been guided by someone else. Someone who’s steered you away from trouble, taken you across the world, brought you success. He’s called Santiago and he lives in your head—and now he’s turned against you.”

Summary of Reading October 2017 and Plans for November

Well, would you believe it how October galloped away with me! I only read 7 books, in spite of commuting and its inherent delaying tactics. That is perhaps the lowest number since I started recording my reading on the blog and on Goodreads – and probably reflective of starting two new jobs at the same time and also having children on holiday for part of the month.

Out of the 7 I managed to finish, I have to admit that the vast majority were crime novels (5), while the remaining two had criminal elements and themes. Humph – this doesn’t bode well for any railway professionals who might have the temerity to ask for my opinion about their services, especially given the high cost of commuting. 4 books by women, 3 by men, 2 in translation.

Julie T. Wallace as the She-Devil in the BBC adaptation of the book. Ignore the American film, which is terrible.

October Reads

Eva Dolan: This Is How It Ends -standalone from one of my favourite new writers

Lloyd Otis: Deadlands – debut novel about a serial killer in 1970s London, no review forthcoming but an interview with the author will be up on Crime Fiction Lover shortly

Adrian Magson: Rocco and the Nightingale – delighted to finally have a new book in this series set in 1960s rural Picardie, review to come on CFL

Jenny Quintana: The Missing Girl – less thriller, more a carefully nuanced coming of age story, with beautifully observed sibling rivalry and collusion

Peter Høeg: The Susan Effect – an entertaining enough premise – having the ability to make people open up to you and tell you their life stories (I seem to have that to a certain extent, but of course this is exaggerated in the book), but the conspiracy theory and the ending gets a bit silly

Ariana Harwicz: Die, My Love – upsetting insight into a disturbed mind, full of pain and depression, very emotional and riveting

Fay Weldon: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil – a quick reread to cheer on this subversive fantasy revenge story

November Plans

The #1968Club is taking place this week and I intend to (re)read The Wizard of Earthsea, which was published in that year and which meant the world to me when I was a child.

I need to write and update the #EU27Project – must finish it before Brexit is finalised… and I seem to be as slow and muddled about it as our beloved negotiators! But at least I have better and less selfish intentions than them, or so I believe.

I am also ploughing on through two mammoth reads: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Miklos Banffy’s They Were Counted. They might take me all month or even last until the end of 2017.

Fingers crossed, I might be able to attend a masterclass with the wonderful Scottish writer and poet Kathleen Jamie in Geneva this coming month (I have applied but have to wait to see if I’ve been accepted). So I am planning to indulge in some of her work, especially poetry

Last, but not least, I have two Nordic literary events coming up (which will probably mean more books added to my groaning shelves). The first of these is the launch of the book Love/War by Swedish writer Ebba Witt-Brattström by Nordisk Books. Described as a feminist story which allows women ‘to see through male dominant behaviour’, and based on the author’s own bitter divorce, how could I resist it? The second launch is the by-now-legendary Orenda Books and Ragnar Jonasson’s latest novel in the Dark Iceland series Whiteout.

 

Summer Update on #EU27Project

What is lovely about the #EU27Project and its easy-going nature is that it bubbles along nicely even if I somewhat neglect it occasionally. And that is thanks to all of your contributions, dear readers and bloggers. Let me try to summarise, however, what has been added to the bouquet of links over the past 3 months. We now have a total of 70 reviews up there (although I have to exclude 4 which are either duplicates or errors) and, for the stats fiends amongst you:

From Urbanexpression.org.uk

  • France leads the way with 12 reviews
  • Austria is punching well above its size with 9
  • Germany and The Netherlands have 6 each
  • Denmark and Italy are next, with 5 each
  • Ireland and Finland have 4
  • Poland and Belgium are on 3
  • Portugal, Croatia and Czechia are on just 2 each
  • And poor Spain only has 1 review – thank you Lizzy!

We have had the good fortune of attracting some new contributors. Marcelle is a Norwegian booklover who blogs at Lesser Known Gems. As the name indicates, she likes finding the less obvious classical authors and books which deserve to be more widely read, and she does so from a very international perspective. She has added some Portuguese, Italian, Austrian  Belgian and Dutch gems to our links page. In fact, her puzzled review of Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce made me seek it out to read and make up my own mind.

Emma from Book Around the Corner has also joined us with a review of short stories by 1920s Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz.  And I’m delighted to say that Maphead has come back after a long absence with a Croatian entry.

Elsewhere, we have plentiful and excellent reviews from Jonathan, Susan Osborne, Lizzy’s Literary Life, The Book Satchel and Booker Talk. Some of our earlier contributors have taken a wee bit of a rest (as I have myself, so who’s to blame them?), but I hope they will remember to link some more of their reviews in the future. In the meantime, there is plenty catch up on here, if you just click on the Mister Linky button at the bottom of the page, you will see all of the countries, books and blogger names. Please feel free to add your own links, even if they are books you’ve read a few months ago. The more the merrier!

European Union flags outside EU headquarters in Brussels

So my conscience is now telling me it is high time to pay some attention to previously unreviewed countries. I still have that collection of poetry from Malta. I have recently acquired a Latvian book High Tide by Inga Abele. I’ve kept mentioning Miklos Banffy (Hungary) and Javier Marias (Spain). On my ereader, I’ve got mainly German and French authors, so I will leave that aside for the time being.   Above all, I keep meaning to review Romanian authors – and have indeed read quite a few in preparation, but then decided that they weren’t quite right for this project. Maybe I’m being too fussy.

What countries from the EU27 would you like to know more about? What have you read recently which opened your eyes to a whole new culture?

 

 

 

Writing Update Spring 2017

It’s been quite a while since I have had anything to report about my writing. There was an outburst of poetic creativity in October/November, followed by a more regular one hour a day minimum writing commitment for about 6 weeks in January/February. Then work, life, rejections and low mood got in the way and writing anything other than reviews or the occasional doggerel verse (aka poetry which is not worth submitting) became too much of an ask.

However, I firmly hope and believe that things are looking up now. I’ve found myself an accountability partner and we share writing ideas, progress, goals and rants on a daily or weekly basis. She is based in California and writes screenplays, but the time and genre difference works in our favour. Plus, we have known each other nearly all our lives, so we can be brutally honest with each other. We were at university together (she studied Mandarin, I studied Japanese) and our lives have moved, oddly enough, on parallel tracks ever since.

California beach, a picture sent by my friend.

So here are some concrete achievements I can mention:

  1. Geneva Writers’ Group literary journal Offshoots 14 will publish my poem To Love and to Cherish (Sept 2017)
  2. Alexa, What Is One Plus One? is featured on Poetry Breakfast today 24 April, 2017
  3. A Mother’s Advice will appear in The Dying Dahlia Review, 2 May, 2017
  4. Two of my poems will appear in a dVerse Poets anthology. Although I’ve had to cut back on my involvement in that poetry community over the past year or so, I have learnt so much from its dedicated, inventive, talented and generous members.
  5. My review of Katie Kitamura’s A Separation has appeared in Shiny New Books, which is one of my favourite go-to sites for reviews of a broad range of books.
  6. I wrote a feature on crime fiction from the Celtic fringe which have a link to ancient myths and legends for Crime Fiction Lover.
  7. I’m quite proud of writing some blog posts which go beyond poetry and book reviews, require quite a lot of thought and editing (even if they don’t always translate into high number of views, but you should know by now that it’s not millions of views that I am chasing): on the differences between the French and Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards creative writing courses (the very topic which was then coincidentally discussed a few days later in Ploughshares), a meditation on how to cope with being in limbo or purgatory, celebrating my 1000th blog post and what Max Weber and Emile Durkheim would have thought about our age of oversharing.

So here is an entirely gratuitous celebration gif with one of my current footballing favourites, Antoine Griezmann (because his diminutive size and cute little face reminds me of my younger son).

Finally, my new resolution is to return to my first WIP. The second WIP had ground to a standstill when life started imitating art (all except the murders, one hopes) and it became too painful to carry on. The first novel has the first draft fully written and is temporarily entitled Beyond the Woods (a translation of Trans-Sylvania, which is where most of the action takes place – NOT a vampire novel, I hasten to add). So all (all?!?) I need to do is edit.

Theatre Review: Classics Revisited

Over the holidays, we had the opportunity to compare and contrast two children’s classics performed onstage. ‘Peter Pan’ at the National Theatre and ‘The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ (based on Alice in Wonderland) in a collaboration between the Royal Ballet and Zoonation. Instead of giving you my personal reviews of the two shows, I will let my older son do the talking. This is the one who likes both watching and participating in theatrical productions, but usually merely grunts: ‘Yeah, fine’ when I ask him what he thinks of something. For you, dear blog readers, he has agreed to be more eloquent on this occasion…

Scenes from the production, from culturewhisper.co.uk
Scenes from the production, from culturewhisper.co.uk

Peter Pan

‘The pictures advertising the show and the set we saw when doing the backstage tour earlier that day made me expect a very modern version of Peter Pan, but actually it was just the usual old one, with very few extra twists. Yes, Mrs. Darling played Captain Hook, and the staging was very modern, full of recycled materials, but I was hoping for some alternative storytelling. Perhaps the Lost Boys could have been from a deprived council estate, struggling to grow up and find things to play with. The pirates could have been a drug gang.

I also found the whole musical thing unnecessary. The lyrics were bad and barely audible, and the songs themselves were not very hummable or memorable. It was also muddled about exactly what age group it was for: too serious for little ones, but too many childish jokes for older ones.

OK, maybe I’m being a bit grumpy because I was tired after a whole day in London and had a bit of a headache. There were some good bits: the performances were generally good, especially Captain Hook; there were some really funny moments (Tinkerbell); and the flying and special effects and sets and props were all great.’

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

From the Evening Standard.
From the Evening Standard.

‘This was the exact opposite of the Peter Pan show: very original idea of setting the characters in an asylum and showing all sorts of mental health issues. It was unexpected, but executed very well, mostly through hip-hop dancing. The message is not told to you: you have to deduce it. Wonderland is the place that accepts all people, with all disabilities, but not everyone wants to go there.

It was all far too dark for the younger kids in the audience though, but if you were at least 10 or over, it was very good fun. Great music, very acrobatic and energetic dancing, and, though it was quite sad in the first half, it finished in a very upbeat way. They could have pulled fewer people on the stage at the end, though, as it was a bit embarrassing for them, but other than that… Really liked it! Sick!’

Peter Pan is playing until the 4th of February at the National Theatre (Olivier), while The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (Roundhouse) closes after the 22nd of January.

 

 

February Reading and Challenges Update

So yes, you may have noticed that I have fallen ever so slightly off the TBR Double Dare waggon this month (ahem! five books or so, without counting the ‘official review copies’). I am all for a combination of planning and serendipity, but this is ridiculous! I blame a conspiracy of libraries and reviewers/editors who are far too good at PR. So here is the summary:

Books from the TBR Pile:

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Eva Dolan: Long Way Home

Eva Dolan: Tell No Tales

Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson – Work and Love   [Not reviewed because I want to write a feature on her, the Moomins, The Sculptor’s Daughter. She is one of my favourite writers and a great artist as well.]

avionbussiRead for Reviews:

Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen: Cognac Conspiracies (transl. by Sally Pane)

Pierre Lemaitre: Camille – the last in the Verhoeven trilogy, to be reviewed shortly on CFL

Michel Bussi: After the Crash – coming out next week, to be reviewed on CFL

Book Club Read:

Fred Vargas: The Chalk Circle Man (reread) – not my favourite of the Adamsberg series, as it’s the first one and has a lot of set-up, but still a quirky notch above the rest

Library Impulse Loans:

Karim Miske: Arab Jazz

partttimeindianSherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I don’t know why I don’t read YA literature more often – perhaps because a  lot of it is derivative and too ready to jump onto bandwagons and second-guess the trends. This one rings so true and is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact. It also fulfills one of my North America slots for Global Reading Challenge, as I’d never looked at Native American culture before in a novel. The pain of living ‘between’ cultures, of never being fully accepted in either of them, the unsentimental view of the flaws of each type of lifestyle, yet plenty of humour and tenderness to temper it all: I loved it!

Hubert Mingarelli: La route de Beit Zara

Another book that meets my Global Reading Challenge requirements – this time for Israel/Middle East/Asia. Despite the fact that it’s written by a Frenchman.

Sold to me via word of mouth:

Kate Hamer: The Girl in the Red Coat

Twelve books, of which a third were from the TBR pile, a quarter for professional reviews and only a third snuck in unexpectedly… When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Seven of the books were by foreign writers, but six of those were by French writers. So perhaps I am swapping the comfort and familiarity of Anglo writers with Gallic ones?

Seven crime fiction novels. My top crime read of the month (which is linked up to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted by Mysteries in Paradise) was undoubtedly Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. A multi-layered story with real contemporary resonance. But Camille came close for the storytelling momentum, while Arab Jazz was excellent at showing us a less romaticised picture of Paris.

Anyway, next month will bring the huge, huge temptation that is Quais du Polar in Lyon. How can I possibly not impulse buy books and get them signed by so many wonderful authors? Wish me luck…