WWWednesday: What Are You Reading on 5th September 2018?

I only get around to doing it approximately once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently:

After reading Tana French’s latest book, I had a craving for more by her, so I went back to The Secret Place, which I had avoided thus far because it had been described as ‘similar to The Secret History by Donna Tartt’. That was NOT an enticement for me. But fortunately, it is about mixed-up teenagers rather than people in their 20s, so it is much more interesting and poignant. A girls’ boarding school, a boy from the neighbouring boys’ school found murdered on the premises, a case that didn’t yield anything the first time round, but reopens a year later as the youngsters have grown and changed.

The other book which I seem to be taking forever to read is Romain Gary’s Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable (Your Ticket Isn’t Valid Beyond This Point). Sorry, Emma! I suppose the subject of male midlife crisis is putting me off somewhat, although when I do get to read a chapter or so of it, it is actually very self-deprecating and enjoyable.

Finished:

Rachel Cusk’s Kudos is the finale to the so-called auto-fiction trilogy and I plan to write a full review at some point, but suffice it to say that it has one of the strangest endings I’ve ever come across: a man urinating in the sea where the narrator is floating.

In one of those strange happenstances that often seem to occur in my reading (clearly my subconscious gets to decide the next read quite often!), the other book I recently finished is also partly auto-fiction. Part -diary, part ideas or observations for writing, and full of memorable stories: Marina Tsvetaeva’s Moscow Diaries

Next:

I’ll be travelling with hand luggage only so I should be sensible and take my Kindle and I have The Trailing Spouse by Jo Furniss on that as a bit of light entertainment. Besides, it’s got a beautiful cover, doesn’t it?

However, I’m also tempted to take Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill with me, since it sounds a bit like Vertigo, one of my favourite Hitchcock movies.

Jean lives in downtown Toronto with her husband and two kids. The proud owner of a thriving bookstore, she doesn’t rattle easily not like she used to. But after two of her customers insist they’ve seen her double, Jean decides to investigate. Curiosity grows to obsession and soon Jean s concerns shift from the identity of the woman, to her very own.

What have you been reading lately? No, you won’t tempt me. Especially since I took a whole bunch of books to Waterstones for the ‘Buy Back Books’ scheme and got the risible sum of £1.53 for those they did accept (that includes 9 p for a signed copy of Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow).

 

Romain Gary: Yet Another French Link for #EU27Project

Romain Gary: La vie devant soi (The Life Ahead of You)

The furore surrounding this book is well known in France, but let me quickly summarise for those who don’t know. Romain Gary had already won the Prix Goncourt for his novel Les racines du ciel in 1956. Since no one can win the prize twice, he wrote another novel under a pseudonym (he used several during his lifetime) Emile Ajar and won again in 1975. He carried on publishing under that pseudonym for about 4-5 years, getting a nephew to pose as the reclusive writer, but finally killed him off (the pseudonym rather than his nephew) and admitted the truth.

I found it a little surprising that people didn’t spot the similarities in style and subject matter between La vie devant soi and La promesse de l’aube (published in 1960). Or is it just because those are the only two books by Romain Gary that I’ve read at this moment in time (they certainly won’t be my last)? Both are about the relationship between an older woman (the mother, in the case of the earlier book; the childminder in the case of the later one) and a young boy. Both are about the unsentimental love and support they give each other, even as they disagree about things and annoy and hide things from each other. The style is also that unmistakable combination of pain masked by sardonic humour, strong sentiment tempered by a core of steel. My blogger friend Emma, who is a real Romain Gary connoisseur, calls that his Jewish humour and French rationality.

Madame Rosa is a former prostitute turned childminder (or foster mother, really) of prostitutes. She lives on the sixth floor of a building without a lift and is finding it increasingly difficult to climb the stairs, as she gets old and overweight. She is also a Jewish refugee who has never forgotten the horrors of the war, is constantly suspicious of the authorities and has an ‘escape hole’ in the basement. Momo, the narrator, is a young Arab boy who has been living with Madame Rosa since he was three years old. It seems both his mother and father have forgotten him and haven’t been paying for his upkeep for years, but his childminder hasn’t got the heart to turn him out. Momo feels bad about not being able to pay his way, however, and he is also afraid that Madame Rosa might die soon, so he starts planning for the future. Of course, the only life he knows is the life of the street in Belleville, so he shoplifts or tries to pimp out other women or to find protection elsewhere. Through his naive child’s eyes we see a whole neighbourhood and some of its eccentric characters, the daily troubles of people barely able to make ends meet, but also the way people can pull together in times of need. Euthanasia, aging, drug use, prostitution, the life of refugees and transvestites, mental illness – all heavy themes, but done with compassion and kindness. Above it all rise the resilience and beauty of the human spirit. And of course it is the story of a remarkable friendship, one might say a love story, as Momo helps the old woman face death (the thing she fears above all is cancer).

From the BD version of the book.

The book is full of remarkable observations and memorable sentences (beautiful in French, forgive my paltry translations)

Monsieur Hamil is a great man, but circumstances stopped him from becoming one.

‘This is where I hide when I am scared.’ ‘What are you scared of, Madame Rosa?’ ‘You don’t have to have a reason to be scared, Momo.’ I’ve never forgotten that, because it’s the truest thing I’ve ever heard.

People care more about life than anything else, which is funny considering how many beautiful things there are in the world.

‘Don’t worry, Momo, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.’ Was he trying to scare me or what? I’ve noticed that old people always say ‘you’re young, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you’ with a big smile, as it it’s something to look forward to. I know I’ve got all my life ahead of me, but I’m not going to make myself sick with worry over it.

I don’t really care that much about being happy, I prefer real life. Happiness is a fine piece of dirt, a nasty piece of work, it should be taught how to live. Happiness and me are not on the same side at all, I don’t have anything to do with it… there should be laws against it, to stop it being such a shit.

Still from the 1977 film, starring Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa and Samy Ben-Youb as Momo.

This book also fits in the #EU27Project, although I already have a fair number of French entries there. However, I do wish Romain Gary were better known in the English-speaking world. Child narrators are always tricky, but Momo’s ahead of his years in some ways and remarkably innocent in others, which is probably understandable given his unconventional upbringing. A real gem, which has been adapted for cinema in 1977 under the title Madame Rosa and translated into English as The Life Before Us in 1986 (now out of print).

I’m already planning my next Romain Gary book, although I’ll have to have it sent over from France: Les racines du ciel, about saving(my beloved) elephants in Africa.

 

Nature saves us all: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun

Old Man of Hoy in Orkney Islands, from scotlandinfo.eu
Old Man of Hoy in Orkney Islands, from scotlandinfo.eu

Memoir is a genre that is not immediately appealing to me. Unless it’s a thoughtful autobiography of an artist or writer whom I admire, and therefore at least partly about the struggle of creativity, it just feels too self-indulgent or egocentric a project. So it’s a bit hit and miss whether I will enjoy reading one or not.

For instance, Romain Gary’s pseudo-memoir La promesse de l’aube was wonderful, even when I could see the ways in which the author was manipulating our emotions and exaggerating some scenes (or perhaps fictionalising them) for the maximum benefit and enjoyment of us readers. However, Ariel Gore’s Atlas of the Human Heart infuriated me, and I don’t think it was because of a gender division of the topics addressed, i.e. men go to war and are therefore interesting, while women drink and sleep around and are therefore dull. On the contrary, it’s usually the women I usually find more interesting, but not in that particular case. I think it was because the focus was not on the readers, but very much on the author/narrator.

Then there are the books which weave nature observations and personal narrative, harking back to the great Romantic tradition of philosophising about nature and how humans relate to it (or how the urban environment encroaches upon it and changes us humans). This is where you might find allusions whooshing over your head, but also the occasional tangential riffs and unusual erudite connections which will gladden your heart and make you feel smart. Two books which I heartily recommend in this respect are: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in the English Weather.

outrunWhere does Amy Liptrot’s tale of alcoholism and life spinning out of control fit in? It’s a strange beast, straddling the two sub-genres – memoir of self-destruction and nature writing. After a hedonistic lifestyle in London, almost but never quite successful in finding work, housing, relationships, the authors spirals into alcoholism and ultimately finds redemption by returning to her home in the wilderness and isolation of the Orkneys. It was largely the nature writing which appealed to me. Confessional writing is so prevalent nowadays and praised as ‘brave, raw, visceral’ and all those other adjectives, but it can come across as self-absorbed and repetitive. So my advice would be: do not read this book all in one go (as I did while tending my sickbed), but just dip into it a chapter at a time, sipping it cautiously like tea which is in danger of scalding you or ice-cream which could freeze you. Because it blows now hot, now cold, and I was often not quite sure if I loved it or thought it merely average.

The nature/lost soul  parallels and the rebuilding of self can feel a little forced or obvious at times:

I’m repairing these dykes at the same time as I’m putting myself back together. I am building my defences, and each time I don’t take a drink when I feel like it, I am strengthening new pathways in my brain. I have to break the walls down a bit more before I can start to build them up again. I have to work with the stones I’ve got and can’t spend too long worrying if I’m making the perfect wall. I just have to get on with placing stones.

Yet there is an artless charm and wonder in this rediscovery of nature that is very hard to resist. There are quiet observations about lambing or bird-counting which refuse to sentimentalise life in welly boots. There is a bemused sense of ‘how did I get here from my passion for all things trendy and urban?’.

I never saw myself as, and resist becoming, the wholesome ‘outdoors’ type. But the things I experience keep dragging me in. There are moments that thrill and glow: the few seconds a silver male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy.

The flatness and trelessness of the Orkney Islands, from offshorewind.biz
The flatness and the treeless-ness of the Orkney Islands, from offshorewind.biz

These are the kind of moments I remember from my childhood spent in a very under-developed countryside, probably far more backward (though less remote) than the Orkneys. They illustrate joys which become greater in post-event storytelling, when you forget about most of the hardship. But it never fails to amuse me how popular nature writing is in Britain, which has so few truly rural, undeveloped areas left (there are far more isolated villages and communities in France, for instance). Amy is seldom far away from the nearest internet connection, tweeting or posting images of seals and chatting to her London friends on Skype. Yet she and her readers hanker for reconnection with nature, both in its beauty and roughness – perhaps a nostalgia for a bygone age and unspoilt world.

The Merry Dancers, photo credit to Sian Thom at sianthom.blogspot.com
The Merry Dancers, photo credit to Sian Thom at sianthom.blogspot.com

Despite these quibbles, I did quite enjoy the book. The exhilaration of certain passages is infectious, such as this one describing the Northern Lights (known locally as the Merry Dancers):

I let me eyes adjust to the dark for the time it takes to smoke one cigarette then say, ‘Bloody hell’, out loud. In the past I have seen a greenish-tinged, gently glowing arc, low across the north, but tonight the whole sky is alive with shapes: white ‘searchlights’ beaming from behind the horizon, dancing waves directly above and slowly, thrillingly, blood red blooms. It’s brighter than a full moon and the birds, curlews and geese, are noisier than they usually are at this time of night, awakened by a false dawn. There is static in the air and it’s an unusual kind of light, the eerie glow of a floodlit stadium or a picnic eaten in car headlights.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that a shorter book (or a series of essays) would have been just as good.

 

Children and Parents in Literature

Sometimes it’s serendipity and sometimes it’s your subconscious deliberately selecting books which speak to your innermost needs and fears. I’m going through a bout of reading about mothers and children (occasionally fathers are involved too, but it’s mostly mothers and sons I’ve been eavesdropping on). Fiction has always provided me with more inspiration than any number of self-help books.

monstercallsPatrick Ness: A Monster Calls

The sinister black and white illustrations by Kay perfectly match this story about a 13-year-old boy whose mother is dying. Conor’s deadpan refusal to be impressed or frightened by the monster is realistic and brings a note of fierce humour in what could otherwise be a very bleak story about denial, anger and ultimately acceptance of loss. As for that final dialogue between Conor and his mother – oh, my! I borrowed it from the library with the intention of giving it to my children to read, but after emerging from it a tear-stricken mess, I decided better not. Not just now.

mountainshoeLouise Beech: The Mountain in My Shoe

A chilling tale of parental neglect and the difficulties of navigating the social care system, seen through the eyes of a young boy (also called Conor, incidentally). The ‘lifebook’ is an inspired method for conveying all the different stories and voices present in Conor’s life, and the quite dry factual content of many of the entries merely make the sadness all the more palpable, while avoiding sentimentality. The title of the book comes from a statement that the little boy makes around the Muhammad Ali quote: ‘It’s not the mountains ahead which wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe’ – and Conor has a whole mountain in his shoe. Luckily, there is also much love in the boy’s life through the three mother figures, although they don’t always know how to express it.

clevergirlTessa Hadley: Clever Girl

An example of Tessa Hadley’s subtle humour, choosing a title like Clever Girl and then proceeding to show us how her main protagonist, Stella, demonstrates a lack of ‘cleverness’ by making what many might perceive as the ‘wrong choices’ and ending up with quite a difficult life as a result of it. Yet, as the story progresses and Stella’s two sons grow up, we realise that perhaps we need to rethink our definition of ‘clever’, as she ultimately succeeds in raising happy and reasonably well-adjusted children, and achieves some sort of contentment herself. Of course, there is also the slightly patronising tone of ‘clever girl’, which you might utter to a dog performing tricks… A writer who is simply masterly at elevating the mundane detail and making it appear full of significance, while also providing a great insight into character.

promessaubeRomain Gary: La promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn)

I will do a more detailed review of this book in another post, as it has been every bit as wonderful as Emma promised. For now, let me just say that I adored this mother but would dread to become like her. Not quite a memoir (although autobiographical, it has been fictionally heightened in parts for the utmost effect), it is largely the story of Romain’s arrival in France as a refugee with his mother. Above all, it is about motherly love and self-sacrifice, about her unbridled belief in her son’s glorious future, and that son’s attempts not to let her down. In this book, Gary pays tribute to a larger-than-life character who pushed him to so many achievements later in life. It is beautifully written – tender, passionate, like an informal conversation with a friend, very poignant at times, and also very funny and self-deprecating.

To this set of imperfect, absolutely human mothers, now also add the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, in which a mother can no longer cope with her ‘difficult’ child, and the effect this has on the entire family. I just watched that on Saturday with my own children and what do you get? ‘No, I’m NOT crying, I just have to blow my nose because I have a cold, all right?’