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.

Good Books Come to Those Who Wait…

I had ordered some books a while ago, from many different sources (mostly from the US) and for two weeks the postman brought me nothing but bills and renewal notices. I began to think that he was avoiding the regular heavy book parcels. Yesterday four packages arrived all at once, so I take it all back and am full of admiration once more for my postie’s muscles and patience!

Three from US, one from Amazon. Yes, I admit I do still occasionally buy from Amazon, although I try elsewhere first.

So here are my latest delights:

Sam Shepard In Memoriam

Other than Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, I am not a great admirer of blonde male actors. But Sam Shepard was an exception. He was not only the epitome of cool yet tormented, but the fact that he could also write – and write so well – was a major attraction. I loved his plays back in the days when we were doing amateur drama, especially Fool for Love, but I never owned any of his books nor read any of his prose. So, saddened as I was when I heard about his death, I felt I owed it to him to buy Fifteen One-Act Plays and (recommended by Stav Sherez, who is so much more knowledgeable about American literature than me and called it one of the best books of recent times) Cruising Paradise, a collection of short stories, dialogues, diary extracts to portray remote or small-town America.

Open Letter Irresistible

To celebrate the 4th of July, American publisher Open Letter Books (a nonprofit, literary translation press established at the University of Rochester) has a 40% off sale, so I went on their site intending to buy just one book but came away with three.

Lucio Cardoso: Chronicle of the Murdered House

I mean to read this Brazilian novel, translated by the ever-wonderful Margaret Jull Costa, as soon as it was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, but I ordered from a German site and it never materialised. In the meantime, it has won that award, so this was my second attempt to get my hands on a copy, this time directly from the publisher. It’s a novel from the 1950s, set in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil (a former agricultural and mining heartland), and it describes the decay and fall of a patriarchal family. But it’s not your average historical family saga – it represents a move towards the modernism of Clarice Lispector, who was a close friend.

Dubravka Ugresic: Europe in Sepia (transl. David Williams)

One of the greatest Croatian and European writers of the past two decades, I love her more for her essays than her fiction. This is a collection of what one might call travel essays, but in her hands it becomes a meditation on the past, present and future of Europe, equally wise and well-informed, bitter and funny, whether she looks at history, politics or popular culture.

Inga Abele: High Tide (transl. Kaija Straumanis)

I couldn’t resist this contender for Latvia for my #EU27Project. This is apparently the story of a love triangle with political and historical dimensions, and Abele is one of the most notable young writers in Latvia, with a combination of lush descriptions, directness, evocative language and precision in mining psychological insights.

 

For Review

Eshkol Nevo: Three Floors Up (transl. Sondra Silverston)

A best-selling Israeli novel set in a Tel Aviv apartment building, this novel examines a society in crisis, social and political ills, through the lives and problematic decisions of three of its residents. I will be reviewing this for Necessary Fiction, which has been such an inspirational website, introducing me to so much less highly publicised writing from independent publishers, both in English and in translation. This book will be coming out from Other Press in the US in October 2017.

The Mistake

Francis Beeding: The Norwich Victims (An Inspector Martin Mystery)

This is the book I ordered from Amazon and it was, quite honestly, a mistake. I had read a review of it on the Puzzle Doctor’s blog and was planning to get it on Kindle, but I pressed the wrong button. Never mind, it wasn’t too expensive, and I prefer reading in paperback anyway. Originally published in 1931, now reissued by Arcturus Crime Classics. This is the one that arrived within a couple of days rather than a month.

My keen fingers may have slipped a little and ordered a few more books which should be arriving within the next two weeks – Brazilian, German, Austrian, Japanese and American authors will be joining me presently.

 

Born Out of Place

English: W. Somerset Maugham early in his career.
English: W. Somerset Maugham early in his career. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

W. Somerset Maugham has a beautiful quote, which I think describes so well the feelings of us global nomads, who are never fully at home anywhere, but also easily at home anywhere.

I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place.  Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage.  They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among they only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves…  Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs.  Her is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth.  Here at last he finds rest.

And here are two more quotes about that exquisite tension between ‘home is where your heart is’ and ‘but my heart is in several places at once’.

I feel like I’ve never had a home.  I feel related to that country, to this country, and yet I don’t know exactly where I fit in… There’s always this kind of nostalgia for a place, a place where you can reckon with yourself. (Sam Shepard)

The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not to be questioned. (Maya Angelou)

Perhaps that is why I enjoy fiction set in different locations so much. I’m exploring potential homes.