Six Degrees of Separation Jan 2019

It’s time for #6degrees  Well, it was time at the weekend, but I left it a bit late. Start with the same book as other wonderful readers, add six books, and see where you end up! With thanks as always to Kate from Books Are My Favourite and My Best for hosting.

The starting point this month is The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Although it came out in 1969, it was hugely popular two decades later with my colleagues studying English at university. We had only just discovered postmodernism and were vying with each other who could come up with the strangest reads. I personally was never a huge fan of Fowles and felt maybe I was somehow deficient compared to my classmates.

Another historical metafiction type of book that I did enjoy at about that time was A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I’m not sure if it will bear rereading, but at the time the dual narrative and obsession with both research and love fitted my lifestyle extremely well!

A book about literal possession, by demons, is The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. The film is of course now far more famous than the book, but I was forbidden to watch the film as a child, so I read this instead (in a cheap version with a still from the film as a cover, I seem to remember).

Cheap nasty editions abounded in my childhood, since I got a lot of my books at bring and buy sales at school or at my father’s workplace. Another book that I read in a particularly flimsy edition, with almost transparent pages, was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It made a profound impression on my youthful mind as to how unfair and hypocritical society was back then. Little did I know…

One author I keep confusing with Hawthorne is Washington Irving, so I had to double check to see which one of them wrote the rather lovely Tales of the Alhambra, which I bought at the Alhambra in Granada when I was visiting there with my parents at the age of 10.

Staying in Spain for the moment, and that memorable road trip with my parents, I haven’t read the next book, but it looks fascinating: an account of that brief period of collaboration between the three major monotheistic religions on Spanish soil. Bit of a mouthful of a title, but it says it all really: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal.

Another road trip that I undertook with my then adventurous parents was to Germany, weaving easily between East and West (relatively speaking, because my father had a diplomatic Romanian passport). I was completely bowled over by Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s extravaganza and beloved palace, even more so than by Versailles. A writer associated with both the Prussian and the French kings was of course Voltaire (and he ended up in disgrace with both). Depressed after discovering that Frederick the Great was not so great after all, Voltaire wrote his famous Candide, a cynic’s cry against the world of mindless optimism. Where is Voltaire to write about Brexit now?

So a bit of a nostalgia fest this month, delving into my childhood and youth, from Lyme Regis to the London Library, the United States to Spain and Germany by way of France. Where will your random mental connections take you?

No book cover, but just an image from Sanssouci.
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The #EU27Project: Two Months On…

It’s almost exactly two months since I dreamt up the #EU27Project of reading a book from each of the countries remaining in the EU, and about 7 weeks since I set up a separate page for linking reviews. So it’s time for a bit of an update.

I’m delighted to say that a number of you have responded – and it’s doubly appreciated, because it’s not the most intuitive linking method. You have to write the country, the author or book title and then your name in brackets, as it doesn’t have separate lines for each item of information.

We have 16 reviews and blogger Lizzy Siddal has been the most prolific reviewer to date. She has posted two books from the Netherlands: Gerard Reve’s masterpiece from 1947 translated at last into English, and Esther Gerritsen’s description of a toxic mother/daughter relationship. Also, two from Austria: short stories by Stefan Zweig (perennial old favourite) and a disquieting thriller by Bernhard Aichner. There is also a sly dig at behind the scenes of literary prizes by Filippo Bologna from Italy and a collection of short stories by Spanish writer Medardo Fraile described as ‘one of the best I’ve ever read’ – high praise indeed and it’s gone straight onto my TBR list. So here is a bouquet for Lizzy and her sterling work!

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Netherlands is front-runner in terms of number of book reviews. In addition to the two by Lizzy, there is also a review of Herman Koch’s story of personal and social meltdown The Dinner. Joint top of the leaderboard is Germany, with three historical novels. Susan Osborne reviews Summer Before the Dark, a fictional account of Stefan Zweig and Josef Roth spending the summer of 1936 together in Ostende, refugees in vacation land. Joseph Kanon’s thriller Leaving Berlin is set in post-war, post-partition Berlin and is reviewed by Maphead. Finally, Ricarda Huch’s novella The Last Summer is set in Russia just on the cusp of the 1917 revolution.

There are two book reviews for Ireland, both for Lisa McInerney’s riotous description of the less touristy side of Cork The Glorious Heresies: one by Kate Vane and one by myself. Finland can also boast two reviews, both for historical novels: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen reviewed in French by Sylvie Heroux from Montreal; while Mrs. Peabody investigates Kjell Westö’s The Wednesday Clubwhich provides a rather grim insight into Finland’s troubled history.

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A Greek muse, from theoi.com

Peirene Press is represented with no less than 3 reviews: in addition to White Hunger and The Last Summer, there is also a Danish representative The Murder of Halland which is not so much a crime novel as a story about grieving, reviewed by Karen at BookerTalk.

Another publisher which is well represented here is Pushkin Press, with 5 reviews, most of them by Lizzy, but also Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann. So well done to these two independent publishers for making so much European culture available to us in the UK!

Last but not least, one of the youngest EU members, Croatia, is represented by the book Girl at War by Sara Novic, highly recommended by Maphead.

In terms of personal plans, I’ve already veered away from my original ones. I oomed and aahed about my selection for Germany, gave up on considering Kati Hiekkapelto for the Finnish entry (because her book takes place in Serbia), switched my Irish entry, found a women’s writing collective for Lithuania (still to be reviewed) and am still conflicted about France… And I still have zero inspiration for Malta or Cyprus.

Another thank you to all participants, from my garden...
Another thank you to all participants, from my garden…

Thank you to all the participants and I hope to see many more of you in the months to come. I believe there are a few of you who have reviewed books which would fall into the EU27 category, but have not linked up yet, so please do so if you get a chance. There is no deadline, no pressure, and absolutely no shame in back-linking to older reviews from late 2016 or early 2017.

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Comparing Reading Cultures

www.whytoread.com
http://www.whytoread.com

Every three years or so the literary magazine Livres Hebdo  in France does an IPSOS survey of not just its readers, but the wider French reading public. The latest edition of this survey (April 2014) reveals that reading remains the second favourite leisure activity of the French (after ‘going out with friends’). 7 out of 10 French read at least one book a month and about half of them claim to read every day.

However, e-readers have not made that much of an inroad yet into French reading habits. Its popularity has grown only by 3% in the last three years.

And what are the favourite genres? Crime fiction (known as ‘polars’) tops the list, unsurprisingly, followed by spy thrillers, self-help books and historical essays/biographies.

So, are there any causes for concern? Well, the French admit that reading does seem to be a pastime associated with the middle classes, the better-educated and economically better off. This finding holds true in the survey of reading habits in England commissioned by Booktrust UK. In fact, there has been talk in Britain of a ‘class division’ in reading culture, with a clear link between deprivation and lack of reading enjoyment.

But perhaps the English are further down the road of using digital media to do their reading. In England 18% of people never read any physical books, while 71% never read any e-books. A quarter prefer internet and social media to books, nearly half prefer TV and DVDs to books. Only 28% of people in England (and I think it’s important to point out that this data is only for England, not for the UK as a whole) read books nearly every day, so considerably lower than in France. Fitting in nicely with the stereotype of ‘highbrow French’ reading books with boring covers and impenetrable titles?

DSCN6650Worldwide surveys of reading habits do tend to confirm somewhat national stereotypes. Self-help books are popular in the US, while in the UK there is a marked preference for celebrity autobiographies and TV chefs. The Germans, meanwhile, prefer travel/outdoor/environmental books, while the French, Romanians, Italians seem to prefer fiction.

But the most interesting result may be found in Spain. Once the nation that read fewer books than any other in Europe, since the recession hit the country so hard, it seems that books have become that affordable luxury and has led to 57% of the population reading regularly. It has also become one of the biggest book-producing nations, bucking all the publishing trends. And what do they prefer reading? A very interesting mix of Spanish-speaking writers (including South Americans) and translations from other languages.

And what are we to make of a 2011 study from the University of Gothenburg showing that increased use of computers in children’s homes in the US and Sweden have led to poorer reading skills as well as less pleasure derived from reading?

At the risk of preaching to the converted, I leave you with a conclusion which has been replicated in multiple studies around the world and which refers to leisure-time reading (of whatever description):

People who read books are significantly more likely to be happy and content with their life.

Japan, Italy, Spain: Where My Crime Fiction Takes Me

I do love crime fiction set in different countries. I believe that crime novels are great at conveying the small details, the atmosphere, the cultural differences which make up a country. I tend to pack them in my luggage when I venture to a new country, right alongside the travel guides. The last three have taken me to Japan, Italy/France and Spain.

Japan: “All She Was Worth” by Miyuki Miyabe (No information about translator!?!), Oriel

all-she-was-worth

Inspector Honma is a gentle soul, on semi-retirement from the police force since his wife’s death, with the usual single father doubts about his parenting abilities towards his ten-year-old son Makoto. A distant cousin descends on him one snowy evening and asks for his help to trace his missing fiancé. As Honma uncovers more and more unsettling facts about this woman and her past, he reluctantly has to bear witness to the dark side of Japan’s economic boom: the belief in a good life today rather than tomorrow, falling into debt and being pursued by loan sharks, succumbing to the temptation of hostess bars and … possibly… murder. The story is told at a much more leisurely pace than one might be accustomed to from a contemporary Western novel: there is almost something of the Golden Age detective novel feel about it, as one puzzle piece after another is found and carefully slotted into place. We may solve the mystery long before the main protagonist does, but along the way we experience a great fresco of Japan in the early 1990s, when the golden dream was becoming tarnished. All the while, I couldn’t help thinking of the much more excessive recent consumer excesses of the UK and Greece, for example. However, for Japanese standards (a nation of savers rather than credit cards), this must have been pretty explosive stuff at the time. The novel was written in 1992 and does show its age a little.

Italy/France: “Escape” by Dominique Manotti (Transl. Amanda Hopkinson & Ros Schwartz), Arcadia

ManottiTwo mismatched Italian prisoners break out of prison: Carlo is a former leader in the Red Brigades, Filippo a petty criminal from the slums of Rome. Yet it’s the latter who survives and who tries to make his fortune in Paris. While working as a night guard, this barely literate young man starts writing down the stories that Carlo told him in prison. The book is published and becomes a bestseller… with very dangerous consequences for Filippo, even though he tries to convince the reading public (and the police) that most of the novel is fiction.

This book has one of the most immediately gripping opening sequences I’ve read in recent memory… and we’re off on this rollercoaster of a ride through Italian politics of the 1970s/80s, the pretentiousness of the French literary establishment and the world of exiled Italians in Paris. Manotti’s work is at once dramatic and thoughtful, cinematic and intimate, politically engaged and also tongue-in-cheek. The characters often take themselves far too seriously, but the author never does: by offering us multiple points of view, she does a great job of pricking their balloon of self-satisfaction and self-deceit. She also does a great job of asking questions about the nature of memory, about the proportion of fiction in our truths, and just what is permissible in the name of success or political survival. A political thriller with a very personal story, this is a book quite unlike most crime fiction you find on the bookshop shelves today. An author who deserves to be far more widely known in the English-speaking world.

Spain: ‘Depths of the Forest’ by Eugenio Fuentes (Transl. Paul Antill), Arcadia

el-interior-del-bosqueAn attractive young woman is killed in a remote nature reserve in the north-east of Spain. Her boyfriend hires private investigator Ricardo Cupido to find the killer, as he fears the police are dragging their feet. Ricardo knows the local area, the secretive, closed nature of its people, but he has to start by uncovering more about the enigmatic and charismatic victim, Gloria, an artist who was equally loved and envied by those closest to her. Ricardo finds himself drawn towards her even after death, but a further death makes him wonder if the murder was at all personal.

Atmosphere galore in this novel: the claustrophobia of small-town rural Spain and the ominous wilderness of a great forest are both equally well described. The style is ornate, lyrical, with detailed descriptions, very different to the more spare Anglo-Saxon style, but beautifully written. A book to savour slowly, to let melt on your tongue. Once again, we are transported into other points of view and get to see both Gloria and the forest through multiple sets of eyes – a technique that is seldom used in UK/US crime fiction.

fuentesBut what I love about this author is the layers of meaning he instills in his books: superficially, they are simply a murder mystery, but underneath that they are character studies, and if you dig a little deeper still, you find the exploration of old mores and traditions, of cultural values, of natural forces fighting against humans.  Cupido himself is an attractive character, thoughtful but not unduly melancholic, although a bit of a loner. Here he is described by another character: “He was about thirty-five, very tall, with clean-cut features and profile, although he gave the impression of not knowing how to make the most of his good looks. He never allowed himself a broad smile… He appeared calm by nature, but by no means impassive; he was sceptical, but not pessimistic…’ I certainly want to read more about him in other books.

 

Where have you recently ‘travelled’ via your books?  Please share with me your favourite discoveries, as there is nothing I enjoy better than to explore new locations through an author’s eyes.