Books I Expected to Love, But…

There are plenty of mediocre or badly written books, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Instead, these are books with an interesting concept, well written, but which somehow missed the mark with me. Perhaps I was expecting too much. Perhaps I am suffering from a comparison disease (‘I would have written this differently’). Or perhaps the writer’s style just didn’t click with me. So these are three recently read books which disappointed me, sad to say. They won’t be featuring on my #EU27Project page.

Dumitru Tsepeneag: Hotel Europa

This was going to be precisely my cup of tea: a sarcastic, world-weary Romanian writer who has emigrated to France, is suffering from writer’s block, and is tracing the path of a young student (and his mates) during and after the fall of Communism in Romania and through an increasingly hostile Western Europe. We transition abruptly from past to present, imaginary to ‘real’ as the writer communes with his fictional characters, amalgamates them, invents new stories for them, identifies with them, makes himself part of the story. It’s a playful metafiction as well as a road trip with many memorable moments and plenty of nasty characters.

And yet it lacks universal appeal: there is something there that will be comprehensible or relatable only to those who have a very intimate understanding of recent Romanian history. And even those readers (like myself) might get a little bored towards the end. The events described are often shocking, occasionally funny, but above all repetitive. Simply too long and confusing.

Mohsin Hamid: Exit West

Another one I really wanted to like, but the rather cold omniscient narrator did not work for me. I believe this is intended to be a sort of modern fable. In that case, I would have preferred it to have more magical or surrealist elements, while still depicting the harsh realities of being caught up in a town under siege or being unwelcome refugees. A sort of universal parable of being unwanted. If it was intended to be a moving depiction of refugee plight, then the tone was too detached and it could have done without the appearance of mysterious doors as shortcuts to other parts of the world. 

The parallels between the gradual disintegration of the home town and the unravelling of the relationship between the two young lovers was the most interesting part, but I felt insufficiently invested in them emotionally. It seemed more a relationship of convenience or because of the lack of other opportunities rather than real love (and that is perhaps what the author intended, but it was a missed opportunity to make us feel more on their behalf). Above all, I found the alternate random events happening simultaneously in other parts of the world a distraction which added very little to the story. Or perhaps I am too dim to understand its metaphorical import.

Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului

This book simply tries to fit in too much. It tries to be a fresco of Romanian society during and after the fall of Communism, how so many people are compromising their ideals and values in order to survive, while others clearly have very little moral scruples to compromise at all. Yet there are simply too many people, names, stories. The whole book becomes a series of conversations about the events and about other people, with everyone making speeches which sound rather preachy and political. It almost feels like the author would have been better off writing a series of essays to express her disappointment with the way Romanian society was developing at the time. Or else she should have stuck to a much narrower canvas, the story of just a few people, with more actual show than tell.

[Oh, and this is not the author’s fault, but the cover is truly awful, what do you think?]

Do you have any books like that? Which you liked in theory or on the blurb and then just didn’t get along with them in real life?

P.S. I will be on my poetry retreat all of this week, and I’ve heard the WiFi and mobile phone reception is pretty dire there (that was one of the reasons I was keen to go). So I may not be able to respond to your comments right away. But do leave one, because I will be in touch when I get back.

 

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Feverish after Ferrante?

ferrante1I was impressed by Elena Ferrante’s fierce honesty and gritty style in ‘The Days of Abandonment’, but I avoided the Neapolitan novels for a long time. The hype, the marketing of it as a family saga, the sheer wordiness of 4 thick volumes seemed to me run counter to everything I admire and aspire to be as a writer: elegant and pared down style, hidden and allusive observations, modest and restrained topic matters.

But then I found the whole set in English at the local library, so I thought I’d give them a whirl.

The flashes of insight and genius which I’d glimpsed in the standalone novel were what sustained me for the first few chapters. 60-70 pages in, I scoffed: ‘Soap opera’.  After the next few chapters, I paused:  ‘Hmm, soap opera with gender politics.’ Halfway through the first volume, I readjusted this to: ‘soap opera with gender and class politics’. I never watch soap operas on TV, but I started to understand why my mother would: this made for compulsive reading. I finished the first volume and almost immediately made a trip to the library for more. And now I’ve finished all four in record time and am tempted to say: ‘political and feminist discourse disguised as a soap opera’.

Many reviewers have spoken of its ferocious howl of anger – but there is also resignation, resilience and ‘getting on with things’ in the most unheroic of ways. I have mentioned before how it reminds me of my female relatives: the trials and tribulations, small joys and greater pains of their own lives, the way they come together to support but also sabotage each other.  Events unfold at high speed, often with melodrama, blood, guts and tears, much shouting and throwing of objects, families and friends breaking off relationships for years, then perhaps reconciling for practical reasons. One of Ferrante’s brilliant abilities as a storyteller is to accelerate and slow down time at will, move from the overarching universal to the very particular detail and then zoom out again, in a way which feels very natural and effortless.

Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.
Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.

She has also been described as the Dickens of Naples. Yes, she conveys the noises, smells, charm and grubbiness of the city, she is unafraid to show its darker sides rather than the picturesque touristy bits, and she populates her pages with numerous vividly drawn secondary characters, but there is also a running commentary and analysis of events (through Elena/Lenu), as they occur, which is seldom the case with Dickens. Ferrante’s narrator shows a lucid self-awareness and hunger to understand, and the reader embarks upon the journey of self-exploration with her and gains her wisdom at the end of the tale. I am not quite sure that we get this level of self-dissection and clear-eyed, unsentimental analysis of those close to one’s self, even in David Copperfield.

One touching and very revealing moment occurs when the two friends, Lila and Lenu, both pregnant, are caught up in a major earthquake. Lila becomes surprisingly fearful and breaks down, trying to explain herself and her world view to her friend like never before (or after). She speaks of her need to control and manipulate things, and explains it as arising from her terror of dissolving boundaries, of being caught up in a messy flood, of something seeping through the cracks of reality (very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous diary entry), of overthinking and overcomplicating things until you lose all joy in life:

…the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the heads finds a way. But it’s not much use, the terror remains, it’s always in the crack between one normal thing and the other. It’s there waiting. I’ve always suspected it… nothing lasts… Good feelings are fragile, with me love doesn’t last. Love for a man doesn’t last, not even love for a child, it soon gets a hole in it. You look in the hole and you see the nebula of good intentions mixed up with the nebula of bad.

Elena finally understands that perhaps brilliance comes in flashes rather than a steady lifelong light, and that she had been the stronger one after all in their friendship:

Everything that struck me… woud pass and I – whatever I among those I was accumulating – I would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand… struggled to feel stable… However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being… she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of persons and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth and she – so active, so courageous – erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.

elenaferranteI’ll be honest: Ferrante inspires me with mixed emotions. She writes in a voice which, despite my best efforts to be polished and Anglo-Saxon in attitude, comes through far too loudly and clearly in my own life. As with Javier Marias, I recognise in her a kindred spirit: she writes the way I think when I don’t censor myself, when I allow my Romanian side to come out. A voice which I have suppressed and perhaps slightly disparaged all my life. A voice which is easy to mock as too convoluted, messy and therefore inferior. A voice which has been misunderstood, laughed at, satirized or met with aggression and prejudice. So it will take a while for me to appreciate this voice – and I find it surprising that English speakers are so attracted to it.

At the same time, I feel exhilaration and liberation when I read her work. It is OK to be like this. And she also fills me with envy and the sadness of a missed opportunity. If in future I were to write the saga of my own extended family, farmers and shepherds in the sub-Carpathians, against the backdrop of war, Communism and then wild capitalism, with all the mixed messages about gender and family which have been the bane of my life… it wouldn’t be my story, because it’s all been done now by Ferrante in a different location.

Books of the Year 2015

These are not necessarily books published in 2015, but the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year, which is why I’ve held off with this post till long after all the ‘best of’ lists have appeared. I’ve read 170 books this year, so you can imagine that whittling it all down to just 10 favourites is an impossible task. So instead, here are the books that spoke to me most at various points throughout the year.

DSCN6654Best Winter Chill

Not necessarily books set in winter, but which bring a ‘frisson’ or shudder to your soul.

Emmanuel Carrère: L’Adversaire

Gohril Gabrielsen: The Looking Glass Sisters

Leaves You Breathless

Perfect for a holiday escapade, a long flight or train journey, to keep you turning pages until late into the night.

Virginie Despente: Apocalypse Bébé

Jean-Patrick Manchette: Fatale

Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

Best for Cheering Up

Because we all need a little satire and humour in our lives.

Shirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses

Fouad Laroui: L’étrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine

MontmartreStreetShould Be Dark But Are Really Inspirational

From darkness a light shall spring – and hope.

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

Vincent Van Gogh: Letters

Best Criminal Intent

I’m cheating a little bit in this category, as I already have a list of Top Five Crime Reads on the Crime Fiction Lover website, so these are just a few additional books I really wanted to include but did not have place for:

Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord

Jari Jarvela: The Girl and the Bomb – will review it in January

P1000921Most Beautiful Style

Prose that sings, to read again and again.

Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountains

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

Most Interesting Concept

Experimental, unreliable, not sure what is going on but expanding me as a reader in all directions.

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Laura Kasischke: Mind of Winter

When I Grow Up, I Want to Be…

Not to copy their style, but to capture something of their fearlessness.

Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment – I probably will have to read more of her at some point, although I’ve resisted the Neapolitan tetralogy so far (because of the hype)

Eva Dolan – I’ve loved all three of her books to date and admire her productivity

P1020030Grim Yet Powerful

Because I’m still naturally drawn to dark themes and underdogs.

Julia Franck: West

Richard Yates: Disturbing the Peace

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Leave Me Unsettled and Thoughtful

Unsure what to think about these – but they certainly will stay with me for quite some time.

Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals

Challenges Completed:

With creaking bones and feverish mind, I just about completed some challenges – or rather, I did better in terms of reading than reviewing. The Global Reading Challenge saw me hopping across 7 continents (2 options for each one). I failed the TBR Double Dare for the first three months of 2015, but caught up later with a #TBR20 to whittle down my endless To Be Read lists. In January I only read one book for January in Japan – Kanae Minato’s sinister ‘Confessions’. In March I read two books for Stu’s Eastern European challenge, one set in Moldova, the other in Georgia. I took part in a Tale of Genji readalong (my longest book of the year by quite a margin) in April/May/June. I participated in Women in Translation month in August, German Literature Month in November and #DiverseDecember (which speaks for itself). I even managed to reread some old favourites: Tender Is the Night, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys and Tillie Olsen. But the hardest challenge was the Netgalley Reduction one: I managed to read about 9 from my Netgalley shelves between October and December, but promptly replaced them with other books. So I still lag behind at only 61% review rate.

heartsowhiteMy book of the year? So hard to select one, especially one I haven’t reviewed yet.  Books fit in with moods and seasons, with personal experiences and the order you read them in. However, bless the book which got me out of a reading slump – and a new author to discover and devour! Javier Marias’ A Heart So White (translated by Margaret Jull Costa). I will write a full review in the new year, but this book is one to savour in small portions at a time (and not when you have a bad migraine). Just allow yourself to be carried away by his apparently rambling but ultimately very moving, incantatory style.

On Brooding in Photogenic Landscape and Noticing Dust Motes

Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, Danis painter). From www.the-athenaeum.org
Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, a 19th/early 20th century Danish painter). From http://www.the-athenaeum.org

I stopped watching the recent TV adaptation of Jamaica Inn on the BBC after the first episode, although Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite writers. No, it was not because of the incomprehensible mumbling which had a record number of complaints letters streaming in. Instead, it was because it felt all style and no content. For a witty and fair review of the film vs. the book version, see here.  I don’t know if it’s the influence of Scandinavian crime dramas, but I’ve noticed in quite a few TV dramas lately that moodiness and atmosphere inevitably lead to lack of pace. So we end up with lots of shots of photogenic protagonists staring into the distance at even more photogenic landscapes. And the story, which could have been told more effectively in 1-2 episodes, spreads out endlessly and glumly over 5 or even more evenings.

This doesn’t just happen in TV series, of course. I’ve  attended a number of writing workshops where participants have read out a beautifully crafted chapter from their work in progress… containing an intimately observed but interminable description of dust motes. Or the main character stares at himself in the mirror for quite a few pages. There seems to be a slight misunderstanding about what constitutes good writing or literary fiction nowadays. Lack of pace and plot does not make a work literary. Most of the fiction we consider ‘classic’ nowadays was written as potboilers, with little thought beyond entertaining the public and making some money out of it. Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dumas – there is incident aplenty in any of their books, as well as outstanding writing. Of course the writing is uneven, too, and there are often passages in their works that are crying out for a good editor.

I am not making the mistake to equate ‘lots of incidents/events’ with a good novel, or even a good plot. I’ve read far too much crime fiction by debut authors, where the main protagonist goes from one implausible situation to the next tricky one with barely a moment to breathe and bandage his wounds or feed her cat (yes, that gender division does appear on occasion still). That is equally boring as speculating about the inner life of dust particles.

Still, if I want to penetrate the enigma of sparkling dust motes or understand the world through a character’s gaze upon him or herself in the mirror, then I prefer to read a poem, a short story or an essay. There is really no need to extend it to novel-length, just like there is no point in extending a TV drama over 5 weeks if it has nothing new to say in each episode (unlike the genuine Scandinavian article, ‘The Bridge’, which had me gasping in shock and amazement every ten minutes).

Can you forgive a novel (or a TV drama) its lack of pace, plot or characterisation if it has enough moody atmosphere or beautiful writing? Or are you sometimes ashamed to admit you are bored by great stylists?

Quick Update

This is just a quick update for those of you who have been anxious about my sartorial choices…

First of all, thank you everyone for your very constructive suggestions.

So what did I opt for in the end? Black leggings, a smart silk tunic in an undefinable colour (not black) and very high heels.

The heels made me tower above everybody, and gave me confidence. So the reading went well (although others were far better, even without such heels).

Afterthought: if you plan to mingle at the post-reading drinks party, a painful hobble to the car park does not make for the most dignified exit.

I’m So Vain, I Probably Think This Is About Me

Tomorrow evening I will be presenting something in front of a roomful of people, most of whom I’ve never met before. ‘So what?’ I hear you say.  ‘That has been your job (in various incarnations) for a while now.’ True enough: I’ve been a teacher, a lecturer, trainer/facilitator and what is laughingly known as a ‘headliner’. I’ve even been an enthusiastic participant in amateur dramatics – as if you can’t tell!

So what is different this time?

Well, this time I won’t be reading somebody else’s words. I won’t be presenting general knowledge or sticking to the tried-and-tested pedagogical methods. This time I will be reading my own contribution to Offshoots 12 , the annual publication of Geneva Writers’ Group. It’s like cutting off small strips of your flesh and presenting them to the audience. I just hope none of them are cannibals.

So, of course, the question now is: what should I wear? In my corporate world, I have a ‘uniform’ – reasonably smart, modestly flattering, yet flexible enough for the temperature variations of training rooms and the mad dashes down airport corridors.

The look I am aiming for: the effortless elegance of Simone de Beauvoir, one of my heroines
The look I am aiming for: the effortless elegance of Simone de Beauvoir, one of my heroines

For poetry, however, something more free-flowing, more creative is required. Shall I go for the romantic look we tend to associate with poets (rightly or wrongly)? I cannot bear trailing scarves or opinion-piece jewellery. It’s not quite warm enough anymore for a strappy summer dress.  The other major staple of my wardrobe (jeans and white shirts) is an over-done look for hip, happening SLAM poets and spoken word ambassadors. Besides, I’m neither hip nor happening (as you can tell from the fact that I am using these words, which are probably a couple of decades out of date).

So what do poets and writers more generally wear to readings? Any suggestions?  Wikihow tells me (seriously, perhaps?) to either dress in existentialist black if I want to seem thoughtful, or in dramatic high boots if I want to be showy. Checking out videos of poetry readings, I notice that many have taken this advice to heart.  Meantime, I’ve found some wise words here, but no matching, colourful clothes in my wardrobe.

Scruffy mad poet look it is, then!

All that Fuss about David Foster Wallace

A few months ago, when I started getting serious about writing (again), someone pointed me in the direction of a website called ‘I Write Like’. Clever little robots analyse a sample of your writing (in English) and tell you which writer (living or dead) you most resemble. Imagine my surprise when it came up with ‘David Foster Wallace’ after I cut and pasted a chapter of my WIP.  Surprising, because: 1) my novel is crime fiction, and 2) I had never heard of this author.  (Yes, my grasp of contemporary American fiction is a little shaky.)  So I ignored this first result and submitted another text.

Same result.

By now, I was getting convinced that this was the default setting of the website, no matter what your input was.  So I tried a poem.  And got Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  What does one of the world’s funniest books have in common with my rather moody and depressing poetry?  Anybody’s guess!

So, although I was unconvinced by the analytical tool, this website did make me curious about David Foster Wallace.  I started reading up on him.  And boy, was there a lot of stuff written about him!  Most recently, a biography by D.T. Max entitled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.  This, in turn, led to an outburst by Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter, culminating in him calling David Foster Wallace ‘the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation’.

Well, with an intro to like that, I just had to read the man himself!  Wouldn’t you?  (I am cheating a little bit with the timeline here: in fact, I had bought ‘Infinite Jest’ just before the summer holidays and intended to polish it off during my inactive, very long-seeming days on that nondescript beach in Greece that my husband’s family calls home.) I am about halfway through this doorstopper of a book: page 508 of its 1079 pages (including endnotes). And I can tell you two things for sure:

1) This book is not made for beach reading (although it is good for dipping in and out of).

2) I do not write like him at all.

Or at least I hope I don’t. Not that I disliked his style.  I was, by turns, amused, fascinated, bemused, indifferent, enthusiastic, critical, passionate and infuriated.  It is not an easy read and you have to be in the mood for it – which is difficult to sustain over that many pages.  It is a book breathtaking in its ambition: to capture all of contemporary American society, which is why it’s probably best read in several sittings, across many months.  Although individual passages glowed with insight and humour, although there was beautiful writing which made me want to reread and quote, I did find the cumulative effect rather wearisome.  There, I said it!  Does that mean I am siding with Bret Easton Ellis?

No, not really, because I don’t understand why he is attacking David Foster Wallace himself for the halo of sentimentality and mantle of sainthood that his readers and followers have bestowed on him. It’s like accusing Van Gogh of commercialisation because his ‘Sunflowers’ sell so well, or Shakespeare of insisting that people use his newfangled word inventions.

I may have no wish to write like David Foster Wallace myself, but I can still enjoy reading him (in small gulps).  If we only liked reading people like ourselves, the world would be a very bland place. I find some of the imitators of David Foster Wallace tiresome and pretentious.  I find all imitators tiresome, unless it’s a clever sequel or deliberate satire. And I dislike literary pretentiousness, so well satirised in the character of Monica in Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’. I am sure more have praised ‘Infinite Jest’ and its author than have actually read it or him.  Isn’t that what happens with other famous works such as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?

Which, by the way, all three happen to be heartbreaking works of staggering genius.  Not easy, but stick with them!

* Gorgeous new graphic design for Tristram Shandy at Fast Company: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663094/wanted-tristram-shandy-gets-a-stunning-graphic-makeover