Insiders/ Outsiders: Summary of Recent Reading

Lots and lots of honeypots! And by honeypots I do NOT mean the seedy lap-dancing bar in my home town, but the many good and thought-provoking books I’ve managed to read now that I no longer spend my evenings blogging, reviewing, marketing and so on. Now that we have been given a slight reprieve of sentence for the deadline for exiting the EU, I have time to continue reading and reviewing books for my #EU27Project separately. The ones I briefly describe below are on top of those reads.

Jim Crace: Harvest

My son bought this book out his own pocket money, because one of the colleges we visited had it as a set text for A Level literature. He hasn’t read it yet and, to be honest, I’m not sure he will like it, as he still struggles to handle the ‘slow bits’ of books such as 1984 or Dracula. And this book, although it has no shortage of ‘events’, is far more about the atmosphere and characterisation, hence full of ‘slow’ bits. I enjoyed it though, so eloquent and well-written, with the timeless quality and rhythm of poetry, describing the death of a way of life… and showing that any nostalgia is probably misplaced. The theme of ‘us vs. them’, the aversion to outsiders (some of it entirely justified) is subtly but powerfully done.

The Good Immigrant (edited by Nikesh Shukla)

One of those books that should be required reading in schools and libraries, to make people aware of true stories about (and, above all, by) immigrants rather than skewed media reports. An American edition has just been published, but the original version had to be crowdfunded, as publishers would not touch this project at first. Not all of the contributions are of high artistic merit, but they don’t need to be: they are eyewitness accounts, polemical essays, thinking out loud and trying to make sense of things. One reservation I had: it would have been nice to have had contributions from Roma, Polish, Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants, who have their own stories of discrimination to tell, showing that it goes beyond race and is sometimes harder to pin down or confront because of that. Or am I just biased?

Zahia Rahmani: Muslim, transl. Matt Reeck

Well, if you want to read the story of a person who is never quite at home in any culture, then this slim volume is perfect for you. The author (and the narrator in the novel) are from the Kabyle-speaking, nomadic minority population in Algeria. The narrator protests that they’ve been dumped and labelled together with all of the Muslims in North Africa and have had Arabic forced on them. Her father supported the French army during the Algerian war, so after independence the family are forced to flee to France for refuge, and instead find themselves unwelcome. A lyrical, disquieting prose poem of a novel, moving between past and present, France and the Algerian desert, prison camp and imaginary places.

Helen Dunmore: Exposure

A well-known refugee trope appears in this book: Lili is the daughter of a Jewish family who had to flee Germany during the Second World War, now settled in England and married to the rather naive and hapless Simon, who is working for British Intelligence. It is the height of the Cold War and double agents are being uncovered with alarming regularity, so when Simon is asked to cover up an irregularity for his boss and former lover Giles, he is the one who gets accused of spying. A novel that focuses much more on the consequences of major world events and accusations on ordinary people and families, rather than a spy thriller, mercilessly excoriating the snobbery and small-mindedness of the so-called Golden Age of Little England that so many still aspire to.

The next three books I read are not so much about migration or being accepted into the community. But they still fit in the insiders/outsiders theme, because they are about family. Who gets accepted into a family? And how does love manifest itself in a family? Can love survive at a distance? Are we forever marked by the loved ones who got away?

The German language version was quickly vetoed by English publishers.

Monique Schwitter: One Another, transl. Tess Lewis

Schwitter is a Swiss actor and writer, and her novel moves swiftly between Switzerland, Austria and Germany, as her narrator, a married writer with two children, discovers via a Google search that her first great love has died. This makes her reassess her own life, and remember all of the men she encountered and loved, however briefly, and however you might define love, including her own unreliable husband. Just how much are we shaped by the people we encounter in our lives, especially those we love?

Helga Flatland: A Modern Family, transl. Rosie Hedger

A Norwegian family with grown children and grandchildren are all gathered in Rome to celebrate a seventieth birthday. Instead, it turns out that the beloved parents are planning to get divorced. This shock news shatters all the comfortable assumptions of past and present lives and forces the three siblings to rethink their own family ties and ways of loving. It all seems so normal and civilised on the surface, but it’s all about close observation and what is left unsaid.

Lavinia Braniste: Interior Zero

The very title of this Romanian novel is interesting: it’s the extension number of the narrator, Cristina, who is working well below her abilities as a receptionist at a construction firm. But it also refers to her inner emptiness, how she tries to make the most of a life that doesn’t offer her any great satisfaction and very little hope. Her job is boring, her colleagues annoying and her boss is ruthlessly desperate to make her mark in a man’s world. Cristina has a long-distance, on-off lukewarm relationship with a former classmate. Her rented flat is dingy and her landlord keeps all his junk and pickled vegetables on her balcony. Her mother has been working abroad in Spain for many years now and feels guilty about having left her daughter alone during her formative years, so she sends her money and Spanish delicacies, not realising that her daughter doesn’t like tinned octopus. Unsentimental, refreshingly clear-eyed and slightly self-deprecating, this is the voice of the millenial generation in Romania – but has great similarities with millenial voices elsewhere (Sophie Divry or Sally Rooney, to name but two). If any publisher would be interested in having this translated into English, I hereby offer my services! (It has been translated into German and has been quite a success there.)

OK, I suppose the last one does qualify for #EU27Project read (and Muslim is translated from French, so technically that one does too). But I plan to get around to writing a few dedicated reviews for books from EU countries which have not yet appeared in my reading.

Summary of November Reading

German Literature Month took up most of my reading time this month, with a pronounced leaning towards crime fiction:

  1. Julia Franck: West (transl. Anthea Bell)
  2. Friedrich Durrenmatt: Der Verdacht (Suspicion)
  3. Alexander Lernet-Holenia: I Was Jack Mortimer (transl. Ignat Avsey)
  4. Jutta Profijt: Morgue Drawer Four (transl. Erick Macki)
  5. Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord (One Man, One Murder)
  6. Stefan Zweig: Meisternovellen

Of course, there were some other crime books which caught my eye:

  1. David Lagercrantz: Fall of Man in Wilmslow (transl. George Goulding)
  2. Nicci French: Friday on My Mind
  3. Helen Fitzgerald : Viral (to be reviewed on CFL)
  4. Gregoire Carbasse: L’Helvete Underground
  5. Jari Järvelä: The Girl and the Bomb
  6. Mary Kubica: Pretty Baby
  7. SJ Watson: Second Life

11 out of 13 so far have been crime/psychological thriller type novels, but I did also read some other ‘genres’, namely:

  1. Stanislaw Lam: Solaris (transl. Bill Johnston) – science-fiction
  2. Kim Thuy: Ru – Quebecois-Vietnamese poetic literature about immigration
  3. Finally, this childhood favourite off my son’s bookshelves: Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Centre of the Earth, which I read for the first time in French.

So, a lot of reading, far less reviewing, a mix of languages and 6 out of 16 books by women authors (I’m surprised, I expected it to a higher proportion). I travelled to Canada, Berlin, Bern, Vienna, Frankfurt and an ocean liner on the Atlantic; London, Chicago, Wilmslow, Magaluf, Geneva and Kotka in Finland; finally, Vietnam, space and the centre of the earth. What more could one ask for?

For December, I am still on track to blast a corridor through my virtual mounds, a special effort to clear the cobwebs off my Netgalley shelf in particular.

My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month is Jakob Arjouni. My favourite overall read: Julia Franck (sorry, Stefan Zweig, but you were a re-read anyway).

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…