I have always failed miserably at initiatives such as the Twenty Books of Summer, but this year I’m going to try something different. I really enjoyed focusing on French history and on the Paris Commune in May, so I think I will attempt more of this country focus. A different country every month (while still allowing some breathing room with other reads in-between). I am tentatively selecting some books for each country, but will allow myself the freedom to suddenly swerve in a different direction (although still of the same country).
Honestly, it’s not Trump’s visit this month that inspired me, but I suddenly realised that I so seldom read any American authors (other than perhaps crime fiction). So I will make a more concerted effort to look at some of them in June: I have my eye on Ron Rash, David Vann, Sam Shepard, Laura Kasischke and Meg Wolitzer.
After so much Americana, I have no doubt I will be tempted to swing the other way and get a sudden craving for all things Russian, so July will be my month of Russian authors. Two Olgas, a Yuri and the diaries and letters of Bulgakov are on my list. I also really want to catch up with the TV series Chernobyl, as I still remember the events of that year (we were pretty close to the Ukraine and panicked at the time).
August is Women in Translation Month and I have already decided I want to dedicate it to Brazilian women this year. Clarice Lispector (a re-read of Agua Viva and a more detailed read of her complete short stories), Patricia Melo’s Lost World and Socorro Acioli’s The Head of the Saint. By the by, I might also dip that month into some Brazilian male writers, such as Chico Buarque and Milton Hatoum, or some of my new acquisitions in May.
If this initiative goes well, I might keep it up beyond the summer and venture further afield, to countries I have hitherto left unexplored. Of course, I still have a few countries to contend with on my #EU27Project…
I’m back from the holidays and I haven’t got the pictures to prove it. Suffice it to say that Crete was beautiful, hot but not unbearably so, full of history as well as good food and long beaches… and that it was lovely to spend time with some of my dearest friends. Yet, despite all these distractions, I also managed to get quite a bit of reading done. All with a holiday theme (or, at the very least, a beautiful location suitable for holidays).
Anne Zouroudi: The Bull of Mithros – well, how could you go to Greece and not opt for the mouth-watering, sensuous descriptions of Greek landscape, food and way of life… oh, and crime too?
Paul Johnston: The Black Life – also a Greek setting, but much more sombre subject, dealing with the deportation of Jews from Thessaloniki and its present-day consequences
Takagi Akimitsu: The Tattoo Murder Case – intriguing glimpse of life in post-war Japan in the floating world of kinky-ness, tattoo artists and dubious bars
Murakami Haruki: Kafka on the Shore – reread this novel of magical realism and permanent search set in Shikoku, Japan – this time in translation, hence with a lot more comprehension
Melanie Jones: L’Amour Actually – fun, farcical but not terribly realistic portrayal of the transformation of a Louboutin-touting London gal into a French farming enthusiast
Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Emerald Thumb – corruption, death and intrigue in Mexico, with a lesson in tequila-making for an engaging, feisty middle-aged heroine
Nicola Upson: Fear in the Sunlight – another installment in the murder mystery series featuring Josephine Tey, this one is set in the purpose-built fake village of Portmeirion in Wales and also features Alfred Hitchcock – yet it’s much more thoughtful and darker than it sounds
Marissa Stapley: Mating for Life – a mother and her three daughters struggle with love, secrets, family and fidelity in this charming but not quite substantial enough tale set largely in the family vacation home on an unspecified lake in the United States.
Graeme Kent: Devil-Devil – the first novel I’ve ever read set in the Solomon Islands just before independence, this is not just an interesting crime story, but also a lesson in anthropology, featuring the delightfully unlikely detecting duo of Kella, a native policeman with tribal peacemaking responsibilities and Sister Conchita, a Catholic nun with a penchant for breaking the rules.
I am so far behind in my book reviews and my Global Reading Challenge that I will write 2 reviews today and link them to two different continents.
The first is for North America/ United States, the second for Australasia/Oceania. Both have a musical theme in their title, although there are few musical references in the books themselves. I have noticed that I don’t seem to read a lot of American crime fiction – perhaps because I overdosed on it in earlier years. I’m trying to change that and to introduce Canadian writing into my diet as well (which seems much more reassuringly European).
Mean Woman Blues by Julie Smith
What sold this novel to me was the setting: New Orleans. I am a huge jazz fan (and love Creole cooking), so I’ve always wanted to go to that city. However, there isn’t that much of New Orleans or jazz in this novel, which is a pity. The action takes place partly in Texas, which is where Skip Langdon’s arch-enemy, Errol Jacomine, has fled and reinvented himself (with the help of plastic surgery and elocution classes). Skip is a middle-aged police detective with problems of her own, but she has no doubts that Jacomine is dangerous and is more than a little obsessive about tracking him down. The narrative skips around, putting us in the minds of many from the rich cast of characters. But it’s the battle between the two equally stubborn and ruthless main protagonists which is the main focus here, and, sadly, there are quite a lot of hurt and damaged people along the way.
I would have liked more of the New Orleans atmosphere to pervade the book, so my favourite part of it was the pursuit of the grave-robbers. These are thieves who target the monuments from the city’s cemetaries to sell them to antique dealers. Overall, it was a quick, easy read, but not one that will linger in my mind.
Unlike the next book, Pago Pago Tango by John Enright.
This one appealed much more to the anthropologist in me, since it contains many descriptions of landscapes, beliefs, stories and cultural differences between Westerners and islanders in American Samoa. This is a world that very few of us have access to: paradise in appearance, but with an underlying friction that could explode at any moment.
Apelu Soifua is a native cop who has spent a good part of his adult life in San Francisco, but returned to Samoa to help his father after a stroke. He is deeply in love with his homeland, taking every opportunity to go barefoot among the banana plantations and mango trees. He believes a young convict who claims he assisted in dumping the body of a white man. They both go searching for the body in the jungle and find the half-eaten corpse up on a ledge. Before they can recover the body, the young man is shot and falls to his death.
Apelu is therefore punished for his mistake by getting relegated to all the routine enquiries. When he gets called in to investigate a small-scale burglary in the white enclave, he is at first bemused by the fact that only the VCR and some videos are missing. However, the owner is a big shot at the local tuna factory, the major employer of the island, and he and his wife seem to be contradicting each other about the burglary. Apelu soon uncovers a trail of drug-smuggling and conspiracy with consequences more far-reaching than he could have foreseen. He mounts an elaborate sting operation with potentially very dangerous outcomes.
The plot is good, if a trifle predictable, and the pace of the investigation is very different from the police procedurals we might be accustomed to in Europe or the States. What I will really remember, however, is the image of Western powers changing and damaging the culture and natural environment for the sake of corporate greed. The author describes very eloquently the downsides of globalisation: ‘when the tuna runs out, the island will be sucked dry and tossed aside’. Yet the author does not idealise native Samoan culture either, he describes its appetite for lies, corruption and drugs. He sees it not as better or worse than Western culture, simply different.
‘Every culture has to have pride in itself for something’ and Apelu concludes that Samoans prefer ‘the safety of inclusion rather than any Western hope of individuation’. Yet, paradoxically, he also believes in the ‘solitude of the thumb’, that it is stronger than all of the fingers taken together.
Sylvie Granotier is a French actress, screenwriter and novelist, born in Algeria and growing up in Paris and Morocco. After completing her theatrical studies, she spent several years travelling around the world, including the United States, Brazil and Afghanistan. After a successful acting career, she turned to fiction. Fourteen novels and many short stories later, Sylvie Granotier is a major crime fiction author in France; her work has been translated into German, Italian, Russian and Greek. Le French Book brings us the first English translation of her novel The Paris Lawyer. The novel is both a legal procedural and a psychological thriller set in the heart of French countryside, La Creuse, considered by many to be a backward, closed-off rural area full of secrets.
I had the pleasure of meeting Sylvie at the Lyon Crime Festival Quais du Polar and I became an instant fan. Imagine a taller, more glamorous version of Dame Judi Dench, expressing her thoughts in a carefully modulated voice, in beautiful English with a delightful French accent.
Have you always known you were going to end up writing crime fiction?
No, it was quite a shock. I never dared to consider that I would write some day. I drifted for a few years, had no aims or ambitions. Then I found myself translating Grace Paley’s short stories – I really admired her style and she had never been translated into French before. When my translation got published, she came to Paris and met me. She told me how she had started writing rather late in life and it was almost like she gave me the permission to write. She never said it in so many words, but the day she took the plane back home, I started writing my first novel. So the two are not unrelated, I think!
And it was crime fiction that you instinctively turned to?
Yes, there was never any doubt in my mind. I’d enjoyed crime novels so much when I lived in the States. Writing a book that can really grab the reader seemed to me the highest ambition for a writer. Would I be able to do that? It’s a genre that has given me so much pleasure, so it seemed an honour to be entering that genre.
Which authors inspire you?
Hard to choose, I’m inspired by all sorts of writing, not just crime fiction. I like Dickens, Melville, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Elizabeth George. I like those crime authors who deal more with the psychology, the human aspects of a crime.
Tell us a little about your writing process.
Each book is a story that needs to be told. It can be a small seed from something I’ve read or seen or heard years before and it takes root and germinates inside. I don’t start with my characters. I always start with a fragment of a story, a promise, and the characters develop as the story evolves. I want to find out more about them and they often surprise me – which, to me, is proof that the story is alive. I have been known to erase a complete book, because I felt I knew too well what was going to happen. It was no longer interesting to me, it had lost its capacity to surprise me.
What differences (if any) do you notice between American and French crime fiction?
The way the legal system works is very different, of course, and a story is often influenced by the way in which you do your job. Then, the language: French is far more organized, grammatical, constricted, more of a corset, less open to experimentation. Finally, there is something about the way each country views good and evil. American writers are not afraid to deal with huge themes like serial killers and innate evil. They have great faith in the truth emerging triumphant and justice being served. In France – perhaps in Europe in general – we are more cynical about the truth ever coming out fully in a trial. We are perhaps too morally ambiguous, everything is too grey with us, not black and white. Perhaps we feel that criminals are not necessarily evil, but simply people like you and me caught up in desperate matters.
What about the way women are portrayed in American vs. French crime fiction?
In my book ‘The Paris Lawyer’ I deliberately chose a very modern type of Parisian woman, independent, strong, dealing with men on her own terms. She is sexy, stylish, uninhibited, despite her being haunted by her past. I think she is very different from the kick-ass school of American female investigators, which I do also enjoy very much! But I think there’s got to be room for both Vic Warshawski and for Catherine Monsigny in crime novels. And we the readers are all the richer for it.
A couple of days ago my husband and I were having a ding-dong – I mean a civilised debate of course – about which writers have a larger audience worldwide: English-speaking ones or those from other countries?
I was arguing that American crime writers, for instance (talking about a genre that I know a little about), have a large audience back home, plus they can be easily exported to the UK, Australia, Canada and so on. Additionally, European publishers and readers are much more likely to translate American crime fiction, while US publishers and audiences are more reluctant to try translations. For instance, looking at bestseller lists for crime and thrillers across Europe, I find similar stats for the Top 20 at any given time. In France only a quarter are by French authors, about half are by English-speaking (largely US) authors, and another quarter by other Europeans. In Germany, slightly more German authors (about a third), but again half are translations from English and slightly fewer translations from other languages than in France (predominantly Scandinavian). Italy, by way of contrast, numbers about one-third European translations in their Top 20, plus one-third Italian, one-third Anglo.
What is the picture in the US, meanwhile? Well, things have moved on, apparently, from the notorious 3% problem, i.e. that only 3% of all publications in the US are translations. It seems that nowadays, out of approximately 15,800 new titles being published each year, 300 or so are translations. Which brings the percentage total up to 5.2%, yippee! Of course, I am not comparing like with like, as this is translation across all genres, rather than just for crime fiction. Every crime author hopes to crack the US market though, that’s when you know you’ve hit the jackpot!
Certainly in the UK, there has been a boom in translated crime fiction, particularly of the Scandinavian persuasion, since 2005 or thereabouts. So much so, that it sometimes feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, as for every outstanding author like Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell or Karin Fossum, there seem to be some real duds being foisted onto the British public as well. However, if I conduct there too my admittedly unscientific sampling of bestselling paperback crime titles at any given point in time, what do I find? 1 or 2 out of 20 are translations (sure enough, Scandinavian): everything else is English – and by that I mean about 60% American.
My husband dared to suggest that the quality of the writing might have something to do with it. You know what you get with an American thriller, it’s pretty standard, just like a Hollywood blockbuster. That sounds to me like consistency rather than quality, but I suppose some readers are less willing to experiment. They prefer the tried and tested. Clearly, though, the marketing, translation rights teams and PR all work better state-side – they probably have much bigger teams to handle it all.
‘But,’ argues my numerate and oh-so-scientific husband, ‘The European publishing market overall is bigger. See here, I googled it and European publishing houses report 22 billion euros revenue, while the US is only 15 billion $.’
I think that may have something to do with book pricing, so I’m not even going to go there. But the point is that Europe of course is a much more segmented market, so you need to be translated into several languages to make a killing there. And the final clincher is: Europeans get translated by other Europeans (and a teensy bit in the US), while Americans travel everywhere. Cultural imperialism is still alive and well.
Without forcing you to take sides in this conjugal dispute, what are your thoughts on this topic? Do you think readers in other countries are more open to trying something new, unfamiliar? Do you think the slick Anglo-Saxon model of crime fiction is taking over the entire world? What are some of your favourite recent discoveries in translated fiction, anything that surprised you?
This past month has been more diverse than most in terms of reading. I have managed to finish 12 books, of which only 7 were officially crime fiction, 4 were love stories (of a sort) and one was non-fiction but proved to be a more exciting and unbelievable read than any fiction. Two of them were in French, which makes me want to do a little dance of joy. My goal has been to read at least one book in French every month, preferably two, so as to improve my language skills, but I am sure there have been many, many times when I have failed in this mission. Finally, three of them were translations: one from Danish and two from Hebrew.
1) Sophie Hannah: The Carrier. Some of Sophie Hannah’s earlier books gripped me completely: it felt as though the author had been in my head and uncovered my most hidden thoughts. She always seems to set the reader up with an impossible puzzle, yet solves them with flourish, keen psychological finesse and not a little poetic vision. Although this was not my favourite of Hannah’s novels, it is still a good read, although perhaps not at an airport when your flight is delayed… For my full review on Crime Fiction Lover, see here.
2) Joel Dicker: La Verite sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert. Having seen and heard the author at the Lyon Crime Festival, and having seen how many awards and accolades have been heaped upon this book in the French-speaking world, I was naturally curious to read it. Well, it’s an easy-to-read, quite exciting story, with reasonable plot twists along the way, but I am puzzled as to why it has won all those awards, since it feels good but not outstanding to me. The setting is a small town in the United States, and there is nothing remotely French or Swiss about this book. There are a few cliche situations and characters, but the simple, even pedestrian language appealed to me as a non-native speaker of French.
3) Amos Oz: To Know a Woman. Perhaps not my favourite book by Oz, but he still is such a magnificent writer. He takes a widower’s story of loss and grieving, and turns it into a universal tale of love, reassessment of one’s life, trying to truly understand another person, moving on. He piles on detail after detail (about Yoel’s daily routines, his gardening, his cooking, his thoughts, his travels) and each adds a layer, but you feel that the depth really lies in what is unsaid.
4) Jonelle Patrick: Fallen Angel: An Only in Tokyo Mystery
Once again, the full review is here, but this is an intriguing insight into the world of Japanese nightlife and host clubs, written by someone who knows Tokyo rather well but still brings an external perspective to things.
5) Alan Glynn: Graveland. Not quite as enthralling as his previous novel Bloodland, perhaps because this one takes place all in the US, rather than Ireland or the Congo. It certainly feels very topical, dealing with unemployment, young protesters and the shadowy world of finance and corporations. I found the excessive amounts of web searching a little tedious, and the investigative journalist Ellen never quite grabbed my attention. However, the character of Frank, former architect now working as a sales assistant in an electronics store, and worried about his daughter in college, was quite moving.
6) Benjamin Tammuz: Minotaur. The principle of the story is similar to Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’: you get to see an unusual love story from multiple points of view, until you are able to discern what really happened and how each player in the drama justifies matters. I read this in one breathless go, but it is actually a book to be savoured slowly. It has so many beautiful passages and philosophical meditations on love, passion in life, music and fear of the unknown. It is a thriller, a love story, a history of Palestine, a hymn to the Levantine spirit, a noir.
7) Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers. This book deserves an entry of its own: it is the book I wish I could have written, as an anthropologist, yet it reads like a novel. Except that all of the events described are real. It is the heartbreaking story of everyday life, hopes, fears and disappointments of slum life in Mumbai. One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.
8) Michael Connelly: The Concrete Blonde. A mix of courtroom drama, police procedural and serial killer novel, this is a solid entry in the Harry Bosch series, with an interesting backdrop of LA after the racial riots.
9) Meg Wolitzer: The Uncoupling. I actually left this book behind me (once I finished it) in a hotel room. I was that sure that I would never want to read it again. Although I found this story of disintegrating love and familiarity breeding contempt quite compelling. I think all of us women have experienced some of those sentiments at one time or another. However, the fable element of the story and the supposedly magic spells that descends upon all the women in the New Jersey suburbs was a little annoying and artificial, especially the ending. When it stuck to the mundane, there were many funny moments in the book. It is all at once a sharply observed, witty look at modern life in the suburbs, and a universal statement about the relationship between men and women, the way they misunderstand each other and mistreat each other, even unintentionally.
11) Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard – to be reviewed next week
12) Jens Christian Grondahl: Piazza Bucarest
This was an impulse loan from the library, as I stumbled across it while searching for something else, and I couldn’t resist the blurb. The narrator tries to find Elena, a young Romanian woman who married his stepfather to escape from Communism and then abandoned him. Sadly, the book was a disappointment, and not just because the woman was unsympathetic (or because we Romanian women cannot take a bit of criticism). I was never quite sure what the author was trying to say or what the point of the whole thing was. Maybe the fact that I read a French translation of the original Danish didn’t help much either – it’s like trying to see a landscape through a doubly opaque window.
My top read of this month (and many other months) is undoubtedly ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’, and my favourite crime fiction pick? Hmmm, that’s a tricky choice, as there were quite a few good ones, although nothing exceptional. I think it’s a tie between ‘The Concrete Blonde’ and ‘At the End of a Dull Day’. Both rather macho reads, though, so I need something more feminine next month to compensate.
So I have covered quite a few of my reading challenge requirements. Although, don’t you find that, as soon as you near the goalposts of a challenge you set for yourself, you start moving them about? Taking them just a little further? Demanding just a tad more of yourself? Fearful of missing out on something?