Six Degrees of Separation October 2017

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps.

This month’s starting point is the Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate.¬†I must be one of the few people who never saw the film adaptation of it, but I heard about it and was curious to read the book. I enjoyed its combination of recipes and home-spun wisdom, but I never quite understood the bestseller status of it.

 

 

Valeria Luiselli is another Mexican writer that I have started to really appreciate. So far I have only read some of her essays and interviews, and really enjoyed her fragmented, unusual yet very evocative novel Faces in the Crowd. But I definitely want to read more.

 

Another author I keep meaning to read more of is Sarah Moss. The novel Night Waking is the next one of hers that I have on my bookshelf, sitting nice and pretty and hoping I will pick it up.

 

Another novel with Night in the title is of course Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most excoriating portraits of a marriage and expat society that I can imagine.

 

Speaking of expats, an example of expats behaving badly (or the extreme loneliness of expat life, if you are feeling kindly disposed) is Jill Alexander Essbaum’s¬†Hausfrau. While I was intrigued by the depiction of a woman going amok in neat and ordered Z√ľrich, it was not as enjoyable and innovative as Essbaum’s poetry, for which she is better known.

There are plenty of poets turned novelists but the one who never ceases to fascinate me is Rainer Maria Rilke’s one and only novel (a sort of semi-autobiographical journal-meditation)¬†The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.¬†Just mentioning it here makes me want to read it again – it is such a rich source of wonder and inspiration, made to be read again and again.

My final choice also refers to notebooks: Anna Wulf’s famous coloured notebooks (black for the writer, red for political activism, yellow for her memoirs, blue for a diary) in¬†The Golden Notebook¬†by Doris Lessing. A seminal work of feminist literature, which had a profound impact on me when I was in my teens.

So my journey this month takes me from cooking in Mexico to political demos in 1960s London, via New York, the Hebrides, the Cote d’Azure, Z√ľrich and Paris. As always, I like to travel! You can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or create your own blog post. Where will your 6 degrees of separation journey take you?

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Slap to…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

The starting point for May is¬†The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. A controversial and marmite book when it first appeared in 2008, it certainly established Tsiolkas’ reputation as a frank and uncompromising critic of Australian society beneath the easy-going, laid-back surface.

I haven’t read¬†The Slap,¬†but I was utterly charmed by Christos when I met him at the Livres sur le quai festival in Morges in 2015. I have read other novels by him and I am linking up to¬†Barracuda, the story of a working-class lad trying to escape his upbringing through his talents as a swimmer. Shockingly frank and unsentimental look at Australia’s so-called ‘classless’ society.

Another book which explores notions of class and takes place in a school (as large chunks of Barracuda does) is¬†Different Class¬†by Joanne Harris. Set in St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, it returns to the fate of eccentric Latin master Roy Straitley¬†who was persuaded to delay his retirement for a year ‚Äď but begins to regret his decision with the appointment of a fashionable new Head, who was one of his nightmareish former pupils.

Joanne Harris is of course most famous for her book Chocolat, and another book with a strong link to chocolate is Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which is a love story underlining the strong sensuous link between cooking and lust (or perhaps cooking as a sublimation of passion), and the prevalence of chocolate in Mexican cuisine.

Another Mexican writer I have discovered more recently is Valeria Luiselli. Her Faces in the Crowd is the story of an obsession, as the narrator, a somewhat harassed mother and writer in Mexico City, tries to remember her life in New York and her growing fascination with the life and poetry of Gilberto Owen (who was a real historical figure).

The title of the book above refers to an Ezra Pound poem, so my next link is to his volume of Cantos, which influenced me profoundly in my love for poetry and for exploring other cultures, despite what I later came to find out about his anti-semitism and collaboration with the Fascists.

Perhaps another reason why I liked Pound when I was younger was for his stylish and unconventional translations of Chinese poetry, so my last link is to one of the Chinese classics which we all had to read when I studied Japanese at university, Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the mid 18th century during the Qing dynasty. The opening poem of this epic family saga says all there is to say about the fine line between fiction and reality:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

So that was a whirlwind world tour – from Australia to the United Kingdom to Mexico to New York City to China. Where do your literary connections take you?

Women in Translation Month: Valeria Luiselli

WITMonth15 (1)Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Even before I knew anything about Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, I thought of the above poem by Ezra Pound. Only to find that the book is indeed named after it (at least in the English translation, more about the title below) – and has a poignant story to share about the origin of this poem (I have no idea if it’s true or not).

I’ve previously criticised ‘vignette’ type novels, calling them more of a collection of prose poems or flash fiction. That doesn’t detract from the beauty of the writing but the book just doesn’t hang together in a narrative arc that has taken me on a journey and left me emotionally charged or changed. And that’s what I expect from a novel.

facesHowever, this novel (and yes, I think we can call it a novel) is different. While the narration is fragmented, there is control and precision at work here. Every thing mentioned at an earlier point in the novel is then referred to again later on. It’s like a solo instrument introducing a melodic theme, then it gets picked up again by other instruments, until finally it is amplified and performed by the whole orchestra. So the structure is beautifully mastered and¬†truly experimental ‘a horizontal novel, told vertically’, not just pretending to be experimental. There us indeed a fearless (and erudite) imagination at work there, not just someone trying to be achingly hip and cool.

The narrative alternates initially between two times and places: a young mother trying to find the mental peace to write her book in Mexico City; and her remembrance of the days when she was a young woman working in publishing in New York City.

The difficulties of writing with small children will sound very familiar:

Now I write at night, when the two children are asleep and it’s acceptable to smoke, drink and let draughts in. Before, I used to write all the time, at any hour, because my body belonged to me.
A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.
Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is – has to be – in short bursts. I’m short of breath.

Yet the conversations with the Boy also anchor the story, adding a wonderful touch of humour and instantly recognisable to anyone who has children or works with children.

Who are you hiding from, Mama? From Papa?
No.
From Without? [the house ghost]
From nobody.
If you want to hide, Mama, you have to find a more hidey place.
Isn’t the bed hidey?
No, the bed’s springy and a bit nuisancey when I want to run.

The narrator is aware that she is wallowing in nostalgia for something that perhaps never existed in the first place. She describes her simple New York routines, her far from glamorous, tiny apartment, her fear of loneliness and compulsive sharing of her apartment keys with friends.

All that has survived from that period are the echoes of certain conversations, a handful of recurrent ideas, poems I liked and read over and over until I had them off by heart. Everything else is a later elaboration. It’s not possible for my memories of that life to have more substance. They are scaffoldings, structures, empty houses.

Author picture from Open Letters Monthly.
Author picture from Open Letters Monthly.

So it starts off innocently enough as a contrast between then and now, between young adult and motherhood, which would have been interesting enough in itself, although perhaps not very original. But then it becomes something far richer and more satisfying. The young narrator becomes obsessed with the life and works of a Mexican poet called Gilberto Owen, who lived in New York in the 1920s. She fraudulently claims to have found a collection of poems by Owen, supposedly translated by a better-known American poet Joshua Zvorsky. (By the way, both poets did exist, although the name of the American one has been slightly modified.) But then, when there is real danger that her forgeries will be detected, she turns to fiction instead and from that point on we move between Owen’s story and the other two strands. It all gets more knotted, more intricate, with apparitions in the subway (a woman in a red coat, Ezra Pound, Federico Garcia Lorca) until we have a fine danse macabre of ghosts and possibilities, a braided narrative of alternative universes perhaps.

I think this is what the author is getting at when she talks about the multiple deaths a person can go through. All the dead ends or paths we did not take, the things we did not become.

Naturally, there are a lot of deaths in the course of a lifetime. Most people don’t notice. They think you die once and that’s it. But you only have to pay a bit of attention to realize that you go and die every so often. That’s not just a poetic turn of phrase… Most deaths don’t matter; the film goes on running. Except that that’s when everything takes a turn, even though it may be imperceptible, and the consequences are not always apparent straightaway. I began to die in Manhattan, in the summer of 1928. Of course, no one except me noticed my deaths – people are too busy with their own lives to take notice of other people’s little deaths.

The title of the book in Spanish is ‘Los Ingravidos – The Weightless’ and that perfectly captures the sense of drifting in and out of lives, floating above and diving into our different selves (the imagined ones, the real ones, the discarded ones). You will occasionally have the impression, like the narrator, that you are ‘the only living girl in a city of ghosts’.

So don’t be put off by the book’s manifest ‘strangeness’: it is a very pleasant, often funny and emotionally candid read. Phew – this became a much longer review than I expected! That’s because this was a book I relished reading, with a style and openness to experimentation that reminded me of Clarice Lispector and Virginia Woolf.

Quick-Fire Reviews: Crime Fiction

I was planning longer reviews for each of these books, but the risk is that the longer I leave it, the less I’ll be in the mood for reviewing them, or the more I’ll have forgotten the first impressions.

So here are some quick-fire reviews of recently read crime novels. Two are by authors I’ve already read and admired, so I know what I’m getting. The remaining two are debut authors. And when I say ‘quick-fire’, it still has somehow added up to a very long post, so I apologise in advance.

BloodSaltDenise Mina: Blood, Salt, Water

A woman suspected by the police of major drug-smuggling and money laundering disappears. Has that got anything to do with the death of a woman, something confused criminal Iain Fraser is struggling with? And why is a middle-aged former Scout leader, Miss Grierson, back in town? Alex Morrow and her team struggle to make sense of all these disparate elements, as do the readers.

I’m a big Denise Mina fan – she always captures a particular Scottish setting¬†impeccably. This time it’s a smaller town and a posh golf course gated environment, as well as the gritty streets of Glasgow. But this is perhaps not the most memorable one in the series: some of the motivations seem a little forced to me.¬†Still, Mina’s ‘good/OK’ is a notch above most other writers, so I’d still recommend this book.There were some characters who had the potential to become interesting but were not given quite enough room to develop. I also missed hearing more about Alex Morrow’s family life ¬†– while I don’t like it to overwhelm the plot, it was just noticeable in its complete absence.

OtherChildLucy Atkins: The Other Child

Tess, single mother to nine-year-old Joe, falls in love with American pediatric surgeon Greg and gets pregnant. When he is offered the job of a lifetime back on the East Coast of the US, they marry and relocate. ¬†But life in an affluent American suburb proves anything but straightforward.¬†Unsettling things keep happening in the large rented house, Joe is distressed, the next-door neighbours are in crisis, and Tess is sure that someone is watching her. Greg’s work is all-consuming and, as the baby’s birth looms, he grows more and more unreachable. Something is very wrong.

Confession: I read this one mostly because of the ‘moving to the US as a trailing spouse’ storyline. I just love those fish out of water suffering culture shock stories!¬†I read this book very quickly, as it had plenty of mystery and some interesting characters to engage me. It does feel slightly d√©j√† vu – the marriage that you jump in all too quickly, the man with secrets, the suspicions and gradual unravelling of relationships, the ‘who can be trusted, who’s telling the truth’ scenario are all well trodden ground. This book certainly won’t stay with me for a very long time. But the author has a fresh, engaging style, it’s got a nice sense of menace to it without getting too gory, it’s an entertaining beach read.

GranotierbookSylvie Granotier: Personne n’en saura rien (No One Will Know a Thing)

Isabelle is the latest in a series of kidnappings and rapes of young girls from the beaches of Normandy. Except that, unlike the other victims, she does not end up dead. Instead, she is taking her aggressor to court on the count of rape. The accused, Jean Chardin, certainly seems to fit the profile of a rapist, but, as we find out more about the background of each of the people involved, we begin to wonder just what revenge Isabelle is planning.

For those who don’t like serial killer tropes or graphic descriptions of women suffering, rest assured there is not much of that here. Instead, it’s a thrilling and psychologically subtle read. Effortlessly moving between points of view and timelines, the author makes us question ourselves about the nature of justice, the ways in which we justify our own behaviour, and the role of families. This hasn’t been translated into English yet, but Le French Book has translated one of Granotier’s other novels, The Paris Lawyer.

BitterChillSarah Ward: In Bitter Chill

The Peak District as winter approaches is a chilling place, especially when a thirty-year-old crime is reopened following a suicide apparently related to it. Back in 1978 two young schoolgirls were abducted by a woman driving a car. One of them, Rachel, made it back home later that day, but could remember little of what had happened. The other girl, Sophie, was never found. It’s Sophie’s mother who has committed suicide in a hotel in the area. But why now, so many years after the event? Another death soon after also seems to be linked to the tragic event in 1978. Rachel and the police are equally committed to finding out the truth about events both past and present, uncovering some very dark secrets in the process.

This is a very promising debut indeed and just the kind of police procedural I enjoy: satisfying, logical, with interesting characters throughout (I especially liked Rachel’s grandma). The writing is of a consistently high quality and very precise, and the location is so well described I felt as if I was there (although I’ve never visited the area myself). But all this does not come at the detriment of the plot. Yes, I guessed part of the solution, but by no means all of the ramifications. I’m really glad that, although Ward intended this to be a standalone crime novel, she will write another novel featuring these detectives, as I got quite attached to ambitious Connie, about-to-get-married Palmer and their boss Sadler.

I’ve also read Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless (which will be reviewed shortly on Crime Fiction Lover), the cracking follow-up to The¬†Hummingbird,¬†and Sophie Hannah’s quirky, unexpected standalone psychological thriller¬†A Game for All the Family.

The remaining four reviews (I hope to have more time to spend on them this coming week, but I’m also trying to write another 20,000 words on my novel, so guess where my priorities lie?) are for:

Max Blecher:¬†Scarred Hearts –¬†a surprisingly modern feel, very candid, not for the squeamish, heartbreaking and yet full of an urgent love of life.
Emmanuel Carr√®re: L’Adversaire¬†– a fascinating study of evil and the power of deception, including self-deception – whether we believe evil exists in all of us, or whether we see some people as being born evil. Particularly heart-wrenching and disturbing since I know the places and some of the people involved.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Nightno longer quite the ultimate story of marital and individual breakdown that I believed it to be when I was 18 – Rosemary’s age – and fell in love with Dick Diver myself. Still an unsettling portrait of inner demons and dysfunctional families, but this time I particularly admired the locations and descriptions of the expat experience (yes, I have a one-track mind).

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd – ¬†unlike other ‘vignette’ type novels, I really liked this one, although I don’t think it could be sustained over a much longer book. I liked it because it really is experimental, not just pretending to be so, and there is a warm, funny, fearless and erudite imagination at work there, blending fantasy, philosophy, literature and everyday experiences so well together.

In the meantime, something’s growing in the jungle…

… while I’ve been busy deciding upon my #TBR20 darlings, sneaky old book orders I’d nearly forgotten about, new review copies and well-intentioned parents have added to my TBR pile. I will pretend I don’t have them and won’t dive into them yet, but I thought it might be fun to have a quick peek in the undergrowth…

epochtimes-romania.com
Picture from epochtimes-romania.com. No, my own TBR pile doesn’t look quite that bad yet!

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver [Oh, all right then, also the only two Moomin books still missing from our collection – Moominvalley in November – which always makes me cry – and The Exploits of Moominpappa¬†– which always makes me laugh, but these all count as re-reads and it’s just to complete my Jansson collection]

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd Рrecommended by so many of my fellow book bloggers: Tony Malone, Stu Jallen, Caroline at Beauty is a sleeping cat, to name just a few.

Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin – because I love Anya’s writing and her East European connection… and she knows it!

Gunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind – because Orenda Books knows I can never resist a Scandinavian author

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star – because Naomi Frisby was so enthusiastic about it, she sent it to me, bless her!

A few imports from Romania:

Mircea Cartarescu: Fata de la marginea vietii (The Girl from the Edge of Life) – a short story collection from one of the best-known (though difficult) contemporary Romanian writers

Adina Rosetti: De zece ori pe buze (Ten Times on the Lips) – short story collection from a former journalist for Time Out and Elle in Romania, now turned fiction author

Alex Stefanescu: Barbat adormit in fotoliu (Man, Sleeping in an Armchair) – essay collection from this essayist, editor and literary critic

Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu (1939-2002): ¬†three novels by the grande dame of Romanian crime fiction. I’ve never tried her before and am curious to see if the comparisons to Agatha Christie are justified…

The good news is, I’m still on track with my TBR20 challenge. I’m on book no. 8 from that pile now. So I won’t get started with the above-mentioned ones immediately…