Reading Summary for August 2018

13 books this month. Not surprising that a certain proportion of them were women in translation, given that it is #WITMonth, but I also felt tempted to read more women in general, which is reflected in the ratio of women to men: 8 women, 5 men this month. I was also keen to read more foreign authors in general: 11 are either in another language or in translation. My favourite genre remains crime fiction, obviously, with no less than 7 books in this area, but I have also read short stories, diaries and essays this month.

Women in Translation – done a good job of reviewing nearly everything

Lucy Fricke: Daughters  – in German

Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories

Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk 

Anne Holt: Dead Joker 

Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs – Moscow Diaries 1917-22

Veronique Olmi: La Nuit en vérité – in French, review to come possibly at the weekend

Crime Fiction

Tana French: The Trespassers – one of my favourites of the Dublin Squad series because of the prickly, larger than life voice of Antoinette Conway, the main protagonist

Michael Stanley: Dead of Night – standalone about the rhino horn trade in South Africa

Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources – the most extreme assessment centre you can imagine and the despair of the unemployed, review to come soon on CFL

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland – comic noir, review to come soon on CFL

Other Random Reads

Mircea Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats – an elderly teacher ends up on the wrong side of a totalitarian state when he tries to find an old pupil of his

Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility – essays about censorship, the difficulties of translation, living in exile, as well as many Romanian and other authors.

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Two Crime Novels for #WITMonth

Better still – two crime novels by women writers, featuring a main protagonist who is a lesbian out of her 20s, yet this side of her (although it’s an integral part of the story rather than a bolt-on) is not the most interesting aspect. In other words, this is not about titillation or jumping on a bandwagon of including ‘some kind of minority’ in the story. It is, quite simply, normal.

That doesn’t mean that it is easy for the characters to face the world as lesbians, for fear of how people might judge them. But it’s a great step forward to be the main character, rather than the supportive sidekick, to be in their 40s and fairly sure of themselves, rather than shy young things. Not surprising, perhaps, that both books are written by Nordic writers.

Anne Holt: Dead Joker, transl. Anne Bruce

Anne Holt has all the background knowledge you could ask for: she worked in broadcasting, then for the police, started her own law firm and was even briefly Norway’s Minister for Justice. Since 1993 she has been steadily writing novels, at first mainly in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, featuring the lesbian Chief Inspector Hanne, her live-in partner Cecilie, and her investigative team, including the very loyal if somewhat scatty Billy T.

Or at least, all of the above appear in this book, because the series covers such a long span of time that people appear, disappear, marry, die, have children and grow old over the course of the series. So, more realistic than most, where everything seems to happen within the same couple of years of the main detective’s life. Hanne grows progressively more grumpy and anti-social over the course of the series, although it could be argued that it’s life and the things she witnesses that make her so. The books have been translated out of order into English, after the success of the book 1222, which was the eighth of the series. Holt’s other crime series about a profiler Johanne Vik were translated earlier and Hanne appears as a very minor character in those. Was the thought of a lesbian police officer too much for the shores of the UK in the early 2000s?

Here is a quick plot summary: The wife of the Chief Public Prosecutor is found dead in the family home, brutally decapitated. Her husband is under suspicion, as he was present in the house when it happened, but he claims that he knows who did it. The only problem is: that person is already dead. Hanne is inclined to believe him, but his foolish behaviour is very suspicious indeed. There are some gory details, but overall the emphasis is on the puzzle element, and figuring out just what drives the odd behaviour of a number of different characters. In the meantime, Hanne’s partner has worrying news, and the book is at least in equal parts the story of how a relationship can triumph in the face of death.

Lilja Sigurðardóttir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates

This is the second book in the Reykjavik Noir series and it features volcanic eruption (or rather, its impact upon air travel) as well as drug-smuggling. In the first volume, Sonja had been caught in a vicious circle of acting as a drug mule for her ex-husband in order to gain access rights to her son. But she thought she had left that life behind her, after snatching her son and running away to Florida.

The second book opens almost immediately after the end of the previous one. Sonja’s past catches up with her and she has to return to Iceland and try to extricate herself from the drug trade once and for all. This is set against a backdrop of Iceland’s failing banks and bankers being imprisoned for their shady deals. The story is grim and the characters are pretty ruthless, yet they are described with so much gusto that you might catch yourself laughing even when you feel you shouldn’t. A mad caper of a story, with perhaps a few too many financial transactions for my level of comprehension. The author says her aim is to entertain people, and she certainly manages that.

As a bonus, there are all sorts of hidden depths here, particularly in describing the relationships between the various characters: Sonja and her lover Agla, customs officer Bragi and his dying wife, Sonja and her controlling ex Johann. There is also a lot of suspense about ‘will she, won’t she’ manage to go through customs with her packages. Last but not least, there are some completely insane moments with the Mexican drug dealers Mr Jose, his wife Nati and their tiger in the basement.

So two very different series – one more a classic police procedural, the other more of a heist or crime gang novel – but both with psychological depth. I would recommend starting with the first book in either of the series if you are new to them, though.

 

 

#WITMonth: Lucy Fricke’s Middle-Aged Thelma and Louise Story

Although I am tagging this with #WITMonth, German author Lucy Fricke has not been translated into English, even though she is no writing newbie. The novel Töchter (Daughters) is her fourth and I’d heard quite a rumble of excitement about her previous one, Takeshi’s Skin. I had Daughters shipped over from Germany following rave reviews not only in the German press but also on the blog of Kaffeehaussitzer, who always keeps me abreast of the German publishing scene. So let me be upfront about it: I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it deserved quite such high accolades.

It is a road trip novel about two indomitable female friends, who at some point describe themselves as Thelma and Louise, except they are neither young, nor sexy, and not even oppressed. Martha and Betty have been friends for 20 years, ever since they first moved to Berlin. Both of them come from broken homes with disappearing fathers, and each of them has developed a different mechanism for coping with the trauma. Martha has married and is trying desperately to conceive via IVF before her 40th treatment (after which IVF is no longer available in Germany). Meanwhile, Betty avoids any commitment by being the proverbial rolling stone and rents her flat out in gentrified Kreuzberg via AirBnB while she travels.

Martha’s father, Kurt, with whom she has reached an uneasy truce in his old age, suddenly announces that he has a terminal illness and has made an appointment at a Swiss clinic to curtail his suffering. Could she please accompany him on his final journey? Martha, who has been unable to drive after a horrible accident some years previously, and who thinks this is a terrible idea anyway, appeals to her friend Betty. So the strange trio set off in Kurt’s clapped-out old car and this grim-sounding road trip soon takes on farcical proportions.

Author photo, credit Dagmar Morath.

As they wind their way through crappy hotels and appalling petrol station snacks, they are subjected to Kurt’s anti-feminist rants and then a sudden change of plan. Before he dies, Kurt would like to see once more his very first love, whom he lost to an Italian man on the shores of Laggo Maggiore. Betty has her own agenda for going back to Italy, since she bears a certain nostalgia for her Italian ‘Dad’, the one man from her mother’s endless collection of ‘uncles’ and ‘step-dads’ who was ever nice to her as a child.

While the themes of the story can be easily identified as friendship, parenthood, forgiveness and death, and the final message is the somewhat trite ‘you need to find joy in life itself’, this goes a bit further than typical chick lit. There is quite a bit of self-mocking going on, for one:

We spend three, four decades talking about men and then we talk about illnesses. What a waste of life!

Secondly, the story is (refreshingly) not about finding the perfect man and partner, but about making peace with fatherly imperfections and moving from being a daughter to being a full-grown woman. Beneath the comic moments and sharply satirical observations, there is an underlying sadness. The author also lampoons the road movie she is imitating in the book:

It’s not as if a road trip is necessarily full of surprises, the promise of love or sex or crime at every road station. That only happens in films and books, a coming of age story on the fast lane. In real life, things happen slowly. In real life, we spend years grieving over a single heartache, while on the big screen any loser, any clown can save or destroy the world within a couple of days, as long as he (sic!) believes in himself and his power.

Scene from Maren Ade’s film ‘Toni Erdmann’.

I think the reason this has been so rapturously received in Germany is perhaps that there is not much of a literary tradition there for Bridget Jones style humour. I actually liked it more than Bridget Jones, mostly for the social satire aspects. However, among the worthy, dramatic German women filmmakers such as Margarethe von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms of the New German Cinema period, there has always been a bit of a comedic tradition with directors and writers such as Doris Dörrie and, more recently, Maren Ade. I think this book fits in that slot – and can easily imagine it filmed (and perhaps improved in the process).

 

#WITMonth: Beatriz Bracher – I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris

This book, which I received as my title for July for my Asymptote Book Club subscription, ticks a lot of boxes:  #WomeninTranslationMonth, #TranslationThurs, an abiding interest in Brazil and a secret (or not so secret) hankering for what might be called ‘dictatorship literature’, i.e. literature about living under a dictatorship. It is something I can relate to very easily, and am always curious to see how much of the experience is the same, regardless of where you are in the world, and how much is country (or dictator) specific.

The story is outwardly simple: In present-day Sao Paolo, Gustavo is a professor (and former school principal) who is now retiring, selling the old family home and moving to the countryside. He must clear out all the papers and personal belongings in the house. Meanwhile, a young woman called Cecilia is writing a novel set during the years of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964- 1984) and would like to hear his stories and impressions about that period. The problem is that Gustavo has been feeling guilty all his life about the part he may or may not have played in the death of his friend and brother-in-law, Armando. Both he and Armando had been arrested and tortured by the police in 1970, but only one of them survived that ordeal. Over the years, Gustavo has been trying to convince everyone around him (and even himself) that ‘he didn’t talk’ under torture, but it turns out that he was so tangential to the protest movement that anything he might have talked about would have been useless information anyway.

So Gustavo, who is by nature disorganised and forgetful, tries to make sense of the jumble of memories, his own papers and those of the rest of his family, of the ghostly apparitions of his parents, his friend Armando and his wife Eliana. There is a sharp contrast between the private man who felt he was often invisible or cast into second place in his family life and the much more opinionated Gustavo the teacher and school principal. His riffs on education and politics are among the most interesting digressions in the book. He claims he is reluctant to generalise but is quite trenchant in his opinions.

I really distrust this excessive formalization, disconnecting us from the world. Government bodies suffer from an absence of reality, not a surfeit of it… They think they are prevented from thinking by the crushing demands, the excesses of the world. But it’s the opposite… small strategies for specific cases.

Gustavo also knows his Portuguese literature and likes to bring in long quotes to support his theories. We catch brief glimpses of past moments when he started to doubt himself (hiding the fact that people are actually buried in cemeteries from his daughter, but that her mother is not buried in Brazil, for instance) but then he remonstrates with his memory, he adjusts and examines, ponders and reinterprets until he finds justification in everything.

Author photo from AuroraEco.br

Yet his memories are challenged by his brother Jose’s writings. Jose grew up in the same household, in the same circumstances, and yet his life took a very different trajectory, he is gay and became a very different type of character. Gustavo feels betrayed and excluded in the conversations he has with his brother and in those fragments of his brothers’ memoirs that he reads. Jose (and his younger sister Jussara) remind him of the period when he was at his weakest, but perhaps also reinforce his impression that he was always the outsider, that he never quite fitted in or made himself understood.

Those were confusing times, every utterance cut short, everyone suspected, I was always half-dirty and disheveled, returning to the home I’d left four years before… it was I who was the stranger there and everywhere else.

A chorus of voices assault Gustavo and he argues with some, talks over others, sighs and cries with the rest. The very words ‘voice/speak/talk’ appear with almost obsessive frequency throughout the novel. Gustavo tries to regain the upper hand and perhaps he does, in a way, because on the last few pages, he remembers – as if in a dream – a conversation he had with his father shortly before his death. And that conversation casts the whole story in a different light. This is the story he wants to tell, he decides.

What the author tells us, however, is that in the end, there is always going to be a discrepancy between private and public truth, between different personal interpretations of the past. In the end, your story is what others make of it.

 

 

Bookish Summary for July 2018, Plans for August

Only 10 books this month (of which two were flash fiction collections, so much easier to read in bits and pieces). I’ve really struggled to read, and I’m not quite sure if it was because I was busy and tired, or going out too much, or just too hot to be able to concentrate properly.

6 written by women, one anthology, and 3 written by men. 3 in translation.  Penance and Vernon Subutex were the only two of #20booksofsummer which I read this month, which means that I am only up to 6 out of 20. It’s not going to happen, is it?

 

I don’t know if my lack of reading enthusiasm influenced my appreciation of the books, or whether the lack of brilliant books led to a slump in my reading, but I have a confession to make. Quite a few of the books were not particularly exciting – mildly disappointing, in fact. I expected more, for instance, from Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends but overall I thought it pretty average, while Home Fire was reasonably good but didn’t bowl me over for all its prize winning. Vernon Subutex was the most disappointing, simply because I have high expectations of Virginie Despentes and have enjoyed her provocative, satirical writing in the past.

However, there were also some successes. I really liked Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Tidings of the Trees and Hometown, Carrie Etter’s collection of flash fiction dedicated to typical small-town America and life lived at its more precarious margins. I discovered the first thanks to Asymptote Book Club and the latter thanks to the Flash Fiction Festival. Which just goes to show that sometimes you need to allow someone knowledgeable to guide you into a new reading direction rather than rely on your favourite genres or media recommendations. American by Day was a fun crime read, contrasting Norwegian and American cultures and policing styles, although the mystery part of it was perhaps not really all that mysterious or satisfactory.

I’ve got some excellent books lined up for Women in Translation month though,  all of which I have just recently received in the post:

  1. Gine Cornelia Pedersen: Zero, transl. Rosie Hedger (which the translator very kindly sent to me) is the story of a young girl with mental health problems and has been described as ‘punk rock’
  2. Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, transl. Peter Bush – a collection of dark, crime-seeped stories set in Solana’s native Barcelona (thanks to publisher Bitter Lemon Press)
  3. Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates – 2nd book in the series about a single mother trying to escape her drug-mule past (thank you to Orenda Books)
  4. Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris – powerful story about people caught up in Brazil’s military dictatorship (Asymptote Book Club’s July title)
  5. Marina Tsvetaeva: Moscow Diaries 1917-1922, transl. Jamey Gambrell – diaries and essays written by one of my favourite poets during one of the most turbulent periods in Russian history (taking advantage of NYRB book sale)
  6. Lucy Fricke: Töchter (Daughters) – two middle-aged friends take the seriously ill father of one of them to a Swiss clinic, but things don’t quite turn out as planned. Described as a sort of Thelma and Louise road trip, it’s supposed to be both hilarious and thoughtful, and was recommended by a couple of my favourite German book bloggers.

Other books for August will be all the ones I have to review (a long, long list, as I’ve been even more lax in my reviewing than in my reading): Michael Stanley: Dead of Night; Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland; Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources; Roberto Saviano: The Piranhas. I also have three library books that I would really like to finally get around to reading, although I’ve renewed them repeatedly: Romain Gary; Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats; Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility (Essays on Exile and Language).

Virginie Despentes: Vernon Subutex 1 – ennui and more ennui

This book fits into no less than four categories of hashtags: #TranslationThurs, #EU27Project, #WomeninTranslation and #20BooksofSummer. However, it didn’t do much else for me! Which is a shame, because I’ve had a good experience, on the whole, with Despentes’ writing.

This time, however, she focuses on such a narrow category of arty-farty pretentious Parisians that it’s difficult to care about any of them. Vernon is a middle-aged loser, former record shop owner now sofa-surfing from one dubious acquaintance to the next. Besides, haven’t we had enough of French male midlife crisis, portrayed in so many French novels and films? I wouldn’t have expected a woman to write about it – although she supposedly makes fun of it. But for a figure of fun, we simply get too many details about Vernon and the people he mingles with.

Everyone is neurotic, narcissistic, racist, drugged to the eyeballs or all of the above. You switch quite rapidly from one point of view to the next, which does allow for comic effect (what people believe about themselves and how they are perceived by others vs. how people are actually perceived by others), but rarely digs beneath the surface of a character. Despentes has created unlikable narrators before, but then gradually revealed many more layers to them. No time for that in this rather futile, repetitive and overly long novel (and there are two more volumes of this!)

There are some good social observations, as you might expect of Despentes, but it’s simply not political enough, witty enough or engaging enough to sustain my interest. It must have been a bit of a challenge for the translator as well to use so much bad language – Trainspotting for the chi-chi media set and those funding them.

The cultural habits of the poor make him want to spew. He imagines being reduced to such a life – over-salted food, public transport, taking home less than 5000 euros a month and buying clothes in a shopping mall. Taking commercial flights and having to wait around in airports sitting on hard seats with nothing to drink, no newspapers, being treated like shit and having to travel in steerage, being a second-class scumbag… Screwing ageing cellulite-riddled meat. Finishing the working week and having to do the housework and the shopping. Checking the prices of things to see if you can afford them. Kiko couldn’t live like that… Guys like him never act like slaves…

Kiko’s job? Trader on the stock markets.

DNF

P.S. A French friend who works in publishing says it’s a ‘roman à clef’ with recognisable characters from the Parisian media world, but that is too narrow a satirical premise to appeal to me.