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Readers of this blog might have the impression that I’m not a particularly orderly person. (Those who have seen my bookshelves a while ago in the delicious blog series of Danielle will nod a great deal). While I don’t call myself “messy”, I don’t attach a particular importance to reading books in order (although I totally respect those who have the discipline and inclination to do otherwise).
Or should I start now?
Recently I stumbled at the library upon a pristine new copy of a Benjamin Black mystery, Elegy for April (2010).
Reader, how I hesitated!
Although I loved Christine Falls, I’d never had the opportunity to get to his second mystery: The Silver Swan. It sits comfortably in my wishlist on Bookmooch, but these darlings are not really likely to be given away very often… well, who knows really? I can understand that Black’s icy mysteries set in 1950s Dublin may not be everyone’s cup of tea (or whiskey?).
The second reason for my hesitation was that the book was in French. Christine Falls had stricken me for being so great with words, really a noir in poetry, with such a forte in atmospheres and descriptions, that I doubted if a translated version could replicate the same awesome experience.
But how long would it still take for me to get an English copy of The Silver Swan really? Another year or two? So you guessed it, I caved in and borrowed the Elegy for April.
The French was good and the atmosphere, always as dripping with cold guilt and a bad mix between Catholic church, bourgeoisie, lies and secrets as I’d remembered.
This time, Quirke, the reserved and solitary pathologist with a heavy past and a subsequent problem with alcohol, comes to investigate the disappearance of April Latimer, a girlfriend of his daughter Phoebe. Has she decided to leave for England without telling her friends and family, a conservative and stiffly upper-class clan? Why should he meddle himself or involve the police, when he’s never even met the girl? Why is Phoebe so worried for her best friend, who turns out so different from what she’d always thought?
I couldn’t help but find the pretext a little thin, but the magic of atmosphere worked, and after a while, it didn’t really matter. It’s a noir mystery, but there’s not much action, more like a study of characters and the description of icy roads and an interminable winter.
But all the while, I kept having this nagging feeling of missing out on something, some secrets of recurrent characters that might have been revealed in the Silver Swan. Darn, I should probably have waited to read The Silver Swan first before borrowing the Elegy for April. It’s very fitting that doubt and guilt get at me after such a book. But I’ll never know for sure, unless I catch up with the second book very soon. And in English this time around!
I love Guy Delisle’s chronicles of daily life in weird places. After Shenzhen and Pyongyang, this time he moves with his family to Jerusalem. Not so exotic a place, you’d think, and yet!
A stay-at-home dad taking care of the kids and trying to draw while his wife works for a NGO (Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors without Borders), he arrives without any preconception in the middle of one of the most complex political situation that exists for decades. And instead of being all ideological and abstract about it, Delisle uses everyday life situations to make us feel how life really is in Jerusalem. That’s precisely what I love about his books!
His attention to details, his sketches that almost look like a travel journal and his eye for absurd, unwillingly comic situations make it fun, while at the same time it gives a picture that no journalist ever presented.
Now, the place is highly controversial, so however sensitive and neutral the funny little cartoons of Delisle are trying to be, staying one year in this place surely makes you notice shocking things and feel different about issues than when you’d first arrive.
His family has been assigned an expat flat in the Eastern part of the town, a rather ugly place with lots of rubbish and far from touristy places, if only because the lines of separation between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods make bus routes look like a maze. He finds himself frequently baffled by apparently simple situations like buying diapers on a Friday in an Arab neighborhood: should he buy from the only opened shop, in an Israeli settlement? would his buying support the settlement? or is it just a matter of convenience, and, for G’s sake, just a bag of diapers?
I know some readers (on Amazon) have complained that Delisle had an antisemitic stance. Personally, I don’t think it that way and find the book very measured. He points out intolerance and fanaticism on both sides. His view is totally atheist. Because he asks apparently naive questions, he can get surprisingly candid answers that are sometimes shocking and sometimes deep, but I am convinced that they are true to his experience of living in Jerusalem.
The title intrigued and appealed to me from the first instant I saw it, yet it took me several months to read this book from cover to cover, because it is also a Buddhist primer and a memoir of Batchelor’s long “career” in Buddhism, as well as a travelogue on the sites where Siddhartha Gautama (aka the Buddha) lived… It’s so rich that I can’t pretend I have absorbed everything this book has to offer, nor can I really take a stand on the challenges that Batchelor addresses to the traditional interpretation of Buddhism.
What is obvious is that putting Buddhism and Atheism in a single clause is highly controversial, as is his glaring denial of all the non-rational parts of the Buddhist credo, like rebirth, supernatural abilities of the masters, and even of the divine nature of the man Siddhartha Gautama. Batchelor respectfully but drastically challenges his masters (he’s been a monk in India and Korea) and goes back to the fundamental texts to try to separate the basic teachings of Siddharta Gautama from all the rest, i.e. the Asian cultural and traditional background and centuries and centuries of priests in various organized communities with their own doctrines and rules.
Batchelor’s view of Buddhism makes a lot of sense (to me at least), but perhaps too much so, as if the doctrine and religion had been adapted for a Western audience… I’m aware that purists will say he has watered it down or even distorted it in trying to simplify it, but I don’t know enough to take sides. All I know is that the book is highly readable, bold and rich. Quite enough for me, for the time being, before I venture further into Buddhist terra incognita.
It’s not the first Buddhist book I’ve read, but it’s really the first to approach matter of faith and theology (if this word ever applies). It’s definitely not a book about applying Buddhist philosophy to your daily life, like the one by Karen Maezen Miller I’d enjoyed before, although you can tell Batchelor is living a quiet and simple life devoted to learning and teaching about Buddhism.
I know, this is a bit cliché for a book blog, but I love bookstores and I love to share the good places! I tend to write here about faraway places I find during my holidays, but shouldn’t I mention the nearer and dearer ones as well?
So here’s a new series about bookshops I love in Paris. So that, if any of you come and visit, you’ll know for sure where to go. They’re probably aren’t on any tourist map, nor are they particularly close to tourist attractions (Parisians tend to stay in their turf). They’re not chain stores either (because I don’t like to browse there) and most of them don’t stock up books in foreign languages (unless otherwise mentioned).
The first one is a bookstore specialized in comic books and graphic novels. I visited a week ago in search for a present… shh… It’s very close to my home. Despite the limited space, they have a very diverse selection, so that I’ve never come out empty-handed. And the shop doesn’t feel cramped! They have one wall on mangas, one wall for traditional French-Belgian large format serial books, one corner for graphic novels, a nook for humor books. The cellar displays and sells art posters. The people there are very friendly and know how to navigate customers towards books they’ll enjoy. They let you browse and take your time (something that’s not always the case in a French shop) and they organize plenty of book-signing events.
If you visit the bookstore you should take the opportunity to take a look at the neighborhood of Batignolles, which was an independent village until the 1860s and retains a peaceful, family oriented atmosphere. Not so many buses and metros are crossing the area, so that it’s really best to explore it by foot. There are many restaurants, bars, shops (lots of deli-style specialties) and parks around its little white church (don’t picture anything like the little house in the prairie though, it’s rather square and looks like that).
If you can’t make it just yet, you can visit the bookshop’s website!
Now I know where to turn when I want perfectly depressing cold-weather murders: 1960s Sweden of the Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s fame. Don’t we love them all? (uh, just kidding)
But I know my limits. After Roseanna and The Man who went up in smoke, I decided to skip the next mystery in the Beck series because it involved a child murder, and Beck’s Sweden being depressing enough, I didn’t want to add insult to injury.
The Laughing Policeman is no laughing matter (except when you take a second look and start to look for dark humor, which you’ll find aplenty). It starts with a random mass killing in a public bus in Stockholm. Among the ten victims, a young colleague of Beck is found, carrying his service weapon despite not being on duty. When his girlfriend tells the police that he was working days and nights on a case, Beck and his colleagues have no idea which one. And they aren’t even sure that the murder has anything to do with their colleague’s presence on the bus rather than with any of the other victims’ dark secret.
I don’t think the whole plot goes by with any sunny day. It’s always raining and policemen are miserable with colds and sore throats, not to mention damp feet whenever they visit witnesses and suspects. You sure can’t accuse Sjöwall and Wahlöö to glorify the police, nor to work for the Tourist bureau. Detectives’ work is painstaking and ends up in many dead-ends.
Make no mistake: it may sound suspiciously boring, but it isn’t. There’s a lot of humor and warmth in the detectives team’s description of quirks and twists. Sjöwall and Wahlöö also have a terrific eye for painting society as a whole, with just as many words as necessary. Vietnam demonstrations open the book and there’s no doubt that the writers aren’t quite happy with the conservative government of the time.
Don’t you love when two books you’re reading actually collide?
Obviously, there are people out there who love to read one book at the time. But you may have guessed that I’m not part of this tribe. Multi-tasking is supposedly not the most productive method ever, but I’m the girl with about ten books opened on her night stand, all catering to different needs, size-wise and genre-wise. At times, books that I’ve chosen for opposite reasons somehow echo each other.
Just for the sake of not excluding anyone from this post, I suppose mono-readers might also experience that when two books they read one after the other have some weird common streak despite being very different in genre and style.
One of my big plans for 2013 was to read the Bible. I started to realize what I put myself into when I received by Amazon my JPS bible in paperback format, ultra-thin paper (hey, that’s the reason why they call it Bible paper, duh), character size 6 or so. I can carry this Bible around without destroying my shoulder with the weight, but I might be destroying my eyesight in the process.
To get me going, I’m following a course on Yale Open University on the Hebrew bible, taught by Professor Christine Hayes. Her first few lessons are about the different approaches that scholars have used to read the Bible. I couldn’t see where she was going with all this, listing all the probable sources of the Bible, the historical-critical method, the Copenhagen school versus the Germans versus the American one, but I endured it somehow. I knew by then that I would never have been admitted to nor have survived Yale. But I knew that already somehow.
In parallel I’d started reading that spy book / thriller that Mr. Smithereens bought in holidays in Croatia: The Day of the Lie, by William Brodrick. My husband’s argument to make me read this book right now, bypassing the whole TBR pile was: “this book is much more for you than for me. I’d get rid of it, unless you want to try it…” How could I resist?
I embarked into the adventures of an English monk, Father Anselm, who tries to understand, post-1989, Communist terror in Poland and Polish freedom resistance from 1945 to the 1980s. This is really a complex plot with lots of layers and lots of people who are lying and covering-up secrets, except that what they thought the truth was another person’s big web of lies. That’s the point where Mr. Smithereens shuts the book in disgust. And where I get completely addicted, just like back in the days I tried to make sense of the X-files conspiracy theories (this is an age-telling clue, I know)
The instant I was mesmerized was when the monk in the thriller actually started to analyze witness statements using the German analytical method of reading the Bible, to try to understand the underlying truth beyond the lies. Wow!
The other weird moment was just yesterday night, when I’d finished Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern (review coming soon!). My head still resonated with the names of so many Russians writers that I still have to read. Then I picked an issue of Taproot Magazine, a periodic I’m enjoying quite a lot, and the page I opened had a quote from Russian poet Osip Mandelstam: “For joy’s sake, from my hands, take some honey and some sun”.
What a weird chance encounter! Do you often experience serendipity while reading?
Remember when I was complaining about a book slump, not knowing what book to read next (hum, I mean, after I finish the huge pile on my nightstand)?
I wanted to create a Book Jar like Alex in Leeds did. (If you don’t know about this creative and low-tech way to choose books, head over there, it will inspire you!).
I really wanted to (and already started to think about jar and paper and the practical stuff), until I just realized that I just hadn’t a list of books to put in the jar! Duh…
So, the first step is a virtual Book Jar. A paper one in my beloved notebook, in which I list all the books I wish to read. As low tech as you can get.
I try to keep a (healthy?) mix between books I own (TBR pile, here I come!), library books and books to buy (or to be given as a present, wink wink). And I hope this last category will not make the bulk of the jar, for the sake of my tiny apartment and my crowded shelves. I also named authors that I’ve already read and loved, and that I hope one day to get to know them better, like Judith Flanders or Janet Malcolm. And added books that fellow bloggers have been raving about.
As you can see, the book jar is far from full yet. But once I have enough titles I’ll take it to the next level with a real jar.
PS. By the way, the pile that holds the notebook open is all the books I’ve finished and have yet to post about!
Don’t trust the weather (which may be very misleading)! Don’t trust the calendar! Don’t trust trees and flowerbeds!
I know now that spring has arrived for sure, because the latest Persephone Biannually was delivered to my door!
Loaded with news, tempting invitations to events on the other side of the Channel, a short story, new books and a long list with so many titles to sigh over!
(I should stop using exclamation mark at the end of each sentence, I’m aware that this makes me look like a preteen blogger gushing about a music idol).
As I browsed through new publications, a title immediately came to my attention: The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal, Edmund de Waal’s mother.
Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare with Amber Eyes was so moving that it seems still fresh in my mind (especially as I live very close to the mansion of one of his ancestors in Paris and a chance walk through this particular neighborhood never fails to remind me of this book and this family’s destiny).
I remember very well that he mentioned his mother writing a book from her own experience of returning to Vienna post-WW2 after leaving in hurry in front of the Nazis. At the time, I’d assumed that the book had been published, but it turns out that it was an unpublished manuscript and that De Waal offered it to Persephone (this is the place where I’d have put an exclamation mark, but I’m exercising restraint — lots of it).
This title goes straight to my wishlist. Ah, spring…
Sometimes this blog makes me do weird things. Like vowing to read every book by a certain writer. Of course, it took me a while, since I bought Best Love Rosie at the Paris Salon du Livre in 2009 and it had been lingering at the bottom of my TBR pile ever since.
Still, I’m persistent, so now I can say that I’ve read all her novels (she was a journalist so probably no-one can claim to have read all she’s ever written).
I can be sure because she died of cancer in 2008 just before this book was published by a French publisher I love, Sabine Wespieser. Wespieser has published the Story of Chicago May and all her titles in French, and has published Best Love Rosie even before it was available in English (how weird is that?).
Anyone who’s read O’Faolain knows that her writing is intensively personal, emotional and honest, even the novels, and the result is that I couldn’t stop thinking of her writing it during her terminal illness. Surely she was aware that it was her last chance to send out a message to readers. Indeed, this story talks about ageing women who try hard to come to terms with their lives, the mistakes of their past, their age, the wasted opportunities or those that they still can grasp. The shadows of death make the book wise and a bit nostalgic, but not sad or afraid.
I often forgot that Rosie wasn’t supposed to be Nuala. Rosie spent many years abroad, turning her back on Ireland and an unhappy childhood, working and travelling and having affairs and adventures. She refused to marry and lead an ordinary life, but the price was also high for her. She reluctantly (yet dutifully) returns to Ireland to take care of her ageing aunt Min, a frail old woman in her 70s who has raised her but who is now drunk and boring and trapped in her village and routine.
But then, as Rosie seizes the opportunity to visit an old friend in New York and see if he can help her with a writing gig, something unexpected happens. Min decides to go to New York too, and when Rosie’s American break comes to an end, Min refuses to go home and prefers to take new adventures there. Rosie, now bound in her hometown, starts to see things differently too.
The bottom line is that it’s never too late to start afresh, despite difficulties and failings. It’s not all Polly-annaish because O’Faolain never shirk from pain and harsh honesty, especially on loneliness and lovelessness. It is poignant novel, alternating between sadness and hope.
On paper it looked exactly right for me: a noir mystery set in Brugge, in Flemish Belgium.
I know a thing or two about Flanders, you see, because I was born and raised very close to this region (we routinely crossed the border to shop or go for a stroll). From years of watching Belgian TV news at dinner time, I know for sure that Belgium has its fair share of dirty business, sex scandals, hidden secrets of the bourgeoisie, corruption, prostitution and crime.
Not to say that the country isn’t safe in real life for visitors, I hurry to add, but the country’s history has made it less state-controlled than France (from my own French point of view, which is of course biased): laws are more liberal, in the sense that privacy is more valued, and control over business is probably laxer. With little border control, there are many stories about sex traffick, counterfeiting and gangs.
So plenty of material for Pieter Aspe to draw upon when writing the adventures of Inspector Van In, working in Brugge, with his two side-kicks: his assistant inspector Guido Versavel (D.C. perhaps? all I know about ranks in the police comes from TV series, so…) and his lovely wife Annelore Martens, who works as a D.A..
Aspe is apparently quite successful in his home country with more than 30 books published in this series.
Yet, something didn’t quite work for me. Perhaps it was the wrong book to start with, but the plot was bland and circumvoluted, and I didn’t quite know what to make of this gruff character who seems to have a short fuse and some personal issues. It was like crashing into a party where all the guests know each other but you don’t know anyone. I’m not sure I’ll give it a second chance.
If someone can point me towards another Belgian mystery writer (besides Simenon), I’d be happy to investigate the matter as this region is dear to my heart.