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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.
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?
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.
I fell in love with Italian mysteries last year, and whenever I asked around for references the name of Camilleri kept coming up.
I didn’t feel like getting to meet his famous Inspector Montalbano just yet, so I approached him sideways, first with a novella, La Rizzagliata, and now with Renoir, a mystery about paintings, another novella.
The origin of the book is quite simple: has Renoir really visited Sicily in the 1880s and if so, why hasn’t he painted anything there? In his memoir, his son states that his father had stayed in Agrigente, but no painting of Renoir shows any landscape of Sicily. Apparently Camilleri spent some time researching the question, and he presented his own answer in a whimsical way.
Around this simple question, Camilleri weaves a simple but entertaining plot with an ageing Sicilian notary, Michele Riotta, who might have seen Renoir as a kid and who starts a mail exchange with a woman interested in Renoir paintings. Very soon this stern old man fall head over heels for the mysterious woman. The first part of the book presents Riotta’s increasingly passionate letters (we never get the woman’s letters, for reasons that the rest of the book will progressively explain), while the rest of the book is told by Riotta’s nephew, who struggles to understand what has taken hold of his uncle.
It was fun and easy to read, and the least I can say is that it makes you want either to visit Sicily, or to see Renoir paintings!
I don’t read much French lit, especially writers who get French literary press headlines over and over. I’m just suspicious and weary of the very special hype in the French literary market, where journalists and media honor writers who are just their friends or neighbors.
But this year I’m willing to make exceptions, so I borrowed this book by Laurent Gaudé, a successful writer of novels and theater who won both the Goncourt (France’s most prestigious literary prize) and its junior version (Goncourt des lycéens) for 2 previous books.
“Pour seul cortège” talks about Alexander the Great. More precisely, Gaudé imagines what happens when the great emperor dies. Struck down with a fever during a banquet, he declines and his agony stretches for two weeks, during which all the soldiers of his army march before him and salute him. In the meantime, a princess in exile is called to the court of Babylon to assist with the passing. She was living anonymously among secluded monks, but she’s actually a royal princess of Persia, daughter of Darius and widow of Hephaiston, a friend of Alexander’s.
While Dripteis travels back to Babylon, a lonely horse rider comes back from India with a message to Alexander, hoping he will catch him alive. But the great emperor dies, and soon his coffin has to travel back to Macedonia, with its long procession of mourners. Dripteis marches among the women, all too aware that the succession war is just about to begin, and that she will witness Alexander empire crumbling down, just as she had years before witness the Persian empire crumbling down.
Dripteis has her own secret: she has a son, not from Hephaiston or even Alexander, but any male descendent of royal blood is in danger in the fight to death between aspiring successors. Dripteis is willing to follow Alexander’s body, as long as her son is left far away from the turmoil of history, safe as long as he stays anonymous.
I was fascinated by this subject (Alexander is so mysterious to me!), and really enjoyed reading it, since the book was short and could be read in two longish sittings. But the truth is, the short format was just right because the writing was so dramatic, it sounded like a theater dialogue, something like Euripides. Heavy stuff that shouldn’t drag for days. It’s really more a poetic chant, a traditional epic, than a modern novel, because of its obsessive rhythm.
I thought it was daring and challenging, and Gaudé made it a success. As long as he keeps his pieces short, I’ll eagerly read more of his works.
Also Known in the US as Death of a Writer.
I usually love campus novels, especially set in beautiful campuses of New England or Great Britain. Possession, The Rules of Attraction, I am Charlotte Simmons… I’m also a sucker for academic mysteries and I wouldn’t miss an episode of Inspector Lewis.
But, but… It seems that not every campus mystery is built on the same mold, and I couldn’t quite find my way into this one.
Robert Pendleton is an ageing professor in the New England College of Bannockburn. His only successful publication was more than 10 years ago, and he has become so unpopular among peers and students that the director threatens to review his tenure, unless he manages to get a best-selling writer, Horowitz, an old competitor of his, to come and give a talk at the college.
Humiliations and threats put too much pressure on Pendleton, who proceeds to take his life on Horowitz’s arrival. But Pendleton is such a loser that even his attempt fails. He’s kept alive in hospital and later under the care of Adi, a perpetual graduate student.
Adi moves into Pendleton’s house under the pretext of caring for him, and finds in the basement an old copy of a mystery novel published by Pendleton decades earlier. She manages to have the book republished, with huge success, until the success turns into controversy and suspicion as the murder in the book fits a real unsolved local crime, with some details that only the murderer would have known.
The cold case is reopened by a sorrowful cop with a shady past and his own obsessions…
Is Pendleton the real killer?
I realized while writing this outline that every piece of the jigsaw seems just right, but how come the result is so wrong? Collins wanted to criticize the academic milieu and literary conventions, but using irony and cynicism doesn’t marry very well with the conventions of a thriller. From the start I couldn’t relate to any of the negative characters. Pendleton, Adi, the cop, Horowitz, all failures one way or another: I couldn’t care for them, nor did I believe in them!
I was just left floating from one twist to the next, barely understanding all the secrets that everyone hides in this complex book. The pace was very slow and not quite engaging. I probably missed out a lot (especially the humorous bits, as usual dare I say), but I was just in a hurry to be done with it. If any reader has read it and enjoyed it, I’d love to hear a second opinion!
I don’t remember the last time I read a science book. It probably never happened before. I probably only ever read science textbooks, which don’t really count as books, do they? But 2013 is my year of reading dangerously: so when I saw this small book about black holes with only 64 pages in the science shelf at the kids library, it seemed intriguing enough and not too dangerous.
Let’s say appearances can be deceiving. By page 15 I was already lost. I didn’t get anything about Einstein and the general relativity theory. Hey, no wonder he’s called a genius. I rather stuck to Newton’s and his apple’s stage. I know those of you readers who are more scientifically-inclined will shake their heads and sigh, but I readily admit my limits. (I’m trying hard to be factual in this review, but please excuse any scientific error or bad English — science in a foreign language is even more daunting).
I did persevere though.
Not understanding this mysterious and counter-intuitive theory didn’t stop me from understanding that black holes were first an abstract mathematical theory (pushing the relativity to its limits) long before anyone could really prove their existence. That is, as much as we can get them even now. Because they are so… well, black, we can only detect them because of their interactions with their neighbors, may they be stars who are rotating around them (they will end up getting sucked into the hole) or some litter of rocks called accretion disk.
All these new (to me) concepts sounded fascinating. It was like opening a window on whole new fields: 64 pages were more than enough to send me reeling and make me realize that people have actually spent their lives on these subjects. “Schwarzschild radius” is a pretty cool word, but I doubt I will ever be able to put it in a conversation.
I felt vaguely worried to learn that our Milky way contains a supermassive black hole, but it apparently isn’t that close to us. I was also awed that nobody will ever know for sure what is at the bottom of this hole and that some people have developed the idea of a white fountain, the tip at the extremity, where all this energy that has been sucked in will spurt out (well, I’m translating that inasmuch as I could grasp it).
I really am not the right person to have an informed opinion on this, but it felt nice to be like a child for a moment, learning and discovering.
When I returned the book, I just told the librarian that the book was for adults and not really for kids. Unless science at school has really made huge progress and that they all understand the Einstein relativity by the age of 12.