Wolfgang Büscher, Hartland, on foot through America (2011)

End January I was suddenly in the mood for long-distance hiking. Don’t be afraid, my hiking boots are still gathering dust in the basement, and I didn’t suddenly change my mind about exercising. Instead, I went to the movies to see Wild, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, and I picked this book up at the library.

I wasn’t blown away by any of those two. As much as we get to learn in perhaps too much details the reasons behind the hike in Strayed’s book, Büscher’ motivation is quite elusive. Strayed’s voyage is mainly a moral and spiritual one, one of self-discovery, of redemption and healing. Büscher has no such ambition. A German professional travel writer, he is used to long and lonely trips on foot (most notably from Berlin to Moscow) and walks for the sake of discovering new places. Both are courageous and enduring, both are rather candid in their story, both had lonely days and risky adventures and intense encounters.

But both experiences were too intimate to really connect with me. They were walking for themselves, and they left me behind on the road.

Why did I pick this book at the library? The title was intriguing: Heartland, where on earth is that and what does it look like?

As much as I know by cultural impregnation of the East coast (New England and New York actually), the Pacific coast, Texas and Louisiana, I feel that I know next to nothing about the land in between those coasts. Actually, like most Europeans, I can’t really fathom a life spent so far away from any large body of water like ocean or sea. Or from any foreign country. The only thing about this place is the Little house in the Prairie which introduced me to the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Other than those, the one and only thing about Omaha, Nebraska I knew was that Danielle lives there, so it must be real. I’m not even sure I would put it on a map even if my life depended on it.

We follow Büscher along his 3500km trip from the Canadian border into North Dakota to the Mexican border out of Texas, mainly along Road 77 from Missouri to the Rio Grande. There aren’t much in terms of vistas and monuments. But there are a lot of interesting cultural references to Native Americans, and how Germans are fascinated by them since the 19th century. I had heard of Winnetou while in Germany, but I had no idea how deep this story ran.

I used to read a lot of travel writing back in my twenties when I had the opportunity to do some solo travel. My favorite writer is Nicolas Bouvier, a Swiss writer with a wonderful eye and a wonderful style who traveled the world in the 1950s. But now traveling is hardly something special. You have to do something really physically challenging, dangerous, or have other reasons behind your travel (as in Wild, but also Eat Pray Love) to be worthwhile. I wonder if blogs have ruined travel writing as a literary genre.

If you find me too blasé, perhaps it’s time I take a real hike myself?

Laurent Gaudé, Le Soleil des Scorta (The House of Scorta, French 2004)

I have discovered Laurent Gaudé with a mythological story centered on Alexander the great, “Pour Seul Cortège”. I was fascinated by his style, a poetic, rhythmic chant that immediately elevates the story to the level of the tragedy (it’s no coincidence that Gaudé also writes for the theater). In French, we say that this style “has breath”, because you can immediately imagine someone on stage reciting such an epic poem. If it withers away, short of breath, the story soon falls flat.

I wondered how it fared with a more prosaic story, or at last with a story closer to our times. The House of Scorta (English title, whereas the original title centers on the sun) is the saga of a southern Italian family set in the Puglia over five generations from the end of the 19th century. The family is dirt poor, their origin infamous, a ruffian just out of prison mistaking an old maid for the woman he used to love. The main characters are his grandchildren, Carmella and her three brothers. After trying their luck in America, they come back and set up a cigarette smuggling business in their hometown.

Yes, it “had breath”. The story is full of sun, of heat and dust. The style was straightforward and full of images, not a word too many. As with the previous book, we soon feel that Gaudé aims at something larger  than life, something like destiny.

I had some problem with this story, but as the book won the Goncourt prize I tend to think it’s my problem and not really the book’s. I couldn’t really empathize with the Scortas, because all these notions of “blood is thicker than water”, “the family is more important”, “you can’t get far away from your ancestors sacred soil” are totally foreign to me. On my family people move, go to new places, start anew elsewhere, reinvent themselves. The Scortas, in the other hand, stay put. I don’t say it’s unbelievable, or wrong. Gaudé makes a well written saga out of it, and I enjoyed it, but it just doesn’t resonate with me. Sometimes his powerful style won me over, but at times I felt like there were too many Italian clichés.

Nevertheless, I will certainly read other novels by Gaudé.

Steffen Kverneland, Munch (2013)

I confess that when my husband received this massive graphic novel as a Christmas present, I raised an eyebrow and wondered where it would fit on our crowded shelves. But I was all about giving it a chance, as Edvard Munch’s paintings are really intriguing and I am already reading the biography of another painter, Gauguin, trying to understand how these people managed to break away from the conventions of their times to try radically new painting styles.

I was eager to discover, but I can’t say the graphic style of Steffen Kverneland appealed to me at once. You can see it: very angular, and close to caricature. Even now I don’t really like it, but after finishing the book I find it fitting to Munch’s life, even though Edvard Munch’s paintings are anything but angular.

But Munch’s bohemia life had a grotesque, cartoony aspect, especially as he and Strindberg spent nights after nights drinking and partying. Munch’s manifesto was that he never wanted to painted what he saw, but what he had seen (as in, what he remembers feeling at that time, I guess).

The story of this massive book is not completely linear and cut at times by the own rendition of Kverneland himself and his mate Lars Fiske (via photos and cartoons) researching, discussing and visiting landscapes of famous paintings and other places important to Munch, trying to see what he’d seen, preferably with a little help from a strong liquor. These funny interruptions made the atmosphere lighter, less dark and deep. It was rather welcome, as Munch is not really a fun, extrovert type.

Nevertheless, I came out with a more complex, I dare even say muddled, image of Munch than the simplistic one I had before. My reference was a movie I’d watched a few years ago on DVD, a 1974 movie by Peter Watkins which centered on his childhood and coming-of-age years. It felt as if Munch was mysterious, morbid, haunted by vision and hallucinations, surrounded by death and smothered by the moral taboos of his time. Yet now I have a more down-to-earth vision of his entire life (after all, he had a long life: 1863-1944), he experimented with different painting styles and he decidedly knew how to promote and sell his art. His family had indeed known some deaths, but no more than the normal of these times. It was actually the fashion of the turn-of-the-century (and Munch following the trend) to insist so much on morbidity, darkness and decadence.

There’s a fascinating article in English by Kverneland on Eurozine, explaining his whole project.

Reading Notes: James Ellroy’s Perfidia (2013)

I remember vaguely discovering Ellroy in my late teens, with the Black Dahlia. It was a shock. Never before had I read something so dark and orchestral. The short sentences, the ellipses, the choir of characters, all navigating between violence, ambition, vices and some principles.

It was in French that I read the Black Dahlia, then the rest of the L.A. Quarter. Later on I tried another of his earlier novels, the one with the serial killer’s point of view (Killer on the Road) and it was all too much for me. I couldn’t stomach this point of view. I don’t think I even finished the book. I needed the distance of the historical setting. 1950s L.A. is like a movie background, I couldn’t (and mostly still can’t ) take it realistically.

Then a few years later, I tried American Tabloid, this time in English. It was another shock. Ellroy’s original voice was totally different from what I had imagined in French. All these words I didn’t understand. Slang? 1950s words? Invention? Cop lingo? L.A.? There were so many sentences (3 words long, but still) where I had no idea what was going on. I soon threw in the towel.

This January, I saw that my workplace library had bought Perfidia in English edition. I decided to give it a try. I decided not to be daunted by the words I didn’t understand. But I still feel out of my depth. The only comfort is that I remember some of the recurring characters from the first L.A. Quarter (but only vaguely, not in details). But it’s reasonable that reading Ellroy shouldn’t be a comforting experience.

I am barely 100 pages into this massive 700 pages thing. I am not yet sure I’ll finish it, but so far his vision of L.A. just the day before Pearl Harbor and on the days immediately following the event is haunting.

You might find me naive, but never before had I heard talking about F.D. Roosevelt in such bad terms. Now, his image is that of a brilliant war hero (at least in Europe) and in high school we’re all studying the New Deal as the most brilliant strategy to fight the Depression. But Ellroy shows me a different picture.

Likewise, my summer reading experience with The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka showed me the Japanese community in California under a globally positive light (the traditional story of the hard-working immigrants who eventually make it in America, only to be cruelly and unfairly treated during the war). With Ellroy, I’m pretty sure that the picture will be much darker.

I’m bracing for the next 600 pages. Have you read it? What say you?

Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: everyday life in Dickens’ London (2012)

Judith Flanders has been a favorite historian of mine for quite a while, as it was before I set up my blog that I read her Circle of Sisters, about 4 sisters in the Victorian era who had strong connections with the painting and artistic communities of pre-Raphaelites and Edward Burne-Jones, and one of them was Rudyard Kipling’s mother.

Moving away from biographies she seemed to have chosen to present Victorian life in its minutest details. Her huge Victorian house volume was a hoot if you enjoy all kinds of trivia on domestic life, or if you’re just curious, after reading Victorian novels who are often lofty on sentiments, to know how they were in real life.

It was just a matter of time before I continued with her depiction of Victorian life, this time focused on the city and streets of London. Let me tell you, it was a Magnus opus. So many pages full of details, references, images, notes, and names! I regretted not to know London any better and I would have loved her to do the same about Paris, which would have resonated with me a lot more. Nevertheless it was fascinating by all accounts. It’s like perusing an encyclopedia, except that Judith Flanders is so methodical that she walks you from dawn till night telling you exactly how it felt, smelt, sounded, looked like.

From what the streets were covered with, to how the sewers came to exist (a lot of people fighting against their creation, despite increasingly disgusting evidence that things had to be… well… taken care of if you wanted to avoid cholera epidemics), from what you could have to eat at any hour of the day or night to whether women were really prostitutes or were just walking among men in a disreputable street. I learnt quite a lot, but I’m not sure I’m going to use all this knowledge anytime soon. So let me share it with you, if I have managed to arouse your curiosity:

Did you know for example, that before people had watches and clocks in their home, they paid a guy to come and knock on their window at the time they were expected to wake up, so as to be on time at work?

Did you know that the streets were so noisy with horses hoofs, people’s shouts etc. that people had to turn to side streets if they wanted to talk? (especially as some road surfaces were made of wood!)

Did you know that it was possible to rent the previous day’s newspaper by the hour?

Did you know that working class families had no place to cook meals in their homes (rooms, rather), no stove or oven or open fire, so that cookshops were set up, a sort of communal oven where the meat and veggies were brought by the women and baked in their own dishes? and the women complained that the cookshops owners were always shaving off meat out of the baked dishes?

The basis of her investigation is Dickens’ life and novels, but you don’t need to have read every Dickensian novel to start on this journey. But you very well might decide to read some of his novels after finishing this book.

Michael Connelly, The Gods of Guilt (2013)

I can’t seem to be able to curb my Mickey Haller addiction. When the last one finished, the cliffhanger was so huge I could hardly wait. How do people manage it when they’re reading books fresh from publication? Luckily, I usually don’t.

I immediately went online to see if there was another one in the series. Reassured, I could wait a bit, but not too long. I could not resist the library copy, especially as it was in English. I had to know if Mickey Haller, the defense attorney whose office is a Lincoln backseat, had turned his coat as he’d announced: he was going to run for District attorney.

I’m not sure how possible or even believable it is in the American justice system, but that wouldn’t be possible at all in the French system (and I’m not even talking about the backseat office thing, what French person would trust a guy without a proper office?), because prosecutors are appointed by the Justice Ministry, not elected. They’re civil servants with jobs for life. Now, my knowledge of the American justice system is sketchy, based on novels and series (Law and Orders anyone?), which might not be the best for facts, I grant you.

But Haller a D.A.? I just couldn’t picture it (I do realize that I speak way more about the previous book than this one at hand, but that’s ok): having his hero flip sides so completely is to me the equivalent of professional suicide for a writer specialized in courtroom drama, isn’t it?

Anyway, my distress was short-lived as Connelly regained his composure and made Haller lose his campaign. Haller was back in the backseat of his car, where it suited me. Full of contradictions and racked with guilt, compounded by the fact that his ex-wife and his daughter refused to talk to him anymore.

He had helped a prostitute years back, trusting her when she’d said she wanted to leave town and start anew in Hawaii. But when Haller learns that she’s dead, it seems that he didn’t know her at all. She’s been playing the Pretty Woman in a L.A. classy hotel. He’s called to defend her alleged killer, her digital pimp, who tells him she’d recommended him. The plot is so convoluted that I won’t even try, but rest assured that you’ve got twists and turns and hair-raising scenes. Connelly is such a writing powerhouse.

I enjoyed the book a lot, the investigation part as well as the courtroom part. I’m not too sure how much of it is plausible, but at that stage I don’t really care. The guilt-ridden gumshoe is a cliché, but the guilt-ridden attorney pulls it off. He doesn’t shy away from manipulations and even theater tricks to win a lawsuit, but the one thing he’s not is crooked. He has a moral compass that inevitably puts him in dangerous situations, defending people he only regards as innocent, against all odds. He’s a bit like a modern-day knight in shining armor, except the damsel in distress would be a prostitute or a digital pimp!

Interrupted: Carol Goodman, The Lake of Dead Languages (2002)

I’m sure that ten years ago, I would have been right in the target readership of this book: the setting in a secluded all-girl boarding school in Upstate New York, with Gothic tones and plenty of ominous foreboding. It is Gothic chick-lit, centered on the Latin teacher, a divorced mother of a preschooler, who returns to teach at her alma mater. She had left school under dark circumstances, after two of her roommates had committed suicide (or so it seems). I can’t imagine a man being drawn to this kind of plot. My younger self certainly was.

Yet, more than hundred pages into the story, my interest slightly waned. There were too much foreboding, too much back and forth between the present and the past, and the symbols were quite heavy-handed (a frozen lake! midnight skinny dipping! brooding teenagers! self-mutilation and drugs! disappearing journals full of secrets!). I knew that  this book wasn’t going to be the kind I’d be proud of finishing. Some things are just bad for you, like too much ice cream.

Guess what? Perhaps I’m a grown-up now, even for books. Or perhaps it’s the effect of good resolutions. I skimmed the rest, just out of FOMO. Misplaced FOMO, as it turned out. The amount of coincidences necessary to tie all loose ends was just beyond all plausibility.

But now, after this mild disappointment, I would love to immerse into a good atmospheric Gothic novel, something truly excellent. I have always been a big fan of Bram Stocker’s Dracula, it might be time for a re-read? Or do you have any other suggestion?

Charlotte Otter, Balthasar’s Gift (2013)

I could start with “I should have read this book a long time ago”, or “I’m like the last person on the blog world to post about this book”, or “why oh why did this book linger for so long on my nightstand?”… and I could tell you a lot of excuses. The truth is, I bought this book first when it came out in German, because Charlotte Otter is a delightful person whose blog I have been reading for ages and because I like crime novels with a deep sense of setting.

But I’m reading German very slowly these days, and my understanding level is not really enough to follow a well-crafted plot full of characters and twists and turns (did I mention fights?). So the book remained there half-read. I got frustrated. Not with the book, but with myself, for forgetting the languages I was fluent in before (I’m not even starting on Chinese), for failing myself, and failing Charlotte who had taken extraordinary lengths to have this book published (can you imagine that she also has three kids and a corporate job?).

And then I decided to look facts squarely like they are, and not waste energy and time in guilt and regrets, a bit like Otter’s heroin Maggie Cloete who rushes headlong into her investigations even if it means putting herself at risk. I wanted to enjoy the detailed South-African background of the book, understand the deeper issues of Aids during the 1990s, and for that I had to let go of the German book. Mid-December, I bought Balthasar’s Gift in English this time, and it was such fun!

Dark fun, but still. Everything I know about South-Africa is through the media or hearsay, but Charlotte managed to make the country alive under our eyes, in its complexity and density, without slowing the plot down with too much explanation. The only downside of this book is that there is a lot going on, probably enough to fill two books, so that it takes a while to have all the strands neatly tied up at the end!

In this mystery, Maggie Cloete, a determined crime reporter in Pietermaritzburg, hasn’t followed up on a call by Balthasar Meiring, an AIDS activist, who urged her to take an interest in the trial of a quack accused of selling fake Aids drugs. A few days later, the AIDS activist is shot, and soon Maggie feels that it’s more than just a random robbery killing.

I won’t probably buy the next book in German, but I’ll gladly read the next Maggie Cloete mystery!

Joan Didion, Blue Nights (2011)

I read this book in December and I was deeply moved and impressed. All the more as I remembered that I hadn’t felt the same about The Year of Magical Thinking.

At first view, it is about the same. After suddenly losing her husband Gregory Dunne in 2003, Didion did lose her daughter Quintana twenty months after, aged 39. Talk about rotten luck! In fact, she had been admitted into hospital even before Dunne’s death due to a pneumonia that had turned into something nasty and eventually fatal. Didion was stunned by her husband’s death, but her daughter’s progressive fading is quite another level of tragedy.

In Blue Nights, we get the clarity, the detachment, the rambling of the other book, but somehow softened. She says it herself: writing no longer gets naturally to her, she’s often at a loss for words. I haven’t read any other Didion but those two, but I kind of like this one better.

She doesn’t concentrate as much on the medical details this time, she dwells on her own age, her grief and on to fleeting memories of her daughter’s life. It’s a desperate attempt to cling to the past, while she’s well aware that it’s useless. She writes as a mother who wants to know her daughter and who knows she might never had understood her enough, or shown her enough love.

The issue is particularly sensitive as Quintana is an adopted daughter and Didion herself doesn’t seem, from what we get to read, very motherly (at least in traditional terms, but she has never led a traditional life either). It was mere luck that Quintana was given to them (I’d say “bestowed”), and it must have felt double bad luck that she was taken away from her again.

What I enjoyed most is that she knows how to counter our own objections before they appear. She knows that we will be judgemental about her privileged life, about Quintana’s sheltered childhood. She doesn’t shy away from naming celebrities (from the 1970s), luxury brands and classy hotels because they certainly were part of her life. But the tone of her writing is really heart-breaking. She knows we will find her self-centered, but she still does what she knows best, trying to make her see things through her eyes.

There were other moments when the magic got somehow interrupted and more ticklish questions appeared: how can she not speak of Quintana’s husband at all? Why does she come out so cold with her own daughter, why does she not (dare to) go deeper into her daughter’s analysis instead of into her own? It might be because it was too painful, too private or too difficult. But because of this we get the feeling that her daughter only existed in relation to herself, which is of course very flawed.

What I’m so clumsily trying to express here is that I liked her writing very, very much, even if I’m not sure I would like her in person. I feel as if I’m just at the tip of the iceberg here, and perhaps the tip is not representative of the rest, so I sure want to read more of Didion. It is quite strange that she’s not known in France but for the Year of magical thinking. Any advice where I should turn next?

Jean-François Parot, L’honneur de Sartine (French, 2010)

It feels weird for me to log into this place and write a post about a book (delightful, I hasten to add) as if nothing happened. I am still in shock that in my own city journalists and cartoonists were killed just because some extremists didn’t like their political cartoons. I have never bought Charlie Hebdo myself, but I looked at their weekly covers placated everywhere and I smiled at their provocative courage. They were unafraid to address every uncomfortable or controversial subject and try to make people laugh with their cartoons. They weren’t afraid, but they paid it with their lives. Freedom of expression seems easier and more accessible than ever before (just think about blogging!) and yet so challenged and endangered.

I urge you, in this period where we all make resolutions and reading plans, to not shy away from controversial books this year, and to use our freedom of expression to blog wisely and courageously.

***

This Nicolas Le Floch mystery is set in Paris in 1780. It starts when the population gets angry about disruptions due to overflowing cemeteries located at the center of the city (not only a sensory nuisance, but a real health hazard, as I read on a similar issue in the history of Victorian London by Judith Flanders). Paris population is prone to sudden flares of temper, and the 1780s French society is dancing on the brink of disaster.

After returning the peace to the streets of Paris, Le Floch is called to investigate the death of a former Navy bigwig, killed by the fall of his canopy bed (one danger we no longer need to worry about). It soon appears that the death wasn’t just accidental, and that the victim was at the heart of a state secret involving Le Floch’s former boss and current Navy State Secretary, Sartine. The victim had in his room a document that could endanger the Secretary’ position and honnor, but the whole French Kingdom in its war against England. But he also had no shortage of enemy in his own family, as they all eagerly awaited his inheritance.

The more I read by Parot, the more I love his mysteries. It doesn’t matter if I don’t read them in order (this one is the 9th, coming before the Russian investigation). The pleasure and comfort come from reuniting with familiar characters once again and see what happens to them and how they interact. Parot’s characters have depth and subtle ambiguities, there are almost too many of them. They also evolve and grow over the course of the series. I also love the language, a very successful imitation of the French that was used at the time, and I love about Paris, everyday life and food then, rendered in vivid details! I listened to this book in audio version, and I must confess that the plot was a tad too complex and full of twists and turns for me to register every detail without the possibility to flip back a few pages sometimes. But I happily got along and will certainly follow Nicolas Le Floch in about any adventure.

The added pleasure of reading this series is the parallel that we can draw to our contemporary era. France in 1780 was running close to bankruptcy, and everybody knows about the sorry state of the economy in Europe these days. Some advocated austerity, in 1780 (Necker) as in 2015, others want to spend and invest in order to reap future benefits. Some want to introduce reforms, some cling to their privileges. The comparison is uncanny, especially as we have the hindsight of what was coming ahead.