Saturday, September 5, 2015

Summer 2015 Readings

Mid-August I "attacked" Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle (volume 1 of 6). 

I discovered him after reading his Part 1 and Part 2 article in the NYT's Magazine and then a friend's Danish husband mentioned him again when we had dinner and that brought back the enjoyment I felt while I read the long NYT Magazine article . 

Knausgaard is The Proust of Scandinavia and he keeps you entertained and thinking all the while. He is a fairly dark tormented author (not enough sun maybe?) but his style is so delectable... All the 6 volumes focus only on him, they are his "memoirs", a sort of Proust's La Recherche, but with fewer socialites. "As I sit here, I recognize that more than thirty years have passed.";  "When I was at home on my own, every room had its own character, and though not directly hostile to me they were not exactly welcoming, either." Read further: "Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing's location and aim. But how to get there?" BTW, Knausgaard has read Proust and studied French! Of course, the title is a bit of a shocker (Hitler's My Struggle, anyone?) and I am sure the author intended to shock. I am half-way through volume 1 and  will report later on the other volumes.

I also read Per PettersonAshes in my mouth, Sand in my shoes
Another Scandinavian favorite of mine. 
Written solely in the point of view of Arvid (a young boy), it is a collection of short chapters/stories that thread together like a novella on coming-of-age situations from age 5 to 13. Great character descriptions of the adult world around him too. Unusually "light" for another somber author (Out Stealing Horses (2005), To Siberia), but it was in fact its first published book in 1987, just finally translated into English in 2015!

 I read Soumission (in French) by Houellebecq and cannot recommend it enough. Please forget any literary reviews that you may have read when the book was released, which was just a couple of days after the Charlie Hebdo/ Hypercacher supermarket attack. Houellebecq had NOT planned the attack and is NOT a racist. Houellebecq is like a prophet preaching in the desert: no one listens to him or takes him/ his visions or his preaches seriously. The book is more a futuristic and political satire than anything else and for once, not as rude or crude than his previous works in which he denounced sexual tourism (but everyone ended up thinking he was a pervert or a "vieux degueulasse"... which proves that people either did not read him at all - or not properly-  or understood everything literally). I'll say that Houellebecq is more of a very depressed, hopeless man than a pervert or a racist. He denounces our weaknesses and includes himself in the lot. He has no hope for humanity. I am not far behind in thinking the same way, especially after the events in Europe and the Mediterranean sea in the last few days and weeks. For full disclosure: I bought the book in January in Paris, two weeks after the Charlie Hebdo event which was also two weeks after its release, while I was attending the Fondation AF Colloque. I read the first chapter and stopped because it was SO GOOD that I told myself I first needed to re-read Huysmans (a late 19th century / beginning of 20th century writer who is somehow a character in the book)... whom I had last read in 2009... I ended up reading some of Huysmans' pages from a couple of his novels between February and June and then grabbed Soumission on a Sunday in July and read it in one day, it is THAT good!

I also read, (in French too), a couple of really tender and funny (YES!) books by an Icelandic female writer, Audur Ava Olafsdottir. I highly recommend: Rosa Candida and also L'Embellie. One feels much better after reading these two books + you get to discover Iceland! Might prove useful when stopping there on the way back to Paris from DC on Iceland Air or Wow Air. I love the design of the cover of the English version of L'Embellie... translated into Butterflies in November by the brilliant Pushkin Press. A good pun on "butterflies in my stomach". A chance acquisition at a Used Book Sale put this author in my hands. My advice: always browse Used Book Carts. You never know what treasure you are about to find!

I read Elena Ferrante'Troubling Love last week. Ferrante is an Italian female writer, from Naples. Talk about a tormented writer!  Highly recommend her though, terrific style. Plus the translators at Europa Editions are the best in the world...Oh, and BTW, seems like people are whispering that Ferrante and Knausgaard are the current Titans of World Literature! Not surprised really. With sentences such: "I anchored myself to the paving stones of the piazza with the sole of my shoes."  or "I had sat for a while tasting my name like an echo of memory, an abstraction that sounds without sound in one's head." or also: "Amalia had the unpredictability of a splinter, I couldn't impose on her the prison of a single adjective.", her sentences are the strongest and the most beautiful I have read by far (apart from Knausgaard) this year.

In June I mentioned  Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem to a few French friends. 
Tom Friedman is a journalist...
at The New York Times, probably one of the most brilliant ones there is. He was the NYT Correspondent in Lebanon in the 1980s and then in Jerusalem. If you get the book, make sure you get the second edition (2012)... I hope he will release another edition in the next coupe of years, in light of the Arab Spring and its surprising consequences, the rise of ISIS, the destruction of the cradle of humanity (Syria... My heart cries when I think of Aleppo, of Palmyra...) and the likes... But at least I keep up with him as he writes in the NYT. His most recent article two days ago on why people who are against the Iran Deal have probably slept through 9/11 and forgotten that the US's worst BFF is Saudi Arabia is the BEST Editorial on the subject ever. 

My advice: Follow Tom Friedman on Twitter and in the NYT for the best analysis on the Middle East!

I invite everyone to read (for those who have not.. yet!) and re-read (for fans of the books and of the TV show like me, but the books first...) GoT (Game of Thrones, for the uninitiated). 
There are 5 volumes so far. I concede volume 3 is the least entertaining but is necessary to understand what went on, is going on and might happen. I am still feverishly awaiting the release of volumes 6, 7 and 8. I just hope the author does not die before he's finished writing (Valar Morghulis, I know... I know...). If you wonder why I write this, check his picture out! George R.R. Martin is his name. I salute his fertile imagination, this guy is a true story-teller. I hang onto his every page!

A former Washingtonian and a friend, Maryline Gauthier has just published her first book. Well, Maryline and I and a couple of others have been in the same writing group (a virtual group now... we send each other our writings since we all live in different places/continents) and Maryline is the first one to get published!  She released her novel, Kidnapping in May 2015 with Editions de la Difference, the same editor that published.... none other than Houellebecq's first books. So I am sure she is on the road to become a successful author! It is a tremendous treat to read the final product of a book one has read in multiple stages of writing and re-writing. Maryline is a prolific, intense, dark, writer. I have read four manuscripts by her and hope that all of them will be published. Kidnapping is more than just an ordinary kidnapping, it is a multi-dimensional kidnapping, a vicious circle of destruction within one's family which does bear some hope at least for one character. Maryline's strength at landscape descriptions matches the themes and the claustrophobic inferno in which some of her characters are stuck. Her 2nd book should be released in Spring 2016. I hope she comes to the Alliance Francaise de Washington DC for a signature!


For those of you who like thrillers, Fred Vargas is still at her best with her most recent book, Temps Glaciaires. I also discovered Olivier Truc and read both his books, Le dernier Lapon and Le detroit du Loup. (In English: Forty Days without Shadow and Wolf Strait) What can I say? Apparently I am not the only one fascinated by the Vikings, Scandinavia and all the Northern countries. Fred Vargas's book goes to...Iceland eventually and Olivier Truc has been living in Sweden since 1994. His books take place in Lapland. You'll learn all about "la police des rennes" but also about the greed behind the petroleum and mineral companies in Norway and Sweden that slowly kills off the environment, the reindeer shepherds and the Sami lifestyle and traditions. 

Onto  Muriel Barbery's second book, La vie des elfes. She had not published anything since 2006 L'elegance du herisson, whichto this day  remains one of my favorite books of all times. Her second one is not as memorable. Still great writing, with an attention to style that matches the landscapes and the characters (very well done and exquisite as always) but I must say that I am not much into elves, I hate The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, never went over page 50 and after 1.5 hours of the first Lord of the Rings movie, I was ready to commit hara-kiri (so never went to see films 2 and 3). As much as I LOVED Harry Potter (Read the 7 volumes in 10 days in one go... I had waited for them to be all released before reading them, my idea was that if I loved them then I would not be able to wait the publication of the next one and would suffer some form of withdrawal syndrome... which of course is what is happening with GoT...)
So as much as I am a total GoT-maniac (I root for the Starks... Winter is Coming, The North  Remembers; You Know Nothing, Jon Snow!... ), I cannot, absolutely cannot stand Lord of the Rings and anything elfish... But I'd be interested to know if you like it. I'd say it is worth reading for the style and 50% of the story (the parts in Bourgogne, and in the Italian village). Everything else can go.

Avoid Kamel Daoud'Meursault Contre-Enquete (In English, The Meursault Investigation) No joke, I have been at it since it was released... It is a very slim, thin book, barely 120 pages probably... I cannot get into it. Most boring book ever (more boring than Lord of the Rings). I guess I am too much of a Camus' fan to allow any imaginary sequel with a different point of view on L'Etranger. I guess Daoud's only redeeming quality is that it helps with my insomnia. 

I also read Le Consul by Salim Bachi. Great story (true), great style but too many content and stylistic redundancies kill the broth for me. Still, if you have nothing else, it is worth reading. I much prefer Bachi than Daoud.

And I also re-read two books: FoenkinosLa delicatesse (Good news: I still like it) and Barbery's Une gourmandise (I needed it after La vie des Elfes). I did not re-read L'elegance du Herisson, not because I have already read it 6 times in French and 2 in English, but because I did not want to cry again at the end (I did every single time I read it before...). 

The reason for reading La delicatesse a second time was because Foenkinos is such an amazingly unpredictable writer.  How can someone write La delicatesse and Charlotte? Not so many authors can write in totally different styles. Charlotte should have had the Goncourt last year...

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