Saturday, September 12, 2015

Reading Report from Bordeaux

I'm not sure how much time I'll find on holiday to write about my reading, but I do want to at least keep recording titles and a few impressions. And I'm so loving the comments here! We may only have a few voices in our reading discussion, but such thoughtful, perceptive, and articulate ones they are! I think perhaps when I get back home, I should try to organize a ReadAlong. . . What do you think?
But for now...I finished Timothy Williams' Italian mystery, Converging Parallels on the plane, and I very much enjoyed it. I don't think it's in print anymore, as it's rather back list, but I suspect your library will have a copy, and I downloaded an e-copy of it from Kobo. A very well-written book with a likeable detective, Comissario Trotti, somewhat predictably too caught up in his work to have a credible personal life, alienated from his wife whom he still adores, although with hurt frustration, and, to a certain degree, from his teenage daughter because of this. Published in 1982, it's set somewhat earlier, in a time when the inevitable post-war grand-scale changes to Italian society are particularly manifest in power struggles between communist and fascist parties. Industrial pollution is as present in Williams' novel as it is in Donna Leon's series, as are the more subtle powers linking old money-aristocracy and ancient Mafia loyalties with the more obvious political battles. I also found some reinforcement here of what I learned about the foment of the 60s and 70s in Italy through Ferrante's 3rd Neapolitan novel (have any of you begun the 4th yet? I'm going to wait until I can get home and buy the print version, but I'm so tempted!)
So I'd recommend Williams if you'd enjoy a well-written mystery that enhances your understanding of Italy (particularly the North, which is where it's set) -- or simply that allows you to travel there, from your armchair.
Emma Healey's Elizabeth Is Missing supports a different kind of imaginative travel. We get a slice of life in an English town, as it changes from pre-WWII through to the present day. What's both fascinating and potentially frustrating is that this mystery is narrated by an elderly woman in the inexorable grip of dementia. We've seen this kind of experiment before, perhaps most notably with the narrator of Robert Wiersema's Before I Wake, but there are a number of new twists here that make Healey's approach worth engaging with.
Primarily, while Wiersema's narrator is similarly bereft of her short-term memory, in her case due to trauma rather than age, she is able to remember a full day at a time, and she makes coherent journal entries from which she pieces together a credible narrative. By contrast, Healey's narrator-protagonist, Maud, while also trying to bolster her memory with writing, does so through a chaotic series of notes that emphasize the fragility of her cognitive abilities.
I was skeptical throughout of the soundness of the science behind certain elements of the narration. Primarily, and most obviously, Maud would not be able to string together anything as coherent as the narrative we see of the present-day frame story. Yet this narrative captures brilliantly what many of us have experienced of loved ones' decline into what my mother's physician kindly called "mild to moderate cognitive impairment." (Maud moves through these stages and unravels further by novel's end.) Both her daughter's impatience with Maud and Maud's own frustration with her inability to remember or understand or solve the puzzle she's obsessed with will both resonate and illuminate for many.
And then, simply on the level of a mystery, the novel is very satisfying indeed, as Maud's present-day fluster is paralleled by long-term memories triggered by places or foods or a face or smell... Gradually, we begin to realize that past and present overlap in material ways that Maud is not wrong to insist on. Will she be able to figure out a connection before her investigating identity is shut down by the encroaching damage to her cognitive systems? Will anyone listen? Can we have enough imagination to hear the truths behind a confused mind's rambling?
All in all, a very satisfying mystery novel, whether read on an airplane, or on a bench in a Bordeaux park, or in your armchair, wherever home is. Have you read it yet? Let me know what you think, if you have, or if you do. Always interested in your comments...
Next up, Nancy Mitford. All four of the titles that commenter Annie Green helpfully put in order for me at this post, every one here on the wonderfully stocked bookshelves of our borrowed Bordeaux house. Not sure how or why I've never read these before, but I'm gobbling them up now, well into the second, Love in a Cold Climate, and I hoped it won't be too long before I tell you about those.


  1. Materfamilias,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    The five Trotti novels, originally published by Gollancz, London, have all been re-edited in paperback by Soho Publishing in New York. They are also available in epub format and two of them are in audiobook.

    The sixth novel will be published for the first time in 2016.

    Some of your readers may be interested in my Caribbean books, set in the island of Guadeloupe, where Death in Paradise was filmed. The protagonist is a woman investigative judge.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Always an honour to hear from the writers. I'm pleased to hear there are new paperback editions available. It's always frustrating and sad to see the backlist catalogues disappear...

  2. Oh,la,la! What a surprise! Both!
    I didn't expect new post at all!
    All recommendations memorized! A lot to catch up, I like the idea for Read along,although I'm a snail in english
    I finished Knausgaard 1 and,although very impatient,decided to wait translation to folow,because my mother is reading,too, and she reads croatian. I finished Munro (interesting how there are some clues between them two,also,as with Ferrante,no?)
    I read a book called The Rosie project,very light,but if you like The Bing Bang Theory,you'like it ( for the plain f.e.). It is clever and funny,I asked myself is it correct to smile when it is written from Asperger syndrom perspective,but enjoyed it.
    Ferrante is waiting,too.
    I started Nicci French (I found Waiting for Wendesday while waiting in postoffice)and Le petit bijou from Modiano (as you can see I expect a Nobel prize for Knausgaard :-),reading Nobel winners,if political winds will blow in Scandinavian way, I like him more than Franzen)
    And:I can't comment on Insagram,so,your le petit bijou is so cute!!

  3. Dottoressa, isn't it wonderful? All these enticing possibilities! I've put Knausgaard aside for the moment as well; will pick him up again when I get back home.
    Love Nicci French, and I'm so impressed that a husband-wife team could collaborate together so effectively.
    I don't know Modiano, will check that out. So many prize winners and nominees, just not enough time. They've just announced the Booker shortlist--I'll never keep up!
    If you liked The Rosie Project, which I haven't read but will make note of, I wonder if you've rad Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. That narrator, if I remember correctly, is autistic, and the reader engagement with him was, for me, a very interesting process.

  4. I haven't read many mysteries because I don't take well to suspense (I have been known to peek at the ending so I can concentrate on the story). However, I am willing to start! I will poke around in the library and see how I fare.

    Nancy Mitford is a good light read (and a snapshot of a time, place, and class of society) and the Mitford family story is fascinating.

    I will return to Knausgaard and Ferrante after the busyness of preparing for retirement and upcoming travel is over. They deserve more attention than I can give them right now.

    I see Anne Tyler is on the Booker shortlist. I had forgotten about her but used to follow her faithfully and found her fiction very restful.

  5. Frances, I am double posting today, here and on your other blog. I LOVE Nancy Mitford's novels. "The Blessing" and "Don't Tell Alfred" are my idea of comedic bliss. They are also love letters to France after the Second World War. Finally, Charles-Edouard is a brilliant comic creation.

  6. That last post was from Brenda!

  7. Georgia, if you can resist that urge to turn to the back page, I suspect you might get sucked into the way that good mystery novels develop character, sketch wonderful settings that offer armchair travel, and often explore the essential questions about humanity, morality, etc. of course, I could be saying all that just to justify my addiction to a genre of escape reading!
    Funny you should mention Anne Tyler. For some reason, having only ever read one or two of her books, I never got hoed on her writing as many friends did, but there are several shelves of her books here in our borrowed home. I hadn't realized she was quite so prolific, and I'm debating whether to get through a title or two after i finish Mitford.

    Brenda, I knew it was you! Yes, I'm absolutely loving Mitford and wondering how and why I missed her for so long. I read her passage on the French treatment of the Spanish Civil War refugees just as the heat was being turned up on the current situation with the thousands of Syrians fleeing their tragic homeland. So she can be serious and trenchantly but she has such a gift for humour with a sly edge. Charles-Edouard particularly, but Davey Warbeck and Uncle Matthew as well. and Hector Dexter, what a perfect name!