Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Reading Enroute -- Trains, Planes, and Hotel Rooms . . .

Settled in Bordeaux now, and I'm hoping to get back to a more regular blogging practice, but we'll see... I've read the next ten chapters of Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend for our ReadAlong, and I'm putting that post together, but I thought you might like to know what else I've been reading on trains and planes.

Before I left Vancouver, I'd hurried through a big fat book I'd been looking forward to, Annie Proulx's Barkskins, Honestly, I wanted to love this (because, Annie Proulx) but I found it simply too obviously tendentious. Indeed, occasionally I would read some interesting anecdote about one of the many characters parading down the centuries of this historical survey of America's capitalist exploitation of its forests and wonder why the writer had bothered. The characters were so obviously working to convey a message to the reader that any attempt to flesh them out a bit more seemed wasted.  Such a brilliant writer and there were numerous passages that exemplified that, but there was also heavy-handed delivery of information to readers that made me despair about the value of fiction.
Dissenting opinions? I'd love to hear them, but you'll have a tough job convincing me. . .

Also, in the last few weeks before I left, I was trying to finish Elena Ferrante's La Figlia Oscura, which I'd optimistically taken out of the library - in Italian! the English translation out with some other borrower at the time. I only managed about 40 pages of this (in Italian) before I had to return it to the library after I'd exhausted the three renewal periods allowed -- painstaking translation, so slow and with so much recourse to Google translator for words I don't know, but still, satisfying. Interesting for me to see how similar the tone is to that of Ferrante's narrator in My Brilliant Friend, and there are some sentences/paragraphs that the latter novel repeats very closely -- the mother, for example, who wants to impress on her daughter a fear of the sea; the narrating mother who feels immensely liberated from her young-adult daughters' extended absence after their move to the US.

I also had to return Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost to the library before I was done with it, but what I read was enough to reset some of my attitudes to traveling. Or better, perhaps, it reinforced attitudes I'd allowed to drop back into latency.  A must-read, though, that already has inspired me to think about relinquishing the tight hold on my iPhone and the access to Google maps, getting lost in moderate ways, at least, not just in travel, but perhaps in more of life as well. Much food for thought, and I'll definitely return to this one.

Then for the plane, and for those nights back in the hotel room in Rome, on my own, a couple of good mystery novels: You might remember that I'm still lucky enough to be working my way through Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti mysteries, learning about Venice as I do, planning to visit someday.  The latest title for me was Fatal Remedies which further develops the rich relationship between Brunetti and his academic, feminist, firebrand of a wife. No complacency in their marriage, but love and much keeping each other on their toes. In this volume, she makes him furious, but by the end, they come around to see each other's point of view. So many mystery novels present detectives unable to sustain relationships; it's intriguing to consider the possibility it might be otherwise.

But  Jussi Adler-Olsen's Detective Carl Morck is one who doesn't do so well with personal relationships.  A Conspiracy of Faith is the 3rd in the Scandinavian Department Q mysteries, and while the serial killer phenomenon might be getting tired, overdone, to many, farfetched even -- and I don't mean Adler-Olsen's, particularly, but the concept in general -- the character development is strong here. This is particularly so between Morck and his mysterious Syrian assistant Assad, but also with the, er, erratic clerical/administrative staff in the department.  Apparently, three novels in this series have been made into film. Has anyone seen these? (I should add that if you're looking for a "cosy," these are not your mystery novels. Plenty of graphic violence, some gruesome, some grotesque, but this is oddly mixed with the comic. Dark humour abounds.

After sinking into the weird escape that mystery novels are for me (I can't understand why I would want to escape to such a universe, but perhaps the satisfaction of puzzles being solved?), I generally try to redeem myself by reading something more "worthwhile," something with more substantive content. This time, I turned to a memoir recommended by a friend which I was thrilled to find available as an e-book through the Vancouver Public Library -- even better, I was allowed to access the book despite being out of the country. Yes, there is the downside that I won't have my own copy of a book I suspect I'll want to go back to, but the ease of downloading -- for free! -- such high-quality reading while travelling is an absolute boon.
Okay, then, who's the author? what's the title?  Susan Faludi's In the Darkroom. So good, this memoir of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist/feminist Faludi about her rapprochement, as she moves into her middle years, with her father after his astonishing transition, via surgery at an advanced age to Stefanie, a woman (he fakes documentation to be able to do this -- in fact, as the memoir details, his life is marked, perhaps even directed, by his skill at faking),. Almost as astonishing is that after having survived the Holocaust as a Budapest Jew (and, by the way, having rescued his parents by impersonating a Nazi soldier -- at barely 18!!), her father chooses to live his last several decades there. So much about this memoir that illuminates so many dark corners -- the ugly persistence of anti-Semitism in Hungary; the strange struggle between Hungarian nationality and Jewish identity in her father; the troubled history of sex-change operations and the Trans community's historical struggle with strict gender binaries, its worrisome (for Faludi) understanding of what it means to be a woman. Fascinating, fascinating memoir -- highly recommended! I could write so much more about this book, and if you're in a book club, it would fuel a marvelous discussion. Seriously, grab this one! (and if you don't believe me, or you'd like a longer review that my quick-and-dirty, read this

And then I turned back to the mystery genre. Well, how could I resist? The VPL emailed to tell me a book I'd put a Hold on was now available: Carol O'Connell, Blind Sight, the just-released latest title in a series I love.  If you don't know this series featuring Kathleen Mallory, a New York detective with a traumatic childhood and an arguably sociopathic personality, you're in for a treat.  Not too much is added here to our knowledge of Mallory, except that we see glimpses of rare empathy, with children not surprisingly. And there's a young blind boy in a predicament which, if you're old enough, might recall Audrey Hepburn's role in Wait Until Dark. Amped up exponentially by the age factor! You'll see. . .

So there you have it. What I've been reading while I wasn't re-reading and posting about Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. What about you? Especially if you're a reader who's felt excluded by my current focus on the ReadAlong, here's a chance to chime in and tell us what books are stacked by your nightstand (or on your desk or on your kitchen table or in your purse, or perhaps all of the above!).  And if you've been ReadingAlong with us, but cheating on the side, you can 'fess up now as well. And I'll get back to Ferrante next post.


  1. Thank you for all these recommendations! I have put three of the mystery series on my wishlist, as I have a birthday coming up.

    1. Glad to help! I love discovering good new mystery series myself -- let me know what you think if your wishes get fulfilled and you unwrap one or two of these.

  2. Aren't library holds the most wonderful thing? Low-risk and well, the cost is buried in our taxes, so it feels free. I will be adding to my list again today.

    Venice...if you are interested, the art biennale is held on the odd years. I think you might like it...it is vast, and varied. Runs from May/June to October/November (I don't think the dates are the same every year). Also the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, my favourite place in the world which I have likely mentioned before. (I think Brunetti's in-laws 'live' in that area!) And, if you are interested in getting lost, well, Venice is the place for you. A pleasant morning's train ride from Rome...

    1. They're fabulous, Georgia! And even when I'm a bit wistful that I don't then have the book on my shelves to refer back to, I remind myself that I can just put another hold on it. The instant gratification isn't really necessary.
      As for Venice, I'm dreaming more and more of it (and a friend has given me a lead on a good little rental whose owner I've been chatting with by email. So far, our visits to Italy have been shaped by family plans, but I think we're getting to the point where we might draw up an itinerary of our own and then work family into it. The biennale would be a perfect occasion...

  3. Oh,Venice! I was never long enough there (and what is long enough for La Serenissima? ),and especially not after I've found Dona Leon. Venice was built on oak logs from our mountain Velebit-now without woods at all (and our expert is head of the MOSE project to save Venice now!)
    Back to books:
    Fate and Furries by Lauren Groff (NYT review compares her sentences with Annie Proulxs!!)-not only a word play with greek mythology and similar to Ferrante in playing with facts and time.
    Alen Benett's Uncommon reader (hilarious!
    The Childrens Act by Ian Mc Ewan ( Sue from High Heels recomm.,as well as Helen Simonsen's The Summer Before the War,I liked very much as well). Great book- decades ago I've read something from him I didn't like (to young maybe?) ,so sorry not to choose him again,till now!
    Eileen from Ottessa Mosfeghi- a special book where I could't love the characters ,but beautifully written!
    Women in Clothes:Why We Wear What We Wear-a series of interviews with a lot of women-fascinating how completely different we are!
    And,as I resonate with you and love misteries very much-L. Penny's A Great Reckoning and now reading S. Burrow's A Pitying of Doves.
    As you can see ,it's not only cheating of Ferrante,it's polyamory :-)
    All suggestions go to to-read list

    1. Sorry: couldn't!

    2. Nice connection you make here to Annie Proulx's theme in Barkskins, the denuding of mountains and forests. . .
      And I haven't read Women in Clothes yet, but I know that two of the three editors are Canadian, so another connection.
      I've got Ian McEwan's Nutshell in my Kobo queue, but haven't read The Children's Act and will make a note. . .
      I love your comment re Polyamory! Yes!! That's the way it is with books -- we can love more than one at once!

  4. And two more things:
    I forgot to say that Women in Clothes was recommended by Archana "To Universe with Love"
    I find Ferrante very hard to read in italian,so 40 pages are a great achievement.

  5. I am in France as I write. I have been reading your adventures of traveling alone. A lot of the titles you mentioned, I have read. Still live in real life on one of Gulf Islands. Love both of your blogs. Also,you improve my vocabulary. I looked up tendentious.....


    1. A fellow Gulf Islander (well, I'm ex- but still, once you've lived on an island...)
      Isn't it astonishing how much room there continues to be for our vocabularies to grow?!

  6. Oh dear, I seem to have a very narrow band of reading tolerance. No mysteries, definitely no crime or detective, very little modern fiction. Perhaps I haven't found my groove in the latter. I've started so many and then given them up as they come across as contrived or exhaust my soul. I do not need these people's dilemmas/crises in my life! I am however trying to read fiction in French - somehow I find it more 'abordable'. At the weekend I re-read 'Le Noeud de Vipères' by François Mauriac (set in and around Bordeaux, if you haven't read it). It was one of the first novels in French I read, in my final year of secondary school. I hadn't re-read it since university, but in re-reading it I tapped not just the same emotions as on the original reading, but the very feel and tenor of the emotions. With age, it was even more powerful, and I have to admit I wept copiously at the end.
    Time for leisure reading is at a premium just now. I am in the middle of a university course in tourist guiding. This semester is background knowledge - a crash course in Scotland's history, geography geology, flora and fauna, language, literature, industry, society, food and drink, plus theoretical studies in tourism and hospitality. The workload is equivalent to a full load at first year university level. So much I don't know about my own country. Plus we have assignments (how I hate learning outcomes - they hadn't been invented when I was a student last, and they're quite a straightjacket).
    When I was in Bordeaux I bought 'Rouge Brésil' by Jean-Christophe Ruffin at Librairie Mollat. Novel about French colony in Brazil during the Renaissance. Good, but loads of archaic terms! Now reading very slowly 'Le Dépaysement' by Jean-Christophe Bailly. Perhaps I'll just work my way through French works by all the Jean-Christophes.

    1. So much good fiction, I think, but obviously what you can tolerate as a reader is very subjective (and as a retired literature prof, I might have a bias ;-). I love what mystery (crime, detective, roman policier) novels can do in terms of character development and how much they use setting to support and develop a plot, and the best explore questions of humanity and morality and ethics at a level equivalent to what we tend to sequester as "literature." Climbing down from the soapbox now to admire how quickly you're throwing yourself into new studies, barely into your retirement. Wow!
      And I'll be heading to Mollat to stock up before I head back -- I'm hoping there might be a new Fred Vargas -- Chief Inspector Adamsberg -- mystery. "Studying" french this way might seem like cheating, but it improves my vocabulary just the same.
      Still, that's an interest project, all
      the Jean-Christophes. . . I know you're speaking tongue-in-cheek, but I wonder how many you might discover...