Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Four wives and an addiction to marriage. Despite the difficulty he had remaining faithful, Hemingway didn’t like being single, he liked his women to be contracted to him and then to have his liberty.

Though not a huge fan of his work, being more of a Steinbeck admirer than Hemingway, his connection to France and that group of Americans referred to as the lost generation, those who stayed or returned to Europe after the war, has ensured another kind of following and spawned an entire collection of literature, that which reimagines the lives of the artists, writers, their wives, mistresses and hangers-on. So I am one of those who enjoys reading more about him, than reading his actual work.

Thus far, I enjoyed meeting Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife through Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s wife in Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda and Gertrude Stein and others in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He even made an appearance in Francisco Haghenbeck’s The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo while she was hanging out in Paris with Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keefe and the Surrealists.

Mrs HemingwayNaomi Wood joins the club of authors channelling the voices of expat writers wives who lived in Paris, fascinating not just because they were the wives of men who wrote famous stories, but because they are women who made the decision to abandon the comfortable and familiar, to leave their country and family behind.

Both Hadley Richardson and Zelda Fitzgerald arrived in the shadow of their husbands dreams, without any ambition other than to be a faithful and supportive wife. As such, they encountered innumerable challenges in trying to create a satisfactory home life in a foreign country.

All of Hemingway’s wives spent time living in Paris, both the city and the man the thread that bound them together. Of the four, Martha and Mary perhaps fared better, both working journalists living there on their own terms, with their own purpose outside of marriage.

The book is structured in four equal parts, each dedicated to one wife and starts by portending the end, scenes that evoke the sense of an ending while they also contain the feminine distraction that signals the introduction of the next potential marriage candidate. Not one of the wives will be immune to the repetitive Hemingway pattern. It is a pattern he repeats all his life until the brutal ends.

With each end, we witness the beginning and each wife is witness to the new arrival and a foreshadowing of her demise. The novel centres around how he entered and exited these relationships without dwelling on the mundane, the structure keeping up the pace and instilling a sense of anticipation in the reader, wanting to know what could have happened in between times to change things.

“Sitting beside this woman to whom Ernest as already dedicated a poem, Martha recognizes Mary suddenly for what she is: her ticket out of here. This morning she saw that Ernest won’t let her break things off if there’s any chance he’s going to be alone. What he fears is loneliness, and whatever brutish thoughts he has when he is left untended. Only is he is assured of another wife will he let his present wife go.”

Like a poem, there is symmetry to the four wives and while they all love their husband and support him, none can prevent his inclination towards self-destruction, his propensity for excess. It is an insightful book in the way it presents the four relationships, carefully chosen scenes depicting the emergence and decline of their relationship.

We witness the relationships come and go like waves rising out of the ocean, resplendent at their peak, despite containing the knowledge of their inevitable destiny, to crash, disappear and reform anew. Hemingway rode the waves for as long as he could, writing prolifically, often using his own experiences as his subject matter. Perhaps he finally made it to the foreshore and saw the metaphoric waves for what they are, water rising and falling until it inevitably reaches the shore and destroys itself.

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

A worthy addition to the collection of literature that imagines the lives of Hemingway, his wives and the lost generation.

Family Heirlooms by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares

My first read of Brazilian literature, read while the World Cup Football was playing out, though I admit to watching very few of the games, and none after my 11-year-old son left for a holiday with his Grandparents, no longer here to insist I stay up and watch the game with him. But Brazilian literature, why yes please!

Family HeirloomsFamily Heirlooms was written by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated by Daniel Hanh. Born in 1930 in Sao Paulo, she wrote both fiction and non-fiction and was the recipient of many literary awards including the highest honour, the Jabuti Prize for this novella, now available for the first time in English.

It is the story of Maria Bráulia Munhoz, a widow whose nephew Julião is acting as her secretary, though not entirely trusted by his Aunt and especially after the news he brings her in the opening pages about her family heirloom.

The family heirloom brings back the memory of her husband, the judge, who brought it to impress her and her family. It is symbolic of their relationship, an item of great beauty and admired by all, though deceptive, multi-faceted, rarely seen for what it truly is.

Pigeon blood ruby

Pigeon blood ruby

Regardless of the deception, Maria maintains her honour, dignity and the illusion of her marriage long after her husband has departed. She uses her naiveté as a tool for her own survival, for as long as she continues to live with the perception of normalcy, so it continues to reign in her life. Like the emperor in his new clothes, she wears her heirloom with pride.

Maria reminds me a little of the mother figure in Carmen LeForet’s Nada, attempting to retain her bourgeois respectability despite evidence to the contrary, though she never allows us to feel sorry for her, for she makes of her situation exactly what she wishes it to be and insists that everyone sees it her way too. She is indeed a survivor.

An enjoyable, thought-provoking read of illusion, deception, acceptance and survival.

Sula, Toni Morrison

SulaA farmer promises freedom and a piece of land referred to as Bottom, to his slave if he performs some difficult chores. The town of Medallion grows up around the farmland, looking down on the valley where the more fertile land and the white folks live.

The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, ‘Oh no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.

‘But it’s high up in the hills,’ said the slave.

‘High up from us,’ said the master, but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven, the best land there is.’

It’s the town where Sula and Nel grow up in the 1920’s. Both are only children, Nel raised in her mother’s quiet, orderly neat home that oppresses her and keeps her protected and Sula in the home of her infamous grandmother Eva Pearce, a woman who hasn’t come downstairs in years and may or may not have done despicable things before she became one-legged and runs a kind of boarding house for vagrants.

“a household of throbbing disorder constantly awry with thins, people, voices and the slamming of doors”

In childhood, the two girls differences are insignificant, they revel in each other’s company, they test the boundaries of their community and environment, they experience joy and witness horror. They bury the past until it returns to haunt them in adulthood, when they can no longer avoid who they were always destined to be, thanks to the judgments and perceptions of others and the behaviours of those who went before them. And themselves.

“Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.”

The book is separated into two parts, the early 1920’s during the girls childhood and the late 30’s, early 40’s when Sula returns and creates a disturbing ripple throughout the small community, no longer used to her carefree ways, having forgotten the inclinations of the female characters she was spawned from. She becomes estranged from them all. Except one.

It is about the innocence and bonds of childhood, secrets between friends, the inclination to follow the well-trodden path of those who have gone before, despite the desire for freedom and individuality and the reluctance of others to see them any differently.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Her books are almost always the perfect size of a novella and every one of Toni Morrison’s stories I have read brings so much more than the sum of its pages to the reader in terms of things to consider, long after the last page is turned.

Her language is poetic, her characters resplendent with their flaws, they speak for the one and the many and show us ourselves, the parts we hide from view, that which is judged from outside and the inclination to judge without knowing.

 

Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange #Memoir #Giveaway

Good Morning

Thanks to the publisher Viking, Penguin-Random House, one lucky US reader can win a copy of Zelda la Grange’s memoir Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, an in-depth account of her 20-year dedication to her employer Nelson Mandela.

Win a Copy!

To enter the draw, leave a message below or on the book review post here. Only US readers with a valid postal address are able to enter sorry. Entries close Sunday 3 August.

An Additional Entry!

Share one of your favorite quotes from Nelson Mandela to gain an additional entry.

You can find a list of quotes here on Goodreads.

Bonne Chance!

 

Good Morning, Mr Mandela

Mandela Day

Today, 18 July is Nelson Mandela Day, it was the date of his birthday and the day he married his wife Graça Machel. I discovered this yesterday as I was nearing the end of Zelda la Grange’s memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela as she helped with the plan to advocate to the UN to try to make 18 July International Nelson Mandela Day, after receiving a letter of congratulations from Bono for Mandela’s ninetieth birthday celebrations held in Hyde Park, London. He wrote:

“Happy Birthday Madiba. I am working to make July 18th a public holiday in every country that acknowledges that the struggle of Nelson Mandela is not over until every individual who yearns for freedom has the chance to grasp it. I believe your birthday should be an occasion around the globe to honour those who still struggle.” Bono, U2

Good MorningWhen I saw this memoir was due for release I didn’t know anything about Zelda la Grange, but after reading this interview by John Carlin in The Guardian from 2008, I decided to find out more and finished reading it today.

Zelda la Grange was born in 1970 in East Johannesburg, South Africa to a white Afrikaans family. Her father worked in construction and her mother was a teacher. The family wasn’t rich, but being white, they enjoyed the privileges of their race, benefiting from the apartheid regime through access to health, education and a strong sense of entitlement. It wasn’t something she ever thought about, it was the way they lived, they accepted it and had little knowledge of how these policies affected black and coloured people. They were racist.

“As a child it is easy to follow when you grow up in an environment that is safe. Perhaps if I had been oppressed, didn’t have access to a decent school, a proper house, electricity and water, I would have asked different questions, and my brain would have developed into being more inquisitive about injustice at an early age.”

Not knowing what she wanted to do with her life, she enrolled in a course to become an Executive Secretary. When Mandela was voted President she was working in a government Human Resources Department and heard there was a job opening in the administrative department of the President’s office.

It was to be the beginning of a twenty-year career working for Nelson Mandela, first in his capacity as President and then when he left the government, she would be the one person he chose to take with him, to maintain in his employ for life.

Zelda la Grange served Nelson Mandela for around 20 years and you could say she gave her life to him as she had little personal existence outside her working life, so loyal was she to the man who handpicked her to be that loyal employee. Ever the strategist, he chose a woman whose skills complimented his own, she compensated for his weakness and allowed him to continue to focus on his strengths by taking care of all the things that needed to go on behind the scenes to ensure safe passage and no surprises. She was a perfectionist, though she doesn’t admit that in the book, working often through the night than have anything go wrong and was completely obsessed with every little detail.

Zelda owns up in the opening pages that this book is her story and so doesn’t contain great political insights into South Africa or its policies, nor does she ever break the trust she had with Nelson Mandela and say anything he wouldn’t have approved of. One gets the impression that she could have said so much more and perhaps even did, but any excesses have been cut from the first draft and what we read here is a clean, if somewhat lacking version of the events of those twenty years they worked together.

The book reads like a diary of events, which can become tedious, especially as the language is quite prosaic, just as the job must have been, however she is clearly passionate and dedicated to serving the man she referred to as Khulu or Grandfather and he referred to her as Zeldini. Their relationship was extremely close, but always with a respectful and appropriate distance, as was inherent in both their natures.

It is an incredible record of those years and the many voyages they made, people met and funds raised for various humanitarian projects they launched, even if we miss the perspective of the man himself.  In telling her story, she pays tribute to her boss and has created a record of her great respect and need to ensure that all those associated with him, from friends to celebrities to politicians were adequately taken care of. She never stoops to gossip, takes care not to say anything negative about the family, although you can sense the unspoken tension underneath, after all they did bar her from the funeral activities and if it wasn’t for the generosity of Mandela’s wife, Mrs Machel, she would not have attended at all.

An interesting account and makes me even more curious to read Mandela’s own words and gain an insight into what was going on inside his mind during these years.

Today's Google Doodle

Today’s Google Doodle

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

14 July La Fête Nationale: A Salmagundi of French Literature

Prise de la Bastille by   Jean-Pierre Houël Source:Wikipedia

Prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël
Source:Wikipedia

Today is a holiday here in France, marking the celebration of la fête nationale or as we know it in English Bastille Day, commemorating 14 July 1789 when the population fearing an attack by the royal military stormed the Bastille prison and released the many political prisoners in what became a symbol of the end to the rule of the monarchy and the beginning of independence.

There will be a military parade in the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris and here in Aix-en-Provence and most towns in France there will be organised displays of fireworks to commemorate.

To celebrate the National Holiday, I am following the initiative of Marina Sofia at Finding Time To Write to highlight some recently read and upcoming French reads, now available in English, here is my salmagundi of French Literature!

Click on the title to read the review and read to the end to find the definition of that tasty word for the day Salmagundi:

Two French Books I am looking forward to reading:

Poisoning (3)

The Poisoning Angel by John Teule

translated by Melanie Florence

This book is actually to be published today 14 July 2014 and the author is a well-known name in French contemporary literature. In fact I have one of his books in French on the shelf already.

This one is based on a true but gruesome story of one of the most notorious serial poisoners that France has ever known and was described by the Sunday Telegraph as:

“a bawdy romp one minute, a gruesome tragedy the next. The writing is beautiful, witty, grisly and moving, and reeks of authenticity.”

Let’s hope all that comes off in translation.

Vatican Cellars

The Vatican Cellars by André Gide

translated by Julian Evans

This book will be published in August 2014 to mark the centenary of the book’s first publication. It is set in the 1890’s around a group of ingenious fraudsters who claim that the Pope has been imprisoned and a false Pope enthroned in his place.

I haven’t read anything by this author, but he sounds like he caused quite a sensation with this novel and others, as he took it upon himself to explore morality in his work and was a major influence on the writing of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947 and one year after he died (in 1951) his works were placed on the Vatican’s list of banned books.

Three French Books I Read This Year:

Nagasaki (2)

Nagasaki by Eric Faye

translated by Emily Boyce

A short novella, based on a true story of an event that happened in Japan, that will make you check your fridge contents and ensure you lock the door at night.

Foundling2

The Foundling Boy by Michel Deon

translated by Julian Evans

Coming of age story of a young boy left as a baby on a doorstep, who grows up and has an insatiable need to travel and experience the world. The sequel soon to be translated into English as well.

People in Photo

The People In the Book by Hélène Gestern

translated by Emily Boyce,Ros Schwartz

A wonderful epistolary novel about a young woman searching for answers about events in her mother’s life before she was born, a photo provides a clue to those she knew.

Two Great Books Set in France:

All the Light

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

Paris and Saint-Malo pre and during WWII following the lives of two children and their growth into adolescence, Marie-Laure who lost her sight at six and Werner who lost his parents and is raised in an orphanage. An excellent story that leads to the crossing of paths of these two characters and wonderfully evocative of place.

I Always Loved You

I Always Loved You

by Robin Oliveira

An insightful historical novel about the American painter Mary Cassatt, her life in late 1800’s Paris as she struggles to establish her name in the art world, enduring a life-long though fractious relationship with the impressionist painter and sculptor Edgar Degas.

Salmagundi:

  1. a mixed dish consisting usually of cubed poultry or fish, chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions, oil, etc., often served as a salad.
  2. any mixture or miscellany.

 Bonne Fête!

 

 

 

The Italian Chapel

They were brought to the island as ‘the enemy’ and by the time they left they would have developed relationships and connections that continue to endure today between the inhabitants of the Orkney Islands and Moena, the Italian mountain village where the artist and decorator Domenico Chiocchetti originally came from and where he returned after the war.

the_italian_chapelPhilip Paris has written both a non-fiction account of the short history of the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm and this book, the novel I have just read and adored. The fictional form allows the author to imagine some of the relationships for which there is little detail and create others that may have been.

It is a war-time story without guns, battles and tragedy, it could even be said it depicts what war purports to be all about, a strategy to create peace and establish tolerance and what better conduit to promote acceptance than to build a chapel, whose sole purpose is for prayer and reflection, a sanctuary from the day-to-day reality.

550 Italian soldiers are captured during WW2 in Egypt and sent to Camp 60 on Lamb Holm, Orkney Islands where they live in ramshackle Nissen huts and are used as free labour to build barriers between the islands to prevent entry to the mainland from invading forces.

“The nearest land is mainland Orkney, which is also an island. You will know from your journey that we are a long way from Italy. You’re all here to do a job, to help build a unique set of barriers between mainland Orkney to the north and between the islands to the south of Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay. Four barriers in all.”

In the opening pages, bulldozers arrive with instructions to raze camp 60 to the ground, leaving no trace of the former POW camp. The Italian Chapel sits there beside the Nissen huts awaiting its fate. We then learn the story of how it came to be there.

Image of the Madonna

Image of the Madonna

The novel introduces us to key characters in the camp, the artist Domenico Chiocchetti from the northern Italian village of Moena who keeps a small prayer card his mother gave him, with the image of the Madonna’s face in his pocket throughout the war, retrieving it at moments when he needed to escape the present, or remember the past and whose image will become a symbol of the thing he leaves behind, the only physical reminder that there was a POW camp on the Scottish island during the war.

We meet Aldo, who doesn’t talk about his family, but can source anything the men require, Buttapasta, a cement and stone artist, Giuseppe the romantic who had been a foundry worker in the US, they will all become instrumental in the project that occupies the men when the causeway barriers are complete and their status changes after Mussolini is sacked and the Italians are no longer the enemy. The men decide to create a chapel out of two unused Nissen huts and scraps from shipwrecks and whatever their captors can source.

The prayer card becomes the inspiration for Chiocchetti’s portrait of the Madonna and child, painted on plasterboard behind the altar.  An altar is made from concrete left over from building the Barriers, tiles are rescued from a sunken blockship ( a ship deliberately sunk to prevent access to a channel) and wood salvaged from a shipwreck is transformed into a tabernacle. Carved lanterns are created from Bully Beef tins and candlesticks made from the brass stair rods, all contributing to create a beautiful and peaceful interior.

Philip Paris author observing the Rood Screen built by Italian POW soliders

Philip Paris author observing the Rood Screen built by Italian POW soliders

It is a story of optimism, incredible resourcefulness and the things men do to keep their spirits up when the circumstances are against them. It is an easy, light read and moving without being overly sentimental and knowing this wonderful refuge actually exists made it all the more meaningful and special for me as a reader.

Philip Paris has researched this period in history and tried to track down those who were on the island or their relatives and creates a memorable and heartfelt story of tough times that are lightened by a mutual desire to build not just a chapel, but a refuge of incredible beauty that can still be visited today.

“It was the prisoner’s escape, a tunnel to spiritual and cultural freedom, while their bodies remained in captivity.”

Very Inspiring Book Blogs

The Very Inspiring Blogger Award is flying like an angel around the blogosphere, touching down on many of the dedicated and inspiring people out there dedicated to books and writing and sharing the word on literature.

very-inspiring-blog-award-logo

So congratulations to the following for being nominated, you are all an inspiration to me and I thank you most kindly for nominating Word by Word.

Thank you:

  1. Lizzi at These Little Words – Thoughtful considered reviews,she reads a mix of contemporary recent publications and favourites from the shelf waiting to be read.
  2. Sandra Danby Author of Ignoring Gravity – a new blog for me, but I am soon to read her book, so watch this space.
  3. Jacqui at Jacqui Wine’s Journal – Long-time reader and tweeter, new recruit to blogging, excellent shelf of reads with a penchant for translated fiction and a connoisseur of wine! Also part of the Shadow Jury for IFFP – see Stu below.
  4. Nancy at Ipsofactodotme – Out of The Comfort Zone Reading more like it, Nancy is Inspiration extraordinaire, taught herself to read in French through reading classic French literature, with a cat and a Heineken for company, while living in the Netherlands, I love the eccentricity and achievements of inspirational bloggers!

The award has the following rules:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated.
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you.

Seven Things About Me You May Not Know:

  1. Golden Plover - the other life...

    Golden Plover – the other life…

    The first time I went on a date I had to ride 6 kilometres across farmland on my horse to get there.

  2. I learnt to drive on a Massey Ferguson tractor with no second gear.
  3. I was once an extra in a film called ‘Bedlam Britannica’ a documentary about how the British treated their mentally ill. My role was a lunatic, part of a patient’s hallucination.
  4. When I was travelling in India, someone asked me if I was Japanese.
  5. Now people ask me “Vous êtes Anglais?”
  6. I once attended two weddings in subsequent weekends; the first was in Beirut, the second in Lagos.
  7. I love the sea and sometimes wonder how life might have unfolded had I said yes to that job on a tall ship sailing around the world.

So Fifteen Book Bloggers That Inspire Me Today:

  • The Lonesome Reader – I will read anything and everything he reviews, whether I like the book or not, Eric is an inspirational and aspirational reviewer, one of the best. His reviews read like compelling essays and I know Col (see below) is a big fan of his too.
  • Vishy The Knight – Diligent reader, lover of books across genre, the most comprehensive reviews ever & the kindest, most attentive blog commenter in history.
  • The Only Way Is Reading – When Col gives a 10 (check out his awesome rating system) I absolutely have to read the book, introduced me to Primo Levi.
  • The Writes of Women – Reviews of Books By Female Writers, Influential Opinion Maker on Books @Frizbot
  • Winstons Dad – Stu is the Super Champion of Translated Fiction and Chair Person of the Shadow Jury for IFFP (International Foreign Fiction Prize), a Translation Activist who reads around the world!
  • HeavenAli – Unearths and Rediscovers Forgotten Books, has read more Persephone Books than Anyone I know!
  • My Writing Life – Julia Hones, a creative spirit writing, reading and sharing insightful and compassionate pearls of wisdom, a place to rest a while.
  • A Life In Books – Susan is an ex bookseller and knows what’s coming out, writes informed reviews and contributes to the conversation.
  • Book to the Future – SteJ reads books with the weirdest covers ever, he thrives on finding the literary bizarre and his reviews and blogs are compelling and original. Blogging shines a bright light out from under the bushel for this one.
  • KimberlySullivan – Kimberly is based in Rome but travels a lot and writes amazing short stories and she goes to the Matera Women’s Fiction Festival every year!! One day I’m going to meet her there! She is total inspiration and gets out there and achieves her dreams and reads and blogs and juggles kid stuff.
  • Thinking in Fragments – Alex is a thinker, a reader and comes to blogging having left the academic world which we are all the richer for having her valued presence and contribution to our virtual world.
  • Books and Reviews – Elena, Spanish Feminist, I came across her wonderful blog when we both read Carmen LeForet’s Nada at the same time, inspirational indeed!
  • ReadEng. Didi’s Press – Well Deidre is up there in the North of France and I’m down here in the South and one day we’ll meet in the middle, I love her, love her blog and A D O R E her Youtube channel! She’s evolved into a SuperStar BookTuber, Go Girl! Love all her recommendations, and she’s great to listen to. More on Youtube than the blog these days. I’m sure we knew each other in a previous life. J
  • Mes étagères en franglais – What dedication, reading in French and English, she puts up her reviews in both languages, dedication to books and reviewing and the French/English languages. Bravo I say!
  • Biblioglobal – Another champion of reading around the world, across cultures, translated fiction and fiction written by those who live or come from other cultures, always love visiting here.

Wow, that was hard work! And sorry for those I missed, there are too many to choose from, so many great blogs by writers as well as readers, I hope you enjoy the selection and find someone new to visit and follow. Just click on the title to go there. And of course, no obligation to those nominated to participate.

After all that, I need a little inspiration from Matera!

Art in Nature, Tove Jansson #TOVE100

Coming out of any intense, dramatic period of living can make it hard to choose appropriate reading material.

Recently I found it difficult to sustain reading as it all seemed too far removed from life’s demands that I be very present and attentive to the needs of those around me.

It made me reflect on what and who can I read I turn to during these kinds of periods. Short stories and/or non-fiction. Tove Jansson and The Dalai Lama.

TOVE 100 © Moomin Characters™

TOVE 100
© Moomin Characters™

I chose Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal), because even her stories feel like they haven’t strayed too far from the reality within which they were inspired. I find immeasurable comfort in reading the words of this talented artist, the short form allowing a brief respite without requiring an ongoing commitment of a novel, when concentration spans are short.

Art in NatureArt in Nature is an intriguing collection of character studies, characters who happen to be creative, eccentric, obsessive, all curiously flawed in some way and Tove Jansson observes them in a situation until the cracks appear. They are a slice of life short narrative and any one of them could easily have morphed into a longer story such as her novel The True Deceiver I recently reviewed here.

The first story Art in Nature is about a caretaker watching over an exhibition of work in open air.

“He slept in the sauna down below the great lawn where the sculptures were set out among the trees.”

The day has its rhythm and characteristics and the evenings belong to the caretaker, the quiet contemplative time when he is alone among the unmoving silent works, still, post creation. He observes everything, every inclination, every watcher, he categorizes them and becomes attached to how things are.

“Almost all the feet moved respectfully. If they were with a guide, they’d stand still for a while, all turned in the same direction, and then they’d change direction all at the same time to look at something else. The lonely feet were uncertain in the beginning, then they’d move slowly at an angle, stop, stand with legs crossed, turn around, and sometimes they’d lift one foot and scratch with it because there were lots of mosquitos.”

Until one evening when a couple overstays, middle-aged adults breaking the rules, having a domestic argument. He intervenes, listens to them argue, provokes them with his own thoughts on the mystery of what art is.

Tove Jansson's Atelier © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson’s Atelier
© Moomin Characters™

The Cartoonist is a mysterious, insightful look into the daily work of an illustrator, a job that Tove Jansson’s mother did and one she dabbled in herself, making me wonder how much of this was inspired by the environment and circumstance of her mother.

A famous newspaper cartoonist has quit suddenly after 10 years and a new artist is required to assume his role without a break in the cartoon strip, without his fans knowing. The new artist slips easily into the role but becomes plagued with needing to know why his predecessor quit.

The Doll’s House is brilliant and shocking and quite different from anything else of Jansson’s I have read. Like The True Deceiver, it shows her deftness at spotting signs and cracks in character that over time can grow from barely visible flaw into raging psychological dysfunction when neither checked or dissipated.

Two recently retired men who have lived together and shared the same respect for the beautiful objects that surround them, are adjusting to the new routine of no longer having demanding day jobs. Alexander is a craftsman and Eric a retired banker.

“Alexander was an upholsterer of the old school. He was exceptionally skilled, and he took a craftsman’s natural pride in his work. He discussed commissions only with those customers who had taste and a feel for the beauty of materials and workmanship. Not wishing to show his contempt, he referred all the others to his employees.”

In the beginning they have difficulty adjusting to this new way of life, discovering that in such close proximity their interests aren’t as fine-tuned or in harmony as they had appeared when their time was absorbed by outside demands. Eric begins to take on more of the domestic role and Alexander begins a project to build a miniature house. He seeks the help of an electrician called Boy, who becomes his trusted helper.

“Boy came back almost every evening. He often brought little table lamps, sconces, or a chandelier that he’d found in some hobby shop or toy store. He came straight from work in his jeans and trailed street dirt over the rugs, but Alexander didn’t seem to notice – he just admired what Boy had brought him and listened gravely to his suggestions about improvements to the house.”

Just rereading these two quotes, makes me realise what clever insights Tove Jansson’s places into the text, the clues into character are there from the beginning and the simple daily events that follow turn these insights into something raw and dangerous.

Another excellent collection of stories from the Finnish artist and writer who would have been 100 years old next month.

Absolutely gripping!

Check out her books and events at TOVE100.com

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov
© Moomin Characters™

 

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

Ok a few truths.

TruthAboutHarryThe Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair was originally written and published in French. The Swiss author, 28-year-old Joël Dicker’s first novel wasn’t a big hit, but he followed it up by writing this 600 page satire of  a young American man (his age) who writes one bestseller and then can’t write anything else.

His pushy agent and publisher threaten law suits and ruin unless he meets a deadline on his next big thing. Rather than write, he visits his ageing writing professor in New Hampshire, who was once a young man who wrote a bestseller and then didn’t write anything else. He gives him advice that prefaces many of the chapters:

“Books are interchangeable: People want a story that excites them, relaxes them, entertains them. And if you don’t give them that, someone else will – and you’ll be history.”

More truth.

Harry QuebertYesterday I was in the popular French bookstore FNAC (a kind of WH Smith equivalent) in Lyon and saw La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert is still in the Number 1 slot. I saw it the day before in the giant supermarket Carrefour in the same position. It’s been a bestseller for over a year in France.

I do love watching a book become a runaway success and don’t always read them, but this is a book in translation, double victory –  the rights sold to 35 countries and translated into 37 languages and it won two prestigious French book awards.

The Harsh Truth.

However despite all the accolades, I have to be honest and say that I did not enjoy the read, it offered very little in terms of what I like to get from a book and worse, it annoyed me immensely in parts.

Maybe Not Your Truth Though.

But first the story, because it is a somewhat compelling read which many have and still may enjoy; full of twists and turns, a disappearance,a cold case reopened, concerning teenage girls, older men, appearances not what they seem, everyone with something to hide and more twists than an old-fashioned telephone cord. So many twists in fact, I can’t remember who did it. No, everyone did it, didn’t they? Well, Dicker certainly has a skill in making you think they’re all capable of murder.

So Marcus Goldman is living the life of a rich and famous writer in New York on the strength of a debut bestseller, when his writers block starts to have menacing consequences and he has to come up with a solution, quickly. He visits his old university professor Harry Quebert, whom he had kind of forgotten while he was busy being famous and pursued by actresses and other celebs. Not long after his visit, Harry is accused of the murder of Nola Kellergan (Nola, Lola, Lolita?), a 15-year-old girl who disappeared 30 years ago, whose remains are discovered, implicating Harry Quebert.

Marcus returns to Harry’s home when he is arrested and makes the investigation of his innocence his new purpose in life, he meddles in police affairs, interviews locals and even receives his own menacing threats penned by someone who wants him to leave town. The case might well provide him with the solution he requires, as his publisher asks him to write The Truth about what went on between Harry Quebert and Nola Kellergan.

Joel Dicker

Joël Dicker speaking in FNAC bookstore

A Consuming Truth

Viewing the wall of bestsellers is the first thing you see when you enter major supermarkets in France like Geant Casino and Carrefour; it says a lot about local culture that people are being enticed to grab a book at the very first moment they enter a supermarket! I don’t think I have seen that in any other country, I have listened to experts talk about enticing customers with fresh healthy fruit at the entrance, but not literature.

Too Many Additives

For me, although I get the requirement of a modern social satire to exaggerate, the Harry Quebert story carried too many characters that were inflated caricatures of American stereotypes, with insufficient humour to make it work. Trying to be a satire, a pastiche and a murder mystery with its innumerable twists made it for me, like a cocktail made by an unsupervised teenager  who, rather than combining two ingredients, like a mature pre-adult can’t resist adding a little of everything on offer until ultimately it becomes unpalatable.

I viewed it as an outsiders attempt at making a comment on modern American society, media, publishing, the sensationalism and obsession with broadcasting the trials of celebrities. That a 28-year-old writer could enter into a police murder investigation and  didn’t ring true enough for me to be able to read it without the constant presence of low-level annoyance at its flaws. Perhaps if I had saved it for a summer read when my expectations are lower, I may have enjoyed it more.

I do love that a French bestseller was picked up by international publishers and translated into English, the author interviewed in The Observer and elsewhere, but sadly, this award-winning novel wasn’t my cup of tea.

Great Gatsby2And in a twist of Great Gatsbyish irony, it seems that thousands of the English translation books are languishing in storage, waiting for a boom that has yet to arrive. Will it take a generation to be revered as an apt indictment of the times or will it languish in obscurity as a publishers costly mistake?

Further Reading:

The Observer Article Joël Dicker: ‘I lost a bit of control of my life’

Note: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher via NetGalley.