The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

I thought I still had quite a few pages left in my current notebook until I opened it just now to discover 20 pages of predatory animals and prehistoric looking reptiles wreaking havoc across the lines. Trying to keep an energetic 11-year-old amused in a waiting room, I lent him my notebook and black pen for a short period and this is a sample of what now intersperses my less animated prose. And I see his sister has been in here as well, quite different styles.

So with Spring well and truly here, it is time to start afresh, so a new notebook seems appropriate.

But back to my unadorned scribble within, now transferred to the screen.

Shadow of the CrescentThis novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and it was a title I had not heard of, but a name that looked familiar. Which it is, the Bhutto family name is renowned in Pakistan politics as is its tragic link with political assassination. Fatima Bhutto is part of that family, though she has said she is not interested in pursuing a political career, preferring to express herself in poetry and now this, her first novel.

It wasn’t the blurb so much that drew me to the book, it was that unique perspective that can be present in someone who has lived across different cultures and is equally at home in the East and in the West for example the Turkish writer Elif Shafak.

Fatima Bhutto was born in Afghanistan, raised in Syria, educated in the US and now lives in Pakistan. The kind of cultural traversing of frontiers that could potentially give a writer a unique perspective, no? And didn’t she once date George Clooney? Okay, not relevant, but then maybe it is.

Set in a town called Mir Ali, the story takes place over a period of three and a half hours and the chapters are labelled 9.00, 9.25, 9.53 and so on until Noon. The prologue is at 8.30am in a white house in Mir Ali on the day of the festival of Eid (the end of Ramadan). The bazaar is opening, rain threatens and a fog blankets the rooftops.

Three brothers live with their widowed mother, one of whom is married and lives on the upper floor. The brothers are Aman Erum the eldest and most recently returned home from studying in the US after the death of their father, Sikander, the middle married brother who is a doctor and Hayat, the youngest who attends meetings and seems uncertain of himself.

“Most Pakistanis thought of Mir Ali with the same hostility they reserved for India or Bangladesh; insiders – traitor – who fought their way out of the body and somehow made it on their own without the glory of the crescent moon and the star shining overhead.

But the shadow of that moon never faded over Mir Ali. It hung over its sky night after night, condemning the town to life under its shadow.”

Over breakfast, they discuss where they will each separately pray that day, not wishing to be at the same mosque should there be any danger, the first time they have done this.

“No one prays together, travels in pairs, or eats out in groups. It is how they live now, alone.”

The chapters alternate between the three brothers following their movements or reflecting on their recent past although this wasn’t clear until the end when I went back to try to understand why I felt after reading the entire book, I didn’t know the youngest brother at all and could make such little sense of the other two.

Fatima BhuttoThe character who stood out the most for me was Sikander’s wife Mina who rescues the narrative with her odd behaviour of looking up public notices of funerals and making her way to the homes of the grieving families. Something is wrong here and Bhutto has the reader in the palm of her hand teasing out what is going on with Mina and the reluctance of her husband to intervene.

Despite the format of alternative chapters for each brother, Hayat’s are very short and of little depth, which may be deliberate, but this has the effect of making him an inconsequential participant in the narrative. The first chapter on Aman makes up 20% of the novel and I almost gave up here due to the style of telling, the introduction of his childhood sweetheart Samarra providing some relief.

It was when we met Sikander that the pace picked up and the characters became more real and interesting, due in part to the odd behaviour of his wife.

The novel was heading for Noon while filling in back story and narrating an extraordinary event that Sikander and his wife encounter; the reader is anticipating something about to happen and the use of the clock is like the count down and I turn the page anticipating… well not anticipating…

Acknowledgements. The End.

I really wanted to enjoy this book, as I did with Elif Shafak’s Honour, The Forty Rules of Love and The Bastard of Istanbul , as she seamlessly traverses the East West cultural divide, but I found it lacked too many essential elements that I was unable to ignore and played into too many post 9/11 clichés, leaving little room for hope or healing.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Ann Patchett MarriageAs a metaphor for a collection of essays that pays tribute to a life of writing, it’s an apt title, though as the title of a book that lures me towards picking it up to read the blurb and buy it, I admit to being slow to respond to this collection. It is actually a very beautiful minimal cover, the fact that it has a white background and contains only text proof it is a book targeted at existing fans of Ann Patchett, no need for seductive images or clever marketing to lure readers, this cover has the mark of confidence and attitude.

It also contains something of an illusion, the author’s name is embossed in a shiny aquatic blue, which depending on how much light you expose it to, either appears blue or black. It occurred to me while reading, that this might not be an accident, I played around with the cover, watching letters I would swear were shiny blue disappear and become matt black. Appearances are not always the truest guide, looking at things from a slightly different angle, can significantly alter perceptions. Even this title is not all that it seems and now that I have finished the book, I find it most apt.

Many of the essays have been published in other publications, as Ann Patchett describes how she grew to become a writer of fiction, something she always wanted and knew she would do, but that necessitated a slew of other jobs as well as writing non-fiction articles for magazines that would pay. As she points out in the very first lines of the book:

“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novel have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was.”

Grace PaleyWe read about the memorable story her father read to her over the telephone one Christmas, her fiction teacher Allan Gurganus who made them write a story every week for two semesters, turning them into musicians of language who learnt that a habit of regular practice leads to improvement and classes with Grace Paley, for whom support of human rights sometimes trumped attendance at class, whether that meant her disappearing to protest in Chile or being absent from a scheduled appointment having given her attention to a tearful tale from another student.

“Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story.”

It is perhaps not until she opens her own bookstore, Parnassus Books that the influence of Grace Paley rises, as Ann Patchett becomes something of an activist herself for the plight of the independent bookstore, which she writes about ni the essay The Bookstore Strikes Back.

Parnassus Books

She writes about a legacy of separation and divorce stretching back generations, not so much present in the genes, more like evidence that we all need to experience those natural life stages that often mean a significant relationship or marriage doesn’t survive. Finding it hard to accept and taking advice from her mother to heart, she vows never to remarry. She is wedded to her work. And she has a dog. She loves.

She shares a growing love of opera, a late bloomer having discovered it almost by accident while researching her novel Bel Canto she discovers what becomes a lifelong passion, which living in Nashville, known for another type of music altogether wasn’t so easy to foster, until The Met realising that thousands of people would love to see opera regularly but couldn’t, came up with the idea of bringing it to the masses via cinema – live high-definition opera performances.

Met Opera“We watch the patrons in New York, people who have paid ten times more for tickets, and some more than that, as they make their way to their seats. Like us, the audience members on the screen stop to greet the familiar people around them, and like the audience in New York, we clap for both arias and curtain calls. We call out Brava! And Bravo! The rational mind understands the singers can’t hear us, and yet we are living so completely in our high-definition moment it is easy to forget.”

“There, in a comfortable fold-down seat with a whiff of popcorn in the air, I watched Anna Netrebko lie on her back, dangle her head down into the orchestra pit, and sing Bellini like her heart was on fire.”

And The Story of a Happy Marriage? Yes, it is an essay in the collection and one that she was endlessly encouraged to write and in the end becomes the cover title of this book, because the metaphor is all embracing of a woman who always knew what she wanted, never straying from that despite the numerous obstacles and even finds time now to give back to those who helped set her out on the path early on.

The essays stand on their own but equally form a cohesive narrative and are written as if Ann Patchett is writing to that one true friend, one of the reasons that many readers and reviewers have commented on this collection by saying they could imagine being friends with
her. And as she says in one of her books, Truth and Beauty:

“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”

I Always Loved You: A Novel by Robin Oliveira

Mary SutterWhile looking at a Goodreads list of Historical Fiction due out in 2014, I noticed the name Robin Oliveira, author of the excellent novel My Name is Mary Sutter published in 2010.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but occasionally via word of mouth, I hear about a well written, compelling title that I can’t resist, particularly if it is set in France.

Well researched historical fiction in the hands of a talented writer, is my preferred method of learning about French history (or any history); engaging characters propel the narrative forward and we invest ourselves in the characters who have inhabited the period and discover the chronology of events as if we are living them. Historical events when presented without the force, nuance and characteristic dialogue of personalities that have shaped them, risk becoming dry, uninteresting, sedative and read by the few.

Set in 19th century America on the cusp of civil war, My Name is Mary Sutter chronicles the life of a midwife with ambitions to become a surgeon, something she will be thrown into with the advent of war. Her ambition requires the courage to cope with an abundance of men suffering war injuries amid dire living/working conditions plus sacrifices in her personal and family life. She is a captivating heroine, strong-willed yet vulnerable, living in an incredible pioneering era for women.

In her research, the author learned that 17 young women became physicians after their nursing experiences in the civil war. While Mary Sutter is fictional, she is a truly inspired character about whom Robin Oliveira had this is say:

“And through it all there was Mary Sutter, whose story I needed to tell as a celebration of women who seize the courage to live on, to thrive, to strive, even, when men conspire to war. Mary, flawed and intelligent, careening between desire and remorse, stumbling forward out of courage and stubbornness, hiding a broken heart, but hoping to redeem something beautiful from a life humbled by regret.”

Which is a prelude to saying that seeing a new Robin Oliveira novel coming out in 2014 and set in France, I jumped at the chance to read it.

I Always Loved YouI Always Loved You, an unfortunate and slightly off-putting title, sorry, is about the life of  the American painter Mary Cassatt, her life in Paris struggling to make her name while remaining true to her art, and enduring a life-long fractious relationship with the impressionist painter and sculptor Edgar Degas. It also brings to life another female painter, Berthe Morisot and her relationship with the Manet brothers, Édouard and Eugène.

Mary had left her home town of Philadelphia to pursue artistic ambitions and after ten years of hard work, having once been accepted by the Salon for her work Ida (or Spanish Dancer Wearing a Lace Mantilla), has now been rejected and is feeling disillusioned and on the point of giving in to her father who wants her to return home, find a husband and be with her family. Had it not been for his fascination with Ida and the subsequent encounter with Degas, she may well have fulfilled her father’s bidding.

“C’est vrai. Voilá quelqu’un qui sent comme moi.”
(It’s true. Here it is, someone who feels as I do).
Edgar Degas commenting on Mary Cassatt’s painting, Ida

Through Mary, we learn what it meant to be a painter in Paris in the late 1800′s, the restrictive, suffocating influence of the Salon Jury, purveyors of the official annual exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, known as the Salon de Paris, to whom all artists looking for acknowledgement and recognition would submit one or two paintings and then await acceptance or rejection. Those deemed successful by the Jury would be hung at the next exhibition and if lucky, talked up by the critics. Those who weren’t, were resigned to another year of work before resubmitting – and they all did, for it was seen as essential to exhibit there in order to achieve any success, a status quo that existed for almost 200 years in France.

Salon de Paris

Salon de Louvre 1787
Source:Wikipedia

This process spurned a rebel group lead by Edgar Degas who refused to submit their work to the Salon Jury and began to hold an alternative exhibition.  These artists were willing to let go of the past with their references and rules and were bold with colour, subject and loose with their interpretation. They became referred to disparagingly by the media as Impressionists, a term Degas despised. It was a brave move and not all of the groups members managed to sustain their nerve, the lure of the Salon despite its limitations, not easy to stand up against.

Degas had admired Mary Cassatt’s work without knowing who she was and after organising to meet her, invited her to exhibit with his group of artists and to one of their weekly salons, a social gathering that included Édouard Manet, his brother Eugène, Berthe Morisot, Renoir, the writer Émile Zola, Pissarro, Gustave Caillebotte, Zacharie Astruc, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé and Claude Monet among others. The evening would mark the beginning of a long relationship between two talented artists whose work came before all else and whose similarities and stubbornness would continue to attract and repel them until their last days.

“He was right. The something, the leap an artist makes so that his painting is more than its technique, he had already achieved. And she wanted that.”

Edouard_Dantan Un Coin du Salon, 1880

Edouard Dantan
Un Coin du Salon, 1880
Source: Wikipedia

I had never heard of Mary Cassatt when I began reading and was intrigued to discover her art, but decided not to go looking at her or Degas’s work until I had finished, allowing my imagination to create an image of their creations during the period of their encounters, which added an exciting anticipation to the reading, especially while Cassatt was preparing for her first showing with the Impressionists and when Degas was working on his sculpture The Dancer.

I hesitate to show any of images of their art here, as it was such a reward for me upon finishing the book. Getting to know or reacquainting ourselves with the artists work is a personal journey and we should decide in our own time when to view the oeuvres of these great artists. No Spoilers here!

They were an inspiration to each other with regard to their work and Oliveira brings the two alive in rich detail, you can almost see their respective studios and smell the turpentine, imagining the furrowed brow of concentration as these two passionate artists throw themselves into their work and block out the world around them.

What they couldn’t inject into their relationship, they gifted to each other through their work, some of the most poignant and yet ironic scenes are when Degas helps Cassatt find her subject and confirms what it is she should be painting. And then the joy of finally seeing them and seeing the energy and vibrancy of those paintings she created during that period when they responded so positively to each others influence, fact or fiction, it stands out in the work.

“I have no money to pay a model,” Mary said to Degas. “I don’t know what to do.”

“You must find your subject.”

Mary said, “Like yours? Ballet, horses, brothels?”

“Obsessions are an artist’s gift. Obsession is poetry,” Degas said.

Just as other writers have brought alive the Lost Generation of writers resident in Paris in the 1920′s, Robin Oliveira does the same for this group of painters, awakening our interest in this turning point in the history of art and the influence of this group on painters in the wider world, which continues today. It is a brilliantly told story of fascinating characters and their passion for art.

National Gallery of Art Washington

National Gallery of Art
Washington

And if you are fortunate enough to live near or visit Washington, it appears that there is to be an exhibition of Cassatt and Degas’s work at the National Gallery of Art May 14 – Oct 5 focused on the critical period of the late 1870s through the mid-1880s when Degas and Cassatt were closest, bringing 70 various works together to showcase the fascinating artistic dialogue that developed between these two major talents and friends.

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

What Do We Read?

Photo0652

Recently there has been discussion in the media, on twitter and on various blogs about how books written by women are represented with respect to published reviews and the #readwomen2014 campaign launched as a result.

The annual survey carried out by VIDA – The Count continues to show them as  being under represented in most of the major publications that provide reviews and in translated fiction.

It made me wonder what I do read. I don’t think I have a bias towards male or female authors, but I do have a preference for cross-cultural fiction and I like to read translations, so I decided to look back over the last year and see how I fared.  As you can see below, I definitely read more female than male authors and slightly more than 2012 when 62% of the books I read were by women.

Gender 2013

In total, during 2013 I read 70 books, slightly more than the one book a week I have as an intention and 10 books more than I read in 2012.

As those who read this blog may know, I like to read cross-cultural, contemporary literature, so I read more modern than classics and I like to read around the world. What I hadn’t realised was that last year I read books by authors from 22 countries! Check out this fabulous pie chart.

Country 2013

Compared to 2012 when I only read books from 17 countries! From the US and the UK, I read exactly the same number of books (19) and a visit to Istanbul in May prompted an increase in Turkish literature (5) and three books in December helped my French literature (4) to increase, but I hope that will improve in 2014.

To read that widely, it is necessary to read translated work and 15 of the books I read or 21% were translated compared to only 10% in 2012. I’ve certainly travelled the world through books, I may have to start checking the globe to see which continents are missing.

Translation 2013

And what kind of books do I read? Well mostly fiction, a hefty 76% compared to 23% non-fiction and only 1% poetry, but less than 2012 when 82% of my reading was fiction and 16% non-fiction. I did read some excellent non-fiction in 2013 and hope to do the same this year.

Genre 2013

And lastly, how do I read? Yes, I have a kindle and in 2012 I read 25 books or 41% of them electronically. In 2013 that has increased to 46%, that’s 32 books on the kindle, almost half my reading! That’s thanks mostly to NetGalley who send me ARC’s (Advance Reader Copies) from the publishers that I request, which I am immensely grateful for.

E Book 2013

So now I know what I read and I think I shall just keep on doing the same, which is to be as spontaneous as possible, to engage with others who read for recommendations and keep reading around the world!

The Lost Domain – Le Grand Meaulnes

Classics don’t feature too often on my list and when they do, I tend to be attracted towards the Russian and French classics, because they offer an element of the unknown and the unfamiliar. I like reading across cultures and am fortunate to live within a culture that provides me with learning opportunities every day, whether I read the literature or not. But reading it adds so much more to the experience and to interactions with local people.

West End Lane Books

West End Lane Books

I had come across references to Le Grand Meaulnes a few times and nearly brought it home with me after visiting West End Lane Books in London last October, leaving it behind on that occasion, but purchasing Brodeck’s Report, which I have since read and Alistair Grayling’s non-fiction work Friendship, of which I read a few pages and found it a little dense, not yet abandoned, but left for a rainy day.

Le Grand Meaulnes crossed my path again via NetGalley, where I learned of the centenary version below which coincides with the 100th anniversary of Fournier’s death.  This version translated by Frank Davison, published by Oxford University Press.

I decided – enough – stop reading ABOUT the book and READ the book!

The Lost DomainAnd then what joy, to find myself in the company of Hermione Lee who has written such a wonderful introduction filling us in on Alain-Fournier’s life, that I could almost write an entire post on the gems she shares her excellent essay. She writes of the unique captivation this book has held over generations of readers and the literary qualities that have allowed it to continue to survive as a modern classic.

“Alain-Fournier’s only novel maps an imaginary vision onto a real landscape. It is the story of his childhood, transformed into a romantic quest. It is set in real places which he had known all his life, with real names of villages and towns and shops and train stations, but it takes us on mysterious journeys to places that seem to belong to a fairy tale.” Hermione Lee.

The title itself and its translation present a dilemma, as it is not possible to translate all that it means in one expression, it is a play on words, for it is the nickname of one of the chief characters and a reference to an estate, a château that he will search for in vain.

For a man who died at 28, Alain-Fournier lead a full and dramatic life, making one wonder what more he may have accomplished had he not been killed tragically in 1914 shortly after being called up to fight in WWI. The drama continued after his death, as this one book that he wrote became a cult sensation and created a feud over his legacy, complicated further by the split between his parents, claims by his sister and her husband (Fournier’s best friend) and the married women Simone (whose husband he had ghost written a book for) whom he’d had an affair with, who aborted his unborn child.

Alain-Fournier_maison_natale

Birthplace of Alain_Fournier
La Chapelle-d’Angillon
Source: Wikipedia

One gets the impression having read Le Grand Meaulnes, that having addressed childhood, the author was just warming up for an entire litany of novels, drawing on the many experiences and emotions he had already encountered in such a short life.

“His longing for his childhood places and his desire to turn that emotion into writing was one of the fundamental impulses behind Le Grand Meaulnes.”

Beginning in the 1890′s, Le Grand Meaulnes is narrated by the quiet, unassuming Seurel, a boy whose life at the schoolhouse is relatively uneventful until Meaulnes, nicknamed Le Grand Meaulnes arrives and just as soon disappears, only to return again.

The arrival of Augustin Meaulnes at a small provincial secondary school sets in train a series of events that will have a profound effect on his life. Lost and alone, he stumbles upon an isolated house, mysterious revels, and a beautiful girl. Determined to find the house again, and the girl with whom he has fallen in love, Meaulnes is torn between his love and competing claims of loyalty and friendship.

It is a story of a childhood and adolescence told by one who observes, follows, understands and tries to assist, at the expense of living his own life to fulfilment. What happened to his friend in those few days he disappeared will obsess both boys thereafter, one because he wants to know what happened and the other because he wants to return there and cannot remember the way.

The books first pages are narrated when Seurel is five, the main story taking place when he is 15 and Meaulnes is 18 and will end when Seurel is almost 20. Whenever Meaulnes is present, there is an air of drama. Life and even his character take on a different aspect for Seurel when his friend is there, and when he is not, he mulls over what has passed and tries to make sense of it, and at times even do something about it.

“Meaulnes gone, I was no longer following in the footsteps of a visionary path-finder; I was once more a village lad like the rest of them – a status which demanded no effort and concurred with my own inclinations.”

alain-fournier

Alain-Fournier
Source: Wikipedia

It is a nostalgic read, somewhat melancholy, infused with an air of pending tragedy – and reminiscent of the life of the author. It creates an ambiance of short-lived joy and then loss, one that is repeated often. We don’t read for the destination, but for the journey and its distractions, for the differences between characters facing the same situations. In this, it is a microcosm of humanity on a small scale during one phase of life, youth.

It is symbolic, not just of the end of childhood and romantic notions, but the end of an era of narrative style, published at the same time as Proust’s Swann’s Way, hailed as something new and a sign of the way forward for French literature, part of the new modernist movement, whilst Le Grand Meaulnes represented the end of the romantic tradition.

Loved it.

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

Just Like Tomorrow by Faïza Guène

How Can Life Be So Bad When You’re Living in PARADISE?

Kiffe kiffeI came across Faïza Guène’s  Kiffe kiffe demain translated as Just Like Tomorrow by Sarah Ardizzone, a french contemporary novel for young adults, via a wonderful blog A Year of Reading the World that is being turned into a book*.

Ann Morgan, inspired by the arrival of the multitude of athletes who came to London for the Olympics, decided to read a book from every one of 196 independent countries.

Each country presented a challenge, with only 3% of books in the UK being translated, she had to call on the help of her network and followers to find an English translation for many locations.

Faïza Guène

Faïza Guène

Faïza Guène is a young screenwriter who, after being involved in a local community project, began directing her own films. Born in France of Algerian parents, and growing up in a northern suburb of Paris, she writes from the heart of a challenging suburb, in a part of the city that few from the outside know about and about which little is written in literature.

Fifteen-year-old Doria lives alone with her illiterate mother, abandoned by a father who is seeking a younger, more fertile wife in his birthplace, Morocco. The story follows Doria’s unadulterated thoughts, which for most of the narrative are quietly despondent yet noisy with attitude. She is not prone to drama, although she observes it around her, as if from within a bubble and provides a running commentary on everything in her mind,and on the page.

Peppered with teenage slang, suburban Franco-Arabic dialect, the voice is unique and easily conjures an image of what life must be like for Doria, as she waits to be thrown out of school and pushed into a career she has no desire for. Her low expectations of life make the small gains she and her mother make all the more pronounced and the humour all the funnier.

What Mum really likes watching on telly in the evenings is the weather forecast. Specially when it’s that presenter with brown hair, the one who tried out for the musical The Birdcage but didn’t get it because he was over the top…So there he was, talking about this huge cyclone in the Caribbean, and it was like oh my days, this crazy thing getting ready to do loads of damage. Franky, this hurricane was called. Mum said she thought the western obsession with giving names to natural disasters was totally stupid. I like it when Mum and me get a chance to have deep and meaningful conversations.

It is a slice of life, coming of age story, of a second generation teenage immigrant living her life far from the images of the city of Paris that come to mind for most of us. It is a book that has been widely translated into other languages and offers a unique insight into teenage life for those on the fringe and an excellent alternative to the more well-known French literature out there.

*Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker in 2015.

Are Prize Winning Novels an Indication of Readership or a Nation’s Literary Heritage?

After the BBC’s journalist in Paris Hugh Schofield asked the question about Why French books don’t sell abroad, the Cultural Attaché to the US Embassy in New York, Laurence Marie responded with an extensive list and discussion of a list of French titles that are selling abroad. She also mentions how widely French literature is being translated into other languages and her article makes fascinating and insightful reading. I have collected book covers of some of the works mentioned, plus others, below.

Sometimes we hear about literature from another country when the author wins a major literary prize. However:

Are Prize Winning Novels Really Indicators of a Nation’s Readership?

French Books That Are Selling Abroad!

French Books That Are Selling Abroad!

I don’t think so.

Literary prizes usually have an agenda, if not multiple agendas.

In the case of the UK’s Booker Prize it was set up to try to bring more literary works into the mainstream.

It is known that the prize doesn’t actually influence the reading habits of avid readers. It is targeted at those for whom books are competing against other forms of entertainment.

I like the literary prize season, not so much in anticipation of a winner, but for the longlist, where we are more likely to find something new that might appeal to our taste, because of the variety offered and the number of works screened.

So what are the French literary prizes?

Le Prix Goncourt

I don’t know the French literary prizes well, and Schofield mentions in his article that there are over 2,000 of them, but the Le Prix Goncourt is well-known and has been around over 100 years since 1896.

The last recipient was Pierre Lemaitre, whose thriller Alex  (reviewed here by Savidge Reads who said of it: “a thriller that almost made ‘Gone Girl’ look tame”), was a bestseller last year and his prize-winning novel Au revoir là-haut looks set to be the same.

Nancy, a blogger in the Netherlands whom I admire enormously, tasked herself to read only French novels last year, as an interesting way to learn the language and not only has she succeeded in learning the language, but she has not given up, she continues to read novels in French. You can read her review (in English) of Le Maitre’s Au revoir là-haut here.

The prize was established by Edmond de Goncourt, a successful author, critic, and publisher, who bequeathed his estate to establish an academy and the prize was initially created to allow talented writers the opportunity to write a second book. The prize is seen as being SO prestigious, the prize money has not changed since the early 1900′s and remains something around €10.

Le Prix Femina

Leonora MianoTen members of the Goncourt academy are responsible for the judging of Le Prix Goncourt, and in protest against this all male jury, le Prix Femina was inaugurated, an equivalent literary prize open to all sexes, however the jury is all female.

This year the prize was won by Léonora Miano, a Cameroonian author who has lived in France since 1991, for her 7th novel La Saison de l’ombre (The Shadow Season).

There is also a Prix Femina étrangere for foreign books which was won in 2013 by Richard Ford for Canada and Le Prix Femina essai, a popular genre in France, the essay; this year won by father and son duo Jean-Paul Enthoven and Raphaël Enthoven for le Dictionnaire amoureux de Marcel Proust (Marcel Proust’s Love Dictionary).

2013 Pric FeminaThere are certainly no shortage of prizes here in France (other major literary prizes are the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise, the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Interallie and the Prix Medicis), and their lists make interesting reading, for their longevity and breadth and for that fact, that they are so little known by readers in the English language.

Although prize-winning literature might be translated into English, it may also create a false perception of readership, being skewed towards that overly intellectual perception of literature that Schofield refers to as being elitist, which can alienate the average English language reader (and perhaps also the average French reader).

Every nation is proud of their literary culture and achievements and like to endow their icons of that tradition with prestigious titles, however down here at the ordinary people reading level, there is a whole other canon of literature being read, whether it is in the English language or any other.

CIMG3882To know more about what ordinary readers are immersing themselves in, it is necessary to speak to people like us, those who don’t often have a voice in the media or on a jury, they are the voices that are worth hearing from, even if what they provide is anecdotal evidence.

I am speaking to some of the French people I encounter in everyday life who are passionate readers, to find out what they think about French literature and what they are reading, to be featured in future posts.  And to find out more about all that translated fiction they love to read here.

They’re Reading Thousands of Great Books Here, Cité du Livre – A Local French Cultural Centre and Library

Yesterday via a link on twitter, I read a provocative article in BBC News Magazine by Hugh Schofield entitled Why don’t French books sell abroad? It was an interesting, if superficial article, that made a few observations without going into any depth to understand the contemporary literary scene in France. It asked questions, reminded us of some old provocative stereotypes and did little to enlighten us on the subject of what excites French readers and why the English-speaking world aren’t more aware of their contemporary literary gems.

Kate from BooksKateRates, reads and blog about French literature and wrote an interesting blog post in response to the article and I have been scribbling notes since reading the original article. I plan to share them here, as it is a fascinating subject if one takes the time to research and understand it.

But firstly, I wanted to show you the library, as it offers a glimpse into  how the French absorb literature and culture and it’s one our favourite local hangouts.

Situated in what was a 14,500 sqm match factory, the library, La Bibliothèque Mèjanes, is part of the Cité du livre, a centre for the arts and culture which includes an auditorium for lectures and readings, rooms for more formal lectures, a small cinema showing themed films for 3 week periods (currently Humphrey Bogart films), a music and film lending room, adult and children’s libraries, a press room, an exhibition space (currently celebrating the centenary of Albert Camus), a café and plenty of space for research and study.

Library Press Room

Library Press Room

As we walk in through the enormous sculptures of the covers of Camus’s  L’etranger on one side and Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince and Molière on the other, we arrive in a long corridor and the reception area for borrowing and returning books.

Turn left and we head towards the reading library where outside the door is a display of books for adolescents. A quick glance at these books shows us that half of them are translated fiction, from South African, German and Hispanic authors.

AsterixInside, we walk past displays of translated literature originating from South Africa, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, then the stacks of Bande Dessinée, the very popular hardcover graphic novels, which even today remain at the top of the French bestsellers list, right now its Asterix chez les Pictes, visiting the people of ancient Scotland!

And here are the novels, in French called romans. Rows and rows of books and you might notice something they all have in common, well, in fact, something they all lack. Colour.

Compare it to the shelf opposite which contains the English language novels. It certainly removes that whole likelihood of an impulse buy based on an intriguing cover.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Most French literary novels are published without fancy colourful covers and while in the bookshop you might find first editions with promotional covers, there are many more with pale or cream covers without images and a black or red text title.

However, after looking around a little more, I discover that there is colour in some sections. Science Fiction and Fantasy are full of dark colours and the books covers in the section entitled Policiers (Crime) are mostly black. However, novels and poetry, even the section called American Literature pale into insignificance among a sea of white. It reminds me of one of the three principles of France l’égalitié and certainly here, all books have the same chance of being found, whether it’s from the library or in the bookshop, not just due to their bland covers, but also due to a government policy called le plan livre and the fixed price of books.

It costs €17.50 to join the library (adult) and its free for children, there is no cost for lending and no fees for late returns. 16 items (books and CD’s) and 3 DVD’s can be borrowed at any one time for a period of 3 weeks and the first renewal can be done online. The library is also full of computers providing free internet access to all members. My only complain is that its closed on Sunday and Monday. C’est la vie en France!

So what kind of books do French people read today? And is it true that nearly half of the fiction read is translated foreign fiction? And why don’t we see more books by French authors in English bookshops?  These questions and more I will talk about in the next post Reading Contemporary French literature.

PeopleIn the meantime, if you want to know what’s popular in France and available now to read in English, check out Gallic Books, who offer the best of what’s available in French translated in English with new titles coming out every month.

I’m looking forward to reading The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern due out in English in February 2014.  If you wish to read it in French, it’s already available with the title Eux sur la photo.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly

This book is proof that it is not just reviews and the recommendations of friends that help us choose which book to read next, that an excellent cover and title coupled with an alluring blurb can suffice to motivate that impulse.

The HenThe cover made me pause and the promise of an inspiring fable in a short piece of internationally acclaimed translated fiction sounded enticing enough, but the discovery that the author Sun-mi Hwang had herself overcome the obstacle of childhood poverty and found a way to educate herself to achieve her dream to read and write sealed it.

Like Margarita Engle’s novel in verse The Wild Book and Tove Jansson’s Summer and Winter Book’s, sometimes a mood enhancing book is just what we need to bring ourselves back to life’s simple values for encouragement and reassurance.

The story revolves around ‘Sprout’, a battery hen frustrated with her caged life laying eggs in a sloping wire cage which causes her eggs to roll away, enabling the farmer to conveniently collect them to sell. She hatches a plan to escape, seeking a life outside the barn where others animals appear to roam free and where she feels it most likely to be able to achieve her dream of nurturing an egg to life.

Along the way we meet the old dog that guards the barn, the rooster who crows in the morning, the yard hen, a community of ducks and the lone hungry weasel.

“Whenever she saw the yard hen, Sprout couldn’t stand it – she felt even more confined in her wire cage. She too wanted to dig through the pile of compost with the rooster, walk side by side with him, and sit on her eggs.”

010113_1257_AMonthinthe2.jpgSprout escapes the coop and directs all her energy into survival. She learns who her friends are and who to be wary of.

She discovers the perceptions that govern the role each animal is set to play.

“Yes, you’re both hens, but you’re different. How do you not know that? Just like I’m a gatekeeper and the rooster announces the morning, you’re supposed to lay eggs in a cage. Not in the yard! Those are the rules.”

No fairy tale, this is fable at its best, confronting the reality of stepping outside the role society has dictated (even if nature has not divined) and showing that while achieving the goal can be possible, it is a route fraught with challenges. Reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm or Adams Watership DownSun-mi Hwang brings us her perception of society through characters that we recognise with our own interpretation and reminds us that even the most far-fetched dreams are worth pursuing, no matter what the odds.

We read with trepidation and a strong desire, not so much for Sprout to succeed in her quest, but to survive. It is a delightful and touching story, deserving of its success.

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

Helium by Jaspreet Singh

I doubt this book would have crossed my path, had it not been sent to me by The Guardian in recognition for an extract quoted from my review of Caroline Smaile’s The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, one of my outstanding reads of 2013.

Helium2However, I am glad that it did, as it is an example of important fiction that crosses between cultures and provides us with insights into other worlds and perspectives, lessening our ignorance of events which often account for the unspoken attitudes and undercurrents present in countries that visitors, travellers and outsiders rarely gain access to. We are seeing more novels written in English from immigrants written from outside their country, alluding often to tragic events that have happened in their home country; for many, the reason they have fled.

Last year one of my favourite reads was one such book, Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, based on a true story of the survival of seven-year-old girl of royal descent under a despotic regime in Cambodia and fictionalised as a tribute to those who were lost, in particular her own father. It is a stunning portrayal seen through the eyes of a child with both a chilling and hopeful view of humanity.

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi

Helium centres around one man, Raj, a scientist who was an only child; we learn he left India 25 years before and will discover the reason why, along with his continuous fascination for science, the periodic table and memories. One memory in particular influences his journey and decisions, the attack of his college professor, a Sikh, who along with thousands of others in 1984 are targeted and killed in revenge for the assassination of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (daughter of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru), in what was believed to be a government assisted genocide.

“How wrong Professor Singh was that day on the train when he said that the three most important questions for us concerned the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the origin of the mind. He forgot to add other questions or shall I say he forgot to ask the three really significant ones: Why do people respond differently to traumatic events? How do we remember the past? Why when ‘meaning’ collapses in our lives, do some of us seem to locate a new ‘meaning’?”

Rashtrapati Niwas, built 1888  Source: Wikipedia

Rashtrapati Niwas, built 1888
Source: Wikipedia

Raj, who faces his own challenges as a husband and father back in the United States, returns to India and unable to face his father, whom he suspects of being involved in those events, looks for the wife and children of his Professor and finds her working in an archive at Rashtrapati Niwas, formerly the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.

“Clara has her romantic ideas of India and she clings to those ideas and I am a personification of those ideas. I am not allowed to narrate the dark side of that romance – how ugly the collective consciousness of a nation can be.”

Singh references Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, a novel of science and memory and a man who survived persecution in the concentration camps of WWII and who wrote that outstanding, compassionate masterpiece If This Is A Man: The Truce which I was fortunate to read last year. And the black and white photos throughout the text are a sure reference to W.G.Sebald, another author he admires and relates to. They have the effect of making the reader almost forget that this is a work of fiction, and are a more than subtle reminder that the background events certainly did.

Jaspreet Singh’s character Raj is conflicted, being neither victim nor perpetrator of any crime, except perhaps ignorance, he reads Levi but can’t embrace his humanity or gift for forgiveness. He is angry, as much with himself as anyone else, and must live with the knowledge and acceptance of his role as bystander.

It is a novel that addresses the attempt to escape the past through distance, both physical and cultural and is a reminder that even as many as 25 years will not keep the past from affecting the present when confronted with people, places, books and reminders of that past, that without facing up to our inner demons, they will likely continue to possess and haunt us.