Category Archives: The books I have read

The books I have read : Patrick Evans

 

Patrick Evans is a New Zealand writer born in 1944. He was a literature professor at the University of Canterbury until 2015, and also  a colleague I  occasionally met at work and with whom I  have rubbed shoulders in a few evenings. He is a specialist of Janet Frame (Owls do Cry), one of New Zealand’s best writers. He released The Back of His Head (his fourth novel) in 2015 just before he retired, which looks at the dichotomy  author / work. It is an interesting topic   because of the widespread belief  that the quality of a  given work is inversely proportional to the character of the author, who often has a questionable morality, an unstable or bizarre character, provoking reactions of all kinds among the readers, who sometimes do not want to read  stories written by someone they would not want to mingle with.  Evans therefore tackles a subject he has undoubtedly often addressed in his lectures  and which is certainly not new. He uses  the character of Raymond Lawrence, the fictional  first Nobel Prize for literature from New Zealand. 

Peter Orr, his adoptive son, one of Raymond’s mistresses, and two other artists are the executors responsible for preserving his heritage. Locating his characters in New Zealand allows Evans, in the first third of the book, to deal with the difficulty of being an artist in a small society. He’s not wrong. It is true that, all things being equal,  it is more difficult to be a Nobel prize winner  in New Zealand than in Great Britain or Italy. Expectations are higher, perhaps the artist is more likely to take himself  a little too seriously, or  to be put on a pedestal. Moreover, the legacy of such an author is more difficult to develop and preserve because of distance and financial means. So, when the excutors of Lawrence’s legacy must find money to repair the roof of his house/museum, we learn that the Steinway piano, which would be auctioned  for around $ 250,000 in Europe or North America, will only reach $ 50,000 in this part of the world. Evans also takes the opportunity to make fun of the executors’  pretensions to try and preserve the  literary heritage of the author, that  cannot live up to what is done  elsewhere. To better understand this first part of the book, we have  to remember that Patrick Evans is a specialist of Janet Frame, one of the best novelists of New Zealand, and that he dealt with her (she did not like him at all) as well as with her executors (who do not like him either, partly because he wrote an unauthorised biography of Frame). There is a lot of   bitterness floating  between the lines in this part of the book. It helps to know that born from English parents living in India, who came to New Zealand when Patrick was five years old, Evans  was a recalcitrant New Zealander (on his own admission) for a long time, which seems to have fed  his caustic humour,  often coming  through the voice of Raymond Lawrence. It is not so  surprising that his New Zealand identity may have been difficult to embrace when one knows that University of Canterbury, at the time when Patrick Evans started his career, was resisting the teaching of “local” literature.   In any case,  tired of his relentless caustic humour et on the point of leaving the book unfinished after a hundred pages or so,  I could see the narrative find a new breath and Evans  getting into the heart of the matter. The enigma of Raymond Lawrence, the monster, resolves little by little. Evans did not do things halfway. The question of what crime the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature did not commit is increasingly  at the forefront rather than the reverse. We learn that the rude man  despises his readership, his adopted son, and humanity in general. Affected by Parkinson’s disease, he continues to show his disdain for life (and especially that of  others) in his choice  of death. When it  becomes more and more evident that the great master has plagiarized a certain number of authors,  Evans makes the question ” to what extent can one forgive an exceptional being?” impossible to avoid. Evans mentions Ernest Hemingway, Lawrence Durrel and, in New Zealand, Maurice Shadbot, as possible inspirations to portray this literary “monster” (It personally reminded me of Picasso).

The best passages come through the  voice of Peter Orr, his adopted son, who admires him but can not help but ask himself if the horrible things described in his adopted father’s book happened for real, although he barely can face the answers.  In this part of the book,  Evans addresses the  themes that have undoubtedly preoccupied him throughout his life as an academic and as a writer, in particular the boundary between reality and fiction or the question of whether one can teach writing. The answer of Raymond Lawrence is unequivocal! Who speaks at this point, Lawrence or Evans ? It would be interesting to know  because the last restructuring of the University of Canterbury put increasingly    literary creation (or how to write a script, a play, a story for children) at the forefront of the department as it attracts more students (although of course nobody would never admit to it), whereas the classics are less and less entitled to mention. Shakespeare, for example, is no longer a full course at UC.


The book is well written, the dialogues well conducted (his experience in plays serves him well) and one can feel the shadow of Janet Frame hovering over numerous passages. The greatest weakness of the book lies in the first two pages, the moment he chooses to present us with an excerpt from the book of the Nobel Prize for Literature: totally boring. I find it very hard to believe that it is Evans’s conception of what a literature worthy of a Nobel Prize is.  Finally, his caustic, stripping, squeaky humour is sometimes too much (for me). But it’s probably a book that  deserves to go beyond the borders of New Zealand, although it is unlikely  to ever happen.

 

 

What I have read : in bulk

Irene Nemirovsky: Suite française,  novel (2004) (charity shop, for a pound sterling), of which was made a film, a suite of two posthumous novels for the French author, (Jewish-Ukrainian origin) on life in France after June 1940 and in a suburb of Paris in the first months of the German occupation. She died at Auschwitz in 1942. It is a sharp criticism of French society. It is  worth reading for the beautiful analysis of moments of crisis revealing the true human nature, a theme has been successfully resumed in the series A French Village. It is sometimes unwisely  interrupted by rather boring descriptions of nature, inspired in this (according to The Guardian) by Chekhov and Turgenev. I found the effect missed, but obviously, it only concerns me.

J. R. Prynne: Poems (2015), a reissue, revised, and augmented version of his previous books (ordered from my bookseller for $ 60NZ). At eighty years old, Prynne is considered one of the great poets of his generation in Britain. I usually  find it a bit difficult to read poetry in English (because it is so much more governed by prosody). It is the title of one of his books, “Kitchen poems,” which first attracted me. Then I began to read his poetry in a fluid manner, which is strange, for he is often reproached with being hermetic. He has  opened up beautiful ways of exploring poetry. It is almost seven hundred pages of poetry, which I  see as a Bible rather than as a book to be finished. Many hours of fun in front of me.


Lionel Shriever: The Mandibles (2015). E-book ($ 18.75NZ). The starting point is 2029, while  Florence’s  family can afford  to take one  single not really warm shower a week. The president is confiscating  the savings bonds and the gold of the citizens. But this is just the beginning. Everything goes from bad to worse from that moment on. I thought  the topic  was interesting: money and inheritance, the aging of the population, all topical subjects, and I had previously  found her criticism of the health system in the US, worth reading. But the characters  of this family are not convincing at all and although  Shriever understands her subject well and has undoubtedly done research on economics, she has not managed to make it interesting through credible characters. She often regurgitates her discoveries through the voice of a fourteen year old teenager who seems to have understood everything. I started skipping passages after  fifty pages. I nonetheless am forced to admit that this has been enough to make me reflect more on the concept of frugality.  I pride myself (not aloud, but still) on living frugally, but  I realise how relative the concept is. To meditate, therefore, under a hot shower!
 

Fay Weldon: Auto da Fay (2002). E-book, $ 15NZ (because absent from the library).  The autobiography of the author, her childhood in  New Zealand during the war, her return to Britain, right after the war, her first two marriages, until  she published her first book. She’s  had a very interesting and busy life. I love her sense of humour and drama around the many twists of her life, the personality of her family’s characters, the need she does not seem to have to settle her accounts. In fact, her life reads like a novel and throws a new and interesting light on some of her books. I can not wait to read the rest.

What I have read : in bulk

Cervantes: Don Quixote (pre-loved book, 5 pounds sterling). I loved the one hundred and fifty pages that I read, that I stopped there because I felt that I did not get to grasp the beauty of the language in English (I do not understand the subtleties Of the language in English) and I made the decision to wait to be able to read it in French. I found among other things a passage on beauty that has not aged in any way and could be used wisely in the classes of philosophy today and would arouse interesting debates.

Elena Ferrante: I read two books (from the library, but forgot the titles),  of this Italian woman who has known  worldwide success without revealing her true identity. In a society where the cult of personality reaches heights, I find her statement interesting. However, she recently offered evidence of her origins (daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress), whereas her true identity, which was subsequently discovered, does not correspond to what she insinuated in interviews. It takes away, in my eye, a little of her credibility. Anyway, I did not succeed in liking  the two books about the life of Neapolitan women that I read (I read the second by telling myself that the first was perhaps not the best). But her books read easily and quickly and so I brought back  L’amica genial from  my trip to Napoli in order to practice my Italian. Who knows ? Reading the story in the original language will perhaps change my mind, and  being in Napoli will make me see things differently.

Michel Houellebecq: I  found a bilingual edition of his poetry, Unreconciled, and I prefer his poetry, which seems more authentic,  to his prose.  There are some moments of quasi serenity, but it is overall, very  dark, so it should not be on the list of depressed people.  Houellebecq is indeed unreconciled with himself, the world and the universe. This book reminded me that  I read Submission (bought in a bookstore) published in 2015,  shortly  after its release. I  loved the first thirty pages, and then it did  not do it for me anymore. Yet I loved Atomised, despite its extreme pessimism. But I did not find the following books,  as sharp. However, I must admit that with a little more distance, the theme of Submission,  which dwells on  the propensity of the political class and the elites to compromise,  strikes a bell in the current climate. He is accused of being  misogynistic, but he answers that his description of men is certainly no more flattering. Seen from this angle …. quite true.

The book I have read : Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx is an eighty-one-year-old American author who has enjoyed success thanks to  Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, two novels that have become successful films. Shipping News is the first book I read in English without too much difficulty and I remember the sympathetic story and especially the way it was presented to the cinema thanks to the talent of Kevin Spacey and Julianna Moore. Barkskins was released last year and some said it was her best book. It is undoubtedly the longest (736 pages). I reserved  it at the library last year before leaving for my annual trip, but the waiting list was too long and I thought I would read it  sometime, when I would be back. The book was already  on the shelves in January, perhaps because the seven hundred and thirty-six pages had discouraged more than one.

The  story is about two men, René Sel and Charles Duquet, who arrived in Nouvelle France in 1693. They must work for three years for a seigneur  before obtaining their own plot of land. Duquet fled, while Salt stayed and, to please the seigneur,  married his former Micmac  concubine (while the seigneur married a Frenchwoman who had recently arrived in the country) and produced a long line of mixed race, while Duquet founded a dynasty of forest owners. Proulx follows their descendants for three hundred years in their disappointments and successes. It is a book that will appeal to those who are interested in the beginnings of New France and New England, as well as those who have an interest in the environment, as much of the book evokes the (wild) deforestation of the Maritimes and of New England.  Several reviewers see this theme as the center of this “fiction”. The history of the First Nations (or whatever other name given to them), the disappearance of their way of life, the clash between cultures that saw nature in a diametrically opposed way, are all part of the story.

I was not surprised to read that Proulx had initially planned to write a didactic book on this subject (for which she has done extensive research), and that it was only towards the end that she made the decision to make it as a novel. The “fictionalization” of her research is often superficial, and I often felt she was passing through the history of the countless characters (too many to be remembered) as something that has to be done, even before I learned how this historical novel had come into being. I had the feeling that she was telling the story as a (not always good) journalist recounting various facts (and not always necessarily in the best newspaper). I also often thought about the episodes of Who do you think you are? , when  individuals searching for  their ancestry reconstruct their lives from  news found in newspapers or official documents. She has little interest in the psychology of characters, they often come and go,  disappear quite quickly, except for a few of them that are better explored. If this process allows  to evoke the fragility of life, its brevity, its sudden disappearance, as was the case at that time, one wonders what its bring to the great saga of the  Salt and Duke. One feels nevertheless a real passion for the environment. She explores the techniques of cutting trees, the hard life of those whose job it was to cut these trees very convincingly. There is even an episode on the deforestation of New Zealand (which I thought was well done). The author, a historian by training, did not skimp on research (it took ten years to write this book). What has touched me most, however, is how the torment of the First Nations, their slow and inexorable decline, and sometimes their psyche.

In an interview she has claimed  to write in a traditional style, but I did not find it to be the case. I must admit that this is what I least liked in this novel. It took me a good fifty pages before I started to get used to Proulx’s style  and even after seven hundred and thirty-six pages, her style did not succeed in seducing me. Other critics mentioned the lack of coherence of  certain characters who sometimes spoke in “Indian” and other times in irreproachable English, but I did not notice these differences because I was often a little lost amidst the  multiple characters.


I have nevertheless read (by skipping passages) the book with interest, clinging to some themes that I liked more, including that of the First Nations, certain characters, including Lavina, some anecdotes and her  once in a while deeper examination of   the psyche of the  New World settlers or First Nations. This book would make a beautiful mini-series (perhaps this was what Proulx had in mind when writing it) and will probably be translated into French very soon.

 

 

What I have read (8) Richard Russo

I bought The Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo, after reading a very positive review on  arlingwords‘ blog. I found it at the book fair in Nelson for  $2. This book was published in 2007 and was  later  translated into French, as   many other of his books. He  won the Pulitzer Prize for The Empire Falls, published in 2002. The Bridge of Sighs is 528 page  long and  although well written, easy to read, and in general, very interesting, it would have gain from having less pages.

The story revolves around Lou and his family, living  in a small town in the United States in the post-war (2nd) era.  Lou grew up in Thomaston (a fictional town near New York) a city he has never left. His father was a milkman and after losing his job, he bought a convenience store  (against his wife’s will). Lou later  took over his father’s business (instead of studying, as his mother wished), acquired over time a few more stores he is about to slowly pass over to  his only son. The actual story begins when Lou is about  fifty years old  and has just made the decision to go to Italy with his wife, an  art teacher and painter,  in remission from cancer. He has also decided to write his story, and thus, that of his family, his friends and his city. Looking  at Lou’s  childhood  allows the reader to observe the life of a dying  city, as they exist  not only in the US but worldwide. In Thomaston, the tannery not only allowed  its inhabitants to “earn a living”, but also to die, because of the pollution it caused in discharging toxic waste into the river. It will close sooner or later, but people who have a very high cancer rates have ambivalent feelings toward the industry that has given them a way to earn a decent living. This small town is a metaphor for the United States, but  also elsewhere in the world, where companies have developed cities around a single industry. Once their  resources have been exhausted,  they simply close down and leave populations into disarray. What fascinated me most in this book, though, is how  Russo shows us a  community through the innocent eyes of a child  and how, over the years, his vision evolves. Over time, the reader can  see how  Lou reassess  his father (whom he adores), his mother (whom he likes less), his friends, his wife and himself, but remains, despite its growing lucidity, an optimist who wants above all that all is well.  Russo’s greatest talent  is his  ability  to suggest a lot more than the naive words he puts into Lou’s mouth. Moreover, through Thomaston’s story, that  Lou sees as good a  structure  as can be to  ensure the happiness of its citizens, Russo reveals slowly, but surely, the degree of hypocrisy necessary to its  “proper functioning”. In the end, under the thick  layers of  good behaviours, lurks a despair and loneliness all the more painful that it has no voice. This is in my opinion the finest quality of the book, which no doubt  comes from the great  compassion the author feels for all his characters.

The Guardian was very flattering in his assessment of the book and willingly accepted  that the “great” American novel is better  than its British counterpart, but insisted that unlike other novelists (like Annie Proulx, for example), where the grandeur is evident in the vastness of the landscape, Russo’s book achieved the same success by  situating the action in a small town. The critic of the New York Times was less kind to the author, as he  believed that the Bridge of Sighs is more or less a repeat of his book published in 2002, for which he won the Pulitzer. I cannot comment on that, since I have not read the previous book, but  the one I read is good enough to make me want to read another. The New York Times also believed that certain narrative angles  are implausible and somewhat awkward, especially the excuse he gives himself in the character of Lou who wishes to write his story (highly unlikely for a small store owner) but that did not bother me. This is actually  an element of fiction writing about  which I have often thought of lately. I wonder indeed why the characters must be credible when we know that reality is always much more incredible than fiction. And since this is fiction, I wonder why reader  want  believable characters. It seems to be   a pervasive questioning in the minds of  creators. In the past few months, many American writers who were asked their opinions of Donald Trump said that if they tried to put such a character in a novel, it would be immediately rejected for its  lack of credibility (!). As to which of the British or American novel is greater, as stated by The Guardian, again, I have no particular opinion, I read great novels from one side or the other of the Atlantic, but one thing is certain, their aesthetic and style are different.

The great strength, and perhaps thereby, the great weakness of this author, is perhaps his mastery of anecdote. Indeed, Russo makes  the story go forward through comprehensive and effective anecdotes. The weakness, I sometimes felt, is that the book risks becoming  a collection of anecdotes, rather than a novel with a vision. Russo does not do that in The Bridge of Sighs, because most of the anecdotes lead to  an overall  impressive global vision, but the danger is felt in some anecdotes not  seeming to  bring anything special to the story. I hope, nonetheless  to find, when I  next visit  the bookfair,   either  his most recent novel or his novel about the universities.

The book I have read: Lionel Shriver

When I went to the second hand book fair in  Nelson, I had no real hope of finding a book that would please  me (actually I found a dozen, for the modest sum of fifteen NZ dollars). When I go to such events, I do not take the trouble to read the back cover. My principal interest is in finding  authors I’ve heard of. Lionel Shriver is best known for her book (and  the film) We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book and a movie that I absolutely did not want to read or see because the subject (how to be a parent of a child  who commits a massacre) bothers me too much. But I found So much for that by  the same author and I thought  that if I was wrong, it would not be a dramatic mistake (I’ve also found a book by Richard Russo, recommended  by arlingwoman I look forward to reading) . Reading  the American book coincided with an interview she (yes, it  is a woman who changed her name at the age of fifteen) gave to the BBC during the famous Hay Festival, that takes place annually in Wales, one of the places in the world that I had long dreamed of visiting one day (books, books, books). The starting point of the book  is not particularly attractive: an American, Shepp, who has always dreamed of another life in a country where he could  live with just a few dollars a day, has finally managed, at age 50,  to raise the money he needs to realise his dream and is   ready to embark on the new adventure. The day he plans to tell his wife that he is about to  leave with or without her, she tells him that she just found out she has cancer (caused by asbestos). This is the beginning of a different type of  adventure called surgery and treatments, and for Shriver, it is  an excuse to thoroughly criticize the US healthcare system. Shepp, Glynis’s husband must give up his dream and keep doing a job he hates to qualify for the invaluable health insurance from his employer. However we discovered that the insurance is not as reliable as we think.  Shepp must constantly eat away their savings to top up what  insurances do not pay, or because they  pay only a part  of the costly treatments that Glynis has to  go through to “defeat” the disease. Shriver also deals with the complex problem of marital relations during  a difficult time in their life together, but also the relations of the sick woman  with “friends” and family.

While reading this book I remembered that when I’m with American friends, the conversation almost always ends up turning around health insurance and this probably indicates that this is a constant concern for those  living in the United States. Shriver could have been content to condemn the “health industry”, bad bosses and bad insurers but goes beyond and traces the origin of the system, which was born during World War Two. While workers were few and  wages were regulated, employers who wanted to attract employees, offered health insurance as a bonus. At that time, it did not mean much: treatments were minimal and people died young. The reader is certainly tempted to accuse the wicked employer of all evils. Shriver prevents us to do this  by serving us a small speech from Shepp’s employer  (also not friendly), which shows us that we can not expect a small business to be able to   support all medical expenses families of all employees through insurances, especially when some family members require special and expensive care: it can only lead to  the company’s bankruptcy. The employer also attracts Shepp’s attention of the fact that his wife’s  expensive treatments  have raised the insurance cost to the point that the employer now employs only contract workers, in order  to maintain his competitive edge  (we feel like saying  that this is not a  good reason, but  we ourselves have all  been guilty of trying to find the best deal, and often because we do not have afford to pay top dollars). There are several levels of discussion, including a  criticism of  insurers themselves, says Shriver, who have employees whose role is to find ways  to not pay for treatment, but also of medicine and doctors, who sometimes maintain the unrealistic expectations of desperate patients. Shriver also talks about money, which is refreshing, in a way, because we rarely talk aboutit  in novels (each chapter starts with the amount of money  Shepp has got in his saving account). Of course  we know that money is not important, but only  as far as one has  enough of it. When in need, that’s another story. Towards the end of the book (do not read if you want to read the book), Shepp asks  Glynis’ doctor, a year after having started the treatment that could  save Glynis (which cost almost two millions dollars),  how much time the doctor believes to have added to the life of his wife :  three months, he replies laconically (hence the title).

After finishing the book, one feels grateful for  living in a country where there is a health system run by the state, but  relief does not last very long.  I realised that if I had to make a long stay in the hospital, or if I had to undergo expensive surgery, I would be quickly ruined if I had to pay for it and it would probably the case of a large part of the population. It is ridiculous to believe that the state can afford  treatments that individuals cannot pay for (since we are the ones who pay taxes) and we increasingly live longer and run the risk of needing  expensive treatments sooner or later.

And then I suddenly remember the horror stories I see more and more regularly in newspapers, about this charming gentleman who worked all his life and has always paid his taxes, who needs a new hip and has been waiting  for three years, and has been  given morphine to ease his pain, although the case is not deemed  urgent enough to go at the top of the waiting list. Or a mention is made about a new drug, which could extend the life of x or y that has not been approved by the government, while  individuals in despair can not afford the treatment costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Shriver makes us aware that medicine today is a time bomb that is just waiting to explode. A very interesting book that really made me think. Shriver is often accused  to expand on the results of her research in her books. For me it is not really the research as such that bothered  me because it was used in a very  efficient way (in fact,  I  often wondered, while reading the book, what  was fiction  and what was experienced and  this is probably a good sign), but the repetitive side of certain passages. Shriver is  philosophical in this regard and says  that readers can  skip the  passages they do not like (that’s what I did). As for me, I wish the editor had  intervened  further to amputate the  over five hundred pages book  (which reads nonetheless easily) of about one hundred and fifty pages. Shriver is not a great stylist, but her  dialogues are very skilled and reading is enjoyable. She likes  to focus on subjects that cause controversy.  Her most recent book is about   debt (collective and individual) and inheritance, which I will certainly read. She has convincing male characters, except when they discuss the way women dress, which seemed to me to be feminine. I thought extraordinary that Glynis hardly mentions her two children and not very often in Shepp’s mind either. The end is a little too Hollywoodian for me, but I am not sure what would have been a good ending*.

And until we find a solution to the problem of modern medicine, I  can only eat lots of  vegetables and exercise daily, hoping that it will do.

 *this was before obamacare, which has changed the situation to a certain extent.
 

The books I have read (7) : Hilary Mantel

 

I read with Bring up the Bodies, from  Hilary Mantel with as much pleasure as I did Wolf Hall. As I’ve already mentioned the  post about the first book, I do not particularly like historical novels (the latter looks at England in  the sixteenth century and Thomas Cromwell, the advisor of Henry VIII), and I do not know very well  this particular period of English history. Seeing (part of) the series on the BBC when I was in Britain made me want  to read the book. It was helpful to see the series first, because the links between the characters are complex and Mantel is not easy to read, especially for a non-native. Even in French translation, readers have noted that this is a demanding book (but the effort is worth it). I think I preferred the second book to the first, as in the first book, the author had to  put all the characters in place so that they could play their role and this made reading more difficult (at least for me). In the second one , perhaps due to the great success the first book had (and Mantel won her  first Booker prize), it seems that she sets  Cromwell free, as she imagined him. Readers can  feel the great affection she has for her character and  she brilliantly  gives the reader the impression that s/he is in the head of Cromwell and can somehow spy on the mind of a man of the sixteenth century. Mantel has so much talent that we end up  by almost understanding the  “logic” of Cromwell, the reasons he gives for “having to” to get rid of one or the other, but especially Anne Boleyn so that Henry VIIIth may have a male heir. In the second book, Cromwell thinks more often about his past, aristocrats reminds him more and more frequently that he is  the son of a blacksmith. We discover that he has not forgiven the treatment that his dear Wosley had to endure.  Mantel also  suggests that Cromwell had progressive ideas,  and did not see the usefulness of  war, amongst other things. In short, Cromwell feels almost nice. Through her characters, Mantel explores  the perception of women and  sex at that time.

It is not intended to be factual only  and warns that it is “her” Cromwell that she introduces to us, aware that others have seen him very differently. I have not done extensive research on Cromwell, but it seems  true that other portraits of him were more unflattering. I much prefer the multidimensional portrait Mantel has drawn for us in a beautiful  style, which probably explains that Mantel is now  part of an elite  group of very privileged authors who received a second Booker.