Category Archives: The books I have read

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.

The book I have read : H is for Hawk

The photo is from the Daily Mail


article-2704475-1FF293F400000578-208_233x350H is for Hawk is the title of the book written by  Helen Macdonald, which   won the Samuel Johnson Prize, awarded to the best non-fiction book in 2014.

Macdonald’s story focuses on the period following the sudden death of her father, while Macdonald was at the University of Cambridge. The story is about her mourning,  the way she plunged into depression and tried to get through her grief  by training  a goshawk, a falcon species that are not easily tamed.

Macdonald has been interested in these birds from a very young age and she does not hesitate to mention the many publications she read on the subject. She  also explains the specific vocabulary relating to this area of ​​knowledge, the food this bird of prey needs, its ideal weight, etc. All these rather technical explanations are interspersed with her reflections on the difficulty of mourning a loved one, as well as the characteristic features of this wild bird that still resists any domestication, unlike other animals. This is also what seems to attract her to them.

She comes and goes between her  experience with Mabel, the goshawk she acquired at a cost of 800 pounds, after the death of her father, and her  readings, especially that of TH White, an author who recounted in a books his failure to tame a hawk, that she compares with  her  own doubts and struggles with Mabel,  bought near the Scottish border. We learn further that in the months she  dedicated herself to Mabel, she  accumulated unpaid bills, she had to leave Cambridge and gave up  a job offer in Germany. It is only when she took   Mabel (who later died of an airborne fungal infection) in an aviary so she could redo its feathers, that  she overcame  her depression and mourning.

This is a book with an unusual theme, which makes it no less interesting. It took me time to get carried away by the theme, perhaps because the passages on White seemed to me less interesting. The relationship Macdonald has with her  bird is however so well made that I seemed to live  these moments with the author.

I however could not help but wonder how Macdonald could live with the nature of this bird of  prey, which kills cruelly and even if it is part of its  nature and that these sacrifices participate in the natural balance. We still feel the humanity of the author, who admits to breaking the neck of the victims of Mabel to prevent the suffering in the clutches of her beloved bird. I doubt I can ever love a bird at this point. I remembered, however, that it  quite often happened to me to admire the grace of these birds of prey in what seemed to me a dance in the sky, even though I knew that all this was unfolding with the aim of catching  a prey that would be sacrificed without mercy. Macdonald talks about it, a little, but not enough to satisfy me. A very good book, then, but perhaps not for everyone.

The question which this book has not answered is  why humans are involved in this training  and how it is different from that which would  be done by the birds’ parents  from. The book would have seemed to me even more interesting if Macdonald had tried to answer this question.