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Authors I find inspiring

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.

 

 

The inquisition in the library

Oh, sir, cried the niece, your worship should have them [the books] burnt  like the rest. For once my uncle is cured of his disease of chivalry, he might very likely read those books and take it into his head to turn shepherd and roam about the woods and fields, singing and piping and, even worse, turn poet, for that disease is incurable and catching, so they say.

 

Cervantes, Miguel De, Don Quixote, translated by J.M. Cohen, 1950, p. 61

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 books I have read (2) : Hilary Mantle, Woolf Hall

New Image

If first familiarised myself  with Wolf Hall, through the television series of the same name, produced by  the BBC. It  was on TV when I was in Britain in 2014. I loved the series, which  also received very good reviews. This was probably due to the great talent of the actor Mark Rylance, the script written by Hilary Mantle, who had also promised a series that does not dilute the content of the  six hundred and fifty page brick. As for me, I enjoyed the series and, when I read the book that deals mainly with Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) and his relationship with Henry VIII (Damian Lewis), I had in mind the brilliant personification that presented the actor. Early in the book, I thought it was a good thing to have first seen the series, because I did not know very well this period of English history and having seen the Series  allowed me to  better visualise the era. After a few hundred pages, however, I concluded once again, that the book was still, much better than the series. I’m usually not very attracted by the historical novels. Mantle’s great talent lies, however, in my opinion, it her  ability not only to recreate an era, but also to  bring  the reader into its psyche, and this is where Hilary Mantle excels. Through the vicissitudes of the blacksmith’s son, beaten by his father, who rose in the highest spheres of power of that time and played a role in one of the most important historical periods in the history of England she managed to imagine how people thought about death, illness, sex and power. It is therefore not surprising that it is the first (and only, I think) woman  to have won the Man Booker for this wonderful book (not easy to read in English, however) and its sequel.

The Luminaries

I wanted to love The Luminaries, from  Eleanor Catton, who won the 2013 Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in  Anglo-Saxon literature. Not necessarily for the right reasons, but because I’ve always liked the  Bookers I read. Also because I liked the first NZ Booker I read , The Bone People (Keri Hulme), and I also liked Mr Pipp,  from Lloyd Jones, another New Zealander (who almost won a few years ago, and  was subsequently turned into a film). Because the book deals with  New Zealand’s history and the West Coast, a region that I love. Because Catton is young, because her father taught  at the University of Canterbury, because her sister took  one of my classes a few years ago. I wanted to love the book despite the fact that I did not  like the interviews she gave in the media at the time. Reading  eight hundred and  eighteen pages in English repelled me a little, but I read Doris Lessing before,  as well as  other authors  who write lengthy novels. Sixty pages into the book, I thought it was well written, and at around page  three hundred, I thought the book was perhaps going somewhere. But after many nights falling asleep  after reading a few pages, I had to conclude  I did not like the book. Thinking I had missed something,  I read the review in The  Guardian, and the reasons  the critic gave  for  loving the book were the same that made me dislike it. Firstly, the choice of the nineteenth centuy  style, against which I have nothing, a priori, did not add anything to the story, it seemed to me. Then what the critic of The Guardian called stage directions, deeply bothered me. Reading the book, I had the impression I was  reading a script for a TV series giving instructions about the small details: the  colour  of the dress,  its length, the  embroidery on it, how  one character smokes his  pipe repeatedly, etc. Catton has undeniably been researching the gold rush and the New Zealand history of this period, but I often had the impression of reading a research assignment  rather than a novel, as if  Catton wanted to include at all costs  everything  she discovered on the subject. It felt like   the research had not been digested. But what I liked even less, is the way the characters are not embodied (what the critic likes, in The Guardian).

I always found that films made from  books I read are invariably not as good as the books. In the case of The Luminaries, I believe, unfortunately, that the film will be better than the book. However, I am conscious to be part of  a minority of dissatisfied readers, since the book has sold millions of copies.