Monday, February 1, 2021
Friday, January 8, 2021
"a form of nonfiction that combines factual reporting with narrative techniques and stylistic strategies traditionally associated with fiction,"
"Careful, there's laundry hanging up ... as if saying those things were like saying dirty words, or worse, as if they were a source of unimaginable shame."
While Dead Girls focuses on "three small-town girls murdered in the 1980s," their stories are set squarely within the wider context of violence against women as she goes on to offer the names and brief stories of others who had met the same fate at the hands of men, as well as the well-entrenched misogyny and commonplace violence that exists throughout the small towns in Argentina's interior. This is not, as she also reveals, a new phenomenon, citing an account in a book that "catches her eye" about the case of a Polish girl from the 1950s who had the misfortune of having a boyfriend who was a "possessive, jealous and violent man."
In her Epilogue, before listing the names of femicide victims who died over the month's time since the "new year began," the author writes that
"In that time, at least ten women have been killed for being women. I say at least, because these are the names that appeared in the papers, the ones that counted as news"
leaving the reader to wonder about the ones who didn't count as news.
As the back-cover blurb says, what she's written here is a "clear-eyed, multi-faceted account that has global resonance." While I recognize the huge importance of Selva Almada's book, at the same time, it's a very difficult book to read on an emotional level. While reading it, I couldn't hep thinking of Fernanda Melchior's Hurricane Season -- in both books the authors offer a look into the economic and social conditions in these small towns that help to feed that violence, but also acknowledge that crimes against women are all too often marginalized by the police or the politicians who have the power to change things but allow these crimes to continue.
It's a tough book, but so worth it, and it's one I can very highly recommend. I can also recommend Charco Press, a small but ultimately awesome publisher.
Thursday, December 3, 2020
"Stones and parched earth -- they call it the Tartar Steppe."
"stay up there for years and years, in this room, in this solitary bed."
"Watch out...you will let them convince you, you'll end up by staying here too."
Drogo refuses to accept this, believing himself to be "an outsider, an uncontaminated spectator," who will be leaving them forever in just "four months' time." However, at the end of the four-month period, he's decided to stay, having become used to things and having
"within him dull sluggishness born of habit, military vanity, love for the accustomed walls which were his home."
"truly worthy of him, so that he could say: Now it is over and I have done what I could."
"Everything goes by -- men, the seasons, the clouds, and there is no use clinging to the stones, no use fighting it out on some rock in midstream; the tired fingers open, the arms fall back inertly and you are still dragged into the river, the river which seems to flow so slowly yet never stops"
as his years of expectations fade away into years of emptiness, and as his life becomes no more than an existence as barren as the Tartar Steppe. And it just might be, according to Buzzati, that Drogo may have been deluding himself all along; he may just be "an ordinary mortal for whom only a mediocre fate is reserved."
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
"an intimate and frighteningly acute exploration of a mother-son relationship and a masterful portrait of alcoholism in Scottish working-class life..."
"he did whatever had caused her to laugh another dozen times till her smile stretched thin and false, and then he searched for the next move that would make her happy."
"She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but ... Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise."
Friday, October 16, 2020
"...a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time..."
"spelling in -- of course, in Elizabethan times was a lot less stable, so Hamnet and Hamlet are, in fact, the same name name."
In the same segment, the author explains that at 16 she was studying the play, and her English teacher happened to mention "in passing" the fact that Shakespeare had a son. Her thought at the time was to wonder "what does it mean for a man like Shakespeare to call a tragedy like this after his dead son?"
In this book, she reimagines how this came about, and does so without mentioning Shakespeare by name at all, explaining to host Mary Louise Kelly that
"He's the husband, or he's the father or the playwright or the actor. I needed people in a sense to forget who he is. I wanted them to think about him as a human being."
She also says that Hamnet, as a person, has been "really overlooked," and indeed Hamnet is the first person encountered on opening the novel, knowing that he needs to get help for his twin sister Judith who unbeknownst to her brother has been infected by the bubonic plague. Scouring the house and the streets for his mother, he is unable to locate her or anyone else, and you can just feel his panic rapidly rising as he searches and waits. The reader also has to wait for help to arrive since the next chapter goes back in time, introducing the young man who through some hinky business dealings of his father, is forced to serve as Latin tutor to the younger sons of a yeoman as part of a "debt or a fine" which his father "cannot--will not? -- pay." It is while doing this job that he meets Agnes ("Ann-yis. Agnyez") , whom at first he mistakes for a young man "wearing a cap, a leather jerkin, gauntlets...," holding a bird on "his outstretched fist." The novel alternates between present and past, as we learn the personal and family histories of both parties since their respective childhoods, including Agnes' skills in the ways of nature, her upbringing, her pleasures and pain as wife and mother, and the absent father that her husband becomes, unable to stay at home, going off to London to seek his fortune only to eventually find that fame which keeps him there for longer periods of time.
|The Shakespeare Family, from The Guardian|
In the present, as Judith becomes ill, Hamnet succumbs as well. Death spares his sister; it is he who dies. While no one at the time had ever recorded the actual cause, O'Farrell fills in the blank with bubonic plague, offering an excellent few pages of describing how it made its way to Judith via a glassmaker in Murano. Agnes is frantic, as none of her healing knowledge helps save him; she feels guilty for being away when her children needed her, for being "an absent mother," missing "the unheard cry" of her son, something that will "lie at her very core, for the rest of her life:"
"Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother's...."
"There will be no going back. No undoing what was laid out for them. The boy has gone and the husband will leave and she will stay and the pigs will need to be fed every day and time runs only one way."
There is so much anger and hurt in this woman that as a mom myself, it was often unbearable to watch her going through such a depth of anguish and pain at the loss of her child, while Hamnet's father continually looks for him "everywhere, in every street, in every crowd, in every audience" to the point where, as he says, "I may run mad with it."
David Mitchell and Liza Tarbuck from Upstart Crow -- after the death of Hamnet. It's the one episode across the entire series that gave me lumps in the throat and a good cry. From Luke McKernan
Hamnet is a fine example of historical fiction, a fine re-imagining of the "overlooked" Hamnet and his death, but above all, it gives Anne Hathaway whose life is also somewhat of an enigma, an identity as a strong woman who had to endure so much on her own. I did find it to be sometimes for my taste too overly detailed, with every herb, every remedy, every this and every that of the period eventually finding its way onto the pages. It was just too much, and I would often find myself skimming these parts because really, I just wanted to get on with the story. Unlike a lot of historical fiction fans who love this stuff, it often becomes tedious for me until it's time to just move on. I also found the prose a bit on the overwrought and heavy-handed side at times which dropped this book from a loving it to liking it status. However, the story itself is so good that I was utterly absorbed in it from the very start and had trouble letting it go, and it is a book I can recommend. Warning: you may need tissues.
Wednesday, September 9, 2020
originally published as La Mystere Henri Pick, 2016
translated by Sam Taylor
My curiosity was more than aroused by the idea that Pushkin Press would be partnering with Walter Presents "for a series of timeless novels with strong international appeal." The books chosen have been "handpicked" by Walter Iuzzolino himself, whose long-running Walter Presents has been a tv staple in my house for several years, even before the move to PBS in 2018, so there was no doubt that I would be buying this novel. I've also preordered Walter's second Pushkin pick, The Second Life of Inspector Canessa, due out here in the US January of 2021.
I admit to being a bit surprised as I started reading this book, as most of the time Walter tends to lean toward international crime. The Mystery of Henri Pick, as I discovered, is much more on the lighter side than I'd expected. At first it was a bit discombobulating not having the full-fledged crime/mystery novel I thought I'd bought, so I had to regroup, let go of my original expectations and move on. Once I relaxed, the book became a fun read, albeit with a slightly serious edge.
In the small town of Crozon in Brittany, librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec had set aside a space at the municipal library "for the world's homeless manuscripts," inspired by his reading of The Abortion by American writer Richard Brautigan. After placing ads in trade magazines "inviting all authors" to bring their rejected books to his library, writers throughout the country came to
"rid themselves of the fruits of their failure. It was a sort of literary pilgrimage. There was a symbolic value in travelling hundreds of miles to put an end to the frustrations of not being published."Meanwhile, in Paris, Delphine Despero has gone to work for Grasset, hired as a junior editor for this publishing firm. It was in this context that she met and fell for a young, aspiring writer by the name of Frédriéc Koskas who later accompanied her on a trip to the home of her parents in the village of Morgat, near Crozon. Delphine is curious after hearing about the library of rejected books, and after the pair make couple of visits, Delphine takes one of the manuscripts, The Last Hours of a Love Affair away with her and becomes throroughly enchanted with it, ultimately deciding that it absolutely had to be published. The book's author is one Henri Pick, now deceased, but who used to run a pizzeria in Crozon. As the dustjacket blurb informs, "The book is an immediate sensation, prompting fevered interest in the identity of its author." Curiosity grows about Henri Pick, not just for the journalist who wonders how this pizza chef could write such a novel, but also for his family, who'd never even seen him pick up a book, let alone spend time writing. The publication of Pick's work also sets off a number of "unforeseen consequences" which make up the bulk of The Mystery of Henri Pick, as it is definitely a novel that "changed lives."
This book fortuitously arrived at a point when I needed something mind-refreshing, something on the lighter side, and the author threw a few hours of happy reading my way. Author David Foenkinos noted that his book is "a playful reflection of the literary world," as well as a "tribute to books and literature and to the writers that have long been heroes of mine," and I have to admit that I couldn't help feeling rather guilty every time he mentioned a title that has been sitting on my shelves, sadly neglected and sadly unread. The story is definitely "playful," and while I loved the literary references as well as the great love for books and literature displayed throughout, for my taste it goes too much into the private lives/soul searching of all of the characters affected by the publication of Pick's book, making it drag a bit in the reading after a while and sometimes turning toward the "cutesy" side which is just not my cuppa. I also want to say that the dustjacket makes a lot of the "obstinate journalist," but in reality, he takes up far less space than I would have thought from the book's description. But then came the ending which I can only describe as completely unexpected and which I greeted with mental applause and a silent shout of bravo in my head. Now to watch the film.
Overall, it's fun, it's lighthearted, and we can all use some of that happening in our lives at the moment.
Thursday, August 6, 2020
New Directions, 2020
originally published 2016 as Temporada de huracanes
translated by Sophie Hughes
The discovery of a corpse floating in an irrigation canal near a small rural village opens this most harrowing novel. The person known as "the Witch" has been killed; the question of who is responsible and why is asked and answered here, but it quickly becomes apparent that this book is not just a simple murder mystery. In Hurricane Season, the author explores the hopelessness and the violence that plagues this small village as well as the myriad forces that shape and perpetuate it.
The narratives of four different but interconnected characters living in the village of La Matosa form the very core of this book, moving the story forward (although not always in linear fashion) from their various vantage points. Each one takes us somewhat closer to the crime as well as to an understanding of the character of the Witch herself. It is telling that she remains voiceless here while her presence remains central to everything. Since these stories happen to build from one another however, any certainty you may have gained from one person is quickly shaken as seeds of doubt begin to creep into your mind with the next, often changing your perspective and understanding. Yet as they relate what they know (or think they know) about the Witch and events that may have led to her murder, taken together these accounts paint a grim picture of a more collective reality of life in the village of La Matosa, a place one character refers to as "the ass end of nowhere," a place where the inhabitants have been passed by, ignored or forgotten on many levels. What we find in their lives reveals much about these people, especially their dreams of escape from a hopeless future while stuck in a society where abandonment, poverty, misery, and violence of all sorts never seem to end. What's more, the institutions that could make a difference don't seem to work here: families break down, religion and superstition mingle into one and neither the government nor the law bring any sort of justice.
I have opted not to detail any of the plot since the less a potential reader knows about what happens here the better. What I will say is that as truly bleak as it is, I thought this novel was brilliant and unflinchingly honest on so many levels, and that as the dustjacket blurb says, the author did manage to "extract some tiny shred of humanity from these characters" that leaves room for empathy and understanding. More importantly, the novel underscores a number of ongoing horrors plaguing parts of Mexico, including narcotrafficking, homophobic prejudice and violence, and especially femicide.
I read an article about Hurricane Season a few days ago in which the author is quoted as saying about this book (you'll have to trust my translation here):
"Of course, it's a love novel, only the characters never find it. It's something you lack so much that you don't even know what's it like. And even if they find it, it doesn't matter, because what good if everyone is drowning, it's all fucked up."Reading Hurricane Season made me very uncomfortable for a number of reasons, two of which I'll name. First, there's an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that pervades this book, and I'm left with the feeling that the future holds little resolution to the underlying problems that exist in La Matosa leaving things to continue on as usual. Second, while I loved the writing style, the language is just brutal and raw; the author doesn't hesitate to use some pretty foul words and her portrayal of heartbreaking sexual abuse is just downright ugly. Then again, I had to ask myself how someone could otherwise write a book that captures "the brutal force of male vice," rage that doesn't quit, and the sense of it all being so "fucked up," and I couldn't come up with an answer.