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Literary Escapades: Australia

August 26, 2018 29 comments

Regular readers of this blog know (or have guessed) that I was lucky enough to spend three weeks in Australia this summer. This is not a travel blog, so I won’t share details about my trip except the bookish ones. Reading Australian literature before visiting helped a lot during my stay, I had a better understanding of what I was seeing. Since I was with my non-bookish family, I didn’t specifically seek out literary places. I just took note of what I stumbled upon and visited bookstores along the way.

There’s a Writers Walk in Sydney, near the bay. It’s made of plaques on the ground with the name of the writer and a quick bio. I didn’t look at all of them but they were mostly Australian writers and foreign writers who stayed in Australia. To be honest, I’d never heard of most of them.

Of course, I tend to visit bookstores when I’m abroad. When I’m in a non-English speaking country, I can only watch which writers are on display. Here I came with the idea to get myself some Australian books. I visited bookstores when I had the chance and was very disappointed for the first two thirds of my trip.

At first, all the bookshops I found had books I don’t read. Lots and lots of mainstream fiction I’m not interested in and even the crime fiction section was a letdown. Literary writers have little room in these stores. Tim Winton and Peter Carey seem to do alright but otherwise, lots and lots of colourful cheesy covers with embossed letters. Yes, you see those in your mind eye. One of those sold new and second-hand books that were called Pre-loved books. I like that concept.

And, the horror, these books were expensive. 20 to 30 AUD, which means 13 to 19 euros for a paperback. In France, paperbacks cost from 5€ (classics in the public domain) to 12€ (fancy editions or small publishers)

I eventually found a bookstore in Alice Springs that sold Australian literature, Red Kangaroo Books. By then, I had adjusted to the local prices of books. I tried to focus on buying books I couldn’t find in France or in French. After reading Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the SeaMarie Munkara’s personal story, a book I really recommend to everyone, I decided to try her fiction, A Most Peculiar Act.

After seeing the cover, my children asked me if I was now into horror books. And I have to admit that it looks like a book by Stephen King with a psychopath doll, don’t you think?

I’d heard about Growing Up in Aboriginal Australia on Lisa’s blog. It is a collection edited by Anita Heiss in which fifty Aboriginal Australians relate their personal experience about growing up as an Aboriginal Australian. I should be interesting.

The good thing about traveling so far is that you get a 30 kg allowance of luggage. Yay! More room for books! I ended up in a bookshop called Readings in the Carlton neighbourhood in Melbourne. It was their flagship, according to their website. It’s the size of my favourite bookstore in Lyon and they had a large enough section of Australian literature. I stayed a moment there, browsing through books before deciding upon four new additions to my TBR.

I wanted to read the Anita Heiss but couldn’t get it in France, so I knew I wanted to buy it in Australia. I’m lucky they had it at Readings because Aboriginal writers seem hard to find. (except at Red Kangaroo Books) I’ve already read Madeleine St John and I enjoyed her Women in Black.

I remembered reading about Tony Birch on blogs, Blood was listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the blurb sounded good. We’ll see how I like it. Five Bells appealed to me, it’s published by Penguin so I expect a certain literary quality.

This was my experience with bookstores and I didn’t go out of my way to find them during my stay since I’m the only one obsessed with books in my family. There are probably incredible bookstores in Sydney and Melbourne that I didn’t see, they aren’t on the touristy paths, that’s all.

Seeing the price of books, I sort of felt relieved for Australian readers to encounter so many libraries. At least, there’s a way to read without depleting your wallet. The reading room in the State Library in Melbourne in stunning:

They have sculptures from children books in the forecourt. I didn’t recognise the characters, they were from Australian books but I find it nice that the entrance of this intimidating building is made to speak to children and not only to bookworms. Well, literary nerds have their corner with the James Joyce Seat of Learning.

It looks like a lectern to me, I can understand how Ulysses can be a bible to some but still. There’s a stone from Joyce’s house in Dublin embedded in the desk, like a relic in a church, which enforces the Catholic vibe. I thought it was a little weird, especially since Joyce never set a foot in Australia.

Another way to have free access to books is to check out Street Library boxes. There’s one in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains.

And according to their website, there are tons of them in Australia.

This initiative exists in lots of countries and I love it. For France, you can check out the website Boîte à Lire. One of these days, I’m going to set one up in my street.

I also bought the literary number of The Big Issue. It’s one of those magazines that homeless people sell on the street. Several Australian writers are involved and donated either their time and/or their stories. It’s the first time I’ve seen one with a fiction edition and it’s a great initiative.

My literary escapade in Australia wouldn’t have been as good without a stroll in Melbourne’s CBD with Tony, from Messy Booker. Thanks for taking us to the lanes with street art and explaining what the references were and for pointing out William Barak’s face on one of the city’s skyscrapers. We would have missed this without you and it was lovely meeting you.

And last but not least, we loved having lunch with Lisa and The Spouse on our last day. I’m happy we had the chance to meet IRL, as it’s customary to say. It is always a great pleasure to meet online friends in person. I’m always surprised at how easy the conversation flows but I shouldn’t be because blogging is real life too and the love of books a strong enough connection. So, if you’re in Lyon, don’t hesitate to contact me.

And for the rest of my blogging life, I’m late with everything: writing up the two last billets of last season’s Book Club (The Eastern Parade and Small Country) and the two billets for Portuguese Lit Month (The Alienist and The Anarchist Banker). I didn’t have much time or energy to read at the end of my busy days. I didn’t have time to read other people’s reviews, unfortunately. I’ll try to catch up but I expect to be burried at work in the next months.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting

August 13, 2018 13 comments

I For Isobel by Amy Witting (1990) Not available in French.

I think I should create a “Guy Recommends” category on this blog because I have read and loved a lot of books recommended by our fellow blogger Guy Savage.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting is one of those and again, I read a book I loved.

It is an Australian book set in Sydney. It’s difficult to say exactly when but my guess is the 1930s. When I read Amy Witting’s biography on Wikipedia, I thought there were a lot details that were alike between Witting’s life and Isobel’s, the main character of this novella. And since, Amy Witting was born in 1918 and our character’s nineteen for the longest part of the book…

The book opens with a very sad sentence:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

We then get acquainted with Isobel who lives with parents who both despise her. Her mother is particularly nasty and bitter. She could do something for Isobel’s birthday, at least a cake or a little celebration but she doesn’t. She takes pleasure in torturing her daughter and refusing to acknowledge her birth day. Not celebrating a child’s birthday is particularly hard on them, it’s silently telling them that they don’t matter, that their birth was not a happy moment to remember. And that’s how Isobel feels about it.

Later, Isobel’s father’s death push them into poverty, mostly because her mother is too proud to ask for assistance and/or find work. She’s this kind of women, the ones who think they deserve better that what they have in life and refuse to accept circumstances that they judge beyond them.

Isobel feels awkward, like she never knows how to behave properly. Whatever she does, she gets scolded by her mother. She’s either “not enough” or “too much” but she never achieves to act in accordance with her mother’s expectations. She never knows what kind of response her attitude will trigger. She’s a brilliant child and she understands that her mother’s not right but she doesn’t know how to formulate it properly in her head.

The only moments when she’s perfectly happy is when she’s alone with her books and gone far away from her life thanks to the writers’ imagination. Books are her parallel universe, her safe haven:

Bed was Isobel’s kingdom; it was always a comfort to arrive there at last, and tonight particularly, she burrowed and snuggled and with a sigh of pleasure slid behind the curtain of the dark into her private world.

When she’s barely 18, her mother dies too and she starts to work at company in Sydney as a typist. Her aunt finds her a boarding house and settles her in her new life. New job, newfound freedom and new people to get used to, from the girls in the office to the other boarders. By chance, she meets students who are studying English and make her discover new writers.

Isobel has difficulties to interact with other people. She feels inadequate, thanks to her abusive upbringing. She lacks confidence, never knows how to behave or how to make small talk.

Isobel knew that what was tolerated in other people was not forgiven in her. She very much wished to know why this was so.

This is a coming of age novella, one where a young woman is slowly learning who she is and what she wants from life. She only knows that books will play a significant part it her life. She also feels like an outsider because of her love for books, at least until she meets this group of students who share her passion for reading.

I For Isobel is a very sensitive portrait of a young girl who was dealt with a bad set of cards. Her youth lacked of family love and her young adult self is unfinished because of that. An important part of a child’s usual education is missing: how to relate to others, how to grow confident in yourself thanks to the assurance that your parents love you unconditionally. She learns by trial and error but she has problems to come out of her shell, to live with others instead of just observing them through a self-built glass wall.

As a side, Witting also brings to life the Sydney of that time, the boarding house, the office work and small things about the working-class way-of-life.

It’s definitely I book I’d recommend to other readers. You’ll find other reviews by Guy here and by Lisa, here. This is another contribution to Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sadly, I don’t think that I For Isobel is available in French, so in the Translation Tragedy category it goes.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

August 8, 2018 17 comments

The Dinner by Herman Koch. (2009) French title: Le dîner. Translated from the Dutch by Isabelle Rosselin.

I didn’t know what to expect with The Dinner by Hermann Koch. I only knew that it had been on my virtual TBR for a while after reading Guy’s review. (See here)

The Dinner is like a tragedy in five acts, from Aperitif to Digestif and from funny to horrible. Paul is our narrator. He’s married to Claire and they have a diner party at a fancy restaurant with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. Claire and Paul have a 15 years old son, Michel. Serge and Babette have three children, Rick, Valérie and an adoptive son, Beau. Michel, Rick and Beau are around the same age.

Paul and Claire are not happy to spend their evening with Serge and Babette. Paul describes them as fake and boring and we soon discover that Serge is a famous and rising politician, that he’s going to run for prime minister in a few months.

Paul talks us through the evening. The Aperitif is hilarious with all the sarcastic comments he makes about the restaurant and Serge but there’s already something weird with Michel. With the Entrée come awkward and tense conversation between the two couples and more irritated remarks on the restaurant’s waiter. Memories of a weekend in Dordogne, France at Serge’s house pops up in Paul’s mind. He’s still funny, mocking and we know that Michel, Rick and Beau did something wrong.

The Main Course reveals more bits of Paul and Claire’s life and we start seeing the children under a new and terrifying light. It’s clear that Michel and Rick did something unforgivable. Dessert is when everything unravels and Digestif just pushes the story to an end.

I won’t tell more about the plot otherwise I’d ruin another reader’s fun. Paul is a very unreliable narrator. Someone we like at the beginning of the book before realizing how horrible he is. In a way, The Dinner reminded me of Get Me Out Of Here by Henry Sutton.  (another recommendation from Guy, btw)

The reader starts rooting for Paul and Claire who sound like a happy and stable couple. Serge and Babette seem as ridiculous as Paul wants us to see them. And then our loyalty shifts. It’s a rollercoaster trip with lots of ups and downs, and the nausea at the end too.

Koch leads the show with maestro. Everything is perfectly orchestrated and I think it’d make a wonderful theatre play. Paul’s caustic tone and propensity to digress is funny and full of clues about who he is. It starts with good-hearted laugh and ends with a forced laugh but there’s a lot of humor in The Dinner.

I thought that Koch was quite hard on his fellow Dutch citizen. He openly makes fun of fancy Dutch restaurants. He also has hard words about Dutch people who bought a house in Dordogne (or in Ardèche) and destabilized the real estate market, resulting in a rise in prices that makes it expensive for the locals to settle down. (The same thing could be said about British people, btw) He also exposes how ambiguous the French locals may feel about the Dutch tourists invading campsites with their caravans full of Dutch food to avoid buying anything locally.

I also wondered about the characters’ names. They sound so French that I thought the translator changed them. But I downloaded a sample of the English edition and they are still named the same. So why? Claire is actually short for Marie-Claire. Babette is a nickname for Elisabeth. Serge and Paul are very common and could be Dutch too but Michel is clearly French. And all the French Michels I know or have heard of were born between 1920 and 1960. Think: Michel Berger, Michel Blanc, Michel Platini, Michel Houellebecq, Michel Foucault, Michel Legrand, Michel Rocard…So it was hard for me to picture an adolescent named Michel. Sorry. But that’s on me, it probably wouldn’t affect another reader.

Do I recommend The Dinner to other readers? Yes. It’s a good summer read. It’s also a good Book Club read because it provides a lot a material for plot discussion and also a debate about the moral dilemma imbedded in the story.

Other reviews: Lisa’s and Marina Sofia’s.

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