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Quais du Polar 2019 – Day 3: Criminology and translations

March 31, 2019 7 comments

For my last day at Quais du Polar, I decided to attend to two events, one entitled “CSI in the 19thC: when literature looks into the birth of crimilogy” and one which was actually a translation battle.

I started with the one about criminology, a conversation between Coline Gatel and Fabrice Cotelle. We were in the Jacquard room of the Palais de la Bourse. Coline Gatel wrote Les suppliciées du Rhône, a crime fiction book set in Lyon at the end of the 19th century. Fabrice Cotelle is a commissaire, and the staff chief of the SCPTS (Service Central de la Police Technique et Scientifique), the French CSI. The real police forces are involved in Quais du Polar, as a way to make their work better known and I found it marvelous that they are willing to take part in the festival.

Lyon has a long tradition around solving crime. In the 19th century, Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924) was a famous criminologist and specialist of forensic medicine. Edmond Locard (1877-1966) is another forensic scientist who formulated the basic principle of forensic science. Meanwhile, in Paris, Alphonse Bertillon made huge progress in indentification. He’s the inventor of the mug shot. Nowadays, the headquarters of Interpol are in Lyon and the national school for police captains is near Lyon. It is open to the public during Quais du Polar. I visited it once, and it was fascinating. There’s a fake apartment where students learn how to retrieve clues from a crime scene and an interesting museum about criminology. Moreover, the police stations of the 1st and 4th arrondissements were open to the public during the weekend. The public could meet and chat with authors who are also detectives or police officers.

The meeting between Coline Gatel and Fabrice Cotelle was absolutely fascinating. She has written a book with Lacassagne as a character and she brings back to life the beginnings of forensic science. The turning of the 20thC was a critical period for crime investigation as several sciences made progress at the same time: medicine, photography, psychology and psychiatry.

Mr Cotelle had read Mrs Gatel’s book and could easily interact with her, explaining what he discovered in her book and going back to the history of criminology. He told us what methods invented back in those days are still used today. He shared about the changes, mostly DNA exploitation and digital traces. Of course, we know that we live traces with our phones and credit cards. But did you know that the computer in your car records when and how many times a door was opened? So, if you say that you were alone in your car and that your connected car recorded that the passenger door was opened, you’ll have some explaining to do. (I’d be a suspect: I always open the passenger door to put my bag on the passenger side because I don’t want to twist my back by doing it from the driver’s side!)

The challenge is also to turn some state-of-the-art technique only used in special cases into readymade and efficient processes that can be used on the field, on a daily basis to help policemen and gendarmes solve everyday criminality.

I loved this exchange so much that I decided to buy Les suppliciées du Rhône, just to discover who Alexandre Lacassagne was. Lyon was a hotspot for science in those years and I’m looking forward to knowing more about my adoptive hometown. I also liked that Fabrice Cotelle didn’t look down on crime fiction writers, pointing out inconsistencies. I also appreciated that he took the time to read Les suppliciées du Rhône to have an enlightened discussion with its writer. He was respectful and engaging, just as his neighbour was.

I’m glad that the festival managed to involve the police in the conferences and the events of the festival. It’s a rare opportunity to hear them talk about their job.

In the afternoon, I decided to attend the translation battle around an English text. We were again in the Jacquard room.

 

It was a short story by Jamey Bradbury, an American writer born in the Midwest and now living in Alaska. (She’s published by Gallmeister, there’s a good chance that her book is good) Two translators worked on a French translation of her story. They presented their translation to the attendance and another translator acted as an anchorman and asked questions about their choices and the differences between the two texts. Jamey Bradbury was there too and she could give her opinion about the option taken in the translation of this or that word. The art of translation fascinates me. The translators explained their choices and basically had the same issues with this translation. Words like to hum, to poke, to squint, to waggle one’s eyebrows, to scavenge; to pee…have no direct equivalent in French and are a hurdle. Just like something and whatever.

I loved attending this exchange and I envy their job. I think that bringing foreign books to local readers who wouldn’t have access to them otherwise is a fantastic job. It brings us a world of literature we’d never know.

That’s all for this year, folks! It’s been a great three days and I’m looking forward to the next edition.

Book haul for the day:

 

Quais du Polar Day 2: James Sallis, Michael Connelly, Ron Rash and others

March 31, 2019 10 comments

You will probably never guess it from my billets about Quais du Polar but this year, the focus is on Nordic crime fiction. Lots of writers from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark are invited to the festival. Since I’m not a great reader of Nordic fiction I chose to attend other events.

Sorry if anyone expected billets about Nordic fiction. 🙂 You can always listen to the conferences on replay here. But let me share with you my second day at Quais du Polar.

My first panel featured Ron Rash, Colin Niel, Ingrid Astier and Monica Kristensen. The theme was Great landscapes and Noir fiction. It echoes to the conference I recently attended about Nature Writing. We were in the room Tony Garnier at the Palais de la Bourse.

Ron Rash writes novels set in the Appalaches and nature is an important part of his protagonists’ way of life. Colin Niel writes crime fiction novels set in French Guyana. You can find my billets about his books here and here. He used to work there as a environment engineer and contributed to the creation of a national park.

Ingrid Astier wrote a surf novel set in Tahiti, French Polynesia. She spent a few months there, to understand the land and talk to the natives of the area. Her book focuses on a special and very dangerous wave that surfers want to ride in Tahiti.

Monica Kristensen is a scientist, a climatologist and the first woman to have led an expedition to the South Pole. She writes crime fiction novels set in the North Pole in Norway.

What I enjoyed about the panel was the good interactions between the writers or how they bounced on each other’s ideas. They listened to each other and even if each of them told stories related to their books and their specific natural environment, they managed to find common points between the issues described. One of the issues is how to combine human activities that ensure that the populations living there can work and make a decent living and protect the environment. Tourism is not always a good solution. They pointed out how our relationship with nature is different according to who we are. Colin Niel said that hiking in the Amazonian forest with soldiers is not the same as hiking there with natives.

They seem to have a common goal with their books: give a voice to the local populations, make their voices heard. And you should have heard Monica Kristensen talking about polar bears! I would have loved to hear her trade bear stories with Craig Johnson.

A very interesting moment with these four authors.

The second event I chose was a mix between jazz and literature. It was set in the Opera of Lyon and James Sallis and Michael Connelly talked about jazz and their literature. Here’s a picture of the premises, for you to have a feel of the jazz club atmosphere.

A quartet played songs between bits of conversation between the two guests, artfully guided by a journalist. It was a wonderful moment, good music and also a great conversation between two writers who truthfully enjoy jazz.

Sallis is actually a specialist and he has written books about jazz music. They made the link between jazz and their work, how it influences their style. Sallis made interesting comments about the music we had just listened to and the process of writing. He pointed out the lead of the song and its patterns and how the quartet improvised from it and came back to the lead and pattern. He said that writing a book was a bit like that. The writer has a lead, he pokes around this idea, plays with it and comes back to it. They have pattern in their writing. He said that music helps him get in the right zone for writing, in the state of mind that will engender his literature. Fascinating stuff.

The third event was a panel with Ron Rash, James Sallis and Chris Offutt about the “Great American Noir novel”, at the Chapelle de la Trinité. Gorgeous place, isn’t it?

They connected well, interacting cleverly, answering the questions of the journalist. They seemed happy to be there, discussing their working habits. Rash and Offutt both write books set in the Appalaches, where they come from. They evoked the nature there and the culture of the inhabitants. Both say that they keep writing about the same place, hoping that if they dig far enough, they’ll reach the universal and be relevant to readers coming from different backgrounds. Sallis has moved a lot in his life and he said that writing about a place was a way for him to absorb the place, to understand it and get to know it deeply.

The three of them have a close relationship with nature and want to stress on the importance of the natural environment on the men who are settled there. Nature influences people’s way of life and their culture, whether they are conscious about that or not. It was a lively conversation with writers who were willing to share, to give us clues about their writing.

I had a lovely time listening to these great writers. I’ve never read Chris Offutt but since he’s published by Gallmeister, I’m sure I’ll like him.

What I love about Quais du Polar is that the writers are not on an obvious promotion tour. Of course, they may be invited to talk about their last book and they sell and sign books. But they are also invited to discuss themes that are in line with their work but not always direct promotion. It avoids readymade comments about their book to questions journalists ask over and over again. They have to play another partition, they have a chance to chat with likeminded writers and that makes it more enjoyable to the public.

Book haul of the day:

A whodunnit in the Proust world written by an academic specialized in Proust. It was wrapped in a nice tote bag designed by the publisher Viviane Hamy. I’m sure cat lovers who will read this post will appreciate it.

Day 3 will be about criminology and about translations.

Quais du Polar 2019 – Day 1: Brian de Palma, Michael Connelly and a good book haul

March 30, 2019 5 comments

The 15th edition of Lyon’s crime fiction festival started on March 29th, 2019. It is a large festival dedicated to crime, with a giant book store, numerous conferences, investigation games in the city, several escape games and films at the Institut Lumière, the museum of cinema. (The cinema was invented in Lyon, where the first film ever was made.) It is set in different historical buildings in the city center, giving the attendants the opportunity to see places that are usually closed to tourists.

It lasts three days and I plan to take advantage of the three days.

First, I attended interview of Brian de Palma and Susan Lehman who wrote a crime fiction novel together, Are Snake Necessary? That’s the translation of the French version of the book, Les serpents sont-ils nécessaires? I don’t know the actual English title because the book is published in France but not in the USA. This means that, although it was originally written in English, it has not found its publisher in the US. Amazing. To be honest, this interview was disappointing. The journalist had obviously prepared her questions and knew de Palma’s filmography well but he kept deflating questions with jokes, never really answering anything. Susan Lehman tried to compensate for his lack of response but it was not enough to make of this meeting an engaging conversation.

Then I went to the cinema to see the preview of a documentary about Michael Connelly and Los Angeles. Olivier Marchal, a French former cop and crime fiction filmmaker flew to Los Angeles to visit the city, the places mentioned in Connelly’s books and to meet with the real-life cop who inspired Harry Bosch. I have never read anything by Connelly but the documentary was excellent, showing Connelly and Marchal driving around Los Angeles. Connelly talked about Harry Bosch, his work and his love for LA. Olivier Marchal is a great fan of Connelly’s and he was like a kid in a candy store who has met their favorite star. It gave a special atmosphere to the documentary as his enthusiasm and awe are visible. It will be on the French television soon. Connelly was in the movie theatre, discovering the film at the same time as us and he spoke to the public a little bit. He seemed quite approachable for such a successful writer.

After this good time at the cinema, I went to the bookstore at the Palais de la Bourse (The Chamber of Commerce) and wandered among the various stands, all belonging to independent bookstores.

Of course, my wallet didn’t come out of this unscathed but I had a lot of pleasure buying books, discussing with passionate libraires and other readers. Here’s my book haul:

Santiago Gamboa is a Colombian writer. I’ve never heard of him, it was an impulse purchase based on the cover and the name of the publisher. Usually what Métailié publishes is excellent, so I trust them on this one.

I also chose to buy Serena by Ron Rash in English because I knew from his previous visit to Quais du Polar that he reads his book aloud to himself when he writes. He started writing with poetry and moved to novels and short fiction later. He likes to check the sound of his prose. Since I had no trouble reading his Burning Bright collection of short stories, I thought I’d get this one in the original.

For the first time, James Sallis is at Quais du Polar. I’ve never read anything by him, except Drive. I’m curious about Moth (Papillon de nuit in French) and the New Orleans setting appeals to me. I’m curious to compare his New Orleans to the one pictured by James Lee Burke.

Reading Michael Connelly seemed obvious after watching the documentary. It made me curious about Harry Bosch, so I decided to start at the beginning and read the first of the series, The Black Echo.

I enjoyed Nothing But Dust by Sandrine Collette and I had the chance to tell her how good her book is. She signed my copy of Les larmes noires sur la terre and I’m looking forward to reading it, even if I already know it will be bleak.

Tony Cavanaugh is described as the Australian Michael Connelly, so we’ll see how I like his book. He was very friendly with his public and stunned to learn that the young couple in front of him had come from Lille (700km away) just to attend a book festival. Yes, we French love our crime fiction.

It was a good day to take time at the bookstore and chat with writers. I’m glad I could tell Bogdan Teodorescu how much I loved Spada. (Still no English translation in sight, apparently, no publisher wants it.)

My program of Day 2 is a panel with Ron Rash, Colin Niel, Monica Kristensen and Ingrid Astier about landscapes and Noir. Then a jazz and literature hour with James Sallis and Michael Connelly. Then a panel entitled Eternal flame, the great American Noir novel, featuring James Sallis, Ron Rash and Chris Offutt.

If you want to see the whole program of the festival, you can visit their website. All the talks, interviews and shows are available on replay here.

Fête du Livre de Bron – Bron literary festival.

March 10, 2019 18 comments

It’s currently the Fête du Livre de Bron, a festival for contemporary literatures, one of the numerous literary festivals in France. This year’s theme is La vie sauvage. (Wild Life in English). Friday morning, I attended two conferences, one by Oliver Gallmeister, the founder of Gallmeister publishing house and one by Pierre Schoentes, professor at the Gand university in Belgium.

Regular readers of this blog know that I love books published by Gallmeister. They are specialized in American literature with two strong preferences, Nature Writing and Noir fiction. All books show a certain side of America and in their way, question the American way of life. Their books are right in the theme of the festival.

Oliver Gallmeister was interviewed by Thierry Guichard and the interaction between the two was lively. It was interesting to hear the point of view of a publisher. He runs an independent publishing house and his only compass is that he publishes books that he loves. Old ones with new translations or new ones. He comes from the countryside and says that nature has always been part of his life.

Gallmeister publishes Edward Abbey, Pete Fromm, David Vann, Jean Hegland, Gabriel Tallent but also Ross McDonald, Craig Johnson or Thoreau. They publish writers whose books could not be transposed anywhere else. Books that are intrinsically American.

He talked about nature in America, the way it is part of the American psyche and in their daily life, something we can’t understand in Europe where wilderness is when a garden in unkempt. In the books Gallmeister publishes, nature is an important part of the plot. It’s almost a character or at least something so present that it influences the character’s way of life.

I’m not going to paraphrase everything he said about Nature Writing but I’d like to share what he said about publishing.

80% of the books they publish come to them through literary agents. Gallmeister starts to be well-known in America for publishing a certain type of American literature. They receive around 500 books per year and publish 20. Some of these books are not even published in English because no American publisher wants them. For me, it’s quite puzzling to read a book in translation that has not even been published in its own language. It’s the case of Evasion by Benjamin Whitmer.

Oliver Gallmeister said that France is a little paradise for some of the writers they publish. France still has a unique dense and active literary ecosystem made of libraries, independent bookstores, festivals and partly relayed in the school system. When they first come to France, their writers are amazed by the crowds they meet and it’s something I’ve witnessed at Quais du Polar. Writers are sitting at their table to sign their books and they’re pleasantly surprised by the queue of people, patiently waiting their turn to have their book signed and a quick word with its writer. There are a lot of people attending literature festivals, them being free probably helps too.

Can you imagine that? Some of Gallmeister’s writers are so successful in France that it helps them being published in their home country or live off their books. Some keep on writing thanks to the French public and their book buying. (Now I have an excuse to splurge at Quais du Polar…)

I’ve already mentioned that Gallmeister’s traductions are outstanding. They work with a steady team of translators and their watchword is to disappear. The translator shall not be visible and they have each translation controlled by a team to ensure that the translation reflects the author’s text. There is no room for the translator’s voice or interpretations. Their efforts are visible in their translations. I speak English well enough to hear the American under the French, but it’s still written in a French that a French would speak. And yet, it reflects the American way of speaking and Frenglish with literal translation of expressions doesn’t have its place here, which is excellent because it’s irritating. It sounds odd to readers who don’t speak English and they leap to the face of the English-speaking reader. Honestly, it made me want to be part of their team who checks on translations.

I loved this interview because I truly share Oliver Gallmeister’s passion for American literature and also his non-academic relationship with literature. He doesn’t lose the most important part of why we read: pleasure. I managed to muster the courage to talk to him at the end of the conference and ask if they’d branch out to Australian literature and suggested a book that seems right in their publishing policy: The Hands by Stephen Orr.

Last info: Gallmeister will have a stand at the London Bookfair on March 15th.

The second interview was in total contrast with the first one and soon became a snooze fest. Pierre Schoentjes is certainly a very competent academic. He has written an essay about “nature writing” in French literature, which explains why he was Oliver Gallmeister’s counterpart. His first sentence included a word of literary theory that I didn’t know. That didn’t bode well for the rest of the talk. His speech was not totally accessible to non-academics. Sadly, he reminded me why I never wanted to go to university and study literature.

To sum it up: there’s no real nature writing in French literature for different reasons. There’s a genre called “régionalisme”, about peasant stories and it’s not considered as noble as literary fiction and it’s a put off. Europe doesn’t have wilderness anymore. Post WWII intellectuals were mostly urban writers and were more interested in the working class than in nature. It seems that books about nature were a political statement, either to contrast with the brutality of war (Giono) or to promote ecology.

The two interviews really illustrate my perception of American vs French literature. American writers (at least the ones I read) tell stories and nature or wilderness can be part of their story. French writers often fail to avoid the pitfall of introspection and intellectualization of things even when it’s not needed. One example: The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari. An American writer published by Gallmeister would have written a story about the two friends taking over a café in Corsica. All the stuff about Saint Augustine would never have been there.

I don’t want a novelist to show off how erudite they are, it’s boring and in a way, it says, “I only write for like-minded people”. I see literature as a way to escape, a way to see the world and broaden my horizons. Why should I need a degree in literature to read novels?

So yes, I’m going to be a very good customer to Gallmeister. The icing on the cake? The book covers are gorgeous.

On Saturday, I attended the interview of Fabrice Caro, a BD (comic books) writer and novelist. It was a very funny interview by one of his passionate reader, Maya Michalon. We went through his work as he shared anecdotes about his life, his creation process and his interactions with the public.

I bought his BD Zaï, zaï, zaï, zaï, the story of the absurd manhunt that starts in a supermarket when a consumer forgot his loyalty card. He had no papers. I haven’t read it yet but from the excerpts I’ve heard yesterday, it’s totally hilarious in an off-beat sense of humor. The idea behind the loyalty card is to show what could happen to someone who doesn’t have an ID card.

I’d also like to read his novel, Le discours and his other autobiographical BDs entitled Le Steak haché de Damoclès, Like a Steak Machine and Steak It Easy. He can’t tell you why all the titles have steak in them, except for the pleasure of a good word.

There were a lot of other conferences that seemed fascinating but alas, one is always caught put by pesky things called work and chores.

Bookish news in my small world

January 26, 2019 20 comments

Over the last few weeks, I have gathered miscellaneous bookish things I wanted to share with you. They caught my attention during my daily life activities and stayed with me.

Literary events

Angouleme BD festival

This weekend is the Festival de Bande Dessinée d’Angoulême. It’s the 46th edition of this festival dedicated to BD, a French acronym that covers comics, graphic novels, manga… The Grand Prix of the Angoulême festival has been awarded to Rumiko Takahashi, the Japanese author of mangas. Did you know that France is the second market in the world for mangas? (After Japan, of course) 18 million of mangas were sold in France in 2017 and it represents 38% of the BD sales in France. We are unique in the Western world for this and it started with my generation. We watched manga cartoons on TV and we were hooked.

 Fête du Livre de Bron – a festival for contemporary literature.

It’s organized from March 6th to 10th, 2019. Oliver Gallmeister will give a lecture, Nature Writing, une tradition anglo-saxonne. I hope I can attend this as I’m curious to hear this wonderful publisher of American literature.

Quais du Polar – March 29th – March 31st.

I have my subscription to Quais du Polar! Nordic Crime will be celebrate during the 15th edition of this cime fiction festival. I received my badge, my two free books and now I need to browse through the writers that will be invited and see if I have one of their book on the shelf already.

Translations

Good news! Il reste la poussière by Sandrine Collette is now translated into English. It’s published by Europa Editions and it’s entitled Nothing But Dust. See Claire’s review here.

Other great news, La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre will be available in English in September. It will be The Godmother, in a Coppola sense, not the Disney one. It will be published by Old Street Publishing.

I also stumbled upon a German translation of Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. I hope it’ll make it into English one of these days.

Economy and Literature.

When literature takes interest in economy and vice versa.

I’ve started to read the number 79 of the magazine L’Economie politique as it is about literature and economy and how the two interacts. Some articles are more difficult than others, I’m not done yet. I didn’t know that Robinson Crusoe was used in economy theories. I enjoyed the article about writers and the literature and book market. I’m looking forward to reading the one about economy and Zola.

I’m not going to post a billet about it. Sometimes I struggle to understand the content in French, so writing a summary of it in English is insuperable.

When the French tax law for 2019 favors independent bookstores.

When browsing through the tax changes voted last December, I stumbled upon an article about new tax exemptions for independent bookstores. Chain stores are not in the scope of this law and I’m happy our deputies voted texts to protect our network of independent bookstores.

 

America – A French magazine

America is a magazine founded by François Busnel and Eric Fottorino. It started when Trump was elected as president and it is meant to last the four years of his presidency. Each magazine has a theme to make us discover America. François Busnel is best known in France as the presenter of the weekly literary live TV show La Grande Librairie. It’s a famous TV program in France, one that managed to gather 841 000 viewers on December 11, 2018 and keeps getting high ratings for that kind of show.

America includes long interviews of writers, reportages by French and American writers, a chronology of events in Trump’s America, beautiful illustrations and pictures. It’s a gorgeous magazine, the right mix of long articles and news in brief, of contemporary writers and older ones, of literature, cinema and TV.

This quarter’s number is about race in America, it opens with a poem by Maya Angelou and includes a long interview by Russel Banks, a text by James Baldwin and other reportages and interviews.

Silence, on lit!

Quiet! We’re reading, that’s the meaning of Silence! On lit. It’s a charity devoted to developing reading in schools. The idea is simple: everyday students read at the same time during 15 minutes. The middle schools (collèges) have arranged their schedule around this new reading time. Any reading material is allowed: books, magazines, BDs…Anything. The whole school gets quiet during 15 minutes as all the students in all the classrooms are reading what they chose to read. The repetition helps improving at reading. It’s a real success where it’s implemented. New readers emerged and for the others, it’s a quiet time to settle down after other activities and be ready to learn something else after.

It’s a charity, and of course, they need money to buy more books for school libraries because they need a bigger stock of books if all the students read at the same time and want to borrow something from the library. I like their idea a lot, because 15 minutes is not long and I think that their small steps approach is interesting and takes reading down from its pedestal of intellectual activity.

Libraries Without Borders

Libraries Without Borders is a French charity whose aim is to help alphabetization and promote access to culture and education through libraries. They work locally in 30 countries.

In France, they were recently involved in La nuit de la lecture. (Reading night). Libraries Without Borders gave book bags to a group of migrant children. French children from Alsace prepared personalized book bags for each child, as a welcome to France and the French language gift. For my Australian readers, have a look at what they do for Aboriginal communities. (Here)

Why this billet? you might ask

I know there are tons of initiatives to foster reading, to improve literacy or to build bridges between communities. There are also tons of book festivals everywhere in France. All the events, actions and news I shared are just drops in this ocean of literary-oriented activities. But they were the drops that brightened the world news I heard every day.

My 2018 reading year in twelve books

January 6, 2019 36 comments

In 2018, I read or started a total of 55 books, not a lot compared to other bloggers. It’s stable from one year to the other, I guess that one book per week is all I can manage. I abandoned five of them either because I didn’t like them or because they were too difficult to read. It was a good reading year, but not outstanding.

After showing you some of my 2018 bookish moments and wrapping up my year of reading Australia, allow me to share my twelve favorite reads of the year.

Best atmospheric crime fiction: The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

I loved being in New Orleans with Dave Robicheaux and I want to go to Louisiana now.

Best companion book: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Kamel Daoud retells the story from Camus’s famous classic The Stranger from the Algerian perspective and gives a thought-provoking vision of colonization and post-colonial Algeria. A punch-in-the-gut book, important to read along the original.

Best political crime fiction: Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu

I hope, I really hope that Spada will be translated into English because it shows the underbelly of political communication and how the exploitation of a crime in the media transform politicians into pyromaniacs who set the country on fire.

Best oxymoron book: The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa

A banker’s speech that will convince you that indeed, no one is more anarchist than this bourgeois banker. Incredible. Funny as hell.

Best coming-of-age novel: The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun

I’m not sure it’s really a coming-of-age novella, since I’m not good at putting books in neat literary boxes. The Poor Man’s Son gives a good vision of life in poor Algerian villages during the French colonization. It’s based on the writer’s own experience.

Best almost-feminist book: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

The sad story of two sisters, one who follows the expected path of marriage and motherhood and the other who tries to break free of this yoke.

Best African-French book: Small Country by Gaël Faye

Gaël Faye relates his own story as a child in Burundi when the civil war starts in Burundi and during the genocide in Rwanda. Poignant.

Best crazy serious book: The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis

How a doctor who wants to cure madness turns a city into a madhouse inside and outside his psychatric ward. Voltaire would have loved this. It’ll make you laugh and think.

Best Australian literary fiction: I, For Isobel by Amy Witting

Also a coming-of-age story, I guess. Isobel is trying to find her independance and shake off her childhood to become her own person. It’s a well-drawn story of a young girl who loves to read in a family who doesn’t value books and tries to smother her personality.

Best I-want-to-give-it-to-all-my-friends book: The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

I loved The Tin Flute for the accurate and loving depiction of working-class neighborhoods in Montreal during WWII. It’s really a shame that there is no recent English translation of it. English speaking Canadians are missing out on an excellent book.

Best end-of-my-world book: The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth

Poor Trotta lives through the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and cannot recover from it. Neither could Roth. Don’t read it as historical fiction to learn historical facts but more to see what history does to a man.

Best book to raise awareness about a sensitive topic: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss

Very brave indigenous Australians share with us their personal experience of growing up Aboriginal in Australia. They come from the whole country, from various backgrounds and are of all ages. It helps the reader understand what racist barbs and ingrained prejudices do to the people who receive them right in their faces. Powerful.

I’ve already talked about my project to read American literature in 2019 in my Happy New Year billet. I will read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia in May. Join us if you want to.

For the rest, I hope to read more Australian lit and books from the TBR. I really need to read more from it than I buy books otherwise I’ll end up in the same position as this year: the TBR is as high as the end of the year as it was at the beginning. Only its composition has changed… Oh well, there are worst things in life!

To live without reading is dangerous. You’d have to believe what people tell you.

My year of reading Australia

January 3, 2019 33 comments

Before disclosing my best of 2018, I’d like to come back to my year of reading Australian Literature. End of 2017, I wrote a billet asking for recommendations and came out with an incredible list of suggestions. I read or tried to read a total of 19 books, which is a good score for me since I read 55 books in 2018, including the twelve of my book club.

I decided to participate to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and read or tried to read nine books by female authors, so I qualify for the Miles level (6 books read) and almost reached the Franklin level (10 books read).

In January, I got into the Australian Women Writes Gen 1 Week, organized by Bill at The Australian Legend. That month, I also read my first indigenous book along with Lisa.

It was True Country by Kim Scott. I had read about Aboriginal literature on Lisa’s blog but it was the first time I dived into a book where a group of white teachers and educators started their job at a mission in the Northern Territory. The cultural shock was incredible. The main character, Billy is a métis and his appointment at the Catholic mission is also his come back to country.

I continued by journey through Aboriginal culture and issues in June when I signed up for Indigenous Literature Week organized by Lisa, at ANZ Lit Lovers. I read Of Ashes and Rivers That Flows to The Sea by Marie Munkara, the poignant true story of a woman who is an unfortunate member of the Stolen Generations, a term to call the Aboriginals who were taken away from their families to be raised by white parents or state-run or religious institutions.

I ended my journey around Aboriginal issues with Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. It’s an excellent collection of texts by Aboriginal Australians who describe what it meant to grow up Aboriginal. In their own way, each writer shows the reader what racism means and how it undermines someone’s self-esteem. They also express how their Aboriginal roots enrich their lives.

Anita Heiss is the editor of this powerful collection but she’s also an author. I read one of her chick lit books, Not Meeting Mr Right. She calls it choc lit, for chocolate literature and she uses the chick lit cannons to show that her Aboriginal protagonist lives like any young woman of her age. And sure, her character Alice is as obnoxious as other chick lit characters in her search of the perfect partner!

Contrary to Alice, Don, the main character of The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion has a scientific approach to the quest of the perfect spouse. Simsion’s light book could be tagged as chick lit but since Done is not a chick and since the writer is a man, it’s considered as romance. I liked The Rosie Project better than Not Meeting Mr Right mostly because I got attached to Don’s matter-of-fact view of life when I found Alice irritating. Don was funny.

I also read an Australian classic from the 19thC, The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge. It’s the story of three young women who leave their house in the country when their parents die and decide to settle in Melbourne. Set during the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, it was a good way to read about the city at the end of the 19thC. I was happy to visit the Carlton gardens and see the pavilion of the exhibition. The Three Miss Kings sounds like early works by Thomas Hardy.

I read two other classics. I had to read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin who founded the most prestigious Australian literature prize. It’s the story of a young girl living in the country with poor parents. She wants a brilliant career as a writer when all that society expects of her is to have a brilliant career as a wife and a mother. It was a great book to discover Australia in the 19thC and life in stations. There are fascinating descriptions of the life of the farmers and early settlers.

Then I decided to read another classic, For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. It relates the story of an English convict in Port Macquarie. I wanted to read about Australia as a penal colony and it was a good way to see how the penal colonies were organised. It was difficult to read because of the old-fashioned English style and because of its gothic elements which are not my cup of tea at all.

The other book I read about early settlers is Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. Set in Queensland, it’s about a village of early settlers, their adaptation to Australian climate and their difficult cohabitation with the local Aboriginal nation. It opens with a white man who had been stranded in the area, had lived a few years with the Aboriginals and was now coming back to live with the European settlers. The major question for the villagers is “Is he still white? after all these years living like a native?”

The question of classifying people according to the whiteness of their skin seems to plague the Australian psyche. From the start, it was a way to screen people between civilised (white) and not civilised (black) It brought the horrors of the Stolen Generation and a lot of heartache to the writers of Anita Heiss’s collection.

I tried to read The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It’s the story of a man who is convicted to deportation for theft. It relates his life after he arrived in the penal colony in Sydney and how he settled there with his family. I couldn’t finish it because it was too slow and boring for my taste and also because it was too “clean”, as if she was trying to gentrify the convicts.

A good way to learn about the colonisation of Australia was to read the graphic novel Terra Australis by the French authors LF Bollée and Philippe Nicloux. It explains the political aspects, the journey of the First Fleet and the founding of the penal colony in Sydney.

I explored another aspect of Australia and its literature, the outback myth or bush stories. With Down Under, the American writer Bill Bryson wrote about his road trip in Australia. I had a lot of fun reading his adventures and descriptions of the land, the customs and his observations of Australian way-of-life. It’s interesting to see the country through the eyes of a foreigner because what puzzles him might puzzle me too.

I also loved reading The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook as it was in the same vein. Cook knew the outback well and all his stories involved a dangerous animal of some sort.

No wonder that the outback is a dream setting for crime fiction like Wake in Fright by the same Kenneth Cook. I’m not sure you’d want to visit Bundanyabba after spending time there with John Grant, the main character of this horrifying story.

The bush also inspired Jane Harper for her crime fiction novel Force of NatureA group of women are on a company seminar that consists of sending a group of male employees and a group of female employees in the bush with an itinerary to follow and see which group arrives first at destination. Both groups come back but the women’s group misses one participant. Is she still alive or did she die en route?

I enjoyed Force of Nature so much that I also read Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry. I thought it was even better and didn’t notice anything amiss until Bill read it and pointed out all the inconsistencies in the country life described in the novel. Oh well, it was a good reading time anyway and non-Australians won’t notice. The small-town atmosphere of The Dry was well drawn and totally plausible. The rest didn’t seem farfetched, seen from this hemisphere.

As far as literary fiction goes, it wasn’t a very good year. I read a book by an Australian writer but set in Brighton, UK. It was The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. He sure has a twisted sense of humour and his unreliable character Bunny Munro had funny quirks until I realised that these quirks led to crime. Laughing-at-loud idiosyncrasies turned into black humour, like a sunny day ends with a storm.

Fortunately, I loved I, For Isobel by Amy Witting and I’m interested in reading its sequel. I didn’t read any Tim Winton, mostly because his books are chunksters and because none of the blurbs filled me with enough enthusiasm to embark in so many pages.

I’ve heard a lot of good about Gerald Murnane but I don’t think he’s a writer for me. I’ve looked into Patrick White but Voss is also huge. I am tempted by Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and a book by Richard Flanagan. I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey but its Australianness lost me along the way. As I said in my billet, its references were too far away from my home to be understandable. It’s something I had experienced before, when I read The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay a few years ago. I spent quite some time googling animals…

I never thought that Australianness would be an issue but it was. I’m happy I read True Country in French because the footnotes of the translator were a lifeline. Not knowing the geography of Australia, its fauna and flora (besides the obvious kangaroos and koalas), the history of the colonisation and basic info about Aborigines made my reading difficult. This is why I had to abandon That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott when I first tried to read it. I think I’m better equipped to read it now.

I didn’t expect 19thC Australian English to be challenging but it was. Marcus Clarke was particularly hard to read and his vocabulary sounded ancient compared to the British literature of the time. Miles Franklin was easier to read but I faced the issue of Australianness and I needed some time to adjust.

This explains why I didn’t read more books, I was slow reading them. It has been a fantastic journey, one that certainly enriched my trip to Australia last summer.

Last but not least, I did a Literary Escapade billet about Australia and it was one of most liked billets of 2018. You seem to enjoy the Literary Escapade series.

West McDonnel National Park

What now?

I still have Australian books on the TBR. I will join Bill’s AWW Gen II Week and I intend to read the first book of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henri Mandel Richardson, if I can finish Dead Souls soon enough. Otherwise, my Australian TBR includes books I brought back from Melbourne and books I didn’t have time to read. As I know you’re curious about it, here’s the list:

  • Barbed Wires and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss (Indigenous lit)
  • Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Spenser
  • The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper (nonfiction)
  • The Catherine Wheel by Elisabeth Harrower
  • Five Bells by Gail Jones,
  • The Essence of Things by Madeleine St John
  • A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (Indigenous lit)
  • Lexicon by Max Barry (SF)
  • Dirt Music by Tim Winton (my mom lent me a French translation)
  • Blood by Tony Birch (Indigenous lit)

I could sign up for another AWW Challenge, level Stella. (Four books) or Miles (Six books). After all, I have seven books by women on my Australian TBR. If my timing is good, I can participate in another Indigenous Lit Week.

As you see, I have a lot to look forward to and you’ll probably hear about Australian lit again on this blog.

PS: Let’s get things straight: Miles Franklin and Henri Mandel Richardson are women. Kim Scott is a man.

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