Apr 062013

Kilito cervantesSome texts just remind you why you are in love with literature… And in Cervantes’ prologue to his most famous novel a “friend” gives him an advice from which all writers would benefit:

… there is no reason for you to go begging for maxims from philosophers, counsel from Holy Scripture, fictions from poets, orations from rhetoricians, or miracles from saints; instead you should strive, in plain speech, with words that are straightforward, honest, and well-placed, to make your sentences and phrases sonorous and entertaining, and have them portray, as much as you can and as far it is possible, your intention, making your ideas clear without complicating and obscuring them. Another thing to strive for: reading your history should move the melancholy to laughter, increase the joy of the cheerful, not irritate the simple, fill the clever with admiration for its invention, not vie the serious reason to scorn it, and allow the prudent to praise it.*

You may wonder why I’m reading Don Quixote right now? The answer is in Abdelfattah Kilito’s latest book, Je parle toutes les langues mais en arabe. More about it soon…


* Edith Grossman’s translation, Ecco paperback, 2005.

Oct 162012

For months now graphic representations of literary thoughts, of literary trends have appeared here and there… I was intrigued by those two, as they map a possible road to success, as well as reveal quite a bit of our literary taste:

  • A graphic representation of award-winning plot lines : http://www.informationisbeautifulawards.com/gallery/plot-lines/
  • And a chart on “how to win a Booker Prize”: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/datablog/gallery/2012/oct/16/how-win-booker-prize-charts#/?picture=397748599&index=0

Happy decoding!

May 172011

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” writes Juliet Ashton, the main narrator, in one of her early letters to Dawsey Adams, the man who arises her interest for the island and its history.

I’m close to believing in this homing instinct myself, after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, an “accidental read,” as I mentioned in my preceding post. Accidental not only in its circumstances but also in its language: I read it in the French edition I was given. Thought it is not uncommon for me to read some originally published in English works in French (most of the time for work purposes, i.e. a need for quoting in French), it’s not that often, and several times during the reading I could feel in transparency the rhythm of the English original and missed it. When done with it, realizing I wanted to quote from it (reverse proposition from what I explained earlier), I ended up getting a copy in English… (This is kind of typical of my mixed-up life in between two languages… More about this in another post). But to come back to the homing proposition, I was struck by the expression which not only reflected what I often found in my own reading wanderings but also fitted so well this very experience and how I came to read this very book. A gift rediscovered in dangerously high piles (see picture)… In any case it was difficult to put it down, and I was sad to let it go. One of the reasons again is its everyday nature, the fact that it is grounded in the daily rhythm of life. As such it could go on forever.. and in my mind will. Though it would be nice if somebody would pick up the pen where Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows put it down, and continue to write those letters in the voice of Juliet, Sophie, Sydney, Dawsey, and so many others. And one day, Kit would be old enough to have her own voice too…

May 072011

Except for two piles of papers to come, summer is here. In its first few days, it always seems like this vast land of freedom, where and when everything is possible… Until time goes by too fast to be really accounted for… But I am still in the first days… Days when I feel I can spend hours doing inessential readings, for example. (Definition of inessential: not required by any current project / for other people the definition could be simply «for pleasure»). So this afternoon, I went through my pile of unread books (well, one of the piles…), and selected a couple. In the end I chose The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book I received as a Christmas(2010)  gift. The only thing I knew about it was that it had been a success when it first came out in 2008, and I remembered one of my friends mentioning it. From the first pages, I was hooked. Turning page after page, I was getting deeper in the story of Juliet Ashton and her correspondence, her accidental discovery of Guernsey and its fate  during world war II.  The island was occupied by the Germans, and cut out from the rest of the world, a prize possession of Hitler who took it as a first step towards victory on the British. That did not happen, and when the occupant finally relinquished the island, it left behind a decimated, starved population, as hungry for butter as for communication with the rest of the planet. Because of a volume found on the shelves of the second-hand bookshop, one of the islander gets in touch with Juliet, a writer who came to fame thanks to a column printed every week where she chronicled daily life in London under German bombing.

I’m only half way in the book, and I’m very attached to all the characters, curious to see the story unfold of course, but mostly interested in the account of the everyday. And I’m far enough in it that I start dreading the end, afraid to have to bid goodbye to all of them. I do not really care about the plot, I’m just enjoying the journey, the exchanges, the tiny stories, the mundane of the letters, the day to day chat. And one of the charm of book is that it is a book about books, a book about reading. The main character is a writer, who just had a book published – at first she is on the 1946 version of a book tour, having tea after tea in bookstores all over England -, a writer who does not know what to do of the sudden success of her first book, and whose main worry is what she’ll write next. Her friends in London are publishers – hers, a Londoner and childhood friend; an American competitor, a ferocious entrepreneur. In Guernsey her epistolary friends have in common the book club they created out of necessity, first a cover-up for a forbidden dinner, quickly transformed into  a community knitted together by books: while one is infatuated with Charles Lamb and his works, another one reads the same volume of Seneque over and over, and others share the joy they found in reading the Brontë’s novels at candle light, long after the curfew.
The book has a Helen Hanff taste to it, another book about books and bookshops, but it has more to it, in the sense that the sample of characters is wider and far more diverse, including some that would never have been in physical contact with a book if it had not been for the unfortunate circumstances of war.
To be continued…

Mar 242011

When Polly Andrews, one of the young women portrayed in The Group, is faced with a sudden and astonishing marriage proposal, she first thinks of all the reason to refuse, all the reason why this would not work. And one of her first thought is for the apparent lack of common book culture with her groom-to-be:

«What bothered her most was the thought that she and Jim had so little in common – a phrase she kept repeating anxiously to herself. Outside the hospital, they had not a single common acquaintance. And as for those old friends, the characters in books – King Arthur and Sir Lancelot and Mr Micawber and Mr Collins and Vronsky and Darling Prince Andrei, who were like members of the family – why, Jim seemed hardly to recall them. When she mentioned Dr. Lydgate tonight, he confessed he had never read Middlemarch – only Silas Marner in school, which he hated. He could not read novels, he said and he had no preference between Hector and Achilles.»

In the end, she accepts to marry Jim, and unfortunately Mary Mc Carthy ends the novel before the reader knows if Polly’s concerns were justified or not. Meanwhile, it is the first time I remember encountering the question: would my literary culture go with yours? Something to ponder, definitely…

Mar 012011

There are a few writers I follow, visiting regularly their sites, buying every book, waiting eagerly for the next one..   Nina Revoyr is one of them. I can’t remember if I discovered her through her second book, Southland or the first one, The Necessary Hunger. Initially I picked them up because they were set in Los Angeles, a place I was (and am still) exploring, trying to make sense of the city and of my experience in the city. And a good part of The Necessary Hunger is set in Inglewood, a place I know well for family reasons, while I go accross Southland setting every time I drive to work. But if place affinities can make me leaf through a book, what caught me was the writing, the atmosphere, and last the plot (I’m one of those readers for whom plot is not essential). Place is also at the heart of The Age of Dreaming, Revoyr’s third novel: Los Angeles, Hollywood, Little Tokyo are the neighborhood haunted by Jun Nakayama, a silent movie actor from the nineteen-twenties, fallen out of fame. Although these stories are suspenseful, breathtaking at times, extremely well plotted, what really kept me prisoner of them were the characters, strong, thick, multi-faceted, never predictable. They are so humanly fraught that it is hard to really dislike any of them, and every time I just want more and more of them, beyond the epilogue, beyond the last page.
So, when I discovered that «a new Revoyr» was coming out, I immediately pre-ordered it, a way for me to make sure I’ll get the book as soon as it is out, as well as  to schedule a unexpected treat: by the time it arrives, I usually have forgotten all about it, and it comes as a surprise… So, when at the beginning of February I opened the package and discovered Wingshooters, I was happy and anxious to dive in. Life and work delayed gratification, but finally I was able to shut myself within its pages. And, as for the preceding ones, the magic happened. Wingshooters does not take place in Los Angeles, but in Deerhorn, Central Wisconsin, in a country of hunters and farmers, where one of the top citizen is Earl Watson, who owns the gun store, and the main gathering spot for the oder – wise – men of the community is Jimmy’s Coffee shop. The narrator in the story is Michelle, a nine year old girl, born in Tokyo from a Japanese mother and an American father, who, by the time the story starts, have abandoned her, too tangled in their own conflict and separation. Left with her paternal grand-parents, she quickly discovers the dangers of not being white in a town that until her mother’s appearance, «had never in all the years of its existence, been home to a soul who wasn’t German, Polish, Norwegian, or French Canadian». Deerhorn prizes its insularity, and the county’s limits might just have been insuperable thick walls, keeping the seventies away from its inhabitants, who, if it wasn’t for TV, would never know what was happening in the rest of a country they do not seem to belong to anymore:

“While people in other parts of the country were growing their hair long and smoking pot and wearing polka dot ties and bell-bottoms, the people of Deerhorn dressed in overalls and drank cheap Wisconsin beer. And while there were stories on the nightly news about antiwar protests, women’s rights, the school busing crisis in Boston, and Watergate, these events seemed so distant and strange that they might have been taking place in a different country.”

And while Michelle’s arrival causes quite a stir in the small town, the fact that she is the grand-daughter of one of the most respected men in the community keeps people at bay. Bullied at school, she is cherished by her grand-father who takes her to his favorite lakes, hunting spots, and shares his dog. And Michelle’s foreignness is almost forgotten when comes to town the unthinkable: an African-American teacher is recruited to substitute in her school, while his wife works for the new county clinic as a nurse. Their fate is at the heart of the novel, and Michelle’s story is going to be entangled in theirs, pushing Deehorn and its inhabitants toward a reality it has so far denied.
Soon the reader knows something is going to happen, something bad probably, but difficult to predict. And while Michelle goes hunting, bikes all over town, walks through the wood with her dog, I felt more and more anxious, lost in between the ordinary of this country life, and the mounting hostility toward this couple, the harshness of the xenophobic, racist discourse, and the fake quietness of the rural environment. To the point that, to release my own tension, I had to skip ahead, figure out what was to happen, and then come back to where I was in the book, and resume my reading. It did not spoil my pleasure, but on the contrary, allowed me to savor Revoyr’s writing, to concentrate on Michelle adventures and thoughts, and admire the author’s command of her plot and characters. Like in her preceding books, the characters here are too complex to be simply liked or disliked all together,  and I found myself able to relate to some I was not expecting, to respect some I should be despising: only one is never redeemed and incarnates the villain from beginning to end. And I was still able to enjoy my reading after digging out the main plot,  because it is only one of the threads of the novel: others include Michelle’s own family issues, her relationship with her grand-father, with her grand-mother, her grand-parents and parents stories, her fight for life…
Wingshooters is a new attempt on Revoyr’s part to make sense of inter-racial relations, to retrace history and evolution of mentality in a country where people have been divided and defined by class and race more than they are willing to admit. And when Michelle, adult, does not rebel against her partner’s affirmation “I always forget that you are half-Japanese and half-redneck”, it might be because she is ready to assume the multiplicity of her identities, what comes with the mixing of races and places… and the fact that she chose to leave the Midwest and come to Los Angeles should not be a surprise: where could it be easier to live for somebody who did not fit, who did not really belong anywhere than in the Angeleno melting pot?