Sunday Ramble and Two Books I Didn’t Like. Sorry.

Visited the local Friends of the Library book sale yesterday, in the rain, where C.J. and I managed to spend much more than we intended.  He got several art books and a couple of books full of house plans while I nearly completed my Jane Austen collection. Can you name the book I still have to find.

I’ve decided it’s a good time to re-read all of Jane Austen’s six novels in order.  So, I’m looking for good second-hand copies of each.  I’d like to have all in the newish Vintage Classics paperback editions.  The top middle book is a Vintage Classics edition. I like them for the cover art.

Apparently, true Janeites re-read all six novels every year or so I read somewhere.  I’m not that big a fan, but I am a big fan.  Once I find Mansfield Park I’ll be ready to begin.

I had two near DNF’s this week, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Repetition  and Ray  by Barry Hannah.  While I am a fan of French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Repetition did not hit the spot for me.  All of his work, the two other novels I’ve read so far at least, is experimental in ways I find interesting once I figure out just what is going on.  Repetition concerns an agent sent on a mission to Germany during the Cold War, I think.  The book opens with him on the train trying to get through to the other side when he enters a compartment to find himself already sitting there. The man, who looks just like him except he is not wearing a fake mustache, appears to be a better version of himself.  Also an agent on a mission, this doppelgänger is one step ahead of the novel’s hero so much so that at times they appear to switch places in the narrative. I’m not sure. I was confused.

I was confused with the other two Robbe-Grillet novels I read, but I enjoyed trying to figure things out. Confusion is a part of reading as far as I am concerned.  But this time,  because I couldn’t quite make out what was going on, I began to lose patience with the whole thing. Additionally, while the other Robbe-Grillet novels I read struck me as inventive and original, this one seemed like a re-tread of ideas Paul Auster has already done in his New York trilogy.

The other book I didn’t really like was Ray by Barry Hannah. Ray was on one of the Brilliant Novels You Can Read in a Day lists that I found a few weeks ago.  I’ve got a little TBR list of them on one of the tabs at the top of this blog.  The other one’s I’ve read so far have been knock outs so I had high hopes.

Ray  is a long rant about the title character’s life, his loves and the people he knows.  A former pilot who flew fighter planes in Vietnam, Ray is a southerner, through and through.  Which, I’ll be honest, was part of the problem for me. I know there are people, not just in the south, who use racist language freely.  I know depicting this is an honest way to depict them. I understand the argument that “realistic” language gives fiction authenticity.  I know, I know, I know.

But I just don’t have patience for it anymore.  If I never read another book with racist, homophobic or sexist language in it as long as I live, I’m okay with that.

So parts of Ray were very tough going.

It’s supposed to be funny, the way Flannery O’Connor is funny.  I like Flannery O’Connor a lot. While I do find her funny, she’s not laugh-out-loud funny for me the way Eudora Welty is.  All the little blurbs on the back mention how funny Barry Hannah is, how he’s the best southern writer since Flannery O’Connor, etc., etc. None of them mention Eudora Welty whom I think is better than Flannery O’Connor.

But I just didn’t see it.

I’m going to keep both books, though, just in case.  Maybe a future re-reading will reveal things I missed the first time around.  While I didn’t really like either one, I do recognize both are well-written books.

Maybe next time….

Meanwhile, I’m still making my way through Kevin Starr’s Eight volume history of California. I’m nearing the end of the first book Americans and the California Dream which covers 1850 to 1915.  I’ve mentioned before how C.J. and I plan on retiring to the Gold Country where we’ll give  walking tours for the local historical society of whatever town we end up in.  So we’re both reading up on California history.  We’re big fans of the stuff.

And I’m reading an import from China called The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei.  The cover promised a modern noir tale covering 50 years of Hong Kong history, but so far it’s a very old-fashioned story. The opening section, set in modern-day Hong Kong, featured what is usually the final scene in an Agatha Christie novel.  All of the suspects were gathered in a single room while the chief detective reviewed the case hoping one of the suspects would crack and reveal too much.  I completely enjoyed it.  It was a fresh take on this old trope to avoid all the business about gathering clues for three-fourths of the book. Why not just skip to final chapters where all the good stuff is.  That a surprise murderer was revealed came as no surprise really. That he turned out not to be the real killer did.  That he turned out to be someone else’s killer did, too.

Each part that follows is set back in time about ten years or so, with the same set of detectives, just in their younger days.

It looks promising.

 

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse

This is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.

My definition of pornography is probably different from yours.  Pornography offers its viewers a fantasy depiction of something they cannot have, usually a sexual fantasy.  At some point in life, one finds  that Playboy, or Blueboy, or whatever, has been largely replaced with Architectural Digest– pictures of beautiful people give way to pictures of beautiful homes.  Middle-aged pornography.  But at heart, you’re still lusting after things you’re not going to get.
Some readers fantasize about owning a bookstore devoted to the kinds of books they love, especially readers who’ve never worked in a bookstore like me.  (My own fantasy bookstore is called Wuthering Heights Books–it carries a wide range of books, arranged geographically by original language, on a wide range of topics but is best known for it’s section devoted to books by and about the Brontes.)  Most of us will never work in our fantasy bookstore, let alone own it.  Frankly, we’re lucky if we’re able to shop in it now and then.
So, under my definition of the term, A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.
In the novel’s opening scenes, Ivan and Francesca meet in an little known bookstore in an Alpine resort town.  Ivan runs the store which he stocks with the novels he admires instead of the current best sellers.  While his sales never amount to much, he does develop  devoted followings who seek him out in between runs on the ski slopes to ask if he has discovered anyone new they should be reading.
When Ivan is eventually fired in favor of someone who will stock best-sellers, he and Francesca, one of his more devoted customers, join forces to open up their dream bookstore,  The Good Novel, which will not only sell just novels, it will sell just “good novels.”  The rest of the book describes how the two set up and run their bookstore in spite of a publishing establishment that is not only against them but apparently willing to resort to violence to stop them if necessary.
I don’t know if Ms. Cosse has ever worked in a bookstore, but reality is beside the point in A Novel Bookstore.  The  day to day operation of The Good Novel is of interest because it is a fantasy.  We don’t care how real bookstores are run; we want to know how our dream bookstore would work.  Francesca and Ivan allow Ms. Cosse to give her own book snobbery free reign.  The two select a committee of eight authors whom they admire. This committee will operate in secret, the eight do not even know who the other members are, to select 600 novels each.  Their combined lists form the initial stock offered for sale at  The Good Novel and is added to each year as new books come out and as the committee finds unfamiliar titles they deem worthy.
Rival bookstore chains and jilted authors set out to sabotage The Good Novel from the start, but enough readers find the store to make it a hit.  That’s it’s located in Paris helps both the store and the book’s readers.  Isn’t your fantasy bookstore in Paris?
A Novel Bookstore is a novel, and there is enough romance and mystery to make up an engaging plot, but I was most interested in the operation of the bookstore.  It was nice to find out who really loved who and all, but things like store’s initial advertising campaign interested me much  more.  It’s best bit, a full page ad featuring
a background of the type of Restoration painting that is often too hastily described as ‘a minor oil’: a patch of Roman countryside with a Tilbury briskly trotting by and in it’s window you would recognize, if you had any literary background at all, the profile of Stendhal” with the words “All the books no one is talking about
across the front.
All right, I’m a bit of a snob, but not enough of one that I didn’t have to look up Tilbury.  It’s a type of carriage with one seat and two large wheels.  So, if you’re someone drawn to the books “no one is talking about,” A Novel Bookstore may bring you more pleasure than a year’s subscription to Architectural Digest.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in August of 2011, I have discovered that Laurence Cosse is a woman. I have changed the pronouns above to correct this error. I really should look these things up before I press ‘publish’.

Murder in Memoriam by Didier Daeninckx

On October 17, 1961, thousands of Algerians took to the streets of Paris in a peaceful demonstration against a curfew that had been imposed only on them.  At the time, Algeria was engaged in a struggle for Independence from France which had long held the nation as a colony.

The demonstrators were met with extreme violence from the police who opened fire on them without provocation.  Unofficially, the deaths numbered in the hundreds.  Officially, they numbered three.

This is the background for Didier Daeninckx’s detective novel Murder in Memoriam.  It’s also the occasion for the first murder in the book.  While on his way home from an early matinee, Roger Tiraud is shot and killed during the opening moments of the police violence.  Officially, his death is the result of his participation in anti-government pro-Algerian movements.  Unofficially, his death remains a mystery until two decades later when his son is killed in a nearly identical manner.

What links the murders of father and son?  The son was just a baby at the time of his father’s death.  His father was a simple history teacher, he was a student working on a degree in history.  Why would anyone want to kill them?

Mr. Daeninckx’s detective Inspector Cadin’s investigation will reveal the cover-up that occurred after the violence of October 17, 1961 and implicate high level government officials in crimes dating back to the Nazi deportation of France’s Jewish population.  That Mr. Daeninckx’s murderer bore a striking resemblance to a real life high-ranking official in the Paris police department led many people to conclude that Murder in Memoriam played a significant role in bringing that man to justice, several years after the book was first published in France.

And it’s a darn good book, too.  If you like your detective stories stripped down to the actual work of the detective, if you don’t care who the various officers are sleeping with or which ones bear psychic scars from a deeply troubled childhood and just want the author to get on with the business of solving the crime which really ought to be interesting enough anyway, then Murder in Memoriam is a book you should check out.

While Mr. Daeninckx’s book is concerned with exposing a particular set of injustices that really occurred, these do not work against the story telling.  Instead, actual events become part of the book’s plot which works to entertain the readers as it works to educate them.  The author clearly has two goals in Murder in Memoriam, but neither undermines the other.  It’s a perfect piece of agitprop in that one can still read it, now  almost 30 years after its initial publication, and enjoy it.

And it has a really cool cover, too.

 

Since first running this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in late 2012, I continue to look for these cool covers, books published by Melville House.  They are known for being good books, but also for having very cool cover designs like the one here.  They’ve led me to many author’s I would not have read and enjoyed otherwise. So, yes, go out there and judge books by their cover, at least pick up the ones with good covers, certainly the ones published by Melville House  

Maigret in New York by Georges Simenon

file_000-6The trouble with Maigret in New York is clearly stated in the title.

Inspector Maigret should stay in France, preferable in Paris.  I suppose over the course of 75 novels Maigret was bound to leave the country at least once, but I much prefer him when he is at home.

Certain books are associated with certain places–that becomes part of the fun, maybe part of the comfort, of reading them.  Detective fiction is essentially escapist reading which makes the Parisian setting all the more valuable.  Take away the setting results in a less satisfying read.

Still a pretty decent read, though.

Maigret in New York is something of a cross between the usual, dry witted police procedural readers of Simenon expect and a more free wheeling Dashiell Hammet type of tale.  Maigret meets the Continental Op if you will. The plot gets lost and then gets lost again just as it’s about to be found.  In the end Maigret goes home before we’ve found out exactly what was going on.  He reaches a point where he doesn’t care anymore and leaves, generally sick of America anyway.

Which are the fun parts of the book, Maigret complaining about Americans and American culture.  What makes this more fun is that he is complaining about 1930’s America when he could still escape into a theatre showing a Laurel and Hardy film.

Since I escape America of the 2010’s  into Inspector Maigret novels, I enjoyed this one but with is was set in Paris.

Topology of a Phantom City by Alain Robbe-Grillet

I love this book.

I’m not sure what it’s about.

But I do  have five theories.

Theory #1:  A murder has taken place.  The narrator describes the crime scene like a detective who does not know which bit of evidence will prove relevant.  So the detective/narrator writes everything down without filtering his senses or his thoughts.  The result appears random the way notes often do.   The detective/narrator continues to record details moving outwards from the scene of the crime to the neighboring area, eventually throughout the entire city itself.

Nothing moves much.  What movement there is resembles the movement in a still photograph.  We can tell that this person was walking when the photograph was taken, though he is motionless in the photograph itself.  The novel becomes a series of crime scene photographs which we are  supposed to assemble to determine what happened.

Theory #2:  A group of young women, prisoners in the city jail, are playing with a deck of Tarot cards.  The narration moves from the real city into the phantom one depicted in the illustrations on the Tarot cards.  The subsequent  murders take place in an imagined world inside the imagined world of the novel.  Are the girls imagining the crimes–their own or ones they were the victims of–or is the narrator at work through them.  The crimes take on the mythic properties associated with Tarot cards.

Theory #3:  The murderer is a photographer.  He lures his victims to his studio where they pose for him, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups.  He reviews the photographs afterwards.  These become the book itself, a series of photographs presented to the reader by the killer/photographer/narrator who took them.  Like an artist would, the narrator shows us only what he wants us to see.  We must fill in the missing details, infer his true intentions, his motives, his character.

Theory #4:  There has been only one murder.  The variations presented to the reader are each ways to interpret the evidence the detective/narrator has gathered.  The crime could have happened this way, or this way, or this way.  The novel is an obsessive examination of the same event from many possible angles.  A search for truth that has no ending.  This is similar to the structure Mr. Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy which I reviewed here.

Theory #5:  The reader is the killer.  The detective presents us the still pictures of the novel which make little sense because our own psychology has become too disturbed to understand our own actions any longer.  We’ve no memory of committing any of the crimes depicted.  We’ve nothing left to help us make sense of our world except a series of images with no clear connection to each other.   How could we have done it if we don’t remember it?  How can we make sense of the evidence the narrator shows us if he does nothing but wait for us to explain it all, to confess?

Of these five, I think theory #2 is least likely to hold up under cross examination.  I suspect theory #3 is closest to the author’s intention.  But I’m starting to like theory #5 the most.

Whichever interpretation is right or best, the fact remains that Topology of a Phantom City is a mystery novel about interpretation. There is no solution.  Just evidence readers can use to come up with their own theories about what happened and about who done it.

I loved it.

 

It’s been over five years since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  I admit it, I have no memory of this book except for this review.  Based on this review, it sounds like a book I would love.  I went through a brief Alain Robbe-Grillet phase that year, read quite a few, loved them all, understood very little.  I’ve saved them to re-read in retirement when I’ll have more time to figure them or. Or I just may be wondering what the heck is going on at age 62, like I did when I was 47. 

The Vagabond by Collete

Colette’s The Vagabond tells a story of backstage life in the music halls of turn of the century Paris.  The narrator/heroine has left a failed marriage and career as a novelist to earn a living performing two shows a night as an actress in French pantomime.

The Vagabond works as a backstage novel and as a source of insight into the its author, Colette.  Because the narrator’s biography shares so much with Colette’s, it’s nearly impossible not to succumb to the temptation of committing the biographical fallacy.  Since their back stories match, it’s easy to conclude that the novel must be the story of Colette.

With this in mind, I found The Vagabond ultimately disappointing.  Collete is known for dealing with issues of love and sexuality, especially female sexuality, with a frankness that Americans see as French.  It’s a cliche in the U.S. to see the French, especially French artists like Colette, as more in-tune with an adult sensibility around sex than we are.  I found Colette’s novel Cheri  to be a good example of this adult sexuality even though the title character is a teenager.  So I was surprised to find much of The Vagabond  adolescent:


Love, if you can; no doubt this will be granted you, so that at the summit of your poor happiness you may again remember that nothing counts, in love, except the first love, and endure at every moment the punishment of remembering, and the horror of comparing.

I was 22 when my first love came to an end. At that time I would have agreed with Colette whole-heartedly.  25 years later, it’s tempting to roll my eyes a little in exasperation.  Colette was 37 when she wrote The Vagabond.  While the passage above is well written, I don’t buy it.  The love that lasts is the love that counts.   Spend a decade or more with the one you love and you’ll look back on that first love, remembering and comparing with no horror or punishment at all.  Except maybe a moment or two spent wondering, “What was I thinking?”

While I had more problems with The Vagabond than the one outlined here, there is enough that’s good in the novel to make it a worthwhile read.  The peek at theatrical life, Colette’s beautiful writing, the hints at autobiography all succeed in entertaining the reader.  Those lucky enough to read it while in the throes of first love or in recovery from it will find a kindred spirit in Colette’s The Vagabond.

 

I feel like I just read this book, but this is a review from 2011 first published on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  I guess it says sometime positive about Colette that I feel like I just read her book a few months ago.  If you’ve never read her, this is as good a place as any to start. I think she’s terrific.

 

The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette

The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette is a 350-year-old piece of historical fiction. Does that qualify as a sub-genre of sorts?  Historical historical fiction?

Written in the 1670’s by a member of the French court, The Princess of Cleves describes the romance between its title character and a man who is not her husband, set in the court of Henri II, some 100 years earlier.  In her introduction, Nancy Mitford states that it is historically accurate based on what was known at the time, but can one ever fully trust a Mitford sister?

Nancy Mitford’s own life is apparent in both Madame de Lafayette and her creation the Princess of  Cleves.  Both authors were part of a glittering social and literary set that did not include their husbands.  Both wrote of love and lived lives rumored to be full of affairs.  The Princess of Cleves is a woman both might pretend to admire to her face, though they had little in common with her.

The Princess of Cleves marries a man she does not love, though he passionately loves her.  Soon after her marriage she meets a man whom she falls in love with, as he does with her, though neither speak to each other, nor inform the other of their shared love until late in the novel.  The Princess remains true to her wedding vow, chaste up to the end of her own life.  Even after her husband dies, she refuses her lover’s advances, preferring life in a convent where she can remain true to her husband repenting  the fact that she did not love him and betrayed his love in spirit if not in deed.

It’s hard to imagine a 20th century woman like Nancy Mitford, or an 17th century woman like Madame de Lafayette would ever consider doing such a thing.

So why did one write about it? The other feel compelled to translate it into English?

Perhaps someone more familiar with their biographies has a more definitive answer.  I can only guess, and guessing would reveal more about me than it would about either woman.  My Yale professor was fond of saying that while we read the tales, they also are reading us.  But, I’ll take that risk.

The Princess of Cleves is not about physical passion; the love it portrays is a spiritual one.  But even this spiritual passion is one that must be resisted in order to stay true to one’s self.  If one is devoted to a higher cause or believes in the primacy of one’s word, then love must sometimes be sacrificed, even spiritual love.  Keeping her vow is more important to the Princess of Cleves than even her own happiness.   In our time, as it certainly was in Ms. Mitford’s and probably in Madame de Lafayette’s, sacrificing happiness for the sake of an ideal would be look upon as ludicrous.  There are no children to consider in the novel, nor are there parents to take care of or disappoint.  The Princess of Cleves clings to her ideal, simply because it is her ideal.

I’m not saying it’s something I would do, just that it’s something I admire.  Maybe Ms. Mitford and Madame de Cleves did as well.

And I know that by saying so, I’m letting The Princess of Cleves read me when I should be  reading it instead.  I fall into that trap again and again.

 

This review first rand in late 2010 on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  To be honest, all I remember of this book now is what I read in the review above.  It’s been interesting migrating all of my old reviews to this new site, discovering that I’ve forgotten so much of what I’ve read.  I remember quite a bit, too, by the way, but I’ve forgotten much more.