Archive for July, 2012

What do you think of abridged versions of classics?

July 28, 2012 40 comments

Today, I went on a book buying tour and I came back with something I’d like to discuss with fellow book lovers.

The first bookshop I visited was for business reasons, I was looking for a textbook for work. I tried to buy online but it’s not easy to make up your mind when you know what you’re looking for but you don’t know the title or the author of the book. Amazon is particularly poor on that matter; you don’t even have access to the table of contents of the book contrary to the French site Decitre. Sometimes, you just need to browse through a book to know if it meets your needs. So I felt guilty for going to a brick-and-mortar store when I needed to see the books and deprive them of the easy money from the books I buy online.

The second bookshop I visited was for my children. I wanted to buy books for them for the holidays. (btw, that’s it, we have Jeune Adulte collections. Did we have to import the YA tag?) I was a bit lost in there since I don’t know much about children literature, unfortunately. Oh heaven! There was an employee, available, knowledgeable in children literature and who had actually read the books she recommended to me. My request was quite simple (so I thought): I wanted contemporary books, well-written, for children and not fantasy or SF – must be the genes, my daughter doesn’t really enjoy fantasy. I eventually managed to find something great for her but we were in trouble when it came to my son. He was a problem for the bookshop clerk: he’s only 8 and obviously, he’s a boy. She told me: “It’s difficult to find a contemporary book whose hero is a boy”. You see, young readers are mostly girls, so publishers choose books with heroines. Interesting turn of events, isn’t it? Well, apparently, if you’re a boy and you don’t want to read fantasy or SF, you’re in trouble.

The third shop was only for me, THE literature bookshop. I spent ages looking at the shelves, reading the recommendations left on the display tables. Kosztolányi and Szerb were there with lots of other writers I didn’t know before starting this blog. I discussed with passionate employees and bought several books. I should always buy my books there but I don’t have enough time for this. The only thing that puzzled me is that Beckett is in the French literature section; it took me a while to think about that option and look for him there.

I came home with a question nagging at me. In the children literature section, I noticed there were a lot of abridged versions of classics, like Le Rouge et le noir, Le Comte de Monte Cristo, Pride and Prejudice for example. On the cover of the “Stendhal”, it is clearly written it’s an abridged version, in small letters, near the logo of the publisher, but not on the “Austen”. I can’t help thinking that this is very convenient for publishers: famous stories, in the public domain; in other words, easy money with good return on investment. It is also convenient for lazy readers who are old enough to read the original and won’t make the effort to read a more challenging style. And doesn’t it encourage students to cheat and take the short-cut of the abridged version?

I am adamant: no abridged versions of classics for my children. What’s the point? If they’re too young to read the original, leave it for later. If it’s only to know the story, just watch a film version of the book. I’m under the impression that once you’ve read an abridged version, you end up thinking you’ve read the book and you won’t come back to the original text. When you’ve only seen the movie, there’s no confusion, you know you haven’t read the book and may eventually read it.

What do you think? Am I too extreme?

Book Club: new selection

July 23, 2012 27 comments

As I mentioned in my previous post about our Book Club wrap-up, we decided to go for another year of reading together. It was very nice to read the same book at the same time and be able to discuss it. Since we’re good friends, it’s also an opportunity for us to get together once in a month, to share a meal, exchange the latest news and discuss our ideas about the book we chose to readalong. I’m delighted to present you our choices for the 2012-2013 school year:

  • August 30th: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I’m glad we chose a Wharton as I loved The Custom of the Country. I thought it was brilliant for the style, the characters and the study of the American and French societies of the time. I’ll be starting this one pretty soon as our meeting will be by the end of August.

  • September 27th: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I can’t resist to include the unorthodox cover I found for this one. It’s not exactly how you imagine a book cover for a book by Henry James, isn’t it? This one has been recommended by fellow book bloggers when I read What Maisie Knew. It’s a totally different theme, apparently and I’m looking forward to discovering that side of Henry James. September is a busy month for us, with children going back to school and the family schedule to adjust to the new school year, therefore we chose a rather short book for that month.

  • October 11th: The Captain’s Daughter by Alexandr Pushkin

We want to explore Russian literature a bit more but we don’t have read the same ones. None of us ever read The Captain’s Daughter, so we’ll give it a try.

  • November 22nd: Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Ah! A novel by a writer who didn’t live before WWII. We’ve never tried Anne Tyler but I heard she’s good and that her exploration of marriage is well crafted.

  • December 20th: Diary of a Madman by Nicolaï Gogol

Russian literature again.

  • January 17th: Notre Coeur by Guy de Maupassant

We all read Maupassant when we were younger. We studied him in school and read him by ourselves among other classics from French literature. Notre Coeur isn’t the most famous one, the one you think about immediately when you say “Maupassant”. After Guy’s review of it here, I suggested we read it and unlike Bel Ami or Une Vie, this is one none of us had read before. I suppose that reviews of Bel Ami will bloom all over the net after the last film starring Robert Pattison. (But why did they choose him? He looks so British he can’t be taken for a Frenchman!)

  • February 13th: The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham

This work by William Somerset Maugham is one of his most famous. This is about Gauguin and I’m not a fan of his paintings but it’s not too long and it’s the opportunity to discover his style if you’ve never read him. As far as I’m concerned, I’m happy to explore his work a bit further. (I also want to read On Human Bondage but I’m torn about the language I should choose. On the one hand, it’s a long book and it will take a long time for me to read it in English, so I’d rather get it in translation. On the other hand, his English not difficult to understand, I should be able to read it in English and that would be a great training before reading a long Trollope)

  • March 28th: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Two of us have had Under the Volcano on the TBR shelf for a while. We know it’s supposed to be a masterpiece but it felt daunting. So it remained on the shelf. I have to say that Emilie de Turckheim’s comment about it help me decide to try it. I have a copy in English, I wonder if I should get one in French.

  • April 25th: L’Argent by Emile Zola

Last year we read La Curée (The Kill) and loved it. We wanted to read (or re-read) another Zola and in a way, with the current problems on the stock markets and the storm touching the Euro, reading L’Argent (Money) sounded spot on and we’re curious about Zola’s take on money. Aristide Saccard, one of the main characters of La Curée, is also a character in L’Argent.

  • May 23rd: Trouble Is My Business by Raymond Chandler

I suggested this one as we wanted to include at least one crime fiction book in our selection. I enjoyed The Big Sleep and I’m looking forward to meeting Philip Marlowe again.

  • June 20th: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit by Delphine de Vigan

This is the first book we selected, there was no discussion about reading it. Two of us have read Les heures souterraines and loved it. Delphine de Vigan’s last novel was praised by the critics here and we were waiting for it to be available in paperback to read it.

  • July 25th: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I tried to read it in English once, impossible, I couldn’t understand Hawthorne’s prose. I need a copy in French, at least it’s clear. I have no idea how I will respond to this book and I don’t remember reading a review by another blogger. It will be a surprise, which is nice too.

And with The Scarlet Letter, we’ll complete our reading year. I’m sharing this with you for several reasons. The first one is that I’ll be happy to read your comments about our selection and hear your thoughts about the ones you’ve already read. The second one is that you can join us and read any of them along with us. I’ll link your review to mine or will answer your comments if you don’t have a blog and decide to share your thoughts in the comment section. You can always check in the Book Club pad to see which book we are currently reading. And the third one is that I’ll be writing the billets about this books every month, you might wonder about the Book Club logo.

Book Club: the wrap up

July 21, 2012 8 comments

Time flows quickly and our first year of Book Club came to an end this month – yes, we’re all mothers and our years are school years, our every day lives are intertwined with children’s needs. We had a great reading year together and decided to go for another one and we’re currently selecting the books for our next reading year. During our last meeting, we took a little time to come back to the books we’d read and we had a little fun rating them, from one to five stars.

The top three books are:

The Kill by Emile Zola

Thanks Guy for pointing this novel to me, I suggested we read it and we all loved it. We hadn’t read a Zola for a while, French classics being teenage reading most of the time. That’s a benefit from blogging in English, foreign readers give me another look at French classics.

The Enchantment of Lily Dahl: A Novel by Siri Hustdvet

She’s a writer I intend to explore. The two novels by her I read were marvellous and this one is brilliant, the story engrossing and the style excellent. (PS: Does anyone know why sometimes publishers need to write “A novel” at the end of the book’s title?)

The Ripening Seed by Colette  That was a discovery for me, Colette isn’t a writer I’d read before. She’s got a wonderful style, rich with evocative images and with precise vocabulary. It’s not often that I need to look for words in the dictionary when I read in French.

The three ones we rated the lowest:

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

My post was entitled Remarkably Boring and that was the general feeling. I couldn’t finish it. Such a waste. The idea was good but ill-executed. We’re quite alone in our assessment of this novel as it got good reviews by other book bloggers. I don’t know why it didn’t work for us. No, it can’t be only the translator’s fault.

A Good Indian Wife: a Novel by Anne Cherian

We all found The Good Indian Wife agreeable to read but without real literary quality or depth of analysis. The part set in India was interesting but the one in America wasn’t as good. Quickly read, quickly forgotten.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

We also all remained cold reading Norwegian Wood; we had the same feeling about the character, aloof, grey, boring and the novel lacking psychological insight and depth.

As far as the other books are concerned, we enjoyed them we don’t have the same opinion. As a reminder, they were:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by Francis Scott Fitzgerald

I thought this one very good and I want to read more by Fitzgerald whom I had unjustly classified in a “light writer” box. And that was really unfair.

P.O. Box Love. A Novel Of Letters by Paola Calvetti

It’s lovely but it’s not the literary breakthrough of the century. It’s nice to read for entertainment and for her take on architecture. By the way, why “a novel of letter”? Is epistolary too highbrow??

Gros Câlin by Romain Gary

I’m more than partial to this writer, so I even wonder if my opinion is worth listening. It’s a bitter-sweet tale full of dark humour and thoughtful analysis of loneliness in big cities.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Not good: when we listed the books we’d read, we forgot this one. The kiss of death for a novel. However, it’s a good book, there’s no questioning its interest and its literary qualities.

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

I’m the one who enjoyed it most. There’s something going on between Philip Roth and me; I’m fond of his style and his vision of life and his analysis of society.

I hope you enjoyed following our first Book Club year through my billets. I’ll let you know soon about next year’s list and you’re welcome aboard to read some along with us.

Categories: Book Club, Personal Posts

Old age and literary immortality

July 14, 2012 40 comments

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. 2004 French title: Exit le fantôme.

I was learning at seventy-one what it is to be deranged. Proving that self-discovery wasn’t over after all. Proving that the drama that is associated usually with the young as they fully begin to enter life – with adolescents, with young men like the steadfast captain in The Shadow-Line—can also startle and lay siege to the aged (including the aged resolutely armed against all drama), even as circumstances readies them for departure.

Maybe the most potent discoveries are reserved for last.

Exit Ghost is our Book Club choice for July. I’ve already read several Roths, The Plot Against America, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain and The Breast.  Exit Ghost is the last of the Nathan Zuckerman series, Roth’s literary doppelgänger.

In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman Zuckerman has been living like a hermit in Berkshire for the last ten years. – Note to self: there seem to be an American myth about hermit authors writing books in cabins in remote parts of the country. A Thoreau syndrome? Like a French poet is maudit or is not? So Zuckerman has been working, reading and staying away from newspapers and public life for a solid decade. He’s seventy-one, had a prostate cancer ten years ago and has been incontinent and impotent since his prostatectomy. He’s now returning to New York to see a famous urologist and have collagen injection in his bladder in the hope to regain some control over it. Back to New York, he’s caught up with city life and finds himself excited by the prospect of living again a normal life, ie without wearing plastic briefs and changing urine pads.

In the country, there was nothing tempting my hope. I had made peace with my hope. But when I came to New York, in only hours New York did what it does to people – awakened the possibilities. Hope breaks out.

His past life springs to his face when he comes across Amy Bellette in the hospital. She has a brain tumor and no longer looks like the young woman she used to be. Zuckerman first met her in the 1950s, when she was Lonoff’s lovely lover. Lonoff is one of Zuckerman’s favourite writers. Then our hero comes through an ad in a newspapers for a home swap; a young couple of writers, Billy and Jamie want to spend a year in the country and Zuckerman is up for spending a year in New York. He meets them and feels attracted by Jamie in a romantic way that seemed to belong to his past more than to his present or future. After he bought used copies of Lonoff’s work in a bookshop, he is contacted by Kliman, a young writer who intends to write Lonoff’s biography and pretends to have a copy of his unfinished novel and to know juicy details of his past life.

While the first part of the book explores old age and how it blows human dignity with a sledge hammer, the second part is stressed on Zuckerman’s reaction to young Kliman willing to write a biography of his literary hero Lonoff. In the first part, Roth describes the physical decline of his characters, both Zuckerman and Amy. I found these passages very poignant: Zuckerman’s problems with his bladder, how he feels that his memory is failing him, that sooner or later he won’t be able to write any more. He also depicts his coming back to New York and the changes in America: the cell phones, the women’s clothes. I need to mention that Roth wrote this novel in 2004 and his analysis of the second election of G. W. Bush proves his lucidity and his capacity to analyse the society and events while living them. He’s brilliant when it comes to describing America.

Oddly, Roth joins Maugham in his thought about a writer’s posterity. Indeed, Kliman discovered a scandalous story in Lonoff’s life and intends to use it for Lonoff’s biography. Zuckerman is totally against it, arguing that this will write in stone a certain image of Lonoff, hiding his work while only his literary work matters. In a word, Zuckerman wants that Lonoff’s skeleton remains in its closet just as in Cakes and Ale Ashenden refuses to tell Kear the controversial side of the Driffield he knew.

Both Roth and Maugham deplore that other writers try to create an official vision of a writer. As a biographer they choose the episode of the writer’s life they emphasise, either revealing dirty secrets or concealing them. Kliman argues that his biography will give publicity to Lonoff’s work and that his work won’t be as forgotten as it is now. Kliman wants to bring readers of the biography to Lonoff’s work and Zuckerman is sure that these readers, if they ever decide to read a novel by Lonoff, will read it with the filter of the biography. I agree with Zuckerman/Roth; for example, it is hard to read Céline without thinking about his anti-Semitic outbursts. That’s also why I tend to read things about a writer after reading their book and not before.

And Zuckerman, old and heading to death, feeling his faculties declining, can’t help wondering who will protect his privacy when he’s dead. Who will stop biographers to write his life and impose their imperfect vision of him as the Truth? That’s an intriguing thought. I’m not interested in writers’ biographies. I never read any, I hardly browse through their bio on Wikipedia. In that I’m not a thorough writer. I know reading about a writer’s life helps understanding their work but I don’t like for their personal life to come as a screen between their work and me. I want to start a novel without being prejudiced. Am I Roth’s dream reader? The one who never reads journalists’ reviews, writers interviews or bios? Alas no, I’m a book blogger…

Exit Ghost manages to mix Zuckerman’s different layers of perception. He scrutinises his own fragility and envisions the end of his life. That’s for the “man-size” vision. Then there’s his vision of society, his analysis of contemporary America. That’s the “outside of my garden” layer. The last layer is that of immortality. Can you control your immortality? How do you ensure that your immortality only comes from your work and not from your personal life? Thomas Hardy tried to control his image: he had his wife write his biography and I understand that he prompted most of it to her. Just as Driffield in Maugham’s novel, he organised his immortality. Zuckerman isn’t there yet but he sure wonders what posterity has in store for him.

His conflict with Kliman is also his inner conflict between his lost young self and his current old one. Kliman is the image of what he used to be.

All of us [his generation] are now “no-longers” while the excited mind of Richard Kliman believes that his heart, his knees, his cerebrum, his prostate, his bladder, his bladder sphincter, his everything is indestructible and that he, and he alone, is not in the hands of his cells. Believing this is no soaring achievement for those who are twenty-eight, certainly not if they know themselves to be beckoned by greatness. They are not “no-longers”, losing faculties, losing control, shamefully dispossessed from themselves, marked by deprivation and experiencing the organic rebellion staged by the body against the elderly; they are “not-yets”, with no idea how quickly things turn out another way.

I wonder if Philip Roth is aware that a French Jew wrote a book entitled Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable and that its ageing character Jacques Rainier is Zuckerman’s older brother with his analysis of the 1973 oil crisis, his erection problems and his immense love for a very young woman. And that this writer committed suicide not to face old age.

As always, I love Roth for his style, his bluntness, his sense of humour, his capacity to turn Zuckerman’s problems into universal issues. There’s no pathos, just thorough and brutal description of someone’s declining health and faculties. Roth’s strength lays in his ability to follow a character’s inner life and every day life in his most intimate details and at the same time to discuss universal issues. Great book.

Brian from Babbling Books read it recently and you can discover his thoughtful review here.

Shadows and Reds in Chile

July 10, 2012 13 comments

The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepúlveda. 2009. French title: L’ombre de ce que nous avons été. 

I am the shadow of what we were and while there is light, we will exist.

I bought this novel by Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda a few month ago because the title appealed to me. It was on the shelf and I decided to read it for Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad  and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos.

The characters in The Shadow of What We Were are former communist, Moist, Trostkist or whatever kind of leftist militant cooked by the 1968 political movements. Sepúlveda makes our former active militants meet again for a last action. Cacho Salinas came back to Santiago after years of exile in France. Lucho Arancibia stayed in Chile but was tortured by the military and spent years in a concentration camp, which damaged his sanity. Lolo Garmendia fled to Romania where he experienced Caucescu’s dictatorship before fleeing to Yugoslavia. And then there is Coco Aravena, a dreamer, not much of a worker, who spent years in Berlin. Things are set into motion when Coco’s wife accidentally kills The Specialist, also known as The Shadow, an anarchist who helped different socialist organizations setting up spectacular non-violent operations before and after Pinochet’s coup. All four members had met The Shadow in their militant life without knowing who he was but benefiting from his advice and training.

After the Specialist’s death we meet Inspector Crespo, an old policeman who tried to keep his hands clean during the blackest years. His new assistant Adelita Bodavilla was born in 1973 and she belongs to the first generation of Chilean policemen who took their function after the dictatorship. She symbolizes the new Chile. They need to investigate the Specialist’s death.

I won’t reveal the plot but I should have guessed the theme. After all, on the cover of my French edition is printed a praise by L’Humanité, the newspaper of the French Communist Party.

Sepúlveda describes with gentleness the hangover of these passionate militants. All are a bit lost in this new Santiago. The city changed during their exile, the shops changed, things aren’t at the same place any more. They sacrificed their life for their cause. Some died, some closed the doors to a “normal” family life. They still believe in socialism, quote Lenin and Marx, think according to that particular filter. It’s surprising: how can they still believe in it after the fall of the USSR, the horrors in China and the fall of Eastern Europe dictatorships? Shouldn’t they turn their back to it? And at the same time, how can they? Their sacrifice would be meaningless, their whole life a joke. They need to cling to these thesis because they define who they are, what they gave their life for.

I was born in the 1970s. Every time I read about the political movements, official or clandestine, of the years 1968-1970s, I’m puzzled. Firstly, I’m puzzled at the complexity and the subtlety of the different currents. Secondly, I’m amazed at the enthusiasm and the determination of these militants. This is so far away from my generation’s way of thinking: I find them incredibly naïve, gullible even. How could they genuinely believe in such theories? I’m this generation’s child. How did our parents have such a non-committed offspring? Is it the loss of their dreams? Or did our birth make them change gears and settle down? In my experience, there’s nothing like fulfilling a baby’s needs to change your everyday life and tame you.

The other background character of the novel is Chile itself. How does a country recover from dictatorship? How does it deal with exilees coming back and experiencing difficulties to adapt to their new home town? They’re like prisoners liberated after a long time in prison. It’s hard to get used to the changes in their environment. Salinas misses Paris. Garmendia misses Europe. Coco’s wife misses Berlin. They spent years abroad, they lost touch with their home country.

The Shadow of What We Were is a short novel but it gives an interesting glimpse at Chile today…by a writer who now lives in Spain. Sepúlveda was born in 1949. He was 24 when Allende committed suicide and when Pinochet did his putsch and became Chile’s dictator. His characters are from the same generation as he and he was one of them. It can explain the tender and amused tone he uses.

It is a coincidence but Stu also chose to read this novel for Spanish Literature Month and you can read his review here.

Mafalda and me

July 3, 2012 28 comments

July is Spanish Literature Month at Caravana de Recuerdos and Winston’s Dad Blog. It’s an opportunity for me to write a billet about Mafalda. I’m not sure comics qualify as literature for this event but I suppose Richard and Stu will forgive me. Mafalda is the little girl you see on my gravatar and some of my personal posts.

She’s very famous in France and her albums are available in most bookshops. Her father is Quino, an Argentinean cartoonist. Quino’s comics were published from 1964 to 1973 in three different magazines or newspapers. (Primera Plan, El Mundo and Siete Dias Illustrados). Then Quino decided to put an end to it, thinking his concept was worn out.

Mafalda is a Charlie Brown with a strong political awareness. It’s a flavour of Argentina and the world in the 1960s. As a character, Mafalda is both a child and an adult. As a child, she goes to school, plays with friends and asks endless questions to her parents. She hates soup and Quino uses it as comical material. Once you see Mafalda sitting at the dinner table and when her mother brings her a plate full of soup, she tells her: “Perhaps it’s sad, Rachel, but in such cases Mom is barely a pseudonym”. This is Mafalda and her brother Guille:  

Mafalda:What are you doing with the phone, Guille?Guille:Me El CordobesMafalda: El Cordobes? Where’s the bull?

Her adult side tends to ask tricky questions to her poor father, make sarcastic remarks about the news and point out the adults’ inconsistencies and flaws. Living in the 1960s, she worries about the Cold War, the Vietnam War, peace in general and the state of the world in particular. 

Mother:What are you doing, Mafalda?Mafalda:Nothing, Mom. Just contemplating Humanity.Mother: Humanity?

Mafalda also shows a certain side of the Argentinean society and its evolution. Mafalda’s father buys a car (a 2CV) and the whole neighbourhood raves about it. Mafalda eventually gets a telly but soon criticizes the programs. She dances on the Beatles’ songs. Mafalda’s mother rants about price increases and her daughter pities her for being a stay-at-home mother, spending her days doing chores. (a nice touch of feminism) The family turtle is named Bureaucracy.

Mafalda’s friends are stereotypes: Susanita is obsessed with getting married, having children and settling down. She’s the conservative side, representing the bourgeoisie. Manolito’s goal in life is to make money and expand his father’s grocery store into a chain of supermarket. His model is American capitalism. Miguelito and Felipe are typical children. I have a fondness for Felipe. He’s a dreamer, reading comics with superheroes. He hates school and he’s the one to bring Mafalda back to childhood when she’s too absorbed by politics. Her games are tainted with political themes, like here:

Miguelito:What are you playing at?Mafalda: I’m Freedom, lightening the world with her light of … 15 Watts.

 All in all, with his regular pictures of the society he lives in, Quino managed to capture the essence of a time and spiced it with universal, poetic and philosophical comments. Like here: 

Mafalda:Good morning Sir. I would like you to make me the key of happiness.Old man:Of course, dear. Give me your template.Mafalda, leaving:Clever, the old man. 

I absolutely love Mafala for her sharp tongue, her cynicism, her lucidity. And did I mention it? It is FUNNY. Not stretch-a-smile funny but laughing-out-loud funny. So I was a bit puzzled when a friend asked me why I chose a chubby girl as an avatar. He thought I should have put the photo of a gorgeous model, since I didn’t put mine. But I’d rather be represented by this smart and funny little girl than by a living skeleton doing the cat walk on a stage for a living.

If you want to hear more about her, here is an article by Umberto Eco (sorry, it’s in French).

PS: I hope everything looks fine on your computer. It does on mine. I did my best

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