Louise Penny: Still Life (2005)

The discovery of a dead body in the woods on Thanksgiving Weekend brings Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his colleagues from the Surete du Quebec to a small village in the Eastern Townships. Gamache cannot understand why anyone would want to deliberately kill well-loved artist Jane Neal, especially any of the residents of Three Pines – a place so free from crime it doesn’t even have its own police force. But Gamache knows that evil is lurking somewhere behind the white picket fences and that, if he watches closely enough, Three Pines will start to give up its dark secrets…

Still Life by Canadian writer Louise Penny was a real discovery. There hasn’t been a start to a crime series since I’ve read the first of Peter Robinson’s Chief Inspector Ranks series that I enjoyed this much.

If I could I would move to Three Pines, the small fictional village, located a few hours from Montreal, in rural Québec. It’s a small village that sounds as if it was a place where time stands still and reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. Old cottages face a small village center and are surrounded by old trees and lush gardens. The place is very green and picturesque, the descriptions of it atmospheric and full of tiny details of the season. It’s the end of autumn, dead leaves are falling, it rains and the temperature is slowly dropping. A storm will come and soon it will be winter. Before the crime is solved, snow will begin to fall and a lot of the investigation will have taken place in front of a cozy fire.

It’s hard to believe a crime could happen is such an idyllic setting but it does and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache from the Sureté du Québec and his team have to leave Montreal and try to find out what happened to Jane Neal. The old woman was found dead in the forest on the morning of Thanksgiving. It is the hunting season and Jane has been shot dead by an arrow. However bow, arrow and shooter are missing. Was it maybe no hunting accident?

Gamache and his team will have to stay in Three Pines for the duration of the investigation. They move into Olivier’s and Gabri’s B&B. The two men also own the local bistro which is known for its excellent food. The investigation introduces us to Jane Neal’s friends, a small but interesting community. The painters Clara and Peter, Myrna, a former psychologist who opened a book shop in Three Pines, Ben, the son of Timmer, one of Jane’s best friends, Ruth, a poet and many more.

While Still Life has at times the feel of a cozy, it’s more complex than the average novel of that genre. Chief Inspector Gamache is a kind, intelligent but strict and far from flawless man. It will be interesting to see how he will be portayed in the following books. His team is promising as well, his subordinate is a sort of son figure for him while there is a rookie character with whom he gets into one conflict after another. The novel is well constructed, moving on a steady pace and the crime isn’t solved too easily and very plausible.

I have never read a Canadian crime novel before and I was glad Louise Penny provided a lot of interesting information about Québec, the way the French and the English live together, the peculiarities of the region.

What I liked best apart from a wide range of  psychological insights are the well-drawn characters and the wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the place. That makes me wonder how the series will go on. It seems part two is set in Three Pines as well but the following parts are not.

If you like to immerse yourself in your crime novels and want them well constructed with detailed descriptions and some very appealing characters, you shouldn’t miss the start to this series. It’s great. And I love the cover.

Melancholia (2011) World Cinema Series – Denmark

Melancholia is such a beautiful movie from the first moments on. It starts with a series of pictures accompanied by the music of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The pictures look in many cases like taken from DeviantART. Others are either inspired by or show actual paintings. I spotted one by Breughel and the poster shows Kirsten Dunst as Ophelia which could have been inspired by Millais.

Kirsten Dunst’s character Justine is an Ophelia type woman in many regards. She is highly depressed. Smiling takes more energy than walking up a mountain. She has just gotten married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). They arrive two hours too late to their own wedding party which has been organized by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gaisnbourg). It is taking place in the grand estate of Claire’s husband (Kiefer Sutherland). It’s one of those stiff wedding parties in which everything is strictly organized in order to try to overshadow that nobody knows anyone and nobody is interested in anyone. But the perfect surface cracks very soon. Justine and Claire’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) isn’t one for pretending and her brutal honesty destroys what little festive spirit there is. From that moment on Justine is in free fall and not even the dreams of a lovely future that her husband tries to share with her can mend the damage. The only person who would have been able to help her is her unavailable father, a childish drunk (John Hurt).

The first part of the movie, Justine’s part, shows how she struggles, fails and finally destroys what little is left intact at the end. A more accurate depiction of severe depression and of a dysfunctional family I’ve rarely seen.

The second part is dedicated to Justine’s sister and her fear that the earth is going to be hit by the planet Melancholia. The blue planet has started to loom over the earth during the wedding party and sheds an eerie light on the garden and the surrounding forest. While the hard-headed Claire, who dreads nothing more than extinction, starts to unravel slowly when the planet comes closer, depressed Justine, who ultimately thinks that humanity would deserve destruction, becomes the strong one.

I know this isn’t a movie for everyone but I absolutely loved it. I think it’s one of Lars von Trier‘s best. It works as a whole and as a series of amazing pictures and scenes and ends in a stunning finale. The cast is great as well. I already liked Kirsten Dunst a lot in The Virgin Suicides, another of my favourite movies,  but here she is simply amazing. The other actors do a great job as well, especially Charlotte Gainsbourg. I thought it was also interesting to see Stellan Skarsgård together with his son Alexander in the same movie.

Some of the scenes will haunt me for a long time. I particularly liked all the scenes that show Justine on her own when she leaves the party to look for some quiet and peace or when hardly any one is left in the early morning and those who remain seem to be in a tired floating and melancholy after-the-party mood.

Melancholia is a contribution to Richard’s Foreign Film Festival and my World Cinema Series.

Joyce Carol Oates: Rape – A Love Story (2003)

Rape: A Love Story begins with what is almost unspeakable. It tells of the brutality and cowardice that overtakes the city of Niagara Falls in the aftermath of an attack on a woman and her young daughter. A diamond-hard dissection of modern mores, it is also the tale of Teena and Bethie’s silent champion – a man who knows the meaning of justice. And love. 

It’s a provocative title, Joyce Carol Oates has chosen for her book: Rape: A Love Story. Maybe it’s because of titles like this that people are divided when it comes to her work. I don’t know. This is maybe the fifth of her books I’ve read so far and every time I read her I think I want to read every thing she has ever written, because even books which are not as good, like The Falls, are still so much superior than most other books. Some like Solstice are of a rare beauty, others like Foxfire and Rape are bound to trigger intense discussions.

Rape tells the story of a bad decision. One single moment which changes a life forever. Because it is a beautiful night, because she comes home from a party and is happy, Teena decides to walk through a park at midnight, together with her 12-year-old daughter. It’s a decision that shouldn’t have any major consequences but it has. She is followed by a group of young men, attacked, raped and almost beaten to death. Her young daughter escapes and gets help. The police officer who finds her is a veteran of the gulf war, a quiet, silent man. He knows the young widow and likes her very much. He is incredibly shocked about what happened to her and the girl. Bethie hasn’t been raped but beaten as well.

This is only the beginning of the story, the first few pages. What follows is maybe less violent, but not less shocking. The town – Niagara Falls – turns against Teena. Rumours start to spread. Was she not too good-looking, too sexy? Did she not like men too much? There is gossip and finally threats. Her prosecutor, a woman, is ridiculed in court, everybody turns against them.

The novel is told in alternating voices, changing points of view. Many of the chapters are second person narratives. A voice seems to be talking to Bethie, the young daughter. I found the novel masterful and impressive. Especially the end. It’s an analysis of violence, guilt, justice and retribution. It doesn’t end like we would expect it will. Of course not, remember, there is the subtitle – A Love Story.… It almost feels as if Joyce Carol Oates wanted to say: “If we cannot have justice in real life, let’s at least have it in our books.”

I found it particularly eerie that Rape had a lot in common with one of the stories in Ferdinand von Schirachs’ second collection Guilt which I just reviewed here. The perpetrators even when they are known are not always brought to justice if evidence is lacking or the defence lawyer is better than he should be.

Another reason why I found the book so good and important is because this is such a universal topic. Something I sometimes fear that will never go away. I have two girl friends who have been raped. None of them reported the crime. One was drunk when she came home, wearing a leather skirt and afraid they would tell her it was her fault. The other one had chosen a way which is known for being a bit dangerous and felt she had deserved it for her stupidity. I have been followed twice and could run away and was once attacked in broad daylight. If my dog hadn’t chased the attacker… I don’t know.  On top of that there has been a series of rapes since a couple of months in the city in which I live. Every weekends since a few months young women are raped on their way home. Sometimes relatively early, around 18.00, sometimes late at night. In many different areas of the city, by one or more men. It’s appalling.

The book captures this and much more so well. One single moment changes everything, a decision that wouldn’t have an impact if we were living in a healthy world, a world in which women and girls would not constantly have to fear being attacked. It manages to say a few powerful things about going to war and being a soldier as well. A short book. But so complex.

These numbers from feminist.com may be of some interest Facts About Violence. They only look at the US which isn’t even one of the most violent places for women to be.

David Foenkinos: La délicatesse – Delicacy (2009)

Natalie isn’t certain of anything anymore. One minute she was a happily married young woman, successful in her career, and convinced the future was full of promise. But when her husband was run over by a car, her whole world was turned upside down. Years later, still bruised with grief but desperate to move on with her life, she impulsively kisses her colleague Markus. For Natalie, the kiss is just a gratuitous act. For the awkward, unassuming Markus, it is the moment at which he falls hopelessly, helplessly in love. But how will he ever convince such a beautiful, intelligent but confused young woman that he is the man who can bring her back to life?

I read a review of DelicacyLa délicatesse on Emma’s blog (here) last year and thought it sounded nice. And it really is a charming book. While it will not knock you off your feet, it’s entertaining and quirky and some elements reminded me of Alain de Botton’s first novels.

The story can be summarized in a few sentences. Nathalie is a young widow who struggles to go on living. For three years she is in a sort of limbo until, one morning, she kisses one of the men from her company. An unimpressive, invisible Swedish guy named Markus. What doesn’t mean much for her and was just a very weird whim, means the world to Markus. They are, as one would say, not in the same league. She is incredibly attractive and beautiful while nobody even notices him.

Charles, their boss, is equally in love with Nathalie which complicates things even more. When Markus asks Nathalie out, she accepts although she isn’t really in the mood. How surprising to find out that this plain-looking man is far from ordinary.

I’m sure this sounds like a pretty usual romance but what makes Delicacy worthwhile is the way in which it is told. The story is divided into 117 chapters, some of them not longer than a sentence, some a few pages long. While the story is told chronologically, many of the short chapters contain quirky remarks, information on things that happened or were said in the preceding chapter, a recipe for a dish, the star signs of the co workers. Additionally there are footnotes making generalizing remarks like “Women called Nathalie are often nostalgic”.

All of these comments and annotations may seem random and silly at first but after a while you realize that Foenkinos’ main themes are prejudice, preconceptions and generalisations and that what he does is quite clever really. He confronts the reader constantly with this type of thinking, with his own prejudices. We are all biased to a certain degree. We associate characteristics with nationalities and even with names. Some research has found out that children are treated differently at school depending on their names.

Gossip is one way to let loose all those preconceptions and faulty ideas about others. Someone walking by without saying hello may just have a bad day while people who see him will interpret this behaviour in different ways “Maybe someone has died”. “He has been reprimanded by the boss”. “He is very ill”… . This is exactly what Nathalie and Markus face once people notice that they have met outside of the company.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so I’m not going into too many details but once you finish, you will see how different the “perfect” relationship between Nathalie and her good-looking dead husband is from how Nathalie and Markus interact.

La délicatesseDelicacy is charming and amusing. It tells a sweet love story and at the same time manages in a very playful and light way to make us aware of our short comings when we meet new people and judge them sometimes for no other reasons than their name and nationalities.

Literature and War Readalong June 29 2012: Bomber by Len Deighton

The last two titles in the readalong were both about the Blitz and the bombings of the British cities seen from the perspective of civilians. Bomber shows another point of view. Set in summer 1943 it tells the story of an Allied air raid from the point of view of all of the participants, in the air and on the ground, covering 24 hours. It has been praised for its detailed descriptions and documentary style and from what I read so far, it seems very well done. I have to thank Kevin (The War Movie Buff) for pointing it out.

Here are the first sentences

It was a bomber’s sky: dry air, wind enough to clear the smoke, cloud broken enough to recognize a few stars. The bedroom was so dark that it took Ruth Lambert a moment or so to see her husband standing at the window. “Are you alright, Sam?”

“Praying to Mother Moon.”

She laughed sleepily. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you think I need all the witchcraft I can get?”

“Oh, Sam. How can you say that when you…” She stopped.

“He supplied the words: “Have come back safe from forty-five raids?”

Should you want to join you will have to start early. With 527 pages it is by far the longest book of this readalong.

*******

The discussion starts on Friday, 29 June 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.