Karen Thompson Walker: The Dreamers (2019)

Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, The Age of Miracles, was my favourite book of 2013. I adored that book so much. It’s mood, tone, and intriguing premise stayed with me. Needless to say that when I saw that she finally had a second novel out, I had to read it.

The premise of the The Dreamers is maybe not as intriguing as the apocalyptic premise of The Age of Miracles, but it’s still interesting. In a small college town in Southern California, a girl falls asleep and doesn’t wake up anymore. Soon there’s another one and then another one until there’s an epidemic. The city gets cordoned off. Nobody can enter, nobody can get out. More and more people fall asleep and don’t wake up. They all have one thing in common—they seem to be dreaming constantly. When the first girl dies, people get even more alarmed. The hospital is flooded and many of the staff fall asleep as well. Soon there are almost more sleepers than people awake and many of the sleepers die.

Unlike her first book, this one is told from multiple perspectives. The main characters are – two small girls whose father’s a survivalist, two college kids, a psychiatrist from out-of-town, and a husband and wife with a tiny baby. It was interesting to see the story told from many angles but unfortunately, it also meant it didn’t have the impact of The Age of Miracles. There was no specific tone or mood, just good-story telling. I definitely wanted to know why they fell asleep and what would become of them.

Once I finished it, I had to admit I felt underwhelmed. I thought at first that it was because my expectations were too high but then I realized that it reminded me too much of Camus’ La peste. It’s possible that this is just an unfortunate coincidence, but it’s equally possible she meant this as some sort of retelling. I didn’t read any other reviews or author interviews, so I have no idea. Unfortunately, for her, it’s hard to compete with Camus. That said, I’m sure many people will love this as it explores a topic we’re all, to some extent, afraid of – the outbreak of an epidemic. Her approach isn’t personal but social. She explores how fear affects people. She looks at the moral choices people make to either save themselves or help others.

There’s a quote from Catherine, the psychologist that I like a lot:

Worry, she reminds her patients, is a kind of creativity. Fear is an act of the imagination.

Seeing how people react to this unknown, contagious, and potentially life-threatening affliction illustrates the quote. People’s behaviour depends so much on what they imagine will happen.

The book also does ask some universal questions about illness and morality. There are so many who fall asleep and need help that, after a while, those still in good shape have to make choices who they will help. Someone they know? A younger child instead of an older person? Randomly? And what about pets – once food gets scarce inside of the city, should they still be fed?

Given the title, which isn’t The Sleepers but The Dreamers, it’s not surprising  that the nature of reality is another important theme. How do we really know we’re awake when sometimes dreams are so vivid we can’t tell we’re sleeping?

While I was a bit disappointed, expecting something with a similar tone and mood to her first novel, and because it reminded me of Camus, I still found this a compelling book. Her writing flows so well and the pace and structure are very balanced. And there are so many topical themes that make it ideal for a discussion group.

Joseph Roth – Radetzky March Readalong

You may remember talk of a spring Radetzky March readalong (or re-readalong for those who are already acquainted) during 2018 German Literature Month.  All who were interested in participating were asked to comment on their favoured month, and it turned out that April was favoured by most.

Now April is beginning to look rather full. Stu is hosting Penguin Classics week at the beginning of the month (8th-15th) and Karen and Simon are hosting the 1965 club at the end of the month (22nd-28th).  So where can Lizzy and I slot this readalong?

As the novel is divided into 3 parts of nearly equal length, we’ve decided on the first 3 weeks of the month. (There is a Penguin Classics edition, so, if you’re reading that, you can kill two birds with one stone!) And to tie in with #translationthurs, we’ll discuss Part One on Thursday  April 4, Part Two on Thursday April 11 and Part 3 on Thursday April 18.

We both loved the detailed discussion of the Effi Briest readalong, way back when during the first German Literature Month. So we’re intending to send out discussion questions for each part of the discussion.  You can answer these or post your own thoughts, entirely as you please.  If you’re intending to participate, please leave a comment and your email below.

More details nearer the time, but we wanted you to pencil in the dates now – before the month of April just gets too full for most of us!

Alfred Hayes – My Face for the World to See (1958)

This wasn’t the best reading year for me. While I was very lucky with my nonfiction choices, more than one novel was a dud. Imagine how happy I was to see my faith in literature fully restored before the end of the year. Alfred Hayes’ novel My Face for the World to See is just marvelous. A perfect gem of a novel. I couldn’t fault a thing. I discovered it a few years ago on Guy’s blog here, but forgot all about it until Jacqui reviewed another of Hayes’ novels, The Girl on the Via Flaminia.

Alfred Hayes was born in London but moved to the US as a child. In 1943 he was drafted and spent time in the US army, in Italy. In Italy he contributed to some of the most famous scripts of Italian neo-realist cinema – Rosselini’s Paisà and de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. The following ten years, he worked as a screen writer in Hollywood, writing  scripts for people like Fritz Lang, John Huston and many more.

While The Girl on the Via Flaminia, his earlier novel, is set in Italy, My Face for the World to See is set in Hollywood.

Before starting the review, I’d like to share the opening paragraphs, which set the tone and the mood of the novel.

It was a party that had lasted too long; and tired of the voices, a little too animated, and the liquor, a little too available, and thinking it would be nice to be alone, thinking I’d escape for a brief interval, those smiles which pinned you against the piano or those questions which trapped you wriggling in a chair, I went out to look at the ocean.

There it was, exactly as advertised, a dark and heavy swell, and far out the lights of some delayed ship moving slowly south. I stared at the water, across a frontier of a kind, while behind me, from the brightly lit room with its bamboo bar and its bamboo furniture, the voices, detailing a triumph or recounting a joke, of those people who were not entirely strangers and not exactly friends, continued. It seemed silly to stay, tired as I was and the party dying; it seemed silly to go, with nothing home but an empty house.

With hindsight, it’s amazing to see how perfect this beginning is. It captures the tone and the mood of the novel, as well as the narrator’s character. The narrator – he’s never named – is a successful, rich script writer, who spends some months of the year, in Hollywood, far from his wife and kid, who stay in New York. He’s successful but it doesn’t seem to mean much to him. He could be part of a crowd but he stays outside. There’s one person one could call a friend, the host, but other than that, he seems like the ship he watches – passing by, detached. At the same time, he’s the guy who is eternally watching, witnessing. A couple of moments after this short intro, he’s again a witness – this time to the near-suicide of a young, pretty wannabe actress. He saves her and this act is the beginning of a terrible mistake. While he may think he’s just being friendly when he contacts her again, it dawns on the reader that loneliness and boredom – also mentioned in the first paragraphs – might be the true reasons.

From that moment on, the reader gets to witness an awful Maelstrom of an affair. The beginning is somewhat sordid and the end disastrous.

I absolutely loved this novel because of the tone and the mood. And the writing style. It’s pared down and economical, not one superfluous word. It’s also chilling at times, because the narrator never fully engages with anything that happens. It’s almost as if he’s never really there. And the more he is withdrawn, the more the girl seems to sink deeper and deeper into her despair. I felt so sorry for this girl. A typical pretty small town girl who comes to Hollywood with big dreams, which a crushed instantly. She was hoping for “My Face for the World to See”, but what she gets instead is the wrong male attention. Almost all of her lovers seem to have been married and, invariably, it ends badly and she tries to console herself with alcohol. There’s a scene with a cat, who she loves dearly, that’s utterly heartbreaking.

I think one reason why I loved this so much is because it reminded me of Dorothy B. Hughes fantastic novel In a Lonely Place, which made my best of list in 2016. I’m sure Hayes knew the book and certainly knew the movie with Humphrey Bogart. Even though My Face for the World to See isn’t a crime novel, it has all the trademarks of a noir like In A Lonely Place. There’s the melancholy mood, the jaded, lonely people who try to connect but fail, love affairs that turn bitter within weeks.

Of course, Hollywood is the perfect setting for a story like this and one can easily see that Hayes knew what he was writing about.

I’m not entirely sure I will write a best of post this year, but if I do – My Face for the World to See will be on it.

A Very Short Review – Belinda Bauer: Snap (2018)

I’ve wanted to read Belinda Bauer for ages because I’ve heard so many good things about her books. Even so, I was surprised to see her on the Man Booker longlist. I don’t think many crime novels are included usually. And so, even though Rubbernecker is on my piles, I went and got Snap. I finished it two days ago and am still baffled. Baffled it made the Booker longlist. Not only baffled – sad really – because if the typical Booker longlist reader usually doesn’t read crime and this is his introduction to the genre  . . . Not ideal. Baffled also because it’s such a weak book. There’s some nice writing there, good characterisations, but the story is unbelievable, relies heavily on coincidences – one after the other  – and the killer’s motive is so far-fetched that it’s painful.

The premise is interesting enough. A pregnant mother leaves her kids in the car to get petrol and never returns. Later, her body is found. She’s been murdered. There are no suspects and soon it’s a cold case. Three years later, the three kids are living on their own in the messiest place one could imagine. What happened? The dad couldn’t cope and left the three children to fend for themselves. The oldest, Jack, provides for them by breaking and entering into houses whose owners are on holidays. Unfortunately, (biggest coincidence) one house isn’t abandoned and inside Jack finds not only a pregnant woman, but an object he believes had something to do with his mother’s death.

If I didn’t already own Rubbernecker, I’m pretty certain, I would not return to Belinda Bauer. But since I do, I might give her another try. I’m not sure though. I’ve read many great crime novels this year and also a few mediocre ones, but none was as unbelievable as this.

Why did I finish it, you may wonder? For the longest time, I thought it might go into another direction. Sadly it didn’t. And there was zero atmosphere.

 

Dorthe Nors: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal – Spejl, Skoulder, Blink (2016) Danish Literature

Dorthe Nors is a Danish writer who has written novels, novellas, and short stories. Her short stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Boston Review, and The New Yorker. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize last year. Several of her books have been translated.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal tells the story of Sonja, a single woman in her forties, who lives in Copenhagen and wants nothing more than learning to drive. It seems such a modest wish but for Sonja, who suffers from positional vertigo, it’s huge. The doctor actually told her she cannot learn how to drive but here she is anyway, getting driving lessons and failing miserably. Not because of the vertigo but because she just can’t figure out how to change gear. In itself, even though she urgently wants to learn to drive, this wouldn’t be so dramatic but there’s so much more that doesn’t really work in Sonja’s life that the failed driving lessons take on gigantic proportions.

Sonja moved to Copenhagen from rural Jutland. She’s the first of her family to study and after getting her degree in literature she moves to the exciting big city where she works as a translator of Swedish crime writer Gösta Svensson’s bloody serial killer novels. Not exactly the life she’d expected but then again what life did Sonja expect? That’s the question that not only Sonja asks herself during the course of this novel but also the reader. Sonja is the kind of character many readers seem to hate. She’s almost anachronistic in her failure to figure out what she wants and then go and get it. Because she is in many ways weak, people take advantage of her. Strangers and friends alike. Most people see her as someone they can use to talk endlessly about themselves, to show off, to bully, to patronise or, as her newest driving instructor, to have an affair with.

Sonja knows that her life is off its rails and she knows she’s missing direction but she can’t figure out how to get out of this mess other than to daydream or think about the past.

I was so not sure whether I liked this book or not until I read the last pages and everything came together. The ending was so sad, moving, and poignant that I ended up really liking this novel and it’s passive, at times annoying protagonist.

Everybody wants to read about strong, assertive characters and, of course, that’s inspiring but there’s so much truth in Sonja. I’m sure there’s so much hidden human misery in every big city, certainly also in small cities, that I found this story of a woman who had big dreams but ended up lonely and miserable very touching. It takes a special kind of character to survive in big, cold cities, especially when you were born elsewhere. And not everyone is capable of forming meaningful relationships, not everyone has the knack to be socially integrated. I’m very glad that Dorthe Nors chose to write about a quiet character whose struggles go unnoticed by those who surround her. At first even Sonja herself doesn’t notice. Only when she realises all of her struggles are futile does it dawn on her.

This could have been a sad and depressing story but it’s not because there are many funny moments. Sonja may not see herself as clearly as she should at first but she sees others all the more clearly. She has no illusions about those around her and her observations are often funny and laconic. There are the scenes with her massage therapist who also wants her to join her meditation group that are absolutely priceless.

As I said, there were moments when I wasn’t too sure about this book but in the end I liked the book and its old-fashioned heroine very much.

Amélie Nothomb – Barbe Bleue – Blue Beard (2012)

In 1992, Belgian author Amélie Nothomb entered the literary scene with a bang. Her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin – L’hygiène de l’assassin, was so successful, that to this day, it’s always the one novel mentioned together with her name. One could almost assume that she has not written anything else. One couldn’t be more wrong. Since 1992 she has published a novel per year. I read her first and wasn’t too keen on it, so I never returned to her until I saw Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard) in a book shop. I love fairy tale retellings or reinterpretations and Blue Beard is one of my favourites. Knowing that she’s famous for her dry, acerbic style, I thought it would be interesting to see what she would do with a tale like this. I was pretty sure, it wouldn’t be fantasy or fantastical and I was right. I had hoped I would like it, but I didn’t expect to like it so much. It’s clever, witty, and whimsical.

Saturnine, a young lecturer at the school of the Louvre in Paris, is looking for a room. When she sees and ad offering rooms in an elegant mansion in the 7th arrondissement, she’s thrilled. The rooms are big, the rent is cheap, what more could she wish for? Of course, she’s not the only one interested in the offer. The place is swarming with women. As Saturnine finds out to her surprise, most of them didn’t come for the rooms, but because they want to catch a glimpse of the rich, notorious owner. All of his eight former tenants have vanished and it is rumoured that he may have killed them. Because Saturnine is from Belgium, she had never heard of the story before. One of the women, applying with Saturnine, predicts that she will be the chosen one as she’s the youngest and the prettiest. And she’s right.

When Saturnine sees the host for the first time she’s totally underwhelmed. He’s not very attractive and full of mannerisms. He’s a Spanish nobleman with a long, flourishing name. Don Elemirio is very proud of his origins and of himself. He shows her around and tells her she can go anywhere she likes with the exception of one room with a black door. He warns her that it wouldn’t be dangerous for her if she entered.

Saturnine isn’t a nosy person and so she’s never tempted to open the door to the forbidden room, but she would like to know what happened to her eighth predecessors.

On the first evening, her host begs her to join him for dinner. She accepts and this will be the first of many dinners. They are all eccentric and downed with large amounts of the most expensive champagne. During these meals, Saturnine teases the nobleman but he doesn’t really get it. He stays serious and finally confesses he’s in love with her. Saturnine is shocked that someone could fall in love so quickly and very certain that she will never love him back. Soon, however, it becomes clear that the mysterious and many talented Don Elemirio fascinates her.

If you’d like to find if she falls for him, and whether or not she’ll access the forbidden room and what happened to the eight women before her, you’ll have to read the book.

To tell this whimsical retelling of the famous Blue Beard fairy tale, Amélie Nothomb uses mainly dialogue. There are only few descriptions and some of Saturnine’s reasonings added. The result is very lively as the discussions are so witty and original and touch upon subjects as diverse as the Spanish Inquisition, Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna, and the perfect color. Saturnine is anything if not feisty. Any other woman would have fled the premises. While she teases, questions, and criticizes the nobleman, he shows her a world of idealism and perfectionism that’s as far from our world as could be.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a clever reinterpretation of an old tale. Since it’s so dialogue heavy, I could imagine it would make a wonderful play.

Most of Amélie Nothomb’s books have been translated into English, but not this one.

I’ll be reading another of Amélie Nothomb’s books bery soon. After having read a few rave reviews I got Les CatilinairesThe Stranger Next Door.

Have you read any of Nothomb’s books. Which ones would you recommend?

Terri Windling: The Wood Wife (1996)

Terri Windling is an American author, editor, artist and essayist. Together with Ellen Datlow she’s edited numerous anthologies of fantasy/speculative fiction short stories. As a writer she’s famous for the use of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales.

Her second novel, The Wood Wife, which was published in 1996, is set in the Sonora desert and tells the story of the poet Maggie Black. Maggie Black has inherited the house of poet Davis Cooper who lived in the Rincon mountains, near Tucson for decades. Cooper was something like a mentor for Maggie and it was always her greatest wish to meet him in person. Unfortunately, this never happened. She’s surprised that Cooper, who was found murdered in the desert, chose her as his inheritor and travels to the Sonora desert with great trepidation. She hopes she’ll be able to write his biography and find out whether, as she suspects, he’s been writing secretly. Officially, Cooper stopped writing a long time ago. Possibly because he didn’t get over the death of his wife, Mexican painter Anna Naverra.

Maggie is used to big cities and coming to a place that’s as remote as Cooper’s house, is a huge challenge. Living there, even more so. Luckily, she finds the people living close by, former friends of Cooper, are very welcoming.

Soon after her arrival, strange things begin to happen. It’s as if the mountain and its fauna has a life of its own. All seems linked to Anna’s paintings and Cooper’s poems. Or is it the other way around? Did the paintings and poems come alive? Maggie embarks on a journey of discovery that is anything but safe.

The Wood Wife is such a haunting, beautiful book for many reasons. The way Terri Windling captures the desert, its flora and fauna is magical, even before she mentions any mythological creatures or folklore. The reader can feel how powerful it is and how it transforms Maggie from the beginning because she’s open to its beauty and wildness. Maggie has left behind a life that wasn’t all success and happiness. She was married to a famous musician who was unfaithful and cost her a lot of energy. In traveling to the Sonora desert, Maggie also hopes to return to her own writing. The connection of art and life and the theme of relationships between artists or between famous and less famous artist are some of the most important elements of this story. The book explores different possibilities and also different views of art.

Here’s Maggie:

I supported my ex-husband all through the lean years at the beginning of his career. I stopped writing poetry and hustled my butt getting every magazine assignment I could. Cooper was furious with me but I wouldn’t listen; I was in love, and ready to join that long tradition of the little woman behind the great man. . . I think I had this romantic vision of being The Artist’s Muse–but instead I was just The Hardworking Wife. And the muses were all the ladies that my husband had on the side.”

And this is Fox:

“You assume that what I want is what you would want: Success, Recognition. I’m not like you. I’m not like Cooper. That’s not what a good life means to me. Playing music is a high, for sure–but there’s other things that I like just as much. Carpentry, for instance; it’s honest work, it’s solid, it’s real, it pays a living wage . . . I give free music lessons to kids . . . I like having time for things like that. And time for my friends. And for myself. I don’t want to spend all my time hustling music. Just want to play it, enjoy it, and have a life.”

The Wood Wife tells, among many things, also a beautiful love story and stories of friendship. The strength of these stories stems from the wonderful, complex characters.

I enjoyed this book very much and read it very slowly. Terri Windling created a magical world that is beautiful but not cute. Life in the desert is harsh. For months it’s dry and then when it rains, everything is flooded and the people living on the mountain are trapped there. Coyotes and rabbits roam freely but they are also hunted by poachers and tourists who think it’s a fun sport. In many ways, this is a very realistic depiction of a landscape and a way of life but then the book goes deeper and uses mythology and folklore to show what a magical, powerful place the Sonora is.

Here’s what Cooper says:

I need a land where sun and wind will strip a man down to the soul and bleach his dying bones. I want to speak the language of stones.

The Wood Wife reminded me of a few European fantasy books, like Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock or Alan Gardner’s The Owl Service. They use European folklore and mythology, in the same way Windling uses North American Indian folklore. The juxtaposition of these two different, yet similar approaches is even addressed in the book.

“I’ve studied Davis Cooper as an English poet. Born and raised in the West Country. So when I read his poems I see English woods, I see the moor, and hedgerows, and walls of stone. And then I drive up here,” she waved her hand at the dry land around them, “and I realise that these are the woods he’s been talking about all along. These hills. This sky. Now I’m reading a whole different set of poems when I look at Cooper’s work.”

The illustration of the book cover shows artwork by Susan Seddon Boulet. Her artwork captures the spirit of Windling’s book. I’ve attached another example of her work above.

In the afterword, Terri Windling writes that she was inspired by the art of British artist Brian Froud. The picture above is one of his Faerie Realm series.

I discovered this book a while ago on Grace’s blog Books Without Any Pictures. You can read her review here.

Those who are interested in mythology, folklore, and fairy tales, might love Terri Windling’s blog, Myth and Moor. The essays are outstanding and the photos so beautiful.