constellation-cover-260x390Constellation is Adrien Bosc’s first novel. It’s based on the true story of the October 28, 1949, crash of the Air France F-BAZN Lockheed Constellation passenger airplane. More than a simple re-telling of the event, Bosc connects the dots of chance decisions and unusual incidents that occurred before and after the accident. While he chillingly recreates the tragedy, he builds a theme of coincidence.

One of the passengers on the Constellation was Marcel Cerdan, the French middle-weight world boxing champion. He was taking the Paris-to-New-York flight to recapture his title at Madison Square Garden in a rematch with Jake LaMotta, a.k.a. the Bronx Bull. Cerdan originally was scheduled on a later flight, but Cerdan’s lover, the famous French singer Edith Piaf, begged him to move up his date of departure, so they could spend more time together in New York. Giving priority seating to the celebrity’s last-minute reservation, which included his manager Jo Longman and friend Paul Genser, Air France bumped a newlywed couple returning from their honeymoon and a woman. Lucky for them. The plane crashed into a mountain while attempting to land at the Santa Maria airport in the Azores, an archipelago of islands west of Portugal.  None of the 37 passengers or 11 crew members survived.

Bosc delves into the lives of other passengers and their reasons for flying, including Ginette Neveu, a famous French violin virtuoso, scheduled to go on tour in America. A violin apprentice, who helped maintain her Stradivarius violin, was to accompany her, but Neveu asked him to delay his departure. He traded in his plane ticket for a trans-Atlantic crossing on an ocean liner. (The Stradivarius was never recovered from the wreckage.) Air travel in the 1940’s was a luxury, but a young spool operator in a textile mill was on the flight. Her wealthy godmother in Detroit had made her the sole heir to her estate and purchased the girl’s ticket on the doomed flight, which she otherwise would not have been able to afford. On October 26, a successful artist on a Paris-to-New-York flight gave his seat to an actress, who had too much luggage. He got transferred to the October 27 Air France F-BAZN flight. Bosc also writes about Kay Kamen, the merchandising genius behind Disney products, including the Mickey Mouse watch. He was on the flight not out of chance, but the dots rather suggest an unusual fate. Disney wanted to disengage from Kamen’s company and bring the merchandising business in-house.

The story is powerful, building on curiosity and dread all the way to the investigation into why the plane went off course. As each page is turned, there’s a stunning coming-together of Bosc’s information, with theory and conjecture, that’s carefully drawing a constellation of people and how they came to board — or be affected by — the flight. The story does have its flaws, but they don’t interfere with the enticement of this brief story. One is the author’s out-of-the-blue, awkward insertion of his voice midway through the book, and another is occasional references to places and people that aren’t clarified. “A vast confluence of causes determines the most unlikely result. Forty-eight people, forty-eight agents of uncertainty enfolded within a series of innumerable reasons, fate is always a question of perspective,” Bosc writes.

Marcel Cerdan visited a fortune-teller in Paris in early October. She warned him not to fly, but Cerdan didn’t take her seriously. She felt so strongly about her premonition that a week later she sent Cerdan a letter telling him to avoid air travel, especially on Fridays. He continued to ignore her, even though he had superstitious tendencies, such as holding fast to pregame rituals to ensure a winning game. The Air France F-BAZN Constellation crashed on a Friday.

Six Four by Hideo YokoyamaSix Four has caught my attention not as much for the story as for the fact that it sold one million copies in six days in Japan, according to its publisher (via The Guardian). Author Hideo Yokoyama is hugely popular in Japan for his crime novels and often likened to Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author who penned The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. From The Independent: “Like Stieg Larsson, with whom he has been (unhelpfully) compared, he is a driven workaholic and, like the late Swedish writer, suffered a heart attack after working continuously without breaks for many hours.”

The plot of this immense book (640 pages) is typical crime-novel fare. In 1989, a seven-year-old Tokyo schoolgirl was kidnapped, ransomed and murdered. The killer was never identified or found, and the Japanese public neither forgot nor forgave the botched investigation. In 2002, Inspector Yoshinobu Mikami must arrange a visit by the police commissioner to the girl’s family on the latest anniversary of the crime. Mikami is the police press director. He takes a look at the case file and discovers an anomaly. From the publisher’s book description: “He could never imagine what he would uncover. He would never have looked if he’d known what he would find.”

From what I’ve read about the book in several publications, much of the story is spent delving into police bureaucracy, hierarchy, procedure and corruption. While such detail can be antithetical to what one would expect in a page-turning crime thriller, it sets this book apart. Reviewers agree time invested in the long story is well worth it, claiming readers will find themselves involved, gripped and rewarded. The Guardian calls Six Four a “binge read.”

The Times Literary Supplement writes,“The denouement is surprising, but there are no neat endings to the various strands of this well-written epic tale, which reads beautifully in Jonathan Lloyd-Davies’s translation. Six Four is far more a monument to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese bureaucratic life than it is a simple detective story.”

The Japan Times writes: “Yokoyama’s strength lies in his portrayal of the police: the stifling hierarchy, the politics and duplicity Mikami has to navigate. In true police-procedural fashion Six Four takes its time to reach its conclusion, all the while fleshing out characters who are headed for a denouement that is as original as it is ingenious.”

The Guardian writes: “The plot would grip in any language but, for readers in the west, there is extra fascination in Six Four being not just a police procedural but a guide book to Japan. Some of the local details – such as the cops’ repeated concerns with ‘losing face’ – might have been rejected by an English writer on Japan as too stereotypical. Other material, though, is educationally exotic.”

All of this fascinates me and, given the time, I’d jump into this book for the adventure of it. The Guardian writes: “It’s very different, in tone, narrative and style, from almost anything else out there.”  I don’t often read that – or say that myself – about a book. Six Four is Yokoyama’s sixth novel and the first to be translated into English. It’s not been published by a U.S. publisher, but it’s released in Britain by Quercus, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies.  You can order it online. Maybe by the time – and if – it arrives in the U.S., I’ll have reading space and be ready for it.

It’s always fun to check out what the literary community believes is “best in show” for novels. Here are three major international awards and their winners, recently announced.

Family Life by Akhil SharmaInternational Dublin Literary Award
Akhil Sharma wrote seven thousand pages over twelve and a half years to produce his 224 page novel Family Life. The story is based on the author’s own experience, according to an article he wrote for The New Yorker. (The article reveals the technical difficulties Mr. Sharma encountered writing the book.) Nominations for this award, formerly known as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, are received from public libraries in cities all over the world. Family Life was selected from 160 contenders nominated by librarians in 118 cities and 43 countries. The prestigious award recognizes both writers and translators. Mr. Sharma is the third American author to win the International Dublin Literary Award in its 21 year history. Here’s the plot summary of his novel, from the publisher’s description: “Growing up in Delhi in 1978, eight-year-old Ajay Mishra and his older brother Birju play cricket on the streets, eagerly waiting for the day they can join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more—until tragedy strikes. Young Ajay prays to a God he envisions as Superman, searching for direction amid the ruins of his family’s new life. Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.”

The Vegetarian by Han KangMan Booker International Award
The 2016 Man Booker International Prize has a new focus this year – to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction in translation. The prize money, divided equally between the author and the translator, is now awarded annually for a single work of fiction. Prior to 2016, the Man Booker International Award highlighted one living writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage and was announced every two years. The 2016 award went to South Korean author Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian. The novel’s spare prose tells an unsettling story of a woman who, after a disturbing dream, stops eating meat. Her husband and family react with shock, anger and disapproval, as if Yeong-hye has committed an unforgivable crime. What unfolds is a difficult family story about Yeong-hye’s emotional demise and her family’s controlling abuse and angry incomprehension. From the Man Booker International Award website: “As her rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, Yeong-hye spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. Fraught, disturbing, and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.”

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerneyBaileys Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize)
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s annual international book award for fiction written by a woman. According to the award website, founded in 1996, the Prize was set up to celebrate excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women throughout the world. This year’s winner — The Glorious Heresies written by Irish writer Lisa McInerney — is about life on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Set in the dark, underbelly of the city of Cork, the story brings together several misfits after a murder, including a 15-year-old drug dealer, his alcoholic father, a prostitute and a gangland boss. From the publisher’s press release: “In this gritty, darkly comic novel, McInerney crafts a twisted web of shifting loyalties and betrayals while interrogating notions of salvation, shame, and the legacy of Ireland’s past attitudes towards sex and family. She quietly explores money, violence, and the unbreakable bonds we form with each other through the story of one accidental murder and its rippling effects on five people who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society.” From a review in Britain’s Telegraph: “The Glorious Heresies is a spectacular debut … Tough and tender, gothic and lyrical, it is a head-spinning, stomach-churning state-of-the-nation novel about a nation falling apart.” The Guardian’s more tempered review says “the energy level flags in the final third of the book, as the characters keep repeating the same patterns of behaviour to less compelling effect.” The book is scheduled for release in the United States in August.

 

 

 

 

 

Charlotte by David FoenkinosDavid Foenkinos’ astonishing new novel tells a fictionalized true story of the life and artistic work of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish German girl who lived from 1917 to 1943. It’s a familiar Holocaust story told with exceptional difference — the narrative is a vertical stack of sentences that breathe intensity and authorial passion. “Her life has become my obsession,” this experienced French novelist tells us. He saw an exhibition of Life? or Theater?, Charlotte Salomon’s autobiographical artwork, and became overwhelmed with soul-reaching connection. “I am an occupied country,” he confesses.

The novel begins with Charlotte’s namesake, her mother’s sister, who exited life without warning by jumping off a bridge when she was 18 years old. Thirteen years later, Charlotte’s mother is affected by the same depressive condition and consequence. Charlotte is left to be raised by nannies and a father devoted to his medical career. He marries again to an opera star, who brings joy and the cultural life of Berlin into their home. Charlotte falls in love with Albert, her stepmother’s voice coach, and attends the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.

Except, it is the 1930’s when Hitler comes to power. Charlotte is robbed of deserved recognition at the Academy. Her father is taken away by Nazi officials and then returned, broken and unequivocally aware of the danger to his Jewish family. Charlotte is sent to live in southern France with her grandparents, despite her hysterical resistance. At the train station, her lover Albert whispers in her ear, “May you never forget that I believe in you.”

The author interjects himself into the narrative in a way that heightens our sensitivity to the story. The effect is mesmerizing, drawing us into his passionate desire to know everything about his subject. He visits Charlotte’s childhood home and grade school in Berlin, her refuge in southern France and the office of a doctor who treated her. The doctor, recognizing Charlotte’s artistic genius, tells her she must paint, despite the world’s darkness. It is the 1940s. Charlotte has endured and escaped an internment camp for Germans and suffered the loss of her grandmother, yet another suicide. She secludes herself and creates hundreds of paintings with text and music that becomes Life? or Theater? When completed, Charlotte gives it to the trusted doctor for safekeeping, declaring to him, “It is my whole life.”

Not long after, Charlotte is denounced anonymously to the Nazis. She’s sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where she dies at the age of 26. Her father and stepmother survive the war, and in 1961 produce a catalog and exhibition of Life? or Theater? Briefly, Charlotte Salomon becomes famous. In 1971, her parents bequeath Life? or Theater? to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.

Charlotte Salomon_JewishHistoryMuseum

 

To experience Charlotte’s artwork in Life? or Theater? is to understand the author’s passion and –after reading the novel — to feel more deeply this piercing, tender story.

The paintings are accessible on the website of the Jewish History Museum under Special Collections. The image above is captured from the museum’s online exhibit.

Charlotte by David Foenkinos is translated from the French by Sam Taylor.

 

What would you say?

January 5, 2016

the-6-41-to-parisThere are ordinary moments from my youth that remain as clear to me as the moment they happened. Why, I’m not sure, other than they impacted me with some unresolved wonder, such as a few minutes I experienced on the subway during graduate school in Chicago. I was in my late 20’s, working and going to school. A fellow student boarded the train and took the seat beside me. I was infatuated with him, often staring at him during classes. There were many other seats available on the train, and I think taking the seat beside me was his attempt to get to know me. I remember the gray evening light, the cold in the poorly heated car, and also how frozen I felt emotionally, petrified in my shyness. I couldn’t say anything, not even hello, let alone look at him and smile. The train shuttled along. He also didn’t say a word. And then, he rose from his seat and got off the train. Why didn’t I say something?

In The 6:41 to Paris, a man sits beside a woman on a train. In this instance, there are no other seats available. This simple act ignites Jean-Philippe Blondel’s captivating, brief novel that builds tension with each character’s inability to acknowledge the other. They sit in silence, paralyzed by uncertainty and insecurity, as I was. When they were 20 years old, Cécile Douffaut and Philippe Leduc dated. Back then, 27 years ago, Cécile was plain, “nothing striking”, while Philippe was handsome, popular and cocky. They came together in a flirting fluke, and what kept them together was Cécile’s unpredictability and her refreshing nerve that intrigued Philippe. All along, he intended to dump her. Three or four months later, during a trip to London, Philippe’s arrogance demolished the affair with emotional cruelty.

Think of yourself in such a situation: Cécile and Philippe are now 47 years old. Each recognizes the other but doesn’t know if the other recognizes him/her. Philippe is now a balding, divorced TV and stereo salesman with a middle-aged paunch who knows he settled for less in life. Cécile is now an attractive, successful, married entrepreneur who pushed herself to rise above her humiliating youth yet still wrestles with feelings of inferiority. What would you say? For the non-stop ride, neither speaks ups. Philippe is ashamed about his self-centered actions those many years ago, and also depressed about his unsuccessful life. Cécile finds herself still enraged by what happened in London.

The story simmers with tension over who’s going to speak first, as the train travels for an hour and a half from Troyes, a town southeast of Paris, to the capital city. Blondel cleverly pieces together his characters’ individual life stories, with each thinking about their worthiness as spouses and parents, their statuses in their work and, most moving of all, their failure so long ago. Their inner voices in self-conversation capture relatable human concerns and emotions that draw on our compassion. We read to find out what happened in the past and if, in the present, Cécile and Philippe will finally say something to each other, as I wish I had done long ago in Chicago.

The 6:41 to Paris is translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

It’s that time of the year when media proclaim the best books published over the past 12 months. I’m not sure the lists offer much more than a chance for readers to check off the ones they’ve read and ones they’ve missed. Are these lists really representing the best books published in 2015? What about the books the organization didn’t review, maybe one from a small press that didn’t get noticed? Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers comes to mind, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The New York Times didn’t review it.

A favorite task I love to do with end-of-year best fiction lists is cross-reference a few to see if one novel stands out as an agreed upon favorite. This year, I worked with lists from The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post and the The Boston Globe. I worked with the longer “notable fiction books” lists rather than the top ten lists, which mix all genres; however, I did include the top ten list from The Washington Post. Their top 10 selections don’t appear in their long list of bests, while The New York Times does include theirs.

These five publications all agreed on, not one, but two books, both listed among their best/notable fiction for 2015. NPR’s critic Maureen Corrigan also claimed the two among her year’s favorites. Here they are:

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia BerlinA Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin
Laird Hunt on August 26 in The Washington Post wrote: “Through measured use of sentence fragments, unexpected word choices and fascinating juxtapositions, Berlin’s stories embody rather than merely describe the challenges faced by her marginalized narrators and protagonists. At their most inventive, these stories switch direction as frequently as the buses in the title story, which comprises a house cleaner’s wry journal that she writes on public transportation. …In the meantime, those not lucky enough to have yet encountered the writing of Lucia Berlin are in for some high-grade pleasure when they make first contact. As Lydia Davis writes in her thoughtful introduction to A Manual for Cleaning Women, ‘This is exhilarating writing.’”

Layout 1The Story of the Lost Child. Book 4, The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
I’ve embarked on reading this series, having completed the first book, My Brilliant Friend. NPR critic Maureen Corrigan writes: “The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s remarkable ‘Neapolitan Novels,’ is a stunner … but you will only realize how stunning it is if you do yourself a favor and read the three earlier novels in the series first.”

To give you an idea of how the series starts, from Alex Clark in The Guardian: “In the prologue to My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the series – before we’re plunged into the pair’s childhood, with its vivid vignettes and its atmosphere of fairytale menace – present-day Elena tells us that Lila, now in her 60s, has disappeared without a trace. Elena is not alarmed, because she believes that Lila is simply making good on a long-held promise to absent herself . …But the news prompts Elena to write their story…”

Below are five novels and two short story collections that four out of the five publications agreed upon. I thought the list was interesting, and so wanted to include it.

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories by Anthony Marra
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams

 

 

The Mysteries of Paris by Eugene SueParisians are reading Ernest Hemingway’s classic memoir, A Moveable Feastin droves.  According to The Atlantic: “The Paris memoir, published posthumously in 1964, holds the top spot on Amazon’s French site, has sold out of stock at a number of bookstores and, as Le Figaro reports, has become a fixture among the flowers in memorials across the city.”

The memoir recounts Hemingway’s Parisian life between 1921 and 1926 when he was a poor, unknown writer married to his first wife, Hadley Richardson. They lived above a sawmill on Rue Notre Dame des Champs. Hemingway wrote in the city’s cafés and shared encounters with fellow budding scribes F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound. The 1920’s are the famous years when young American expatriate artists experienced the City of Light with passion, friendship and hope. Hemingway writes about his time there with affection and vivid evocations of Paris’s streets, shops, people and monuments, capturing a resonant joie de vivre that’s come to symbolize the city. The New York Times wrote: “No one has ever written about Paris in the nineteen twenties as well as Hemingway.”

No wonder the Parisians are reading A Moveable Feast right now.

Penguin Classics is publishing this month a new translation of another classic featuring life in Paris. The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue, translated by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg, is not a memoir, rather a fictional story that was serialized in 150 episodes in the daily newspaper Journal des Débats in 1842. “It was certainly the runaway best seller of nineteenth-century France, possibly the greatest best seller of all time,” writes Peter Books in an article in The New York Review of Books, which appears in different form as the foreword to the book. The Mysteries of Paris is about rich and poor Parisians engaging in life together and the signature character Rodolphe, described by Penguin Classics as “a magnetic hero of noble heart and shadowy origins”.  The book is said to have inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Misèrables that was published two decades later in 1862.

Peter Brooks goes on to write about The Mysteries of Paris:

“It’s hard to estimate its audience, since each episode was read aloud, in village cafés throughout France, in workshops and offices. Diplomats were late to meetings, countesses were late to balls because they had to catch up on the latest episode. It was a truly national experience, magnetizing in the way celebrity trials have been in our time, maintained addictively from one installment to the next in a manner we now know through the television serial.”

Well, dang! That certainly incites a reader to want to hurriedly buy the book and settle in for the desired biblio-oblivion of an imagined world. But hang on – The Mysteries of Paris is more than 1,000 pages, an investment of time that in the 21st century isn’t so readily accessible. I imagine, though, if one approached the book as did its 19th century audience, in daily installments, it might yield its original grip, anticipation and excitement.

Peter Brooks writes in the NYRB article:

“[Author Eugène] Sue creates a fabulous cast of characters, from the villainous to the virtuous, and he manages their entries and exits expertly, interweaving five or six different plotlines in order to maintain suspense and keep the reading experience one of high tension. His characters act out their psychic lives in the heightened words and gestures of melodrama.”

I’m not attempting to draw comparisons between Hemingway’s memoir and Sue’s melodrama. Their juxtaposition here is only for their current, respective states of new popularity and new translation. I suppose there is not one answer for why Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast became the choice of comfort for Parisians after the November 13 terrorist attacks; however, one could surmise that it, above all other books about Paris, evokes the true heart of the city that will endure, no matter what happens. And for us, on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps The Mysteries of Paris in its new translation will be the classic to read in honor of the City of Light.

 

On June 17, the winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award will be announced. This is one of my favorite annual awards to watch, as it progresses through a phenomenally long long-list of nominated novels (142 this year) into a short-list of 10 that yields the winner. The IMPAC always provides a great reading list of novels, from which I’ve discovered brilliant authors from different countries, but it is more a personal favorite because of its premise: Nominations are made by librarians from around the world, those wonderful people who watch, know, present, recommend and curate books for the public to read. They see hundreds of books move through their lending institutions and can showcase those that may not be getting the attention they deserve.

Past International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winners have been Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas (2009), The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (2010) and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2011) – novels I’ve read and can recommend.

One requirement: In order to be considered for the IMPAC award, the novel must have be written in English or translated into English.

The 2015 shortlist below includes several titles that have been mentioned here on TLC. You’ll also find Richard Flanagan’s popular 2014 Man Booker Prize-winner among the candidates.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentBurial Rites by Hannah Kent (Australian)
Nominated by four libraries from Australia and the United States

I recommended Burial Rites to several book groups. It’s a compelling story inspired by the real life fate of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young woman who was the last person to be executed (publicly beheaded) in Iceland in the early nineteenth century. She was condemned for murder. Prior to the execution, she was held in protective custody by the farm family of a government official. In the story, Agnes’ presence on the farm creates strife and challenge for the parents and their daughters, who wrestle with the convict’s sympathetic humanity. Among the librarian comments: “This meticulously researched novel provides a vivid voice for Agnes and those who shared her last days. Kent uses her powerfully drawn characters and compelling narrative to bring the time and events to life.”

Horses of GodHorses of God by Mahi Binebine (Moroccan)
Nominated by Chicago Public Library, United States
Translated from the French

This novel appeared on TLC in a list of books by French authors that I’d culled from the 2015 IMPAC longlist. It’s one of those novels that not only tells an engaging story but leaves the reader stunned by the awareness of how poverty and the promises of Islam can together create a young suicide bomber. It’s a phenomenal novel, brief (under 200 pages) and told in spare prose. BineBine focuses on four childhood friends growing up in the impoverished shantytowns of Sidi Moumen, a suburb of Casablanca. The story has roots in fact: On May 16, 2003, fourteen suicide bombers launched a series of attacks throughout Casablanca. It was the deadliest attack in Morocco’s history. The comment from the Chicago library includes: “This novel by Moroccan author Binebine concerns young boys who become suicide bombers, and it upends much of what is often assumed about such lives.”

Someone by Alice McDermottSomeone by Alice McDermott (American)
Nominated by the Veria Central Public Library, Greece

I’m a big fan of Alice McDermott since a long time ago when I read her second novel, That Night. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. McDermott has written several more novels — I also loved Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award (1998). McDermott is an uncontested master when it comes to portraying everyday life among Irish Americans, as she does with Marie Commeford in Someone. Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews gave starred reviews to the novel, and it’s been praised to the heights by many readers.  The librarian comment includes: “A novel that shows how indefinite and ordinary but also beautiful a life can be when you have someone to share it with.”

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Australian)
Nominated by four Australian libraries

Flanagan’s fictional take on the WWII Japanese POW experience and the “death railways” built in Burma is rooted in his father’s connection to the historical event. The protagonist is surgeon Dorrigo Evans, who struggles to treat and save suffering POWs working with him on the railroad. He is haunted by a love affair he had with his uncle’s wife two years earlier. Rave reviews abound; however, Kirkus Reviews came after Flanagan for flowery descriptions about the love affair, saying they border on the likes of a “swoon-worthy bodice ripper.” Among the librarians’ comments: “Flanagan’s novel explores love and death, the horror of war, and the nature of heroism.”

K by Bernardo KucinskiK by Bernardo Kucinski (Brazilian)
Nominated by two libraries from Brazil
Translated from the Portugese

K will be available in the United States on July 31. It’s the story of a father searching for his daughter who “disappeared” during the military dictatorship in Brazil. Forecasts for the novel prior to its American publication aren’t out there, from my search results, but from what the nominating librarian says, K promises to be an unforgettable page-turner. It’s based on a real story from the author’s life — Kucinski’s younger sister disappeared in 1973. From the book’s publisher, Latin America Bureau: “As the author says, ‘Everything in this book is invented but almost everything happened’.” From the librarians’ comments: “…a remarkable book written in sparse language hovering between memoir and novel, a compelling tale almost impossible to put down.”

Harvest, a novelHarvest by Jim Crace (British)
Nominated by a library from Switzerland and one from the United States

I’m not a big fan of Jim Crace due to personal taste, not professional critique. There’s something about his storytelling that, as a common reader, doesn’t appeal to me. I often think I should give his work another chance because he’s frequently among award nominees and his work is highly regarded. Harvest, for example, was also nominated for the 2014 Man Booker award. The story takes place in an isolated English farming village where the stable of the manor house burns down. Fingers are pointed at newcomers to the village. Witchcraft and revenge come into thematic play. Among the librarians’ comments:  “…tightly plotted; less than a week passes from the moment smoke is sighted until the book’s fateful outcome, and yet once underway, we have the sense that everything is inevitable.”

Brief Loves That Live ForeverBrief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Makine (French, Russian-born)
Nominated by Bibliothèque de la Part-Dieu, Lyon, France

I’ve made the comment here on TLC that Andreï Makine is an author whose work, given the time, I’d chain-read. After I finished his novel Music of Life, I only wanted to keep reading whatever he wrote. Brief Loves That Live Forever will be available to U.S. readers in August. The Guardian begins their review of the book with this: “Siberian-born Andreï Makine’s latest novel lives in the memory long after the last page is turned. In a series of interlocking episodes the narrator – like Makine, an orphan – guides us through the totalitarian world of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. Makine’s prose is both spare and meditative, and leads us deep into the memories of a world that is now gone.” Among the librarian’s comments: “…sober and powerful style of history and love stories from the Soviet time to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prose of big sensibility, quiet in suggestion.”

TransAtlantic, a novelTransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Irish)
Nominated by six libraries from Canada, Ireland, Britain and the United States

Within this novel are the stories of Frederick Douglass on an international lecture tour in Ireland in 1845; the first nonstop transatlantic flight in 1919 by two WWI aviators headed for Ireland; and Senator George Mitchell’s 1998 peace talks in Northern Ireland. McCann weaves together the disparate stories into what many praised as a compelling narrative, much as he did with Let the Great World Spin, which won the 2011 IMPAC Award. Among the librarians’ comments:TransAtlantic is a delight to read. Through writing that is both lyrically lush and detailed, the reader meets fascinating characters, historically grounded in the 19th and 20th centuries, who are deftly linked through their connections to Ireland and America.”

Sparta by Roxana RobinsonSparta by Roxana Robinson (American)
Nominated by the San Diego Library, United States

With all the hub-bub over Phil Klay’s award-winning story collection about Iraq soldiers, Redeployment, I missed this novel about a soldier returning home from the same war after four years of duty. From the publisher’s description of Sparta: “His life becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate: he can’t imagine his future, can’t recover his past, and can’t bring himself to occupy his present. As weeks turn into months, Conrad feels himself trapped in a life that’s constrictive and incomprehensible, and he fears that his growing rage will have irreparable consequences.” Lots of praise from the media, except Kirkus Reviews described it as “well-intentioned but flawed.” The librarian’s comment: “A searing portrayal of the experience of a classics scholar and Iraq war veteran who returns home from the war to find he no longer belongs in either world.”

Americanah by C.Ngozi AdichieAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian)
Nominated by 11 libraries from Canada, Germany, Sweden, Ireland and the United States

Winner of the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Americanah tells the story of teenagers Ifemelu and Obinze who fall in love in Nigeria when it’s under military dictatorship. Everyone is leaving, including Ifemelu to study in the United States. Obinze is unable to join her and finds his way, illegally, to London. Years later they reconnect. Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Soap-operatic in spots, but a fine adult love story with locations both exotic and familiar.” Among the librarians’ comments: “A love story, an immigration story, and a portrait of race in America. Authentic and captivating.”

These are the days that forecast and ramp up to summer blockbusters and beach reads. I don’t see a standout yet, as we had last year with All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s recent 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction; however, it’s early in the game.

Below are three novels and two books of non-fiction that caught my eye and interest. Maybe they’ll catch yours.

"The Cost of Courage" by Charles KaiserThe Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser (June)
Charles Kaiser is a former reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. This is his third book of non-fiction and likely to be a big hit during this time of popular interest for World War II stories, both fiction and non-fiction. The Cost of Courage recounts the true story of the Boulloche family’s participation in the French resistance. According to the publisher, it is the first time the family has cooperated with an author to share their ordeal.  A quick summary: Andre Boulloche, coordinating all the Resistance movements in the nine northern regions of France, was betrayed by an associate, arrested by the Gestapo and sent to (and survived) Nazi concentration camps. His sisters took over the fight of resistance until the end of the war. Publisher’s Weekly writes: “Kaiser’s use of Andre’s first-person narration can be distracting, but otherwise this is a riveting paean to unsung war heroes in occupied France.” Kirkus Reviews gives it a star and writes: “At once heroic and heartbreaking, this story leaves an indelible mark.” Kaiser’s website states: “The book is a nonfiction thriller, a love story, and a mini-history of World War II in Europe.”

"The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley" by Jeremy MasseyThe Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley by Jeremy Massey (May)
Black comedy and intrigue in this debut novel tell the story of 42-year-old Paddy Buckley who’s working for Gallagher’s, a funeral home in Dublin, Ireland. He’s involved in a hit-and-run that kills Donal Cullen, the brother of a notorious Irish mobster. From the publisher’s website: “The next morning, the Cullen family calls Gallagher’s to oversee the funeral arrangements. Paddy, to his dismay, is given the task of meeting with the grieving Vincent Cullen, Dublin’s crime boss, and Cullen’s entourage. When events go awry, Paddy is plunged into an unexpected eddy of intrigue, deceit, and treachery.” Kirkus Reviews writes: “Highly readable and entertaining, though far-fetched in key moments, the novel benefits especially from Massey’s mostly restrained, deadpan Irish sense of humor.” Massey is a third-generation undertaker who worked with his father for many years at the family firm in Dublin. The publisher describes the book as “by turns a thriller, a love story, and a black comedy of ill manners.”

"Our Souls at Night" by Kent HarufOur Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (May)
Kent Haruf, widely known for his best-seller Plain Song and for setting his novels in the fictional Holt, Colorado, died this past December at the age of 71, but not before completing Our Souls at Night. It tells the story of Addie Moore and Louis Waters who discover comfort with one another in their old age. They don’t know each other very well, but Addie asks Louis to sleep with her. It’s not a sexual proposition, rather a desire to get through the night with companionship. Needless to say, the small town’s gossip mill goes into high gear. This is a short narrative – under 200 pages. Publisher’s Weekly gives it a star and describes Our Souls at Night as a “gripping and tender novel.”

 

"The Little Paris Bookshop" by Nina GeorgeThe Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (June)
The Little Paris Bookshop is a German best-seller newly translated into English. According to the author’s website, it has ranked among the top 10 novels on the best-seller list of Germany’s Spiegel magazine since May 2013 and has sold more than 500,000 copies. The novel tells the story of a bookseller, Jean Perdu, who sells books from a floating barge on the Seine. From the publisher’s website: Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.” Kirkus Reviews describes The Little Paris Bookshop as a charming novel.

"Meanwhile There Are Letters" edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom NolanMeanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan (June)
I love reading books that are collections of letters. The intimacy in the written voice, long lost these days with electronic mail and tweets, bring us into the interior worlds of those who are writing privately to each other. It’s like reading someone’s diary. This new collection documents a 13-year epistolary friendship between crime novelist Ross Macdonald, famous for his fictional Detective Lew Archer, and southern novelist and short story writer Eudora Welty, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Optimist’s Daughter. I wonder: What brought them together? And what did they find in each other that kept them writing for 13 years? Kirkus Reviews gives the book a star, writing: “An intimate, luminous portrait of a friendship.”

 

 

Music of a Life by Andrei MakineI discovered the French-Russian author Andreï Makine among the French novels long-listed for the 2015 Dublin IMPAC Award. His nominated/newest book is Brief Loves That Live Forever, a collection of eight stories; however, after researching Makine’s bibliography, I decided to read an earlier work, Music of a Life. The novel’s story of Alexeï Berg, a promising classical pianist in Moscow during Stalin’s Reign of Terror, became a powerful, brief seduction during an afternoon I spent on a beach in south Florida. It is told as a look-back from two decades later, when the narrator happens upon Berg playing a piano in a train station. Berg shares with him his extraordinary story.

In a mere 109 pages, Makine’s lyric writing creates an ominous atmosphere of Soviet life and an astonishing story of a lost dream and human resilience. Alexeï Berg is forced to mature and survive amid great loss of family and career, yet he carries within his soul, secretly and unexpressed, an ongoing love for music. The dramatic change in his young life happens two days before his first concert performance after he leaves the final rehearsal. On his way home, he is passed by a man — not making eye contact, not stopping — who says, “Don’t go home.” Berg enters the building across the street from the apartment where he lives with his parents and, through the windows, sees a uniformed officer inside. He flees, stealing the family car and disappears into the escalation of World War II, assuming a dead Russian soldier’s identity.

The Independent in Britain wrote of Andreï Makine: “He is not interested in money and is among the rare breed of authors who refuse to take advance payments for their books. He is writing because he believes ‘that a book, in the words of his boy narrator, can remake the world with its beauty.'”

Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei MakineThe above quote is from an interview that references the boy narrator in Le Testament Français, Makine’s fourth novel, published in the United States as Dreams of My Russian Summers. The story, considered to be autobiographical fiction, about a boy’s teen-aged years in the 1960’s and 1970’s, also seduces with deeply felt writing that’s richly evocative of Soviet life; however, the boy’s metaphysical pondering won’t capture every reader. He spends summers with his French-born grandmother, Charlotte Lemonnier, in a town at the edge of the Siberian steppe. He escapes dreamily into her stories about Paris in the early 20th century — stories about Proust, Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra’s visit, the 1910 flood and the death of French President Félix Faure. The events are preserved in articles and memorabilia stuffed into a suitcase. The contents, elaborated on by Charlotte, sweep the boy into an imagined world he can’t shake. He experiences a kind of beauty one feels and senses with incomprehensible, overwhelming depths that cannot be communicated. “The unsayable was essential,” he tells us, and it envelopes and isolates him.

The boy narrator is for the most part nameless throughout the novel, other than a one-time mention of his nickname, Frantsuz (the Russian word for a Frenchman), and at the end of the novel, Alyosha, an affectionate diminutive of the name Alexey. The boy eventually grows up and away from Charlotte, less enchanted by her repeated stories “from an Atlantis, engulfed by time” and more interested in his adolescent yearnings for women and adventures with classmates in Moscow. The stories of Paris, however, have changed him. So, too, has Charlotte, who in her own young life left Paris to be with her mother in Russia and suffered famine, brutal winters, Stalin’s purges and the chaos of war.  She has introduced into her grandson’s life the duality of the Western world in all its allure and the Soviet world of cruel injustices, scarcities and violence. His wrestling with that dual love — one for that “essential beauty” and the other for his homeland — is a profound journey of wonder, hope and the eternal connection of things past and present.

Dreams of My Russian Summers received France’s top literary prizes, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Goncourt. It was the first time this double win had ever happened, but it didn’t come easily. Makine, born, raised and educated in the Soviet Union, found his way to Paris in 1987 where he lived the tough life of an impoverished writer who couldn’t get his work published. He wrote his books in French, but French publishers couldn’t believe such elegant writing in their language could come from the pen of a Russian. Eventually, a few books were published, but it wasn’t until 1995 that Andreï Makine became recognized with his award-winning Dreams of My Russian Summers.

Both Music of a Life and Dreams of My Russian Summers are translated from the French into English by Geoffrey Strachan.

Andreï Makine told The Independent: “…you have to understand that there are 26 different tenses in French, and the French can eat, walk and make love in these different dimensions of time. Whereas in Russian we only have the basic three — past, present and future, and this changes the way that we look at life.”

 

Dora BruderThe Nobel Foundation gave French author Patrick Modiano the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature 2014 this past October.  He’s written 17 novels during his career, but few are available in English translation. Yale University Press and University of California Press in November released Suspended Sentences and Dora Bruder, respectively. David R. Godine published Modiano before he won the prize with Missing Person and Honeymoon, as well as the children’s book Catherine Certitude.

I’ve picked up a copy of Dora Bruder, which I’m looking forward to reading. Meanwhile, my curiosity about books originally published in French led me to the recently announced longlist for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. And when I say longlist, I mean indeed a long list — there are 142 nominees. The titles are nominated for the award by libraries worldwide. The award goes to a single work of fiction that must be published in English. According to the organization’s press release, this year’s candidates were nominated by libraries in 114 cities and 39 countries.

Eight of the nominees are books translated from the French into English. I’ve listed the eight novels here, with beginning sentences from their overview descriptions. The Read More will take you to the full overview on the website of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. All eight appear to be available with online booksellers. Éric Reinhardt’s novel, at this point in time, is only available as an ebook and Andreï Makine’s novel I found on Amazon but not Barnes & Noble.

Horses of GodHorses of God by Mahi Binebine;
translated by Lulu  Norman
Published in English by Tinhouse.
Published in French as Les étoiles de Sidi Moumen.

“On May 16, 2003, fourteen suicide bombers launched a series of attacks throughout Casablanca. It was the deadliest attack in Morocco’s history. The bombers came from the shantytowns of Sidi Moumen, a poor suburb on the edge of a dump whose impoverished residents rarely if ever set foot in the cosmopolitan city at their doorstep. Mahi Binebine’s novel Horses of God follows four childhood friends growing up in Sidi Moumen as they make the life-changing decisions that will lead them to become Islamist martyrs.” Read more.

Return to KillybegsReturn to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon;
translated by Ursula Meany Scott
Published in English by Lilliput Press.
Published in French as Retour à Killybegs.

“Tyrone Meehan, damned as an informer, ekes out his days in Donegal, awaiting his killers. ‘Now that everything is out in the open, they will all speak in my place – the IRA, the British, my family, my close friends, journalists I’ve never even met. Some of them will go so far as to explain how and why I ended up a traitor…’” Read more.

For SureFor Sure by France Daigle;
translated from by Robert Majzels
Published in English by House of Anansi.
Published in French as Pour sur.

“For Sure is among other things a labyrinth, a maze, an exploration of the folly of numbers, a repository, a defense and an illustration of the Chiac language. Written in dazzling prose — which is occasionally interrupted by surprising bits of information, biography, and definitions that appear on the page — Daigle perfectly captures the essence of a place and offers us a reflection on minority cultures and their obsession with language.” Read more.

Nothing Holds Back the NightNothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan; translated by George Miller
Published in English by Bloomsbury.
Published in French as Rien ne s’oppose a la nuit.

“Only a teenager when Delphine was born, Lucile raised two daughters largely alone. She was a former child model from a Bohemian family, younger and more glamorous than the other mothers: always in lipstick, wayward and wonderful. But as Delphine grew up, Lucile’s occasional sadness gave way to overwhelming despair and delusion.” Read more.

Saving MozartSaving Mozart by Raphael Jerusalmy;
translated by Howard Curtis
Published in English by Europa Editions.
Published in French as Sauver Mozart.

“Raphaël Jerusalmy’s debut novel takes the form of the journal of Otto J. Steiner, a former music critic of Jewish descent suffering from tuberculosis in a Salzburg sanatorium in 1939. Drained by his illness and isolated in the gloomy sanatorium, Steiner finds solace only in music. He is horrified to learn that the Nazis’ are transforming a Mozart festival into a fascist event.” Read more.

Brief Loves That Live ForeverBrief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Makine;
translated by Geoffrey Strachan
Published in English by Maclehose Press.
Published in French as Le livre des brèves amours éternelles.

“In Soviet Russia the desire for freedom is also a desire for the freedom to love. Lovers live as outlaws, traitors to the collective spirit, and love is more intense when it feels like an act of resistance. Now entering middle age, an orphan recalls the fleeting moments that have never left him…” Read more.

Update 4.5.15: The author’s last name was incorrectly spelled as Maldine. The correct spelling is Makine.

Life FormLife Form by Amélie Nothomb;
translated by Alison Anderson
Published by Europa Editions.
Published in French language as Une forme de vie.

“Here is a new work of fiction by the always surprising Nothomb that subverts any attempts at categorization; a smart, singular, surreal novel about personality and philosophy, trauma and healing, solitude and human connection from one of Europe’s most talked about and beloved authors. One morning, the heroine of this book, a well-known author named Amélie Nothomb, receives a letter from one of her readers – an American soldier stationed in Iraq by the name of Melvin Mapple.” Read more.

The Victoria SystemThe Victoria System by Éric Reinhardt;
translated by Sam Taylor
Published as an ebook by Penguin Books.
Published in the French language as Le système Victoria.

“David Kolski never sleeps with the same woman twice – apart from his wife. Then he meets Victoria. Head of people at a multinational company, by day she is a ruthless executive in a lightning-paced, high-pressured whirlwind of power and productivity. By night she likes good wine, luxurious hotel rooms, and abandoning herself to her sexual fantasies.” Read more.

The IMPAC shortlist from the 142 longlist will be announced April 15, 2015. The winner will be announced June 17, 2015. Of note: the longlist includes 37 American novels.

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