Category Archives: world literature

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi: Thoughts

1st October 2012

*I picked up this book at BEA from the great people at Tin House Books.

Beside the Sea, a novella by Véronique Olmi, translated into English by Adriana Hunter, is what Lionel Shriver (author of We Need To Talk About Kevin) describes as “[a] sustained exercise in dread for the reader” because from the opening lines of the novella, it is apparent that all is not well with our unnamed narrator who is taking her two sons on a trip, staying in a rundown hotel, parceling out her coins for hot chocolate and a trip to the carnival, knowing all along it will be the last trip they make together.

We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. The boys had their tea before we left, I noticed they didn’t finish the jar of jam and I thought of that jam left there for nothing, it was a shame, but I’d taught them not to waste stuff and to think of the next day.

This mother wants no witnesses to their departure, and though jam is left out, it won’t be used again, so she doesn’t mind the waste too terribly. Though the title implies a vacation of some sort, the way the author describes leaving, it doesn’t sound as though this will be a pleasant holiday on the seashore.

In that oddly-disturbing stream of consciousness manner evident in the brief quote above, the narrator and mother of two boys, describes the two-day trip, and as she does, her further descent and overwhelming despair are suffocating. Riding the bus, she describes watching the cars below:

So cars – which are normally so frightening – were pathetic little contraptions now…it made them see less dangerous, yep, we felt better protected in that bus, even if we were dying of cold.

And here:

Now that we knew where we were we could pretend we didn’t give a damn about anything, didn’t feel any danger, like the other passengers.

This is a fragile individual, one for whom the everyday is nearly impossible, but there are moments of lucidity:

…shoes are the ruination of many a mother. I love saying that: many a mother! then heaving a sigh, overwhelmed, like the ones who wait at twenty-five after four, that’s when you feel like you’ve got so much in common and might understand each other.

But no one does understand this mother, and she’s obviously been tested before as she mentions the social worker with whom she’s met multiple times for various reasons, though none is ever explained. We do know, though, that she’s incapable of remembering almost anything, so rarely remembering to pick up her young son from school that the 9-year-old Stan takes over the responsibility.

At times, she’s painfully aware that she’s different:

You’re never what they want you to be. You irritate them, disgust them….Sometimes, no one knows why, someone exactly matches what everyone expected. And everybody loves them, they cheer them and put them on TV. It’s very rare.

When they finally reach their destination, wet from the rain, dirty, and exhausted, she talks about her weariness:

I’m the only one who’s so exhausted, didn’t I used to long to be knocked down by a car and break my leg so I’d finally have a good enough reason to be left in peace? When am I going to be left in peace?

Yet her children don’t seem to disturb that peace, though her son Stan is ever watchful, watching over Kevin, the youngest, and his mother, obviously aware of any changes in her mood and sensitive to them. Reading her descriptions of him made me achingly sad, so aware that his little life was full of anxiety, wondering if his mother would need to cry or need to sleep or need silence.

They go to the seaside because the boys have always wanted to see it, and because the outing isn’t successful, ruined by a shopkeeper who scorns the few coins she has to feed the boys on their trip, she decides to make it up to them, taking them to a carnival, wanting to see them happy. But the happiness doesn’t last, and they return to the hotel:

I was frightened. We went into that place like going into a church….Churches are very old but they never die. An empty church is something you can’t explain, I like it. The hotel was the same. Something had to happen there.

And happen it does, in a most effective way. The translation award-winning Adriana Hunter is beautiful, all the more because of the challenge of the stream of consciousness narration. At 119 pages, this novella is brief but incredibly powerful, exploring all those unanswerable questions that arise when a mother kills her children.

Buy your copy from Barnes and Noble or Indiebound. Check out what others thought on Goodreads.

Review: The Dark Monk by Oliver Potzsch

15th August 2012

*I received this novel from the fantastic Farin at Mariner in exchange for an honest review.

First line: When the parish priest Andreas Koppmeyer pressed the last stone into place and sealed the opening with lime and mortar, he had just four hours to live.

It’s 1660, and Father Koppmeyer is poisoned after he discovers the possibility of treasure hidden by the Knights Templar in the Bavarian Alps. A mysterious monk who smells of violet watches beneath his hood as the discovery of the body is made, not knowing Koppmeyer left a clue as to the motive for his death.  Leaving only scratchings where he lay, Koppmeyer sets in action an adventure as hangman Jakob Kuisl, his daughter Magdalena, and the town physician Simon attempt to track down Koppmeyer’s killer and the legendary treasure, only to be slowed by the mysterious monk and his compatriots as well as a band of roving, vicious thieves.

The Hangman’s Daughter was an enchanting book, and I was thrilled to receive a copy of The Dark Monk by Oliver Pötzsch. I enjoyed this novel as well, but there were a couple oddities. I’m not sure if the translation, by Lee Chadeayne, is the issue or whether it’s the main text, but there were several words and phrases that pulled me out of the novel rapidly, so rapidly that I stopped and made notes, something I rarely, if ever, do. Flunkies, out of line, and hitting on were all used and seemed so out of place in 17th-century dialogue. Again, this could be the translation, but I don’t have the benefit of the original text (or the knowledge of the language) to determine which it is.

However, this didn’t lessen my overall enjoyment of the book, particularly as it’s the characters I enjoy. Simon and Magdalena are still uncertain of their feelings, knowing their relationship’s success is doomed from the start, as she is an outcast in society as the hangman’s daughter. I did expect a bit more of Kuisl and possibly his standing within the community, but it was evident that his feats have not raised his bearing within the town.

From the first of the book, the culprit is evident, so The Dark Monk is more a high adventure novel than a mystery. Here, unlike some of the more modern stories of Knights Templar lore, the legend is relatively fresh, and there are ancient churches still housing plunder within stone walls and crypts. Using riddles and historical references, Kuisl, Magdalena, Simon, and Koppmeyer’s fiery sister track leads, all while battling an unknown force that is out to stop them.

If you enjoy literary thrillers or anything having to do with church lore, The Dark Monk is your best bet. Add it to your shelf or check out other opinions on Goodreads.

Reading the old year out…

31st December 2011

And I must say, I’m not at all sad to see the back end of 2011. It was a very tumultuous year, and I am very happy to be ringing in a new year this evening with a mini-readathon cooked up by two other bloggers (Becky and Tasha) and myself. There will be champagne, so in the infinite wisdom and singing voice of Bing Crosby, let’s start the new year right.

But. Before we get to that, I wanted to do a year end post. As of midnight on December 30, I have read 121 books. Of these, 46 were written by men and 75 written by women (wow!); 109 fiction and 12 nonfiction. This year I read 9 audiobooks, and considering I read none last year, that’s quite a jump. Also, just so you can see my habits, 42 of these books came from the publisher/author/publicist, but I bought 52 and checked out 26 from the library, a pretty decent statistic. Now down to brass tacks….

Least favorite books of the year: Let’s just get this one out of the way. I only really disliked two books this year, and if you’ve been around for a bit, you can probably guess the first one: The Magicians by Lev Grossman. The other I just finished this morning: Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me by Ian Morgan Cron. I’ll put up a review next week with details. Suffice it to say, memoirs are tricky.

Best New-to-Me Series: Well, obviously I love the Patricia Wentworth Miss Silver books, but seeing as they were written in the last century, I won’t call them new. If you’re looking for a vintage mystery, give these a go. Also consider joining me for Miss Silver Saturdays through 2012.

Best New Series: I just finished Discovery of Witches and am pretty much in love with it. I can’t wait for the next one. Many compare it to Twilight, but for me, it was much more reminiscent of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. I loved it!

Funniest Book: Hands down, Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman. In fact, this is a book that I plan to re-read soon, I liked it that much. Definitely keep an eye out for debut author Matt Norman.

Best Dark Comedy: Funny Man by John Warner. I’m really surprised this book hasn’t gotten more attention, as I think it’s pretty genius in a lot of ways. I’m really eager to see what else Warner writes.

Book that Made Me Think Rainbow Rowell stole my life and wrote about it: Attachments. Runner up for funniest book of the year, it was just so perfectly me. Sadly, many other bloggers have said the same thing, so obviously I ain’t anything special. Distinctive? Pshaw.

Book That Seriously Creeped Me Out and Blew My Mind: The Magus by John Fowles. Review next week, and boy howdy, what a book. Thanks so much to Sean at Read Heavily for the gift.

Best Middle Grade Book: Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier. Absolute fun and super smart. Reminds me of books written when I was young.

Book that Made Me Cry: Thankfully there were only two of these this year (one sparked this post about crying in reading). The other is A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead. This is nonfiction and about the women of the French Resistance. It’s incredibly moving to see just how much the human spirit can endure.

Most Beautiful Book: The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock. This is physically just a beautiful, beautiful specimen of a book. The cover art, the inside art, the paper. It’s technically the biography of a woman artist, but it’s so much more than that.

Biggest Surprise: Ian Fleming’s Bond series. Yes, he can be a misogynistic, slightly-racist ass, but damn, these books are good. If you think you know Bond from the films, think again and join Lit Housewife’s Shaken Not Stirred challenge. You won’t be disappointed.

~and last but not least~

Best Book of 2011: Galore by Michael Crummey. I read this book in April, but it will not leave me. The story is timeless, the writing superb. If you haven’t read it, make sure you add it to your list for the new year. I compare it to East of Eden by Steinbeck and House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. One of my favorite passages from the book is below:

~Watching Judah emerge from the whale’s guts, King-me felt the widow was birthing everything he despised in the country, laying it out before him like a taunt. Irish nor English, Jerseyman nor bushborn nor savage, not Roman or Episcopalian or apostate, Judah was the wilderness on two legs, mute and unknowable, a blankness that could drown a man.

So that’s my list. I wish you all the best in 2012 and hope to see you back here. Thank you all for reading, commenting, emailing, etc. I so enjoy your company.

And on that note, what was your favorite book this year?

Reunion by Pascal Girard

6th September 2011

*I bought this book from the Strand bookstore in New York when I was there for BEA. They have a great graphic novel/comics section. (Pubbed by Drawn & Quarterly, indie comic pub)

My love affair with comics and graphic novels began late in life when I realized superheros and such were much more psychological in nature than I ever thought. I sped through some standards and then left off for a time. Since then, though, I have tried to pick one up when I can and am always looking for more suggestions…hint hint. I picked this particular book up because, I mean, come on, it’s about a high school reunion and the author’s experiences there. This is pure gold.

So Pascal’s gal ain’t going anywhere near his reunion. I can’t say I blame her. How fun can it be to go to a significant other/spouse’s reunion? If you dread it, you can be sure your partner will. Then Pascal’s high school crush emails him to see if they should meet up, and he tries to be all suave and dood-ish. (You know, “dude” except not as cool.) He starts jogging, starving himself, and shopping so he can impress said former crush and the “losers” at his reunion. Because Pascal is an artist now, so surely he’s not one of the losers? Yet minute by minute he makes himself a bit more of an ass until the reunion is a total disaster. (I promise I’m not giving anything away.)

Reunion is seriously like watching the person in the next car over pick his nose. You can’t stop looking, but it’s so. darn. awful. Pascal sticks his foot in his mouth all over the place, and the more he tries to act cool, the more everyone sort of hates him. Pascal, on one hand, wants everyone to change, yet he hasn’t changed all that much and is still the chubby, insecure guy he used to be. When Lucie, his crush, doesn’t show, Pascal is beyond ready to get the heck out of dodge and return to his post-high school life.

This was a great diversion, and honestly, I think I need more GNs as a palate cleanser between heavier books. While yes, many GNs are very serious, the visual nature of them is a relief in a lot of ways. A friend suggests I should try out Grenuord Number 1 by Francesca Ghermandi. Any other suggestions?

Other graphic novel/memoir reviews:

Stitches by David Small

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

An Accident in August by Laurence Cosse’

12th July 2011

*I received this galley from the publisher. An Accident in August is available 08/30/11, but you can preorder here.

When Julia with Europa Editions contacted me about reading and reviewing An Accident in August by Laurence Cossé, I was excited because it would be my first review copy from Europa Editions. I was also slightly unsure because the premise was based on the accident wherein Princess Di lost her life. Though I typically love fiction based on fact, there are some topics based on real events of which I am not wild – 09/11 and Princess Di’s death are two. However, I had heard quite a bit about Cossé and thought I’d give it a try. I am so glad I did.

An Accident in August is not about Princess Di. Instead, Cossé focuses her story on the theory that a slow-moving vehicle at the mouth of the Pont de l’Alma tunnel was the proximate cause of Princess Di’s fatal accident.

The story opens with Lou, sitting in her car parked in her garage, shakily replaying an accident she had on her way home from her job in Paris. She was driving cautiously through the Pont de l’Alma tunnel when a vehicle came up quite suddenly behind her, striking her and then ricocheting into the tunnel wall. Lou speeds home, shaken up and not thinking rationally. After all, the accident wasn’t her fault.

The next morning, Lou listens to the radio and understands the occupants of the car were none other than Princess Di, her companion Dodi, their bodyguard, and chauffer. From that moment on, Lou is panicked, knowing she should go to the authorities, yet desperate to avoid the scrutiny she knows will come, and her actions, though seemingly well-thought-out and rational, bring her ever closer to the brink of ruin.

This is the sort of book that only a brief synopsis will prevent giving away vital pieces of the plot Рand there were a lot of scenes that caught me by surprise with their intensity. Coss̩ (along with the translator Alison Anderson) has created a taut, quietly-suspenseful story about the nameless, faceless characters in a tragedy Рthose to whom we never pay much attention but whose lives are irrevocably altered. An Accident in August is riveting, tense, and thoroughly unexpected.

jenn aka the picky girl

P.S. Prepare to do some Googling, if like me you like to find the truth behind a story.

**Cross posted at the Europa Challenge Blog**