Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘The Perfect Nanny’ by Leila Slimani – Not a Lullaby

 

‘The Perfect Nanny’ by Leila Slimani   (2016) – 228 pages                                                    Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

I would not read a bestselling thriller just because it is popular.  I have never read ‘Gone Girl’.  The only reason I have now read ‘The Perfect Nanny’ by Leila Slimani (titled ‘Lullaby’ in England and other English-speaking countries) is because it won the 2016 Goncourt Prize which to me is usually a mark of French literary distinction.  I have read several Goncourt Prize winners in recent years.

The young French couple Paul and Myriam are looking for a nanny for their two little children, Mila and Adam, so that Myriam can go back to her job as a lawyer. Their main requirement for a nanny is she not be an illegal immigrant.  The French woman Louise shows up, they hire her, and she turns out to be the perfect nanny in every respect.  The kids like her, and she has them doing all kinds of interesting things.  The parents even decide to take her along on their vacations.

And of course the situation is way too good to be true. ‘The Perfect Nanny’ is a nightmarish psychological thriller.

Looking at ‘The Perfect Nanny’ from a literary angle, I must say that I was not impressed with the novel. The prose here is efficient and workmanlike as we’ve come to expect for thrillers, and it is not at all individual or idiosyncratic as one might expect for a Goncourt Prize winner.  For a Goncourt Prize winner, ‘The Perfect Nanny’ is rather a drag at the sentence level.  There is not much going on in the individual sentences.

I also did not find the transformation of the nanny Louise from “prim politeness” to something entirely different at all convincing.  It seems to me that in a psychological thriller there should be hints from the very beginning that something is not right.  However in ‘The Perfect Nanny’ we read the entire first half of the novel, and Louise is still perfect in every way.

I probably will not be reading any further novels by Leila Slimani.  There is one French woman novelist who has not won the Goncourt Prize so far, yet I find her work of such a high quality that I can’t figure out why she hasn’t been awarded the prize yet.  I have read three novels by Delphine de Vigan: ‘Underground Time’, ‘Nothing Holds Back the Night’ and ‘Based on a True Story’. Any of these three but especially ‘Underground Time’ would have been a fine winner.  They have the literary fineness appropriate for the Goncourt.  Delphine de Vigan is the real thing.

 

Grade :   B-

 

Advertisements

‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt – A Maelstrom of Outcasts in Buenos Aires

 

‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt   (1929) – 242 pages                                                Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

 

What words can I use to describe ‘The Seven Madmen’? It is intense, painfully honest, vivid, brutal, grotesque, and insightful as hell. At the same time the novel reflects the energy and chaos and explosive madness in Buenos Aires during the early 20th century.

Among Argentine writers, Roberto Arlt is a legend   His own definition of literature was “a good sock in the jaw”.

Roberto Arlt, born in 1900, was the son of two of the many Prussian immigrants to Buenos Aires. His parents were attracted to Argentina by the promise of land to farm not realizing that all the land was already in the hands of a few owners.  They wound up in the slums of Buenos Aires. Roberto began his career as a journalist writing Buenos Aires Sketches and he wrote the novel ‘The Seven Madmen’ in 1929.

‘The Seven Madmen’ is the story of Reno Erdosain, a small-time swindler and frequent brothel customer. Better than me describing Erdosain, let me give you some quotes about him from the novel.

“He understood that destiny had flung him into that maelstrom of outcasts who stamp life with the foul imprint of every imaginable vice and suffering.”  

“Yes, it’s sad to see other people happy, to see that they don’t understand that you are unhappy and always will be.”

“And yet it is only thanks to crime that I can affirm my existence, just as it is only evil that affirms man’s presence on earth. “

“And tell them I was a murderer. And yet, as a murderer have loved every kind of beauty, and have fought within myself against all the horrible temptations that have welled up hour after hour from deep with me. I have suffered for what I am, and for all the others as well, d’you understand? For all the others as well.” 

It is for good reason that Roberto Arlt has been called the Dostoyevsky of Argentina.  He tells the truth no matter how hurtful it is to himself.

‘The Seven Madmen’ is also a prescient political novel.  Even though it was written in 1929, it predicts the rise of Fascism.

“We will have a wide variety of perfect lies, each one labelled for a different disease of the mind or soul.”

“It’s all the borderline people who get puffed up with empty phrases…And the first people I am approaching for an answer are these malcontents.  As a goal I offer them a lie which will bring them happiness by inflating their vanity.”

Roberto Arltt

Arlt goes on to describe a Fascist society in more detail.  He males several allusions to Mussolini and Lenin who were already on the scene.

This story is continued in a second novel called ‘The Flamethrowers’ which I would like to read if only it were available in English.

 

Grade:   A

 

Alice Munro – One of My Favorite Fiction Writers of the 20th Century (and 21st)

 

Alice Munro

Born:  July 10, 1931

A Young Alice Munro

Alice Munro is the virtuoso of the long short story.  I read my first Alice Munro back in the late 1970s, ‘The Beggar Maid – The Stories of Rose and Flo’, and I was hooked.  I then went back and read her two earlier books and have read every one of her story collections since.   Cynthia Ozick has called Munro “our Chekhov” which is high praise indeed.  Munro is the 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Literature.  She is by no means a surprise choice for me.

Munro was born in rural Ontario, Canada, and her father was a mink and fox farmer who later turned to turkey farming.  That seems to me like a pretty good background for a fiction writer to have. Many of her stories are located in that childhood Huron County area. After she was married she moved to West Vancouver, British Columbia which provided her take on urban life but later moved back to Ontario.  Munro was already 37 when she published her first story collection, ‘The Dance of the Happy Shades’ in 1968.

Even though Munro’s main protagonists are more often women, I as a male am moved by their stories and thoroughly empathize with their eloquent points of view.  She continuously explores the mysteries of humans getting together and falling apart through time.  Her technique can be looked upon as fictional reporting on people’s fortunes from the front lines.

Unusual Fact about Alice Munro

.  She and her first husband opened a bookstore called Munro’s Books in Victoria, British Columbia which is still in business.

Fiction by Alice Munro that I strongly recommend:  I would recommend any one of her many story collections.  I would recommend juxtaposing one of her later collections with one of her earlier collections, because her stories have changed over the years.  A few titles to look for; ‘The Lives of Girls and Women’, ‘The Moons of Jupiter’, ‘Open Secrets’, ‘Runaway’.

Quotes about Alice Munro

“Given a choice between being a person who does good works but has inauthentic feelings and is numb at heart and being one who behaves badly but is true to what she really feels and is thus alive to herself, a Munro woman is likely to choose the latter; or, if she chooses the former, she will then comment on her own slipperiness, guile, wiliness, slyness and perversity. Honesty, in Munro’s work, is not the best policy: it is not a policy at all, but an essential element, like air. The characters must get hold of at least some of it, by fair means or foul, or – they feel – they will go under. “– Margaret Atwood

“in 2009, she withdrew her new book from the Giller prize competition, on the grounds that she had won the prize twice already, so she wanted to step aside to make room for a younger writer. This selfless decision—which, in the role of selfish, greedy publisher, I fought against for weeks, until I saw that Alice’s mind was made up—meant that the book lost not only potential prize money, but potential sales and publicity worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.” – Her Publisher, Douglas Gibson

“The recurrent and very personal themes of Munro’s fiction – the stirring of the creative impulse, the bohemian rejection of provincial anonymity and conservatism, the refusal to be bound by narrow definitions of womanhood, and the complexity of female sexuality – are not what make her work so remarkable. For that we need to look to her style. Munro’s way with form, the scattered chronology of her stories, captures the drift of our thoughts, the endless movement in and out of moments. A Munro sentence, beguiling in its lucidity, compelling in its precision, seductive in its simplicity, offers constant enchantment. Munro’s prose, without sentiment, yet suffused with a hard melancholy, has a composed, wry, crystalline grace.” – Garan Holcombe

“The point is that girls and women, even those who lead narrow and constricted lives, those who wield no influence, who have a limited experience in the world, are just as significant and important as boys and men.” – Roxana Robinson

Quotes by Alice Munro

“Why is it a surprise to find that people other than ourselves are able to tell lies?”  – Alice Munro

“People’s lives … were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”  – Alice Munro, ‘The Lives of Girls and Women’

“You cannot let your parents anywhere near your real humiliations.” – Alice Munro, ‘Open Secrets’

“Never underestimate the meanness in people’s souls… Even when they’re being kind… especially when they’re being kind.” ― Alice Munro

‘The Years, Months, Days’ – Two Unusual and Amusing Novellas by Yan Lianke

 

‘The Years, Months, Days’ – Two Novellas by Yan Lianke  (1997, 2001) – 192 pages        Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas

Here are two novellas by Yan Lianke, “China’s most feted and banned author” (Financial Times).  Yan Lianke is also rapidly becoming one of my own favorite authors.  Lianke tells some of the most honest tragic strange stories of all, yet lightens things up with irony and sarcasm and ridicule making his stories a pleasure to read.  His ‘’The Four Books’ is a powerful novel about China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, and with these two novellas he again succeeds.

Both of these novellas use the power of allegory to tell a simple strange story with humor.

In the first novella, ‘The Years, Months, Days’, a major drought has hit this Chinese town, and everyone has left except for one man, the Elder, and his blind dog Blindy. Even the animals had left.  There are no livestock, no sparrows, and even the crows had fled the drought.  The only animals that remain are hundreds of rats, and the Elder and his dog Blindy must do battle against the rats for the few grains of corn that are left as well as for the tiny amount of water still in the city well.

The Elder has one grand objective. He does everything he possibly can to keep his one stalk of corn growing so that he will have some seed corn to give to the villagers when they return.

There is no lack of conversation as the Elder talks to himself as well as to his dog Blindy.

Blindy, the Elder said, What do you think? Are we going to starve to death? 

The blind dog stared into the sky with its eyes that were as dark as the bottom of a well.

The Elder said, “I don’t think this stalk will ever mature.”

It is a simple poignant story of a man and his dog fighting against nature for survival.  What puts this drought disaster story over the top is the humor that Lianke brings to the story.

In the second novella, ‘Marrow’, the mother Fourth Wife You is also on a grand quest to find mates for her four idiot children.   Her husband Stone You kills himself when he finds out that his side of the family’s genetics caused the idiocy of all his kids. However his spirit continues to show up sporadically to give his wife unneeded advice.  She complains,

“Dead one, where are you? When I want you to talk to me, you really are dead; but when I don’t want you to keep talking, you come back to life.” 

So here we have a spooky yet funny dead husband ghost.

The idiocy of the four children takes some bizarre unexpected turns, but the mother is constantly on the lookout for a way out of her dilemma.

Both of these novellas are like folk tales, only stranger and more surprising and more amusing.

 

 

Grade:   A  

 

‘A Charmed Life’ by Mary McCarthy – A Disastrous Return to New Leeds

‘A Charmed Life’ by Mary McCarthy   (1954) – 313 pages

 

The title of this novel which was written by Mary McCarthy in the 1950s, ‘A Charmed Life’, is ironic. Much of the novel is taken up with a very ugly situation.

I had read only one Mary McCarthy novel before, the excellent ‘The Groves of Academe’ which is a very fine and funny wicked parody of the academic community.  I wanted to read more.

In ‘A Charmed Life’, Martha and her second husband John are returning to New Leeds, an “artistic” community in New England. Even in the best of circumstances it is probably a dicey thing to return to live in a place where you once lived before. However they are returning to New Leeds in the worst of circumstances.  It was in New Leeds where Martha’s first marriage had failed, her house had burned down, and she ran off in scandal with John.  Worst of all, her nasty ex-husband Miles Murphy still lives there.

Miles Murphy is an intellectual and an alcoholic who trashes those closest to him, especially his wives, for his own benefit.  Martha had met him when he was forty and she was twenty, and he seduced her on their first date.  She never wanted to marry him, but he insisted.  On her wedding night, he struck her for the first time.  She spent four miserable years with him before finally getting the courage to run away.  This story could have been ripped out of today’s headlines.

Why Martha would return to the scene of this crime, this artistic community of New Leeds, one cannot fathom, but these things do happen.  Now after seven years, Martha and her nice if nondescript new husband John have returned to New Leeds.  Of course they run into Miles and his new young wife, and things get messy once again.

 “He (Miles) was thinking of Martha.  He had always had a weakness for intelligent women, though he knew them to be bad for him, like drink or certain kinds of food.  They disagreed with him, in both senses of the word.”

Miles Murphy is about as mean and nasty a villain as one could find in any novel.  Unfortunately for Martha, she still has some unresolved feelings for him on some intellectual level.  She lets Miles drive her home one evening when John is out of town, and Miles forces himself on her.  By today’s standards, this sex scene is more like a rape than any kind of consensual sex. Later the inevitable happens, and we have this ugly situation.

Mary McCarthy’s writing is lively and intelligent. I ploughed through this novel quickly because I wanted to find out what happens next.

The novel goes somewhat astray for me when they have that fateful get-together during which they read ‘Berenice’ by Racine.  A reading or performance of a play within a novel can be a powerful device for a novel if the play reflects on or intensifies the main theme of the novel.  However in this case the play only leads to random intellectualizing by the group and doesn’t reflect on the main theme of the novel which I take to be Martha’s intense dislike for her ex-husband Miles.  Instead the highbrow discussion after the play brings Miles and Martha closer together again, and Martha agrees to let Miles drive her home.

The basic problem with ‘A Charmed Life’ is that Mary McCarthy is trying to achieve two contradictory goals at once.  Her one goal is to lightly parody the vagaries and pretensions of this artistic community of New Leeds.  Her other goal is to deal with this very ugly personal situation between Martha and her ex-husband Miles.  Ultimately the light parody and the intense drama do not cohere.

On the other hand, I expect I will remember the plot of ‘A Charmed Life’ long after many other novels have come and gone from my mind.

 

 

Grade:   B   

 

‘Special Envoy’ by Jean Echenoz – A Playful if Shallow 1960s Spy Romp

 

‘Special Envoy’ by Jean Echenoz   (2016) – 240 pages                Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

 

 

‘Special Envoy’ is the fourth novel by Jean Echenoz I have read.  I’ve had great praise for him in previous reviews. For his novel ‘Piano’ I wrote, “I do believe that Jean Echenoz is one of the true giants of the literary world today whose works should not be missed.”

However this one you can probably skip.

‘Special Envoy’ is a madcap spy caper that begins in Paris and eventually finds several of the characters in Pyongyang, North Korea with Kim Jong-un. It has plenty of casual sex and many preposterous kidnappings and murders along the way.   Echenoz must surely realize that he has written an anachronism, a 1960s spy novel.  Ian Fleming and James Bond live.  There is no real point to this novel beyond entertainment.

The only requirements for a female in ‘Special Envoy’ are that she be very good looking and compliant and agreeable to sex with any good looking man she happens to meet.  It is the type of tale where a thirty year old woman is called “the girl”.

“On the other hand, after several walks in different parks and museums and other preliminary chores, Tausk will end up screwing the platinum-bunned assistant who, over time, will prove a very good way of killing time.  Charlotte will even reveal herself to be an insatiable if somewhat exhausting partner, to the point that Tausk, by now firm friends with Hyacinth again, will invite him to form a threesome.” 

Echenoz can only be making fun of these laid-back attitudes. I think what Echenoz had in mind when he wrote ‘Special Envoy’ was parodying these old spy novels but instead wound up creating his own dusty old spy novel.  In this day and age, I believe that James Bond is so ridiculous he is beyond parody.   When you try to parody these old 1960s spy novels you must be careful or you will wind up with your own 1960s spy novel.

However there are still sure signs of Echenoz’ talent as a fiction writer even though ‘Special Envoy’ did not really work for me.  The scenes sparkle with their own comic energy, and the outrageous characters and outlandish plot kept my interest throughout.

I prefer the more substantial works of Jean Echenoz.  He is too good a writer to waste on this kind of meaningless stuff.

 

Grade :    B

 

Michel Tournier – One of My Favorite Fiction Writers of the 20th Century

This is the third in a series.

 

 

Michel Tournier

Born: December 19, 1924     Died: January 18, 2016

Michel Tournier was an extraordinarily original and somewhat controversial writer who became famous in his home country of France but who never received the world-wide acclaim which his work deserves.

There have been a lot of adjectives used to describe Tournier’s work, not all of them nice.  Grotesque, perverse, beautiful, weird, unseemly, crypto-mystical, subversive, haunting, Germanophile, unsavory, kinky, visionary, shocking.  Michel Tournier was a one of a kind original who really didn’t bother with what the public thought of his writing.  He titled his first collection of stories ‘The Fetishist’.

“There is much to question in Tournier’s enterprise, and many, out of refinement or faith, will not approve it.  But I can think of nothing that matches the verve and daring of these imaginings.  They open the sluices wide to the unconscious materials that are the very stuff of art’s pity and terror.  His way of transforming these into the legends of spirit restores to the novel a sense of “high stakes” that has long been missing.” – Sven Birkerts, ‘An Artificial Wilderness’   

Once you start to actually read his novels, you discover he is not at all difficult to understand and appreciate.  For a reader who has not yet read Tournier, I would first recommend two of his novels which are based on other well-known stories or legends thus making them more accessible.  ‘The Four Wise Men’ is a retelling of the famous biblical story, and ‘Friday or the Other Island’ is a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story.

After reading those two short and relatively down-to-earth works, you will hopefully be an eager fan of his work and ready for his all-out masterpiece, ‘The Ogre’, also known as ‘The Erl-King’.  This is the novel where Tournier’s hero-monster Abel Tiffauges confronts Nazism.

“Abel Tiffauges is as complex and dangerous in English as in French; his themes are eternal and disturbing. To follow his dark path is a magnificent experience.” – Marian Engel, New York Times.

The fiction of Michel Tournier has the story quality of the finest fiction and at the same time presents ideas that are upsetting and deliberately provocative   It is a wild ride.

Fiction by Michel Tournier that I strongly recommend:   The afore-mentioned ‘The Ogre’, ‘Friday’, and ‘The Four Wise Men’.  His other works including ‘Gemini’, ‘The Golden Droplet’, and his bizarre collection of stories ‘The Fetishist’ are also excellent reads.

Quotes about Michel Tournier

“Tournier, a private, even outsiderly, man, was impervious to literary trends and intellectual fashions. He saw himself as a professional artisan, with an old-fashioned notion of the writer’s duty to entertain and question received values.” – David Coward, The Guardian

Quotes by Michel Tournier

“The first lesson of culture is that the world is vast, the past unfathomable, and that billions of men think and have thought differently than we, our neighbors and our countrymen. Culture leads back to the universal and engenders scepticism.”

“We must be careful to preserve life’s spontaneity as well as the flexibility to adapt to new situations.”

“Books are essential. Literature is the oxygen of the soul.”

 

 

%d bloggers like this: