French Exit – Patrick DeWitt

Usually, when I read books set in Paris, they are quirky romances or coming of age stories but this time I tried something a little bit different. Maybe this is because rather than being a novel by a French author French Exit is by a Canadian writer now living in the USA and, on the whole, it features American characters. And, oh boy, these characters are all the larger than life type of Americans!

41069841Frances Price is the widow of a very rich, very succesful and rather nasty man whose hedonistic New York lifestyle has burned through her inheritance. When the banks start to refuse her line of credit and serious men with clipboards start listing all her assets Frances manages to sell some of her less obvious valuables and sets sail for Paris with her grown-up son, Malcolm. They are followed on board ship by their elderly cat, Small Frank, who may or may not be inhabited by the spirit of the late Frank Price and make their way to an apartment borrowed from Frances’ oldest (and, probably, only) friend Joan. Selfish and spoiled Frances has decided she will spend all her money – every last cent – and then end her life: But can she continue with this plan as she and her son manage to accrue a motley collection of new friends and acquaintances – including Madame Reynard (an ex-pat), a psychic, a private detective, a doctor and his wine merchant friend?

Although the characters and situations in this book seem very American at first – big, bold and brash – the issues which are raised during the story are as subtle and bittersweet as anything I’ve come across in continental novels. Malcolm is a mess, unable to fend for himself, seeking refuge in food and alcohol, yet his on again, off again fiance can’t help but love him: given what we learn of his childhood I’m surprised he is functional at all. Even Frances gradually reveals some of the factors which led to her brittle, demanding and emotionally cold character. Between the almost slapstick comedic episodes we discover that almost any person is redeemable (even if they have become a cat) – if only they will allow themselves to be.

Jane

Advertisements

If Cats Disappeared From the World – Genki Kawamura (trans. Eric Selland)

12438978_10153127443991735_3315576425984549481_nFrom my earliest memory we have always been a dog family.  We got Chum – a mongrel, so we named him for Pedigree Chum dog food – when he followed my step-Dad to our house as a stray when I was a couple of years old. Although Chum could be snappy with strangers, chased cars if he got out and loved to pick fights with any dog which was bigger than him he was brilliant with us children. He was my confidant when I felt hard done by, my Mum’s protector when we were all away at school and was even happy to put up with me using him to practice my bandaging skills. We had other pets – hamsters, gerbils, goldfish and even a tank of woodlice – but we never had a cat. There were lots of local strays which we were allowed to feed from time to time but Mum always said no to having one: I don’t know if she just doesn’t like cats or if she realised that Chum would probably make short work of most moggies, either way it wasn’t happening. Oddly my brother, sister and I now have cats so we were not put off and, when I look back over my list of books read, I realise I read far more books about felines than any other creature. My transformation to crazy cat lady has begun.

41738495Many of these books have been written by Japanese authors – it seems that cats, like Alphaville, are big in Japan – and I really enjoy the way that these writers use these animals to explore some big issues. In this book we have a narrator whose life is turned upside-down when he is given the news that he has, at most, months to live. He returns home to try to make sense of these news in the company of his beloved pet, a cat named Cabbage, but is startled to find himself face to face with the devil. The devil, a wise cracking, Hawaiian shirt-wearing character makes him an offer – he can have one more day of life in exchange for making an item disappear from the world.  Aloha won’t allow him to choose anything too petty so we end up seeing the end of phones, clocks and films: each time our narrator is allowed to decide between these objects and a day of life. These decisions aren’t necessarily easy – like most people these days he relies heavily on his mobile and has a busy life governed by timetables – but the loss of cinema hits him very hard as he and his closest friends are real film buffs. The fourth day is offered to him in exchange for the existence of cats and this becomes the hardest decision of all to make.

This book is, in turn, amusing and thought-provoking. It leads you to consider, as the narrator does, the role your mobile phone plays in your life – both a way of communicating with the world and of separating yourself from it – and your attitude to time.  More importantly than any of this, however, is the way the narrator re-examines his relationships with people in his life: his ex-lover, his mother, who died a few years previously, and his father who he hasn’t seen since her death. The only slight oddness for me was hearing him reflect on his life – he is just 30 and keeps referring to this. Of course, he knows he is about to die so to his mind he may as well be 80 but it did jar slightly. My fault, I’m sure. All in all, an interesting addition to the list of books I have read about cats, death and Japan.

Jane

 

 

Elefant – Martin Suter

It is a fact universally acknowledged that, in fiction terms, I am a fan of the quirky.  I’ve delved into various Scandinavian, French and Canadian authors to feed this habit (with other corners of the world covered too) and now I have ended up in Switzerland. Yes. I know. I didn’t expect quirkiness from the Swiss either – land of fondue and sensible economics – but then I remembered cuckoo clocks and yodeling and it all made sense…

38232605Schoch is a middle-aged man living on the street in Zürich and he’s getting by. He has a place to sleep, in a cave along the river banks near the allotments, he knows all the places to go to get adequate food and he could give up drinking any time he wanted to. Giving up drinking is easy – he’s done it lots of times – but when a terrier-sized, pink, glow-in-the-dark, elephant maybe it is time to quit for good. With a cast of alcoholics, circus-folk, evil scientists, vets and refugees this is a heartwarming book which looks at all kinds of issues around life, love and genetic modification. Partly because of the development of the character of Schoch as we unravel the life that led to him being on the streets, partly because of the warmth and humanity of Kuang, the Burmese oozie (or neck rider) and partly because of the elephant itself. Okay, maybe, more than just partly because of the elephant – what’s not to love about a glowing pachyderm small enough to sit on your lap? This is, in fact, the crux of the story – just because an elephant is only a foot high doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be treated like a proper elephant. And just because it is possible to create such a creature doesn’t mean we should. Add into this all that we learn about life on the streets, including how much the inhabitants care for their dogs, and elephant care and it is a very entertaining and interesting read. Although I now also know more about artificial insemination of elephants than I ever wanted to know…

Jane

Piglettes – Clémentine Beauvais

Recently I’ve been enjoying some great novels with distinctive French themes and plenty of interesting YA books. So, obviously, given the chance to combine these two interests, I had to give it a try… Throw in some thoughts on body image, attitudes towards Islam and feminism and I think this book was just about perfect for me!

piglettesPiglettes is about a group of girls in a provincial French town who find themselves the winners of a rather nasty little contest run by a boy at their school. They are voted as the winners of the ‘Pig Pageant’ – the ugliest girls in school. This is, obviously, out-and-out bullying but our main heroine, Mireille, isn’t going to give the bully the reaction he wants. She just laughs it off – although her internal monologue seems to show that she is not quite as happy with her life as she professes to be – but somehow, when she meets up with and talks to the two other ‘lucky’ winners, she decides that they will cycle across the country to Paris, selling sausages from a trailer, and gatecrash the President’s Bastille Day garden party. Like you do. The three girls, Mireille, Astrid and Hakima, are accompanied by Hakima’s brother (a disabled ex-soldier) and a wonderful friendship develops between them. Mireille is very much in charge initially – she is certainly the fiestiest of the three – but the others all come into their own as time goes by. There is a hint of love interest as Mireille has an instant crush on Kader (Hakima’s brother) but it is all very innocent – the main story is about the girls, how they learn to love themselves, to realise that they don’t need to change in order to fit in with other people’s ideals, and their refusal to accept that they are worthy of being bullied.

I really loved these girls and Mireille in particular. She is a girl who loves her food and doesn’t see why she shouldn’t – she loves cheese even more than I do (which I didn’t think was possible…) – but she also has her problems. As well as her body-image and developing feminism we are shown the complicated relationship she has with her mother and step-father. In the teenage mind, at least,  the unknown father is preferable to the known mother but, in the end, Mireille is able to understand all the adults in her life a little better as she becomes a little closer to adulthood herself (but while never losing her ‘sass’. Who says you should?).

Jane

 

The Bedlam Stacks – Natasha Pulley

Some people like books to sit quietly in their genre. If it is a spy thriller it should be thrillery, but not contain elements of fantasy; historical novels shouldn’t be set in space; hard-boiled crime should not contain chapters with descriptions of cute kittens (unless, of course, they are the ones being hard-boiled….). I don’t mind a bit of a mash-up – post-apocalyptic love stories? historical thrillers? Bring it on….As Tom Stoppard assures us, all stories have a little bit of romance, death and eloquence. I’m particularly fond of a bit of quirkiness drifting into my reading – although strictly speaking I should call it by its Sunday name, Magical Realism…

bedlamIn The Bedlam Stacks Natasha Pulley brings us to a world which is undoubtedly real – the East India Company has become the India Office, malaria is still hampering Britain’s ambitions in the East and Peru has banned the export of the seeds or saplings of the trees whose bark supplies life-saving quinine. The main character, Merrick Tremayne, is a gardener/botanist who has worked as an opium smuggler for the East India Company during the Opium Wars with China is the perfect person to send in to try and succeed where others have failed. Tremayne, however, was seriously injured during his last mission and is living on his family’s dilapidated Cornish estate. He is on the point of taking a job as a curate when he is called to travel to Peru, accompanied by his good friend Clem and his wife Minna. There they find themselves in a world which is ruled by cartels controlling the sale of cinchona (the tree from which quinine is derived) but also superstition, religion and the mysterious geography of the region. This, of course, is where the magical part of the story happens. Living statues, exploding trees, a mysterious community built up from children with disabilities left there by the inhabitants of other villages deep in the forbidden forests, not to mention a key character, Raphael, the village priest who seems to suffer from a strange condition.

I’ve often enjoyed books which feature magic realism (or quirkiness, as I insist on calling it – it sounds so much less daunting and lit-crit-like) and I enjoy good historical fiction. This, I think, is one of the first times I’ve been able to enjoy them together – I have to say it is a combination I will try again in future. In fact, I think I may have to go back to Pulley’s previous book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which seems to involve at least one character from Bedlam Stacks…(my to-read pile is never going to get any smaller, is it?)

Jane

The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce writes wonderful books. Not necessarily with the most beautiful, flowery language (although they are good words, honest and accessible) but with characters, plots and emotional sucker-punches which make me very, very happy. I’ve never met a Rachel Joyce novel (so far) that I didn’t love but, boy, do they bring a tear to the eye. In an oddly satisfying way. It feels quite hard to describe why I love these books so much beyond the fact that they get me right in the feels (as the kids no longer say…) – lets hope I can convince you to read them and find out for yourselves…

51yytgdLxSL._AC_US218_This book opens in 1988. In a music shop which is resisting the rise of CDs (although not modern music) and the march of progress generally. It is on a street with a small parade of the kind of shops which are closing down all the time – the book opens in a sort of dead-end. But it is the kind of glorious dead end that I, for one, would love to have on my doorstep. The owner of the shop, Frank, is a bit of a lost soul who is still mourning his beloved (but rather difficult) mother, who shies away from relationships and who, despite all this lives to help others through music. The man with the unfaithful wife who listens only to Chopin is reminded that he is not alone via the work of Aretha Franklin; a bank manager’s baby is lulled to sleep by The Troggs Wild Thing. He is, in the early days, pretty astute about music – he’s the only shop locally to stock the Sex Pistols and stocks all the big indy labels – but the rise of CDs is a problem. Frank won’t stock them and he becomes persona non grata with all the reps from record companies.

Of course, if this were just the story of a shop it wouldn’t be quite as satisfying (apart, possibly, to those of us who work in shops and have a vested interest) so there are also some fascinating characters to meet. Frank himself is a gentle, rather shabby, giant of a man who, despite trying to avoid relationships, is essential to the lives of all those around him. Then there are the other residents of Unity Street – a Polish baker, an ex-priest running a religious gift shop, a pair of elderly undertakers, a combative tattooist, little old Mrs Roussos – who are all given life and character and who all become part of Frank’s ‘family’ (for want of a better word). Add into this his hapless (but big-hearted) assistant Kit and a mysterious German woman, Ilse Brauchmann, and it seems that Frank hasn’t been able to avoid all relationships after all.

I loved this book because of those wonderful, warm and complicated human relationships. I loved it because it made me cry as much as it made me smile and I loved it for the music. Frank’s approach to music is unusual, to say the least, since he is possibly the total opposite of High Fidelity’s obsessive alphabetiser but his tastes are broad. I loved the fact that its four parts are presented as being the four side of a double album (a concept album, obviously). And, for my money, any novel which opens with a quote* from Nick Drake deserves all the praise I can give it…

Jane

*Time has told me
You’re a rare, rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind

Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me

 

Postman’s Fiancée – Denis Thériault

When I’m on holiday I like to read books set in the area I’m visiting. This year, however, we did a bit of a tour of Northern Europe (Denmark, a bit of Sweden and then Latvia) and I wasn’t in the mood for Nordic Noir so I just gathered up the next half-dozen or so books on my magic spreadsheet of ‘things to read’ (plus our children’s Book of the Month for June and the next title for the shop book group). Most of these were set in the usual places – the UK, the United States, a bit of outer space – but I did manage to include a quirky little novel set in Montréal with a German heroine. A pretty international haul, I think you’ll agree (although I need to get more books by non-European or North American authors read, I know…).

9781786071132_1In the Postman’s Fiancée we meet Tania, a young Bavarian woman who moves to Montréal to improve her French. She falls in love with a customer at the café she works in, Bilodo a quiet and shy postman, even though they never speak beyond orders for drinks and food. When Bilodo has a serious accident and loses his memory Tania poses as his fiancée in an effort to make his love for her a reality. If you think of a cross between Amélie and While You Were Sleeping in book form (with additional haiku) you’d not be far off. The plot is rather like a French farce, as Tania tries to keep the amnesiac Bilodo from any contact with his past but it also has a strong thread of sadness (or maybe I should say ennui, it sounds more appropriate with a french twist) running through it.  As well as the french feel to the book it has a rather spare elegance, like the haiku used throughout. I read this as a standalone novel but there is an earlier book, featuring some of the same characters, whose plot intertwines with it which I have now added to my ‘to-read’ list.

Jane