So many good reads!

One of the best novels of 2011 and one of the best novels I have ever read not only failed to win The Booker this year but was not even listed. A novel by the same author has won The Booker (2004), but this one is actually better than that one.


I refer to The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. smiley-happy005smiley-happy005[5]smiley-happy005[7]smiley-happy005[9]smiley-happy005[11]smiley-happy005[11]

There’s an axe-grinding review by Anglo/Kashmiri novelist Hari Kunzru in The Observer. Such reviews often strike me as chastising the author for not writing the book the reviewer would have written. Damn it, I totally wallowed in the nostalgia! Leave me alone! See also my post Nostalgia and the globalising world — from Thomas Hardy to 2010.

In fact considering that review further I just added another smiley! I must check young Mister Kunzru’s books to see if he can write even half as well as Hollinghurst. Check Alan Hollinghurst: The Stranger’s Child on the ABC Book Show.

I see David Leavitt, “The Indian Clerk” (Bloomsbury 2007) among my best reads of 2009.  Brilliant also. And while we’re at it you can check my best reads of 2010, 2007, 2006 and 2005.

Then there is Scandinavian Crime, Noir and Horror.  I note I was onto this in my 2008 best reads.

6. Anne Holt, “The Final Murder”. Fiction.

16. Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist. Fiction.

And I might add that year I also appreciated  Rich Merritt, “Code of Conduct”. Fiction by a gay former US Marine. That has resonance now in the ending of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

Actually even earlier than 2008:

Karin Fossum, Wikipedia informs me, “is a Norwegian author of crime fiction, often known there as the ‘Norwegian queen of crime’. She lives in Oslo. Fossum was initially a poet, with her first collection published in 1974 when she was just 20. It won the Tarjei Vesaas’ Debutant Prize. She is the author of the internationally successful Inspector Conrad Sejer series of crime novels, which have been translated into over 16 languages.” Her When the Devil Holds the Candle (1998, English 2004) is certainly worth reading. It is so hard to improve on this review in Dibs Blog that I will simply refer you to it: “The day a full colostomy bag figures prominently in the plot of a mystery novel is the day when you realize that mysteries have reached a whole new kind of high-water mark…” Don’t be put off by that. Dibs gives it A-, I might even give it A. Quite a twist in the ending too. In fact, this is my first “Best Read of 2007″.

I have now read my first Hanning Mankell: The Dogs of Riga, the second in the Wallander series. smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[17]smiley-happy005[19]smiley-happy005[21]

No two ways about it: this is good, and I will seek out more. It also now serves as a time capsule: how long ago – well, 20 years! – since the events that serve as this novel’s background! They really seem like yesterday to me.

Also Scandinavian crime is Mari Jungstedt, Unspoken. smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[15]  Before I read it I really didn’t know about Gotland or the significance and history of the city of Visby.

But the great discovery for me in this genre lately has been Kjell Eriksson’s Demon of Dakar. smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[15]

The newly translated Demon of Dakar, by Kjell Eriksson is the third novel centered around Detective Ann Lindell of the Uppsala police. Lindell doesn’t appear until well into the novel, which follows more closely (from the beginning) the travels and travails of a Mexican peasant, a Zapotec named Manuel Alavez, who comes to Sweden to visit his brother who has ended up in a Swedish jail after being convicted of drug smuggling (another brother died in Germany on the same illegal smuggling operation). The demon of the English title is the unpleasant owner of 2 restaurants in Uppsala (and one of several characters of mixed nationality, perhaps a commentary on contemporary Swedish life), who with his partner has set up a smuggling operation to finance his restaurant empire…

demon_of_dakarOn the other hand we have this reader:

You may have noticed that I have barely mentioned the lead detective, and that’s because there really is nothing to mention. Detective Ann Lindell is no Wallander, in fact she is probably the blandest character in the novel, which is actually a little perverse considering Eriksson’s idea to base a series of novels around her investigations. Lindell is not unlikeable, just amazingly forgettable.

This really is bad crime fiction. I feel reluctant to demolish it entirely because the author clearly does have a heart, and there are some warm moments of family bonding (particularly between Eva and her kids, and Manuel and his brothers) that ring true and are well-intentioned. But when a genre novel tries to develop ideas above and beyond its confines without mastering the basics of the genre first, a real mess ensues. So yes, it does feel different to a lot of other police procedurals and detective stories, but it is by no means better off for it.

For me it is the international aspects of the story and the insight into how cultural diversity plays in Scandinavia that lifted this novel to five smileys. But there you go. Everyone’s a critic!

I am currently reading a work of nonfiction that is as fascinating as any fiction I have read lately: Bad Faith by Carmen Callil – an expat Australian.

Bad Faith chronicles the life and times of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, one of the most vile, base, and idiotic Nazi collaborators in Vichy, France.  While Carmen Callil’s connection to Darquier (who added "de Pellepoix" himself to make his name sound more regal) via his daughter should make the book more interesting, it instead smacks of a very long personal quest with little outside interest.

Callil, the Australian author and founder of Virago Press, began to see a psychiatrist in 1960 after a failed suicide attempt.  She was referred to Dr. Anne Darquier in part because Dr. Darquier was part Australian, although born and raised in London.  After a decade of three times a week sessions, Callil went to her appointment one day and the doctor was not in.  Anne Darquier de Pellepoix (Calill saw her full name on her funeral program) had indeed committed suicide herself.

Needless to say, when Callil saw this name while watching a television documentary about Vichy, France (Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity: The Story of a French Town in the Occupation) and knew this surname to be connected to an official of the Vichy government, she was intrigued.  When this man was shown in the film "respectfully" greeting Rienhard Heydrich, the Nazi head of France’s Reich Central Security Office, Callil knew there was a story to tell…

Fantastic read!  It hit controversy too. See Henry Porter, The enemies of free speech are everywhere.

‘What caused me anguish,’ wrote my friend Carmen Callil in the afterword of her book about Vichy France, Bad Faith, ‘was to live so closely to the helpless terror of the Jews of France, and to see what the Jews of Israel were passing on to the Palestinian people.’

It is just one sentence in a long, fascinating and diligent book, but it was enough to gain the attention of the Jewish interests in America. Emails and blog commentary followed, and in no time at all the pusillanimous, craven nincompoops in the French embassy of New York had cancelled their party in honour of Callil and her book. Then, within a day or two of this cowardice, the French parliament provisionally passed a law that would make it a crime to deny that the Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks…

In Callil’s case it took a minimum of pressure. Here is one email to the French embassy and her publisher Sonny Mehta, chairman of Knopf. It is from a woman named Dorothy Rabinowitz who is something at the Wall Street Journal: ‘You may advise Ms Callil, and her publisher, that any work that equates the murderous designs of the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators with the Israelis – as she so idiotically does – is scarcely worth any such attention.’

The first point is that Callil does not equate the two. She is merely giving voice to her despair that genocides are so quickly and conveniently forgotten; that the persecution of one people by another is part of human nature. In the same paragraph she writes: ‘The French forget Vichy, Australians forget the Aborigines, the English forget the Irish, Unionists forget the Catholics of Northern Ireland, the United States forgot Chile and forgets Guantanamo. Everyone forgot East Timor and Rwanda.’

Trouble is, Callil is absolutely right – and only a total idiot could ever see this magnificent and scrupulously researched history as antisemitic!

It is also a history for Australians as one half of the central couple came from Tasmania.

Bad Faith smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[15]smiley-happy005[15]

I see Callil earlier this year crossed the current Pharisaical line by referring to the Australian Cricket Team as “poofters”.

Well perhaps she shouldn’t have said that.

Does that affect my view of her book? Not a bit. Should it affect yours?

Only if you are a puritanical prick… I get so sick of this! I am as opposed to homophobia as anyone on this planet possibly can be, but I gagged years ago when the pharisaical brigade got on to  Fred Hollows for being “homophobic” because he worried about Aboriginals and HIV!  Cheap self-righteousness, I call it. It’s so easy to kneejerk over a shibboleth like “poofter” and completely lose the whole picture. It happens again and again and really really annoys me. In fact sometimes drives me to distraction. I have seen it happen in Uniting Church circles too.

And she has also taken issue with The Bookers lately. There few surely would disagree?

As one of the three judges for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction, announced on 18 May, I have spent the past 18 months tracking down writers from all over the world. The requirements of the prize are that the winner should be living, and that their fiction should be published either originally, or in translation, in English. The prize is not awarded for any particular novel, but for the writer’s achievement in fiction. This brief provided me with the opportunity to read hundreds of novels, to ferret out writers I had never heard of before, and to spend months contemplating other cultures, histories, love stories, lives, the most exciting reading I have done for many a year. The winner of the 2011 prize of £60,000 was announced in Sydney on Wednesday: Philip Roth.

My objections to this outcome are many. The international aspect of this prize is its critical difference: to search out and value other voices. This was especially important to me because I believe that we live in times when English-speaking readers need – and want – the access that speakers of other languages have to such books: fewer writers are translated into English than into any other language.

I imagined the prize would, while including English-speaking writers of course, want to celebrate the work of translation and of translators who so widen our understanding of other countries, other cultures….