Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Despentes is France’s most famous bad-girl author. A rape survivor who has worked as a prostitute and a housemaid, Despentes’ unapologetically feminist eye picks out the telling details of contemporary French society’s casual ennui and petty hypocrisies. Her “Vernon Subutex” series of novels — there are three — are critically acclaimed best-sellers in France. In Volume I, we meet the book’s eponymous hero, a fallen former record-store owner who has nothing left to his name except interview tapes of a recently deceased rock star that could be his ticket off the streets. ~New York Times

This is a tame synopsis of a novel which is making me feel increasingly like I need to take a bath.

For example, I wouldn’t call thievery, adultery, lying, drugs, or pornography “casual ennui and petty hypocrisies.” Let’s call it what it is: immorality.

Nor would I say that this is a “mind-blowing portrait of contemporary French society.” (Nellie Kaprielian, Inrocks) Of all the times I have been in France, and there have been many, I did not see or participate in such behavior. So maybe it portrays some level of French society, but to make that a blanket statement for all of France feels a bit extreme.

What Vernon Subutex 1 is, is an acerbic novel of a confused and lost group of people, who keep searching for meaning in their lives while it constantly eludes them. Because, I think, they are looking in the wrong places.

It is hard to read this novel and not feel a certain amount of empathy for Vernon. I see how lonely he is, how directionless and physically poor; a combination of things which can only lead to more despair unless he makes different choices.

For me, this is a novel about life spinning out of control for people who are living their lives based on selfish pleasure. Looking at the cover alone, you can see how much anguish is within its pages.

It has been included in the short list for the Man Booker International Prize 2018, and whether it will be declared the winner remains to be seen.

#MiddlemarchinMay

“We believe in (Dorthea Brooke) as in a woman we might providentially meet…when we should find ourselves doubting the immortality of the soul.” ~Henry James

When Arti read The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James with us earlier this year, it sparked a yearning for George Eliot, and thus we have a read-along for Middlemarch in May.

Beginning May 1, and taking our time, her plan is to (tentatively) end in June. Vivek, my new friend from the Man Booker International Prize 2018 shadow jury is joining us. Won’t you join in as well? All are welcome.

(On Twitter #MiddlemarchinMay)

They said I couldn’t be a teacher.

Not my parents. Not those who knew me well. But when I told my advisor in college that I wanted a double major in Elementary Education and Psychology he said it couldn’t be done. There were simply not enough slots in a four year plan to get through all the requirements. But, I did get a B.A. in both, with almost enough credits for a minor in Russian Literature.

My supervising teacher sat across her dining room table, in the Spring of the year I was to graduate, and said, “I don’t think teaching is for you.” She had seen me struggle with the class in which I was doing my student teaching; their teacher was retiring, and she didn’t have much control even before I stepped in.

The person who gave me a chance was the principal of a small school in Gelnhausen, Germany. I was overseas with my first husband, and I went to apply at the Department of Defense Dependants Schools. “Well,” she said, “let me see how you teach.” And so she sat in the back of a fifth grade room while I taught, and she watched me teach all afternoon. And then she hired me when the kids went home.

We took the students on long Volksmarsches, and by train to overnight trips during which we slept in youth hostels. One of my boys had cerebral palsy, but I told him I would stand with him and help him through.

When we came back to the States, a certain principal was impressed enough by my two years in Germany that he hired me in August, a few days before school was to start. And so my career with Indian Prairie School District was launched, 33 years ago.

I have wanted to send copies of my Golden Apple nomination, my Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers awards, my A+ Teacher Award, my Most Influential Educator awards, my Masters of Science in Education diploma, or my National Board Certification to those who initially scorned me. But, instead I focus on the years with my children.

There was Akhil, who made me laugh every day. Convinced he was a Storm Trooper, he’d come around the corner of my door with his arms pointed out in front of him saying, “Kick ’em in the balls, kick ’em in the butt, kick ’em in the ace.” (Which was how he pronounced “ass.”) I would tell him we weren’t kicking anybody today, and we’d smile at each other.

There was Artem, from Russia, who asked me the very first day if I knew what the largest lake in the world was. I hesitated, foolishly pondering Lake Michigan, when he told me it is Lake Baikal. I never saw a child more proud of his heritage in my life.

There was Jeffrey, who came to school without any valentines on Valentine’s Day because his mother was in jail. But when I looked on my desk at the end of the day, there was a heart jaggedly cut out of notebook paper which said, “Thanks for all the things you’ve done for me.”

I never expected the children to “color in the lines,” be someone they weren’t, fit in a mold of my making. Unlike the teachers my brother had, my son had, and most of whom I had, I said, “You can do it,” instead of “You can’t.”

What someone believes you can do makes all the difference. And when someone tells me I can’t do something? It just gives me that much more impetus to prove them wrong.

Old Buildings In North Texas by Jen Waldo (a delightful book set in America, sent to me from England)

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I came home from work on Thursday after an absolutely exhausting day: Open House, meetings at district office, and a Beetle with an EPC light on (which when Googled said, “Take to the nearest VW dealer immediately.”). So it was a pleasant surprise to receive a packet from Arcadia Books, postmarked from London, with this lovely book inside. I was smitten from the first page.

The narrator, Olivia Henderson, has been released from rehab with an addiction to cocaine (drugs are something I know nothing about, that’s not the part which struck me), and so she lives with her mother and undergoes mandatory counseling.

“Jane, my therapist, says I need to acquire a hobby. Apparently deep introspection while smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee doesn’t count. So far I’ve dabbled in eschatology, zombie lore, and, just lately because it’s an election year, politics.

”Maybe you should look into something a little less doomsday, something that doesn’t make everybody around you wish you’d go somewhere else,”Jane says. She disapproves of my libertarian leanings.

“Give me a list, Jane,” I tell her. “Give me a list of hobbies that’ll be acceptable to absolutely every person who has a say in every choice I make every single minute of every day.”

That’s the line I loved. That sarcastic, searing comment made me smile and connect with Olivia immediately. Even if she is a recovering cocaine addict, who worked in journalism, switched over to fashion, and now explores old buildings in Texas.

“I think I found a possibility for a hobby.” She’s (Olivia’s therapist) not the only one who can redirect.

”Oh? Tell me.”

”Urban exploration. It’s where you go into abandoned buildings or houses and poke around.”

”Sounds illegal, so it’s out of the question.” (p. 21)

If only her therapist knew just how illegal it is, for Olivia does not simply “poke around”. She steals the assorted collectibles she finds in abandoned movie theaters, homes or buildings. She takes the nesting bowls, or glass-cut doorknobs, or antique gumball machines, or what might be a Tiffany lamp, and sells them to collectors online, for she is trying desperately to get out of tremendous debt. There is money she has loaned former addicts, money for legal fees, money which she doesn’t have which everyone seems to be hunting down.

We read of her “urbexing”, the relationship between her mother, her sister, her therapist, the addicts she knew, their family friend for whom she works part time, and we see a woman who is not only exploring old buildings in north Texas but exploring what it means to be free of addiction.

Am I making progress? Yes in my recovery, I am; and it’s slow and it’s difficult. But my goal is to get better, not to be better. Maybe in the future I’ll be wise, generous, and productive; but at this point, I am what I am – a self-absorbed addict with murky morals. Chloe was right when she said I’ve traded one addiction for another. Slipping into buildings, taking things and selling them, watching my bank account grow – these aren’t things a good person does. But they’re things  I do. (p. 212)

And yet, Olivia is so honest that it is easy to root for her. It is possible to see her climbing out of despair and into hope, into a life in which she is control rather than one which controls her. I found this book to be endearing, and funny, and ultimately, restoring; for none of us is perfect.

Buy a copy of Old Buildings in North Texas at Bookwitty for free shipping and delivery.

The Man Booker International Prize 2018 Short List: In My Opinion They Got One Right

As you may have noticed, the Man Booker International Prize 2018 short list was revealed yesterday. But, I didn’t write a post on it yet because I needed some time to absorb the judges’ decision, as so often happens with literary prizes for which I am reading. Of the six books listed, I have read all but one (Vernon Subutex 1); of the five I have read from this list, I feel only one really ought to be on the short list.

Each book does, of course, stand out in its own way:

  • Han Kang’s writing in The White Book is gorgeous. But, I could find little connection with her content.
  • László Krasznahorkai’s book, The World Goes On, is deep and insightful, yet hopelessly dark.
  • Like A Fading Shadow would simply not end in a drawn out, boringly repetitive account of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray and his attempted escape to Lisbon.
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad dealt with a corpse made up of body parts from the deceased in Iraq; I found it rather forced, and an ineffective way to describe the horrors within that country as the monster elicited no compassion within me, unlike the other monster by Mary Shelley. Also, what some described as humorous, I found tragic.
  • Which leaves me with Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, a book I thought to be brilliant the first time I read it, and hoped to be included in the short list. From these six, may her book be the one which wins.

All opinions are my own, and they are not to be confused with the Shadow Jury’s thoughts. Many of us are quite happy with the short list, as you will discover on Thursday, or thereabouts, when we reveal ours. Until then, here is the official list in case you haven’t yet seen it:

The 2018 shortlist (link to the brief video here):

Author (country/territory), Translator, Title (imprint)

• Virginie Despentes (France), Frank Wynne, Vernon Subutex 1 (MacLehose Press)

• Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith, The White Book (Portobello Books)

• László Krasznahorkai (Hungary), John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes, The World Goes On (Tuskar Rock Press)

• Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain), Camilo A. Ramirez, Like a Fading Shadow (Tuskar Rock Press)

• Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq), Jonathan Wright, Frankenstein in Baghdad (Oneworld)

• Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), Jennifer Croft, Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Let’s talk about what determines a prize winning novel, shall we?

The Man Booker International Prize short list will be revealed on Thursday, April 12. I am sure that the official judges are pondering each of the thirteen novels on the long list, discussing amongst themselves which six ought to be included in the final round. It can’t be an easy job. It isn’t easy for me, and I am not an official judge, a professor, or professional reviewer. I simply stand on the five decades of experience, and volume of books, I’ve accumulated as a reader.

Yet there is the matter of personal preference, which came up today in a fragmented discussion between me and a fellow shadow jury member. He feels a very strong emotional attachment to a book I cared about not in the slightest. I value his opinion highly, and I stand in awe of his beautifully articulated reviews. So where do we go from here? The other members of the shadow jury will weigh in, and we’ll sort it out. But, there are a few qualities which make me feel a book is prize-worthy beyond the quality of the writing itself.

For me, an exceptional book must have an honorable aspect, something that sets it apart from the common, degrading, dark aspects of life. Of course those elements exist, but I need to have more to hang on to. I need to know that there is something beyond filth and despair when I have finished such a novel, even if it is only a lesson. (Charlotte’s Web is a good example. One could argue that it contains aspects of murder and death as Wilber is slated for slaughter and his best friend does, in fact, die. But, balanced with this reality are honorable things like friendship and self-sacrifice and hope for the future.) Don’t give me a book which is nothing but bleak despair, leave me with only that in my mind, and expect me to claim it deserves an award.

The other thing a novel must have, for me, is an emotional connection. I need to feel that if I haven’t cried, at least there were tears close at hand; if I haven’t laughed, at least I’ve smiled. I need to put the book down from time to time in order to fully absorb it, or record some powerful thought. I need to care about the characters and what happens to them, even if the outcome is only derived from my own imagination. They need to breathe and move and leap off the page for me, instead of laying there inert.

It’s probably a good thing I’m not representing a specific publisher or author, that I write my blog purely for my own pleasure in recording what I’ve read and my opinion about those titles. Surely members of the Shadow Jury panel don’t agree with me completely; after all, we take into consideration the quality of the writing, the content of the novel, and the longevity we think it will hold in the future. No where is there a category to score a novel in terms of “honor” or “emotional impact”. Those are just two qualities which are important to me.

And you? What makes a book most noteworthy in your opinion?

Thanks for your help; here’s what I bought:

I am sitting at my desk with an iPad Pro, in rose gold (if that matters) and a Logitech keyboard which is excellent! It’s backlit, it’s sturdy, and I have all the perks of an iPad and a laptop in one. I couldn’t be happier.

Reading all of your ideas was helpful. But, it’s rather like helping someone choose a lipstick. Revlon makes a great one, and so does Chanel; it really is up to the individual user to determine what will suit her needs.

There is a most annoying thing which I keep on forgetting: nothing is perfect.

I look for perfection wherever I go. The perfect size and weight (for myself). The perfect shade for my mouth. The perfect job, career, occupation. It isn’t possible. The best thing to do is to make the wisest choice possible, and be content with what you have.

That is the lesson from my searching for a device; it’s a lesson I’m learning over and over again. And in the meantime, I surely do love this tablet/laptop combination.

Even though I keep reaching for a mouse which isn’t there.

Quick Question: On which device do you prefer to blog?

I am considering whether I should buy an Apple laptop as an early retirement present for myself. At first, I was thinking of the MacBook Air, but now I see that the iPad Pro, which has an attachable full-size keyboard, would be comparable in price with more power and portability…

I’ve used a Dell laptop, an iPad Mini, and my phone (of all crazy things to blog on), but I would truly value your opinion.

So speak to me, friends. What do you use? And, are you happy with it?

Die, My Love by Ana Harwicz, (translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Die, My Love is written with such hatred and despair it was hard for me to be compassionate. At first.

It opens with a women spying on her husband and son who are playing outside, while she holds a knife in her hand. She puts it down when her husband calls to her, asking if she would like a beer.

I leave the knife in the scorched pasture, hoping that when I find it next it’ll look like a scalpel, a feather, a pin. I get up, hot and bothered by the tingling between my legs. Blonde or dark? Whatever you’re having, my love. We’re one of those couples who mechanise the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other. I never want to see you again, my love. I’m coming, I say, and I’m a fraud of a country woman with a red polka-dot skirt and split ends. I’ll have a blonde beer, I say in my foreign accent. I’m a woman who’s let herself go, has a mouth full of cavities and no longer reads.

You can see right away that the word “love” is a mockery. There is no love in this woman’s heart; only cruelty, despair and hate. Hers is a visceral outcry of utter hopelessness, and one is compelled to keep reading similarly to the way one cannot tear oneself away from a train wreck. You don’t really want to see it, but you can’t quite turn away from the disaster and ruin.

I thought at first she may be suffering from something like post-partum depression. Then, I thought she may be simply tired of marriage and living in the country with her husband, baby and mother-in-law. But, the further I read, the more I came to feel that this unnamed female narrator is mentally unbalanced. There’s no way, please God, that she could be speaking for wives and mothers everywhere.

Some of the Shadow Jury has likened Die, My Love to Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, and in terms of torment, and fevered pitch, I can see the similarities. But, Fever Dream has a cause: the polluted river poisoning the environment with no one doing anything about it. This is a woman living a life about which she seems unable to do anything. Even if it is only internally, she threatens and screams, absorbed with herself on every page.

She imagines herself run over by the neighbors who have tired of her standing in the middle of the country road. At the funeral in her head she notices that, “No one grieves for the wretched woman with scarred arms who was consumed by the misery of life. Everyone fusses over the little boy who’s crawling around on all fours near the coffin.”

Such an internal focus, rawly articulated on every page, alarms me, even though the power of her emotion is undeniably well conveyed.

Addendum, several days later: If the purpose of translated literature is to take you beyond experiences you know, or open your eyes to see a fresh perspective, Die, My Love is the best of the lot.