On Claudia Piñeiro’s “Elena sabe” (Elena Knows) – “Elena weiss Bescheid” (2007)

Elena sabeElena weiss BescheidElena et le roi détrône

Claudia Piñeiro is an Argentinian crime writer. Most of her novels have received prizes. This one is no exception. It received an Argentinian and a German prize. The good news—most of Piñeiro’s novels have been translated. The bad news—for reasons I really don’t get, this is one hasn’t been translated into English, but you can read it either in Spanish Elena sabe, French – Elena et le roi détrôné or German Elena weiss Bescheid. I suppose there are other translations.

Ever since I read Piñeiro’s All Yours – Tuya  in 2012, I knew I wanted to read more of her novels. Not sure why it took me so long. Two weeks ago, I thought of her again and ordered this one and another one, Thursday Night Widows.

Elena knows tells the story of a woman, Elena, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Her daughter, Rita, has been found dead in a belfry. The police have ruled that it was a suicide but Elena cannot accept that. She is sure that Rita was murdered. The book follows two alternating timelines, both from Elena’s point of view. The first is set firmly in the present, while the second timeline tells Elena and Rita’s story in flashbacks up until the suicide/murder. Since the police have stopped the investigation, Elena has decided that she will investigate on her own. Since she suffers from advanced Parkinson’s disease, this is a difficult task. The timeline set in the present follows her on a journey from her apartment to someone else’s apartment. She hasn’t seen this person in twenty years but hopes that she will “lend” her her body and investigate on Elena’s behalf.

What a breathtaking story. So well done and with an amazing twist at the end. I can’t say I knew a lot about Parkinson’s before reading this novel. I do now. I had no idea how awful this is. Elena’s days are an ordeal. Every single thing needs careful planning. Even the most mundane, routine acts. She cannot lift her head anymore, due to atrophied muscles in the neck. She cannot move, walk, etc, unless she takes tablets that take a certain amount of time to kick in and whose effect dwindles all too quickly. The flash back sections tell us that she lives with Rita, a forty-year-old single woman and that their relationship is one of love and hate. They exchange sentences that feel like the cracking of whips. Needless to say, Rita is the one who takes care of Elena. From what Elena tells the reader, we can deduce that Rita’s disgusted by her mother’s illness.

Following Elena on her trip to the other end of the city, is painful to read. But it’s equally painful to read about Rita’s life with her.

In a novel that is told like a taut crime novel, Claudia Piñeiro explores topics like illness, getting older, the responsibilities of women to take care of the elderly and of kids. She shows us women trapped in situations from which there’s no escaping. The end came as a shock but made perfect sense.

This is an outstanding novel. Sharp, taut, and unsparing. Highly recommended.

Pia Juul: The Murder of Halland – Mordet på Halland – Das Leben nach dem Happy End (2009)

The Murder of Halland

If you know that Pia Juul’s novel The Murder of Halland (Mordet på HallandDas Leben nach dem Happy End) plays with reader expectations, then you might enjoy this novel. If, however, you expect a conventional crime novel, you might be a little disappointed. Yes, it’s about a crime, but not a crime novel per se.

Pia Juul is a Danish writer, that’s why I read the German translation (I think that German is closer to most Nordic languages than English). While the English title is a literal translation of the Danish title, the German publisher chose to call the book “Life after the Happy End”. I don’t like the title but, at least, it didn’t sound like it was a crime novel.

The book opens with the murder of Halland. Or rather the discovery of his dead body. The man who found him says that Halland’s last words were “My wife killed me.” The reader knows that Bess, his partner, didn’t kill him. She was in the house, while he was shot.

Bess is a writer who left her first husband and her daughter because of Halland. She hasn’t seen her daughter since the girl was fourteen years old and has suffered because of this separation ever since. The daughter is now a young woman of 24.

Like most readers, even though I knew this wasn’t a typical crime novel, I assumed that the book would explore who shot Halland and why. The police does investigate, but it’s a half-hearted investigation. Of course, that’s not realistic, it was the writers choice to present the story this way. The reason for this is revealed later in the book when Bess watches a crime movie on TV and tells the reader that she’s never interested in the “who did it part” of a crime story and mostly forgets the end. She is much more interested in the people involved. The life of the victim, the investigator, and the friends and relatives of the victim. I feel a lot like Bess. I read crime novels for many reasons. Finding out who did it isn’t that important for me.

When Bess hears of Halland’s death, her first reaction is to call her estranged daughter. That reaction alone makes it clear we’re not going to read an ordinary story and from here on, Bess reacts in a rather unconventional way. And this is exactly why I found this book so great. Luckily, most of us will not encounter murder. We won’t find our partners shot dead or be friends with someone whose partner has been shot dead. So, why do we assume we know how a person would react under the circumstances? We think we know because we see how people in movies and books react. But maybe they wouldn’t cry and grief, maybe they would just go a little crazy? Maybe they would be so shocked that they wouldn’t react at all and just withdraw from the world?

Bess does go a little crazy but there are a lot of other things that are strange and the reader discovers with Bess that Halland may not have been who she thought he was and that he had secrets. Here again, expectations are not met. There are secrets but they are different from what we assume and possibly do not have anything to do with the murder as such. Or maybe they do? That’s for you to find out.

I really enjoyed this book. I found it refreshing, loved the brittle tone and how surprising it was. It’s never forseeable how Bess will react and in what direction the story will go next.

It’s a thought-provoking book that leaves a lot open. If you prefer the end of your novels to be less enigmatic, then this isn’t a book for you. If you like something more unusual, with unpredictable characters, then give it a try.

Here’s another take on the novel from Guy’s blog.

Das Leben nach dem Happy End

Elizabeth Taylor: At Mrs Lippincote’s (1945)

At Mrs Lippincote's

Published in 1945, At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s first novel. It’s my fourth Elizabeth Taylor novel and while it’s not my favourite, I liked it a great deal. It’s as sharp and witty as the others and a subtle exploration of truth and hypocrisy in wartime England, a time when the English society and its conventions changed rapidly. At the heart of the novel is the story of a marriage in dissolution. Julia and Roddy Davenant, and their son, live at the house of a widow, Mrs Lippincote. Her house is a stuffy house, filled with mahogany furniture. Roddy, who is in the RAF, was stationed in London before. His superior sent him to the countryside, hoping it would help save his marriage.

Julia is a great character. At times she’s a little intimidated by the formidable-sounding Mrs Lippincote and all the officers her husband works with, but most of the time, she just doesn’t care about convention and says so. This quote captures her particularly well:

Julia had a strange gift of coming to a situation freshly, peculiarly untarnished by preconceived ideas, whether of her own preconception or the world’s. Could she have taken for granted a few of those generalisations invented by men and largely acquiesced in by women (that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is a woman’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers), she would have eased her own life and other people’s.

Julia spends most of the time alone with her son or walking the small town at night, on her own, while her husband pretends he’s at his club. These nightly walks, more even than the way she expresses herself, shock her husband as they show an independence he doesn’t care for. He, who is anything but a model husband, hides his own shortcomings behind his hypocritical outrage. Her outings are quite harmless, although people start to talk because she’s visiting a man. Mr Taylor is someone they once knew in London. He’s the most tragic figure in this novel. He was the manager of an elegant restaurant in London but he has lost everything. His restaurant, his home, and his health. He is now the owner of a shabby pub. He and Julia are possibly the only really honest people in this novel. All around them people seem to be pretending:  that they have a better status than they really have; that they are faithful and morally superior or that they aren’t afraid of anything.

Here’s Mr. Taylor’s take on this.:

“Bombed out” is a phrase the world was now used to. “But you were lucky,” people would say, “not to have been sleeping there.” “No one was hurt,” he would say. It was like a game of tennis, that sort of conversation: the ball went back and forth but no one was really involved, the expected replies were dealt and after the game had been kept up for a while, the other side tired, and feeling it had done well, changed the subject. But the truth had not been spoken. Had he suddenly said: “My life ended just he same, whether I was killed or not. This that I have now means nothing to me and has no value,” they would still not have understood.

“And then, ” he continued, “there are all the people who refuse to have their morale destroyed. They are the worst part of the whole affair. Sometimes you feel it would be such a relief to say you’re frightened, but those awful people stop you. You go about all day longing to tell someone you’ve lost your nerve, or to hear someone say the same thing to you, but it never happens.”

Julia is so honest that she doesn’t even have illusions when it comes to herself:

“I think I am going on up, willy-nilly. This morning I read in the paper about something vile the Nazis did, and I thought: “It’s all right. It’s not as bad as the atrocity I read about last week.” I was very much shocked at myself.”

“War does that for one.”

“Yes. That’s what I said. The contemplation of brutality brutalises. ( . . . )”

Like in all of Elizabeth Taylor’s books, the best parts are the characterisations. She shows us people and their foibles and follies. There are some great, eccentric characters in this book.

Elizabeth Taylor is always astute and unmasks her character’s with her sharp mind. In this novel she unmasks a whole society and era – wartime England and all the small and big lies people tell themselves and each other. I think her subtle description of the mentality of the time – this clinging to the old conventions – the fear of the new – the stress of the war – is stunning. It’s what makes this a truly remarkable book.

Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place (1947)

In a Lonely Place

I came across Dorothy B. Hughes excellent noir novel In a Lonely Place in Books to Die For, a book of essays on important crime novels. Each of the articles was written by a famous crime writer. The book has been edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke. The article on In a Lonely Place was written by Megan Abbott. I’m sure I would have liked In A Lonely Place without reading Abbott’s essay but I might have missed a few things.

Books to Die For

Hughes novel is one of the first serial killer novels and inspired later works like Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. I know that many readers of this blog are averse to serial killer novels and I understand why. But this one is a very different book. There are three types of serial killer novels—those from the point of view of the victim, those from the point of view of the detectives and those from the killer’s point of view. The mainstream/bestselling novels usually fall into category one or two, while this one falls into the third category. Unfortunately, the blurb gives a very wrong impression and the reader thinks (s)he is reading a thriller-type story. That was never Hughes intention. Without the blurb it’s clear from the beginning that we’re in the head of the killer, Dix Steele. Dix is a WWII veteran who has just moved to L.A. and, on the spur of a moment, contacts Brub Nicolai, a former army buddy, who served with him in the UK, not knowing that he is a detective. An other perpetrator would have stayed away or fled, not so Dix Steele. He loves the idea of being able to follow the investigation very closely.

Here’s an early quote which doesn’t only give an idea of Dorothy B. Hughes’ writing but also of how eerie this scenario is. Brub is obviously talking to Dix.

Brub started, “Wha-” He realized Dix’s question. ” I guess it’s pretty much my fault. Ever since the thing started, I’ve been afraid for her. She’s lived in  the canyon all her life. She never had any fear, wandered all over it, any time of the day. But the canyon at night, the way the fogs come in— it’s a place for him.” His face was again angry, helplessly angry. “I’ve scared her. She’s alone so much. I never know what hours I have to keep. We have good neighbours, a couple of our best friends are right across the road. But you know our street. It’s dark and lonely and the way our house is set up there—” He broke off. “I’m the one who’s scared; I’ve infected her. And I can’t help it. I can’t pretend until we caught him.”

Megan Abbott emphasized in her essay that this is far more than a serial killer novel or an ordinary noir. The author went further than others in showing how difficult it was for veterans to return. How in many cases, they felt like their masculinity was in danger. The book is as much about gender as it is about crime. Men like Dix Steele had to reinvent themselves after the war. With the end of the war, they lost their identity.

What made me love this book is that we actually pity Dix Steele. He’s more than a little troubled and his suffering is genuine. Here’s a quote to illustrate this:

A man couldn’t live alone; he needed friends. He needed a woman, a real woman. Like Brub and Sylvia. Like that stupid Cary had that stupid Maude. Better than being alone.

It wasn’t often it hit him hard. It was the balmy night and the early dusk and the look of the lamps through opened windows and the sound of music from radios in the lighted rooms. he’d eschewed human relationship for something stronger, something a hell of a lot better.

What makes Dix Steele so tragic is that he is not only greedy and full of longing— for women he can’t have, for status, money, relationships, the “good life”— but also oddly hopeful. He believes that with the right woman everything might be different. When he sees Laurel Grey for the first time, a young  actress who is just as greedy for the good life, as he is, he genuinely believes, she might be his saviour.

I love nothing as much as atmospherical crime novels and this one might be one of the greatest in this regard. Set in L.A., it really brings the city to life and makes great use of the landscape and weather conditions. I thought that fog and mist were particular to San Francisco but reading this, I have to assume that the L.A. area (at the time?) was constantly foggy. Reading how this lonely, deranged and driven killer hunts for his prey in the fog made for great reading.

In a Lonely Place has been made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. I haven’t seen it but I get the impression, the ending is very different.

Dorothy B. Hughes had an unusual writing career. She published twelve novels, three of which were made into movies, before she stopped writing in 1950. Allegedly, because she took care of her mother and her grandchildren. She died in 1993. It’s a bit sad to think that this great writer spent the last forty years of her life not writing.

Literature and War Readalong May 31 2016: The Hunters by James Salter

The Hunters

James Salter’s The Hunters is this month’s Literature and War Readalong title. It’s the first novel about the Korean war that we’re reading in the read along. I’ve been keen on reading James Salter for ages as he’s always mentioned as one of the greatest US writers. Published in 1956, The Hunters was Salter’s first novel. Until the publication of this novel, Salter was a career officer and pilot in the US Air Force. He served during the Korean war where he flew over 100 combat missions. This was certainly the reason why he chose to write about a fighter pilot in his first novel. The novel has been made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner. James Salter died last June in Sag Harbor, New York.

Here are the first sentences:

A winter night, black and frozen, was moving over Japan, over the choppy waters to the east, over the rugged floating islands, all the cities and towns, the small houses, the bitter streets.

Cleve stood at the window, looking out. Dusk had arrived, and he felt a numb lethargy. Full animation had not yet returned to him. It seemed that everybody had gone somewhere while he had been asleep. The room was empty.

He leaned forward slightly and allowed the pane to touch the tip of his nose. It was cold but benign. A circle of condensation formed quickly about the spot. He exhaled a few times through his mouth and made it larger. After a while he stepped back from the window. He hesitated, and then traced the letters C M C in the damp translucence.

 

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join:

The Hunters by James Salter, 233 pages, US 1957, War in Korea

Here’s the blurb:

Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill – sometimes under dubious circumstances – Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, James Salter’s luminous first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war.

*******

The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 May 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen (2016)

The Portable Veblen

There are a few things you might see differently after having read The Portable Veblen—squirrels, marriage, clinical trials, mental health, consumerism, Thorstein Veblen. What I’m trying to say – this is a novel that’s as quirky as it is serious. But the best of all: the voice is stunning and as witty as it is clever. Looking at some of the topics this novel explores—dsyfunctional families, PTSD, pharmaceutical companies, mental illness— one wouldn’t think it would be funny, but it is. I really loved this book and it’s main narrator Veblen Amundsen-Hovda.

Veblen, named after Thorstein Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class, is a self-declared “cheerer-upper” with a narcissistic, hypochondriac and controlling mother. Veblen is obsessed with squirrels, translates from the Norwegian in her free time and is highly suspicious of everything that whiffs of consumerism.

Veblen espoused the Veblenian opinion that wanting a big house full of cheaply produced versions of so-called luxury items was the greatest soul-sucking trap of modern civilization, and that these copycat mansions away from the heart and soul of a city had ensnared their overmortgaged owners – yes, trapped and relocated them like pests.

She’s engaged to Paul, a neurologist who works for a shady pharmaceutical company and gives her the most ridiculously huge engagement ring. All of her life, Veblen has been crushed by her mother. Her dad is in a mental institution and her step-dad always takes her mother’s side. Nonetheless, her mother and her mother’s opinion are important. So far, neither Veblen nor Paul have met their respective parents. Both are wary of a meeting. Veblen because she’s afraid of what crushing things her mother might say about the engagement and her fiancé, and Paul because he’s ashamed of his parents, hippies who were anything but good parents.

Just to give you an idea of what Veblen has to deal with. That’s her thinking of telling her mother about the engagement:

She had an internal clock set to her mother’s hunger for news, but sometimes it felt good to ignore it.

Then she went back inside and grabbed the phone to spring the news on her mother. Nothing being fully real until such springing. And nothing with her mother ever simple and straightforward either, and that was the thrill of it. A perverse infantile thrill necessary to life.

And this is how the phone call goes:

“Well. Did you say yes for all the right reasons?”

The coffeemaker gurgled and hissed, a tired old friend doing its best. “I think so.”

“Marriage is not the point of a woman’s life. Do you understand that?”

“By now.”

“Do you love him?”

“I do, actually.”

“Is everything between you, good, sexually?”

“Mom, please! Boundaries or whatever.”

“Don’t say boundaries like every teenage twerp on TV.”

It bothered Veblen’s mother that most people were lazy and had given up original thought a long time ago, stealing stale phrases from the media like magpies.

 

The main question at the heart of the story is: should anyone get married, especially when coming from a dysfunctional family? It takes Veblen a long time to make up her mind – the whole novel – and most of it involves hilarious scenes. Her mother is one of those parents that, while toxic, still has a lot going for her. I loved all the scenes that involved her. I equally enjoyed the passages in which we see Veblen on her own. Some of the chapters are told from Paul’s POV and those weren’t my favourites. He’s not a character that could stand on his own, he always needs to clash with another one to be interesting.

This might be one of the wittiest books I’ve read in a long time. But it’s also charming and profound. I’ve seen a few people comment that they found the book confusing. I didn’t. Most of the crazy moments are due to Veblen’s attempts at staying sane. Dissociation and escape into a fantasy world in which squirrels communicate with her, are coping mechanisms. As cheerful as Veblen seems, she is someone who has been crushed and whose lack of self-confidence is painful. That a lot of her composure comes from taking medication, is equally tragic. It may sound paradoxical, but given her upbringing, she’s doing well.

As I said, I enjoyed The Portable Veblen a great deal. It’s s such a clever book.

I wasn’t surprised to find it on the short list for the 2016 Bailey’s Prize for Fiction.

Three Short Reviews – Eileen (2015) – The Loney (2014) – Saturday (2005)

Ottessa MoshfeghScreen Shot 2016-04-15 at 09.37.31Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 10.16.27

I finished so many novels recently that I will never be able to review them all. That’s why I decided to do a post with shorter reviews. It doesn’t mean that the books weren’t as good as other books I’ve read. Just bad timing review-wise. I’ve added some blurb quotes at the beginning. Either as a contrast to what I wrote or to emphasize my opinion.

Ottessa Moshfegh

Fully lives up to the hype. A taut psychological thriller, rippled with comedy as black as a raven’s wing, Eileen is effortlessly stylish and compelling. – Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Times

First up is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. The tale of a crime that is instrumental in freeing the main character. Now this is a book I’m not likely to forget. The writing is so assured and strong. The voice of the narrator is original and the way the book was told worked remarkably well. The narrator, who was once called Eileen, is now an older woman, looking back at something that happened a long time ago. Back then she was an insecure woman who lived with her alcoholic father in a very dirty, sordid home and worked in a boy’s prison. When the new counselor, the glamorous Rebecca, arrives at the school, things first get very exciting for Eileen and then they get out of control. Eileen is a very unpleasant character. It’s not always a joy to be inside of her head. She has perverse fantasies and some of her hidden habits are really gross. The reasons why I enjoyed this taut noir so much, is that the older Eileen constantly adds information about her future life and because we sense that things will go wrong, we wonder how she managed, in spite of everything we are told, to have an almost normal life. I also enjoyed that it’s never really clear whether she’s totally unreliable or just completely deranged. Ottessa Moshfegh has been on my radar for a while. Many of her short stories have been highly praised. She certainly is a very assured and very talented writer. I’m really keen on reading more of her stories and hope she’ll write another novel soon

If you’d like a more detailed review here’s Guy’s post on Eileen. I discovered the book on his blog.

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‘The Loney is not just good, it’s great. It’s an amazing piece of fiction’ Stephen King

The Loney won the Costa Prize in 2015. I received the novel as a Christmas gift. I’d never heard of the book before but the person who gave it to me, knows that I like dark and gothic tales. I’m really glad that I’ve read it but not entirely sure I liked it. The atmosphere is amazing. It’s set in a bleak desolate part of England, near the coast in Lancashire. The Loney is a stretch of land that gets cut off and turns into an island during high tide. Getting lost between the land and the sea is very dangerous. The tide comes in quickly and surprisingly. The narrator is an older man. The story he tells takes place when he’s still a young boy. For a long time it’s not clear if what happens in the book is just the result of religious fanaticism or whether there is really a haunting. I found that interesting but wasn’t too keen on the ending. The story takes place during Easter. The narrator’s parents, especially the mother, are fanatics. They hope that they will be able to cure the narrator’s older brother through prayer. The mother is a really chilling charcater and sounded a lot like Jeannette Winterson’s mother.

What didn’t work so well was the subdued tone. The writing is deliberately old-fashioned, but takes, in my opinion, too much time. The atmosphere is spooky from beginning to end; the mood depressing, but there’s no real climax. It’s very well written though. I’ll keep an eye out for other books by this author. This was Andrew Michael Hurley’s first novel.

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“A book of great moral maturity, beautifully alive to the fragility of happiness and all forms of violence… Everyone should read Saturday… Artistically, morally and politically, he excels” (The Times)

I know that a lot of people love Ian McEwan. Many even think he’s an outstanding writer. While I find him entertaining, I don’t really think he is all that good. The whole time I was reading Saturday I kept turning the pages quickly, which means I was captivated by the story, but at the same time I couldn’t help but think that this was a lot like Grey’s Anatomy in book form. Captivating but also a bit trashy. Saturday tells the story of one day in the life of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. The details are so minute that it actually made me laugh. You can sense that McEwan did a lot of research but did he have to pack all of it into his book? I found this very heavyhanded. Almost like the novel of a beginner. Now, the neurosurgery part was actually OK. Not the most fascinating topic for me, but OK. But since he wanted to add other subjects, we get a lot of information on literature—one of Perowne’s kids is a poet, and so is his father-in-law— and information on music— his son is a musician. After a while, I felt like being invited to one of those boring dinner parties where everyone has a “great career”, reads the latest books, has seen the latest movies and talks a little bit about politics and endlessly about food. There’s even a recipe in this book. Ha! Perowne and his entourage are the kind of people I’ve seen referred to as “Champage Socialists” here in Switzerland.

At the beginning of the day, Perowne thinks he witnesses something horrible. He’s unsettled. Later, he really experiences something terrible. It all left me completely cold. I’d lost patience with the character. All in all, yes, I was entertained. In a way it felt like spying on someone or like living someone else’s life for a day. Nonetheless, I can’t say I found it great or that it’s a must read.

Have you read any of these?