29 Mar 2010

Monthly Reading: February'10

Oh my! March is almost over and I haven't posted February's Monthly Reading yet!!! :o(
It's the Not A Single Word In English (unless it's in a scientific publication or on a blog, lol!) month!

So this means books read either in French or in Spanish, but not just authors from those two countries, there's also a bit of Sweden (via a Spanish translation). A little literary globe-trotting if you will. ;o)
Stories of children inspired by "grandparently" figures in Paris, tales of contraband and pirates in the Spanish Caribbean, mysterious murders of polemic Swedish religious figures... Ready to come travel with me? :o)

The title basically translates as "The Elegance of the Hedgehog". One of the main characters describes the other this way at one point.
This is a very hard book to describe. We've got two main players. A widow, concièrge in a very classy residential building in Paris and a young girl, daughter of an "enlightened" family in the same building. Each (much) more intelligent than the average person, and each trying to hide that fact from the world so as to blend in better. The woman wants to maintain the impression that she's a "typical" concierge by trying to use improper grammar (which requires a great effort on her part) and keeping her TV on loud on channels showing talk shows and reality shows etc. (which she never watches). She doesn't want anyone to accuse her of stepping above her situation. The girl has decided that she's going to commit suicide on her 13th birthday because she doesn't think it's worth while to grow up and just be another cog in the machinery of modern society (or as she puts it "a fish in a bowl"). She has decided to spend her final months recording "deep thoughts" and a journal of "the movements of the world". It's all first person narrative, the chapters alternating in giving a voice to either character. Their stories finally intersect with a new arrival in the building, an elderly Japanese widower who seems to have a key eye in discerning what others attempt to hide.
It's not so much a story where things "happen" (except towards the final third), but more a discussion, comment on the world and place in society in which they find themselves, through Philosophy, Art, Cinema... I probably would have enjoyed it more had I read just out of high school when my philosophy classes were still fresh in my mind, but I still found it quite intriguing and was taken up enough with the characters to want to know how their stories would get resolved (and how the author would bring them together). Apparently the tale was made into a movie last year, and I was delighted to find out that it will be playing in March among the series of "VOS" films in a cinema here in Alicante. I'm quite curious to know how they turned this in to a movie... seems like something that would be very difficult to adapt. (update: I missed this one thx to my stupid foot problems!)
I've come across an interview of her here (in English) which might interest you.

Aurora Boreal by Asa Larsson (original title in Swedish: Solstorm, SunStorm in English)
When I happened upon two avid readers like my mom and a close friend of mine reading the same book at the same time... I knew I'd have to get a hold of it once one of them finished their copy! I don't think I've ever read anything by a Scandinavian author, and this definitely felt quite foreign to me, both in linguistic style, part of the subject matter (a lot of religious lingo that is not at all along the lines of what you'd hear in a Catholic country), the location (deep winter in the very far north) and the names. Yup, it's odd how hard I found it to keep track of some of the characters as I was distracted by the very Nordic names! lol!
Anyhow, it's a good murder mystery, tied in to some tax evasion scheme (no wonder my mom -independent tax preparer- enjoyed it so!) and is also a trip down memory lane for the protagonist. The plot? An important religious figure is found (brutally) murdered in his church, the police suspect his (rather odd) sister, so she calls in for help a good friend from their youth who skipped town ages ago and now is a tax lawyer in a Stockholm law firm.  Youthful secrets get uncovered and more violence is threatened (and some ensues) as the lawyer digs into the truth of the matter to help prove her friend's innocence.

I stumble upon new books by various means. Recommendations from friends, other readers or online reviewers. The latest of a beloved author I can't wait to get my hands on. Even judging a book by its cover (which doesn't always work so well, duh!). This one was the first time I bought a book because I wanted to have it for a book signing! I got an e-mail from the FNAC saying she'd be in Alicante signing her latest novel and I thought "cool! I've got to go to that! How many times does one get to meet an author? Even rarer one whose books one enjoys?". I've read 3 books of hers, one I loved (El Ultimo Catón), one I enjoyed quite a bit (Iacobus, reviewed it here a couple of months ago), and one I thought was lousy (El Salón de Ambar, apparently her first novel, she's definitely improved!). So I figured this was the perfect excuse to check out another one. But as I read the back of the book I discovered she'd already written a book with the same characters... damn! I hate jumping into a story 1/2-way in! So what do I do? Well of course, like any self-respecting bookworm... I also buy the previous volume! Very relieved to find it in paperback (so 1/3rd of the price of the new one), and rather thin (240pp) so no problem to read it in a couple of days in time to show up at the book signing with the new hardback and not appear to be a total ignoramus! :p
Just by looking over the two novels I was pretty sure I'd enjoy them. Historical fiction? check! An intriguing heroine? check! Swashbuckling, smuggling and piracy? triple check! The Caribbean? Oooh... definitely what I needed to warm up with the mercury falling out of the bottom of the thermometers lately!
The time: early 1600s
The place: the islands of the Caribbean (Dive Girl, I thought of you! they mention Bonaire!!!) and Terra Firme a.k.a. the Caribbean coast of South America (i.e. Columbia etc.) as well as Sevilla in the second book.
Our heroine:  Martin Ojo de Plata a.k.a. Catalina Solis, orphaned daughter of a Toledan swordsmith who is on her way from Toledo to the New World for a marriage arranged by her uncle. Her ship is attacked by English pirates (corsairs with authorisations by Queen Elisabeth to "attack" the Spanish fleets) but she manages to escape overboard, hugging a desk (?!) and washes ashore at a desert island where she survives a year until found and rescued by a merchant vessel whose captain does local commerce within the Spanish Caribbean colonies. She tries passing as a boy (dressed in her brother's clothes, with one of her father's swords), but he doesn't fall for it, and learning of her probable future fate if he returns her to her family (the man she was married to by proxy is a deformed, crazed boy, whose father just wants to breed with a Spanish woman so he can get a true heir) decides she'd be better off with him and adopts her as his son. The crew (who have only seen a "boy") go along with it, and to the rest of the world she is now Martin Nevares and is destined for a life of adventures at sea and on land, learning to read, write (things she hadn't been taught as a "lowly woman"), navigate by the stars, do commerce and contraband... and even better enjoy the freedom a man has and a woman lacks (she is so ingrained in her femaleness that it is shocking for her to "be a man" and take certain liberties). In the second novel she takes advantage of her "dual identity" to go undercover in the high society of 1600s Sevilla to accomplish a personal vendetta against the family responsible for the deaths of many of her loved ones.
The bad guys: English and Dutch pirates (in the background), but mainly the Curvos, an important family with their fingers in way to many commercial pies in the colonies. In the first novel on of their cousins swindled her new "father" and practically "owned" him, she decides to get his life back. Which will have grave consequences in the second novel when the "family" finds a way to take vengeance.
Very easy to read (in spite of the occasional use of terms in "old" Spanish), very engaging and so both of them were quick reads (hard to put down!). My only problem was that I like to stop reading at the end of a chapter... but that wasn't always possible due to the length of the chapters (50pp)!
As for the book-signing, well thank heavens for conversations with random strangers in a line, it makes it much easier to pass by the 1h wait! :p Unfortunately with so many other people waiting it's not like you get a chance to talk to the author (pity!) but I did jokingly ask her when the next volume is coming out and she laughingly said "but I just finished writing this one!" to which I replied "but I've already finished it and want to know how she's going to get out of her current predicament and deal with the remaining Curvos!" to which she replied "you guys read a lot faster than I can write!" Oh well, I just hope the delay is shorter than between the first two books (almost 3 years), since she's done most of the research already... fingers crossed! I guess I'll just have to re-read both of the them when the third and final volume comes out! ;o) If you read Spanish you can download the first chapter of each of these on her official website (just click on the titles up there).
Update: my dad just finished reading both of these (yay! he's reading in Spanish!) and really enjoyed them! He's with me in thinking they'd make some great swashbuckling/adventure movies! ;o)

Sangre Derramada by Asa Larsson (original title in Swedish: Det blod som spillts, in English The Blood Spilt)
Welcome back to Arctic Circle! Well at least that's where I think these two novels take place based on descriptions of endless nights in the first and midnight suns in the second. This takes place almost 2 years after the first, starting off with the murder of another polemic religious figure close to the city of Kiruna (site of the first novel). We meet again with the two cops responsible for that investigation, and with the lawyer who is still reeling from the consequences of that mid-winter's night. The story is very realistic in that sense... no brushing off the psychological effects of living through an event like that (poor woman!), who ends up "home" for a business trip, stays to rest... and manages to get herself in the thick of things again! This woman kind of reminds me of Angela Lansbury in "Murder She Wrote": if she appears, then get out of Dodge 'cause it's dangerous hanging around her! The tale follows a similar structure to the first one, with the chapters organised by days (the whole action covers about a week), and there are also flashbacks into characters' pasts linking them in various ways to the murder victim. But whereas that felt like a good technique in the first book to explain Rebecka's link to her past (which was oozing through the subtext in the way various characters treated her, talked to her etc..), here it's a bit distracting because we're looking through so many different characters' memories and I sometimes had trouble telling them apart. That and there's no visual differentiation between the flashbacks and the present (in the other one they were in italics). Also, the murder mystery is a bit too conveniently wrapped up in my opinion, and some of the characters' ultimate fate are left hanging for the next novel. Damn! I hope they hurry up and translate it (published 4 years ago in Swedish)! For all their flaws these are still some very compelling mysteries, and once you're about halfway through the book it's hard to put it down!

This is a lovely little tale (only 85pp) several friends raved to me about years ago. One of them was going to loan it to me but for some reason never did. So when I saw it in the Fnac the other day I figured it was about time I checked it out! If anyone reading this is learning French and wants something fun, interesting and not too difficult or long to read, then definitely look this one up!
It's a simple tale of a growing friendship between a young Jewish boy and an old Muslim (not Arab as he keeps saying! -although everyone calls him that-) shopkeeper, in 1960s Paris. Momo -the boy Moïse- lives in the shadow of a missing/departed/dead/imaginary (not clear!) older brother that his depressed dad (Holocaust survivor's guilt) is always comparing him to, and with the weight of the loss of a mother who abandoned him at birth. Monsieur Ibrahim kindly takes him under his wing and tries to help him learn to live.
Apparently it was first a play, then the short story, and finally a film starring Omar Sharif which I am definitely going to have to look up!


  1. Surely you did not READ all these books this month, did you? I will look for the Arctic Circle books in English at my local store, they look fascinating. How do you manage to get all this done AND work on your thesis?

  2. in that AND lies the glitch... :s

    but I read fast, a couple of those were quick reads, the swedish thrillers once they got you hooked meant late nights, and the last couple of days of the month I was stuck lying down with a foot up in the air thx to a tumble down some stairs... so couldn't do anything but read! :p

  3. Reading in all those languages? Wow, Chris! You're amazing!

  4. "all those languages" Nancy? It's just French and Spanish! I actually learnt to read in French before English! and started reading in Spanish on the road signs and billboards when we moved to Mexico... It's all normal to me! ;o)

    Now if I had read two of those in Swedish it would be another matter... :p

  5. Sounds fun! I'm so behind on my reading right now - at least fun reading - everything I pick up has been for class lately. So now I'm trying to re-read a series that I enjoy. It's easier with a story I know. If I get distracted or have to put it down, I can pick up where I left off without feeling lost.

  6. Just to let you know I have tagged you for a theme post. If you would like to take part, go to the first folder of your pictures, select and post the 10th photo with a short explanation of what it is etc and then nominate 5 fellow bloggers to do the same {or not}.

    If you feel it doesn't fit with your blog, please ignore.

    Mine is here http://www.e-clecticism.com/2010/04/tag-my-tenth-photo.html


Hey there! Yes you! The quiet one in the back... I'd love it if you hung out for a bit and shared your thoughts!

I might stop by your place with an answer, but I'm more likely to reply right here so click on "email follow up comments" if you'd like to see what I and others have to say and come continue the conversation! ;o)