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TSS: Following Up with Authors

June 13, 2010

The Sunday Salon.comAnd the categorised group reviews continue! Normally for TSS I simply write about the books I’ve read in the past week, but I’m determined to get up-to-date as quickly as possible. So I chose my largest ‘group’ to talk about today: books that I picked up as my second or third experience with authors I liked the first time round.

I hope I’m not alone in saying that sometimes, when I really loved the first book I’ve read by a new-to-me author, I’m almost afraid to read a second book by them. I worry that my expectations will be too high, that somehow if I don’t absolutely adore the second book the magic will have gone out of the first. (This is why, if I’m more interested in trying out a new-to-me author than a specific book, I always try to start with the author’s debut novel. That way, I figure I’ll get to watch them develop, and it takes a lot of the nervousness away.) At the same time, I’m excited at the prospect of finding a new favourite author and horribly curious to see what such talent looks like in a different book. So it’s with a stew of emotions, and sometimes even a bit of a stomach ache that I open the first pages of my second experience with an author. Today, I’ll be talking about four such books, as well as two books that are my third experiences (which I don’t find nearly as nerve wracking…I’m sure I could find a dating metaphor in all of this if I looked a bit more closely). Most went well, a couple didn’t, but in all cases I’m glad to be reading more deeply this year.

Claudine in Paris is the third Colette I’ve read (Gigi was my first, and I would have loved it if I hadn’t seen the musical and thus had the creepy “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” song running through my head the whole time and then I tried Claudine at School last year), and it’s confirmed her standing as a favourite author whose entire backlist I want to consume. The book simply sparkles with joie de vivre! It picks up a few months after Claudine in School ended, with Claudine recovering from a long fever. She quickly catches the reader up with her new life in Paris, which happened because her professorial-type father desired to be close to his publishers so as to better edit his manuscript as it heads towards print. While lamenting her new short hair and skinniness, both side effects of the fever, Claudine quickly gets her feet under her and insists upon her father introducing her to his sister. At her aunt’s, she meets a ‘cousin,’ a rather effeminate boy ‘prettier than she is’ with a deep interest in fashion and a boyfriend of his own. He and Claudine connect, sharing stories of school romances (if you’ve read the first book, you know that Claudine isn’t a stranger to same-gender attraction) and jaunt around Paris together. Eventually, a love interest appears for Claudine (no real surprise considering the third book in the quartet is entitled Claudine Married), and it was quite delicious to watch all of that develop. :) Part of why I love Colette is her matter-of-fact approach to gender and sexuality: it’s much more fluid that perhaps society would like, and her characters show exactly that. Sometimes they’re attracted to men, sometimes women….sometimes older people, sometimes younger…..sometimes they act upon it, sometimes they don’t. But while society occasionally thunders its disapproval form the margins, Colette’s own viewpoint is obviously accepting of this. I also just adore Claudine, because even though she can be a bit heartless, she’s one of those girls whose knowledge comes from extensive reading more than life experiences: precocious, shall we say? Colette captures her voice wonderfully, so childish while trying to sound worldly…here’s a sample:

And I’m working out still another blue dress. I cultivate blue, not for its own sake, but for the way it sets off the Spanish-tobacco colour of my eyes.

And let’s be honest: we’ve all been a bit heartless, a bit scheming or manipulative at one time or another. Or at least, I have; I remember as a teen, while I was riddled with insecurity, I also enjoyed testing myself to see if I could get people to do what I wanted them to (and my girl friends were the same way!). Of course, I’ve grown out of that now, but it might be part of why I instantly connected with Claudine, despite our differences (I didn’t even have my first kiss until college, hehe). So after that little digression, I simply want to say that I can’t wait to read more Colette (and I’m hoping I can get some of her books in French, since I bet that would make them even more fun), and when someday I have that permanent library I’m always dreaming about, you can bet her collected works will be lined up there. With perhaps a champagne bottle or two as a bookend! (Appropriately enough, I read this for the World Party Challenge, although a bit late for the French celebration month of April.)

I’ve been quite nervous about discussing this next book, because my opinion of it veers wildly from pretty much every book blogger I’ve seen review it. But here goes nothing! When I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie I definitely enjoyed it, but I didn’t unreservedly love it…I can’t explain why, but it was just missing a bit of something for me. So when my readers voted for me to pick up The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, I was curious and hopeful that with a bit more development I would fall for Flavia. Unfortunately, that simply wasn’t to be. First of all, without getting into spoiler-ific details, the solution to the mystery didn’t hold water with me. At all. To see if I was imagining things, I described it to my mom, and she too found it really questionable. We even did an experiment re: shoes (which you’ll be able to guess if you’ve read the book) and were left with our suspicions confirmed. But even before I got to the solution, I was finding the book a bit tiresome. (This is heresy, isn’t it?!) I mentioned before that I really enjoy Flavia’s chemistry leanings, and I do. But other aspects of herself and her family just seemed a bit, well, twee to me. Oh! And I just remembered the part that REALLY annoyed me. Occasionally the female characters go on a bit about the sisterhood of women or something regarding their gender and say things that I completely disagreed with, as a woman. And since Bradley isn’t a woman, well, I guess I’m calling trump. I can’t share these quotes with you, since I forgot to type them out before returning the book to the library, but they were definitely there, because once again I read them out to my mom (who didn’t know if the book wasn’t written by a guy or a girl), and she made her annoyed face too. So it’s not just me! ;) In the end, while I can see why so many people enjoy the series, I can’t say I have any desire to read the third Flavia book when it arrives. But I am glad they’re providing so much pleasure to so many others!

After reading and adoring Kitchen and Hardboiled & Hard Luck, I couldn’t wait to open my third Banana Yoshimoto book: Goodbye, Tsugumi. I loved the actual storyline and the characters for this one…Maris is a Japanese college girl in Tokyo is looking back on her childhood in a guesthouse in a small coastal town, where she lived with her mother as well as her aunt’s family. She had two cousins, and much of the book is about Tsugumi, the younger cousin who has a chronic illness that makes her family cater to her and who also has a strong, unpredictable personality. As you might imagine, the chronic illness part of that struck close to home, and while I’m nothing like Tsugumi, I still really connected with her (as seen through Maria’s eyes of course). I loved the way that the book urged me to think about ‘big questions’ like justice and illness and what constitutes a ‘good life’ while still being an engaging coming-of-age story. That being said, I had a problem with the writing. Part of it was the translation, I think, since there was a lot of colloquial English sayings that just completely drew me out of the story. I kept thinking: “What?! Am I in Japan?!” However, I just looked it up and the same translator did Hardboiled & Hard Luck, so maybe Yoshimoto was trying a different style? I don’t know, but I was constantly annoyed while reading that I couldn’t just pick up the original Japanese. ;) This really surprised me, since one of the things I loved most about the other two Yoshimoto books I’ve read is her luminous prose. Still, I’m glad that I read this one and I fully intend to read all of Yoshimoto’s backlist. I think I’ll go for Asleep next, and perhaps Yoshimoto will appear in my sidebar one of these days! :D

After all of this fiction, I do have a nonfiction work to discuss! I put Anatomy of a Rose by Sharman Apt Russell on my Biodiversity Challenge list because I very much enjoyed Russell’s Hunger and wanted to read more by her. Well, this book blew me away! It’s a collection of essays all on various aspects of flowers, and the writing merges science and philosophy and humour and imagination and reverence and perfect prose. Here’s a taste of that last quality:

We get up every day, surrounded by mystery and marvel, enthused by all the things we do not know. Life on earth has had four billion years to get this far. We Woke up this morning to try and figure it out.

This is the kind of science writing I highly recommend for people who think they have no interest in science, and I treasured each page. I cannot wait to read her other books, especially her ones on butterflies and pantheism, and she’s another one I’d love to collect for that permanent library in the sky. Please don’t think the brevity of this paragraph reflects my feelings on the book: I think it was a perfect jewel, but there’s only so many ways I can write that before it becomes repetitive! ;)

When I read Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance back in January, I unexpectedly fell in love. So I decided to request They Knew Mr. Knight for Claire and Verity’s Persephone Week. Of course, then I didn’t get to participate, so it wasn’t until last week that I found myself opening up the book! For the first two hundred or so pages, I was enchanted. I love Whipple’s ability to really get at her characters and analyse them so minutely that even if I’m nothing like the character, the human truth of it rings out. Here she is talking about the eldest daughter of the family at the heart of the novel:

Freda was a snob. But her snobbery caused her discomfort. It was rather a consciousness of the ideal from which she suffered. She had ideals to which nobody conformed.

While I don’t share Freda’s particular ideals (which mainly center around beauty and outward things), that last sentence just resonated with me. My friends and family often say that I care too much, because I have so much passion about things like feminism and animal rights and the environment and racism and social justice and oh I could probably keep going. I actually find myself not talking about these things very often, because I care so deeply that it’s difficult for me to find a dispassionate way to express my beliefs, and when I find that others don’t care about all of these wrongs as much as I do, I get so worked up I can barely put together a sentence that doesn’t include a character attack or a plaintive ‘why?’. (I think this is one of my biggest flaws, and I’m working on becoming better at talking about these things, but it isn’t easy as my attempt to review Eating Animals demonstrates.) But back to the book! As I said, it centers around a family that’s comfortable on the matter of money, but not much more than that, until the husband gets involved with Mr. Knight who is a speculative investor. I loved how Whipple explores the effect of becoming richer on relationships, and how it’s not always for the best that a family becomes more well-off. This passage in particular really struck me:

Since the War, almost a decade now, the Blakes had been, like a happy country, without history. They had lived in the Grove, holding together. The growing children were dependent on their parents; their parents were bound to each other by affection and interests which were perhaps made mutual by lack of money. Thomas could not afford a car, a club, or golf; he therefore spent his spare time with his family.

I was about to start discussing my views on money and my goals for life, but I realised this post is already far too long. ;) So instead I’ll continue talking about the book. For me, the problem set in around page 250…it become obvious where the story was going, which I don’t usually mind since I’m not a plot-centric reader, but I couldn’t believe it was take another 200 pages to get there. The whole thing just felt a bit too drawn out and tedious, and I started to not want to pick it up. Additionally, while I agree with some of Whipple’s beliefs, I did feel that they were expressed with quite a heavy hand and some of the characters began to feel more like moral lessons than characters. Anyway, I think if it had been 350 pages instead of 450, I would have loved it. As it is, I haven’t written Whipple off, but I feel no urgency in my desire to read more of her.

<We're to the last book, which I just finished yesterday! Let the Dead Lie is the sequel to Malla Nunn’s debut mystery A Beautiful Place to Die, and there’s definitely space for a series to develop. Nunn was born in Swasiland and while she now lives in Australia, her books at set in South Africa just as apartheid was really becoming codified (the laws against inter-race romance have recently been passed). I think Nunn is a marvelous writer, and she sets the perfect narrative tone of the hardboiled style her books fit:

The driver of the Chevrolet was a skinny white woman who’d given up being a blond. A trench of dark brown hair ran down the center of her head like a deserted landing strip.

That being said, I don’t enjoy hardboiled mysteries, so for me the reading experience was a funny combination of me loving the setting and the main character and the plot while also mentally cringing and ducking whenever another bit of violence cropped up. It doesn’t feel gratuitous, don’t get me wrong, but for someone who’s more of a traditional style (have I mentioned how much I hate the label ‘cosy’? but that’s a rant for another day), I couldn’t help thinking the novel would be perfect if only that hardboiled-ness would disappear! ;) That being said, I still really enjoyed Let the Dead Lie, even more than A Beautiful Place to Die, and if you prefer your mysteries with a bit of an edge I bet you’ll love this series. I do have one little nitpick-y thing to add, though…there’s a Russian subplot involved, and Nunn got some of the little details (like names) wrong. She also fell into my biggest pet peeve, as demonstrated by what one character says to the detective after trying to translate the Russian engraving on a gun and failing:

“It’s funny. I really thought I could read more Russian script than that.”

Because you know: Russian is just like English, but in a different alphabet. So if you can read the letters, logically you know exactly what it’s saying. But if you haven’t studied Russian, I doubt you’ll be rolling your eyes at that bit! ;) Anyway, with that one caveat, this is the start of a great series, and it’s compelling enough to make me overlook my discomfort with the hardboiled style, which is saying quite a bit. If you haven’t given Nunn a try, you’re missing out! (Also, if you’re taking part in the African Diaspora Challenge like me, she’s a perfect author for Southern Africa.)

Whew! I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. :) Today is my mom’s 50th birthday and we’re having a barbeque this afternoon, so I’m off to prepare for that. I hope everyone else is looking forward to their Sunday!

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47 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2010 7:41 am

    I really need to read some Collette! Sorry you haven’t enjoyed Flavia very much.

  2. June 13, 2010 7:43 am

    You do seem to be one of the few people who didn’t enjoy the Flavia books much. I’m looking forward to reading the books and I expect to enjoy them because there’ve been so many positive reviews about them, but I liked reading your thoughts as well. I agree with you, I dislike the idea of a “sisterhood of women”, I wonder if I’ll notice it when I get around to reading the books.

    On your other books: I’ve recently been recommended Yoshimoto and Colette. I’m curious to see what I’ll think of them.

    Oh & your remark on feeling hesitant to pick up a second book by an author you enjoyed before sounds very familiar to me. I often feel that way.

    • June 15, 2010 5:52 am

      I know; I’m totally the exception. :) I’ve gotten used to it, though…there are other books that I feel I’m pretty much the only one who didn’t love! And I can’t wait to see what you make of Yoshimoto-start with Kitchen!

  3. June 13, 2010 8:26 am

    Yup, I have that reluctance to pick up an author’s second book. And it gets worse if the second book I read by an author is better than the first; that gives me the uneasy feeling that I’m on a streak of luck that’s going to quickly run out.

    You know, I pressured somebody into getting the second Flavia de Luce mystery for my mother for her birthday, and I’m not sure either Mumsy or I ended up actually reading it. We both liked the first one, but I guess I felt like the novelty of Flavia’s character would wear off in a second book.

    • June 15, 2010 5:53 am

      Yes re: the streak of good luck! I can’t wait to see what you and your mom make of Flavia, round 2. ;)

  4. June 13, 2010 8:47 am

    I feel the same way you do about reading a second book by a beloved author. What if they disappoint me? I have a difficult time paring down my expectations, so it’s bound to be even harder for that same author to wow me another time.

    And you know, I tried reading the first Flavia book on audio, and got two discs in (out of I think 9) and gave up. I wasn’t sucked into the story and I didn’t particularly love any of the characters, even Flavia. Also I don’t think I really enjoyed the narrator, but that’s not the book’s fault.

    Have fun at the barbeque! Tell your mom happy birthday from all your blogging friends. :)

    • June 15, 2010 5:55 am

      I’m so glad to hear how you felt about Flavia! And I did tell my mom happy birthday. :)

  5. June 13, 2010 8:48 am

    Colette’s books are indeed like a flute of Champagne and effervescently full of joie de vivre! I need to follow your example (and soon!) by delving more deeply into the oeuvre of this beloved writer; I have one of her books so very close to the top of my TBR piles but reading slumps and life’s great funks have prevented me… I definitely identify too with the teenage precociousness of Claudine. I would love to be fluent in French and read Colette in her native language – read Le Chat and Rainy Moon (both long short stories/short novellas) if you can.

    Whipple does manage to evoke human truth so startlingly well; I haven’t read They Knew Mr. Knight yet but They Were Sisters was brilliantly and wonderfully evoked (especially if -as I know you are- you have a sister).

    • June 15, 2010 5:59 am

      Thanks for the Colette recs! I have Le Chat in English on my shelves (my copy of “Gigi” included it), so I’ll read that next. My library has a pretty good foreign language section, so I’m crossing my fingers it has some French.

      I definitely want to read They Were Sisters: I’m hoping I’ll love it as much as I did Someone at a Distance.

  6. June 13, 2010 8:55 am

    There are only a handfull of author’s that I feel the need to read all of thesedays. Michael Cunningham comes to mind. I’ve read all of his books and will probably continue to do so, even though Specimen Days was a disappointment. After a while the experience becomes one of catching up with an old friend. An old friend who hasn’t really done anything all that interesting lately, but one who did much when younger.

    And I do need to finally read something by Colette.

    • June 15, 2010 6:01 am

      Aww re: Cunningham. I don’t think I’ve ever read him. It’s so hard when authors start to go downhill.

  7. June 13, 2010 10:10 am

    I just finished a book with a supposedly precocious pre-teen mystery novel narrator (derivative, perhaps) and also didn’t warm to her or to the story very much. It was set in 1990s Germany, and it just didn’t work completely for me. So I can see why you didn’t love the Weed book!

    I really need to try Collette.

    • June 15, 2010 6:02 am

      Thanks for making me feel better about Flavia. ;)

  8. June 13, 2010 12:05 pm

    I’ve been curious about Colette for a while now, but haven’t been sure where to start. The book about flowers looks interesting too, and I agree with you about the Flavia books, I tried to read the first one but quickly stopped as it just didn’t seem plausible.

    • June 15, 2010 6:02 am

      Claudine at School is the first book she wrote…when I’m not sure where to start with an author, that’s what I do! And yay for another non-Flavia fan. :)

  9. June 13, 2010 12:32 pm

    I started my first Whipple book yesterday, The Priory. I love it already and I believe I’ve found a new writer to collect!

  10. June 13, 2010 12:46 pm

    Yes, I totally get that feeling of being afraid to read more of an author that I absolutely loved for fear of being let down. I also tend to save these books because I don’t want to read them all and then be left with nothing by the author.

    I read Goodbye, Tsugumi during my blogging absense so have mostly forgotten it as I failed to write about it but I also got that feeling of being pulled away from the writing because of the colloquial speech. I do look forward to reading more of Yoshimoto’s works as I did really enjoy Tsugumi overall.

    • June 15, 2010 6:09 am

      >>I also tend to save these books because I don’t want to read them all and then be left with nothing by the author.

      I totally do that too! And try to space them out. :) Was Goodbye, Tsugumi your first Yoshimoto? You should go for Kitchen next. :)

  11. Laura (Reading and Rooibos) permalink
    June 13, 2010 12:49 pm

    I’ve added Anatomy of a Rose to my wishlist based on your description. Sounds like a complete gem of a book! I also sometimes experience similar reservations about reading multiple books by authors I’ve really enjoyed the first time around, but for me, it’s more about not wanting to “run out” of books by that person in case they don’t (or can’t, in the case of the deceased) write another. I often finding myself doing the same thing with my music listening habits — taking a long time to work through a band or artist’s catalog instead of delving into it all at once.

    • June 15, 2010 6:11 am

      Yay: I hope you enjoy Anatomy! I try really hard not to run out of books too; once I realise I love an author, I start to parcel out their stuff. hehe

  12. June 13, 2010 1:52 pm

    “My friends and family often say that I care too much, because I have so much passion about things like feminism and animal rights and the environment and racism and social justice and oh I could probably keep going. I actually find myself not talking about these things very often, because I care so deeply that it’s difficult for me to find a dispassionate way to express my beliefs, and when I find that others don’t care about all of these wrongs as much as I do, I get so worked up I can barely put together a sentence that doesn’t include a character attack or a plaintive ‘why?’.”

    Ugh, I SO face this same challenge.

    And there are quite a few authors in here I have yet to try for a FIRST time. Collette, Dorothy Whipple…I’ve got to get on that!

    • June 15, 2010 6:12 am

      I’m glad I’m not alone w/ that challenge.

  13. June 13, 2010 3:11 pm

    Hi, Eva, love your salon post today!

    And…I have an award for you here:

    http://curlupandread.wordpress.com/2010/06/13/a-fabulous-award/

  14. June 13, 2010 5:12 pm

    Sometimes I am so enthralled by an author that I have to read another book, and another. Right now I’m doing that with Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters. Thanks for reminding me about Malla Nunn and have a wonderful week.

    • June 15, 2010 6:12 am

      I’ve been spacing out my Sarah Waters so she’ll last longer! But I would LOVE to just go on a binge. :)

  15. June 13, 2010 5:17 pm

    I really love books where the ‘voice’ is charismatic and engaging, so Colette’s Claudine books sound definitely like something I should try.

  16. June 13, 2010 6:13 pm

    I have only read a couple of books by Colette, but I love her work. The most recent was The Ripening Seed which has the most gorgeous descriptions of the Brittany coast, where it is set and where Colette vacationed. I really need to read those Claudine books, but I’m not sure which I’ll pick up next.

  17. June 14, 2010 6:54 am

    So looking forward to reading more of Banana Yoshimoto. I’ve only read Kitchen, but Asleep is awaiting me. It’s interesting to read how you wanted to read this in Japanese, me too! I often wonder what is lost in translation, hopefully not too many of her luminous phrases! I admire how much you read and so quickly…

    • June 15, 2010 6:22 am

      I can’t wait to read Asleep! This is the first Yoshimoto I’ve read where the translation felt off.

  18. June 14, 2010 9:48 am

    Banana Yoshimoto and Collette are on my hope-to-get-to soon list. I usually have fears about the third book by an author if I didn’t warm to the second. and THANK YOU for telling us about Anatomy of a Rose by Sharman Apt Russell – I WANT!

    • June 15, 2010 6:23 am

      I see the 3rd book as the ‘test’ book if I didn’t like the 2nd much. I usually go in w/ low expectations on that one!

  19. June 14, 2010 1:55 pm

    Anatomy of a Rose sounds great. I love flowers :) And I’ve been eying Whipple since I just finished a different Persephone and need another on back up somewhere. Maybe not this one, but the first you mention…

  20. June 14, 2010 3:11 pm

    I saw GiGi recently and wasn’t that much of a fan, that Thank Heaven song really is creepy today! After reading your thoughts on the Claudine books I really want to try Claudine at School now, it sounds like a great book.

    • June 15, 2010 6:24 am

      Isn’t that song sooo disturbing?! Eek. But do try some Colette. :)

  21. June 14, 2010 5:58 pm

    Sorry to see that you weren’t a fan of The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag :( Flowers by Sharman Apt Russell sounds really great, as I also loved Hunger! And I love that first quote you included from They Knew Mr. Knight!

    • June 15, 2010 6:25 am

      Wasn’t Hunger great?! Anatomy definitely lives up to it. :)

  22. June 15, 2010 10:17 pm

    Thanks for posting about your reservations on the Bradley books! I wasn’t a huge fan of the “Sweetness” book either — man, I felt like such a jerk too…since everyone in the world was singing their praises sooooo much — and I have been debating about whether or not to give them a second chance. I think I’ll save my time and money. :-)

  23. June 18, 2010 7:04 am

    Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Flavia. I did, but I wasn’t particularly bothered about the mystery, I just loved the whole world created by Bradley (I find that I’ve read so many mysteries that I focus more on characters now than the mystery itself. Of course I’m still partial to a good mystery!)

    I actually read Tsugumi in Japanese many years ago (Yoshimoto’s books are normally quite short, so they’re good if you aren’t confident in the language) and felt it had more of an impact on me than Kitchen, which I also loved. But I was in my late teens then. I haven’t read it in English and may give it another shot just to see whether I feel the same way about it.

  24. June 20, 2010 1:41 pm

    Love Colette! I’ve read all her books in English, but am now pondering picking up the Claudine series again in French. It made me a little sad to learn the history of those books when I read her biography – how her husband Willy “co-wrote” them with her, which basically meant that he took credit for her work & “encouraged” her to include certain plotlines, etc. She makes the love interest between the Colette character & the Willy character quite convincing, so it was a little crushing to me to learn that the real-life counterpart was so gross and exploitative. That said, I totally agree with you about their effervescence and sane, balanced view of gender & sexuality.

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