Tag Archives: Himmler’s Cook

Five Books Translated from French I’ve Read

Since I’ve been blogging my reading habits have changed a little. I’m still reaching for the bright shiny new thing, a habit picked up in bookselling, but it’s now more likely to be short stories or Cover imagesomething in translation than it once was. Not that I’m claiming to read as widely as I should but exposure to the blogosphere has led me to broaden my scope a little for which I’m very grateful. Here, then, is a small sample of novels translated from French that I’ve particularly enjoyed, all with links to full reviews on this blog.

Written in carefully controlled, quietly understated prose Her Father’s Daughter is Marie Sizun’s first novel, published when she was sixty-five. The eponymous daughter is just over four years old when the novel opens, living in cosy, indulgent intimacy with her mother. When her father returns from the war, she finds herself shut out from her parents’ loving reunion. Worse, her father is appalled at her spoilt ways, insisting she learns how to behave and resorting to hitting her when she fails to do so. The child turns in on herself then decides to become the daughter her father wants her to be. All seems well, but when she reveals a secret her world explodes all over again. This is a beautifully expressed piece of writing – spare, wrenching and engrossing, and all the more so for knowing that it’s autobiographical.

Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo begins with a description of a photograph from a local Swiss newspaper: three young people – two men and a woman – bathed in sunlight, wearing white and holding tennis racquets. One of the men in the 1971 cutting is named as Monsieur P. Crüsten, enough to begin to reconstruct a story for the archivist daughter of the woman in the photograph who died when she was four. Hélène’s newspaper advertisement in Libération elicits a reply from M. Crüsten’s son, Stéphane, who identifies the third man as his godfather. A correspondence begins between these two, now middle-aged but still left with aching gaps in their own stories. This beautifully constructed novel is a detective story without a detective. Gestern leads her readers down a few blind alleys until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are finally pieced together while delicately unfolding Stéphane and Hélène’s. The overall effect is to draw you into both stories until you’re desperate to know what happens.

Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz is set in Paris with the odd foray to Brooklyn. Cover imageAhmed becomes aware of something awry when a few drops of blood fall on to his balcony. Using his keys, he enters his neighbour’s apartment to find a particularly grisly murder scene. The hunt for Laura’s murderer takes in a Muslim/Jewish rap band, an ultra-orthodox Jewish Rastafarian, Jehovah’s Witnesses, bent coppers, illicit sky-blue pills and the beginning of a love story. Clues are strewn along the way, clicking the scattered parts of the plot pleasurably into place. The novel has a nice vein of sly wit running through it but its forte is its sharp social observation, taking a scalpel to modern society and its many disparate elements including a well-aimed pop at religious fundamentalism.

Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook is about Rose who, at the age of one hundred and five, has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. When she’s mugged by a young man she suspects is from a comfortable middle-class home she decides to put the frighteners on him. Rose hasn’t lived through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband, to put up with being threatened by some young punk, so she does what she always does: takes revenge. There’s a lot of knockabout humour amidst the activities of the various despots Rose encounters making this a thoroughly enjoyable romp.

Cover imageCombining elements of a blockbuster thriller with sophisticated literary debate, Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story is a fiendishly smart piece of writing. Delphine meets a chic, assured woman who engages her in easy conversation at a party, following it up a few days later with an invitation to coffee. L. quickly becomes the centre around which her world revolves. They have so much in common – experiences, books read, films considered formative. When Delphine talks to L. about her writing plans, a debate about fiction and truth is sparked in which Delphine sees a new, angry side of L. As the year proceeds, Delphine becomes increasingly isolated until L. is her only contact with the outside world. Who is this woman who seems to know so much about her life, who turns up unexpectedly and seems to be watching her every move? An absolutely gripping piece of fiction which really is unputdownable.

 Any novels translated from French you’d like to recommend?

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2016

Cover imageI like to start these previews off with a book I can heartily recommend and I’m delighted to say that’s easy this April as two of my 2015 favourites hit the shops in paperback. Hard to choose which I enjoyed most so I’m starting with one and ending with the other. Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s wonderful Himmler’s Cook took me on a romp through twentieth century history. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ a credo that’s got her through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband. Rose is a fabulous character and, unlikely as it may seem, there’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s protagonist in Hausfrau is the antithesis of Rose, living a life in the Zurich suburbs so attenuated she’s almost faded into its background. Anna is an American who moved to Switzerland with Bruno nine years ago when pregnant with their oldest son. Bruno has settled back into Swiss life, living a short walk from his mother, but Anna has never felt she belongs there, speaking only the most basic German. Her psychiatrist has suggested she join a language class which might make her feel more of a participant than a bystander. Soon, Anna begins an affair and over the course of three months, finds herself embroiled and beleaguered until a calamitous event shakes her to her core. Essbaum’s language is striking and Anna’s story well told. Well worth a read.

The next three are new to me, although I’ve had my eye on Owen Sheer’s I Saw a Man for some time. It’s about Michael Turner who has lost his wife and is now living in London next door to the Nelsons with whom he has become close friends. For Michael, the Nelsons represent everything he has lost but their friendship is a solace to him until a catastrophe changes everything. The synopsis sounds a little trite but Sheers is a fine writer with a reputation for lyrical prose and I suspect his book will be worth reading for that alone.Cover image

I spend quite lot of time banging on about lousy jackets but in this particular case, it’s the jacket that’s sold the book to me so I can only hope the contents live up to it. Nell Leyshon’s Memoirs of a Dipper is about Gary, a seasoned thief, trained by his father on the job when he was just a child. He’s already done a stint inside, coming out of prison a career criminal. Bright, opportunistic, he knows all the moves ‘but all that changes when he falls for Mandy…’ is the nice little teaser from the publisher. A little outside my usual purview but I do like that cover

The same could be said of Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress which is set in 1255 but Elizabeth Gilbert’s description of it as ‘so beautiful, so rich, so strange’ has piqued my interest. Sarah is seventeen when she decides to be an anchoress, shutting herself away in a tiny cell beside the village church. She’s turned her back on the world and devoted herself to prayer in an attempt to escape her grief for her sister and her family’s determination that she should marry. Things, of course, are never so simple. ‘Cadwallader’s powerful debut novel tells an absorbing story of faith, desire, shame, fear and the very human need for connection and touch. With a poetic intelligence, Cadwallader explores the relationship between the mind, body and spirit in Medieval England in a story that will hold the reader in a spell until the very last page’ say the publishers.

Cover imageI’m rounding things off with my other 2015 favourite, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth which was commissioned as part of an exhibition by the Mexican juice factory that appears in the novel. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. Ostensibly the somewhat outlandish story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who has one aim in life – the perfect set of gnashers – the novel’s really about the art of storytelling. Often witty and fantastical, it’s a brilliantly original piece of work and translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is a wonderful finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions.

That’s it for April paperbacks. A click on anything I haven’t already reviewed will take you to a fuller synopsis should you want to know more. If you’d like to catch up with new titles for the month they’re here and here.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 3

Our Souls at NightMy third batch of 2015 favourites starts off on a note of sadness. I’ve long been a champion of Kent Haruf’s beautifully pared back, elegant novels set in Holt, Colorado and so was very sorry to hear that Our Souls at Night was to be his last. Haruf died in 2014, a sad loss at only sixty-nine. This final novel is also set in Holt – how could it not be? – and feels like a fitting end to the series: a beautiful, tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow. Haruf’s insightful writing is clean and simple, stripped of ornament and all the more powerful for it.

My second June choice is also notable for its gorgeous writing. Beginning in 1997, Tender portrays the pain of being gay in a country that had only decriminalised homosexuality five years before. Catherine and James meet in Dublin when James returns from his Berlin stint as a photographer’s assistant to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. Entirely different from each other, they almost instantly click. Eventually, James tells Catherine he’s gay and soon she‘s basking in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those he’s not yet told. Eventually things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. It’s a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one, particularly as I read it at the time of the June referendum on gay marriage in Ireland which answered the question with a resounding ‘yes’. Good enough for me to include on my Man Booker wish list but, once again, the judges thought otherwise.

Entirely different, Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook took me on a romp through Cover imagetwentieth century history. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ a credo that’s got her through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband. Rose is a fabulous character and, unlikely as it may seem, there’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters.

Andreas Egger, the protagonist of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, is the antithesis of Rose, leaving his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia where he remained for nine years as a prisoner-of-war. It’s barely one hundred and sixty pages, but Seethaler’s novel reveals a life far richer than you might expect. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he’s a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. A lovely novel whose setting reminded me of holidays past.

It’s always a joy when a favourite author returns to form after a string of disappointments. William Boyd’s new novel has its feet firmly planted in Any Human Heart territory after several dalliances with thrillers. I’d all but given up on him but the synopsis for Sweet Caress was hard to resist. It follows the life of Amory Clay whose photography takes her from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century. Boyd at his best is hard to beat. He’s a masterful storyteller with a magpie-like eye for bright period detail, seamlessly threading historical bits and pieces through his narrative. Critical reception was a little mixed, apparently, but I thought this was a fine novel, both entertaining and enlightening.

Cover imageThis summer selection ends with Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family which appeared on the Man Booker longlist – at last we agreed. The night before her daughter’s wedding June’s house burns to the ground with her daughter and her fiancé, her ex-husband and her boyfriend inside. In a state of shock and grief, unable to bear the endless stream of condolence, she flees the small Connecticut town where she’s been living for three years in the holiday home she once rarely visited. The bare bones of what happens in Clegg’s carefully assembled novel hardly do it justice: at its heart is the human condition and what that means to us all.

That’s it for summer favourites. A click on a title will take you to my review. Just one more short post for the rest of the year before it’s time to look forward to 2016, and the delights on offer in January. If you missed the first two posts they’re here and here.

Himmler’s Cook by Franz-Olivier Giesbert (transl. by Anthea Bell): A romp through twentieth-century misery

Cover imagePerhaps it’s because those of us in the privileged developed world are living longer – that and the advent of a new century – but there seems to be a little trend for novels written from the point of view of a centenarian bystander, someone who’s rubbed shoulders with those who’ve shaped our world for good or ill: Any Human Heart, The End of Days and The Hundred-Year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared spring to mind. Himmler’s Cook, is another along these lines and it was this that made me pick it up although its clever jacket was another draw. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest.

Rose makes no bones about other people: she can’t stand complainers as she says from the start. When she’s mugged by a young man calling himself the Cheetah, she suspects he’s from a comfortable middle class home and decides to put the frighteners on him. Rose hasn’t lived through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband, to put up with being threatened by some young punk, so she does what she always does: takes revenge. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant having learnt the joys of cooking from her adoptive mother. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ easing the pain of tragedy by means of her beauty and wit to extract the latter while enjoying the former to the full. Giesbert takes his sassy heroine from her early years in Armenia to her confrontation with ‘the Cheetah’ – aka Ryan – after his second transgression, taking in a good deal of blood-spilling, cooking, lovemaking and adventure, not to mention a surprisingly long passage on sheep castration, along the way.

Already a bestseller in France, I suspect Himmler’s Cook is aimed firmly at the Jonasson market here in the UK. Rose is a vividly memorable character, announcing ‘History is a bitch’ then going on to explain just why. Her favourite song is The Jackson Five’s Can You Feel It? and she’s a great admirer of Patti Smith. She believes in living each day as if it’s her last, proclaiming ‘rid yourself of self-esteem or you will never know love’ despite her own supreme self-confidence. Well known names pepper her narrative – Sartre and de Beauvoir regularly dine in her restaurant, Himmler’s bewitched by both her body and her food while Felix Kirsten advises her on how to handle Hitler’s police chief. There’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters. Altogether an enjoyable romp although I felt that Giesbert skated over Rose’s long Chinese sojourn, cramming it into a few short chapters. There’s a lovely description of her adoptive mother that those of us who feel they should read less and get out more will appreciate: ‘ she had never travelled further afield than to Manosque, but thanks to the books she read she had lived a full life.’ Quite so.

Books to Look Out For in June 2015: Part 1

TenderSuch are the many and varied splendours of the June publishing schedules that I’m going to spread them over two posts. Hard to choose which of the first two I’m looking forward to most – both authors are notable for their understated yet lyrical writing but I’ve been waiting four years for Belinda McKeon’s second novel. Her much-lauded debut, Solace, was one of the finest novels I read in 2011, the year it was published.  Set in the late 1990s, Tender is the story of Catherine and James who meet in Dublin, both fresh from rural Ireland. While Catherine welcomes life with open arms, James retreats into himself and their friendship founders. If it’s only half as good as Solace, Tender will be a very fine book indeed.

Hard to follow that but for me Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night is equally to be anticipated. Haruf’s elegant, small town novellas set in his home state of Colorado are an absolute joy to read. He died last year and I wondered if knowledge of what was coming might have coloured the melancholic Benediction. This final novel takes us back to Holt where Addie Moore, widowed for twenty years and lonely, pays the equally bereft Louis Waters a visit and puts a proposition to him. If you haven’t yet discovered Haruf please do try him, particularly if you’re a fan of that pared-back style I’m always banging on about.  

Both a poet and a novelist, Owen Sheers has quite a reputation for lyrical prose, too. His new novel, I Saw a Man, is about Michael Turner who has lost his wife and is now living in London next door to the Nelsons with whom he has become close friends. For Michael, the Nelsons represent everything he has lost but their friendship is a solace to him until a catastrophe changes everything. The synopsis sounds a little trite but Sheers is a fine writer and I suspect his book will be worth reading for that alone.Cover image

Julia Rochester’s debut, The House at the Edge of the World, also involves a death in the family. John Venton’s drunken spree lands him at the bottom of a cliff when Morwenna is only eighteen. The family scatters – Morwenna’s twin in one direction, she in another, while her mother happily turns her back on years of miserable marriage. Only her grandfather stays on in the family home. Seventeen years later they all meet again in the eponymous house and, as in all the best family stories, dark secrets begin to surface. I like the sound of this –  the family secret trope can be riveting if handled well.

Last year I read and enjoyed Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, her account of the time she spent as an assistant to the eponymous reclusive’s literary agent. Bloomsbury are publishing her first novel A Fortunate Age off the back of her memoir’s success. A coming-of-age novel, it revolves around a group of college friends who are just starting out in late ’90s Brooklyn. I’d like to think it will be one of those absorbing novels played out on a small canvas: lots of opportunities for rivalries, domestic crisis, friendships made and broken – you know the kind. However a glance at Goodreads suggests it’s not an unalloyed joy. No doubt I’ll read it anyway

Cover imageChurlish as it may sound, after last year’s seemingly endless parade of titles about the First World War, I’ve been avoiding anything war-related – with the honourable exception of Catherine Hall’s The Repercussions – but Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook sounds like an unusual take on the subject. Cook to Himmler, confidante to Hitler and Simone de Beauvoir’s pal to boot, Rose has not only managed to survive the Armenian genocide, the Nazis and the horrors of Mao Zedong’s regime but has maintained her zest for life throughout. Now 105, she’s recounting her life in what sounds like a thoroughly entertaining tale, tall or otherwise.

That’s it for the first batch of June titles. A click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis. Look out for the second instalment sometime in a week or so, and if you’d like to catch up with May titles you’ll find hardbacks here and paperbacks here.