Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Middlesteins

A Jewish Family in Chicago?

Good authors make you care about characters with whom you have nothing in common. Think Allison Johnson in Willy Vlautin's Northline, or Stoner in John William's eponymous novel.

I am only halfway through Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins, but I am living alongside this family as they deal with divorce, ambition and a mother with an unhealthy relationship with food.

Yes, it's a dark novel, but it's funny too, and warm. A serious book that doesn't take itself too seriously. Jonathan Frazen said, "The Middlesteins had me from the very first page," and I have to agree. There is something delightfully dysfunctional about this family.

If you are looking for an engrossing summer read then look no further. 

The author, Jami Attenberg, will be appearing at the Morges Book Festival alongside other writers, such as Nathan Filer (The Shock of the Fall) and Sadie Jones (The Outcasts, Fallout). You can find ot more about the festival at www.lelivresurlesquais.ch. Personally, I can't wait!

Thursday, 10 April 2014

New books set or written in Switzerland

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
Joel Dicker

For those of you who haven't heard of him, Jöel Dicker is a young author from Geneva who won numerous prizes for this book when it first appeared under the French title,
La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert.

The book has now been translated into English and will be published in three weeks, so get your orders in now!

It tells the story of novelist Harry Quebert who, in 1975, fell in love with fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan. Thirty-three years later, her body is dug up from his yard along with a manuscript copy of his career-defining novel. Quebert is the only suspect.

The book has been described as, "a brilliantly intricate murder mystery, a hymn to the boundless reaches of the imagination, and a love story like no other."

It will be available from your nearest and dearest independent bookshop from 2nd May.         


A Heart Bent Out of Shape
Emylia Hall

It's always fun to read a book set in the city where you live, particularly that feeling of knowing where the action is taking place. So I was delighted to hear about a new book set in Lausanne.

A Heart Bent out of Shape is set in, and I quote, "the glittering Swiss city of Lausanne, a place that feels alive with promise."

The story concerns Hadley Dunn who decides to spend a year studying at the English department at Lausanne University. Here Hadley meets Kristina, a beautiful but elusive Danish girl, and the two quickly form the strongest of bonds. Yet one November night, as the first snows of winter arrive, tragedy strikes.

Hadley, left reeling and guilt-stricken, begins to lean on the only other person to whom she feels close, her American Literature professor Joel Wilson. But as the pair try to uncover the truth of what happened that night, their tentative friendship heads into forbidden territory...

 The book is available now.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Happy Birthday Books Books Books!

Bookselling and the Art of Happiness

I opened the bookshop on this day 5 years ago. Nervous preparation turned to elation as customers came through the door. It seems so long ago that my memories of that first year have become hazy.

I remember a team of friends assembling the bookshelves. I remember taking an order for 300 francs and thinking I'd hit the big time, and stacking a wall full of books I'd never sell. Skipping lunch to save money, not having the time to read. How things change.

That was 2008. A couple of months later the sterling crashed, and in 2 years the Kindle would become the dominant way people bought stories.

But the bookshop is still here, and every year we sell more and more books.

What do I love? I love the regular customers who I've known since forever. The friends I have made. Sometimes people send me an email for recommending a good book - these I want to stick on the wall. The bookshop attracts characters who make my life interesting.

I enjoy the freedom of determining my own success, and of being close to the heart of a literary community.

It's not all great; sometimes I envy people with stable jobs and healthy pensions. I lie awake at night as well asking myself if I have made the correct decision.

Would I sell the shop? The entrepreneur in me would, in an instant, if the price was right. The bookseller in me wouldn't. It would be interesting to see which side would win if I ever got an offer. I'd be curious to see what I'd do next.

Something cool.

Highs of this year include getting drunk with Colum McCann, reading Stoner, employing Emma, a photo from Politics and Prose, the friends, and those wonderful, wonderful people who order books.

Man, I'm tired. Bring more champagne!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

La Nuit de la Lecture

Free Book Readings All Day and All Night

Why do I still hear people saying, "Nothing happens in Lausanne"? Last month you could have seen John Malkovich on stage in St Prex. A couple of weeks ago there was the Morges Book Festival. And this Saturday Lausanne hosts La Nuit de la Lecture.

This is a free festival taking place across several locations in the city. It's starting early, at 2pm, with book readings for kids. As evening approaches the theme switches to poems and stories for adults. Come the midnight hours and the readings turn decidedly chaud.

You can check out the entire programme at the website http://www.lanuitdelalecture.ch. You're bound to find something that will interest you amongst the Slam Poetry, Japanese Kamishibai and the music/text crossovers.

Books Books Books is contributing two events. At 14.30 there is the "Jabberwocky Booky Wooky Party" a celebration of poetry and story-telling directed at kids.

At 18.00 there is Lausanne Writers, Laura Spinney and Jon Steele will be discussing how the city inspired their work. They will both be reading passages from their works, Rue Centrale and the The Watchers.

Both events are in French and English. We hope to see you there!

Monday, 9 September 2013

Le Livre sur les Quais

Le Livre sur les Quais

Morges book festival drew to a close yesterday evening. It was an incredible weekend and I thought I'd record my personal impressions of it. In doing so I hope to persuade you to come next year. Not just to meet the authors, but because it is so much fun.

The weekend started for me back in July when I received the first of the many books I had to read. You can see it was quite a pile. Some of these authors, like Vicotria Hislop and Peter F. Hamilton, I had never read before. I also hadn't realised that John Boyne has a whole body of work. I'd assumed that The Boy in the Blue Sriped Pyjamas was his only book.

By the time I had finished the books I felt like a goose force-fed for foie gras – I also felt more or less ready for the festival.

The first session on the English programme was Colum McCann, an author who I have admired for some years. I interviewed him with my friend Laura Spinney, the author of Rue Centrale. We had to translate his responses into French, no easy task. His replies were wide-ranging, articulate and nuanced – the kind of answers that take weeks to fully digest.

What struck me was how he turned details into characters. To give an example, one of his central characters in Let the Great World Spin was a drug-addicted prostitute called Tilly. He went to the Metropolitan Library in New York to look at photos of prostitutes in the 1970's. Then he toured the Bronx with the police to hear their descriptions of the working girls. Unsatisfied with this, he spoke to retired policemen who were around the area 40 years ago to collect their memories. Finally, he found an archive of rap sheets dating back to the era. These were good at recording nicknames and other details. He found Tilly's voice only after doing all this and committed the first sentence on the page....

The next day I interviewed Victoria Hislop, John Boyne and Tom Robb Smith. These are authors who count their book sales in the single figures (1 million, 2 million...) They were all so kind and ready to share their thoughts and experiences as writers. We were supposed to talk about the wars they have written about, but we got onto the subject of the publishing industry, loosely centred around the book Fifty Shades of Grey. Did it really get people to read more? Did it count as reading? How did they feel about its success? We could have talked about this for the next hour... Maybe we should have done.

In the afternoon I talked to Peter F. Hamilton and Stafn Bachmann. Peter's book, The Great North Road, was a revelation to me as someone who never reads science fiction. Just the breadth of imagination and the way he maintains the tension throughout the 1000-odd pages. There is a lesson there for every writer, whatever the genre they are writing in. And Stefan Bachmann, barely twenty, with 2 books to his name, four more on the way and a fledgling career in music composition for film. It was enough to make me feel old and redundant.

In the evening I had the opportunity to interview John Boyne before the screening of the film The Boy in the Blue Striped Pyjamas. How did he feel the film measured up to the book? By the end of the screening I think everyone had agreed that the film was different, certainly not worse and maybe even better. The film enlarged the adult characters in the way the book's nine-year-old narrator Bruno couldn't. The changes they made to fit the film medium changed the story in places but took nothing away from the power of the narrative. It's the first time I have seen an entire audience stay in the cinema until the end of the credits.

On Sunday, I interviewed my old friend Laura Spinney about her book Rue Centrale. We were joined by two of her interviewees, Yago of  free hug fame, and Ruth Braewen, the mid-wife. Hearing them read their interviews brought the book to life and gave us deeper insight into their words.

This was followed by a bilingual reading with David Vann reading in English and Gérald Blocher in French. If you've never heard David Vann speak then I suggest you check him out on youtube. He's so funny, so outrageous. His style is to meditate for about 30 minutes before he starts writing. Then he rereads the previous 30 pages of his current book. Then he writes. He doesn't know what is going to come out, doesn't plan, but he trusts his instincts to write the truth.

I guess I had some revelations during the festival. The Absolutist by John Boyne is a fantastic book. I urge you to read it. So is The Great North Road, this coming from someone who has never read science fiction. I am reading David Vann as quickly as I can get my hands on it. These just conform to my personal taste. You could read any of the authors I mentioned and enjoy yourself.

I also realised that the best writers are the ones who are most authentic, both on the page and in real life.

What suprised me was how few local writers were at the festival. How can you be a writer and not a reader, or not at least curious to hear from other writers?

At the end of the festival someone said that my role in all this was to be a catalyst. I am not sure I agree with this. The role of a catalyst is to trigger chemical reactions and yet remain unchanged at the end of the process. I certainly didn't remain unchanged....

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Book Reviews on the Old FM

World Radio Switzerland is closing down at the end of August. Somehow the ministry for Swiss broadcasting decided that it wasn't worth subsidizing. Quite how they arrived at this decision remains a mystery. It will be off air at the end of August.

This means that the Spead Read will be coming to a close. On Monday they broadcast my second-to-last selection of books. I have to say out of all the broadcasts I have done this is one of my favourites. I think I have got three really strong books. You could read any of these and come away having enjoyed a satisfying read.

Enjoy - there's only one more left. The books reviewed are:  

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Stoner by John Williams
Strange Stones: Dispatches from East to West by Peter Hessler

Friday, 12 July 2013

Summer Reads

I took a train the other day between Lausanne and Montreux, which is about 20 minutes down the track. I slightly appalled myself when I realised I had packed 3 books for the  journey, as well as a newspaper.

So you can imagine that deciding what I am going to take on a two-week holiday is a painful kind of pleasure.

After much consideration, I have narrowed the choice down to five or six. Here I am restricting myself to the top four:

Transatlantic by Colum McCann: This Irish writer is very close to the top of my list of favourite writers of all time. His newest book starts with the first transatlantic crossing made by aeroplane. This idea of whether we can link the new world with the old develops in the central theme of the book. It's an interesting question for an Irish writer living in New York. I have read the first few chapters and am loving it already.

 The Art of Fielding by Chad Harback: This is a new author, this is his first book, and I am reading it on the recommendation of a friend.

I have to say that I love novels with an American voice and, having read the first few pages, there it is, rich and authentic. The book is also endorsed by Jonathan Franzen. 

It's a  Bildungsroman (coming of age novel - I had to look it up too!) about a genius, young baseball player called Henry Skrimshander. Sounds like the best thing for a hot summer's evening.

The Old Ways : A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane: Macfarlane is a travel writer in the sense that he uses the landscape to reflect what it is to be human. In this book he sets off from his Cambridge home to follow the ancient tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast network of routes criss-crossing the British landscape and its waters - the kind of journey that send shivers up my spine.

Knowing Macfarlane's style I am expecting a slow-burning book that will stay with me for years.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: The cover first attracted me to this book - I love the retro, technicolour feel. It's a love story about a young Italian who watches a beautiful American woman walk out of the sea. Fat-foward a few decades and an Italian man turns up in Hollywood searching for her.

I am hoping the book will live up to its cover, but even if it doesn't I hope to look cool at the beach reading it.

 All these books are of course available at your nearest and dearest independent bookshop.