Book recommendation: “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx

I just finished reading this monumental book and I’d like to write its review while the characters and the atmosphere are still hovering in my mind.

article20lead20-20narrow1010285929gphwhcimage-related-articleleadnarrow-353x0-gphxm1-png1466077644226-300x0This book was mentioned in one of BBC Radio 4 “Open Book” episodes. I had the good chance of finding it in the small English section of my local library. I confess I was initially intimidated by its page count (700+ pages, plus two family trees (!) in appendix), and was not especially thrilled by the first few chapters. The setting remembered me of other books that I cherish, so the inevitable comparison made it hard to follow her way of describing those places and times. But I went on.

My perseverance was well rewarded! It is a magnificent tapestry of human destinies that the reader is guided to discover, one life at a time. I used to dislike when a whole group of people, century or country are condensed in the story of a few characters, but this time I saw it more as way of presenting several points of view, rather than making up a parable through simplification. I laughed so much at the tiniest details that made the whole picture come alive: noises, smells in particular. I find that Annie Proulx created a symphony. I am no writer, and when I do it’s more doodling than prosing; there has to be some different skillset in action when putting together such a book. It could compare to the difference between the training for a sprint and a marathon (also for the reader, when I think about it). I noticed that I had to read slower than usual if I wanted to understand what the book was about. It seemed to me like starting a week-long hike by properly warming up instead of running to the next landmark. The initial chapters have been able to slow down my pace and tune it to the speed I needed to complete the read. I like to think that it was intentional; either way, I am grateful for this little lesson.

For who is looking for the summary and comments on this book, I simply redirect you to the Internet and your trusted fellow readers/librarians. I didn’t search this book for the contents, but for the style; and my review is purposely focused on it.

Book recommendation – “Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam” by Amélie Nothomb

(I want to make an experiment and write this post in two versions, one in French and one in English.)


Je viens de terminer la lecture de ce roman qui m’a doucement émue. Il m’est rarement arrivé de me reconnaître autant dans les pensées de quelqu’un d’autre et d’avoir reçu l’inspiration et la calme pour avancer dans ma propre partie d’échecs. Durant ces dernières années, j’ai cherché ce genre de modèle avec une frénesie croissante, n’en trouvant que de très partiels. Le récit de ce début de vie m’a si simplement fait comprendre que je peux renoncer aux développements sociaux classiques (travail, mariage, maison, enfants, chien etc.) sans forcément détruire mon futur ou me sentir coupable pour toujours. J’ai grand besoin d’histoires de survécus. J’ai besoin de savoir qui il y a d’autres histoires où un non n’engendre pas de rage, de bile, de résistance.

De plus, l’autrice est d’origine belge comme moi. Ceci pourrait n’être qu’un mot sur un document officiel, mais c’est ce qui m’a fait dire “Oh, moi aussi!” en lisant les quelques phrases du roman où l’autrice parle des nuages gris de la Belgique avec une affection simple et profonde. Moi aussi, j’aime le temps couvert de la Belgique. Il a été la lumière estompée d’autant de bonnes mémoires.

Je remercie Amélie Nothomb d’avoir réussi un livre aussi sincère et puissant.


[English version]

I just finished the last pages of this novel and I feel so moved. It rarely happened to me to identify myself so easily with the thoughts of someone else, and to receive inspiration and serenity to keep playing my own chess game. I have been looking for such models with increasing frenzy, as I only found very partial ones. This story made me understand that I can give the usual social upgrades up (good job, marriage, house, children, dog, etc…) without automatically condemn my future or feel guilty forever. I need survivor stories so badly. I need to know that there are other stories where a “no” does not generate rage, acrimony, opposition.

Moreover, the autor is Belgian like me. This could be a dry word on an official document, but it is what made me say: “Me too!” when reading the few sentences in which the author writes with simple and deep affection about the dull grey clouds that are so typical of Belgium. I love the overcast skies of Belgium too. They have been the background and the diffuse light of so many good memories.

I would like to thank Amélie Nothomb for her sincere and powerful book.

Why I like reading, and how I like to read

Today I started reading a new novel that I picked from the French section of my local library – Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam“, by Amélie Nothomb. After reading several books in English and Italian, mostly in the efficient and clean, almost steel-like prose of technical explanations, I met a rich, singing, poetic French first-person narrative. It gave me more joy than usual, as if I came back home – and I attempted to find out why.

In general, I particularly like reading novels in French because I find that this language can convey so many nuances of expression, it seems to possess such a vast colour palette. When I read in Italian, I can’t find the same depth, not because Italian doesn’t allow it, but because I don’t feel that Italian and French (nor German or English) are completely interchangeable on all topics. I consider them like musical instruments, with their own structure and voice, that makes them especially able to convey the sense and emotions of a piece of music written specifically for them, or their equivalents. You can spot that when you compare Paganini’s Caprices with their piano “translation” written by Franz Liszt:


It also made me compare the musicality of a language in a given text with the movement of an animal. There are texts who move around swiftly and graciously like leopards, without any noise from their steps. Some texts sound exact and articulate like insect legs, moved with precision, almost mechanical in their appearance. Some other texts move around with the cute awkwardness of a foal, that tries hard not to trip, but that shows the seed of its future elegance. I like to pick up a random book from the library and discover, page after page, which kind of movement it has chosen to embody. The topic doesn’t matter much, because I am reading to discover how other people decided to express their thoughts, and this alone fulfills my curiosity.

To finish, here is the step-by-step (literally!) analysis of horse walk, because it matches with how I sometimes feel when I read a book: it is not about the destination of that walk, nor about the context, but it is my analysis of its components one by one, even if they don’t make sense alone – but when I get out of this “analysis mode” and I go back to the full picture, at the expected reading speed, I spot so many more details. Enjoy!