The Naked Swiss translations are here!

IMG_20180523_105929_BURST001_COVER_resized_20180523_110003625

Today I am celebrating the good news that the French and German translations of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths are out in the world. My copies arrived this week and I am delighted with the look and feel of the new books.

The publication of the translations coincides with the publication of the second edition of the original version, which has an extra chapter on the Swiss relationship with the European Union. For more about the second edition, check out this interview. The books are available online from the publishers Bergli Books and Helvetiq (German, French), from the usual online booksellers and in all good book shops in Switzerland.

The German title is Die Wahre Schweiz, which means the true or the real Switzerland, and the French is La Suisse mise à nu, which means Switzerland laid bare. The subtitles of both are the same: ‘A people and their 10 myths’. It has been a fascinating process working the with the translators to produce a text that was faithful to the original, as well as being crystal clear to readers from other cultures.

Also today, Swiss author Hans Durrer published a glowing review of The Naked Swiss, in which he praised the book as “highly informative”, “profoundly balanced” and “good storytelling”.

And the final bit of good news is the launch of this book trailer, created by Bergli Books. Enjoy!

Second edition giveaway of The Naked Swiss

20180426_100153

When Bergli Books started the preparations for the second edition of The Naked Swiss last year, we had a chat about whether it would be a good idea to add something to the book. In the end I agreed to write a new chapter, one that had been on my original list but that I had run out of time to write.

I’m delighted to announce that the updated second edition is now available online and in shops all over Switzerland. The new chapter is about the Swiss relationship with the European Union. Switzerland is a lot more deeply entwined in the EU than many Swiss people realise.

In the Europe chapter, I explain how Switzerland got to where it is today regarding the EU and how the relationship works. Switzerland and the EU are like the long-term couple who are not married but have been to a lawyer to cobble together most of the equivalent rights and obligations. One of the parties (guess who?) is not happy and is pushing for more commitment. I also explain how the Swiss soon-to-be-defunct bilateral model is not a viable option for the United Kingdom to copy in the brave new post-Brexit world. All the same, you can be sure the British are watching the Swiss very closely to see what new deal they settle for.

As part of the research for the new chapter, I crossed Lake Geneva last summer to spend a night in Thonon-les-Bains on the French side. Early the next morning I set off towards Lausanne with the French cross-border commuters. More on that trip to Thonon-les-Bains in this blog post.

What else is new in the second edition? Well, I updated the statistics and some political developments. The book now has an index and a new author photo (thanks to Elaine Pringle Photography). If you want to be sure you’ve got the right one, it sports a little gold rosette on the cover that reads: NEW EDITION WITH AN 11TH MYTH: THE SWISS ARE EUROPEAN.

The launch of the second edition coincides with the launch of the French and German translations, which are due out on April 30th. I’ll write again when I have a copy of each in my hands. La Suisse mise à nu and Die Wahre Schweiz are available to pre-order this week from Helvetiq. The Swiss language editions have a different cover depicting the roof being lifted off a Swiss chalet. It’s fun and clever. Check it out!

I’m in Ireland at the moment so I haven’t seen the new The Naked Swiss on the shelves. I will send a free book to the first person to post a photo of the second edition in a Swiss bookshop, either to my Twitter account @clareodeaz or on my Facebook page. Happy hunting 😊

Feeling the cold and snow in literature

IMG-20180212-WA0002

The cold and the snow are on everybody’s mind and doorstep this week in Europe. In Switzerland we have had a week of extreme cold. Wednesday was the worst, minus fourteen in the morning. When I walked the dog at the edge of the Gottéron Valley I thought the cold wind racing down from the Alps would crack my cheekbones.

I just finished reading Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, set in Leningrad in the desperate years of 1941/2 where the cold plays a fateful part. My brush with wind chill inspired me to look for some great descriptions of cold and snow in literature, beginning with The Siege. In this scene, the main character is on her way to the bakery to queue for bread. She is suffering from malnutrition because of food shortages.

“It’s cold, so cold. Anna adjusts the scarf she has wound around her face. She’ll rest for a couple of minutes. No longer than that, because in her weakened state the cold could easily finish her off. The scorching frost goes down into her lungs like a knife. She coughs, gasps, shifts her weight from foot to foot, and bats her hands together. Her gloved hands make a muffled, ghostly sound. She thinks of the bulbs under their coverlets of snow, and shivers.”

This is such a beautiful novel, describing searing hardship in a wonderfully sympathetic way with characters who emerge as more important than the crushing heel of history.

The other examples I found happen to come from short stories. I love this scene from George Saunders’ Tenth of December featuring Don Eber, an old man on a suicide bid who has stripped off in a remote area in sub-zero temperature and is talking to himself.

Nausea had not been mentioned in The Humbling Steppe.

A blissful feeling overtook me as I drifted off to sleep at the base of the crevasse. No fear, no discomfort, only a vague sadness at the thought of all that remained undone. This is death? I thought. It is but nothing.

Author, whose name I cannot remember, I would like a word with you.

A-hole.

The shivering was insane. Like a tremor. His head was shaking on his neck. He paused to puke a bit in the snow, white-yellow against the white-blue.

This was scary. This was scary now.

Every step was a victory. He had to remember that. With every step he was fleeing father and father. Farther from father. Stepfarther. What a victory he was wresting. From the jaws of the feet.

He felt a need at the back of his throat to say it right.

From the jaws of defeat. From the jaws of defeat.”

There’s a very chilly and chilling scene in Them Old Cowboy Songs from Annie Proulx’s collection Fine Just the Way It Is. Archie is the unlucky young cowboy who has been sent out to round up stray cows in Wyoming in January.

“Back in the swamp it was just coming light, like grey polish on the cold world, the air so still Archie could see the tiny breath cloud of a finch on a willow twig. Beneath the hardened crust the snow was wallowy. His fresh horse was Poco, who did not know swamps. Poco blundered along, stumbled into an invisible sinkhole and took Archie deep with him. The snow shot down his neck, up his sleeves, into his boots, filled eyes, ears, nose, matted his hair. Poco, in getting up, rammed his hat deep into the bog. The snow in contact with his body heat melted, and as he climbed back into the saddle the wind that accompanied the pale sunlight froze his clothes. Somehow he managed to push eight Wing-Cross strays out of the swamp and back toward the high ground, but his matches would not light and while he struggled to make a fire the cows scattered. He could barely move and when he got back to the bunkhouse he was frozen into the saddle and had to be pried off the horse by two men. He heard cloth rip.”

And finally, the most well-known and the most exquisite, the ending of James Joyce’s The Dead, when Gabriel Conroy looks out the window at the snow after his wife has told him about a boy she loved who died many years before.

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Stay warm, folks!

Ps. I’m attending the Geneva Writers Conference this weekend, weather permitting, and really looking forward to immersing myself in writing talk and ideas.

Pps. The photo is a view of Lake Brienz taken from Axalp in the Bernese Oberland.

A Swiss woman of fire and fury

20170226_170655

This time sixty years ago, Iris von Roten was putting the finishing touches to her life’s work, a 600-page cri de coeur on the woeful position of women in Swiss society. A journalist and lawyer, von Roten put years of research into her book, Frauen im Laufgitter: Offene Worte zur Stellung der Frau (Women in the Playpen: Plain Words About the Situation of Women). In ruthless and unsentimental terms, she examined subects like equality in the workplace (or lack thereof), civil rights, domestic drudgery, motherhood and sexuality. This is a work of fire and fury, the product of a free spirit who all around her saw women in chains.

To give you a taste of von Roten’s style and themes, here is a short passage I translated from the opening chapter, “Female professional activity in a man’s world”.

“Every era has its favourite illusions, and one of the most cherished of our century is that of “the modern woman”, the professionally equal, independent and successful woman.

The “woman of today” supposedly has extensive professional fields open to her; in contrast to her grandmother she is active in every job at every level. Even the most prestigious and highly-paid jobs are not out of reach of the capable woman. Where such positions are not yet occupied by women it is only because no woman has yet deigned to clamber up and take the place that the progressive man is hurrying to offer her. Just like a young man, the young woman can attain the job that corresponds to her talents, standing on her own two feet. To wait for a man, to marry so as to be provided for, this is unknown to today’s woman. She marries purely for love, when and whom she wishes, which allows her to complete the work of art – the combination of job, housework and motherhood – running the show and “mastering life with a laugh”. Beside the modern woman stands the progressive man, filled with admiring awe for the proud swan that the ugly duckling has become. He has long ago freed his mind of prejudices and slowly but surely clears the way for the equality of the sexes in the life of the family, the economy and the state.

The reality, however, looks different in some places, and especially in Switzerland.”

You’ve got to love that sarcasm. I would like to see von Roten’s work gain wider recognition in the English-speaking world. Her radical book/manifesto is one of the leading feminist texts of the twentieth century and there is still a lot to learn from it.

For a brief update on the position of women in Switzerland today, check out this article I wrote for the current edition of International School Parent Magazine: Working mothers in Switzerland – something has to give. I’ll start you off here with the opening two paragraphs.

“Switzerland manages to successfully project two flattering but contradictory images side-by-side. On the one hand, it is a rural mountain idyll populated by wholesome country folk, and dotted with chalets, ski resorts and pretty medieval towns. On the other hand, it is a sophisticated economic hub powered by a productive and innovative workforce.

It is nice balance if you can spend your working hours in business Switzerland and your free time in bucolic Switzerland. But for women, it is certainly not easy if you are expected to raise a family in the traditional model while facing all the challenges of the modern workplace. Something has to give.” (Read more)

Carnival season is kicking off in Switzerland. It’s hugely popular but I’ve never really enjoyed carnival much, if I may admit that. I like the effigy (Rababou) burning in Fribourg because, after the long speech, it’s the only part where I don’t feel bored and cold!

Von Roten’s book came out in the autumn of 1958, a few months before Swiss men voted by a two-thirds majority to deny women the right to vote. She had hoped that her carefully constructed arguments would win hearts and minds. But instead of seeing her ideas analysed and debated, von Roten was personally attacked and villified in the media. Some even blamed her for the negative outcome of the vote. Most painfully, she was ridiculed at the Basel carnival, her fellow townsfolk having spent the winter preparing elaborate costumes and floats on the theme of her book.

But don’t let me ruin carnival for anyone. Depending on where you go, it can be spectacular and wild. If you have any good carnival tips or experiences to share, let me know in the comments. I’d also be really interested to hear your thoughts on Iris von Roten’s work.

Another day, another commute from France to Switzerland

DSCN1599

On the eve of Bastille Day last year, I joined several hundred French commuters returning from Lausanne to Thonon-les-Bains after their day’s work in Switzerland. The 50-minute ferry journey against the backdrop of Lake Geneva and the French Alps must be one of the most picturesque commutes in the world.

I made the trip as part of the research for a new chapter about Europe in the second edition of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, due out next month. The chapter examines Switzerland’s relationship with the European Union, and I wanted to see for myself the phenomenon of cross-border commuting in action.

Frontaliers, Grenzgänger or frontalieri make up six per cent of the Swiss workforce. The relationship between Switzerland and the EU is above all a human one, with millions of Swiss and EU citizens interacting with each other every day in workplaces, families and communities. Apart from the 318,500 cross border workers, some 1.4 million EU citizens currently live in Switzerland, while 430,000 Swiss citizens live in EU countries.

As the commuters streamed onto the Général Guisan ferry that summer’s evening, some carrying scooters and laptops, and many still wearing work badges, the atmosphere was jovial. The last woman to make it on board joined a table of friends indoors. “I left the clinic at 27 past,” she announced, before pulling up a chair.  The table soon filled with bottles of beer and glasses of white wine, and the conversation turned to plans for the holiday.

The captain reversed the ship out and swung around to head southwest to the town of Thonon-les-Bains. The 5.30pm crossing in the Général Guisan is one of 28 daily crossings between the two ports each way run by CGN ferries. Some 600 people make this particular crossing every day.

I wandered around with my camera taking pictures, and struck up a conversation with a Swedish marketing director and an IT worker who were having a drink outside, sheltered from the strong breeze at the stern of the boat.

Both were returning to their homes in the Thonon area. We were out in the middle of the lake, where the border lies. “The border is not important,” the Swedish woman said. “We live and work in the same region.”

The journey is not always as pleasant as it was on that July day. “It can be magnificent, travelling when the sun is setting or rising,” the IT man said, “but in the winter, travelling both ways in the dark, we feel a bit like cattle.”

They both agreed that working in Switzerland is not complicated. It is not complicated because, after fifteen years of free movement of labour between Switzerland and the EU, Swiss employers are used to cross-border workers. All the necessary arrangements are in place, including the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, exemption from taxation at source, and coordination of social insurance systems. For more information on cross-border workers in Switzerland, see this summary.

The average age of the ferry passengers I travelled with was 30 to 50. The scooter riders queued at the door as the ferry docked, eager to get off first.

Thonon was lively the day before the French national holiday, with all generations out on the streets in a festive mood. The next morning I expected there to be much fewer people on the 6.30am ferry to Ouchy, Lausanne but it was still quite busy.

DSCN1609

Understandably the atmosphere was more subdued, with some people already in work mode on their laptops, other sipping coffee and staring into space and a few tired souls with their heads down on their arms sleeping.

I chatted to some hospital staff from Lausanne’s university hospital CHUV. They were blasé about their special circumstances, as only French people can be blasé, but I left the ship impressed with the slice of life I had witnessed, and keen to understand more about the special relationship between Switzerland and the EU.

Do you have any experience of cross-border commuting in Switzerland or elsewhere? Have I painted too rosy a picture? I’d love to hear more first-hand perspectives on this.

Beer and the great outdoors

20170910_123133

Switzerland has such an abundance of hiking trails that searching for a new route can send you down a rabbit hole of maps and websites. To make things easier, and more refreshing, hiking guide Monika Saxer has compiled a list of 59 hikes, each of which ends at a brewery or bar where you can quench your thirst with a local craft beer.

Beer Hiking Switzerland is published in English, German and French by Helvetiq, the same publisher that will publish the translations of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths in the new year. As I am partial to hiking and beer, I didn’t need any persuading to try out one of Saxer’s trails. I once went too far for my own good when I walked my old work commute from Fribourg to Bern (an adventure you can read about here), therefore expert advice is gratefully received.

For this hike, I press-ganged my family to join in and we chose the 11-kilometre Gottéron route on page 94. It starts in the German-speaking village of St Antoni in canton Fribourg, passes by the edge of Tafers and ends up following the wooded Gottéron valley all the way to the Old Town of Fribourg.

I already knew the Gottéron part of the walk well, a narrow other-worldly trail that winds along by the Gottéron river through steep sandstone gorges and dense forest. As with any walk on Swiss hiking trails, there are places set up for grilling and picnicking, as well as signposts to reassure you that you’re on the right track.

20170910_113428

From St Antoni, after a dip and a short climb, most of the route was gradually descending which is the kind of hike I like best. I also like quiet walks. We did not meet any other walkers on the St Antoni to Tafers part, although it was a Saturday afternoon. But we did spot some ostriches, llama and these unusual highland-type cattle.

20170910_111952

The arrival into Fribourg is one of the most romantic approaches to the town, across the Pont de Berne and into Place Petit Saint Jean. Confession alert: we did the walk in two parts over two weekends. As recommended, we made our way to l’Auberge du Soleil Blanc to order a Fri-mousse beer which is brewed a few doors up on the rue de la Samaritaine. The perfect way to enjoy one of these Indian summer days.

20170924_150015

I’m always interested to see what other ideas people come up with to write about Switzerland. The sky’s the limit. The important thing is to write about something you are passionate about. Monika explains in her book that this book grew from her interest in microbreweries. She starting selecting hikes that ended near breweries, and writing up those routes on the website of the Women’s Alpine Club of Zurich, now called CAS Section Baldern. After she was featured in a Migros Magazine article about women and beer, Monika was approached by Helvetiq to write this book.

If you were to write a book about the country you live in, what approach would you take? I’d love to hear (but not steal) your ideas.

Morges, a festival to remember

20170903_123155

Hurrying in the rain, listening, learning, signing books, cool evenings, coffee vouchers, wet umbrellas, smiling crowds, dogs in arms, queues at the till, drinks at the bar, boats, sunshine, big names, kind words, new ideas and free white wine.

What more could you ask for?

When I knew I would be spending the weekend at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival in Morges, I decided I wouldn’t take any notes. I would just enjoy the moment and soak it all in. Now, one week later, I am left with a colourful miscellany of impressions and memories. There was so much going on, my quiet writer brain had to shift into a completely new gear.

I was invited to the festival to promote my book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths. I would have been thrilled enough at this honour alone but the festival was also hosting Ireland as guest country of honour, which meant I was sharing space with some of Ireland’s most accomplished contemporary authors.

Morges is known for its authors’ tent, a huge marquee filled with rows of authors sitting behind tables. The English language section was like an island in the middle. I sat there with the Swiss-based authors, the visiting Irish authors and a number of other English-language authors, like Douglas Kennedy, Hisham Matar and Rachel Joyce. They were all gracious and welcoming.

Morges

Most people who approached the table to talk were friendly, pleased to put a face to the name. A few were not so pleased about the book. You can’t win ‘em all.

On the first afternoon, I did a stint in the tent and attended two talks about Irish literature, the first with John Boyne and Donal Ryan, and the second with Donal on duty again along with Anne Enright and Paul McVeigh. The next day presented a different mix, Anne Enright, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume, this time talking about families in Irish fiction. I cannot tell you everything they said, just that I appreciated listening to Irish voices analysing Irish questions, and the feeling it gave me of being closer to home.

I went on a literary cruise (!) on Sunday. Five minutes before the cruise started, I was at the wrong end of the lakefront eating a hot dog. Running under those circumstances is not something I’d advise anyone else to do, especially right before a boat trip. In the queue to board, a man asked me to hold his crepe so he could search for his ticket. I was not the only one squeezing in food around much more exciting things.

The cruise talk featured debut authors Paul McVeigh and Kit de Waal, two interesting and talented writers who clearly like each other. If any chat show hosts are looking for the perfect duo, ask these guys. Both of them come from difficult backgrounds and write about those times in their fiction.

20170902_174757

Spending time with the three other authors based in Switzerland – Padraig Rooney, Diccon Bewes and Jason Donald – was great fun, like having work colleagues again. I also took part in a panel discussion with Padraig and Diccon about Switzerland, Brexit and the European Union. It was a lively debate, the first time I’ve had an event in that particular format. Very enjoyable.

In a weekend of many interesting conversations, one chat about a potential nonfiction project was particularly illuminating. Maybe Morges will be indirectly responsible for my next book. All I know is that I need to send out a proposal before the leaves start to turn. And that means back to quiet time for a while.

Irish literary greats come to Lake Geneva

20160903_144311

Ireland is the guest country of honour at Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges this weekend, which means appearances by Anne Enright, Donal Ryan, Sara Baume, Kevin Barry, John Boyne, Paul McVeigh, and the winner of the 2017 Irish novel of the year award, Kit de Waal.

From what I know of other festival programmes, this gathering of Irish literary talent is unprecedented. The festival, which hosts 280 international writers, mainly from the French-speaking world, is free and open to the general public. It is one of the prettiest towns on Lake Geneva. Don’t let the rain keep you away.

Apart from being thrilled at the golden opportunity to meet some of my literary heroes and to hear them speak, the other reason I am harping on about Le livre sur les quais is that it is the first literary festival I will be taking part in as an author.

I’ll be joining Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney to discuss ‘Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality’ at 4.30pm on Sunday in the Cave du Couvaloup. The debate will be hosted by Ed Girardet.

Bern-based Diccon Bewes, a household name in Switzerland, is British and a best-selling author of books about Switzerland. Padraig Rooney, author of The Gilded Chalet, is from the border region of Northern Ireland and has lived in Basel for many years. An interesting mix of perspectives on Europe!

Morges is known for its giant author tent on the lake shore, where writers sign their books and meet readers. More than one hundred and fifty events including panel discussions, conversations, talks, readings and films are taking place in various venues around the town as well as on board cruise ships.

Below is the full English programme. Hope to see you in Morges!

20160903_144802

Friday, 1st September

18.00-19.00 – What Next in Irish Fiction? /Ou va la literature irlandaise? With Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Anne Enright . Moderated by Matthew Wake – In English with the translation into French by Lesley Viet- Jacobsen. Venue: St Jeanne.   English/French

Saturday, 2nd September

11h – 12h15 – Exile, Memory and Refugee Experience with Jason Donald, Hisham Matar, Melissa Fleming.  Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

13h – 14h45 – Dystopias, Utopias and Places of Escape with Rachel Joyce, Claire Vaye Watkins and Emmanuel Bergmann.  Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15h – 16h15- Irish Encounters: turbulent families with Anne Enright, Sara Baume, Donal Ryan.  Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15h – 16h15 – After Arab Revolutions/Apres la revolution arabe:  Hisham Matar in conversation with Thierry Meyer – with translation into French by Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue: Sainte-Jeanne.  English/French

16.30-18.00Writing History with John Boyne and Emmanuel Bergmann.  Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

16.30 – Thriller sans Frontiers : Denise Mina et Bernard Minier en conversation – Moderation: Nine Simon et la traduction Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue Sainte Jeanne.          English/French

17.00-18.00 – Claire Vaye Watkins – lecture bilingue – Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Nouvelle Couronne Cave.                                                               English/French

Also a fiction writing workshop:

15.30-17.30 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Perfectly flawed characters – Teacher: Jason Donald (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group), venue: Grenier Bernois, Bibliothèque Adulte. With prior registrations to gwg.workshops@gmail.com

Sunday, 3rd September

11-12.15 – Irish Encounters:  Place and Landscape in Irish fiction with Kevin Barry, Kit de Waal, Sara Baume.  Moderated by Matthew Wake. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise – Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing with Paul McVeigh and Kit de Waal.  Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – tickets to buy online or from the ticket office. Boat – Le Lausanne, boarding on the quay.

13.30-14.45 – Writing Crime with Denise Mina, Ruth Ware, Sophie Hannah. Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15.00-16.15– Writing on the Borders with Rachel Joyce, Ruth Ware, Kevin Barry.  Moderated by Michelle Bailat-Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15.00 – 16.15 – Fictive ou reele – heros pour toujours:  Sophie Hannah, Vivianne Perret – Anime par Elise Lepine et traduit par Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue : Sainte Jeanne.                                                                                                                                       English/French

16h30 – 17h45 – Switzerland, Brexit and the New European reality with Clare O’Dea, Padraig Rooney, Diccon Bewes.  Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

Cruise:

12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise – Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing  with Paul Mc Veigh and Kit de Waal.  Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – boat: Le Lausanne. Tickets to book online or from the ticket office.

GWG Creative Writing Workshops –Grenier Bernois – bibliotheque adulte. To pre-register at gwg.workshops@gmail.com

10.30-12.00 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Showing not telling – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)

15.30-17.00 – Non-fiction Writing Workshop: Writing effective memoir – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)

The cheapest way to travel

Evening swim 2

Reading is by far the cheapest way to travel. And it often beats the real thing. This summer I spent a lot of time in the United States, including an action-packed week in New York and pleasant stays in Southern California, Connecticut and Virginia. I enjoyed several days in a nineteenth century resort on the North Sea, and also travelled to a made-up Portuguese province called Barba.

I read two tragic memoirs, abandoned one novel in exasperation and finished two that I really didn’t enjoy. But overall, it’s been a happy journey with most books ending up on the ‘liked’ and ‘loved’ shelves. Maybe you’ll find something here for your autumn reading list.

Starting with the best: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a phenomenal piece of work. This book was apparently the sensation of 2015. Not sure how I missed that. Two central drivers make the story totally gripping – one is the resolution that the reader craves for the main character, our wish for him to find inner peace; the other is the wait for the full revelation of what terrible thing(s) happened to him to cause so much misery. The latter is dragged out to the nth degree but it didn’t matter because the writing was so good. Besides, I just wanted to stay in that world.

I don’t know how a book about a man in extreme physical pain and emotional torment is so enchanting but, trust me, it is. The novel supposedly follows the friendship between four young men who meet in university and form a bond for life, but there is only one star in this show and that’s the ever-suffering Jude. Many other intellectually and artistically brilliant characters (all of whom adore Jude) allow us to vicariously enjoy all the possible ways one can live life to the full. There is a fair amount of repetition in the book along with lavish descriptions of luxury lifestyles. But it was fine. Even the bottomless goodness of the good characters versus the bottomless evil of the bad characters was acceptable in this operatic book.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a good old-fashioned American family drama told over several decades. Two marriages in Southern California break up when the father of one family starts an affair with the mother of the other family at her baby’s christening party. The opening party scene is brilliant. We are left to follow the destinies of the six children of these two couples who become step siblings. The children’s anger and confusion fuels anarchic behaviour which ultimately leads to them being bound together for life by tragedy.

In I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice, the writer charts her family’s struggle since her husband was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease. A free-spirited Irish couple with young children, they were living a charmed life before the disease knocked everything down. Not quite everything. The pair went on to have twins, choosing to fight death with life. Simon Fitzmaurice wrote and directed a film relying on eye gaze technology to communicate. And Ruth has produced this brave book. There is so much to take from her in extremis perspectives on friendship, motherhood, love and marriage, pain and loss, and of course illness.

Fitzmaurice writes with eloquence and rage. The realities of caring for a loved one with a paralysing illness are familiar to me which made the memoir resonate all the more. I will remember this book for a long time. Ruth Fitzmaurice talks a lot of the joys of swimming in the cold Irish Sea, something I was happy to have the chance to do again this summer (in real life), hence the photo above.

In an effort to broaden my German literature horizons, and inspired by a chapter in Padraig Rooney’s The Gilded Chalet, I decided to take on the challenge of reading the classic doorstopper Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann.

It tells the story of four generations of the wealthy Buddenbrook family. I plodded through the 850 pages (in English, don’t worry) in increasing admiration, especially as the author was so young when he wrote it. A brilliant depiction of a family, a class and a town, written with an enjoyable helping of satire but also compassion.

Mann recreates a century in the life of a community. At times we view group scenes from a distance as a set piece, while at other times the action is painfully intimate. I’m amazed at how many moments rang true for me as a modern reader. What he does with the internal life of the main characters is astounding. Maybe unsurprisingly, the men are the more complex and interesting characters, with the women presented more as simple or enigmatic creatures. But that fits the era, sadly. How Mann so perfectly understood and was able to capture the ennui and awful weight of respectability of generations of the Buddenbrooks is simply amazing.

From 1890s Germany to 1980s Britain, and the debut novel by Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon. A lovely story about a lonely foster child, beautifully and convincingly told. De Waal knows the care system inside out and it shows. But she is also a wonderful writer who has created a sweet and true character in Leon. The sympathetic adult characters are really well observed, the women in particular. Maybe we spend a little too much time at the allotments but that’s OK. I’ll be saving this one for my children’s must-read shelf when they are a little older (thirteen plus would be fine). I’m really looking forward to seeing de Waal at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival next weekend in Morges.

The Children by Ann Leary was a quick, satisfying read, recommended by one of my favourite book blogs, A Life in Books. It provided entertaining family dynamics with a little mystery and menace thrown in. Despite some of the heavy themes, the book manages to remain light and pacy. I would definitely like to read more of Ann Leary.

The other memoir I read was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, in which the author describes his career as a surgeon, up to and including his terminal cancer diagnosis. An extremely interesting examination of medical matters and ethics, Kalanithi held back so much emotionally that I almost forgot to be moved. The chapter written by his widow at the end made up for that.

If you’re curious, the book I gave up on was The New Republic by Lionel Shriver, the one partly set in a fictional province. I enjoyed the opening in New York but the plot became increasing silly and the writing too forced when we landed in Barba. The satire on terrorism with lots of echoes of the IRA was too clever for its own good. As a die-hard Shriver fan, I was quite taken aback.

Finally, a reminder that I will be appearing at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival in Morges (near Lausanne) on Sunday September 3rd at 4.30 pm. I will be participating in a panel discussion with fellow Swiss-based authors Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney on the subject of Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality. For some of the weekend I’ll be sitting at my table in the writers’ tent signing books and meeting people. The festival runs from Friday to Sunday and features Ireland as guest country of honour this year. There are many fantastic talks, readings and workshops for fans of Irish literature plus a hugely impressive roll call of Irish and international writers to meet (full programme). Hope to see you there!

Writing news and summer days

Zurich

Quite a lot has happened over the past few months so I thought I’d share some of my writing news before I lose track. I’m borrowing the Irish calendar summer here, which is May, June and July. In Switzerland, summer officially starts on midsummer’s day, June 21st. This way I get the best of both worlds.

May was the month of reviews. An Irish academic in Germany, Fergal Lenehan, wrote a long, thoughtful essay about The Naked Swiss for the Dublin Review of Books. It is the best, most comprehensive analysis of the book so far. A great reward in itself. Lenehan is the author of a book about German images of Ireland which is based on a study of news coverage of Ireland in two German weekly publications, Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, over a 60-year period. On average, the two outlets together ran one article about Ireland per month from 1946 to 2010, indicating a surprising level of interest.

At the end of the month, I got an unexpected message from the Swiss correspondent of the Financial Times, Ralph Atkins, to let me know that his review of The Naked Swiss was online. Needless to say, I was delighted, but also taken aback by the tone of the debate in the comments at the end of the article. Who would have thought FT readers were so emotional?

In June, I got the good news that a short story of mine had been placed second in the fiction category of the Geneva Literary Prize. The story hasn’t been published yet but I will let you know as soon as it’s available to read. A member of my tiny writers’ group, Tara McLoughlin Giroud, won the non-fiction prize so it was a double celebration.

Then came the most exciting news of the summer. I received an invitation to take part in Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges, an event I referred to last year in a blog post as ‘book heaven’ on Lake Geneva. Here’s a photo from the 2016 festival.

20160903_143714

The festival takes place from September 1 to 3, and what makes it really special is that the guest country of honour this year is Ireland. To be appearing under the same roof as some of the most respected names in contemporary Irish literature is almost too good to be true. My panel event is scheduled for Sunday afternoon but the rest of the time I will be hopping from one talk to the next, soaking up the literary atmosphere. As soon as the English programme is published, I’ll share it here. The Irish and international authors on the bill include John Boyne, Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Kit de Waal and Douglas Kennedy.

I’ll leave you with some images of these summer days in Switzerland. The photo at the top is of Limmatquai in Zurich. Highlights so far: Swims in the Aare river (Bern) and the Limmat. A hike along Lake Brienz. A night spent “sleeping on the straw”. Meeting scary cows on an alp. Crossing Lake Geneva at dawn. Sunset at Muntelier.

Wishing you all lots of freedom and fun this summer.

20170610_155026
Axalp in the Bernese Oberland
20170714_072140
Morning in Lausanne

 

20170525_172558
Charmey, Fribourg