Monday, March 21, 2022

A Defunct indie Bookstore, The International Booker Prize, & Violaine Huisman's longlisted "The Book of Mother"


For years we longed to visit The Hungry Mind in St. Paul, Minnesota, a bookstore that published a quarterly book review of the same name.  By the time we traveled to Minnesota in the early 2000s, the store was struggling and had sold its name to an online university.  The new name of the store, The Ruminator, was less charming - but the store was there.

This famous bookstore was founded in 1970, and writers from all over the U.S. gave readings there. What fascinated us near the end of the store's life was its small but excellent selection of books.  The Booker Prize shortlist had been announced, and I had ripped out the article from the paper.  I found all, or most of, the shortlisted titles at The Ruminator/Hungry Mind.   "Why don't we live in Minnesota?" I asked. A few years later, The Ruminator shut its doors, as did so many indies of that decade.

Do tell me about your own favorite iconic bookstores of yore. 

 The longlist for The International Booker Prize has been announced, and I am taking  an interest.  

The International Booker Prize Longlist

Translation is a  slippery slope, a bit like skiing in scuba gear. Only a few translators make the Olympian team. 

For instance, one wonders if Soviet literature can possibly be as flat and tedious as it is rendered in translation.  (Nabokov hated Soviet lit, too.)   I've had better luck with the Columbia University Russian Library series than with translations published by other small presses:  perhaps a better choice of books, probably a better "stable" of translators. 

 And then there are the books I underestimated until I found breathtaking translations. I did not love Madame Bovary until I read Lydia Davis's superb translation:   Davis, a fiction writer, essayist, and translator, is herself a winner of The International Booker Prize.  I fell in love with Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago when I discovered the lyrical translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.


But enough controversy! The 2022 International
Booker Prize longlist has introduced me to a modern French classic, The Book of Mother, a first novel by Violaine Huisman, translated by Leslie Camhi.  This beautifully-translated novel is reminiscent of the early fiction of the Italian writer Elena Ferrante.   Huisman's prose is spare, exquisite, and intense, every sentence is perfectly crafted, and I keep reading and rereading my favorite passages.  The novel opens: "On the day the Berlin Wall came down I was ten..."  

From the perspective of the narrator, Violaine, the personal is as dramatic as history.  Walls fall down, the Twin Towers are destroyed, but at home there is powerful Maman, who is creative and charismatic one minute, desperate and screaming the next.  Violaine and her sister play mother to Maman, who is insecure, a chain smoker, and a crazy driver.  They soothe her and tell her how much they love her, that they'll never leave her.

The Book of Mother gradually reveals the story of Maman/Catherine.  Because she lies so much, and believes her own lies, her biography is dubious.  Violaine tries to understand by looking at her mother from different points-of-view.   In the first part, we see Maman through the eyes of Violaine and her sister.  Maman, a talented dancer who sporadically runs a ballet school, encourages her daughters to be independent and get a good education. But she marries three times, and  the second marriage to the girls' father, a tumultuous open marriage, is at times violent.  But it is not until Maman is hospitalized for manic-depressive illness that the girls are traumatized by her absence.

Maman is different when she comes home. The girls don't understand what manic-depressive illness is.

Once home, Maman would frequently ask us to forgive her for having yet again almost set fire to the kitchen by allowing the strange stew that was supposed to be our dinner burn.  It was the fault of those damned anti-psychotics, she said, she couldn't get over them, they'd leached her brain, it was all scrambled inside, there was too much static on the line.

In the second part, the novel continues in the form of Catherine's third-person biography, in which Catherine is volatile and unreliable.  We see Violaine's struggle to discover who Maman  really is, as she explored her point-of-view.  Catherine climbs the social ladder weth her gift of beauty, her husband's money, and knowledge of authors like Stephen Zweig, her favorite. 

And in the third part, the adult sisters struggle to find closure with their mother's shocking death.  The rituals Maman demanded were eccentric, but they do help the sisters accept what happened.

A fascinating, complicated novel I cannot recommend too highly.


  1. Sounds a must have book, Kat. My favourite bookshop is in Hay on Wye,Wales, the Cinema Bookshop, but almost any bookshop in Hay is worth a visit. We went to Wales last week, a remote farm cottage with black, star filled skies at night and red kites hunting in the valley below. It was our fist trip for two and a half years. I bought a lot of excellent books. It's a shame when good bookshops disappear.

    1. I would love to go to Hay on Wye! Paul Collins's Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books is about the year he and his wife moved there from San Francisco.

    2. You would love it Kat, the town has books for every pocket and in huge numbers. Also the area is a beautiful part of Wakes itself z beautiful country.

  2. My favourite defunct bookshop was the Packman Books at Totnes, Devon. I miss both the shop and the owner. It was a smallish shop with everything you could want in good condition and at reasonable prices. I had some quite rare books from there.

  3. A pity it closed. I would like to visit Bookstores Past, a unique feature of our history.

  4. My husband Gary Amdahl and I both worked at Hungry Mind bookstore and Hungry Mind Review for about 6 years. Gary was Fiction editor and I was Contributing Editor for a time. I also edited the store newsletter "Fodder," (once it became Ruminator). My first book Red Star Sister was published by The Hungry Mind Press (which came and went in just a few years, but was great while it lasted). I loved the Hungry MInd! And those readings--two or three a week, by wonderful writers. A Golden Age.

    1. I must have read your articles! I was by the bookstores in the Twin Cities - we visited several used in St. Paul. How great to work for a bookstore-cum-publisher. The Hungry Mind journal was one of the best, and I'll look for your first book.

  5. Oh I like the sound of The Book of Mother. In the mood for an absorbing novel,