I was in Croatia close to the beach in another lifetime in August when a message from Michelle reached me. She had a book published! (No, she’s being modest: she not only published a book, but it also won a prize!) I was glad that she thought of me for a review copy and I took my time during September to read it.

It’s not a very light book by any account, but it is not a harrowing read. In fact it’s lighter than I’d thought it would be, because it is set in Japan, where emotions and expressions are always so delicately rendered, and Michelle’s writing is also quite subtle. Her main narrator is an old Japanese woman who tells tales in her community, and her voice in the book reflects the music of a traditional narration, a bit like a chant. I would compare it slightly to the unique writing of Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic (only I am quite late in my blog posts so I should have told you about that other book ages ago), although it is not as systematic. Michelle switches her point of view often, moving from the husband to the wife to the outsider, and I must tell that it helps when dealing with a heavy subject like cancer, terminal illness and impending grief.

Besides being taken by the book and feeling so moved by the story, I wondered: how difficult is it to write a novel about this subject? Why set it in Japan (of all places?) And because I have met Michelle in real life, I wished she could tell me how she managed to write a novel while working, raising a daughter and blogging. I took the opportunity to ask her all my questions and here are her answers:

Q. What inspired you to write this particular story in small town Japan and why?

A. I feel a particular connection with Japan because I was born in the city of Kagoshima, right on the coast of the island of Kyushu. I’ve often wondered what version of my life I could have lived if my family had stayed longer and I’d actually grown up in this place. If I’m allowed this feeling – as a Scottish/German-American who now lives in Switzerland – I consider Japan a part of me in ways that are similar to my feelings for the US and Switzerland, the places which I have a legal right to call my home. This question of where a person belongs (culturally, linguistically, emotionally) has always fascinated me and was definitely part of the inspiration for some of the novel’s themes.

Later, I returned to Japan and worked in a small town in the mountains of Miyazaki Prefecture for several years when I was just out of college. When I returned back to America, I finally began writing stories about the region – I just couldn’t get the landscape out of my head. And I’ve always been interested in Japanese folktales and history. (And its literature.) Kyushu has a very particular and significant place in Japanese mythology, and I was lucky to spend time in this place at the center of so many of Japan’s originating myths.

At the same time, because of events in my private life, when I started working on Fog Island Mountains I was also circling around a lot of questions about grief and its effects on relationships and family. I would never have wanted to write so directly about those questions, but it felt very natural to combine these two ideas and see what came up.

Q. I had assumed that being so far from Japan and Japan being so faraway from our Western culture, you had chosen this setting to keep a distance with a difficult subject: preparing oneself to a death, grieving for one’s significant other. Obviously my assumption was all wrong. I found your book very sensitive in presenting the reaction of the sick person and his wife, as well as children, friends and acquaintances. Was it particularly difficult to write about this particular subject set in a place you call home? Was it necessary for you to take a distance with your subject? If so, how did you manage that?

A. It was very necessary for me to keep a distance from the personal experiences that helped inspire Fog Island Mountains, out of respect for a number of people, but also because this is almost always how I write. I don’t feel comfortable putting myself and my life directly into a piece of fiction. I’m sure I’m there, I don’t think I’m naive about this. But I really do write with a purely fictional landscape in mind, and characters who are wholly invented.

However, no, it wasn’t difficult to write about these subjects through a place I consider a little bit home. I even think the Japanese setting helped. I couldn’t really write about Japan while I was living there, nor about France when I lived in Paris. Something I’m working on right now has a small part set in Switzerland but it’s only a framework, the story is occurring in the US. I started working on Fog Island Mountains in 2007 when I’d been away from Japan for nearly six years. I suspect that a lot of my writing is (and may always be) about nostalgia and longing for place, and so it felt very natural to turn to Japan as a context for the questions of the story. My own form of comfort-writing, perhaps, even if it might be a little selfish to approach a “place” in this way.

**

This post is getting very long, so I’ll post the second part of this interview in a separate post. Stay tuned!

This is a book I turned down many times when it was first published in English, but years later I took my chance because it was free on Bookmooch. Meeh… I should have stuck to my guns. I read a solid quarter of the book, decided it wasn’t worth my precious time, and skimmed through the end, just in case.

Let me retrace my steps here a little, so that you get the big picture.

I was working in Hong Kong when I first heard of Candy, a little after 2000. It was huge. The book was available in Hong Kong, but not on the mainland where it was banned. Along with her contender Wei Hui, these young female writers were scandalous, and therefore hailed by critics as the genial voices of their generation.

Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Decadent nightlife in frontier town Shenzhen. Explicit PG13 scenes (or are they NC17?). And not a glance for the revolution, may it be to cry over past hardships or to praise the Leader. It was fresh! daring!

I didn’t read it back then because my level of Chinese wasn’t good enough. But I remember a colleague telling me that being banned was about the best thing that could have happened to this otherwise mediocre book. More than ten years later, I too ran out of patience, because the writing was indulgent, naively provocative and terribly self-centered. I know this is harsh, but I’m not a good fit for these kind of teenaged readings anymore.

Somehow, it seems more interesting to know of this book because of what it tells us about the Chinese society and about a generation of young Chinese people than by its own value.

Uh-oh, it seems that I’ve had this draft for 2 months or more and didn’t quite publish it! It’s high time I put it out in the open because it’s a lovely book. Update: it didn’t quite solve my procrastination problem. Sigh…

* * *

I heard of this book from the lovely Finding Time to Write blog, and I bought the book almost immediately (second-hand from Amazon marketplace), so intrigued I was about its promises: “how to creatively survive and thrive seven days a week”.

Although I am not comfortable with the name artist, and I don’t quite believe in the feel-good notion that everything we create is art, I am all ears when someone offers strategies and inspiration to make work and any creative outlet coexist peacefully, rather than pushing the art to the margins of our lives (work taking so much time and energy) or proposing to quit your job altogether. Here’s what she says about drastic measures:

“It took me years to realize that I could do all kinds of drastic acts like quitting jobs, relationships, towns (or all of the above), but what showed up at the next job, relationship, & town was still ME.”

This book seems primarily aimed at youngish and unattached people who take jobs in restaurants or offices while hoping or waiting for a big creative success that will allow them to practice full-time. But often this arrangement becomes permanent and people are frustrated with their humdrum, stifling day jobs.

Summer Pierre offers a kind voice and good ideas to find this balance, and although her ideas are often not really applicable to my own circumstances, I liked the optimism and attitude.

French people are professional grumblers, and it’s all too easy to complain about our day job. I do it a lot (less than my colleagues, but still pretty much every day). But she helped me realize that, yes, there are (also) good points about working this job (and I’m not talking money only).

Some pieces of advice felt very US-centered and hipster-ish. Jobs are very hard to come by in France, so people here can’t just chuck a job and find another.  French office environments – or at least mine – don’t seem like the places Summer Pierre talks about — if I try a dance move near the copy machine they’re going to call the doctor straight away.

But other parts of the book were quite precious to me, forcing me to realize that procrastination is not creation, and it’s not downtime either. Putting things off for later and waiting for circumstances to be ideal isn’t a good solution. You might think “duh” and move on, but it was actually fun.

It’s a pretty easy read, quite inspirational. I didn’t fall in love with Summer Pierre’s designs but I enjoyed her kind words. It was probably a bad timing for me to read it before the holidays, but I’ll try a re-read in September along with my good resolutions for the fall!(*)

* * *

(*) Note from 2014/10/09: uh-oh… Although the book is lingering close to my computer in my little writing nook, I didn’t quite find the time to re-read it in September, as you can imagine.

Yet another very very good surprise thanks to audiobooks!

I had never read anything by Patrick Deville before, and when I finished Plague and Cholera, I immediately bought his Kampuchea. For a person who thinks twice before getting anymore book on her shelves, that’s telling a lot!

Who would have guessed that I would read (uh… hear) the biography of the man who had discovered the bacillus responsible for the plague (that now bears his name, yersinia pestis). I’m not a science buff, but I like a good story, and if anyone had told me that I would get engrossed in the biography of a biologist/doctor, member of the Pasteur team like Roux or Calmette (1863-1943), a man with an austere youth in Switzerland, no private life to speak of, apparently not far from being a misogynist or a sociopath (although he was indeed working for the good of humanity from his lab or his desk, I don’t think that bedside manners or caring for actual living patients were his forte), I would have been more than doubtful.

And yet. The man was anything but a lab rat and as soon as he could he left the Pasteur institute to live his dream: be an explorer, a discover of unchartered territories like Livingstone. Great explorers were one generation older than he, but he took his ticket to Asia by the way of being a cruise doctor, then he left this job when he fell in love with Vietnam, especially Nha Trang on the coast and Da Lat in the mountains. His love of learning seemed endless and he dabbled his hand in lots of activities: after biology and medicine, he became an explorer who surveyed the land along the Mekong river and then turned farm developer, rubber-tree planter, anti-malaria serum manufacturer, and a lot more.

The book is a straightforward biography, except it is called a novel, as many books that I’ve recently read. I’m not sure if it’s a French fashion, or a larger trend, just like all recent US movies proclaim “based on a true story”. I guess this label gives the writer more freedom, but we are left, as readers, with many questions as to what is real and what is fictional. Sometimes we readers are inside Yersin’s head and seeing the world through his eyes, sometimes a modern narrator breaks in, following the footsteps of Yersin in modern-day Vietnam and knowing, as an omniscient narrator (but is he as accurate and objective?) how the country has changed since Yersin set his foot there.

This book got a very famous prize in France, but some readers found the tone disturbing. It is dry and blunt indeed, with many quotations from private letters that are quite banal to say the least. Yersin was nowhere near an emotional person. That’s where we readers tend to think that it’s nothing more than a normal, informative biography. Yet the omniscient narrator’s voice is often distanced and ironic, so that the mix of the two voices might seem incongruous at times. I personally loved it, especially as the audiobook was read by the author.

Yersin was not the only focus of Deville. He visibly aimed at portraying a whole generation of enthusiastic discoverers, scientists and colonialists from the turn of the 20th century, for whom the world for up for grabs and awaiting their benevolent guidance. Then we spent much of the rest of the century paying for the consequences. I remember being astonished at the last remains of the French colonial empire in Vietnam and Cambodia, and so the book spoke to me at many levels.

(bonus: it has been translated to English this year!)

WordPress reminds me that I’m a dinosaur. 8 years blogging today, my goodness! My life was different in many ways when I started this blog, but one thing remains: reading is always an important part of my life.

Writing comes and goes, as is posting. Sometimes this place goes awfully quiet, sometimes I post three days in a row. But reading always continues far from the screen. There has been nifty little technological additions to the reading part, like the audiobooks (at some point I’m sure I said that they weren’t real books) and the e-reader (which at some point I said I’d never buy), but I’m still addicted to the old printed book.

I often feel that I should be posting, or should be writing more. But in eight years, I have learned that nothing good comes from apologizing about something not done. I certainly need to get back to some writing routine, but with a baby (and a still-rather-new job), routines are short-lived and perpetually evolving.

Still, this place is an anchor I keep returning to, because it feels like a place where I share a cup of coffee with old friends (I hope you don’t mind being called old!), rave about new bookish discoveries, make plans, vent about bad books (sometimes), show off my latest bookish shopping, share highs and lows and look back on those great books I’ve read in those 8 years. That would be a huge bookshelf indeed!

So make yourself comfortable here, friends, and have a cup of coffee with an old dinosaur!

The core of this book is the famous Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 meters-ong (224 feet) embroidery from the Middle Ages showing in dozens of small scenes the Norman conquest of England. The Tapestry itself is one-of-a-kind, a sort of gigantic graphic novel, complete with characters, plot, subplots and twists, but as its origin and content have been studied and disputed by historians for centuries, it was only a matter of time until a writer would make a novel out of it.

Here, Adrien Goetz weaves lots and lots of layers around the tapestry: a sympathetic young curator freshly arriving at the museum, Penelope, a thriller about the last few meters of the tapestry that have never been found, a mystery about the authenticity of the piece, different interpretations about who commissioned it, how they did it, what some passages mean etc. Even Princess Diana and Hitler have been thrown into the lot. I have read this novel over summer and it was very pleasant, but now I really struggle to let you know what exactly was the main storyline and the whole point of the book.

The thriller / mystery plots themselves were not very believable, just a concession to the genre. So I guess Goetz mostly wanted to be informative under the cover of fiction, which he did with some success. I am grateful for getting to learn a lot of anecdotes about the Tapestry that I hadn’t picked up when visiting the official museum a few years ago, and the book mostly made me wish to go back to Bayeux for another visit, which is not so bad after all.

I’m not saying that the book was downright bad, but the piece of art itself stands no comparison. So the best conclusion may be: the Bayeux Tapestry is wonderful, just go and see it for yourself, online or in real life if possible.

This is my third Haller book and now I have to pause and consider what’s gone awry.

First book? Terrific, couldn’t put it down. Second one? ditto. Third one? Wham, I just couldn’t put myself in the mood. It took me more than 2 months from start to finish, with lots of other books in between that all took the precedence.

Maybe it’s the language. The first two were translated to French, this one in the original language. Normally I always prefer original language, but I also take what’s available to me at the library or bookshop. And so, the voice of Mickey Haller inside my head was simply not the same anymore. More jaded, more fatigued (that also has to do with the story, but shh… I don’t want a spoiler… just yet.)

Maybe it’s the media. The first two were audiobooks, this one in print. I realize that I am much more enthusiastic with audiobooks than with printed books because the talent of the actor / writer, his/her voice and rhythm, all this kind of hypnotize me, puts me under a charm, and my critical eyes are just off duty while my ears are doing all the work. Weird, isn’t it? I wonder if I’m the only one.

Maybe it’s the story itself. I didn’t find it as addictive as the others. Mickey Haller, a criminal defense attorney has fallen on tough times and has to take foreclosure cases because the economy’s bad. But soon enough crime comes back to the foreground, when a client of his, a woman who was going to lose her home, is accused of having murdered the bank manager in charge of the loan.

The Haller series is a tricky one for Connelly, trickier than the Bosch series where the good ones are the cops, and all is well once the bad guys are behind bars. To have a criminal defense attorney as a hero is difficult to pull it off because his clients aren’t always nice and innocent. Maybe they are, but there’s about as much chance that they’re the bad guys, and so how can the hero succeed both in the courtroom and in moral terms? Haller is typically cynical but with a nagging moral conscience, that’s why we love him. In previous episodes the twists of the plot made sure to reconcile the contradiction (Haller wins yet the bad ones are back to jail, somehow), but with every new case the difficulty increases.

So, major spoiler here, I felt it was such a huge let-down when at the end of this book Haller said that he didn’t want to defend bad guys anymore and that he was running for D.A.. Whaaat? Mickey? How can you just crossing onto the other side? No, don’t do this to us…

With that kind of ending, Michael Connelly has me standing in line for his next book, just to know what happens next. It might not be his best book ever but this man knows how to do cliffhangers.

I’m so not ready for fall! Three days into the new schedule and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed (How come I could master the evening routine, bathe, feed and tuck everyone in and now I can’t anymore?). Yet I’m posting, because I’d feel even guiltier if I didn’t even take the time for that.

The good news that came in the middle of my vacation was a message from lovely Michelle, from Pieces and Necessary Fiction, to let me know of her upcoming novel, which won a prize (the 2013 Christopher Doheny Award from the Center for Fiction, no less!) and will be published in the fall with Tantor Publishing: Fog Island Mountains (I also see that the book is already available on pre-order from Audible.com.

At least one thing to sweeten my fall! She sent me a ARC and I’m glad to start reading her novel right away. I expect some strong emotions and deep issues, as her novel deals with grief. It is set in a small Japanese town where an expatriate, married to a Japanese and settled there for many years, has to face a terminal cancer diagnosis.

I’m just 20 pages into the novel but I already like Michelle’s writing a lot, the way she handles multiple points of views and her description that makes people so foreign to my own experience immediately alive and understandable under my eyes.

Strangely, I was reminded of a melancholy song I love very much, from Norwegian jazz songwriter Silje Nergaard. The song actually has nothing typically Japanese in it, but it is called “Japanese blue”, and I feel it goes well with the mood the novel starts with.

I plan to read it slowly as it is a difficult subject, but I’ll let you know how it progresses!

 

Usually, when French people come back from holidays in late August (the entire country sort of shuts down from 08/5 to 08/25, except for the tourist industry), there are bad surprises in the mail: the tax sheet and lots of invoices. That makes you get back in the (grumpy) mood right away, believe me.

But this year, a nice surprise awaited me too, that helped me find the courage to open the tax sheet: a book by Pushkin Press: Salad Anniversary by Tawara Machi, that will come out in October!

Some years ago I wrote a review of this book after I fell in love with these evocative poems full of those tiny moments daily life and mundane emotions. Machi Tawara had used a very old poetry form to express herself and created a huge success in Japan.

Some 5 years later I opened the book afresh (the one I’d read was a library copy) and I enjoyed it again. Here a few lines that resonated with me this time, from the poem Hashimoto High School (Machi Tawara is a teacher):

Proctoring the exam,

Suddenly I think of each one’s mother,

The day she conceived this child

 

Parents claim to raise their children,

but garden tomatoes turn red

unbidden

In case you need a refreshing break from fall’s hectic schedule (back-to-school! new projects at work! budgets! the end of year already looming! arggh…) and the noise of social media, a book of poetry (in paper with a clean design and a cute cover) is a good place to start.

Oops, she did it again… Draw me into a totally implausible story, mixing contemporary murder with an old folk myth, And I fell for it from the first few pages on, like with (all) the previous ones (I have reviewed 6 of them here).

I guess you have to love Vargas or hate it, and I stand firmly in the first group. Killjoy might argue that this is getting formulaic, that her stories are so unrealistic that there is no point in them. It just like saying Snow White  and the dwarves can’t be true so there’s no point in reading it.

In fact, it’s like a playful tale, with lots of inventive uses for language. Not only is the plot full of twists and turns, but the language itself is also fun to read. People in Vargas’ novels are contemporary, but they are so weird and one of a kind that it is agreed from the start that they only exist in fiction. Yet, they are alive and kicking! At least, for those who don’t cross the path of an evil criminal…

After a short introduction where Adamsberg solves a murder whose weapon is white bread (of  all  things!), the scene moves progressively from Paris to Normandy, where the Wild Hunt, a horde of devils, ghosts and zombies, ride through the woods by night to steal away those who have committed an unpunished crime. At first Adamsberg is tempted to shrug it off as superstition, but when a real corpse shows up in the woods, he settles down in a local hotel and investigates the local gossips and old grudges, convinced that someone is using the old tale to scare people and settle old scores in blood.

As in previous books, this myth is not invented by Vargas, it’s a popular European myth that seems to exist in England, France, Germany and Scandinavian countries as well. It was interesting to discover this story, just like many tiny bits of knowledge that Vargas likes to disseminate from page to page.

The book has been translated to English and published as The Ghost Riders of Ordebec.

Contact me!

smithereensmail(dash)blog(at)yahoo(dot)fr

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