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.

I have a childish love for Margaux Motin’s girly-with-attitude designs. I have read her previous solo books (“J’aurais adoré être ethnologue” and “La théorie de la contorsion”), and I laughed out loud every single time.

Not a classy, delicate laugh. The kind that hesitates between a big belly laugh or a snort. With a quick side glance to check if your dear husband looks over your shoulder or not.

It’s actually a collection of short scenes, perfect for a blog, even though I have discovered her through books and not through her blog (which is delightful). Sometimes those scenes are poetic (especially when she mixes photos with sketches), sometimes it’s a quick everyday-life scene I could totally relate to.

She’s getting quite popular in France and has done a lot of advertising design. You can easily see why: her girls are slim with long limbs and long lashes. They are fashionable and fresh, full of energy and zing. The epitome of the Parisian 30-something urban woman with a little cute girl in tow.

But the difference between her advertising gigs and her own books is blatant when you open them: the design is very prim and proper, but you really should brace for the text: the number of f-bombs by page is quite impressive, and no large company would be ok with that.

Now, I see that reviewers are very divergent on her books: either they love it or hate it. I would say that most male bloggers I’ve seen find it totally superficial, self-indulgent and don’t see the point of it, and most female bloggers just can’t get enough of it!

I didn’t read all in one sitting, because I think it might have felt too repetitive and a tad vulgar, but browsing for a few pages at a time was just fine. It’s really the portrait of young woman who tries very hard, who goes through a divorce, new dates and breakups, single-parenthood, a cross-country move and freelance gigs, who keeps her sense of humor and her style.

Space is scarce in Paris. Not as scarce as in Hong Kong, but still. We are pretty lucky to live in town, but there is no way I can have an office to myself (or even shared with my husband) anytime soon.

Writingnook

I know that Virginia Woolf has advocated a room of one’s own, but this is only a dream, not a financially sustainable reality for the moment for me.

The awkward arrangement we had, until recently, was that our writing desk remained in our big boy’s room (because it was originally the office, back when we were childless). It was indeed convenient for Smithereens Junior in case he wanted to check some YouTube Lego videos, but that much for my writing sessions where I had to move the computer to the dining table.

Now that the baby boy has left his crib, the boy’s room has become the boys’ room, and the writing desk is obviously out.

So we moved the writing desk into our parental bedroom and I have now my small reading nook! Over the weekend I also changed the internet wiring so that the wi-fi connection works there too.

Can you believe that when googling “reading nook”, it comes up with 9.4 million hits (and counting, I bet)? (“writing nook” has more hits, but apparently there’s a software named this way). These pictures are often nothing more than eye-candy, but I am ready to add my personal little corner, even if it’s nothing too fancy.

I really like having a blank wall in front of me and a large window on the side. I am at the opposite side of the flat away from the children room and TV, so it should be quiet. I have tried it yesterday evening for the first writing session and it felt great!

I discovered Sherlock in my early teens and it was love at first sight. I read all the stories and novels in one breath and watched the Jeremy Brett series with a critical yet totally addicted eye (I bet this gives away my age), and like all the readers of the turn of the (20th) century, I was inconsolable at the Reichenbach falls and so thankful that Doyle had decided to cave in and write some more stories.

I had not revisited this childhood favorite ever since, but the recent TV show made me yearn for some Sherlock again, and as it seems that we won’t be getting any Cumberbatch before 2015 (?), I downloaded the original on my Kindle.

Oh man. It’s tough. It’s not anywhere as good as I remembered it. Some stories are downright laborious, and several times I’d guessed the truth well before the end. There’s not that many baffling deductions like in the first series of short stories (as I recall), but rather some deus ex maxima and a few implausible explanations.

I hope and suspect that the first collections were much better than this one, but I won’t try to read it again for fear of disappointment. I want to preserve the memory of being amazed. I tried to remember how old I was when I started them and I can’t, but I was obviously young  and naive. I guess the TV show has surpassed the original, and I’ll just have to be patient.

I still look forward to the day when my sons will be big enough to read it by themselves (what age? I once again wonder), but beware when revisiting childhood favorites: it’s a double-edged sword.

Regina Segal and her granddaughter Mica are together away from their Israeli home on a trip to Poland to investigate a property that belonged to Regina’s family and was confiscated during WW2.

Mica has recently lost her father, Regina’s son. It is Mica’s first trip to Poland, and she doesn’t know what to expect there. Her grandmother is cantankerous and quite moody, and at times it seems to Mica as if this whole journey has been in vain.

Grandmother and granddaughter barely understand each other, they don’t speak about the father, don’t even mention their grief. Yet it is soon obvious that there are some family secrets lying around in the past, and probably still lurking in the streets of Warsaw.

Rutu Modan’s art is deceptively simple (comparable to Tintin’s style) and people are drawn rather flatly (not very flattering), but nothing in the book is as simple as it seems. Feelings are subtly evoked, characters are richly layered and never black-and-white. People may be blunt, and sometimes misunderstand each other because they don’t speak the same languages (Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish are rendered through different typographies), but most of the times the silences tell a lot more than the words. There are no good people, no poor Jewish victims and bad Poles or the other way round. The grandmother is at times deeply moving, at times unbearable.

I knew Rutu Modan from her NYT blog, and I knew she was able to convey rich feelings in very simple portraits, but I’d never imagined that a graphic novel would be able to go that deep. If you want a “serious comic book”, I warmly recommend it.

I am sure that French people are not the only ones to make fun of bureaucrats (Russians spring to mind).

This thin book fully belongs to the genre, but I think this book might appeal to a specific, rather narrow readership: diplomats, people who work at the foreign office and people who know a little about them. A kind of insider’s joke. This book came as a present from a friend who happens to work in the diplomatic workforce, so I guess I should have asked her if she recognized anyone!

Our narrator, a young man with a very dull childhood in the 1970s, enters the diplomatic workforce with lots of ambition, only to discover that it’s not all as glorious and adventurous as what he’d dreamed of.

Due to a painful mistake on his first day, he is assigned to “the Russian Front”, not at all to a foreign country, but actually to an obscure department of losers, not even at the prestigious Quai d’Orsay offices but in a cubicle in a grey business area, to “take care” of visiting foreign delegations from the most obscure countries, those countries that are not yet recognized internationally.

He is as naive as he is ambitious, but his office life is a disaster, his love life abysmal, and every attempt he makes at leaving the Russian front proves even more catastrophic.

It is very satirical and cynical when it comes to bureaucrats, but I know for certain that some parts of it are not very far from reality! It was a light read, if a bit repetitive. But normally I don’t do well with comic books, so that was a nice change.

Who hasn’t heard the praises of Sue Monk Kidd for The Secret Life of Bees? The book wasn’t available at the library or on Bookmooch, so I figured her Mermaid Chair, her second book, would be the next best thing.

The next it is, but best? I sure hope not. I have been trying hard, but the book didn’t really manage to sustain my interest.

Sure, I don’t read many love books, or books about middle-aged crisis. But I am not allergic to the subject either. (ok I can’t think of any title I recently read about this right now, but that’s just my sleep deprived mommy brain. I don’t know where I last put my glasses either).

Or perhaps it’s because I haven’t been to South Carolina and I have no clue how it feels like. I know some islands, but the writer didn’t really manage to transport me virtually to this place she seems to love so much.

I didn’t really relate to the main character either, whom I found too whiny and passive in her marriage and life in general. But when her shiny new love interest appeared, the man who was able to break a 20 years long marriage, and that it was a monk with a robe, a hood and a rosary, I nearly laughed at the cheesiness of this plot device. What is it with this cliché image of catholics and monks? I didn’t find it one bit realistic (ok, I have no clue how American monks are).

Somehow it made me think of the Catholic monks in Victorian novels as described by The Little Professor (who blogs so delightfully that I take her word for it), especially how Victorian England novels used evil monks as fodder for barely hidden sexual fantasies. They were exotic temptators to virtuous women, who were supposed to return to the safety of Protestantism at the end of the book. Once this thought crossed my mind for The Mermaid Chair, I barely could think of anything else, even though it was clearly a digression.

Getting back firmly to the 21st century, the emotional treatment of the plot seemed to me quite heavy-handed, especially the mermaid theme. Oh, a woman with long hair and magical powers who find herself maimed and powerless when going ashore to be united with the man she loves. The narrator painted it many times over in case we didn’t notice the first time. And if you don’t see the big F of Feminist and the huge G of girl’s empowerment, I can highlight it for you in dayglo.

I know that second books after bestsellers are quite a challenge. Do the same, and people will criticize you. Do different, and people will miss what they’d enjoyed in the first. But starting with the second book, as I have discovered, is a risky strategy for the reader. I am not even sure I’ll try The secret life of bees now. Except if you recommend it very very much.

It had been so much fun to read The Three Musketeers two years ago that when I looked for a fun, big book for the early months of babyhood, I knew I had to get the sequel, the story that reunites the 4 friends twenty years after their first adventures.

Twenty years are a generation, so that the dashing young men with dashing nicknames have matured, grown old(er), taken back their family names and estates and are a bit less adventurous… or so they think at first. They have lost touch with one another, and while D’Artagnan works for the Cardinal (the cowardly and greedy Mazarin, not the wicked Richelieu anymore) and Queen Anne, Aramis and Athos have ended up on the opposite side (the aristocratic Fronde). Porthos is busy getting richer and fatter in the countryside, but soon enough (for a 800 pages book), the four friends unite again for the sake of… British monarchy! I didn’t expect that the book would spend so much time in Cromwell’s England, but that was a lot of fun too.

When I say this change of scenery came as a surprise, it’s because I had big plans to investigate Parisian geography as imagined at the time of the musketeers (in this episode, during Louis 14th’s childhood). I had been charmed while reading the first book by the many references to streets and places that still exist in the city where I live, so my plan was all set for the second book: I knew I was going to live and breathe musketeers for one month at least, but it wasn’t enough, I wanted to literally walk in their footsteps too!

While reading on my Kindle, I highlighted all the street names that often came up in the plot. (Of course, I paused for a few hundreds pages while the 4 friends had crossed the Channel!). Then I transferred my Kindle notes into a list, and this list toward Google maps (I am a nerd, yes, I am). So  that at the end of the project, every single street named by Dumas, where the 4 friends are supposed to have fought, talked, eaten and plotted find themselves nicely drawn on a map. I also searched whenever possible for streets that had changed names and disappeared.

MapDumas

(if you click on the map, it should get you to Google Maps where you can zoom in)

As I worked on the map, I explored the book at a new level, but also learned about my own city, and got to see beyond real streets and places into a fictional (albeit historical), alternative world. As if I had found Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, or as if I had taken a Sex in the City NYC guided tour!

That’s what I call the ultimate staycation… while waiting for the holidays!

Contact me!

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

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