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Oh, I’m conflicted about this one. I love Victorian novels, or set in the Victorian era, and I have nothing against heroines who start off as meek and conventional corset-wearing young women (here the sweet and proper Mariella, who spends her day sewing in her parents’ sitting room) and who learn along the way to be more daring and outgoing, even if it means losing her illusions in the process.
I had noticed this title among Danielle’s recommendations, and I was happy to go beyond my prejudice against the dull cover art (obviously a lack of inspiration from the creative team).
The point that won me over was that I really enjoyed learning about the Crimean war. The only thing I knew about this war before starting the book was the name of Sebastopol and the name of Florence Nightingale, but I’d have been hard pressed to say anything more. Yet as the plot moved from London to the outskirts of Sebastopol, I recognised names that I had just glossed over as a student when I caught up on 19th history at a hurried pace: Malakoff, Inkerman, Scutari…
This led me to some nice history refresher research on the internet (one of the perks of maternity leave, I should say, because I normally never have time to check those things out). Why have France and Great Britain decided to take this fight with Russia? How come French and British would fight along one another? (this didn’t go without problems) Why did the conflict end up in disaster on both sides? Why did the British army, that I had assumed more powerful, modern and organized than the others, face such a bloodshed? McMahon does not go into details, but through Mariella’s family we can see how Victorian opinion could be enthusiastically nationalist and warmongering at the start of the conflict, as well as bewildered and mobilized to help British soldiers on the front later on. In the second part of the book, we really get a feeling of what the Sebastopol siege must have felt like, in a way both traditional and modern (Crimean war was deemed the first modern war, but it really was a time where things were quickly changing). In short, I found McMahon’s research quite impressive, as well as flawlessly woven into the plot.
So far so good, so.
But this book’s weakness is probably to say too much. Its plot feels all over the place and lacks focus. There’s not only one heroine, but a second one, her cousin, the daring Rosa, who dreams to become a doctor, or second-best, a nurse with Florence Nightingale. Rosa is too brash, passionate and too unconventional to be the real heroin here, albeit a tragic one. Or is she? There are love interests, of course. Mariella’s fiancé is interesting per se, and has lots of conflicting feelings. And McMahon still finds some room for friends, relatives (and staff!) who all have a detailed back story.
Thick in the middle of the book, it felt like an overcrowded, stuffy, over decorated Victorian sitting room. Please give me some air! And the end was a bit disappointing, because it failed to tie some important knots. I’m not a big proponent of resolving all the issues nicely, but here, it felt rather hasty.
So if you want to make up your mind and learn about the Crimean war, I’d say: give this book a fair try. Many reviews have not been as positive, I know, but it definitely wasn’t a waste of time.
Once again a writer I woudn’t have tried but for the audiobook selection at our library. I knew of the author’s name because he stands on the French bestsellers lists, but I had assumed that it was light (read: shallow) entertaining Parisian (read: snobbish) read. Beware of assumptions! Entertaining it was, and absorbing, and surprisingly fun, especially while dealing with serious matters!
The books starts right before Christmas, when Marc invites his 4 best friends for a traditional dinner together and to bring them some news: he’s fallen in love with a Chinese young woman, he will get married very soon and he wants them to be their witnesses. The news is greeted with disbelief: Marc is a serial lover, not the marrying kind, and the picture of the fiancée shows a plain, ordinary girl who might well be a gold-digger. But the 4 friends have little choice but to agree to take part to his wedding.
Circumstances are indeed out of the ordinary. Marc is a famous fashion photographer. A hugely successful star. Thanks to his money he has been able to financially support his 4 best friends: one has become an art gallerist, another manages a luxury hotel, yet another one is basically jobless but for articles to support the Dalai Lama, and the last one is his personal assistant and spends his time grooming Marc’s luxurious cars and managing Marc’s dismissed girlfriends and agenda.
Then the book turns to tragicomedy: Three days before the wedding, they all find themselves at the airport to greet the fiancée with awful news: Marc has been killed in a car crash the day before. Do they want to destroy her by announcing her these news right there or let her enjoy a day in Paris under a false pretence before she takes a plane back to China, a widow before even having gotten married? They dither and fall under the charm of an astoundingly charming young woman: they’re unable to blurt out the truth. Is she a manipulator or the perfect wife for their late friend? Each of the 4 friends have reasons to love and hate her, and a score to settle with Marc.
I won’t go in any more detail about the plot, because it has many twists and turns, jumping from one friend’s point of view to the next with a share of secrets for each, that was highly entertaining. Of course, you have first to relinquish any requirement for realism: none of this is very believable, but still all the characters are endearing and I was game for the ride. It’s more like a fairy tale for adults, so you should expect some clichés too, but in the whole characters who at first seemed one-dimensional developed an interesting depth.
It was also a good analysis of friendship and manipulation, when the friends all discover that Marc’s lavish gifts put them all in a relationship mode close to dependency and that stopped them from exploring new interests or simply from moving forward in their own life. It’s not a grand masterpiece, but it reads fast and well and it was well worth the few hours spent with it.
This year the Advent calendar has a special meaning and added pressure: when Christmas will be over, there will be only a few days left before the baby arrives! Blogwise, this means that I’m trying very hard to finish posting about books and to finish most of the books that have been lingering on my night stand for… well, months, to be honest.
That, on top of Christmas presents, Christmas food orders (we host, since I’m unable to go anywhere), stocking up on supplies / furniture for the nursery, going to maternity classes (for a refresher) and trying to stay sane and rested… all this starts to feel a bit overwhelming.
What might very well happen: you might end up with a review on changing tables, my guests might have formula in Champaign glasses, get a brand new babygro wrapped in a christmas box, I’ll be spreading lotion on canapés, and there’ll be many unfinished books in my suitcase for the hospital. Or this blog will be very very silent (I wish you happy holidays and a happy new year, just in case) and I’ll be sound asleep by 6pm on December 24, while my guests will be at the door.
I plead guilty in advance.
So, just to talk about something a bit more literary, Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman. I have received a lovely hardback through Bookmooch and Litlove has loved it. But somehow, I didn’t quite warm up to it. It certainly ticked many of my boxes. Pre WWI Paris? Black and white movies? A young ambitious heroin determined to make it as a movie star, even by seducing the director? A complex relation triangle between the maid, the master and the mistress? All these appealed to me. And the execution was flawless.
Yet, the dual plotting line once again grated on me (this is soon becoming my pet peeve, except when it is well done). There’s enough mystery in the 1913 story with all its own back stories, the 1967 discovery of the movie reel and the dialogue between a journalist and the actress, now an elderly woman, didn’t seem necessary to me. Likewise, there’s a big twist at the end, which I won’t disclose here, but that wasn’t really necessary either.
It made me think of Sarah Waters, which definitely is a good point for Hitchman given the number of Waters’ fans, but unfortunately to me it had the same problem: coldness and emotional distance. I didn’t really care. I’m sorry to sound trivial, but I couldn’t believe that any of the characters were French, except perhaps the voice of the elderly woman. But I would be hard pressed to define what makes a French voice, or what would make Hitchman’s characters more French to me!
Given the enthusiastic reviews here and there, I’m statistically on the wrong side of the fence. This probably isn’t the book’s problem, maybe just mine. So if you want to give it a try, don’t hesitate and come here to let me know what I missed!
I often struggle with humor in books, but I heard so much good about this one that I tried it, in part to challenge myself (wasn’t that one goal of mine for 2013?) in part because I was plain curious.
Before you pause to ask: yes, I know who Tina Fey is.
No, I haven’t watched Saturday Night Live or 30 Rock. So how do I know her?
Tina Fey’s fame crossed the Atlantic when she impersonated Sarah Palin during the 2008 US presidential election. Europeans were appalled by Palin’s ignorance of international affairs (plus, French people love to make fun of Americans), so watching Tina Fey on Youtube was a kind of comforting reassurance that maybe she wouldn’t really become Vice President.
The book was fun and kept its promises from cover to cover (I even loved the blurbs!). The parts I loved least were, unsurprisingly, those about SNL or 30 Rock or with a lot of name-dropping for people I haven’t the faintest idea who they are (yes, I know Alec Baldwin and Jane Krakowski, but that’s about all). She seems to be quite business-wise and good as a boss too (a part I didn’t expect in the book). She might write things like: “Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions; go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.” Which is always useful to hear.
I enjoyed all the more generic biographic parts, especially her childhood, her hilarious honeymoon cruise and her sassy feminist stance. The “career” part was simply not for me, but my interest picked up after she had her baby and had to juggle her powerful position with the needs of her daughter. (She hates the juggling question, by the way) The scene where she has to fit within a weekend a recording with Oprah, a Sarah Palin sketch and her daughter’s birthday party was both hilarious and exhausting, even by Oprah’s standards: “By the way, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your fucking life.”
And overextended she does sound. I found her voice witty and accessible, but maybe my next book needs to be by a Zen master.
Yet another book that Rebecca enticed me to read (it’s all her fault! ). Yet another book I’m reviewing waaaay too late. We’ve already started the Advent countdown, and yet thinking about this book reminds me of lying on a deckchair in the sun in front of our little rental house in the woods. In a way I’m sorry not to have written about this book earlier, but in another way I’m just grateful I have those nice summery memories attached to it.
So, on to the book itself. In short, I loved it, and I was so surprised to fall for it. Of all readers, isn’t it crazy that I (a European reader for whom many democrat ideas don’t go far enough) have been so engrossed with a book about the life of the previous Republican First Lady of the United States?
Perhaps that’s what Curtis Sittenfeld had in mind: take the person that a lot of people have despised or hated for being married to the guy that once was the most hated one on the planet, and make her loveable, or at least relatable.
(Of course there’s no mention of George W. Bush, but everybody starting this book is somehow forewarned, this American wife is not your average housewife) Alice Lindgren is sooo relatable, so real, and her choices, at the moment she makes them, make perfect sense. Yet there’s nothing obvious in her life course, from being a shy, bookish, rather conventional Midwestern middle class girl to getting married to a super-rich, spoilt, good-time Charlie who ends up as the president of the United States.
How much of her thoughts and acts are real or fictional or loosely inspired by reality is beside the point for me, especially as we move further away from the Bush presidency (that it was an issue for Mrs. Bush or Republicans makes little doubt… how weird a choice for Sittenfeld to write a fiction where the inspiration is so obvious and so recent… I can’t imagine anything like that based on Michelle Obama). I read it as an analysis of characters and of a marriage, full of complexity and compromises. It worked very well as such and I couldn’t put it down.
I have an excuse to be blogging about this book so late (about 3 months after finishing it): this baby is robbing me of many (most?) of my neurons, that’s a fact (whatever is left is mainly dedicated to my husband, son and coworkers, sorry guys). And you don’t want to read this book absent-mindedly.
But I’d be sorry not to blog at all about it, because it needs to be praised, and promoted, so that people buy Janet Malcolm’s books in droves. Yes, that’s this good.
I’d never had known Janet Malcolm if not for book bloggers. I think it’s Rebecca from Of books and bikes who put me on her track. And now I am all the more convinced that I must read everything she’s published.
In the Freud Archives’ subject or title are not sexy: it’s mainly about Freudian scholars fighting over who will get access to the archives and secrets of the master. But don’t be afraid, it’s fascinating and brimming with tension (these scholars fight hard!), so that it resembles more a thriller than a scholarly paper. The plot comes down to that: the old king of Freudian archives, Kurt Eissler, unexpectedly gives the keys to the Archives to a young, dashing and ambitious scholar, Jeffrey Mason (the equivalent to reaching the Holy grail), but soon after the designated prince turns against his mentor and publicly challenges the Freudian orthodoxy that sexual hysteria derived from the patients’ imagination and not from actual sexual abuse. Eissler and Mason then launched an all-out war fueled by personal bitterness and disappointment.
It’s non-fiction, but she doesn’t make it all dry and serious (that’s why I read it with glee, when I usually read so little non-fiction). On the contrary, she takes time to flesh out characters and use metaphors. Freudian scholarly disputes get real and highly personal. She explains the bottom line of Freudian theories, but she also describes what people had to eat when they met, like in a reportage.
The book goes beyond this plot itself, because as much as it is about manipulation and expectations, Malcolm herself played no mean role in the dispute: Mason sued her for libel over it and the suit lasted 10 years before she was cleared. Just as in The Silent Woman, I’m not sure how objective Malcolm was or even tried to be in her relation to the different parties, but the strength of her books is that she doesn’t try to hide the necessary subjectivity of the writer.
Sure, you need to be a bit interested in Freudian stuff before reading this book, but to me, it was an exciting experience (I admittedly know more about Freud than about Sylvia Plath). I’ve heard that The Journalist and the Murderer is her best book, so I’m looking forward to reading it (hopefully next year, if the baby gives me some neurons back!).
PS. Do you allow me 1 minute bragging? Back during summer, on the French equivalent of NPR, I was surprised to hear one of my favorite French non-fiction writers, Emmanuel Carrère, and an influential (if on the traditional side) philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, praise Malcolm as their latest literary discovery, as The Journalist and the Murderer was just being translated and published in France. Duh, I said, why haven’t they asked book bloggers?
Where did the last 2 weeks disappear? I’ve hardly been online, but whenever I snatched some 5 free minutes I spent them reading your blogs, guys, and was not in the mood to write here about some books. I’m not yet in maternity leave, but oh my word, I am SO looking forward to it. I have great plans for the few weeks before Baby #2, and that definitely involves some catching up on book posts (and on about everything else in my life… no, I’m not overly ambitious. At that stage it’s called pure delusion).
So you see, in the meantime I don’t particularly feel inspired to write about Madame Edouard, a little murder mystery that was entertaining enough for the few hours I spent with it, but wasn’t really thrilling or memorable.
In fact, I’m getting a little bit tired of quirky Paris-based funny thrillers that look toward Fred Vargas’ but aren’t quite the real deal. Ok, I’m being mean here and I don’t even mean it. Madame Edouard is fun: not laugh-out-loud, ah-ah fun, but honest entertainment. The recipe is to put a picturesque, charming setting: in this case, Montmartre (but strangely empty of tourists, so how realist is that?), to populate it with charming oddballs, with kitschy details (a male policeman who loves to knit, a retired transvestite who never leaves her (his?) Charentaise slippers because they are just too comfortable), add a grizzly murder with some gory details (serial murder whose victims are buried close to famous painters’ tombs), shake and serve with some gusto.
There’s a lot of dark humor and even some off-color jokes (that sound rather Belgian to me – Nadine Monfils being Belgian and a long-term French resident) that rather go well with the setting, but the balance between the crime plot and the rest of the book didn’t feel quite right. And I couldn’t really believe in all those characters.
This pregnancy didn’t stop me from getting interested in good murder mysteries (I keep away from child murders though), so I’m all about hearing good references. In the meantime, I’ve snatched a Tana French mystery, Faithful Place, from my neighborhood library. I’ve never read her before, but I have heard lots of good things about her, so I hope to overcome my disappointment with some Dublin fog. If that doesn’t help, I’m sure there will always be a nice little Fred Vargas’ out there to comfort me.
Okay, I’m pretty sure this title will get me lots of unwanted spam comments, but I can assure you this is the true title of this short story collection. Except in French it didn’t sound like that, otherwise I might have been more cautious.
Not really cautious about the book itself. I remembered hearing that Roald Dahl also wrote some adult fiction that was far from nice and respectable. I remember that as a little girl Roald Dahl’s children classics were not among my favorites, because they already have something a bit scary and disturbing. So I kind of knew what to expect, and the book is true to this reputation. The 4 stories here are amoral, humorous and… very explicit. Consider yourself warned. I enjoyed them in their very special way, although I’m not going to seek out any more after that.
Why so? The common streak of these four stories are about men with sexual fantasies of domineering women, particularly as they are asleep or in the dark. No, stop right here, don’t jump the gun right now. This has nothing to do with 50 Shades of whatever (oh, no, more spam to come!), and this isn’t one of those misogynist books either. This is satire! All those guys promptly get their comeuppance in a very darkly humorous sort of twist, so morality is (kind of) intact in the end (virtue clearly isn’t). But I have difficulty with satire in books (especially foreign writers), and after a while things were a bit too black and white in the stories, and I found that Dahl’s portrait of women was not particularly interesting.
The caution I talked about earlier is related to the circumstances of getting this book. I borrowed it from a relative whose literary taste I know (knew) little about. And then, just out of the blue, I had to borrow this book among hundreds of his bookshelves.
This was a pretty bad idea on both sides. Just imagine the possibilities:
- There’s me thinking: uh-oh, perhaps this person only reads sexy, weird books like this one. Perhaps it tells something of his… ahem, taste and way of life? (lots of headache and head scratching)
- There’s this person thinking: why on earth would Smithereens borrow this book in particular, when it’s the only “embarrassing” book I own? Is it because she particularly enjoys these sexy, weird books? Because she… (stop right there, I’m already blushing behind my screen)
- There’s the awkward moment when I return the book and the person feels obliged to say: oh-hum, did you enjoy it?
The lesson here: steer your guests away from your bookshelves if you have any book you might find even slightly embarrassing. Hide them, put a stylish cover on them, do whatever it takes to protect your friendships.
Or what do you think?
This is the book I picked after finishing Shutter Island and Gone Girl (yes, talk about a U-turn here). What could be more wholesome and comforting than an Amish novel? What narrator could be more reliable than the second girl of an Amish family who is approaching her courting years?
I’d had a surprisingly good experience with another of these Amish novels last year. This one was kind-of fun, clearly a notch down from my first experience. But still I empathized with the main character and read it to the end with pleasure (beware, this is only the first volume of a series, so all knots are far from being tied up at the end of this one).
The story centers on the 2 elder daughters of the Ebersol family who has 4 in total. The eldest, Sadie, is clearly tempted by the “Englisher” world, and she falls prey to a boy with sweet promises, at a very high cost for her (a teenage unwed pregnancy! I’m shocked! but don’t worry, Lewis don’t get into graphic details). The second girl, Leah, is watching her sister’s running wild with doubts and alarm. She’s clearly en route to marry into the community, but the boy she sets her eyes on is not the one her father would like her to marry. The two little sisters are still in the background of the novel, but there are opening plotlines for them as well.
Two things distracted me from the simple and wholesome fun I expected: the first is just the historical setting. I had assumed that the novel was in the present time, but it took me several chapters to figure out that we were in 1946-47. I know Amish communities are timeless, but still, attitudes were different back then than they are now, so it would have been precious to get that information early on.
The second thing is the parents’ attitude, which I didn’t find very believable. So much turmoil is going on in their daughters’ lives, and they don’t even have a clue? Am I supposed to buy that Sadie is able to sneak out at night to date an Englisher without their hearing anything? And then later on, that not even her mother notices that she’s pregnant, or that she has given birth? It’s okay to imagine circumstances with neglectful parents in other communities, but in one so insistent on family ties, so close-knit and without many distractions, it really stretches belief.
Or it’s high time I lose my illusions on the Amish. But if so, where shall I turn whenever in need for a safe, comforting read?
I heard of this book some time before getting pregnant, so this has nothing to do with “now how am I going to scare myself away with gore details of birth and pregnancy gone wrong?”, but of course, I wasn’t quite so motivated to finish the book once I got the good news.
Truth be said, I’d heard of the BBC series before buying the book, and I’d watched the first episode on Youtube which was awesome. But I didn’t feel like buying the DVD because it was expensive and I figured that nobody else in the family would love to watch something so emotional and tearful and graphic and… yes, a little bit cheesy, with me, so I’d better get the memoir that inspired the series.
Oh-hum, doesn’t it look like the worst case scenario of impulse purchase for my growing TBR pile?
What I got really is a memoir of a young nurse who started her midwife career in the London East End in the 1950s. I’m so grateful I’m not a pregnant woman living in the East End in the 1950s. Appalling poverty and dire hygienic conditions, overcrowded tenement flats with families of 8 or 10 children. Bombed-out ruins, prostitution. And of course, home births without running water or antibiotics. If you’re not bracing yourself by now, you’re a hero.
But you needn’t be. It’s not really such a harrowing read, you see (even for a pregnant woman), because there’s so much distance to the circumstances she describes that it feels exotic, and more disturbingly, it seems that poverty was exotic to Worth when she first encountered it– there’s a social bias in the way she describes “those” women that sometimes feels weird. Anyway, the book is full of good feelings, and there’s a lot of romanticizing the past. The nurses are all such perfect angels, and the most disturbing facts of the day, like domestic violence or the fact that women were going from pregnancy to pregnancy without much of a choice are often glossed over (under the pretext of “no judging).
The start is powerful, but then it loses its breath because it’s more a series of anecdotes without much of a narrative arch. The real reasons why Worth chose this career given her previously rather sheltered life are only alluded to: she is clearly reluctant to talk about herself, unless it is to show how she found her faith watching the nuns’ dedication to midwifery.
Clearly, the show looks better. It’s a credit to the BBC scenarists that they could retain all the interesting juice out of these stories and concentrate them into a great show. It’s not that often that I’ll tell you to go and watch TV over taking a book, isn’t it?