You are currently browsing smithereens’s articles.

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!

This book has been so hyped-up this winter in France that when I chanced upon it at the library I had to try it. But I knew the experience would not be pleasant.

Even if it is called a novel on the book cover, this is Edouard Louis’ childhood memoir of growing up gay in a very poor, backward, uneducated, violent family in a small village of Northern France. Perhaps rednecks à la française, but without the proverbial “heart of gold” (Northern French people are supposed to be a bit rough but warm and straightforward). Except for the teachers and the daughter of the local grocer (which just get a passing mention), people in this book are all ugly. Men are alcoholic and often unemployed. Women are uneducated and don’t express much love to their children, even if they do protect and care for them. All hate foreigners, bourgeois and gays.

This is a disturbing read because you can smell the rage of the writer against his background (a feeling of revolt mixed together with burning shame and guilt), yet at the same time the author tries to keep his distance by adopting a sociological lingo, à la Bourdieux (a strong influence of his studies — he is 21). “This is how the working class people really live”, as some people have read it. There are a lot of details about personal, economic and sexual misery in this book, and I easily believe all of them are true and not exaggerated (I spent my childhood in Northern France). But the accumulation of it in a relatively short format – 200 pages in large font and wide margins – makes it sound like Germinal.

I heard that his family and local villagers are offended by the book. I can totally understand. Edouard Louis probably needed to write this book to get closure on his past after he eventually managed to get out of his milieu and enter the most prestigious graduate school for literary and social studies. But without wanting to appear heartless in front of his struggle, I didn’t feel especially engaged by the book, because having a printed book in hand was already the sign that the story had a happy ending. Many young gay boys haven’t been as lucky as he was (luck combined with a lot of hard work too I’m sure). But beyond the individual story I am not sure what Louis (the name he chose for himself) wanted to achieve with this “novel” (with lots of quotation marks).

I have no idea if this book will ever be translated in English, but I bet this won’t be put on the same shelf as “French women don’t get fat” and “French kids eat everything”. If it ever crosses the Channel or the Atlantic, be ready for some tough, tough pages. Not sponsored by the French bureau of Tourism indeed.

In France there’s apparently a big trend of writing non-fictional novels, or to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction by writing about real things, people, events with some creative freedom. I’m not sure what the English equivalent is.

Anyway, much to my surprise, I’m actually enjoying it (It’s not the first Dugain that uses this “genre”, if it’s a genre, and not the first one I enjoy). I heard on the Culture radio some writer saying that nothing else but reality was really worth writing about, and it really stuck with me because I don’t know what to answer to that (I think it might be Annie Ernaux, but it might have been someone else interviewed about the latest French craze for this literary memoir: En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule by Edouard Louis, whom I am also currently reading).

La malédiction d’Edgar (Edgar’s Curse) is such a book, telling the career and secrets of Edgar Hoover from 1924 to 1972 through the eyes of his lover, Clyde Tolson. Dugain claims that the “novel” label gave him freedom to write the results of his huge historical research especially centered on the 1960s political scene (and behind the scene). The portraits of Hoover and Kennedy are especially scathing, and aim at going behind the public personas.

Hoover comes out as a rigid, cynical person who is torn inside being a closet gay and publicly homophobic and a defender of traditional values. Nothing is more important in his eyes than defending America against the Communist threat, and his paranoid mind sees it everywhere, to the point of refusing to fight organized crime that appears less dangerous to him. Behind the cynicism and malevolence of a dark puppet master, a frail man briefly shows himself, especially as he gets older.

And the Kennedys… John and Robert aren’t less cynical than Hoover, but they belong to a younger generation, and a generation of sons born into money, with arrogant and depraved manners. Hoover knows every of their dirty little secrets, and is silently irked by their lack of respect for manners and for people from the old generation.

Apparently Dugain has done a lot of research, and has only called his book a novel to be free to express his interpretation of the events, especially Kennedy’s assassination. I found it rather fascinating to look behind J.F.K’s image of an ideal son-in-law. But I can’t say I learnt a lot about them in this book that I hadn’t first heard about in James Ellroy’s American Tabloid. And the writing was a lot more breathless and captivating in Ellroy’s, as Dugain gives to Clyde Tolson a very cold and clinical voice.

To have a third view, I plan to watch Clint Eastwood’s movie, J. Edgar, with Leonardo Di Caprio. Did any of you see it?

I’m a sucker for Bernie Gunther thrillers (my reviews are here to prove it). By exception to my own habits, I am reading them (nearly) in order, so I already have the next one lined up (A Man without breath), except I might at least wait until fall or winter, not to go on a Gunther binge.

I can’t decently tell you much about the plot, because the whole pleasure lies in the twists and surprises and the clever cliffhangers. Let’s just say that Gunther is summoned to Prague by his old boss, Heydrich, who can’t be refused anything as he’s now the governor of Bohemia and Moravia (part of the Nazi Reich, as the book is set in 1941). Soon enough a dead body turns up, except it’s not one from the mass murders of Jews, nor any dead soldier on the Russian front, nor a Czech resistance fighter. The murder takes place inside a closed room in Heydrich’s villa, making several tongue-in-cheek references to Agatha Christie’s classic mysteries. But instead of Miss Marple, Bernie Gunther gets to ask the questions, and of course he doesn’t do it politely around a dainty cup of tea (certainly rationed by this time).

Part of the pleasure (?) of reading a Philip Kerr thriller is to be immersed in the day-to-day life of Germans under the Nazi regime. We’re inside Bernie Gunther’s head (with some insight, because he’s telling it from the future), so the core question is to see how a moral individual (assuming we choose to believe that Gunther is sincere about his democratic, liberal sympathies) could live (read: stay alive) in a totalitarian state. The result is not black and white, and many of Gunther’s choices are dark grey, because he’s not heroic to the point of being suicidal.

I didn’t want to just gulp down the story and move on. After all, I have been reading many books related to this period lately, so I checked on the only reference I keep at home about Nazism: Ian Kershaw’s opus: Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (1985), a book far too deep and theoretical for me to read from cover to cover. Instead, I read the chapter on German society together with Kerr, and it proved fascinating.

Kershaw highlights the work of Martin Broszat in his Bavaria Project, where (from my understanding) a bunch of historians went through lots of data about the daily lives and opinions of people, to see if they adhered to Nazism, and how much they dared to dissent (cue: very little). He stresses that a lot of people weren’t hard-core Nazi, but rather helpless and subdued, or even indifferent. The extent of their dissent was largely minimalist, and in many cases they were rather passive accomplices.

Gunther rather embodies this helplessness, as he can sometimes find solutions to avoid some situations (like killing civilians or framing a suspect for the sake of Nazi politics), but he is a cop (and a soldier sometimes), and there’s no way he remains pure and innocent all the way through. He may bend some rules, but he’s a flawed anti-hero. Which makes his story all the more interesting.

Contact me!

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

Categories

Archives

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 38 other followers