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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.

This is not my usual Wednesday writing session, but a belated, catch-up, trying-hard-not-to-slump-in-front-of-tv Thursday post. The trouble is, I don’t know where to start with this book.

I don’t remember where I heard about it first, but I have had it on my wishlist for quite a long time, after taking a long stroll through the web in search of (other) literary mothers, rather on the liberal side. Too often I end up reading blogs from mothers who are living lives utterly foreign to me (American stay-at-home, religious, homeschooling mothers, but not exclusively), but really I wanted to find some literary companionship in the adventure of raising a little man from mothers of a wider horizon.

I didn’t read this essay collection when I got my first son, nor when I was pregnant with the second one, but little by little since his birth. Overall I liked it, although it was not love at first sight. Like many collections it was a bit unequal, but I’ll probably keep it for further references.

When I got my first child his gender was not a question, and although we did find out in advance, it was our baby. I remember being annoyed at the exaggerated focus on gender, like getting asked all the time if it would be a boy or girl, and being pushed to buy pink or blue everything. My rebellious spirit showed up, and I tried to buy neutral clothes and toys and decoration. Lots of white and yellow. Now that I have two boys the question of gender comes differently. I am a little surprised at how energetic my boy is, and how much super-heroes’ fights are important to him. I want to raise a boy who respects girls, but I’m a bit lost when he expresses interest in glittery stuff and in Disney’s Frozen princessed (“princes are so un-interesting mama, look at Elsa instead, she has powers!”)

I guess I chose this book while trying to come to terms that I will not know what it means to have a girl, or if it is really that different. So perhaps I should have bought the other collection, the pink one, It’s A Girl!, but at the same time I hoped to have a vision of what to expect down the road, as my little boy is getting older (elementary school in September!) and showing more of his own personality.

Some stories were very touching. Others were a bit repetitive, around the preconception of women who’d thought they would bear girls and would “ended up” with boys, so at first they’d be disappointed and surprised, and later on they would end up so happy about their little boys. I am poking fun at those but they aren’t really so formulaic. I just didn’t really enjoy these because I could not relate to these feelings, having had no preconception at all (pregnancy made my brain quite mushy).

But if you have a boy, I’m sure you will relate one way or another with these stories. It is a comfort read for mothers (new ones and experienced ones), and that’s not to be dismissed so lightly .

It seems that a lot of my reading these past few months have been linked more or less to World War 2 and Nazi Germany (this one, the recent Mankell thriller, a Rutu Modan graphic novel set in Poland and a Philip Kerr novel I have yet to review). This is not the funniest subject indeed, but this part of 20C history is such a pivot in representations of evil and tragedies that I guess it can’t be avoided.

In France we often enough hear about the glorious role of the (French) Resistance during WW2, and we certainly are familiar with the role of the British spies in organizing and supporting sabotage actions against German Nazis (the parachuted british soldier on the wrong French home is a popular figure in movies, both comic and tragic ones).

But never before had I heard about SOE (Special Operations Executive), a guerrilla-inspired organization rival to MI6, created in 1940. Of course I didn’t know anything either about Vera Atkins who from Baker Street offices coordinated the preparation and work of more than 400 agents on the field in France.

It was therefore fascinating to learn about the extraordinary life of this woman born in 1908 in Romania in a well-to-do Jewish family, who emigrated to England in the 1930s as an unemployed, single young woman with a busy social life but no real “situation” or prospect to marry.

How come did she get such a job with huge responsibility but little recognition (even as a foreigner, a woman and a Jew)? How come did she get so absorbed in her task that after the war she continued to work for “her” agents and investigate their death in concentration camps in western Europe?

Helm’s book only partially answers to these questions. She doggedly tracked down every trace of Atkins’ life, but she wasn’t an easy customer. She wasn’t one to express feelings or to write down or talk about war secrets or about SOE internal malfunctioning.
Still there would have been much to discuss, as there were hundreds of list lives due to betrayals, much of which could have been saved if the authorities in London had been more prudent or simply more strictly sticking to the security procedures (even as secret codes were wrong they continued to trust wireless messages of agents that had actually been arrested by the Gestapo).

Vera Atkins doesn’t come up as entirely likeable, there were times when she was even callous. It is to Helm’s credit that she didn’t try to sugar-coat her subject. It certainly didn’t make her research any easier but she was persistent indeed. The downside of this hefty book is that it certainly goes in a lot of directions and probably tries to tell too much about everything. But it is difficult to blame Helm for being fascinated by her subject.

I only stumbled upon this book because it was on sale for Amazon Kindle, but I don’t regret it! I learnt a lot, and it made me hungry for some spying novels. Any suggestions?

Hey, this is Wednesday again, the time where I try to cram all the writing I’d love to do but can’t in a single session! I’m slightly dazed by sleep deprivation and the summer heat, but I’m still going to tell you about the latest chilly thriller I “read” on audiobook lately. Because chilly is refreshing in this season, and the long days keep the bad guys lurking in the dark at bay.

More than a decade ago (or so I guess, that was pre-blog days, pre-children, pre-marriage, pre-historical maybe?), I went on a Mankell binge. And then I had too much of Wallander and I moved on. Nothing personal, but our ways parted somewhere near Ystad, Sweden.

Lately the choice in audiobooks at our neighborhood library focuses on best-sellers, and so I have come full circle back to Mankell, and I am quite content. There’s something especially comforting in going back to a writer you’ve enjoyed many years before (except when it goes awry, like when I tried to reconnect with Patricia Cornwell and Kay Scarpetta — well, I just remembered this bit, and that’s lucky, because it would have made me hesitant).

This thriller doesn’t feature Wallander but another inspector, Stefan Lindman, who happens to be on medical leave from his police job because he has a throat cancer. This part bothered me, because it felt like a poor excuse for the traditionally downbeat hero (so depressed that even his sidekick tries to cheer him up) who is free from procedural constraints, yet knowledgeable in police investigations and has not much to lose. Add a few marital woes, very little sleep and you’ve got quite a cliché. And it didn’t add anything to the story itself.

But still, Mankell knows how to plot like a master. Like a dancing master to be exact. Like a dancing master who kills an old man in an isolated house in the woods, in the middle of Swedish nowhere, with sadistic torture and the finishing touch of making the corpse of his victim leave bloody footsteps of a tango dance. If you’re not hooked right from the beginning, maybe thrillers are just not your cup of tea.

This one is a model of the genre, while managing to be unpredictable at all times. I won’t tell you in details but there are some places where I wished my commute was twice as long! The focus of Mankell is the rise of Neo-nazi in seemingly tranquil Sweden, and how the shadows of WWII still linger in present time. I realize that Stefan Lindman’s cancer may be a metaphor, but then it would be quite a heavy-handed one. I prefer to keep the memory of unsettling passages where the hero discovers that everything he held for certain proved fake. Beware of Swedish retirees, they aren’t the doting grannies and grandpas they seem to be.

Now, this book was first published in 2000, and sometimes it shows. Lindman and his police buddys are downright naive about the internet and computers, and they lose quite a lot of time that would have been solved in just one or two Google inquiries nowadays. The book is violent, but we have seen much worse since, and a lot more paranoid too. As far as extremist conspiracies go, we have gone a big step forward in recent years, and I nearly expected Mankell to go even darker and bleaker than he actually did.

I have finished this book ages ago, but I’m only now jotting down a few words about it because all that remain in my memory is disappointment.

I have read several mysteries by Gur before (set in a kibbutz for one and in the small circle of psychoanalysis in Jerusalem), and so I was looking forward to be reunited with her subtle portrait of the Israeli society, and her recurring hero Michael Ohayon.

But this time he annoyed me with his moods and sensitivity, his extended (and rather long-winded) psychological theories. I skimmed through the better half of the book. Perhaps I should have stopped earlier, but you know how it is with mysteries, you still want to know who did it, in the end.

The book’s introductory situation was implausible from the start. Alone on a holiday, Ohayon finds an abandoned baby on his doorstep and decides to take care of her by himself (instead of, well, you know, call the police. Duh, he is the police). But as a divorcé with a grown-up soon, Ohayon isn’t really the best nanny around for the weekend. So, never fear, he calls on his upstairs neighbor, a female cellist cum single mother, Nita, to borrow some diapers.

Bam, love at first sight, or more precisely, at first sound, since as a music lover, he falls under the charm of this rather complicated young woman with an “artistic” sensibility (read: prone to hysterics and breakdowns). He starts dreaming of a life where he and Nina would adopt the baby girl and raise Nina’ child together, when…

Bam, a murder (after all, this still is a mystery). Namely Nita’s father, the renowned owner of a music shop in Jerusalem. Ohayon should be in charge of the investigation, shouldn’t he, except that it might be seen as a conflict of (love) interest, right? Well, he investigates anyway, even as another murder is committed, this time Nita’s brother.

At that point (which was relatively early in the book), I let out a big sigh. What kept me on was the portrait of musical professionals, which I found quite realistic and unvarnished. But I felt as if the author had difficulty sticking to the conventions of the genre, especially in terms of plot and pace.

Still, an Israeli mystery is rare enough to be worth a try, just  be patient with digressions and slow pace.

Don’t worry, I won’t add another chapter to the cliché that e-readers are paving the way to the end of books (and to reading altogether).

I think myself as pragmatic (although, being French, I can’t help being critical and suspicious of novelty). After 6 months of use, I can say that I’ve adopted the Kindle with enthusiasm, especially as it suits my present needs. I have little time to go to bookshops, so the direct purchase and instant download from Amazon is just great. While feeding the baby, I only need one finger to “turn” the pages with the Kindle propped up against a cushion. I appreciate reading in larger characters and in the dark without disturbing the precious sleep of everybody else (yes, some twists and turns keep even the most sleep-deprived mother up late at night).

I have been annoyed at first by the note “8 minutes left in the chapter” at the bottom of each page. Call me competitive, or overly sensitive, but I did wonder how it was calculated and it put me under pressure to read faster. Whenever I had to leave the page to, say, change a diaper, it felt like the clock hidden in the Kindle was ticking and the little Kindle fairy was tut-tutting: why, late again?

Uh, need I say that I hate being late?

I was so relieved when I managed to turn that pesky option off.

The thing I still can’t get used to is the abrupt end of the books. Of course, as I reach 98% of completion, I know it’s over soon, but what happens to the exhilaration of turning the last pages, either by slowing down (to enjoy it a moment longer) or by accelerating your reading pace (to find out the truth behind it all)? In virtual life, things are very anticlimactic.

In a real book, the weight on your right hand becomes lighter and lighter, and then you can shut the cover down and your right hand remains empty, in a metaphor of grief (sometimes the sadness of leaving beloved characters is nothing short of real!)

Here nothing tells me in advance that I’m reading the final page. I continue tapping, and suddenly Amazon asks me to rate the book! How brutal! How rude and inconsiderate! And if I persist and want to go back to the last page to stay a little longer, I get directed to the home page as if insistently asked to get on with my life and please choose another book now.

Looks like the Kindle fairy has bad manners. Sigh.

But I probably won’t hold a grudge for long.

I have been disappointed by the latest book by Gretchen Rubin, and I may have written harsh criticism, but I don’t want to be ungrateful: Ms. Rubin is very creative (even if her ideas aren’t applicable to everyone) and she can source information from very interesting people. She obviously loves research, and aphorisms.

Something caught my eyes in a blog post of hers: a short stance by Judith Viorst, a woman I’d never heard about before:

How do I know if the time has come to accept my limitations

Or whether I still ought to try to fulfill my promise?

I made me pause, and as I was still thinking about it the second day, I had to find the book it came from. I got a used book through Amazon, and the book is about as old as I am! So you see, I’m not really forty yet, and I don’t feel atrocious in the least, and yet…

The book made me smile, and even laugh out loud. Yes, the pages are yellowing and rather musty, but it is charming. A lot of these witty poems about married life in the 40s are about situations that might feel dated (70s and all) but I still recognize them. I could empathize with these women’s feelings and experiences.

Now I have to buy the book about the 30s as well!

Contact me!

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

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