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Having a second child is a bit like stepping back in time, but hopefully with added wisdom, but also with dangerous expectations. Rereading a book you loved the first time around is a bit similar in my mind, although I’m very new to this rereading thing.
When I was a child and a teenager I passionately reread favorite books again and again (Lord of the Ring springs to mind), but I reread it to discover tiny details that has escaped me and I wanted to soak in the story ever more. As an adult, I very little reread books in full. Sometimes I wish there was a Ctrl+F function on paper books so that I could easily find a quote or an image or a scene that have stuck in my mind (I never seem to remember the words or the exact details of them). Once I have found it, normally I don’t reread more than a few pages around it.
For the birth of my second son, I reread pregnancy manuals, but one book I definitely turned again to was Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions. As it is a journal, with irregular notes jotted down during her son’s first year, it is easy to pick it up and read an entry or two, especially around the time as my own son’s age. (But of course I didn’t wait an entire year to finish the book). Once again I found it an invaluable read, both comforting and eye-opening. I reread it in full, because I wanted to hear Anne Lamott’s voice, see how she goes from low to high in a matter of days, or hours. She literally makes me see things in my son that would have gone unnoticed otherwise, and she has fresh, funny and powerful images to convey the grace and frustration of the newborn days.
“Oh, but my stomach, she is like a waterbed covered in flannel. When I lie on my side in bed, my stomach lies politely beside me, like a puppy.”
“All these people keep waxing sentimental about how fabulously well I am doing as a mother, how competent I am, but I feel inside like when you’re first learning to put nail polish on your right hand with your left. You can do it, but it doesn’t look all that great around the cuticles.”
It was great to read of motherhood without the battles and the comparisons and the Pinterest checklists of “how to do it best”. In Lamott’s book, things come naturally, she doesn’t agonize over sleeping methods of Dr. Such and such, she doesn’t brag or argue, she doesn’t take motherhood as a special time, nor as a mission. It is so refreshing. I also admire how she makes do with her difficult circumstances, raising her son as a single mother with very limited money, but a great circle of friends.
As I read this book, I try to be patient with myself and with my baby, because I know what comes next, but I don’t want to rush it. I also use the book as an invitation to journal, to notice things and remember.
You can read my post from the first read here.
Some time in the blurry last weeks, I asked Mr. S to bring me a crime novel back from the library, and he came back with a Jane Smiley’s.
The funny thing was that he didn’t know Jane Smiley, and didn’t know I’d read and loved some books of hers: I always thought I should one day reread A Thousand Acres (first read back before internet) and I admired The Greenlanders (although I confess I never managed to finish it). And I wasn’t aware that Smiley had ever written a crime novel.
Well, a crime novel it technically is, with 2 people killed on page 1, a police inspector called Honey (you can almost see Smiley wink), a series of suspects, several disturbing incidents and some kind of a adrenaline-fuelled chase, but it’s rather a pretext for a fine analysis of characters, as always with Smiley.
The novel is set in Manhattan in the early 1980s, within a group of friends who all came together in the city from their native Middle West during the 1970s, as the members of a rock band among them had gained some notoriety and money with a hit record. They all stayed and stuck together (sharing keys to their flats and much more), but success didn’t quite materialize. Some of them moved on to dull jobs, some of them rehashed these 10 minutes of glory for years on, with some occasional cocaine parties. As time went by their friendship links were taken for granted, never realizing that they had drifted apart already. When murder arrises, it soon becomes obvious that they didn’t quite know each other as well as they’d thought.
The narrator of the novel is possibly the dullest friend of the group, the meek and reliable librarian called Alice. She always assumes the best of people, especially her friends, only to be sorely disappointed. But disappointment doesn’t come with a bang, it’s rather the soft landing of middle-aged realism that comes with compromises and bittersweet grief. Even when she faces a murderer and has to leave her flat by the window to save her life, she always remained down-to-earth (no pun intended). I came to love Alice a lot, despite her form of naivety.
The book also is an excellent portrait of New York in the 1980s, as far as I can judge. Smiley makes the city come alive, with its people, restaurants, trees and buildings, its smells and tastes. She really made me travel in time and space.
- where did this book come from? the library
- what format? paperback
- where does this book go next? to the library
I’m trying a 30 minutes post during the baby’s nap. It’s clearly easier to write on a book that didn’t leave me with a very big impression, either good or bad. “Poirot and me” is just that kind. I’m no big fan of autobiographies, especially of actors’. That said, Mr. Smithereens clearly is, and wants me to give it a try, which I do gracefully when he finds a book about a series I particularly enjoy.
That was the case a while ago with the Little House in the Prairie, when he offered me the star memoir of “Nellie Oleson”, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, by Alison Arngrim, and this is also the case this Christmas, in a totally different style, with Poirot.
Of course I love Poirot, who doesn’t? (a bit like chocolate, the person who claims not loving chocolate makes himself suspicious in my eyes). And as the series have gone on and on for years, David Suchet has become the very personification of Poirot.
Although the book is quite repetitive, going over each season and nearly every episode, ending with the actor’s being uncertain whether the series would go on (of course it did), it was an easy read and a pleasant one too, because Suchet is very professional and doesn’t brag. In my mind his voice in the book is the epitome of proper Britishness (not Belgian at all!), and most suited to Agatha Christie’s prim and neat writing.
In a weird way, Suchet and Poirot have been together for 25 years and the fictional character has certainly influenced the real person, especially, in my opinion, in their common obsession to details and their attention to the moral and religious questions raised by their investigations.
That said, don’t expect Suchet dishing out any dirty secret from the backstage (opposite to Alison Arngrim’s memoir): everyone portrayed in the book is always good and nice. The worst you can get is when Mr. Suchet feels that this or that episode was not the best ever.
What was most interesting to me was to discover that Suchet had indeed a rich career outside of Poirot’s world (how could I imagine that this series alone would be enough for an actor for a quarter of a century?). So I loved reading about his career throughout the years and choice of roles very different to Poirot’s in movies and on stage. I recently discovered him in the BBC Shakespearean series The Hollow Crown, playing the Duke of York in Richard II. I almost didn’t recognize him.
With Ben Whishaw from The Hour’s fame playing King Richard II, I had a bit of a surreal moment: what did Freddy Lyon do arguing with Poirot in a cathedral?
- where did this book come from? a christmas present
- what format? hardback
- where does this book go next? to be sold through Amazon Marketplace
Today is chaos, with big brother ill, little brother colicky (Cue: he wants to be held and nurse all day. Reality check: this isn’t happening), both parents up all night and an out-of-town business trip for Mr. S in the morning. So, why not blog? This won’t make me any less tired, but it will make me happier.
Uncle Silas is a Gothic tale reminiscent of the Udolpho mysteries (in fact, Le Fanu refers to Radcliffe several times), but while Radcliffe’s persecuted innocent girl annoyed me, this one, Maud Ruthyn, who is telling the story, seemed more plausible in her naivety and more likeable.
She lives a solitary life in the Derbyshire family estate with her father, a reclusive gentleman who has turned to mystical philosophy. Although her father loves her and she doesn’t lack anything, this doesn’t make for a very happy childhood (she’s supposed to be a teenager) but when her father hires a governess, it only gets worse: Madame de la Rougiere is a creepy, deceitful French woman with an awful accent and who has more on her agenda than teaching.
Maud learns before his father’s death that she has an uncle, Silas, with a terrible reputation: a gambler and a libertine, he’s also strongly suspected of murder after a guest of his and fellow gambler apparently committed suicide in a locked room at his place. Silas is supposed to have turned devout now, but is he really? Maud’s father is convinced of his innocence, so he draws a strange will. All his estate is going to Maud, provided she spends 3 years until her majority under the guardianship of Silas, at his place. If she dies before being of age, the money will go to Silas.
The idea, of course, is to tempt Silas to try and kill his niece, but if she lives, the family name will be cleared for good. Doesn’t that sound a dangerous (aka pretty stupid) idea? Yeah, to me too. And to all the people who hear about that. As for Maud, she wavers between believing her father, and being scared, not knowing whom she can trust.
The plot is far from being completely foolproof and consistent, but the idea is to throw as much foreboding (and a few red herrings too) as possible in the pages, until a few climactic scenes. Despite its flaws, it works. You constantly shake your head and think “don’t go there, it’s a bad idea”, but Maud does it nonetheless, and guess what, bad things happen. I guess it’s the Victorian equivalent of Scream, complete with the hot teenaged girl who always finds herself alone after dark despite being warned against it.
The comparison remains valid in terms of genre, because it’s more of a thriller than a supernatural tale (Le Fanu flirts with it, but it might only be Maud’s nerves) and a pre-Sherlockian murder investigation (the locked room mystery is very peripheric). Once again, Le Fanu proves more fun than Wilkie Collins who is way more famous.
First came… the DVD. As you may have noticed, I’m a fan of British murder mysteries and Mr. Smithereens has indulged me in discovering the DCI Banks series, featuring Stephen Tompkinson as the obstinate inspector.
Of course I knew they were adapted from books, but for a while, the DVDs were good enough. At the end of the season, and at the end of the pregnancy, though, I wanted to try the books instead. But I was in for a disappointment.
This one is the first book with inspector Banks, of a series that now counts over 20 books, and it just doesn’t feel mature just yet. The characters take their time to get into the picture, so that the pace is far too leisurely to sustain my (very limited, I concede) attention. The small Yorkshire town where Banks has just relocated from London fails to materialize in my mind. I can’t figure out if it’s a big village à la Midsomers Murders, or a suburban town. I’ve never been to Yorkshire, and the TV series seemed much more urban/suburban to me than the book.
The crimes that Banks gets to investigate this time seemed rather bland to me (or I’m just jaded, or, more probably, the nature of fictional crimes has significantly escalated in the past 25 years): a couple of house break-ins by bored and drugged thugs, a peeping tom and an old lady found dead possibly in connection with the first or the second occurrence. It was surprisingly subdued and very very procedural. Whereas American police procedurals à la Law and Order may have jumped into conclusions, here Banks takes every care to ascertain if crimes are linked or not, which is a good point for realism, but not for the book’s pace.
I have the impression that the series got better over time. This one, though, has aged a bit. There is, in particular, the hilarious (in retrospect) scenes at the camera club where Banks’ wife Sandra goes to practice: some guys there complain of the newly introduced autofocus (or so I gather, I’m no techie and I read it in French) in film photography, on the account that calculating aperture and shutter speed manually is just as well. Clearly not ready for Instagram! The bit that annoyed me was the also dated character of the feminist advocate, making a campaign against the police for not taking the peeping tom case seriously enough, who is outrageously caricatured.
If you are a Alan Banks fan, which book do you think I should start with?
With my writing reduced to feeding timetables for the baby and random jottings in my diary, and my reading very herratic (from 3am to 3.15am?), I doubt 2014 will be a great year for finishing lots of new books. Instead, I’m re-reading and I’m still getting used to my new Kindle, which gives me access to a great number of free classics. I have always complained that I read far too few classics, right? So, this is apparently the time to correct that.
I first downloaded these titles:
- Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (apparently I’ve tried to read it 10 years ago but it failed to make an impression on me. Now here’s the second chance)
- Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (because his gothic Carmilla was very good in my memory)
- The return of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle (it’s actually a re-read from my teens and the only way I figured to make myself wait for the next Benedict Cumberbatch’s episode)
Then I got a little bit more adventurous and remembered that Freud was now in the public domain. But not so much his translations! (and don’t ask me to read Freud in his original German). So I bagged those available in English: Totem and Taboo (I think I’ve read it in my teens, but in the pre-internet age, things were foggy, remember?), The general introduction to Psychoanalysis (a re-read too) and Reflection on War and death (which I’m 80% positive I’ve not read yet).
Then I wanted to have something easy and entertaining in French and I downloaded swashbuckling classics: Les Pardaillan from Michel Zevaco (I was in love with that Pardaillan when I was, like, 12) and 20 Years After, the sequel to the Dumas’ Musketeers series which I’d so much enjoyed a while back.
As you can see, I have a lot of reading ahead of me. I guess the Kindle’s empty shelves make my book lust even worse than normal. And to my own surprise, the one that kept me most awake and interested so far is Le Fanu. I’ll report whenever Baby Titus will allow.
Wow, it seems like a century since I posted here last. Things might get very slow around here for a while, as Baby Smithereens #2 has safely arrived last Monday! We’re pretty excited, exhilarated, ex…hausted too. I have been home since Friday and am still trying to adjust to Baby’s rhythm, which may or may not allow reading, writing, and blogging time… yet. We’ll see.
As for the name… for his big brother I had given you a riddle, but my brain is a bit too foggy to think those clever things up again. So without further ado, let me introduce Baby Titus to you! We liked the Ancient Roman and early Christian influence, we also learnt that it was Rembrandt’s son, and here in France it’s the name of a great classic love tragedy with Princess Berenice, written by Racine, which is more popular than the Shakespeare play.
Here’s a picture for you (I plan to remove it in a few weeks’ or months’ time, for privacy’s sake)
I’ll see you on your blogs, dear Internet friends, as soon as I figure out how to sneak back online!
I knew Rachel Cusk from Arlington Park, which I at first had rejected for being excessively negative, then came round to see the truth in it, as an aftertaste. I was happy to have this other book under my belt before trying this one, and I was also happy to have had a first baby before reading this at the end of my second pregnancy.
I’m not sure I would have “enjoyed” it if I had read it five years ago, before or after the birth. I probably would have felt a mixture of recognition and a relief that I wasn’t the only one to struggle with this huge event, but my own experience would have been probably too raw and too recent to find the right distance with this book and not to take everything at face value.
It is a candid memoir of the first year of motherhood, so it doesn’t wax lyrical about the joy of motherhood and tiny babies. It is more about the hardships of sleep deprivation, the tiredness and boredom of staying home with a demanding infant, the hypocrisy of overly enthusiastic or overly domineering social groups and organizations aimed at new mothers, the breastfeeding vs bottle-feeding battle etc. It is about women, and changing identities, and changing dynamics in the couple, not about babies.
Candid memoirs and books have become a sub-genre on the maternity bookshelf, which is a good thing given that women should have an alternative to rosy, glowing, everybody’s-smiling-on-the-picture books. Of course, some people are still finding it offensive and controversial, but I don’t. I was happy to find those when I needed them.
But then in the candid genre Cusk is hardly the only one. I should name Anne Lamott’s Operating instructions (a journal), Judith Warner’s Perfect madness (an essay), Kate Figes’ Life after birth (now, if you want whining, Cusk is nothing compared to Figes), only to name the books in English I reviewed here. Even guidebooks are getting into the unpleasant, unglamorous details that only mothers probably want to know (because they are hugely relieved to read on paper that they are not the only ones to not fit into their pre-pregnancy jeans a month later, and to find it all awfully difficult and exhausting), I’m thinking about Vicki Iovine’s Girlfriends’ Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood, which some may find cheesy but that found its way back to my nightstand for the second time around. Candidness and negativity about motherhood is also a French feminist tradition, so I didn’t find it exceptional.
I could relate to many experiences Cusk described, but I still found her tone very biting and bitter, all the while when she didn’t really present a full picture of her situation. The transition into motherhood is in itself very difficult and universal, but it gets harder with some particular circumstances, which I would have liked to learn more about from Cusk herself: a move to suburbia, the presence or not of close friends, a conspicuously absent partner, the relation to one’s own mother, etc. Instead she shrouds herself in distance and wit, which some may find a bit too dry. I know some people have accused her of being snobbish but I didn’t find any of that. What saves the book, I suppose, is that she is as merciless unto herself as she is to others.
Hurray for 2014! I hope you have a great start of this brand new set of 365 days, full of books and bookish pleasures. As always, I love starting the year by letting my inner nerd out, with some very serious stats about my reading. Please allow me 5 minutes of navel-gazing before I give you the title of the 5 books I loved best last year.
Uh-oh, turns out it will be quicker than I thought. I read the same numbers of books (60) and the breakdown seems roughly identifical with 2012: about a third of them mysteries, slightly less than last year, that has been replaced by slightly more non-fiction (a quarter), slightly more than half by British-American writers, slightly more than half by female writers. I have read very few books written before 1945 and very few from outside the American and European continents. Sigh.
Which is not to say I have completely failed in my resolutions. I have tried more daring endeavours in fields I usually ignore: religious books, science books, horror, etc. I have made my way through quite a number of French novels (a genre I previously snobbed) with pleasant surprises. I started the Bible and followed a number of Yale courses, but I didn’t quite go as far as I’d thought. The big factor in 2013 was my kind-of-unexpected pregnancy, which made me fall back on comfort reads (I was plagued with nausea for 4-5 months, which effectively curtails any difficult reading (or any reading at all during my commute, which I replaced by many great audiobooks). I must say that Harry Potter was a great comfort during this period. I really look forward to reading this series aloud to my elder son in a few years’ time. I bet (it is a sure bet) that he will love it too.
So, without further delay, here are my 5 favorites books of 2013, in no particular order:
- Chantal Thomas, Les adieux à la reine (Eng: Farewell, My Queen) (2002)
- Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife (2008)
- Janet Malcolm, In the Freud Archives (1983)
- Marie N’Diaye, Trois Femmes Puissantes (2009)
- Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun (1952)
I have the impression that my choice of books for 2013 reflects a more diverse reading panorama. I hope I can read some more by Malcolm, N’Diaye and Thomas very soon.
2014 will certainly be different because of the new baby, who will effectively limit my (reading and blogging) time, my visits to the library, and my exposition to new books. As I have just been given a Kindle, I think I will concentrate more on public domain classics. I hope (one can only hope) that I will get to read a lot of books that have been staying unread on my shelves for some time (I have a great selection of Persephone), or that I will fall back on classic Cluedo-style mysteries for my comfort reading. I also wish to continue with my Bible project as it was very enlightening last year. We’ll see!
I’ve finished all the books listed in my previous post, but getting them all neatly tucked in on the blog is quite another matter. So I’ll resort to a wrap-up review just in time before getting to eat snails, frogs and foie gras, as is expected from merry French people at the end of a full year.
- Jean-François Parot, L’année du Volcan (2013) (the Year of the volcano, not yet translated)
Indulging in another Le Floch mystery within 3 months? It seems too much, but in fact it was exactly what I needed (always better than overindulging with ice cream or snacks these days… and I feel a lot less guilty).
The last book by J.F. Parot I’d read during summer had a slightly bad aftertaste (not bad, but you know, perhaps one too many in a long, long series), and I was in a hurry to get over this impression, because I was indeed convinced it was a small misstep in an otherwise flawless rendition of 18th century France.
I was right to persevere: the next one is back to its usual (very high) standards. And good news, Le Floch has gotten over his burn-out. 1783 saw weird climatic events linked to a volcanic eruption in Iceland, and people in France took the thick haze, bad consequences on crops and health as a bad omen for the regime of King Louis 16th and Queen Marie-Antoinette. A regime that didn’t actually need any more bad news, given that it was already close to bankruptcy after lavish expenses from the royals and a bad economy. Doesn’t it sound all too resonant with nowadays? Parot obviously plays with the comparison, but doesn’t forget to build a strong plot around the murder of a courtesan close to the Queen, who might have been associated with shady money laundering schemes. Le Floch is summoned by the Queen to investigate and protect her (already bad enough) reputation.
I quite enjoyed reading this book in close association with Chantal Thomas’ Farewell My Queen. Both echoed one another, but Le Floch luckily does not stay in the confined little world of Versailles, he travels back and forth between the town of Paris, and the true feelings of the middle and lower classes, and the palace’s intrigues. So that he has a better view of how bad the country is really going.
- Philip Kerr, A Quiet Flame (2009)
I don’t particularly read books in order, and this is a case where I regretted it. I had jumped from The One from the Other to If the Dead Rise Not, and I had skipped the Argentinian stay of our battered hero Bernie Gunther. Argentina and Nazis seemed a much-clichéd association, until this book got me to fully realize how real and deeply troubling that association was for the immediate post-war world. I kept remembering a very disturbing book about the Argentinian Desaparecidos which I read a few years ago. In A Quiet Flame, Kerr apparently bases much of his historical details on the research book by an Argentinian journalist Uki Goñi, The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Peron’s Argentina (2002). It was as scary as fascinating.
- Slavenka Drakulic, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1987, 1993)
A book I bought early this year while in Zagreb, Croatia. It is a collection of short essays about daily life under Communist regimes, especially viewed from a woman’s angle. It tells of deprivation, or lack of privacy, the ubiquitous sense of being under surveillance, but with a very down-to-earth approach that appealed to me. It was a bit outdated (published just at the eve of the terrible Yugoslavian war), but still worth reading. She argues that a regime unable to provide for half its population’s most basic needs, especially sanitary napkins and tampons, was somehow doomed to fail sooner or later. What may seem like a trivial detail is at the contrary quite meaningful, since these male-dominated regimes kept promising glorious futures, but never managed to deliver something concrete. She also swiftly ridicules Western feminists who visited Eastern Europe with grand ideas but completely missed the reality of women’s struggles under Communism.
- Sarah Rose, For All the Tea in China (2009)
It is a promising book, but how messy it is! It feels as if the writer had enjoyed some much her research that she wanted to put everything in, even if it had a remote link to the main subject. For example, she explains how tea was shipped from China back to Europe together with cargos of china, and then goes on to digress for pages about how ships were built, then how china was invented, etc etc. It was highly frustrating for a hurried reader who wants her to get to the point, but if you’re willing to be patient and forgiving, this is a book that teaches plenty. As a bonus, she made me remember that 15 years ago I visited tea plantations and a tea factory in Taiwan, something I’d totally misunderstood at that time.
Rachel Cusk’s controversial motherhood memoir, A Life’s Work will wait for another year because it warrants a post of its own and I haven’t quite made up my mind about it yet.
In the meantime, I wish you all a very happy new year!