Ito Ogawa, The Restaurant of Love Regained (Jap. 2008)

‘Tis the season where we all frantically try to tie all loose ends before the end of the year… which  actually doesn’t make much sense. This is a struggle doomed from the start. Yet I am guilty of hoping and trying every single year. I’d love to have all my books neatly finished when the bell strikes, and all my blog posts lined up with a nice bow. Sigh…

Sometimes it’s a mistake not to write about a book right after finishing it, sometimes it makes us more balanced in our opinion. But actually, I haven’t made up my mind yet.

At first, the book grated on my nerves because of its lack of focus and its (in my opinion) forced naivety. Rinko works in a restaurant in town, she has an Indian boyfriend, who suddenly takes off with all of her (theirs) belongings. From the shock, she stops speaking altogether, only communicating with writing and gesturing. She gets back to her mother’s home, in a remote countryside village, which she left when she was 15, and decides to open a restaurant, because that’s the only skill and passion she has. There’s also a pig that doubles as a pet for her mother. And the very special relation to food that Rinko has.

Maybe it was my stomach that had the upper hand over my brain, but I hadn’t had time to get acquainted to Rinko in the first pages, so her bad breakup was not a real tragedy to me. But when she frantically searched for her beloved cooking tools in her empty flat, and found only a jar of pickled vegetables inherited from her grandmother, and that she hangs on to it like a lifesaver, I kept on reading.

Who uses a pickles’ jar as a plotting device? For sure the book was going to be kitsch, quirky and a bit heavy of the metaphors.

The description of food, the special respect that Rinko has for plants, animals and natural resources that end up on the restaurant’s plates and bowls was actually the best part of the book to me. Yes, there is also gruesome bits when it comes to preparing meat from a live animal, but personally it didn’t bother me and it made me quite sympathetic to the writer’s project. Gourmet cuisine is an art, but it’s also an act of destruction, of consumption. Despite the difficulties, the writer managed to convey emotion and sensation to food, which is no mean feast.

But for the rest, I found that the book followed too many directions, too many anecdotes, way too many characters (Rinko prepares bespoke menus for her customers, so we get a lot of back-stories), many of them quite teary and predictable.

It was a quick read and not unpleasant at all (I am not a vegetarian, I hasten to add, and I have no problem with eating weird stuff), but it didn’t live up to its potential.

Why I Don’t Write (13 False Excuses)

- because I have no time

- because whenever I have a good idea I’m in a train and I don’t like people looking over my shoulder

- because I don’t have my favorite pen

- because I don’t know in what language to write

- because I could be doing something immediately useful instead

- because my handwriting is ugly and when would I possibly type this over?

- because characters of my stories have gone quiet on me

- because I never finish stories

- because all I think of is bullet points

- because I have an awesome book to read / podcast to listen to and they tell stories way better than I’ll ever do

- because the constant pings in my inbox and social media have reduced my attention span to that of a hummingbird’s

- because all the good stories have been told

- because I’ll write tomorrow

Kathy Reichs, Bones of the Lost (2012)

A long time ago, I said here that I would try harder and not fall back on comfort reads, especially crime and thrillers for which I have little illusions on quality even before I start one.

If I were to look for an excuse, I’d say that I didn’t buy this book, it was left for free on the shelves at my workplace where people are supposed to drop books off for recycling. And I needed something easy because the baby hasn’t been sleeping so well for a few days (apparently so excited he is from learning to walk).

Back in 2012, I had a disastrous experience with a Patricia Cornwell – Kay Scarpetta forensic mystery, and it was enough to make me stop this series altogether. But apparently I wasn’t tired of forensic-cum-formulaic mysteries once and for all.

Checking on my own blog archives, I see that I haven’t read a Kathy Reich – Tempe Brennan forensic anthropology mystery since 2010. I had foggy memories of the heroine hesitating between two men and between two workplaces, one in Canada and one in North Carolina. I didn’t seem to have missed much character development because I find her at the same place again.

It’s lucky that it read very fast because it was so formulaic that it sometimes felt written by a machine. Not to mention the cardboard characters, the series operate with so many plot constraints that any new episode can’t stray too far away from the earlier ones, because there’s no way in real life that a forensic anthropologist would be involved in direct police investigation.

To justify Tempe as an active heroine, we get contrived circumstances where the police doesn’t pay as much attention to a crime as they should, and Tempe feels personally involved / deeply moved by a case, and so she decides to act on her own. There’s the part that really makes my eyebrows rise in disbelief where she finds a decisive clue or makes a breakthrough of some sort, so she calls the police… who is temporarily on voicemail, so she goes alone on the tracks of the bad guys… without her own phone… in the middle of the night.

At that point, Reichs had lost me. I put myself on voicemail permanently.

There’s a section of the book set in Afghanistan where Brennan needs to testify in military trial. Apparently Reichs went on a trip to American bases there to get first-hand materials for her books (or the other way round, I don’t know). The way this plot somehow manages to find its way back to the original Jane Doe case in United States is another example of too much stretching of my patience and my voluntary suspension of disbelief.

Usually these stories really redeem themselves on the science and forensics, but this one was weak on that part too. So I can safely say I’m off Tempe Brennan for good. Within 48 hours the book returned to its recycling shelf.

Jean-Paul Kauffmann, The Black Room at Longwood, Napoleon’s Exile at Saint Helena (French, 1997)

To be frank, I’d never have even opened this book if a dear friend hadn’t sent it directly onto my Kindle while demonstrating how to use e-books.

I’m no big fan of Napoleon. Actually, I don’t know much about Napoleon, having managed to skip every class on this particular period of European/French history. Napoleon was reduced to basics, insisting on the modernization of French state before disapproving the folly of wandering towards Europe’s Russian outposts.

The sentence “Napoleon was sent to exile at Saint Helena” made us laugh and not think twice.

You see, there’s a nursery rhyme that every French child knows: “Napoleon died at Saint Helena / His son Leon burst his big belly / He was found sitting on a whale / He was licking fish bones”. (“Hélène” and “baleine” rhyme in French, as do “bidon” and “poisson”.)

It’s only fairly recently that I tried to locate Saint Helena on a map, just out of curiosity. If you don’t have a clue (I won’t hold it against you) go to Google Maps and come back.

Surprising isn’t it?

It doesn’t take long to realize that it was the kind of place you can’t escape from. The place you don’t come back from. Napoleon only survived 5 years there, slowly won over by gloom and humidity.

Kauffmann has been kidnapped as a French journalist in Lebanon during the 1980s and had spent 3 years in captivity (I read a book about his return to freedom a few years ago). So he knows a thing or two about solitude and confinement. He also loves islands. He visited Saint Helena, travelling by the only boat that make its way from Cape Town to the island.

I could empathize with the pages where Kauffmann muses over our inability to really recapture the past, but I didn’t quite get in the right mood for that. The travelogue part felt more like a magazine account than an essay. I didn’t really care for Kauffmann’s visits and his other companions.

Even if I didn’t care for Napoleon, the parts I loved best eventually were the description of the former emperor’s lonely life with his closest courtiers. The atmosphere was quite claustrophobic and led to bickering, petty jealousy and endless poring over the past, trying to analyze what went wrong.  Those who had followed the fallen emperor to the island weren’t prisoners themselves, they had come out of loyalty, maybe out of hope that the emperor would find his way back to France and/or to a powerful position. They were all vying for his attention, noting his every word and move in order to publish memoirs later on, hoping to be rewarded on the emperor’s will.

Despite its weaknesses, it was well worth spending a few hours on this book to discover these less-known points of history and geography!

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (2011)

I listened to this short book / long novella during summer, and at first the form unsettled me. I was thrown aside by the repetition, the anonymity of the collective narrator (“we” is a very peculiar, little-used point of view in novels, isn’t it?), the poetic rhythm. I thought it was a kind of beautiful prologue before a more traditional story would focus on one character in particular. But it never came. It hadn’t really occur to me that a whole book could be structured like that, a bit like an ancient chant.

Then I got used to it and learnt to enjoy it, in part thanks to the French audiobook’s voice, actress Irene Jacob, whom you might know from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s movies “The Double Life of Véronique” and “Three Colors: Red” back in the 1990s.

Some people might find this kind of writing too repetitive, lacking a true plot or character development. Some might even call it a literary trick to weave all kinds of bits and pieces together in an artificially coherent unity. I can understand their reservations, but to me it worked.

The French title is “Some had never seen the sea”, and it really changes the focus of the story and makes me judge the book under a different light. With the French title, the focus was on the collective experience of the Japanese brides, who arrived in California after World War I to marry Japanese men they had never met.

Young and inexperienced, they’d imagined their married life based on what they’d known in Japan, or under better circumstances in the land of the American dream, not ready for the culture shock and the deceit that they were victims of. Most men were not as young and wealthy as their letters had described, and they were in for a life of harsh labor in the U.S. The writer describes vignettes of their new lives in their diversity, but the common experience is years of toil: cleaning for wealthy families, washing laundry, picking fruits, becoming prostitutes, seeing all kind of hardships and racism before getting more or less acclimatized to their new family and country.

But after a generation, once they have given birth to children who are growing up more American than Japanese and often despise their mothers for their foreign manners, they get a huge backlash when they are seen with suspicion and called “traitors” and sent away in camps during World War 2.

The English title, “The Buddha in the Attic” actually shifts the focus of the whole book to its latter part, when the narrator voice, the “we” abruptly (yet imperceptibly, as I was listening to an audiobook and therefore unable to pinpoint the exact place) shifts from the Japanese women’s voice, to that of the Americans who are left behind. The last section portrays a California empty of Japanese, briefly wondering where they disappeared before getting on with its routine, with very few remnants that they ever lived there.

I understand the struggle of the writer at that point, because following the Japanese women to the internment camp would have broken the unity of place (California) that is very important in the book, and would have made for a wholly different story. Yet I wasn’t very comfortable with that latter part, because I thought that the voice lost a bit of focus and balance anyway.

Despite this slight reservation, I quite enjoyed the book, especially as I knew little about Japanese-American heritage. It may be read as a tribute to this particular community, but from a European point of view it can also be read as a collective memoir for many female immigrants.

A.S. Byatt, Ragnarok (2011)

Let me first digress. I got to know A.S. Byatt first when I read a short story in the New Yorker: the Stone Woman. I didn’t know anything about the writer but I fell in love with this weird story, its grief-stricken yet strangely powerful heroin and its beautiful accumulation of gem-like precious words. I was unemployed and sending resumes everywhere. Needless to say, I had lots of free time. It took my fancy to translate this story, thinking that it would make me closer to its writer’s power. I still remember struggling with the vocabulary, and struggling to render anything like the beautiful sentences that I read. Needless to say, I wasn’t being interviewed for a translator’s job.

After months or years, I realized who the writer was and I felt foolish for this translation.

Ragnarok was on my wishlist for quite a long time, so long indeed that it eventually got translated into French and found its way to my neighborhood library new books’ shelves, waiting just for me to take it home.

The thing is: A.S. Byatt impresses me (from her reputation and also her book Possession), and so I don’t quite know how to write about her book without feeling completely inadequate. All the more as this one is part of the Cannongate Myth series, an ambitious project for which I have a lot of respect and admiration, and for which Byatt chose the Norse myths, that are supposed to be difficult. (Are myths difficult? Where does this idea come from? Perhaps because the Norse myths are less familiar to my own French culture than Greek ones)

The retelling of myths never ceases to fascinate me: the idea that there is still something relevant in thousand years old stories, but also that as human being writers still find something to add to these stories, like they are never really finished once and for all.

Contrary to other retelling of myths (modified or modernized), Byatt felt the need to encase the mythology in a back story, the evocation of her own childhood during WW2 when she discovered the myths and fell in love with them. How appropriate for a child whose father was away at war to wonder about the destiny of the world and to worry herself with the end of the gods in total destruction. Byatt makes no mystery of being  “the thin child” evacuated from the city to the English countryside, and this new land around her creates a natural scenery of the Norse myths.

My own knowledge of the Norse myths is rather sketchy. There’s Wagner’s music, and rather sanitized Viking tales written for children. Contrary to the original version that “the thin child” got to read, children books nowadays gloss over most of the violence, cruelty, darkness and strangeness from the stories.

Even seeing them from afar, I was fascinated by them in the same way as most apocalyptic stories both fascinate me and disturb me. To imagine the gods death is, I believe, very peculiar compared to other civilisation where myths explain the creation of the world and justify why it is so today.

It was good to have the full extent of the Norse myths presented to me, if only by allusions and short visual vignettes. Byatt gets us to realize that there is so much more out there, without feeling like complete ignoramus. I loved Byatt’s writing, recognising her for her love of lists, of accumulation of visual details and precious words. She put herself right into the book, but it only highlighted how these myths shaped her childhood and her vision of the world.

The weirdest thing, if incidental, about this book is that it made me realize how much Tolkien had been influenced by the Norse myths for The Lord of the Ring. When the inevitability of the gods’ death finally arises, I could feel the same sense of deep sadness than at the end of the LOTR when all the elves and magicians leave Middle earth. Duh! I had read about it years ago, but I had never before made the connection. Once again, A.S. Byatt makes me feel completely foolish.

But I’m grateful for the lesson nonetheless.

Emmanuel Carrère, Limonov (French 2011, English 2014)

I’ll say it before you suspect it: I am a fan of Emmanuel Carrère. So I might not be the most objective reader for his books. But in true Carrère’s fashion, it doesn’t matter, subjectivity is part of the writing and the reading process. And writing about it too.

Bear with me, it does sound meta, but not the kind you get a headache from.

Carrère is one of the writers whose books I buy without hesitation (one other writers is Siri Hustvedt, for example). But I take my time, I’m not rushing as soon as the book gets out, because I know I need time and concentration, and I want to savour them.

By the time I get to Limonov, Carrère has already published another one, Le Royaume (the Kingdom) about early Christianity, with lots of praise. I have not yet arrived to the Kingdom, but I know I’ll get there eventually.

One of the things I enjoy about Carrère’s books is the writing. It’s just as if he was talking to me (Let me clarify, I’m not delusional, nor in love with him). Carrère’s writing voice is deceptively simple, self-aware without being overly self-centered.

So, Limonov. Carrère is always writing about life and perception, about the complex layers that make events and explain people’s behavior. It’s a biographical novel (written without his subject’s consent and with only one direct meeting when the draft was almost completed), but its ambition is wider.

I hadn’t even heard of this Limonov, a Russian intellectual who has had a very contrasted life (he’s still alive, so there’s plenty of turns of the plot that may still occur). Born in 1943 in Soviet Russia, he is deemed a dissident, but the label doesn’t even start to define him. He’s been a thug, an obscure poet in an obscure city of Russia, a jet-setter in Paris and in New York, a butler for a millionnaire, an opponent to Putin, a leader of a fascist group, a writer, a model convict, and so many other things.

Carrère crossed paths with Limonov several times for brief moments, and he is both fascinated and puzzled by this man. The result of this fascination and unending puzzlement is the book itself. As always Carrère is a character in his own novel, at times fed up with his subject, at times wondering.

It seems  that this guy has had many lives already, and it’s all too easy to dislike him. He’s arrogant, vain, always vying for attention and glory. In fact, Carrère doesn’t even try to make us like him at all, his point is to retrace the steps of many life choices, however implausible they seem. One thing leading to another, and Limonov chooses the exile from Soviet Union, presumably forever, and for a while he ends up living like a bum in New York. Does that makes him a loser? Perhaps, but he kept trying and then he somehow got back on his feet.

One thing led to another, and Limonov finds himself supporting the Serbs during the Yugoslavian war. Bad choice obviously. Does this choice make him a fascist? Perhaps. But every time Carrère  explains how complicated it is, how difficult it is for us readers to judge him knowing the complete picture.

At the end he comes out as an adventurer who tried very hard to be a genius and who has never quite reached it.

From these many lives we can also see a portrait of Russia from the sixties to the 21st century, and see how a whole world exploded at the end of Soviet Union. I remember those days and the post-1989 chaos in Russia. I didn’t understand them as they were enfolding under our eyes. I certainly enjoyed that Carrère revisited them. These made in my opinion the most fascinating pages of this bizarre literary object.

Writing Birth Stories… Or Not

The blog world is full of birth stories. It’s weird, isn’t it? It’s so personal and intimate that you’d think people would just tell it to their best girlfriends.

But certainly I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s so universal and moving that it makes the perfect story, and while you perhaps don’t want to go into gory details with your own best girlfriends, especially face-to-face over a fancy coffee with friends without child, for some reasons sharing it with people you don’t know but can’t see, and who are going through the same life-changing event as you is something liberating.

Or is it?

I am very good at forgetting things. I thought I’d gotten over it nicely, and in part, I have. My oldest is 6 years old, and although I have never written at length about his birth story, I am at peace with the events of that day, the way it turned out, and the emergency C-section I got 6 years ago. If I decide to write his birth story one day, it will be for his sake, not for mine in a therapeutic viewpoint. But whether a young boy or young man needs to learn about his birth in details remains a question for me to ponder.

When my doctor told me that I was most probably heading for another C-section down the line, due to the same causes, for my second birth, it was a genuine surprise, because I had managed to put it so much at the back of my mind that I hadn’t come to that conclusion by myself. I had stuck with what one doctor had told me, that one C-section didn’t need to be followed by another, but of course as the medical reasons for the first intervention were linked to me, I should have understood that his phrase didn’t really apply.

I signed for a scheduled C-section. I was not even pressured to. I preferred a scheduled one over an emergency one, with very little odds to have a birth without medical intervention. It was supposed to be uneventful.

Clearly it wasn’t.

Over the spring and summer, I had managed to obliterate what happened and concentrate on my sweet little baby, but as winter is coming back and we’re heading towards my baby’s first birthday, it all comes back to me. Rather more forcefully than I wished.

Last week I read a blog post over at Longreads about a birth story by C-section, and I couldn’t detach myself from the screen. In fact, the post was long so I couldn’t read it all in one go, and I was obsessed by this particular story.

Within a few days it had completely gone out of hand. I found myself crying over stupid things and having flashbacks and depressed thoughts.

I was thinking about writing this particular birth story, then I feared I would relive stuff and feel even worse. I would once again go over events and choices that I can no longer undo.

As I felt my feelings recede and started to feel better, I didn’t get writing.

One day I will.

Perhaps.

Any thoughts?

Beloved Indie Bookshop Series: La Droguerie de Marine, Saint Malo

A few weeks ago we took a few days off to visit the small town of Saint Malo in Brittany, famous for its piracy past and its fortified old quarter.

As always, we took this opportunity to look for bookshops along the way. I found one most intriguing and endearing, located not in the inner quarters, but in the quiet neighborhood of Saint Servan. It’s called Droguerie de Marine (Sea Chemist’s, perhaps?), and really offers lots of wonders. The ground floor is a chemist-cum-gift shop with lots of quirky, unique, witty or simply beautiful objects (but you can also buy all sorts of scrubbing brushes for your boat, should you need).

The staircase and landing are full of knickknacks and books (as you’d guessed, babies aren’t exactly welcome there), and then the first floor is the bookshop itself, and what a bookshop! A dream place where I would have pored over books for hours until closing time (this is not polite practice in France, and that’s why you won’t normally find a comfy couch or even a chair to sit down in French bookshops: you’re here to buy and read elsewhere, not to read books here and avoid buying them). There’s a nice children’s room, and then a long place with lots of nooks and crannies. And even a couch!

What made the place even better was the large puppets (wooden or metal, I can’t tell) and boat models that seemed to be stranded amidst random piles of books. I am sure there is really an order to them all, but I loved the messy atmosphere, so conducive of snooping around for a new good book.

“A” new good book? Ahem, I didn’t resist much and bought several! I bought a Korean manga about food, a children book for Halloween and a psychology book about kids asking difficult questions. I’d have gladly bought another dozen, but for lack of space.

If you can’t make it to Saint Malo to see the place in person, you still can visit their website, they have a virtual 360° view of the place and nice pictures (nicer than what my old phone can do, ahem).