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This book got a bad start with me. Because I enjoy Josephine Tey, I took the book with me at the maternity when my second son was due to be born. There are many posts around the blog world about choosing the right book for the proper time, but I’m not sure there are many about choosing a book for a birth. The result was disastrous. Not the birth obviously, but the choice itself. I was in no mood for light reading, and British tongue-in-cheek wit was totally lost on me.

Give me drama! Give me lyrism! Give me epics! I also had brought with me the audiobook of Tolkien’s Hobbit, and strangely enough it was a much, much better fit. Now, a psychoanalyst would make something out of it I’m sure.

And poor Josephine, now the opening scene with the victim’s discovery on the beach is forever associated in my mind with a certain hospital room where I vainly tried to get distracted from the upcoming events. No book should get that kind of a trial.

All the more as this is not Tey’s best book. I loved The daughter of time, Brat Farrar and the Franchise affair, but as one of her earliest novels, A Shilling for Candles does show some weaknesses (in the same way as The Man in the Queue). Even judging by normal reading standards it doesn’t have a watertight plot and moves rather unevenly from characters to characters until a rather clunky resolution, and so, even nine months later, my attention tended to wander away. Inspector Grant is such a darling (not the hard-boiled detective by any means), so I felt a bit sorry for him. It was a light, fun read, but definitely not the one book to remember Tey by.

Usually, when French people come back from holidays in late August (the entire country sort of shuts down from 08/5 to 08/25, except for the tourist industry), there are bad surprises in the mail: the tax sheet and lots of invoices. That makes you get back in the (grumpy) mood right away, believe me.

But this year, a nice surprise awaited me too, that helped me find the courage to open the tax sheet: a book by Pushkin Press: Salad Anniversary by Tawara Machi, that will come out in October!

Some years ago I wrote a review of this book after I fell in love with these evocative poems full of those tiny moments daily life and mundane emotions. Machi Tawara had used a very old poetry form to express herself and created a huge success in Japan.

Some 5 years later I opened the book afresh (the one I’d read was a library copy) and I enjoyed it again. Here a few lines that resonated with me this time, from the poem Hashimoto High School (Machi Tawara is a teacher):

Proctoring the exam,

Suddenly I think of each one’s mother,

The day she conceived this child

 

Parents claim to raise their children,

but garden tomatoes turn red

unbidden

In case you need a refreshing break from fall’s hectic schedule (back-to-school! new projects at work! budgets! the end of year already looming! arggh…) and the noise of social media, a book of poetry (in paper with a clean design and a cute cover) is a good place to start.

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.

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.

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!

This post is long overdue, as I chose to re-read the Hobbit close to my due date, and now the baby is close to four months old!

I won’t really discuss the literary merits of the book, because I am a Tolkien fan and I have no ambition at objectivity. The Hobbit has been a great, possible the greatest favorite of my childhood (that was before I read the Lord of the Ring). My father read it aloud to me at bedtime around age 9 or 10 I guess. I was mesmerized. The book clearly lacks feminine role models (or any female at all, unless the mere reference to Mrs. Took, Bilbo’s mother or aunt counts for anything) , but I remember role-playing Gandalf with my (geek) friends.

Rereading it this year felt great, because I knew that reading wouldn’t be among my priorities this year. I took the easy way and got the audiobook, read by French actor Dominique Pinon, of Amelie’s fame. I downloaded it into my phone, to listen to at the maternity during feedings, and later on during the long walks I took in the park to soothe the baby.

I didn’t regret this choice. Pure escapism is nice when one is tired (in case you ask, I watched the movies too, and I enjoyed them, although they aren’t, of course, exactly as good as the book, but ugh, this seems a pointless discussion to me). It was quite an immersing experience to listen during so many hours over more than a month or two. I didn’t need to concentrate as much because I knew the story, and it was very comforting to reconnect with these characters I’d known as a child.

Although I was at first surprised by the choice of reader, I was soon convinced that Pinon has a great voice for a fantasy book. His voice is raspy, husky and he doesn’t shy away from croaking, whispering, or threatening when the action demands it. He properly rolls the “r” like a dwarf is expected to (at least in French) and has an apologetic, unassuming, shy little voice for Bilbo Baggins.

As an adult reader, I was surprised to see how different the Hobbit is from the LotR trilogy. It is a lighter adventure, mainly started for fun and bravado (with its fair share of terror and personal tragedies), and although Tolkien builds worlds from scratch and makes them alive, I don’t think he had any intention to make Bilbo’s quest a deep metaphor for fate, destiny and the end of civilization (clearly the LotR has larger ambitions). Also, in terms of plot, I can really see Tolkien inventing episodes along the way as he tells them to his children, which would explain an irregular pacing and also the somewhat clumsy ending. After Smaug the dragon is defeated, everyone being greedy about the treasure, it could easily have become a deadlock and a nasty war between men, dwarves and elves, and I felt that Tolkien didn’t want to depart from the children’s lit traditional arch where good guys and bad guys are neatly separated. The arrival of the goblins and evil wolves seems like a (too?) easy way out, and Thorin’s death conveniently removes any difficulty about the dwarves’ not-so-nice intentions.

But even as an adult I can’t find (serious) fault in this book, and I’m really looking forward to reading some of it to my sons one day. In fact, my elder son might start to be of age for this, what do you think?

I started this cozy mysteries collection with 2 things in mind:

- explore the Gutenberg.org catalogue of free books via my new Kindle

- explore little-known oldies in line with the Vintage Mystery Bingo that Danielle pointed out a few months ago (I’m not sure I’ll get anywhere with this challenge but it is enticing enough).

Violet Strange is an American debutante who moonlights as a private detective, for mysterious reasons that get explained in the last short story. She is very cute by that period’s standards (Green insists on dimples many times) and has a “natural talent” for detection although many of clients doubt her at the beginning because of her youth, social origin and sex. Since this work of hers has to remain a secret, her mysterious employer introduces her to the cases and, literary speaking, provides a third-person point of view to justify and underline her actions.

I’ll say it quickly: I wasn’t quite convinced by this collection. The language has aged and is pompous at times. There’s not much detecting itself in the resolution of the stories, and Violet often tricks the guilty person to uncover him/herself. There are a few disturbing lines implying that women detectives are good because of female intuition, while men are good because of their reasoning, that sounded more Victorian than early century American (Anna Katharine Green’s dates are 1846-1935, which means that she’s two generations before Agatha Christie, born in 1890). Some stories are more Gothic than mysteries, and a lot are quite melodramatic, bordering on implausible. The apt comparison in my mind would still be Wilkie Collins or Conan Doyle (on the lighter side), which makes me think that Green had not completely stepped into the 20th century at that stage (but I’m sure specialists would discuss that point).

For historic reasons, it might be worth a try, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a hardcore Christie fan, because it would be a disappointment.

I haven’t been reading any short story collection for quite a while, and this one went down like a breeze, just as great as I’d expected. Why hadn’t I read it earlier? The plan for the next few months is to read all some of those excellent books that have been sitting on my shelves for way too long, especially when because I expect them to be good.

How come books that I think will be less than great get priority over the great ones? Obviously I’m doing something wrong. Let’s retrace my steps:

step 1 – The Persephone catalogue is such a treat. Ooh, I soo enjoyed Mollie Panter-Downes Wartime stories, if the peacetime stories are half as good I must have them (I order the book).

step 2 – Look at this perfect Persephone volume that just made its way on my doorstep. Let’s read the first few pages. Oooh, they’re good indeed! But wait, reading them all in a hurry wouldn’t honor their value, I should take my time to savour them properly. Besides I’m right in the middle of x-y-z, I can’t possibly read it right now. Let’s put it next to its Persephone sisters and wait for a good time to read it (the book disappears from my view, dust starts to pile up)

Yes, I know, waiting for a special occasion is pretty stupid. It took me 5 years between the Wartime stories and the Peacetime stories. Mollie Panter-Downes shouldn’t be kept waiting. Her stories are subtle little gems that just need 15 minutes of attention. Even with a baby I can manage those 15 minutes somehow, can’t I? (please don’t burst that bubble of optimism)

Those stories she wrote in the late 1940s and 1950s portray British upper middle class men and women faced with the disappearance of their world. The pre-war days were not coming back, even if the war was over. They had little money left, still had food shortages, the servants quit (or hadn’t returned from the war), they had to sell their large home and move to tiny flats, their children decided to marry working-class people, but they kept their wit and stiff upper lip, even in the middle of heartbreak. They had to make concessions to the times, adapt, emigrate or they would just disappear too, as the last witnesses of another era. Mollie Panter-Downes watch these harsh evolutions from the intimacy of the home, in the tiny details of everyday life.

Of course, you may say that “these people” were privileged in the first place, that they’d only got too comfortable before, and that misalliance or servants issues were nothing compared to the real tragedies of war, death and destruction. But still, one cannot dismiss it all the same, and Panter-Downes makes sure that we care.

I haven’t lived this postwar era, but it somehow reminded me of the same kind of upheaval in the workplace, when the old barons of traditional industry suddenly had to face the fact that office work was not like in the good old days (not sure when exactly it did happen). They didn’t have a secretary to type their letters anymore, sometimes they were stripped of their private little office and had to adapt to an open plan office. They had to learn to use a computer, were expected to manage their agendas by themselves, work faster and more creatively than ever before. Of course, they had fat pays and privileges in the beginning (and they mostly kept their jobs until retirement), but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them (well, most of the times).

Now I’m very curious about other books by Molly Panter-Downes, has anyone read them?

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

Contact me!

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

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