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

- explore the 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

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?

I have an excuse to be blogging about this book so late (about 3 months after finishing it): this baby is robbing me of many (most?) of my neurons, that’s a fact (whatever is left is mainly dedicated to my husband, son and coworkers, sorry guys). And you don’t want to read this book absent-mindedly.

But I’d be sorry not to blog at all about it, because it needs to be praised, and promoted, so that people buy Janet Malcolm’s books in droves. Yes, that’s this good.

I’d never had known Janet Malcolm if not for book bloggers. I think it’s Rebecca from Of books and bikes who put me on her track. And now I am all the more convinced that I must read everything she’s published.

In the Freud Archives’ subject or title are not sexy: it’s mainly about Freudian scholars fighting over who will get access to the archives and secrets of the master. But don’t be afraid, it’s fascinating and brimming with tension (these scholars fight hard!), so that it resembles more a thriller than a scholarly paper. The plot comes down to that: the old king of Freudian archives, Kurt Eissler, unexpectedly gives the keys to the Archives to a young, dashing and ambitious scholar, Jeffrey Mason (the equivalent to reaching the Holy grail), but soon after the designated prince turns against his mentor and publicly challenges the Freudian orthodoxy that sexual hysteria derived from the patients’ imagination and not from actual sexual abuse. Eissler and Mason then launched an all-out war fueled by personal bitterness and disappointment.

It’s non-fiction, but she doesn’t make it all dry and serious (that’s why I read it with glee, when I usually read so little non-fiction). On the contrary, she takes time to flesh out characters and use metaphors. Freudian scholarly disputes get real and highly personal. She explains the bottom line of Freudian theories, but she also describes what people had to eat when they met, like in a reportage.

The book goes beyond this plot itself, because as much as it is about manipulation and expectations, Malcolm herself played no mean role in the dispute: Mason sued her for libel over it and the suit lasted 10 years before she was cleared. Just as in The Silent Woman, I’m not sure how objective Malcolm was or even tried to be in her relation to the different parties, but the strength of her books is that she doesn’t try to hide the necessary subjectivity of the writer.

Sure, you need to be a bit interested in Freudian stuff before reading this book, but to me, it was an exciting experience (I admittedly know more about Freud than about Sylvia Plath). I’ve heard that The Journalist and the Murderer is her best book, so I’m looking forward to reading it (hopefully next year, if  the baby gives me some neurons back!).

PS. Do you allow me 1 minute bragging? Back during summer, on the French equivalent of NPR, I was surprised to hear one of my favorite French non-fiction writers, Emmanuel Carrère, and an influential (if on the traditional side) philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, praise Malcolm as their latest literary discovery, as The Journalist and the Murderer was just being translated and published in France. Duh, I said, why haven’t they asked book bloggers?

Okay, I’m pretty sure this title will get me lots of unwanted spam comments, but I can assure you this is the true title of this short story collection. Except in French it didn’t sound like that, otherwise I might have been more cautious.

Not really cautious about the book itself. I remembered hearing that Roald Dahl also wrote some adult fiction that was far from nice and respectable. I remember that as a little girl Roald Dahl’s children classics were not among my favorites, because they already have something a bit scary and disturbing. So I kind of knew what to expect, and the book is true to this reputation. The 4 stories here are amoral, humorous and… very explicit. Consider yourself warned. I enjoyed them in their very special way, although I’m not going to seek out any more after that.

Why so? The common streak of these four stories are about men with sexual fantasies of domineering women, particularly as they are asleep or in the dark. No, stop right here, don’t jump the gun right now. This has nothing to do with 50 Shades of whatever (oh, no, more spam to come!), and this isn’t one of those misogynist books either. This is satire! All those guys promptly get their comeuppance in a very darkly humorous sort of twist, so morality is (kind of) intact in the end (virtue clearly isn’t). But I have difficulty with satire in books (especially foreign writers), and after a while things were a bit too black and white in the stories, and I found that Dahl’s portrait of women was not particularly interesting.

The caution I talked about earlier is related to the circumstances of getting this book. I borrowed it from a relative whose literary taste I know (knew) little about. And then, just out of the blue, I had to borrow this book among hundreds of his bookshelves.

This was a pretty bad idea on both sides. Just imagine the possibilities:

  • There’s me thinking: uh-oh, perhaps this person only reads sexy, weird books like this one. Perhaps it tells something of his… ahem, taste and way of life? (lots of headache and head scratching)
  • There’s this person thinking: why on earth would Smithereens borrow this book in particular, when it’s the only “embarrassing” book I own? Is it because she particularly enjoys these sexy, weird books? Because she… (stop right there, I’m already blushing behind my screen)
  • There’s the awkward moment when I return the book and the person feels obliged to say: oh-hum, did you enjoy it?

The lesson here: steer your guests away from your bookshelves if you have any book you might find even slightly embarrassing. Hide them, put a stylish cover on them, do whatever it takes to protect your friendships.

Or what do you think?

Sometimes I wander among the manga shelves at the library, and I feel like a grandma trying to buy clothes in a hipster shop. Does it ever happen to you?

I simply lack references and so I have no clue how to choose something that I might like. Actually, I do have some references, but they are quite old and come from anime I watched in the 1980s or 1990s: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Cat’s Eye and such. After all, I was raised with Candy Candy and lots of other Japanese anime, and I’m a big fan of Studio Ghibli. I’m not totally a virgin in the manga department, but it seems that genres have evolved so much that the popular mangas now have nothing to do with the older generation’s. So where should I turn now?

The other problem is more practical. At the library, every time I get attracted to a title, I discover that the volumes 1 and 2 are already borrowed. The only manga whose beginning was available at the time was The Drifting Classroom.

In retrospect, I should have known something was amiss when the person at the library desk raised her eyebrow at my choice. And perhaps it was no coincidence that nobody had taken these two first volumes.

It was soon confirmed. I read the first volume within a few hours and then I told myself: this is a pure nightmare, you should not go on: this is my first ever horror manga, and probably the last for a long, long, long time.

I have nothing against post-apocalyptic science fiction (uh, well, that’s not quite true, I have decided to avoid McCarthy’s The Road, I’m too much likely to get depressed by its theme), but nothing prepared me for that. Survival manga with lots of gory details. With main characters being elementary school children. Ugh.

I must be grateful I’ve read (skimmed, rather) Lord of the Flies as a novel a lifetime ago and that words are not as, well, visual, because perhaps it would have looked a bit like that. Except the violence is much worse. Add post-apocalyptic monsters. And don’t get attached to any of the characters, because they’re likely to die in horrible circumstances in the next few pages.

Well, I wanted to try something new, didn’t I? I promptly returned both books, it was a different person at the desk, but in retrospect, a pregnant mother with a 5 yo borrowing a horror manga? Perhaps a raised eyebrow was a bit of an understatement.

After all, it’s October, so if you’re looking for something seriously creepy, look no further. But don’t come back here complaining that you haven’t slept a wink or you’re shocked out of your wits.

Now I know where to turn when I want perfectly depressing cold-weather murders: 1960s Sweden of the Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s fame. Don’t we love them all? (uh, just kidding)

But I know my limits. After Roseanna and The Man who went up in smoke, I decided to skip the next mystery in the Beck series because it involved a child murder, and Beck’s Sweden being depressing enough, I didn’t want to add insult to injury.

The Laughing Policeman is no laughing matter (except when you take a second look and start to look for dark humor, which you’ll find aplenty). It starts with a random mass killing in a public bus in Stockholm. Among the ten victims, a young colleague of Beck is found, carrying his service weapon despite not being on duty. When his girlfriend tells the police that he was working days and nights on a case, Beck and his colleagues have no idea which one. And they aren’t even sure that the murder has anything to do with their colleague’s presence on the bus rather than with any of the other victims’ dark secret.

I don’t think the whole plot goes by with any sunny day. It’s always raining and policemen are miserable with colds and sore throats, not to mention damp feet whenever they visit witnesses and suspects. You sure can’t accuse Sjöwall and Wahlöö to glorify the police, nor to work for the Tourist bureau. Detectives’ work is painstaking and ends up in many dead-ends.

Make no mistake: it may sound suspiciously boring, but it isn’t. There’s a lot of humor and warmth in the detectives team’s description of quirks and twists. Sjöwall and Wahlöö also have a terrific eye for painting society as a whole, with just as many words as necessary. Vietnam demonstrations open the book and there’s no doubt that the writers aren’t quite happy with the conservative government of the time.

I was so happy to start the year off with such a great book, but then I’m finding it so difficult to sum it up and have a clear opinion about it, other than: “wow, it’s… erh… rich!”. I’m sure you want to know more than that.

I stumbled upon this book on the Psychology shelf of a library late last year while looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, and right away I was sucked into it. And yet, it’s not an easy book by any counts. It’s a history cum psychology cum theology cum… thriller. Yes, it is possible!

Let’s present it this way: in the early 17C, a young and dashing Catholic priest, Father Urbain Grandier, arrives in the boring small town of Loudun. He’s arrogant and above all, good-looking, far more interested in his own career advancement and pleasures than in religion or even moral principles. By seducing all the available women (under the pretext of confession), he soon makes himself the enemy of about every local bourgeois. (on a simple matter of etiquette he also manages to spite the future Cardinal Richelieu, which isn’t clever). Their schemes to get rid of him all fail until they get in touch with the Mother Superior of the local Ursuline convent.

Having been neglected by Grandier, Mother Jeanne des Anges, ambitious and clever, but above all an attention-seeker, accuses the priest to have made a pact with Satan to corrupt the sisters. The whole convent turn into mass hysteria and even several exorcists can’t get rid of the devils’ possession. Grandier is tried, the powerful Cardinal Richelieu purposefully ignores his pleas because of his old grudge and the priest is condemned to be burnt alive. Not even Grandier’s death at the stake in 1634 stops the possession, fueled in part by the success of the “show” (exorcism sessions were public and attracted huge crowds, just like public executions) and by the obsession of another keen clergyman, Father Jean-Joseph Surin, and it takes many years for things to calm down.

Bear in mind that these all are historical facts, not over-the-top fiction!

There’s very little doubts from the beginning that it wasn’t a real possession (as many people of the 17C were doubtful too), but Huxley uses this particular case to paint a full picture of the time. His book touches history when he describes the links between clergy and power. It touches law and theology in relation to Grandier’s trials. He touches also psychology and psychiatry when he gets to the bottom of the possession and obsession and why people were so keen to believe it.

French history class never allowed me to “experience” 17C France under the reign of Louis 13th in such vivid details (The 3 Musketeers helped, but they were highly fictional!): it seems to have been an era of transition, brought forth in part by Reform, between a totally amoral clergy interested in wealth and honor, and a more spiritual one, interested in a more ascetic view of religion interested in mystique and religious ecstasy. The line was thin for Sister Jeanne des Anges between being possessed by a devil and being a visionary saint like Teresa of Avila, but the common ground was a psycho-sexual neurosis that these women resorted to because they had no other way to express themselves and be taken seriously by men.

This review doesn’t do entirely justice to the book because it’s so rich, but it’s also quite readable. Huxley’s name was only familiar to me for his popular Brave New World and I was not aware of his other writings. It was a great discovery!

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