You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘21C books’ category.

I was in Croatia close to the beach in another lifetime in August when a message from Michelle reached me. She had a book published! (No, she’s being modest: she not only published a book, but it also won a prize!) I was glad that she thought of me for a review copy and I took my time during September to read it.

It’s not a very light book by any account, but it is not a harrowing read. In fact it’s lighter than I’d thought it would be, because it is set in Japan, where emotions and expressions are always so delicately rendered, and Michelle’s writing is also quite subtle. Her main narrator is an old Japanese woman who tells tales in her community, and her voice in the book reflects the music of a traditional narration, a bit like a chant. I would compare it slightly to the unique writing of Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic (only I am quite late in my blog posts so I should have told you about that other book ages ago), although it is not as systematic. Michelle switches her point of view often, moving from the husband to the wife to the outsider, and I must tell that it helps when dealing with a heavy subject like cancer, terminal illness and impending grief.

Besides being taken by the book and feeling so moved by the story, I wondered: how difficult is it to write a novel about this subject? Why set it in Japan (of all places?) And because I have met Michelle in real life, I wished she could tell me how she managed to write a novel while working, raising a daughter and blogging. I took the opportunity to ask her all my questions and here are her answers:

Q. What inspired you to write this particular story in small town Japan and why?

A. I feel a particular connection with Japan because I was born in the city of Kagoshima, right on the coast of the island of Kyushu. I’ve often wondered what version of my life I could have lived if my family had stayed longer and I’d actually grown up in this place. If I’m allowed this feeling – as a Scottish/German-American who now lives in Switzerland – I consider Japan a part of me in ways that are similar to my feelings for the US and Switzerland, the places which I have a legal right to call my home. This question of where a person belongs (culturally, linguistically, emotionally) has always fascinated me and was definitely part of the inspiration for some of the novel’s themes.

Later, I returned to Japan and worked in a small town in the mountains of Miyazaki Prefecture for several years when I was just out of college. When I returned back to America, I finally began writing stories about the region – I just couldn’t get the landscape out of my head. And I’ve always been interested in Japanese folktales and history. (And its literature.) Kyushu has a very particular and significant place in Japanese mythology, and I was lucky to spend time in this place at the center of so many of Japan’s originating myths.

At the same time, because of events in my private life, when I started working on Fog Island Mountains I was also circling around a lot of questions about grief and its effects on relationships and family. I would never have wanted to write so directly about those questions, but it felt very natural to combine these two ideas and see what came up.

Q. I had assumed that being so far from Japan and Japan being so faraway from our Western culture, you had chosen this setting to keep a distance with a difficult subject: preparing oneself to a death, grieving for one’s significant other. Obviously my assumption was all wrong. I found your book very sensitive in presenting the reaction of the sick person and his wife, as well as children, friends and acquaintances. Was it particularly difficult to write about this particular subject set in a place you call home? Was it necessary for you to take a distance with your subject? If so, how did you manage that?

A. It was very necessary for me to keep a distance from the personal experiences that helped inspire Fog Island Mountains, out of respect for a number of people, but also because this is almost always how I write. I don’t feel comfortable putting myself and my life directly into a piece of fiction. I’m sure I’m there, I don’t think I’m naive about this. But I really do write with a purely fictional landscape in mind, and characters who are wholly invented.

However, no, it wasn’t difficult to write about these subjects through a place I consider a little bit home. I even think the Japanese setting helped. I couldn’t really write about Japan while I was living there, nor about France when I lived in Paris. Something I’m working on right now has a small part set in Switzerland but it’s only a framework, the story is occurring in the US. I started working on Fog Island Mountains in 2007 when I’d been away from Japan for nearly six years. I suspect that a lot of my writing is (and may always be) about nostalgia and longing for place, and so it felt very natural to turn to Japan as a context for the questions of the story. My own form of comfort-writing, perhaps, even if it might be a little selfish to approach a “place” in this way.

**

This post is getting very long, so I’ll post the second part of this interview in a separate post. Stay tuned!

This is a book I turned down many times when it was first published in English, but years later I took my chance because it was free on Bookmooch. Meeh… I should have stuck to my guns. I read a solid quarter of the book, decided it wasn’t worth my precious time, and skimmed through the end, just in case.

Let me retrace my steps here a little, so that you get the big picture.

I was working in Hong Kong when I first heard of Candy, a little after 2000. It was huge. The book was available in Hong Kong, but not on the mainland where it was banned. Along with her contender Wei Hui, these young female writers were scandalous, and therefore hailed by critics as the genial voices of their generation.

Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Decadent nightlife in frontier town Shenzhen. Explicit PG13 scenes (or are they NC17?). And not a glance for the revolution, may it be to cry over past hardships or to praise the Leader. It was fresh! daring!

I didn’t read it back then because my level of Chinese wasn’t good enough. But I remember a colleague telling me that being banned was about the best thing that could have happened to this otherwise mediocre book. More than ten years later, I too ran out of patience, because the writing was indulgent, naively provocative and terribly self-centered. I know this is harsh, but I’m not a good fit for these kind of teenaged readings anymore.

Somehow, it seems more interesting to know of this book because of what it tells us about the Chinese society and about a generation of young Chinese people than by its own value.

Uh-oh, it seems that I’ve had this draft for 2 months or more and didn’t quite publish it! It’s high time I put it out in the open because it’s a lovely book. Update: it didn’t quite solve my procrastination problem. Sigh…

* * *

I heard of this book from the lovely Finding Time to Write blog, and I bought the book almost immediately (second-hand from Amazon marketplace), so intrigued I was about its promises: “how to creatively survive and thrive seven days a week”.

Although I am not comfortable with the name artist, and I don’t quite believe in the feel-good notion that everything we create is art, I am all ears when someone offers strategies and inspiration to make work and any creative outlet coexist peacefully, rather than pushing the art to the margins of our lives (work taking so much time and energy) or proposing to quit your job altogether. Here’s what she says about drastic measures:

“It took me years to realize that I could do all kinds of drastic acts like quitting jobs, relationships, towns (or all of the above), but what showed up at the next job, relationship, & town was still ME.”

This book seems primarily aimed at youngish and unattached people who take jobs in restaurants or offices while hoping or waiting for a big creative success that will allow them to practice full-time. But often this arrangement becomes permanent and people are frustrated with their humdrum, stifling day jobs.

Summer Pierre offers a kind voice and good ideas to find this balance, and although her ideas are often not really applicable to my own circumstances, I liked the optimism and attitude.

French people are professional grumblers, and it’s all too easy to complain about our day job. I do it a lot (less than my colleagues, but still pretty much every day). But she helped me realize that, yes, there are (also) good points about working this job (and I’m not talking money only).

Some pieces of advice felt very US-centered and hipster-ish. Jobs are very hard to come by in France, so people here can’t just chuck a job and find another.  French office environments – or at least mine – don’t seem like the places Summer Pierre talks about — if I try a dance move near the copy machine they’re going to call the doctor straight away.

But other parts of the book were quite precious to me, forcing me to realize that procrastination is not creation, and it’s not downtime either. Putting things off for later and waiting for circumstances to be ideal isn’t a good solution. You might think “duh” and move on, but it was actually fun.

It’s a pretty easy read, quite inspirational. I didn’t fall in love with Summer Pierre’s designs but I enjoyed her kind words. It was probably a bad timing for me to read it before the holidays, but I’ll try a re-read in September along with my good resolutions for the fall!(*)

* * *

(*) Note from 2014/10/09: uh-oh… Although the book is lingering close to my computer in my little writing nook, I didn’t quite find the time to re-read it in September, as you can imagine.

Yet another very very good surprise thanks to audiobooks!

I had never read anything by Patrick Deville before, and when I finished Plague and Cholera, I immediately bought his Kampuchea. For a person who thinks twice before getting anymore book on her shelves, that’s telling a lot!

Who would have guessed that I would read (uh… hear) the biography of the man who had discovered the bacillus responsible for the plague (that now bears his name, yersinia pestis). I’m not a science buff, but I like a good story, and if anyone had told me that I would get engrossed in the biography of a biologist/doctor, member of the Pasteur team like Roux or Calmette (1863-1943), a man with an austere youth in Switzerland, no private life to speak of, apparently not far from being a misogynist or a sociopath (although he was indeed working for the good of humanity from his lab or his desk, I don’t think that bedside manners or caring for actual living patients were his forte), I would have been more than doubtful.

And yet. The man was anything but a lab rat and as soon as he could he left the Pasteur institute to live his dream: be an explorer, a discover of unchartered territories like Livingstone. Great explorers were one generation older than he, but he took his ticket to Asia by the way of being a cruise doctor, then he left this job when he fell in love with Vietnam, especially Nha Trang on the coast and Da Lat in the mountains. His love of learning seemed endless and he dabbled his hand in lots of activities: after biology and medicine, he became an explorer who surveyed the land along the Mekong river and then turned farm developer, rubber-tree planter, anti-malaria serum manufacturer, and a lot more.

The book is a straightforward biography, except it is called a novel, as many books that I’ve recently read. I’m not sure if it’s a French fashion, or a larger trend, just like all recent US movies proclaim “based on a true story”. I guess this label gives the writer more freedom, but we are left, as readers, with many questions as to what is real and what is fictional. Sometimes we readers are inside Yersin’s head and seeing the world through his eyes, sometimes a modern narrator breaks in, following the footsteps of Yersin in modern-day Vietnam and knowing, as an omniscient narrator (but is he as accurate and objective?) how the country has changed since Yersin set his foot there.

This book got a very famous prize in France, but some readers found the tone disturbing. It is dry and blunt indeed, with many quotations from private letters that are quite banal to say the least. Yersin was nowhere near an emotional person. That’s where we readers tend to think that it’s nothing more than a normal, informative biography. Yet the omniscient narrator’s voice is often distanced and ironic, so that the mix of the two voices might seem incongruous at times. I personally loved it, especially as the audiobook was read by the author.

Yersin was not the only focus of Deville. He visibly aimed at portraying a whole generation of enthusiastic discoverers, scientists and colonialists from the turn of the 20th century, for whom the world for up for grabs and awaiting their benevolent guidance. Then we spent much of the rest of the century paying for the consequences. I remember being astonished at the last remains of the French colonial empire in Vietnam and Cambodia, and so the book spoke to me at many levels.

(bonus: it has been translated to English this year!)

The core of this book is the famous Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 meters-ong (224 feet) embroidery from the Middle Ages showing in dozens of small scenes the Norman conquest of England. The Tapestry itself is one-of-a-kind, a sort of gigantic graphic novel, complete with characters, plot, subplots and twists, but as its origin and content have been studied and disputed by historians for centuries, it was only a matter of time until a writer would make a novel out of it.

Here, Adrien Goetz weaves lots and lots of layers around the tapestry: a sympathetic young curator freshly arriving at the museum, Penelope, a thriller about the last few meters of the tapestry that have never been found, a mystery about the authenticity of the piece, different interpretations about who commissioned it, how they did it, what some passages mean etc. Even Princess Diana and Hitler have been thrown into the lot. I have read this novel over summer and it was very pleasant, but now I really struggle to let you know what exactly was the main storyline and the whole point of the book.

The thriller / mystery plots themselves were not very believable, just a concession to the genre. So I guess Goetz mostly wanted to be informative under the cover of fiction, which he did with some success. I am grateful for getting to learn a lot of anecdotes about the Tapestry that I hadn’t picked up when visiting the official museum a few years ago, and the book mostly made me wish to go back to Bayeux for another visit, which is not so bad after all.

I’m not saying that the book was downright bad, but the piece of art itself stands no comparison. So the best conclusion may be: the Bayeux Tapestry is wonderful, just go and see it for yourself, online or in real life if possible.

This is my third Haller book and now I have to pause and consider what’s gone awry.

First book? Terrific, couldn’t put it down. Second one? ditto. Third one? Wham, I just couldn’t put myself in the mood. It took me more than 2 months from start to finish, with lots of other books in between that all took the precedence.

Maybe it’s the language. The first two were translated to French, this one in the original language. Normally I always prefer original language, but I also take what’s available to me at the library or bookshop. And so, the voice of Mickey Haller inside my head was simply not the same anymore. More jaded, more fatigued (that also has to do with the story, but shh… I don’t want a spoiler… just yet.)

Maybe it’s the media. The first two were audiobooks, this one in print. I realize that I am much more enthusiastic with audiobooks than with printed books because the talent of the actor / writer, his/her voice and rhythm, all this kind of hypnotize me, puts me under a charm, and my critical eyes are just off duty while my ears are doing all the work. Weird, isn’t it? I wonder if I’m the only one.

Maybe it’s the story itself. I didn’t find it as addictive as the others. Mickey Haller, a criminal defense attorney has fallen on tough times and has to take foreclosure cases because the economy’s bad. But soon enough crime comes back to the foreground, when a client of his, a woman who was going to lose her home, is accused of having murdered the bank manager in charge of the loan.

The Haller series is a tricky one for Connelly, trickier than the Bosch series where the good ones are the cops, and all is well once the bad guys are behind bars. To have a criminal defense attorney as a hero is difficult to pull it off because his clients aren’t always nice and innocent. Maybe they are, but there’s about as much chance that they’re the bad guys, and so how can the hero succeed both in the courtroom and in moral terms? Haller is typically cynical but with a nagging moral conscience, that’s why we love him. In previous episodes the twists of the plot made sure to reconcile the contradiction (Haller wins yet the bad ones are back to jail, somehow), but with every new case the difficulty increases.

So, major spoiler here, I felt it was such a huge let-down when at the end of this book Haller said that he didn’t want to defend bad guys anymore and that he was running for D.A.. Whaaat? Mickey? How can you just crossing onto the other side? No, don’t do this to us…

With that kind of ending, Michael Connelly has me standing in line for his next book, just to know what happens next. It might not be his best book ever but this man knows how to do cliffhangers.

Oops, she did it again… Draw me into a totally implausible story, mixing contemporary murder with an old folk myth, And I fell for it from the first few pages on, like with (all) the previous ones (I have reviewed 6 of them here).

I guess you have to love Vargas or hate it, and I stand firmly in the first group. Killjoy might argue that this is getting formulaic, that her stories are so unrealistic that there is no point in them. It just like saying Snow White  and the dwarves can’t be true so there’s no point in reading it.

In fact, it’s like a playful tale, with lots of inventive uses for language. Not only is the plot full of twists and turns, but the language itself is also fun to read. People in Vargas’ novels are contemporary, but they are so weird and one of a kind that it is agreed from the start that they only exist in fiction. Yet, they are alive and kicking! At least, for those who don’t cross the path of an evil criminal…

After a short introduction where Adamsberg solves a murder whose weapon is white bread (of  all  things!), the scene moves progressively from Paris to Normandy, where the Wild Hunt, a horde of devils, ghosts and zombies, ride through the woods by night to steal away those who have committed an unpunished crime. At first Adamsberg is tempted to shrug it off as superstition, but when a real corpse shows up in the woods, he settles down in a local hotel and investigates the local gossips and old grudges, convinced that someone is using the old tale to scare people and settle old scores in blood.

As in previous books, this myth is not invented by Vargas, it’s a popular European myth that seems to exist in England, France, Germany and Scandinavian countries as well. It was interesting to discover this story, just like many tiny bits of knowledge that Vargas likes to disseminate from page to page.

The book has been translated to English and published as The Ghost Riders of Ordebec.

I have a childish love for Margaux Motin’s girly-with-attitude designs. I have read her previous solo books (“J’aurais adoré être ethnologue” and “La théorie de la contorsion”), and I laughed out loud every single time.

Not a classy, delicate laugh. The kind that hesitates between a big belly laugh or a snort. With a quick side glance to check if your dear husband looks over your shoulder or not.

It’s actually a collection of short scenes, perfect for a blog, even though I have discovered her through books and not through her blog (which is delightful). Sometimes those scenes are poetic (especially when she mixes photos with sketches), sometimes it’s a quick everyday-life scene I could totally relate to.

She’s getting quite popular in France and has done a lot of advertising design. You can easily see why: her girls are slim with long limbs and long lashes. They are fashionable and fresh, full of energy and zing. The epitome of the Parisian 30-something urban woman with a little cute girl in tow.

But the difference between her advertising gigs and her own books is blatant when you open them: the design is very prim and proper, but you really should brace for the text: the number of f-bombs by page is quite impressive, and no large company would be ok with that.

Now, I see that reviewers are very divergent on her books: either they love it or hate it. I would say that most male bloggers I’ve seen find it totally superficial, self-indulgent and don’t see the point of it, and most female bloggers just can’t get enough of it!

I didn’t read all in one sitting, because I think it might have felt too repetitive and a tad vulgar, but browsing for a few pages at a time was just fine. It’s really the portrait of young woman who tries very hard, who goes through a divorce, new dates and breakups, single-parenthood, a cross-country move and freelance gigs, who keeps her sense of humor and her style.

Regina Segal and her granddaughter Mica are together away from their Israeli home on a trip to Poland to investigate a property that belonged to Regina’s family and was confiscated during WW2.

Mica has recently lost her father, Regina’s son. It is Mica’s first trip to Poland, and she doesn’t know what to expect there. Her grandmother is cantankerous and quite moody, and at times it seems to Mica as if this whole journey has been in vain.

Grandmother and granddaughter barely understand each other, they don’t speak about the father, don’t even mention their grief. Yet it is soon obvious that there are some family secrets lying around in the past, and probably still lurking in the streets of Warsaw.

Rutu Modan’s art is deceptively simple (comparable to Tintin’s style) and people are drawn rather flatly (not very flattering), but nothing in the book is as simple as it seems. Feelings are subtly evoked, characters are richly layered and never black-and-white. People may be blunt, and sometimes misunderstand each other because they don’t speak the same languages (Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish are rendered through different typographies), but most of the times the silences tell a lot more than the words. There are no good people, no poor Jewish victims and bad Poles or the other way round. The grandmother is at times deeply moving, at times unbearable.

I knew Rutu Modan from her NYT blog, and I knew she was able to convey rich feelings in very simple portraits, but I’d never imagined that a graphic novel would be able to go that deep. If you want a “serious comic book”, I warmly recommend it.

I am sure that French people are not the only ones to make fun of bureaucrats (Russians spring to mind).

This thin book fully belongs to the genre, but I think this book might appeal to a specific, rather narrow readership: diplomats, people who work at the foreign office and people who know a little about them. A kind of insider’s joke. This book came as a present from a friend who happens to work in the diplomatic workforce, so I guess I should have asked her if she recognized anyone!

Our narrator, a young man with a very dull childhood in the 1970s, enters the diplomatic workforce with lots of ambition, only to discover that it’s not all as glorious and adventurous as what he’d dreamed of.

Due to a painful mistake on his first day, he is assigned to “the Russian Front”, not at all to a foreign country, but actually to an obscure department of losers, not even at the prestigious Quai d’Orsay offices but in a cubicle in a grey business area, to “take care” of visiting foreign delegations from the most obscure countries, those countries that are not yet recognized internationally.

He is as naive as he is ambitious, but his office life is a disaster, his love life abysmal, and every attempt he makes at leaving the Russian front proves even more catastrophic.

It is very satirical and cynical when it comes to bureaucrats, but I know for certain that some parts of it are not very far from reality! It was a light read, if a bit repetitive. But normally I don’t do well with comic books, so that was a nice change.

Contact me!

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

Categories

Archives

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 37 other followers