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Who hasn’t heard the praises of Sue Monk Kidd for The Secret Life of Bees? The book wasn’t available at the library or on Bookmooch, so I figured her Mermaid Chair, her second book, would be the next best thing.

The next it is, but best? I sure hope not. I have been trying hard, but the book didn’t really manage to sustain my interest.

Sure, I don’t read many love books, or books about middle-aged crisis. But I am not allergic to the subject either. (ok I can’t think of any title I recently read about this right now, but that’s just my sleep deprived mommy brain. I don’t know where I last put my glasses either).

Or perhaps it’s because I haven’t been to South Carolina and I have no clue how it feels like. I know some islands, but the writer didn’t really manage to transport me virtually to this place she seems to love so much.

I didn’t really relate to the main character either, whom I found too whiny and passive in her marriage and life in general. But when her shiny new love interest appeared, the man who was able to break a 20 years long marriage, and that it was a monk with a robe, a hood and a rosary, I nearly laughed at the cheesiness of this plot device. What is it with this cliché image of catholics and monks? I didn’t find it one bit realistic (ok, I have no clue how American monks are).

Somehow it made me think of the Catholic monks in Victorian novels as described by The Little Professor (who blogs so delightfully that I take her word for it), especially how Victorian England novels used evil monks as fodder for barely hidden sexual fantasies. They were exotic temptators to virtuous women, who were supposed to return to the safety of Protestantism at the end of the book. Once this thought crossed my mind for The Mermaid Chair, I barely could think of anything else, even though it was clearly a digression.

Getting back firmly to the 21st century, the emotional treatment of the plot seemed to me quite heavy-handed, especially the mermaid theme. Oh, a woman with long hair and magical powers who find herself maimed and powerless when going ashore to be united with the man she loves. The narrator painted it many times over in case we didn’t notice the first time. And if you don’t see the big F of Feminist and the huge G of girl’s empowerment, I can highlight it for you in dayglo.

I know that second books after bestsellers are quite a challenge. Do the same, and people will criticize you. Do different, and people will miss what they’d enjoyed in the first. But starting with the second book, as I have discovered, is a risky strategy for the reader. I am not even sure I’ll try The secret life of bees now. Except if you recommend it very very much.

This book has been so hyped-up this winter in France that when I chanced upon it at the library I had to try it. But I knew the experience would not be pleasant.

Even if it is called a novel on the book cover, this is Edouard Louis’ childhood memoir of growing up gay in a very poor, backward, uneducated, violent family in a small village of Northern France. Perhaps rednecks à la française, but without the proverbial “heart of gold” (Northern French people are supposed to be a bit rough but warm and straightforward). Except for the teachers and the daughter of the local grocer (which just get a passing mention), people in this book are all ugly. Men are alcoholic and often unemployed. Women are uneducated and don’t express much love to their children, even if they do protect and care for them. All hate foreigners, bourgeois and gays.

This is a disturbing read because you can smell the rage of the writer against his background (a feeling of revolt mixed together with burning shame and guilt), yet at the same time the author tries to keep his distance by adopting a sociological lingo, à la Bourdieux (a strong influence of his studies — he is 21). “This is how the working class people really live”, as some people have read it. There are a lot of details about personal, economic and sexual misery in this book, and I easily believe all of them are true and not exaggerated (I spent my childhood in Northern France). But the accumulation of it in a relatively short format – 200 pages in large font and wide margins – makes it sound like Germinal.

I heard that his family and local villagers are offended by the book. I can totally understand. Edouard Louis probably needed to write this book to get closure on his past after he eventually managed to get out of his milieu and enter the most prestigious graduate school for literary and social studies. But without wanting to appear heartless in front of his struggle, I didn’t feel especially engaged by the book, because having a printed book in hand was already the sign that the story had a happy ending. Many young gay boys haven’t been as lucky as he was (luck combined with a lot of hard work too I’m sure). But beyond the individual story I am not sure what Louis (the name he chose for himself) wanted to achieve with this “novel” (with lots of quotation marks).

I have no idea if this book will ever be translated in English, but I bet this won’t be put on the same shelf as “French women don’t get fat” and “French kids eat everything”. If it ever crosses the Channel or the Atlantic, be ready for some tough, tough pages. Not sponsored by the French bureau of Tourism indeed.

In France there’s apparently a big trend of writing non-fictional novels, or to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction by writing about real things, people, events with some creative freedom. I’m not sure what the English equivalent is.

Anyway, much to my surprise, I’m actually enjoying it (It’s not the first Dugain that uses this “genre”, if it’s a genre, and not the first one I enjoy). I heard on the Culture radio some writer saying that nothing else but reality was really worth writing about, and it really stuck with me because I don’t know what to answer to that (I think it might be Annie Ernaux, but it might have been someone else interviewed about the latest French craze for this literary memoir: En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule by Edouard Louis, whom I am also currently reading).

La malédiction d’Edgar (Edgar’s Curse) is such a book, telling the career and secrets of Edgar Hoover from 1924 to 1972 through the eyes of his lover, Clyde Tolson. Dugain claims that the “novel” label gave him freedom to write the results of his huge historical research especially centered on the 1960s political scene (and behind the scene). The portraits of Hoover and Kennedy are especially scathing, and aim at going behind the public personas.

Hoover comes out as a rigid, cynical person who is torn inside being a closet gay and publicly homophobic and a defender of traditional values. Nothing is more important in his eyes than defending America against the Communist threat, and his paranoid mind sees it everywhere, to the point of refusing to fight organized crime that appears less dangerous to him. Behind the cynicism and malevolence of a dark puppet master, a frail man briefly shows himself, especially as he gets older.

And the Kennedys… John and Robert aren’t less cynical than Hoover, but they belong to a younger generation, and a generation of sons born into money, with arrogant and depraved manners. Hoover knows every of their dirty little secrets, and is silently irked by their lack of respect for manners and for people from the old generation.

Apparently Dugain has done a lot of research, and has only called his book a novel to be free to express his interpretation of the events, especially Kennedy’s assassination. I found it rather fascinating to look behind J.F.K’s image of an ideal son-in-law. But I can’t say I learnt a lot about them in this book that I hadn’t first heard about in James Ellroy’s American Tabloid. And the writing was a lot more breathless and captivating in Ellroy’s, as Dugain gives to Clyde Tolson a very cold and clinical voice.

To have a third view, I plan to watch Clint Eastwood’s movie, J. Edgar, with Leonardo Di Caprio. Did any of you see it?

I’m a sucker for Bernie Gunther thrillers (my reviews are here to prove it). By exception to my own habits, I am reading them (nearly) in order, so I already have the next one lined up (A Man without breath), except I might at least wait until fall or winter, not to go on a Gunther binge.

I can’t decently tell you much about the plot, because the whole pleasure lies in the twists and surprises and the clever cliffhangers. Let’s just say that Gunther is summoned to Prague by his old boss, Heydrich, who can’t be refused anything as he’s now the governor of Bohemia and Moravia (part of the Nazi Reich, as the book is set in 1941). Soon enough a dead body turns up, except it’s not one from the mass murders of Jews, nor any dead soldier on the Russian front, nor a Czech resistance fighter. The murder takes place inside a closed room in Heydrich’s villa, making several tongue-in-cheek references to Agatha Christie’s classic mysteries. But instead of Miss Marple, Bernie Gunther gets to ask the questions, and of course he doesn’t do it politely around a dainty cup of tea (certainly rationed by this time).

Part of the pleasure (?) of reading a Philip Kerr thriller is to be immersed in the day-to-day life of Germans under the Nazi regime. We’re inside Bernie Gunther’s head (with some insight, because he’s telling it from the future), so the core question is to see how a moral individual (assuming we choose to believe that Gunther is sincere about his democratic, liberal sympathies) could live (read: stay alive) in a totalitarian state. The result is not black and white, and many of Gunther’s choices are dark grey, because he’s not heroic to the point of being suicidal.

I didn’t want to just gulp down the story and move on. After all, I have been reading many books related to this period lately, so I checked on the only reference I keep at home about Nazism: Ian Kershaw’s opus: Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (1985), a book far too deep and theoretical for me to read from cover to cover. Instead, I read the chapter on German society together with Kerr, and it proved fascinating.

Kershaw highlights the work of Martin Broszat in his Bavaria Project, where (from my understanding) a bunch of historians went through lots of data about the daily lives and opinions of people, to see if they adhered to Nazism, and how much they dared to dissent (cue: very little). He stresses that a lot of people weren’t hard-core Nazi, but rather helpless and subdued, or even indifferent. The extent of their dissent was largely minimalist, and in many cases they were rather passive accomplices.

Gunther rather embodies this helplessness, as he can sometimes find solutions to avoid some situations (like killing civilians or framing a suspect for the sake of Nazi politics), but he is a cop (and a soldier sometimes), and there’s no way he remains pure and innocent all the way through. He may bend some rules, but he’s a flawed anti-hero. Which makes his story all the more interesting.

This is not my usual Wednesday writing session, but a belated, catch-up, trying-hard-not-to-slump-in-front-of-tv Thursday post. The trouble is, I don’t know where to start with this book.

I don’t remember where I heard about it first, but I have had it on my wishlist for quite a long time, after taking a long stroll through the web in search of (other) literary mothers, rather on the liberal side. Too often I end up reading blogs from mothers who are living lives utterly foreign to me (American stay-at-home, religious, homeschooling mothers, but not exclusively), but really I wanted to find some literary companionship in the adventure of raising a little man from mothers of a wider horizon.

I didn’t read this essay collection when I got my first son, nor when I was pregnant with the second one, but little by little since his birth. Overall I liked it, although it was not love at first sight. Like many collections it was a bit unequal, but I’ll probably keep it for further references.

When I got my first child his gender was not a question, and although we did find out in advance, it was our baby. I remember being annoyed at the exaggerated focus on gender, like getting asked all the time if it would be a boy or girl, and being pushed to buy pink or blue everything. My rebellious spirit showed up, and I tried to buy neutral clothes and toys and decoration. Lots of white and yellow. Now that I have two boys the question of gender comes differently. I am a little surprised at how energetic my boy is, and how much super-heroes’ fights are important to him. I want to raise a boy who respects girls, but I’m a bit lost when he expresses interest in glittery stuff and in Disney’s Frozen princessed (“princes are so un-interesting mama, look at Elsa instead, she has powers!”)

I guess I chose this book while trying to come to terms that I will not know what it means to have a girl, or if it is really that different. So perhaps I should have bought the other collection, the pink one, It’s A Girl!, but at the same time I hoped to have a vision of what to expect down the road, as my little boy is getting older (elementary school in September!) and showing more of his own personality.

Some stories were very touching. Others were a bit repetitive, around the preconception of women who’d thought they would bear girls and would “ended up” with boys, so at first they’d be disappointed and surprised, and later on they would end up so happy about their little boys. I am poking fun at those but they aren’t really so formulaic. I just didn’t really enjoy these because I could not relate to these feelings, having had no preconception at all (pregnancy made my brain quite mushy).

But if you have a boy, I’m sure you will relate one way or another with these stories. It is a comfort read for mothers (new ones and experienced ones), and that’s not to be dismissed so lightly .

It seems that a lot of my reading these past few months have been linked more or less to World War 2 and Nazi Germany (this one, the recent Mankell thriller, a Rutu Modan graphic novel set in Poland and a Philip Kerr novel I have yet to review). This is not the funniest subject indeed, but this part of 20C history is such a pivot in representations of evil and tragedies that I guess it can’t be avoided.

In France we often enough hear about the glorious role of the (French) Resistance during WW2, and we certainly are familiar with the role of the British spies in organizing and supporting sabotage actions against German Nazis (the parachuted british soldier on the wrong French home is a popular figure in movies, both comic and tragic ones).

But never before had I heard about SOE (Special Operations Executive), a guerrilla-inspired organization rival to MI6, created in 1940. Of course I didn’t know anything either about Vera Atkins who from Baker Street offices coordinated the preparation and work of more than 400 agents on the field in France.

It was therefore fascinating to learn about the extraordinary life of this woman born in 1908 in Romania in a well-to-do Jewish family, who emigrated to England in the 1930s as an unemployed, single young woman with a busy social life but no real “situation” or prospect to marry.

How come did she get such a job with huge responsibility but little recognition (even as a foreigner, a woman and a Jew)? How come did she get so absorbed in her task that after the war she continued to work for “her” agents and investigate their death in concentration camps in western Europe?

Helm’s book only partially answers to these questions. She doggedly tracked down every trace of Atkins’ life, but she wasn’t an easy customer. She wasn’t one to express feelings or to write down or talk about war secrets or about SOE internal malfunctioning.
Still there would have been much to discuss, as there were hundreds of list lives due to betrayals, much of which could have been saved if the authorities in London had been more prudent or simply more strictly sticking to the security procedures (even as secret codes were wrong they continued to trust wireless messages of agents that had actually been arrested by the Gestapo).

Vera Atkins doesn’t come up as entirely likeable, there were times when she was even callous. It is to Helm’s credit that she didn’t try to sugar-coat her subject. It certainly didn’t make her research any easier but she was persistent indeed. The downside of this hefty book is that it certainly goes in a lot of directions and probably tries to tell too much about everything. But it is difficult to blame Helm for being fascinated by her subject.

I only stumbled upon this book because it was on sale for Amazon Kindle, but I don’t regret it! I learnt a lot, and it made me hungry for some spying novels. Any suggestions?

Hey, this is Wednesday again, the time where I try to cram all the writing I’d love to do but can’t in a single session! I’m slightly dazed by sleep deprivation and the summer heat, but I’m still going to tell you about the latest chilly thriller I “read” on audiobook lately. Because chilly is refreshing in this season, and the long days keep the bad guys lurking in the dark at bay.

More than a decade ago (or so I guess, that was pre-blog days, pre-children, pre-marriage, pre-historical maybe?), I went on a Mankell binge. And then I had too much of Wallander and I moved on. Nothing personal, but our ways parted somewhere near Ystad, Sweden.

Lately the choice in audiobooks at our neighborhood library focuses on best-sellers, and so I have come full circle back to Mankell, and I am quite content. There’s something especially comforting in going back to a writer you’ve enjoyed many years before (except when it goes awry, like when I tried to reconnect with Patricia Cornwell and Kay Scarpetta — well, I just remembered this bit, and that’s lucky, because it would have made me hesitant).

This thriller doesn’t feature Wallander but another inspector, Stefan Lindman, who happens to be on medical leave from his police job because he has a throat cancer. This part bothered me, because it felt like a poor excuse for the traditionally downbeat hero (so depressed that even his sidekick tries to cheer him up) who is free from procedural constraints, yet knowledgeable in police investigations and has not much to lose. Add a few marital woes, very little sleep and you’ve got quite a cliché. And it didn’t add anything to the story itself.

But still, Mankell knows how to plot like a master. Like a dancing master to be exact. Like a dancing master who kills an old man in an isolated house in the woods, in the middle of Swedish nowhere, with sadistic torture and the finishing touch of making the corpse of his victim leave bloody footsteps of a tango dance. If you’re not hooked right from the beginning, maybe thrillers are just not your cup of tea.

This one is a model of the genre, while managing to be unpredictable at all times. I won’t tell you in details but there are some places where I wished my commute was twice as long! The focus of Mankell is the rise of Neo-nazi in seemingly tranquil Sweden, and how the shadows of WWII still linger in present time. I realize that Stefan Lindman’s cancer may be a metaphor, but then it would be quite a heavy-handed one. I prefer to keep the memory of unsettling passages where the hero discovers that everything he held for certain proved fake. Beware of Swedish retirees, they aren’t the doting grannies and grandpas they seem to be.

Now, this book was first published in 2000, and sometimes it shows. Lindman and his police buddys are downright naive about the internet and computers, and they lose quite a lot of time that would have been solved in just one or two Google inquiries nowadays. The book is violent, but we have seen much worse since, and a lot more paranoid too. As far as extremist conspiracies go, we have gone a big step forward in recent years, and I nearly expected Mankell to go even darker and bleaker than he actually did.

How come I always profess caution with books derived from blogs, but that I still buy (some of) them and keep trying despite disappointments?

I guess it’s due to the strange nature of blogs. We bloggers always start by writing something very personal, with a distinctive voice, so that readers think we are speaking to them and establishing some kind of personal relationship. In small blogs like mine, I hope this is reality. I write because I love it and because of the conversations with the faithful people who come to visit this place. I got to meet some people who are reading and commenting in real life and I do consider them as friends, I hope to meet others (you?) some time in the future (as long as our travelling budget allows it).

For big blogs where their creator has achieved some level of fame and reputation, like Tsh Oxenreider’s Art of Simple blog (formerly Simple Mom), I have little illusion about the degree of real relationship, because the blog has become a brand, the main way to support a business with a whole team involved, and it’s no longer a personal and casual platform.

But I still enjoy visiting her blog because her unique voice and message has been carefully preserved, so that when I learn that a book is under way, I’m ready to pay to have something tangible on my bookshelves written by this person I have the fake impression to know.

Isn’t this weird?

After this analysis, you might think that I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, I quite liked it!

The content and form are actually close to the blog, because chapters are short and numerous and the text is a sweet mix between a memoir, a declaration of intention for her family and a practical guide for people who want to live more simply.

What I enjoyed is that Tsh’ voice is never dogmatic and encouraging, so that I don’t feel excluded, although I don’t share many of her beliefs and don’t fit the profile of her natural readership (American, Christian, white stay-at-home mother, or so I gather). She’s quite pragmatic in the solutions she offers, so that even in my circumstances I have something to take out of her ideas. I especially found some food for thought in the way she takes guilt out of choosing life strategies that are definitely not mainstream.

Tsh’ memoir of living overseas (Turkey mainly) also resonates with me because I have lived overseas (although without kids) and had experienced firsthand the shock of going back home, and the hazy dream of doing it all over again. But I understand this might alienate some readers who haven’t experienced this firsthand.

Some chapters are purely aspirational reading for me. I have made peace with the idea that I will never make a living out of my writing, that I am not an entrepreneur by character, and certainly not very good with staying home full-time with the kids. I aspire to live more simply and I do declutter (out of necessity) on a regular basis, but I’ll never have a nice white house like in the magazines. Homeschooling is not an option (especially in strongly government regulated France), and I’ll probably never take a year off to travel with my family, although French people are blessed with long summer holidays when we intentionally decide as a family to go overseas and explore new places. I am a city girl, so life in Bend as she tells it seems pretty exotic to me!

But overall, it is a successful example of moving from a blog to a book.

Uh-oh, the problem of the second book after a major bestseller.

On one hand, I had fun with the first one, so I’d be happy to read some more about it. On the other hand, my expectations being high, it’s easier to be disappointed, because if there’s too much repeat from the first book, or on the contrary, if it strays too much away from the first topic, I’ll think: “why haven’t just re-read the first book”?

Why indeed. “Happier at home” is nice enough if you haven’t read the first book first, in my opinion. Otherwise, the Happiness Project will make you… happier (ok, that was one easy joke).

Gretchen Rubin comes out as a very type-A person: very organized with a lot of self-control, very energetic, very extreme in her quirkiness (and she acknowledges as much). I don’t mind it, but it was sometimes exhausting reading it as a young mother with short nights (that would be me). I don’t think we would “click” in real life (and I confess being sometimes competitive too).

I have the feeling (but it might be wrong) that she speaks more of the details of her privileged life in this second volume, while the first one remained vague about them, making it easier to relate to. After a few chapters of reading about her large flat in NYC, I wasn’t sure if I was reading to get ideas for my own life or out of sheer envy. You know, the kind of aspirational reading that is fun while it lasts, but that won’t really make an impact. But then, envy is not really so fun as a reading motivation.

Of course, she writes about her own projects for her own life, so I can’t blame her for not talking about people who might have a little less money than she has, who have to face challenges of any serious sort. But the more she gives away about herself, the less likeable she comes across (to me, just me). I think this second project would have been better as a blog format, because the information would have been shared bit by bit over a longer period of time. Read as a book from cover to cover, it’s more than I can take.

Still, the book has good tips, good reminders and some information I’d like to follow up on (Csikszentmihaly among them). I applied her method to make a photo book out of holidays pictures “even if it’s not perfect”. The one idea that stuck with me was about overcoming one’s fear and doing something not fun, in order to be happier in the long-term.

The strangest thing about this book is the bittersweet feeling you get at the end. Her last chapter or so feels so much like FOMO (fear of missing out) that I briefly had a picture of a completely different Gretchen Rubin from the one she aggressively markets: someone a lot more anxious and unsecure, and overall, a lot more human and relatable.

This book is a middle grade graphic novel, sweet and strange by all accounts.

It all begins with the pun in the title, but I’m at a loss to explain it to English speakers. The classic play Le Cid by 17th century author Pierre Corneille has a famous line where the main actor declares “o rage, o despespoir”, and about every high school student in France has to memorize this monologue. Now, the two sisters’ names in this graphic novel are “orage” (storm) and “desespoir” (despair), as if these were normal first names, which of course isn’t.

With such ominous names, the sisters are bound to get into weird adventures…

The novel starts like a classic teenaged story, 4 teenagers flirting and slightly bored during their holidays by the sea, whose parents are too busy elsewhere to really care about what they do. It looks like Brittany, like a Rohmer movie, both very prosaic, firmly set in daily references, but also wildly imaginative and romantic.

Because soon enough the 4 teenagers are embarked in a weird and increasingly dark adventure with fantastic and even gothic elements. Sirens, corpses, a century-old curse on the “Island of the dead women”…

Dubiano’s style is very pure and slightly naive, so at first we’re deceived into thinking it might be “kawai” stories, but then she gets into gothic territory, which would be terrifying if not for her big-eyed characters and simple lines. This discrepancy gives to her story a distance that adults will enjoy for her touch of humor, and that will make it more readable for the younger audience. But some readers might find it disturbing, because she never chooses between the light and the dark sides of her story, which remains a bit unequal.

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