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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.

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?

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