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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 .

I have been disappointed by the latest book by Gretchen Rubin, and I may have written harsh criticism, but I don’t want to be ungrateful: Ms. Rubin is very creative (even if her ideas aren’t applicable to everyone) and she can source information from very interesting people. She obviously loves research, and aphorisms.

Something caught my eyes in a blog post of hers: a short stance by Judith Viorst, a woman I’d never heard about before:

How do I know if the time has come to accept my limitations

Or whether I still ought to try to fulfill my promise?

I made me pause, and as I was still thinking about it the second day, I had to find the book it came from. I got a used book through Amazon, and the book is about as old as I am! So you see, I’m not really forty yet, and I don’t feel atrocious in the least, and yet…

The book made me smile, and even laugh out loud. Yes, the pages are yellowing and rather musty, but it is charming. A lot of these witty poems about married life in the 40s are about situations that might feel dated (70s and all) but I still recognize them. I could empathize with these women’s feelings and experiences.

Now I have to buy the book about the 30s as well!

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I often struggle with humor in books, but I heard so much good about this one that I tried it, in part to challenge myself (wasn’t that one goal of mine for 2013?) in part because I was plain curious.

Before you pause to ask: yes, I know who Tina Fey is.

No, I haven’t watched Saturday Night Live or 30 Rock. So how do I know her?

Tina Fey’s fame crossed the Atlantic when she impersonated Sarah Palin during the 2008 US presidential election. Europeans were appalled by Palin’s ignorance of international affairs (plus, French people love to make fun of Americans), so watching Tina Fey on Youtube was a kind of comforting reassurance that maybe she wouldn’t really become Vice President.

The book was fun and kept its promises from cover to cover (I even loved the blurbs!). The parts I loved least were, unsurprisingly, those about SNL or 30 Rock or with a lot of name-dropping for people I haven’t the faintest idea who they are (yes, I know Alec Baldwin and Jane Krakowski, but that’s about all). She seems to be quite business-wise and good as a boss too (a part I didn’t expect in the book). She might write things like: “Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions; go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.” Which is always useful to hear.

I enjoyed all the more generic biographic parts, especially her childhood, her hilarious honeymoon cruise and her sassy feminist stance. The “career” part was simply not for me, but my interest picked up after she had her baby and had to juggle her powerful position with the needs of her daughter. (She hates the juggling question, by the way) The scene where she has to fit within a weekend a recording with Oprah, a Sarah Palin sketch and her daughter’s birthday party was both hilarious and exhausting, even by Oprah’s standards: “By the way, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your fucking life.”

And overextended she does sound. I found her voice witty and accessible, but maybe my next book needs to be by a Zen master.

Yet another book that Rebecca enticed me to read (it’s all her fault! ;) ). Yet another book I’m reviewing waaaay too late. We’ve already started the Advent countdown, and yet thinking about this book reminds me of lying on a deckchair in the sun in front of our little rental house in the woods. In a way I’m sorry not to have written about this book earlier, but in another way I’m just grateful I have those nice summery memories attached to it.

So, on to the book itself. In short, I loved it, and I was so surprised to fall for it. Of all readers, isn’t it crazy that I (a European reader for whom many democrat ideas don’t go far enough) have been so engrossed with a book about the life of the previous Republican First Lady of the United States?

Perhaps that’s what Curtis Sittenfeld had in mind: take the person that a lot of people have despised or hated for being married to the guy that once was the most hated one on the planet, and make her loveable, or at least relatable.

(Of course there’s no mention of George W. Bush, but everybody starting this book is somehow forewarned, this American wife is not your average housewife) Alice Lindgren is sooo relatable, so real, and her choices, at the moment she makes them, make perfect sense. Yet there’s nothing obvious in her life course, from being a shy, bookish, rather conventional Midwestern middle class girl to getting married to a super-rich, spoilt, good-time Charlie who ends up as the president of the United States.

How much of her thoughts and acts are real or fictional or loosely inspired by reality is beside the point for me, especially as we move further away from the Bush presidency (that it was an issue for Mrs. Bush or Republicans makes little doubt… how weird a choice for Sittenfeld to write a fiction where the inspiration is so obvious and so recent… I can’t imagine anything like that based on Michelle Obama). I read it as an analysis of characters and of a marriage, full of complexity and compromises. It worked very well as such and I couldn’t put it down.

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?

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