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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?

This is the book I picked after finishing Shutter Island and Gone Girl (yes, talk about a U-turn here). What could be more wholesome and comforting than an Amish novel? What narrator could be more reliable than the second girl of an Amish family who is approaching her courting years?

I’d had a surprisingly good experience with another of these Amish novels last year. This one was kind-of fun, clearly a notch down from my first experience.  But still I empathized with the main character and read it to the end with pleasure (beware, this is only the first volume of a series, so all knots are far from being tied up at the end of this one).

**spoiler alert**

The story centers on the 2 elder daughters of the Ebersol family who has 4 in total. The eldest, Sadie, is clearly tempted by the “Englisher” world, and she falls prey to a boy with sweet promises, at a very high cost for her (a teenage unwed pregnancy! I’m shocked! but don’t worry, Lewis don’t get into graphic details). The second girl, Leah, is watching her sister’s running wild with doubts and alarm. She’s clearly en route to marry into the community, but the boy she sets her eyes on is not the one her father would like her to marry. The two little sisters are still in the background of the novel, but there are opening plotlines for them as well.

Two things distracted me from the simple and wholesome fun I expected: the first is just the historical setting. I had assumed that the novel was in the present time, but it took me several chapters to figure out that we were in 1946-47. I know Amish communities are timeless, but still, attitudes were different back then than they are now, so it would have been precious to get that information early on.

The second thing is the parents’ attitude, which I didn’t find very believable. So much turmoil is going on in their daughters’ lives, and they don’t even have a clue? Am I supposed to buy that Sadie is able to sneak out at night to date an Englisher without their hearing anything? And then later on, that not even her mother notices that she’s pregnant, or that she has given birth? It’s okay to imagine circumstances with neglectful parents in other communities, but in one so insistent on family ties, so close-knit and without many distractions, it really stretches belief.

Or it’s high time I lose my illusions on the Amish. But if so, where shall I turn whenever in need for a safe, comforting read?

This is one book I hate to love, or love to hate. I don’t know which.

Which is totally normal for a book where the truth is, at the very least, a bit confusing. Where every single line is a lie waited to be overturned and replaced by another lie. Wow, how twisted!

This thriller has been so successful that I won’t go in details into the plot or the opening situation. Bad marriage, bad economy. A young couple loses their New York jobs and finds refuge in small town, Missouri. The husband opens a bar with the last of his wife’s money and the wife gets bored in a rented McMansion. Then one morning, on the day of their anniversary, the wife disappears in messy circumstances. And soon enough, the police gets interested in the husband.

Haven’t you read something like that about a hundred times? In newspapers as in fiction?

Yes, but Flynn knows it. From that moment on nothing will be as expected. Plot twist after plot twist, I dare you to take a break or even a breath in this breathless, suspenseful book, until the very last page.

Then after it’s over, I had to take a deep breath again and the realization hit me: this is the darkest portrait of a marriage that I have seen in quite a while. And so much cynicism!

If you’re newly wed or engaged, steer clear of this book, it might give you doubts about your partner.

If you’re single and looking for love, steer clear too, because you’ll look at every date and think that everyone you meet by chance is a scheming liar (or a psychopath) waiting to corner you.

So when is it a good time to read it? Perhaps if you have a few years of married life (either good or average), reading this book will show you how much worse someone else’s marriage can go. Or perhaps singles by choice will find themselves comforted in their choice.

It was really fun to read (especially the middle part after the initial situation has been turned on its head) but it eventually wore me down. Both spouses are not only unreliable narrators, but also very unpleasant characters. I needed to read something comforting afterwards, a nice narrator I could trust, a plot with a happy ending. A breath of fresh air after a dive in a breathless, dark pit!

Yet another book I’d probably not have borrowed if it weren’t for audiobooks. Of course I’ve read The Girl with the Pearl Earring (everybody seems to have), but I can’t say I’m a big fan of Tracy Chevalier. I remember reading her first novel, The Virgin Blue, and not liking it. This being in pre-blog years, I don’t recall exactly why, but it was enough to make me not actively seek out her other titles. Until Mr. Smithereens chose this one for me for my daily commute.

I was going to be all grumpy and grouchy about Remarkable Creatures, but something stopped me: first, she held my attention all the 10+ hours of the audiobook, and that must mean something.

Second, I had no idea. Simply no idea I wasn’t reading fiction. And when I discovered that Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot were actual historical figures, I found myself pretty dumb and I wasn’t in the mood to criticize anymore.

For the record (and you’ll find the rest in Wikipedia I’m sure) Mary Anning found an ichthyosaurus in 1811 when she was barely 12! That part of the story I found unbelievable in a fiction plot proved to be… simply accurately unbelievable.

Over here in France, we know of Darwin and Cuvier, but female figures involved in the discovery of dinosaurs and fossils? I had no clue (I have not studied any science beyond high school, I should say to my defence). That both women were ahead of their times and some kind of oddballs to their fellow countrywomen, I can understand. By their discoveries (the result of trying to make ends meet for her family for Anning, and the need to find something to do as a spinster in a small town for Philpot), they were led to challenge the opinion that the Bible could actually be read literally. That Tracy Chevalier put in their heads and mouths sentences that sound a bit anachronistic, I now find it either excusable or plausible.

I found the end a bit pale, because Chevalier insisted for a happy ending, while I didn’t read it as such. Yes Anning and Philpot’s friendship is ideal, yes, they earned a good reputation among male scientists (after difficult disputes!), but they paid a heavy price for it. They remained isolated and unmarried in their small town, far from Oxford, London and all the largest science hubs.

(Please beware of involuntary spoilers in this post!) I listened to this as an audiobook, and no, I hadn’t watched the movie. This is the first Lehane I “read”, having tried the opening chapters of Mystic River without really getting into it. This time, the opening chapters quickly sucked me in.

It is pure chance, but these last few weeks I stumbled upon one paranoid plot after the other: Shutter Island first, which started as a good hard-boiled noir to soon veer off into pure conspiracy theory, then I started to watch the Ghost Writer (the Polanski movie with McGregor), a thrilling man-hunt after the lonely man who uncovers secrets, and lately Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, where nothing within a marriage is at it seems. I’m still in the middle of that one.

I’m starting to feel paranoia fatigue. Enough of unreliable narrators! Give me something I can trust! I’m getting ready for another Amish comfort read.

In the meantime, Shutter Island. The time is 1954: Cold War with its ubiquitous Soviet spy scare, its atom bomb, its Korean veterans, its postwar trauma, its big men with big guns, big cars, a foul mouth and a hard drink and its sexy women at home or in nurse uniforms. Also, its psychiatric wards where lobotomies or new drugs are tested on mentally ill patients. I loved the period description, although it made it difficult to relate to the main character(s) (of course, it was not the only thing that made it difficult to empathize with “US Marshal Teddy Daniels”).

Contrary to some people, I had no problem with the twists and turns and the cliffhangers, nor did I find it hard to understand the two (or more) interpretations of reality that we are offered. But everything in the book was so over the top that I didn’t really care for one or the other. (I don’t do well with melodramatic tone and heavy foreboding). Where the rug should have been pulled from under me, I just stepped out of the rug and shrugged.

Perhaps it was just bad luck, perhaps I missed out on something. Or perhaps Lehane isn’t quite my cup of tea. Nor my flask of whiskey (oops, not the right thing to say for a pregnant woman!)

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