You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘American writers’ category.
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).
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!)
I was so proud to be able to report here that I have finally read a science book and enjoyed it. This is something I never do.
And then I googled “Jonah Lehrer” and I think my jaw literally dropped: the name came associated with the words “plagiarism scandal” and “disgrace”. It soon appeared to me that the science writer has been accused of fabricating quotes and plagiarizing in several of his books last year, that he has been sacked from his job at the New Yorker and that several of his books (among which the one I’d been reading) had been pulled from stores. I’m not even sure the whole affair is over yet.
I was not expecting this at all! And I certainly wouldn’t have noticed any error or mistake put into this book that sounded brilliant and fascinating to me.
To come back to the book itself, Lehrer demonstrates how our brain comes to take decisions, which are not, contrary to the traditional thought, linked to our rational, logical brain (cortex). The logical brain is way too slow to take split-second decisions and analyze multiple data. No, decisions are often taken in the emotional brain (the limbic) in an unconscious way, guided by patterns and by the experience of past failures. Somehow I found this information comforting and important, because I feel I often don’t listen enough to my intuition. I try to reason and list arguments, and sometimes, too much analysis or too much information is plain confusing.
There are a lot of other bits of knowledge to glean from these pages, so much so that I bought the book as a birthday present for a relative who works in the science field. Now, I hope he doesn’t come back in 6 months and tells me everything in there is fake!
I’m certainly sorry I can’t recommend this book because of the plagiarism scandal. Otherwise, it was highly entertaining and informative, and nearly reconciled me with reading science books.
I also need to explain that people in France are much less sensitive to plagiarism than in the American-British academic and literary culture. Writers who have been suspected of plagiarism here have made the headlines but their careers and sales figures have not suffered that much. They would never have been shamed into resigning or their books pulled from shelves like in this case. But knowing that some of the book has been copied certainly leaves a stale taste to the experience.
As a non-American, non-Christian, I daresay non-religious person, it might look like an odd choice of book.
Oh well, I’m not going to hide it: it was an odd choice, and an odd experience for me. But this year is all about experiences, so I guess, why not?
I chose this book because I do visit Emily Freeman’s blog from time to time, and I like her friendly voice.
I also chose this book because of the Good Girl (because I often feel that I’m too much of one), and I conveniently overlooked the word Grace. What was I really thinking? Who was I kidding? Grace is something that eludes me most times when Christians talk, but that’s okay. I’m still learning to translate it into my language.
The book talked to me in some places, when she’s speaking about masks that Good Girls keep in order to hide their true nature. Sometimes I smile politely when I’d love to bite the other person’s head off. Sometimes I feel all too smug about being polite and nice while many French people around me love to complain and criticize (sometimes, let’s face it, I join the crowd for a fair amount of bitching and a pity party). The book also brought me to see familiar Biblical episodes under a new light, especially the Prodigal son (yes, I’d always sided with the self-righteous other son) and Martha vs. Mary.
But for the rest, I wasn’t in the target of the book so I didn’t quite feel involved. A lot of issues she speaks about seem to me more about people in their 20s, than where I stand now. She obviously ignores the non-Christian people or foreigners, which I totally understand, but I felt that she spoke too much for stay-at-home and privileged moms. What about the professionals? Especially as good girl’s behavior in the workplace is a huge issue (people tell you that it doesn’t get you a raise or a nice job, but I do value nice and cooperating colleagues over rude and selfish ones nonetheless).
Eventually, it showed me even more acutely how different book reading and blog reading are. How come that Emily Freeman’s blog moves me and makes me pause while her book doesn’t really talk to me? Is it because of the format? because I visit the blog on short breaks and long intervals? because the contents are significantly different? or because some subjects “work” better on one medium than another? Probably all those reasons.
Now that bloggers’ books are quite numerous in all fields, what do you make of them? Do you have experience of feeling really different about a person’s blog and book?
Excuse me while I’m in a post-Connelly withdrawal phase. I’ve been hooked to his Mickey Haller thriller so bad in the last few days that I could hardly wait for my daily commute.
And if you’ve read this blog a few months ago, I had read my first Haller mystery not so long ago! Things are obviously going out of hand.
Yes, it was that bad, that the commuting hour (twice 40 minutes daily) was probably the most thrilling part of my workday (I do hope my colleagues or boss don’t read this blog), and that I actually smiled to the fellow commuters seating next to me (a serious breach of Parisian commuting etiquette, only out-of-towners and tourists do make eye contact).
I think that audiobook made it worse because I could not slow down, I had to follow the breathtaking pace of action.
My symptoms are: obsession with Harry Bosch and Michael Haller, checking Amazon several times to know what’s the next title, considering re-reading it, lack of interest for other books. It’s tough going cold-turkey after the last page!
The funny thing is that I can’t remember when I first read Connelly (probably as a student), but I do remember that I was just as hooked at the time. Same as with Ellroy. What do they put into their plots? It’s virtually unputdownable.
Bosch is a tough guy, but the mix of cynicism, realism, guilt, and hope and idealism despite the odds in the defense attorney Haller makes him such a great character that I could follow him for months on end. But… I should not. Repeat, I should not.
Add to this lots of twists and hidden secrets, and this cocktail is deadly. Consider yourself warned.
For the last afternoon of the year, why not talk shortly of the last books I haven’t reviewed, so that tomorrow will start with a blank slate?
- P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley
It seemed like a good idea. Well, indeed, who hasn’t thought of mixing two of your favorites? My mother always says that as a little girl she tried cheese and chocolate together, hoping that the taste would be wonderful. So you can guess what comes of P.D. James-meets-Jane Austen? Disappointment. It could have been worse. It wasn’t bad, but it was bland on both counts: mystery and Austen world. Mind you, I haven’t tried Jane Austen-meets-Zombies, but I suspect I should steer clear of that too.
- Andrea Camilleri, La Rizzagliata (2009, Fr. 2012)
Discovery for 2012: I love, love, love Italian mysteries and noir. This short one, focusing on the intricate links between police, justice, politics and journalists in Sicilia, was brilliant. Despite the large cast of characters (enough for a list to be provided at the beginning, something that never fails to scare me), the plot was tight and light enough for me to read in 2 days over Christmas.
- Angelica Garnett, Deceived with Kindness
The jury’s still out on this one. A memoir by the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (except she believed for 17 years that her father was Clive Bell), this short book gave a refreshingly new look on the Bloomsbury milieu. Over here it sometimes feels as if Virginia and Vanessa have become icons or saints, so nothing bad can be said about them. But Vanessa’s daughter was a mess, a consequence of not knowing who she was and what she was supposed to do. She speaks of emotional distance and selfishness, but the trouble is that she sounds a bit self-indulgent too. Worth reading anyhow.
- Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer (2005)
My second audiobook (thankful for all the business trip and train hours over Christmas!), what a blast! I love Connelly’s mysteries, but only ever knew Harry Bosch until now. Now, I’m ready to embrace the defense side with the Michael Haller series in 2013. I was totally unaware that a movie had been made out of the book (I listened in French, and the translated title sounds like a chess opening, not a legal mystery), so I was shocked yesterday: what, Matthew McConaughey as Haller?? I would have chosen anyone at least 15 years older.
That’s it for 2012 books! See you next year and best wishes to everyone!