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I had never read anything by Patrick Deville before, and when I finished Plague and Cholera, I immediately bought his Kampuchea. For a person who thinks twice before getting anymore book on her shelves, that’s telling a lot!
Who would have guessed that I would read (uh… hear) the biography of the man who had discovered the bacillus responsible for the plague (that now bears his name, yersinia pestis). I’m not a science buff, but I like a good story, and if anyone had told me that I would get engrossed in the biography of a biologist/doctor, member of the Pasteur team like Roux or Calmette (1863-1943), a man with an austere youth in Switzerland, no private life to speak of, apparently not far from being a misogynist or a sociopath (although he was indeed working for the good of humanity from his lab or his desk, I don’t think that bedside manners or caring for actual living patients were his forte), I would have been more than doubtful.
And yet. The man was anything but a lab rat and as soon as he could he left the Pasteur institute to live his dream: be an explorer, a discover of unchartered territories like Livingstone. Great explorers were one generation older than he, but he took his ticket to Asia by the way of being a cruise doctor, then he left this job when he fell in love with Vietnam, especially Nha Trang on the coast and Da Lat in the mountains. His love of learning seemed endless and he dabbled his hand in lots of activities: after biology and medicine, he became an explorer who surveyed the land along the Mekong river and then turned farm developer, rubber-tree planter, anti-malaria serum manufacturer, and a lot more.
The book is a straightforward biography, except it is called a novel, as many books that I’ve recently read. I’m not sure if it’s a French fashion, or a larger trend, just like all recent US movies proclaim “based on a true story”. I guess this label gives the writer more freedom, but we are left, as readers, with many questions as to what is real and what is fictional. Sometimes we readers are inside Yersin’s head and seeing the world through his eyes, sometimes a modern narrator breaks in, following the footsteps of Yersin in modern-day Vietnam and knowing, as an omniscient narrator (but is he as accurate and objective?) how the country has changed since Yersin set his foot there.
This book got a very famous prize in France, but some readers found the tone disturbing. It is dry and blunt indeed, with many quotations from private letters that are quite banal to say the least. Yersin was nowhere near an emotional person. That’s where we readers tend to think that it’s nothing more than a normal, informative biography. Yet the omniscient narrator’s voice is often distanced and ironic, so that the mix of the two voices might seem incongruous at times. I personally loved it, especially as the audiobook was read by the author.
Yersin was not the only focus of Deville. He visibly aimed at portraying a whole generation of enthusiastic discoverers, scientists and colonialists from the turn of the 20th century, for whom the world for up for grabs and awaiting their benevolent guidance. Then we spent much of the rest of the century paying for the consequences. I remember being astonished at the last remains of the French colonial empire in Vietnam and Cambodia, and so the book spoke to me at many levels.
(bonus: it has been translated to English this year!)
The core of this book is the famous Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 meters-ong (224 feet) embroidery from the Middle Ages showing in dozens of small scenes the Norman conquest of England. The Tapestry itself is one-of-a-kind, a sort of gigantic graphic novel, complete with characters, plot, subplots and twists, but as its origin and content have been studied and disputed by historians for centuries, it was only a matter of time until a writer would make a novel out of it.
Here, Adrien Goetz weaves lots and lots of layers around the tapestry: a sympathetic young curator freshly arriving at the museum, Penelope, a thriller about the last few meters of the tapestry that have never been found, a mystery about the authenticity of the piece, different interpretations about who commissioned it, how they did it, what some passages mean etc. Even Princess Diana and Hitler have been thrown into the lot. I have read this novel over summer and it was very pleasant, but now I really struggle to let you know what exactly was the main storyline and the whole point of the book.
The thriller / mystery plots themselves were not very believable, just a concession to the genre. So I guess Goetz mostly wanted to be informative under the cover of fiction, which he did with some success. I am grateful for getting to learn a lot of anecdotes about the Tapestry that I hadn’t picked up when visiting the official museum a few years ago, and the book mostly made me wish to go back to Bayeux for another visit, which is not so bad after all.
I’m not saying that the book was downright bad, but the piece of art itself stands no comparison. So the best conclusion may be: the Bayeux Tapestry is wonderful, just go and see it for yourself, online or in real life if possible.
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.
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.
It had been so much fun to read The Three Musketeers two years ago that when I looked for a fun, big book for the early months of babyhood, I knew I had to get the sequel, the story that reunites the 4 friends twenty years after their first adventures.
Twenty years are a generation, so that the dashing young men with dashing nicknames have matured, grown old(er), taken back their family names and estates and are a bit less adventurous… or so they think at first. They have lost touch with one another, and while D’Artagnan works for the Cardinal (the cowardly and greedy Mazarin, not the wicked Richelieu anymore) and Queen Anne, Aramis and Athos have ended up on the opposite side (the aristocratic Fronde). Porthos is busy getting richer and fatter in the countryside, but soon enough (for a 800 pages book), the four friends unite again for the sake of… British monarchy! I didn’t expect that the book would spend so much time in Cromwell’s England, but that was a lot of fun too.
When I say this change of scenery came as a surprise, it’s because I had big plans to investigate Parisian geography as imagined at the time of the musketeers (in this episode, during Louis 14th’s childhood). I had been charmed while reading the first book by the many references to streets and places that still exist in the city where I live, so my plan was all set for the second book: I knew I was going to live and breathe musketeers for one month at least, but it wasn’t enough, I wanted to literally walk in their footsteps too!
While reading on my Kindle, I highlighted all the street names that often came up in the plot. (Of course, I paused for a few hundreds pages while the 4 friends had crossed the Channel!). Then I transferred my Kindle notes into a list, and this list toward Google maps (I am a nerd, yes, I am). So that at the end of the project, every single street named by Dumas, where the 4 friends are supposed to have fought, talked, eaten and plotted find themselves nicely drawn on a map. I also searched whenever possible for streets that had changed names and disappeared.
(if you click on the map, it should get you to Google Maps where you can zoom in)
As I worked on the map, I explored the book at a new level, but also learned about my own city, and got to see beyond real streets and places into a fictional (albeit historical), alternative world. As if I had found Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, or as if I had taken a Sex in the City NYC guided tour!
That’s what I call the ultimate staycation… while waiting for the holidays!
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?
It all begins with the pun in the title, but I’m at a loss to explain it to English speakers. The classic play Le Cid by 17th century author Pierre Corneille has a famous line where the main actor declares “o rage, o despespoir”, and about every high school student in France has to memorize this monologue. Now, the two sisters’ names in this graphic novel are “orage” (storm) and “desespoir” (despair), as if these were normal first names, which of course isn’t.
With such ominous names, the sisters are bound to get into weird adventures…
The novel starts like a classic teenaged story, 4 teenagers flirting and slightly bored during their holidays by the sea, whose parents are too busy elsewhere to really care about what they do. It looks like Brittany, like a Rohmer movie, both very prosaic, firmly set in daily references, but also wildly imaginative and romantic.
Because soon enough the 4 teenagers are embarked in a weird and increasingly dark adventure with fantastic and even gothic elements. Sirens, corpses, a century-old curse on the “Island of the dead women”…
Dubiano’s style is very pure and slightly naive, so at first we’re deceived into thinking it might be “kawai” stories, but then she gets into gothic territory, which would be terrifying if not for her big-eyed characters and simple lines. This discrepancy gives to her story a distance that adults will enjoy for her touch of humor, and that will make it more readable for the younger audience. But some readers might find it disturbing, because she never chooses between the light and the dark sides of her story, which remains a bit unequal.
It’s a shame I haven’t had time to write about this wonderful book earlier, but I hope that in the quieter days of this end of year, it will still find some interested book-lovers eager to discover something new.
I was made into a French movie one or two years ago, with Diane Kruger as the ill-fated Queen Marie-Antoinette, and offered a promise of lots of frills, beautiful decors and costumes, the hint of a lesbian kiss in Versailles (shocking!). I didn’t watch the movie (so I can’t confirm the kiss, which is not in the book), but I kept the title somewhere at the back of my mind until I got the book from our central library. I feared it would be a bit heavy on the lace like the Kirsten Dunst meringue, and centered on the modern idea of a commoner’s fascination for a star (something that was repeated over and over in reviews).
But instead, I found a great literary and historical novel that I wanted to offer to many bookishly-inclined friends (in fact I did).
Yes, you can find bodices and lace, and a lot more, because Thomas is basically a historian specialized in 18C royals’ biographies, not a novelist, so she has all the details of Versailles’ etiquette right down to the last golden button. And yes, you can find the narrator, Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, a bit naive and starry-eyed over her Queen (and I will even say bland), but as an official reader to the Queen (selected from aristocratic descent to be nothing more than a lowly, invisible cog in the well-oiled wheels of the court’s routine, knowing that Marie-Antoinette wasn’t into books) she is entirely believable. She doesn’t know anything outside Versailles, and her entire life revolves around the Queen, even decades after the monarchy will have been sent down.
I found myself fascinated by the detailed account of the few last days at Versailles, when outside events suddenly (well, not in a bolt-from-the-blue way, but in a mere days’ time) broke the apparently well-oiled wheels of royal power down, and the century-old social order based on aristocratic rules, privileges and traditions that proved empty and meaningless. The 14th of July is now well-known for Bastille Day, but seen from Versailles, a mere 20km (12 miles) away, it was a normal day of pleasure before an unbelievable rumor reached the palace.
How does History happen (with a upper-case H)? and how people who witness it know that they’re living a so-called historical event? I can’t help but compare to 9/11, when all journalists and cameras set on the Twin Towers made sure that every connected human being was aware of the moment’s historical importance. We do all remember what we were doing that day. But do you remember the very few first minutes, when people still thought it might be a freaky airplane accident? Or remember the day before, when the chief Afghan anti-Al Qaeda leader was assassinated? Only later did we finally assemble the jigsaw and made sense of the chain of events. In the meantime, “things happened” and we didn’t give them any special meaning (even if we are well-informed and well-connected by all standards).
Likewise, the sudden collapse of the French monarchy seems utterly unexpected and yet something that was one day doomed to happen. We see through Agathe-Sidonie’s eyes the state of decay (literal and metaphorical) of the palace: stinking corridors, a garden in disarray, a group of courtiers who are ridiculously obsessed over etiquette and appearances, a few steps away from real madness, but it looks like it could have remained the same for a few more decades. When the rumor is confirmed (although no real violence reaches Versailles), order, routine and politeness disappear, courtiers reveal their true nature like on the Titanic ship.
I happen to have been living in Asia during the 2003 SARS epidemic, and I had the opportunity to witness firsthand how an outside, utterly new event, fuelled by panic, rumors and the unpreparedness of authorities (not to blame them) can bring a sudden halt to all pretense of normal, social and economic life. And yet days are always 24 hours, you need to eat, sleep and fill your days… or decide to pack your stuff and flee. Here in this book Agathe-Sidonie is too conditioned by court life to take a single decision herself, especially one that would mean to venture outside the court’s bubble, but in the end “her Queen” will take that decision on her behalf, changing her life forever (if not her mind).
I read this book in parallel with a Jean-François Parot mystery set just a few years before (1783) and both books echoed one another in a wonderful way. It led me to think again about French revolution (a difficult subject that is so blurry in my mind) and to pour over history books, to make sense of this improbable chain of events, and to attempt to imagine how normal people might have lived them.