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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.

Once again a writer I woudn’t have tried but for the audiobook selection at our library. I knew of the author’s name because he stands on the French bestsellers lists, but I had assumed that it was light (read: shallow) entertaining Parisian (read: snobbish) read. Beware of assumptions! Entertaining it was, and absorbing, and surprisingly fun, especially while dealing with serious matters!

The books starts right before Christmas, when Marc invites his 4 best friends for a traditional dinner together and to bring them some news: he’s fallen in love with a Chinese young woman, he will get married very soon and he wants them to be their witnesses. The news is greeted with disbelief: Marc is a serial lover, not the marrying kind, and the picture of the fiancée shows a plain, ordinary girl who might well be a gold-digger. But the 4 friends have little choice but to agree to take part to his wedding.

Circumstances are indeed out of the ordinary. Marc is a famous fashion photographer. A hugely successful star. Thanks to his money he has been able to financially support his 4 best friends: one has become an art gallerist, another manages a luxury hotel, yet another one is basically jobless but for articles to support the Dalai Lama, and the last one is his personal assistant and spends his time grooming Marc’s luxurious cars and managing Marc’s dismissed girlfriends and agenda.

Then the book turns to tragicomedy: Three days before the wedding, they all find themselves at the airport to greet the fiancée with awful news: Marc has been killed in a car crash the day before. Do they want to destroy her by announcing her these news right there or let her enjoy a day in Paris under a false pretence before she takes a plane back to China, a widow before even having gotten married? They dither and fall under the charm of an astoundingly charming young woman: they’re unable to blurt out the truth. Is she a manipulator or the perfect wife for their late friend? Each of the 4 friends have reasons to love and hate her, and a score to settle with Marc.

I won’t go in any more detail about the plot, because it has many twists and turns, jumping from one friend’s point of view to the next with a share of secrets for each, that was highly entertaining. Of course, you have first to relinquish any requirement for realism: none of this is very believable, but still all the characters are endearing and I was game for the ride. It’s more like a fairy tale for adults, so you should expect some clichés too, but in the whole characters who at first seemed one-dimensional developed an interesting depth.

It was also a good analysis of friendship and manipulation, when the friends all discover that Marc’s lavish gifts put them all in a relationship mode close to dependency and that stopped them from exploring new interests or simply from moving forward in their own life. It’s not a grand masterpiece, but it reads fast and well and it was well worth the few hours spent with it.

The year is 1782 in Paris, under the reign of Louis the 16th. The commissaire Le Floch is in charge of ensuring a Russian prince’s security during his incognito stay in the French capital. It’s no mean feast because he’s no other than the son of Empress Catherine II, and everybody in town kind of knows who he is. Le Floch’s mission is freight with difficulties as spies of different allegiances abound and the mission itself can’t be official.

The court’s shenanigans are only one of Le Floch’s concerns among many. He looks as if he’s close to burn out, missing his son and his mistress(es?), exhausted by his job and his master’s schemes. On top of everything, another Russian nobleman gets murdered and suspicious circumstances abound. There are so many possible leads and uncertainties that i couldn’t help but commiserate with poor Le Floch.

As a reader i was almost as overwhelmed as he was, and i think there are materials enough in that book for two or more stories, so why cram everything so fast? More than once does Le Floch mention a desire to retire to the countryside, so much so that i wondered if it was the character’s wish or the writer’s.

Another troubling factor is the chosen period: 1782 feels ever so close to 1789, and many people in the book are disillusioned with the monarchy, fed up with the state of disarray and corruption the society is in. Things are going downhill from the golden years of the previous king that were presented to us with the few first Le Floch books, starting in 1761 as Le Floch was 21 (The Russian investigation is the 10th book in the series!). What a difference two decades do for a man and a country!

The plot is convoluted indeed, but it never ceased to interest me, as did all the historical details cleverly inserted here and there (geopolitical context! food of the time! craftsmen technique! etiquette at the Royal palace!). Even if this one book seemed to run out of steam in the middle (under the weight of its own complexity), the characters are so endearing that I certainly want to know what happens next, especially with the French Revolution looming ahead.

The first trimester of this pregnancy gave me severe nausea, so I stuck to audiobooks during my commute, hoping to make it shorter and sweeter. But the choice isn’t as wide at my library for mp3 audiobooks as for paper books. All this to explain why I borrowed this book, although I’m pretty sure I’d have passed it in paper format.

The Passage du Désir (the alleyway of desire) is the name of a real small pedestrian street in Paris (closed to cars by an old 19th century iron gate, you can see it on Google map), located in the 10th district not far from Gare de l’Est, a neighborhood that isn’t quite as select and desirable as its name would have it.

It’s not far from the Rue de la Fidélité (street of fidelity/ faithfulness) and the rue de Paradis. Obviously people were quite optimistic when giving names to this neighborhood, but today it’s the home of a rather struggling and diverse population, with many shops for African immigrants.

In this light-hearted mystery, the brutal murder of a young waitress working and living in the Passage allows us to meet an endearing crowd of eccentrics living or working there. The improbable duet of investigators in this story is a gruff, short and overweight female ex-police detective and a  tall, muscular, American massage therapist.

The whole cast and language strongly reminds me of Fred Vargas, although the plot is less creative and less controlled. It is about as unbelievable as a Fred Vargas novel, which can be a compliment or a criticism depending on how you love Vargas. Although Sylvain doesn’t attempt to introduce fantastic elements into her story, she shares with Vargas a love for words and a strong sense of setting.

I found the adventure charming, until the last few chapters where the writer tries to tie too many knots and makes her characters leave Paris. I probably won’t think about it in a year, and probably won’t seek out the next adventures of this bizarre duet, but entertaining it was, and it sure beats the grim reality of the rush hour in the Parisian metro!

I was just complaining the other day about undeserved praises and prizes. And now, I have to bow and recognize how much this book deserved, in my opinion, the Prix Goncourt it got in 2009, possibly the most prestigious French literary prize.

I had never before tried anything by Marie N’Diaye, because her name is so often cited in literary reviews (also linked to a scandalous accusation that another French female writer, Marie Darrieussecq, had plagiarized her) that I feared it was too much hyped up.

But now that I listen to audiobooks during my commute, I noticed that most of them are books with some previous publishing success, so that I find myself now more and more often in territories that I previously shunned (which is exactly the point of this year’s reading, right?).

For once, the reader’s voice counted quite a lot in my choice: this audiobook was read by Dominique Blanc, a theater (and movie) actor that I love and respect. And after 5 minutes into the text, I understood how right this choice of reader was: Marie N’Diaye’s writing is quite special, and it absolutely requires someone trained in classical dramas to make every word sound right and not get the listener all muddled and lost.

N’Diaye’s writing is hypnotic and yet precise. Long sentences with repetitions, interwoven with sub-clauses, all strongly built on an exquisite but not easy use of French syntax. I bet it’s a nightmare for foreigners, but as a French reader I can’t help but think of Proust. Challenging it is, not only in style but also in subject.

While it seems appropriate that a writer like Proust would weave a nostalgic tale out of these long sentences, it’s all the more surprising that N’Diaye manages to use this very special style to tell contemporary stories, that contain elements of psychology and tragedy often running from one generation to the next (in the stream of consciousness mode, jumping from present to past with ease), but also very prosaic and realistic stuff like a lousy kitchen salesman, a bout of hemorrhoids or the squalidness of a prostitution den in the desert.

Trois femmes puissantes is a suit of 3 novellas, with some loosely interconnected characters. While I immediately warmed to the story of Norah, a grownup daughter who returns to Africa to find his selfish and abusive father a pathetic old slob, and to the story of Khadi Demba, the cast out widow who tries to make it to Europe, the middle story was more difficult to tackle. Rudy Descas is both a loser and an occasionally violent paranoiac. I had to listen to the whole story once again (all 5-6 hours of it!), to come to terms to his particular tragedy and redemption.

Trois femmes puissantes, translated as Three Strong Women, is an intriguing title, because these three women don’t especially seem powerful at first glance. They were or are tricked, abused, abandoned by their father, spouse or relatives. It would be easy to see them as victims and to pity them. But N’Diaye precisely demands us to see beyond the cliché and to find their humanity and dignity. They suffer and still stand. Despite their hardships they remain pure in spirit.

This book is a bewitching tour de force, and it is a matter of course that it got the Goncourt prize.

Back in the dead of winter, I had the notion that medieval novels were cool and easy. I had read Merlin in January, and The Knight with the Lion the year before, so I thought, yeah, why not try another one, like Perceval?

Oh my goodness, how wrong I was. It was not easy and not cool. I had to fight tooth and nails with this book, and I hardly made sense of any of it.

First of all, it’s unfinished. Chretien de Troyes died before he had time to finish (although what he wrote is already a lot bigger than his other novels). So a big chunk is missing, and it’s awfully frustrating.

So frustrating indeed, that people from the times of Chretien de Troyes thought it cool and easy to add new episodes and finish it. But they were a lot less talented than him and what survive are bits and pieces of plot lines with the main characters, but it’s nowhere as satisfying (to me) as the real deal.

Second, Perceval. Well, it’s the title of the book, so he’s supposed to be the hero, right? Wrong. After a third of the novel, another knight, Gawain, steals the show, and Perceval is nowhere to be seen in the remaining text of Chretien de Troyes. Talk about frustration.

Third, the Holy Grail, the Fisher King, and all that jazz. The big difference between Merlin, the Knight with the Lion and Perceval is that the last one is more of a spiritual and mystical novel, while the others are more chivalric or magical, with lots of fighting or tricks just for entertainment’s sake. But even the spiritual side of Perceval hasn’t a steady tone, which made me lose my footing more often than not.

At the beginning the story is quite ironic when Perceval is just a lad who doesn’t know anything about the world and makes naïve blunder after blunder, but soon the comical turns to tragic (his mother dies of grief when he leaves her behind). After learning the ways of the royal court (especially that he has to control his tongue), he witnesses a very strange scene with a fisherman, who is later called the Fisher King, and a procession in a castle that disappears the next morning, later revealed to be the Holy Grail. All this part is quite unclear, but what Perceval learns there is that he should have been asking questions instead of keeping mum for courtesy’s sake: he’s not mature enough and has to learn and grow to accomplish his destiny.

It is really weird (and humbling) to approach this very early part of the Western canon, thinking of all that stems from this very story and yet finding it so messy and complex. Perhaps it’s the sign that I’m like Perceval, not mature enough: I know I should have been asking questions but I had no clue which.

Lesson learned: beware of medieval classics, and stick to the fighting for fun!

I don’t read much French lit, especially writers who get French literary press headlines over and over. I’m just suspicious and weary of the very special hype in the French literary market, where journalists and media honor writers who are just their friends or neighbors.

But this year I’m willing to make exceptions, so I borrowed this book by Laurent Gaudé, a successful writer of novels and theater who won both the Goncourt (France’s most prestigious literary prize) and its junior version (Goncourt des lycéens) for 2 previous books.

“Pour seul cortège” talks about Alexander the Great. More precisely, Gaudé imagines what happens when the great emperor dies. Struck down with a fever during a banquet, he declines and his agony stretches for two weeks, during which all the soldiers of his army march before him and salute him. In the meantime, a princess in exile is called to the court of Babylon to assist with the passing. She was living anonymously among secluded monks, but she’s actually a royal princess of Persia, daughter of Darius and widow of Hephaiston, a friend of Alexander’s.

While Dripteis travels back to Babylon, a lonely horse rider comes back from India with a message to Alexander, hoping he will catch him alive. But the great emperor dies, and soon his coffin has to travel back to Macedonia, with its long procession of mourners. Dripteis marches among the women, all too aware that the succession war is just about to begin, and that she will witness Alexander empire crumbling down, just as she had years before witness the Persian empire crumbling down.

Dripteis has her own secret: she has a son, not from Hephaiston or even Alexander, but any male descendent of royal blood is in danger in the fight to death between aspiring successors. Dripteis is willing to follow Alexander’s body, as long as her son is left far away from the turmoil of history, safe as long as he stays anonymous.

I was fascinated by this subject (Alexander is so mysterious to me!), and really enjoyed reading it, since the book was short and could be read in two longish sittings. But the truth is, the short format was just right because the writing was so dramatic, it sounded like a theater dialogue, something like Euripides. Heavy stuff that shouldn’t drag for days. It’s really more a poetic chant, a traditional epic, than a modern novel, because of its obsessive rhythm.

I thought it was daring and challenging, and Gaudé made it a success. As long as he keeps his pieces short, I’ll eagerly read more of his works.

I don’t remember the last time I read a science book. It probably never happened before. I probably only ever read science textbooks, which don’t really count as books, do they? But 2013 is my year of reading dangerously: so when I saw this small book about black holes with only 64 pages in the science shelf at the kids library, it seemed intriguing enough and not too dangerous.

Let’s say appearances can be deceiving. By page 15 I was already lost. I didn’t get anything about Einstein and the general relativity theory. Hey, no wonder he’s called a genius. I rather stuck to Newton’s and his apple’s stage. I know those of you readers who are more scientifically-inclined will shake their heads and sigh, but I readily admit my limits. (I’m trying hard to be factual in this review, but please excuse any scientific error or bad English — science in a foreign language is even more daunting).

I did persevere though.

Not understanding this mysterious and counter-intuitive theory didn’t stop me from understanding that black holes were first an abstract mathematical theory (pushing the relativity to its limits) long before anyone could really prove their existence. That is, as much as we can get them even now. Because they are so… well, black, we can only detect them because of their interactions with their neighbors, may they be stars who are rotating around them (they will end up getting sucked into the hole) or some litter of rocks called accretion disk.

All these new (to me) concepts sounded fascinating. It was like opening a window on whole new fields: 64 pages were more than enough to send me reeling and make me realize that people have actually spent their lives on these subjects. “Schwarzschild radius” is a pretty cool word, but I doubt I will ever be able to put it in a conversation.

I felt vaguely worried to learn that our Milky way contains a supermassive black hole, but it apparently isn’t that close to us. I was also awed that nobody will ever know for sure what is at the bottom of this hole and that some people have developed the idea of a white fountain, the tip at the extremity, where all this energy that has been sucked in will spurt out (well, I’m translating that inasmuch as I could grasp it).

I really am not the right person to have an informed opinion on this, but it felt nice to be like a child for a moment, learning and discovering.

When I returned the book, I just told  the librarian that the book was for adults and not really for kids. Unless science at school has really made huge progress and that they all understand the Einstein relativity by the age of 12.

What’s up with me? I have no less than 6 blog posts started, but none finished. Help! When a bad case of startitis strikes, do I need antibiotics, or is it too late for a cure? I’ve decided to counter-attack with the easiest book on my “finished” pile: a girly graphic novel.

Eloise, this novel’s main character, is a young Parisian woman who suddenly finds herself on a bench without any idea of who she is. Her memory is totally blank: she can’t tell her name, where she lives, who she is, where she works. The book is her search for her past, her identity, a kind of chick-lit thriller firmly set in Paris.

Or perhaps should I say an existentialist graphic novel? The book talks a lot of anonymous life in a big city, also the solitude of a twenty-something with few friends, no family, nothing but a cat and a flat. Women who try to define themselves by brand names and consumerism, but end up having really nothing special. An anti-Sex and the City, if you want.

Eloise is a blank page, an ordinary single young woman who has nothing special but for her very developed imagination. It makes up for some visual jokes, but also a melancholy tone that’s not what I expected from Bagieu.

Pénélope Bagieu is actually a very familiar designer in France, her main subject is sassy, sexy, goofy… and typically Parisian girls. She’s been chosen by a lot of big French brand names for clothes, make-up, food, whatever. Her fresh and clear designs with cursive handwriting are close in my mind to those by Margaux Motin, except that Bagieu’s girls are more softspoken (Motin’s 30-something girls use loads of F-words and often deal with motherhood dilemnas).

Boulet is the scenarist of this book that goes deeper than its first, superficial appearance.

After I fell in love with audiobooks, I soon convinced myself that it was the magical tool I needed to “read” more classics, something I always feel I ought to do more. That’s how I started the 14+ hours of Balzac that soon felt like an eternity.

It is a challenge, but I’m going to sum up these long hours in 2 sentences: in 1799, the Revolutionary police sends a beautiful, aristocratic young woman, Marie de Verneuil, to Brittany to seduce the head of the Chouans, the monarchist rebels in Brittany. Will the young beauty succeeds in her dangerous mission, alone amidst barbarous soldiers from both sides, or will she betray the cause and fall for the dashing rebel?

You see? 2 sentences, done.

Litlove recently proclaimed her love of classics in audiobooks, but I dare to disagree, at least with this one. The truth is, audiobooks don’t make great books, they don’t “work” with any book, even when the reader’s voice is flawless. The problem with classics to listen to is that you’re stuck and can’t skip any word, any paragraph… any G-awful description of landscape that runs two pages with Proust-like sentences. You have to endure them all. And if you switch off, you miss something important going on next.

I soon got the impression that Balzac was paid by the word (can anyone attest this?). He didn’t exactly know the meaning of “to the point”, and his contemporary readers didn’t hold any grudges for that. They wanted to be entertained for hours on end, since these poor souls didn’t know the appeal of blogs, Pinterest, Youtube, Facebook and all these time-consuming activities that now compete for my attention. And I don’t even start on Dowton Abbey!

That said, this particular Balzac is full of action. Part history novel, part war novel (1799 in Brittany was as close as civil war in France as you can get), part spy novel, part romance. Take your pick! Balzac shakes all the ingredients together and pour lots of twists and turns. Everyone changes sides so many times that I started to lose count. Balzac, writing 30 years after the fictitious events, when the King has actually returned, is clever enough not to take sides. There are big meanies on both sides in the book and lurid atrocities are explicitly drawn (more on the Chouans’ side, if I’m counting), which makes it very different from other French bourgeois drawing-room dramas of the 19th century (I read that it was influenced by Walter Scott, I haven’t read any so I can’t really tell).

The downside from the “action flick” is that locals are little better than wild brutes moved by their instincts and superstition. And his view of women gets very annoying when you have to endure every single word.

I’ll certainly try other classics on mp3 soon, but for the moment being, I ran towards the next Mickael Connelly / Mickey Haller mystery, which reconciled me with audiobooks at once.

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