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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.
Last year in winter I found myself engrossed in a Middle-Ages novel, The Knight with the Lion, and it had been a hit for me and my son. So this year, same time, I’m once again in front of the same shelf at the library: I chose Merlin.
First: it’s waaay longer that the Knight with the Lion! 200 pages!
This in effect means that the construction of a book of this size needs to be much more robust than a novella’s. The problem is, medieval plots don’t seem exactly matured… yet. Merlin feels to a modern reader like a patchwork of scenes loosely woven together, without much arch development or even connection to one another. And repetition was not seen as a problem for grown-up literature back then.
Some (smaller) parts of the novel are the same as my popular knowledge of Merlin, which is, I’m sorry to say, a mix between vague remembrance of the movie Excalibur and the Walt Disney’s version: namely that Merlin pulls tricks and transforms himself (but not into cute animals), and that he’s a bit ambivalent.
But some other parts were totally new to me, namely that Merlin was born from the Devil who seduced a pure young woman after destroying much of her family. Being pregnant without knowing the father of her child, the young woman was tried for that crime (a bit of a legal procedural à la Law and Order, anyone?). But her priest-cum-confessor’s intervention proved her innocence and freed baby Merlin from the devils. It explains why Merlin is endowed with gift of foresight, while insisting heavily on the Christian content of the book.
This heavy anchor into Christianity was unexpected to me, because it had been rather light in the Knight with the Lion novel. But I guess that so much witchcraft needed to be justified. And I’d totally forgotten that there’s a Christian reason why the Holy Grail is supposed to be Holy.
The whole “Sword in stone” episode was a bit of a surprise too despite the well-known Disneyed scene, because it’s not only the boy taking the sword by chance because he has to bring one to his half-brother Kay. It’s the boy taking the sword, then putting it back into the stone, and out again, and back in again, and so much and so forth during a whole year, until every single lord of the kingdom is convinced that Arthur is “the one” (and it takes much convincing, since they each believe they might have a chance to the throne). I found this repetition really hilarious, but I doubt this scene was supposed to make a 21C woman laugh out loud.
Overall, I probably missed quite a lot of cultural background to properly understand the book. But I don’t mind, because it was instructive and fun enough.
By the way, I can’t believe I spent two weeks in Wales without having encountered much of the King Arthur paraphernalia. Was I blind?
Once again, December feels hectic, and not only on the holidays’ side. I have 9 books awaiting a post before the end of the year. So much for posting regularly and more often. That’s a good enough reason to keep posts short.
I borrowed this short middle grade novel from the teenagers library because it is set in Vancouver and talks about the Haida people, an indigenous people of British Columbia. I went for our honeymoon to British Columbia and I was stunned by the beauty of its landscapes, as well as impressed by the Haida art I discovered while visiting the Museum within the University of B.C..
This short novel centers on a young Haida woman who works as an eagle trainer. She lives on the highest storey of a tower with her pet eagle, Sky. Her whole life has been one of hardships and discrimination, and as the book starts her grandmother has died upon leaving prison after protesting against the construction of a massive highway to the Olympic sites. Apparently those parts of the novel were inspired by true facts.
In short sentences and with a very noir atmosphere, Fontenaille describes how the young woman will exert her revenge against those she feels responsible for her death, and against abusers of the indigenous Canadian people. The novel is quite stark and convincing.
I was touched by this novel more than I thought, because our trip there was all before the Olympics, before the protests and the destruction of some preserved sites in the name of efficient organization of a one-time event. I remember vividly taking the Sea to Sky Highway with my husband, following Horseshoe Bay, leaving the city of Vancouver behind us and turning inland towards Whistler. I didn’t know about those sad events. I’d imagined that the landscapes I’d seen had remained untouched. I so wish it was true.
(as far as I know, this book is only available in French)
A few weeks ago I went for a business trip and I was looking for the perfect book that filled these criteria:
- Good quality (you don’t want to take one book and discover you took the wrong one)
- Short enough to last 2 evenings
- Entertaining and riveting, yet not too complex
It seems that Simenon Maigret mysteries are matching it all. It’s been a long time since I have read any of them, but I regularly watch the European TV adaptation played by Bruno Cremer. Like a lot of French people, in my mind, Cremer is Maigret. So I’ve the idea of someone rather mellow, with a round face and a full figure, sometimes prone to fits of anger but mostly quiet and observant. He’s seen it all and nothing surprises him. He patiently waits for the suspects to unwittingly reveal their secrets and then picks up the pieces to execute justice.
But in this early novel (written in the 1930s), Maigret is more of a dry and nervous type than in the TV show (or maybe later in the series?). He’s often exasperated by the hypocrisy of petty bourgeois family intruigue and prejudices and he makes no secret of it. The most friendly character is the victim’s mistress, a cheap call girl from Pigalle. But all other characters are unpleasant and sly.
The murder takes place in Place des Vosges, in one of those appartment buildings where many social classes share a building and where the courtyard architecture enables some snooping around when windows are lit up at night (that’s why the original title is Ombre Chinoise, Shadow silhouette).
This short book inspired me to read some more Maigret next year, and to learn more about the enigmatic Commissaire. Now, who is your Maigret?
Shame on me: I remember reading this book when it was warm and thinking that reading a novel set in the Canadian winter was so refreshing. Right now, refreshment isn’t exactly on my mind anymore, so you can guess how long it’s been.
Well, add one or two more months to your estimate and that should be closer to the truth.
But Vargas and her quirky hero Commissaire Adamsberg are timeless. There’s no season for them.
Returning to a Fred Vargas’ thriller from time to time feels like coming home, like a big pot of soup cooked again every night over and over on winter nights. Actually, you don’t care too much what’s in the soup as long as you know it’s cooked with love.
Alright, that’s a bit of a pretext for not giving you a full account of what’s going on in this book, but then, how to sum a Fred Vargas’ up without sounding like a crazy person? All her characters and situations are so improbable that you either love it, or hate it. There’s no middle ground.
At the beginning of this novel Commissaire Adamsberg is highly unsettled by the resurfacing of a killer he’d considered dead for decades. How can a dead person be killing again? (don’t even ask, I told you Vargas’ plots weren’t commonplace). And this killer stroke close to Adamsberg’s heart, as his own brother was accused in his place.
But Adamsberg also has other worries: his brigade’s morale isn’t quite as it should be, and they all have to go to Quebec for a two-weeks long training (that’s the implausible part, given the police budget restrictions in France, ah ah). Even on the other side of the ocean, the dead killer with a Trident can’t get out of Adamsberg’s head.
The change of scenery to Quebec is clever, all the more as Canadian French language makes the dialogues even quirkier than the usual Vargas fare. We readers feel how much fun Vargas had writing it, which makes it an even better experience.
I read somewhere (a virtual hug to anyone who knows) that when faced with writer’s block, you could write a dialogue with yourself to untie the knot. Why not give it a try?
- Smithereens, why don’t you at last sit down and review Helene Berr’s diary? It’s been like 6 months since you’ve finished it.
- Come on, you’re exaggerating. Mmh, perhaps not so much. I remember reading it during my commute wearing my large winter scarf. I could not stop reading, even though it was so sad.
- So sad? Do you fear that readers will be put off?
- I’m afraid that people, upon learning that Helene Berr was a young Jewish French woman who died in Nazi camps in 1945, will compare her to Anne Frank and say that they’ve had enough of Holocaust books, may they be first-person accounts.
- Is it about the camps? Like Primo Levi? Unbearably gruesome?
- Not at all, the diary starts in 1941, when she was still a brilliant student in English (she was soon banned from the university) and the last entry is in 1944, three weeks before her arrest.
- So why can’t you just write what you thought about this book?
- If it’s only to recommend the book and say that it’s a great piece of literature as well as a piece of history, my post will be two sentences long. Then if I need to explain everything about Helene Berr’s family background, how come she managed to survived in Nazi-occupied Paris for that long during round-ups and growing persecutions, and how her diary reached public knowledge and a large success in 2008, it will be way too long and readers will have the feeling that they know too much about the book already. I don’t want to write a wikipedia article about her, there’s already one.
- So, what did you make of it?
- It was weird, because her voice is so extraordinary that it makes her instantly present and alive on the page. She was a gifted writer, and above all, totally honest and lucid. She records her moments of joy (amidst the tragedy, she has parties in the countryside and she eats cakes or ice creams -her family belonged to the well-to-do bourgeoisie), her frivolous concerns about boyfriends, but also the horrors she witnesses as her family, member of a Jewish organization, try to save and hide persecuted children whose parents have been already sent to death camps. She knows a lot more than I thought people knew at the time, and French (goy) people around her are way more blind about the plight of the Jewish persecutions than I thought. I knew it abstractly, but it’s another matter to be shown how people keep to themselves and avert their eyes while their neighbors, friends, colleagues or acquaintances are humiliated and then purely disappear. At one time, a fellow student commiserates with her for being unable to go out dancing at nights with her yellow star. What a selfish, careless, naive ignorance! I think I would have slapped him– it seems that she just stopped the conversation at that point.
- Is she resentful, angry, revolted?
- She’s such a nice person, her moments of anger are so few and far in between that you might think she’s an angel. In some ways she must have been, deciding to stay in Paris and help others, when she could have gone to Spain or into hiding.
- Oh, isn’t she a bit irritating then?
- Never, because of her lucidity. There’s hope and despair blended together. She contemplates the possibility of being arrested, and perhaps dying, but she still choses to act with selflessness.
- You used the word “weird”, I didn’t expect it, why?
- I read another diary from the same period during winter, that of an anonymous woman in Berlin. Reading both books in parallel, both memorable in their own way, was quite an experience. Helene’s voice was so sensitive and humane, while that of the German woman, a survivor of bombs and rape and hunger in Berlin, was so tough and cold and distanced. Sadly, I thought that the German Anonyma was probably better equipped to survive the terrible events of war than Helene Berr. Never was the gap between German and French of that time so glaring under my eyes.
What did I do during the holidays with a computer with a computer but no Internet? Write! (at least, a bit). So I prepared a few posts about books I’d finished long ago but never came round to blog about. Here’s of them:
It’s not the first time I read a graphic novel by these two (Catel is the graphic artist and Bocquet the writer, so I understand), so I was already expecting great things about this book. Last time, they wrote the graphic biography of Kiki de Montparnasse, a woman full of stamina who started as a pauper and made it despite the odds to the muse of several great artists during the golden years of the 1920s and 1930s.
This time around, they recreated the life of a great French feminist of the Revolution days: Olympe de Gouges. Her name comes up vaguely whenever we in France think of the early days of women rights movements, but I’d never cared to learn anything about her life (her death by guillotine is unfortunately the only point I knew).
Olympe (her real name Marie Gouze) was the daughter of a butcher’s wife and a nobleman in the southern provinces of France. Her biological father professed progressive ideas influenced by Voltaire and loved the little girl, but still didn’t go as far as crossing the social class divide and marry her mother, who eventually preferred a local tradesman. She pushed her daughter to be pragmatic and do the same, but Olympe was idealist and ambitious. Unfairness and inequalities revolted her, and she couldn’t see why a woman could not act exactly the same way as a man. She was never going to satisfy herself with a marriage de raison and aspired to become a femme de lettres, a writer in the Parisian salons.
Of course there were setbacks but she eventually achieved her dreams. Even as she fell in love with a man she never saw marriage as anything but binding rules set against women. She came out as uncompromising and an often virulent thinker, unafraid of personal consequences for the sake of her (very modern) ideas. After supporting the revolution and seeing in the upheaval an opportunity for women (and slaves) to access freedom and rights equality, she could not arrange herself with the violent and tyrannical turns of events: after just a few years the government of Terror turned democracy into a demagogic dictatorship, killing everyone associated with nobility and keeping people and especially intellectuals on their toes with indiscriminate use of the guillotine.
As you can see, mitigating her opinions in the face of an arbitrary trial and all-too probable execution didn’t go well with Olympe’s personality, so her destiny was indeed tragic. In that sense, she was very much a woman of her times (while her ideas made her so avant-garde), as we don’t easily understand that level of idealism nowadays (she could have escaped if only she’d kept quiet and remained away from Paris, but no, she had to return and print out some libels to denounce Terror’s oppression). We can hardly imagine how she’d have made it to the Napoleon reign.
The black-and-white design seems at first naive enough, in the tradition of the Belgian “ligne claire”, but don’t be fooled: Catel and Bocquet managed to recreate a complete society, complete with anonymous people and famous thinkers and political figures of the Revolution (the book is full of biographical notes at the end about each of them). That period is so complex in French history that in many books I read before, my eyes glazed over in the rapid succession of cliques seizing power over others, but Catel and Bocquet make it clear enough and reduce it at human level, so that we better grasp what Olympe get incensed and so passionate about. In a less personal way it should be compared with Marianne Satrapi’s Persepolis.