The One with the Awkward Scottish Memory Loss

Peter May, Coffin Road (2016)

This thriller was the perfect entertainment for our quiet, socially-distanced summer: it has intriguing premises, it is packed with twists and revelations, it keeps you up at night with some action, it transports you to faraway, exotic landscapes, and it is fresh… just enough to make you breathe through a heat wave.

The cover goes: “If you had killed someone you would remember, wouldn’t you?” Then the first chapter proceeds to show the thoughts and emotions of a narrator who precisely can’t answer these questions: who am I? what have I done? Am I a killer? The man washes up on a beach, soaked and beaten up, without a name for himself. From what he gathers, he is a loner who works by himself on the island of Harris, but soon enough, getting answers become both more dangerous and more important, as he is put in mortal danger again.

I didn’t really try to challenge this case of amnesia. I know that some readers find it too convenient a plot point, but I was here for the fun and I was all too eager to suspend my disbelief in exchange for a trip to Scotland.

I had really enjoyed Peter May’s Lewis trilogy (The Black House, The Lewis Man and The Chess Men) and so I knew more or less what to expect: a lot of wet and cold weather with strong winds, stormy sea with big waves, cold fear and strong characters, twisted motives and people who are not who they are supposed to be. This one was just as noir and entertaining, with a dose of environmental issues layered on top.

Well, I guess I’m a fan, so you won’t get a very objective account from me, and I certainly won’t spoil any of the story, so you’ll have to judge for yourself! Beyond summer’s heat waves, I guess it would also be a great November read with a warm cocoa and a comfy woolen shawl.

Pod Review September 12 – 18

I seem to be hitting a sort of podcast slump this week, now that it’s more and more difficult to have everyone awake, ready and happy for school and work when the mornings are darker and (slightly) colder. I wish to listen to something fresh and new, but I haven’t really invested the time to research and try. Anything good that you’ve recently listened to? I’m all ears! 😊

  • Sorta Awesome #257 What’s trending for Fall 2020?
  • This American Life #715 Long awaited asteroid finally hits earth; about this weird back-to-school season
  • The Good list by Tsh Oxenreider #41 Embrace your foggy unknown (part 2/3); about adding “scaffolding” to this weird time-less period
  • 💙 10 Things to tell you by Laura Tremaine #79 Mantras and Affirmations
  • Sorta Awesome #259 What it’s really like to work online
  • Change ma vie by Clotilde Dusoulier #149 How to reveal oneself in a crisis?
  • Where Should We Begin with Esther Perel: It’s very hard to live with a saint

I’m a very rational, no-nonsense European woman, so it’s weird and surprising to myself how much I enjoyed the Mantras and Affirmations episode by Laura Tremaine. I am glad that from the beginning she says she doesn’t believe in the woo-woo aspect of this, and once that was settled, I was happy to follow (I had listened to Jess Lively on a similar topic a few years ago, and that I simply could not follow). I also agree with her argument that in 2020 we need all the possible strategies available, and this one is just a tool among others. I didn’t really resonate with all the mantras she has chosen for herself, but now I’m trying to think about this to find my own. Do you have a mantra? Do you practice affirmations?

The One with the Daughter of Jacob

Anita Diamant, The Red Tent (1997)

I had this e-book for several years, recommended by a friend from my writing group at the time. I was looking for alternative retelling of well-known stories, for books centered on women and set in the early ages of history. This one checked all the boxes, and yet it stayed in my Kindle unopened. I didn’t take it up before this summer, when I was spurred by the #Unreadshelf Challenge. I’m afraid this is yet another great book that falls into the category “Why did I wait so long???”

The Red Tent is based on Biblical characters (from the Old Testament), especially the house of Jacob and then on to Joseph. It reverses the traditional male-centric story by giving voice to Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and sister to Joseph and their 10 other brothers. The book starts with Dinah saying that everything told about her was false – and I was ashamed that I did not remember her at all from reading the Genesis. But then I was captivated by her narration and it did not matter much. It is an engrossing, exotic time- and space-travel (something we sorely need in 2020) to the Biblical times.

I really enjoyed the characterization of each of Jacob’s wives, Rachel, Rebeccah, Billah and Zilpah and the details about life in this extended family. I am not religious, even though I did read part of the Bible, and so I can only guess how far Diamant strayed from the original to insert flesh and blood into the given story. I don’t know if the life details are true to history and research but it sounded good enough for me. The book is a feminist manifesto of sorts, in the sense that the Biblical male figures are far from nice and fair and that women, who had very little agency in those times, are given a voice to tell their stories and their thoughts. The women in the book suffer from hardships, sorrows and tragedies by the hand of these holy men. Dinah’s mothers are a real sisterhood who are celebrating the key moments of a woman’s life with grace and magic: puberty, wedding, births are times where the body and spirit of women are celebrated independently from the men’s world, in a kind of pagan alternative religion. Menstruation is also a monthly period where women gather inside the eponymous Red Tent to rejoice and chitchat. Some readers might be uncomfortable at so much talking about periods in a novel, but it was only for a part of the book.

Readers of the Christian or Jewish faiths will probably have a totally different, more critical experience from mine, but I enjoyed every minute of this saga and it kept me up at night!

The One with the Fierce Black Ladies

Deesha Philyaw, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (2020)

I have read very few Black writers, I readily confess, so I wanted to push myself a little beyond my usual reads by choosing this book available on Netgalley. I’m so glad I did! I’m not American, I’m not Black and I’m not a Christian, and so it’s a testament to the skills of Deesha Philyaw that I was able to have an insight into the lives and minds of these Christian Black women.

These stories show girls who are trying to be good (saintly maybe?), but who also yearns to be free and express their unique identities. Sadly, in many cases, the Church forbids them to do what they want and keep them stuck in shame, in secrets and lies. There’s the girl who grows up watching the reverend comes to her mother’s house and eat all the peach cobbler that she has made for him. She’s never allowed to taste one bit, and in her eyes he is God, but as she grows up, she gets to understand how the reverend took advantage. There’s this other woman who is ashamed of her body and her desire and who bit by bit, step by step, grows to be more daring (“How to Make Love to a Physicist”). There’s this queer Black woman in the North of the US who misses the South and her mother’s cooking, and we understand that her mother has disowned her when she came out.

Religion, family, sexuality are themes showing up in one way or another all along this collection. There’s a lot of pent-up anger against the Church men and the constraints put on the lives and bodies of these Church ladies, but I still found the book full of grace and hope. The numerous daughters of their ne’er-do-well deceased father welcome a possible new sister into their fold. Most of the women in these stories find strength and resilience in a newly acquired freedom.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

The One with the Haunted Surgeon

Judith Vanistendael, Les Deux Vies de Penelope (Flemish 2019, French 2019)

This graphic novel was a last minute impulse choice from the library as I headed for the checkout. I’m so glad I took it! The drawings (watercolor) are beautiful (without being cute) and expressive (without being garish) and the story is really moving. There are so many themes woven into this book, and every time I consider it I find another angle. For example, it’s only after finishing the book that I got the reference to Odysseus, in the choice of the same name as the queen waiting for years for her husband to return home.

Penelope is the narrator, and the story is actually built on a flashback, but that’s not something you get at first (actually, I reread the whole thing twice and I loved it even more). Penelope is a Belgian middle-aged surgeon, married to a poet and with one teenage daughter. Her work takes her for long stints in humanitarian missions, and as the book starts she’s finishing a mission in Syria (Alep) before heading home. The two lives of Penelope are seemingly irreconcilable: one life in war, urgent, useful and selfless, one life in peace, banal and where the question of self is not so easy to answer.

The first few pages are actually stunning as we see in parallel both of her worlds: the bottom half of the page shows Penelope in a bombed-out OR in Syria, the top of the page shows a quiet evening in Belgium, when Penelope’s daughter discovers she has had her first period, and she calls her grandmother for help.

Penelope’s return home is hardly an event anymore. Nobody waits for her at the airport. “They’re used to it”, she says. Penelope tries to reconnect with her husband, her daughter and her family, but it’s tough. Part of her mind is stuck in Syria, and Vanistendael chooses to express this by putting a literal ghost in Penelope’s bag: the red figure of a young girl who died in the OR, someone who could well be the same age as Penelope’s own daughter.

In a time where we are supposed to find new ways to combine work and parenting (I’m not writing the dreaded B- word of work/life B… anymore, 2020 has killed it), this book is quite interesting. Penelope finds herself very far from her daughter’s worries who seem too shallow compared to life-and-death choices Syrian people face, but Penelope herself admits that young Syrian refugees who have nothing still care about trendy hairstyles. Penelope’s psychologist at debrief session asks her if her husband takes good care of their daughter, and Penelope argues that if she had been a male surgeon, the question would have been different. People around Penelope are often judging her for being not a good mother, and it’s true that she’s not easy to like.

All along the book I hoped that Penelope would find her footing at home and be able to know for sure where she belongs. At the end of the book, we see how she addresses the question. The tone is a bit melancholy and as subtle as these frame-less watercolors. There’s not one right way for Penelope, not one right way to finish the book either.

Pod Review September 5 – 11

This week went so fast! Second week of school for the kids, things are starting to fall into place but our calendar is filled to the max! I dabbled here and there in my podcast choice, because I was too busy and scatter-brained for very deep subjects and wanted a little boost of quick happiness hacks (Hello Gretchen Rubin!).

  • Sorta Awesome #258 Empowering Women to have Awesome births
  • Radiolab Octomom
  • 💙 Your Undivided Attention #17 The Spin Doctors Are In: interview of Renee DiResta about conspiracy theories linked to Coronavirus
  • Where should we Begin with Esther Perel: in this relationship, what is “I” and what is “we”?
  • Radiolab Lebanon, USA
  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin #290: An Extravaganza of Hacks!
  • This American Life How to be alone
  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin #289 Ask Yourself, “Do I Already Own This?” How to Feel Better in Just Five Minutes with Dr. Rangan Chatterjee
  • 10 Things to Tell You with Laura Tremaine #80: 10 Favorite Things (Right Now) Volume IV

I learnt a lot listening to Renée DiResta talking in Your Undivided Attention podcast about fake news in social media. It was not simplistic, and rather balanced between pessimistic views (fake news can multiply and distort everything!) and optimistic views (here are some steps Youtube and Twitter have taken or can take). It is an endlessly fascinating subject for me, especially since I finished The Rabbit Hole podcast series. I want to learn more, educate myself to avoid spreading rumors and find ways to support the “forces of good” in this subject.

The One with the Loners in the City

Patrick Modiano, Des Inconnues (1998)

At the end of the summer I suddenly wanted to read Modiano. I wish I had found Dora Bruder, his bestseller that us now taught in French high schools, but I settled for anything that looked good on the library shelf. I wanted his mellow voice, his lonely walks through Paris, his obsession about places and memories, his dreamlike narratives that refuse to explain everything.

I sure got that, but I also got more than I bargained for. This book is actually three novellas told from the point of view of young women (or older women reminiscing their youth). Only two of those are set in Paris, the third is set in Annecy, and Lyon and London are also mentioned. The common point of these 3 girls is to be nameless, adrift and lonely.

In the first story the narrator dreams of making it in Paris and suddenly, at 18, leaves her family and native Lyon to join some vague acquaintance who lives there. This woman generously welcomes her and lets her stay. She introduces the young woman to her friends and to men. This small world is vague and rather mysterious. The narrator never tries to clarify who these people are and what they’re doing. She just follows along, spends long evenings with them in restaurants, bars, apartments. She becomes the mistress of a mysterious foreigner with a fake name. The story is told years later, but the narrator doesn’t regret or judge any of this. It could have been tragedy, abuse, creepy, but Modiano is not a realist painter, he’s more of an Impressionist.

The second story is about a girl from Annecy who studies in a Catholic boarding school, because her father is dead and her mother, remarried to a stingy, bleak character, rejects her. Boarding school is terribly boring and the girl, with only vague plans for the future, is left to wonder about her mysterious father from just a few objects and clues. One weekend she doesn’t go back to school and rather takes small jobs with the help of some school friend and acquaintance. The ending is rather radical for a Modiano story, but just like the previous story, not all bows are nicely tied up at the end.

In the third story, a young woman fresh out of a breakup comes from London to Paris to house-sit for a friend. The neighborhood where she lives is on the outskirts of Paris, near a slaughterhouse for horses. The narrator develops high anxiety and panic attacks. She hardly can’t bear to stay in the neighborhood, taking refuge in a café. She regains some footing when she takes a typing job for a mysterious teacher who comes to the same café as she. The teacher introduces her to a weird sect.

It’s really hard to pinpoint why Modiano’s books are fascinating. There’s always nostalgia and some mystery. A lot happens, and not much at the same time. The narrators don’t analyze their emotions or what happens to them, they are neither particularly clever nor striking (although each of them takes a life-changing decision in the course of the story). Yet the magic is there, and we do care.

Now that this book has opened up my appetite, I probably won’t stop at just one Modiano for the season.

#Unreadshelf Challenge September Update

In August I read from my unread virtual shelf, as I tore through 3 Kindle books that had been lingering there for far too long. I’m well aware that I haven’t posted about them yet (except for Father Brown)… but it will come, I promise!

I had totally ignored Whitney Conard’s challenge prompt last month, as I could not arrange a buddy read amidst vacation time, travel, family obligations and uncertain wifi connexions. But certainly in September I will do better and stick to the prompt:

September – a book you’ve owned so long, you forgot where it came from.

I don’t know Whitney and she doesn’t know me, but I have a wicked memory of when, where and how I buy books. I don’t buy so many of them that I don’t remember where each came from. I might not be good with dates, but when I have the physical object in hand, I can mostly date them from where I was living, if I had a baby or two, etc. Do you know how hard this challenge is on me? (Just kidding)

So, I’m going to turn towards books that I literally don’t know where they came from, because I was not the one to buy them. In other terms, yes, I’m cheating again, as I know where they all literally come from: from my husband’s shelves, books he owned before we were married. I had a good, long browsing through these shelves that I rarely look at (this furniture has glass on top for art books and dark wood doors on the bottom). Here’s what I picked in no particular order:

I also found some of my own books in there, that I have, ahem, no clue where I bought them:

Five books from our shelves is far too ambitious for one month, as other fresh books from the library are tempting me all the time, and that I’m also currently reading several others. Which one from those 5 would you start with?

The One with the Stories we tell ourselves

Curtis Sittenfeld, You Think It, I’ll Say It (2017)

I’ve always wished that I read more short stories collection, and for all the ways 2020 is a monumental failure, at least I’m not failing at this one goal. In fact, short stories are an easy way to dip my toes into authors, genres or environments I don’t want to commit for a long novel. Except that this reasoning was not really true for this one collection: I already know Curtis Sittenfeld, I enjoyed her previous novels American Wife and Prep (read a lifetime ago! thanks WordPress for keeping my memories!) and I was just curious to read anything by her.

Although I do love short stories, I don’t enjoy reviewing them, because it’s always a mixed bag, and there’s not always an unifying theme. In this case, the title story gives a hint: we witness the inner thoughts of many protagonists (new mother trying to keep her journalism gig, a successful female lawyer, a shy student, a social justice volunteer, a brother-in-law…) and we witness the gap between these mulling thoughts and the reality of actions or communications.

Sittenfeld’s characters judge themselves and others harshly, and more often than not, the truth is far from what they expect. A lot of these situations are rather ordinary and the stories may seem a bit too simple (a pregnant woman watches someone in her breastfeeding support group and makes assumptions about her – I remember being in that situation many years ago!), but in the end they are quite effective at conveying emotions, especially the subtle one that comes when you understand that you misjudged a situation. Sometimes it’s sadness, sometimes frustration or anger, and sometimes it’s also growth pain, and you see these characters become wiser from this realization.

The collection references Trump 2016 election twice, and to me it was not really necessary. Sittenfeld’s characters are mostly upper-middle class white women, university-educated and leaning far away from Trump’s supporter base. For all the tiny, mundane misunderstandings and judgments that those characters go through, no wonder that they also might misunderstand and judge people who are socially, culturally and politically far away from them. Still, I don’t think it was the point of Sittenfeld’s collection, and I enjoyed all of these stories just like they are, as instant portraits of flawed people.

Pod Review Aug 29 – Sept. 4

I took a day off that involved running all kinds of errands, plus my (regular) commute this week, made for so many hours of podcasts this week! I tried to be intentional about finishing the Rabbit Hole series, and wow, I was blown away!

  • Sorta Awesome #255 Life is more awesome the Lazy Genius way, with Kendra Adachi
  • Where should we Begin with Esther Perel: You want me to watch the kids while you go out with another man?
  • Edit your Life podcast: #205: Pandemic Home Decluttering + Styling with Paige Lewin
  • 10 Things to Tell you by Laura Tremaine: #78 Trust your intuition, use your brain (a conversation with Meg Tietz)
  • NYT Rabbit Hole: #4 Headquarters
  • Where should we Begin with Esther Perel: He loves her, His family rejects her
  • NYT The Rabbit Hole #5 The Accidental Emperor
  • NYT The Rabbit Hole #6 Impasse
  • NYT The Rabbit Hole #7 Where we go one
  • 💙 NYT The Rabbit Hole #8 We go all

I’m not a big consumer of YouTube, because the internet I consume is primarily written or audio, but this series was almost hair-rising about the pervasive influence of YouTube and how it distorts more and more the way we perceive reality. I’ve never been into conspiracies in real life (only rarely in literature) and I knew very little about QAnon before. What sort of weird fresh hell is that? I’m not sure I’m letting my kids watch Youtube ever again… I first heard about this podcast series from Laura Tremaine, and I will recommend it to everyone who goes to Youtube for entertainment and more (all raise your hand!). The last episode is particularly striking but I think you need to have heard the others first.