The one with the problematic translated title

Pascal Garnier, The Front Seat Passenger (English 2014, French 1997)

Oh my, two Garnier in less than a month’ time, you can tell how much I’m hooked! I liked my first better than this one, but only by a thin margin, because I could hardly put it down. Like the previous one, it’s a novella easily read in one or two sittings.

The difference is that the main character of this story has hardly anything for him. Let’s see, what are the stereotypical features of a hero? Successful, daring, loving, courageous, honest, a good son, good friend, good husband …? Fabien Delorme is the opposite of all this. He’s weak, untrustworthy, egoist, unlucky and bland, judgmental and narrow-minded. Definitely too narrow-minded to make sense of what happens to him. He just lost his wife in a car accident, a wife for whom he had no longer feelings but still remained married out of comfort and convenience, and he discovers that she was in a car with a lover. Widower and cuckold in the same instant! His life is upside down, and will be even more so when he decides to get in touch with the lover’s widow.

It’s hard to root for Fabien, while it was so easy to root for Eliette in Too close to the edge. But we can’t help but follow him and find him excuses for his poor choices. What a loser! Even when he thinks that he has all the cards in hands, he’s being played. It’s slightly ironic, very down-to-earth and very very dark. The ending is a bit hasted but it could have been way worse.

If I had one reservation about the book, it’s the English title, which is technically, literally translated from the French. Fabien’s wife was seated next to the driver, her lover, in the front passenger’s seat when she had her fatal accident. I guess it’s called riding shotgun? But in French we have a colloquial expression for this seat: it’s the dead person’s place (because it was a very dangerous place to be back when cars didn’t have safety belts and that rules were nonexistent on the road). The French title is clever because “place” has so many different meanings. More than just a car seat’s question, it can read as the dead person’s space in the widower’s life. Or it can be Fabien’s attitude, metaphorically or literally, especially as Fabien doesn’t know how to drive a car and has to be driven or take a train to go somewhere. I felt that the book’s English title was narrowing it down, but I have no clue what else they could have chosen.

Thanks to Netgalley and Gallic Books for giving me a copy of the book!

The one with the missing Harry

Jo Nesbo, Police (2013)

I checked my own blog archives and I can’t believe it took me eight years to go back to a Jo Nesbo thriller. Eight years!

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the one I read nearly a decade (!) ago. My memory is hazy but I recall a very efficient plot, some twisted characters and a lot of blood. And that’s also true that the early days of motherhood are not really those where you naturally spend your limited free time reading about serial killers, gruesome murders explained in graphic details and various perversions assumed and/or proven in a vast array of suspects.

At least, this book spares us the child murders or the paedophile (how I despise this trend of the mystery genre that rather easily exploits our most contemporary fears). But that’s probably the only thing that Nesbo spares us.

As for the rest, Nesbo doesn’t disappoint the image I had of his books. I was in for a swift and efficient ride through Oslo streets. The twist on this particular thriller is that the victims are actually police officers, killed on the anniversary of an old case they never managed to solve.

And the second twist is that for a Harry Hole book, the star is very blatantly absent. For about a third of the book, I wondered if he was dead, retired, dismissed, or even worse. Because I hardly ever read a book series in order, I couldn’t really know how much I’d missed, and that was a bit troubling. The upside is that Nesbo took care to flesh out secondary characters in the investigation team, and since the police force was targeted, it really made me sit on the edge of my seat.

Scandinavian thrillers aren’t usually my cup of tea, but it’s nice to return to a writer you enjoyed years ago and to find him still at the top of his game!

Reading to the boys

I take a break from writing about books I read by talking about books I read… aloud to the boys.

I like the idea of read-aloud as a family moment and an evening routine to look forward to. Until last fall my two boys (2 and almost 8) had separate sleeping time so I could in theory read to each his own, but now that they go everywhere together (the little one is always on the big one’s footsteps) I “have to” read the same book to both and make it a big bonding time… in theory.

The practice can be a little bumpy depending on everyone’s mood and level of cooperation (the grown-up isn’t always displaying the best behavior). Part of the challenge is that I have an almost 8-going-on-13-year old and a two year old who really wants to understand what’s going on and isn’t afraid to ask for clarifications.

Luckily they are both boys and the small one looks up to whatever the big one does so there are some thematic overlap, but I have been wondering about book choices a lot. And learning about what makes a good book for read-alouds.

Much to the big boy’s sadness Harry Potter is *not* a good choice. It mesmerizes him to the point that he had learnt full sentences by heart, but it can’t hold the little one’s attention for more than a few seconds. The plot is too difficult, the vocabulary above his head and soon every sentence is interrupted with “cekoissa” “kekife?” (“what is that?”, “what’s he doing?”). Then everyone is yelling at each other to shut up and calm down and that defeats the purpose.

I have been reading favorites lately such as Pettson and Picpus, a Swedish series of big picture books of a scatterbrained farmer and his rather stubborn cat, and we all love their goofy and tongue-in-cheek adventures, except that some of the jokes rely on visual cues and I can’t be next to one boy’s bed lest the other one wants to have a look at the very same instant. As the plan is to have them calm and sleepy, I prefer to read in semi darkness.

A recent book that worked like a charm was Michael Palin’ Mirrorstone, a book with wonderful drawings and holograms set within the drawing. The plot was rather sketchy, but there was a boy and a wizard and a treasure to find, and both boys were eager to hear a few pages, and drift off with magic on their minds.

I also tried “Five children and it” (the only E. Nesbit in French that my library had), but the text was rather long-winded and dated and not suited to both boys’ ages. I had to skip whole sentences and read ahead. And the whole setting seemed quite weird to me. But for a few days after I quit, they both still asked for the sand fairy, so I might try again in a few months.

Another success that didn’t repeat itself was Moomin. I got the first one in the series: The Moomins and the Great Flood, and we all enjoyed it quite a lot. Baby S was particularly relieved to see the Moomin family reunited, and I found so sweet when he inquired (rather repeatedly I’m afraid) about Moominmamma. But then I borrowed The memoirs of Moominpapa, and it was a bust. Moominpapa is rather full of himself, and the adventures took a while to really start, and second degree reading is not a thing with eight year old and two year old.

So these days the safest bet is to go back to traditional fairy tales. Each boy takes a different level of meaning from them and I try to focus on structure and storytelling so that we all enjoy this daily time together.

What books do/did you enjoy for read-aloud? Any suggestion?

May I Add A Little Something?

May I talk to you again about Pascal Garnier’s book? I thought I have been clear enough how much I enjoyed this book. But apparently not. After all, who says I should only post about a book once? After all, my blog, my rules.

The fact is, this book still weighs on my mind, not so much about the plot itself or the characters, but about the writing. How could I describe it? Straight to the point, not looking for stylistic effects and shiny metaphors. A bit rough, slightly stiff, apparently flat. Nothing to write home about. Unassuming. Which is all the more powerful when it delivers the punch, you never see it coming. It totally clicked with me, because I guess this is exactly the kind of writing that I aim at producing. At least I hope so.

Now I might just make a u-turn on the topic of this post (sorry Garnier), but please follow me as I confess that I’m getting a tiny bit jittery about the writing retreat I’m taking next month (not even!).

Of course I look forward to this whole week devoted to writing and meeting other writers. But at the same time, so much free time? It’s been years since I could write for hours in the silence of my own room (can you tell that I’m trying hard not to add exclamation marks and question marks after every!? single?! word!?) The way I write now is so different, only made of stolen moments, often in public places, noisy cafés, transport, libraries. It doesn’t require much time to write a paragraph here and there, and it adds up in the end, but I have forgotten the luxury of being able to look at a whole story.

Now, I’m slowly preparing for the retreat as I think about stories I wish to edit, finish, or create. I try to keep my expectations low to make room for new ideas. I try to keep in mind what I want to achieve and writers whose style inspire me. And in these coming weeks, I’ll surely revisit Garnier.

The One to Open up Your Vision

Oliver Sacks, The Mind’s Eye (2010)

Once in a while, I read a scientific book. That is, not very often. I always said I would read a book by Oliver Sacks, and sadly I didn’t do it before he died (not that he would have minded one way or the other, but I’m kind of sad / disappointed at myself whenever I start reading a book just because its author’s death notice was all over the news).

I borrowed this book by Oliver Sacks frankly because it was the only one available at the library that day. I won’t tell you that the theme of vision and blindness was of any particular concern of mine, but I learnt a lot nonetheless.

The book is a collection of case studies of some particular patients who have lost some part of their vision due to brain injuries, and also a large part related to Dr Sacks’ own eye tumor. Although this part was more personal and poignant, I somehow didn’t like it as much because of the lack of distance and the focus on symptoms observation rather than explanation of the brain’s role in different components of the vision.

I enjoyed the other case studies more. Most patients affected with some sort of brain-related blindness were extraordinarily resilient and upbeat. They adjusted to their new lives and found innovative ways to continue doing what they enjoyed despite their handicap. One man whose particular illness consisted in being unable to make sense of words still managed to write books because his hands still could do the movement of forming words. One other patient managed to live rather normally after she lost the ability to recognize objects.

The chapter I could most relate to was addressing the ability to recognize faces (prosopagnosia). I’m very very bad at recognizing faces, although not in a pathological way. On the other hand, Mr Smithereens is inordinately good at recognizing faces, so that I struggle to identify our next-door neighbors, always afraid of being very impolite, while my husband can watch a minor character in a TV series and go “isn’t he the same we saw in such and such movie ten years ago?” I used to feel guilty about this, but Sachs made clear how common this problem is, and how little we can do about it!

One tiny bit of knowledge I gained from reading the book is that babies are actually born with the ability to recognize all human faces of all races and origins. Only after a few months (I can’t find the exact number between 6 and 12 months) does the range of recognition diminish so that we get better at recognizing faces from our own cultural / racial environment and worse at recognizing other races we don’t meet so often. Which is one way of explaining the offensive but common view that people from another race all look the same to you. I always felt bad when someone said something racist like that, and it seems the perfect reply to do in a polite way to express that this view is not only wrong but also the by-product of a homogeneous education. I guess it’s just a scientific proof that children need to grow up in a diverse environment.

 

The One where Frozen doesn’t play “Let it Go”

Jean-François Parot, La Pyramide de Glace (French, 2014)

How comfy it is on rainy days to find a book whose writer you trust and enjoy, with characters you’ve known for years and who have evolved as yourself grew!

When I don’t know what I should read next, Parot is my sure-fire reading choice: excellent research, impeccable historical setting, lots of Paris location that I actually walk by, food anecdotes, a mystery and many friendly considerations about life, change and destiny.

I’m not sure I really pay a lot of attention to the plot I’m afraid. I just tag along wherever Nicolas Le Floch, a police investigator in Paris under King Louis the 16th, takes me. Sometimes he brings me to the dirty morgue of Le Châtelet, the city prison, sometimes he brings me to Versailles to greet the King and Queen. Le Floch has a career that aristocrats despise and fear, while Le Floch is himself a small-ranking aristocrat from Brittany. As every book gets nearer to the Revolution (this one is in 1784), he watches the state of the country worsen as aristocrats get into scams to get wealthier, spend lavishly to outshine their fellow dukes and counts, keep a mistress (or two), hold parties full of vices and rumors, while the rest of the country is in misery and debt. 1784 had the coldest winter in decades, and many people nearly froze or starved to death.

Of course, the king’s men are worried that the situation is ripe for unrest. After the worst of the cold is over and the river Seine thaws, a column of carved ice reveals the naked body of a woman trapped inside. Murdered, with suspicious signs at her neck, making people think of vampires and other supernatural causes. Even worse, the victim looks like the Queen herself! Luckily, Le Floch and his friends keep their cool (am I allowed silly puns?) and rather suspect some intrigue linked to the Duc de Chartres, a powerful aristocrat from the royal family but an opponent and rival to the King. This makes Le Floch’s situation all the more complex and uneasy to tread.

I enjoyed every bit of this book even if there was no big surprise. It’s not a good place to start the series, but each new installment is equally satisfying once you’re familiar with the recurring characters. I guess most readers now wonder how things will go for our beloved Le Floch once the revolution starts. But there’s still five years to go!

Writing ’16: April Update

I had finished March with a bang, but somewhere the tide turned, and I finished April feeling all blah. Still, it’s good for me to start the new month with a quick review, and take new directions where needed.

In April I have been here backstage a lot: I have prepared many blog posts about books but it took me ages to finish them, edit and post them up, so that you, poor reader, haven’t seen much of me. Sorry folks… The good news is that these book posts will soon be ready for you! Expect good mysteries and lots of children books…

I have spent less time writing fiction and journaling, because all I could write sounded whiny even to my own ears! In particular, I’d spent time rewriting a piece I’d started several years ago, and somewhere along the way I stumbled upon the realization that I still had no direction. Perhaps, after all, I’d left this one aside for good reasons! The story is probably not meant to be more than a tiny anecdote. Quitting is hard (is it the same for everyone or just me?), but this story has returned at the bottom of the pile in a drawer for now.

These last few weeks I feel that I’m getting better at recognizing what and how I want to write. Naming it is important to me. It’s probably the influence of the “What should I read next?” podcast, but listening to people explaining what they look for in a book and why they love such and such book has led me to ask myself some hard questions. This may explain why I was slow to get writing lately, but I feel that it’s no waste of time.

You’d think that I’d have already thought this through, especially after so many years of blogging, but yes I’m fickle and emotional when it comes to my reading experience, while I tend to be more rational when I come to write. Does it make sense? Or is that a worrying sign of a split personality? Anyway, now I try to do the other way around. I try to put myself in the reader’s shoe while I write and I ask myself “would I love it in a book?” or “am I enjoying it?” and not only “does it make sense?” or “is it clear to the reader?”. I don’t know who coined it, but “Follow the Fun” is a mantra that resonates with me these days, in reading as much as in writing.

What are you doing for fun these days?

The one with the widow looking for excitement

Pascal Garnier, Too close to the edge (French 1999, English 2016)

I’ve never read Pascal Garnier before, which is obviously a shame, and it seems ironical that an English translation would be my first introduction to this French writer. As a matter of introduction, I have to thank Marina Sofia for her titillating review which in turn made me request the book through Netgalley.

Pascal Garnier’s text starts in a deceptively quiet and banal way. Eliette is a retired, recently widowed woman who lives on her own in the Alps. Her adult children live in Paris, far away, with their own lives and worries, and she gets along with her neighbors well. But her loneliness leaves her slightly discontent and bored. She wishes something unexpected would happen to derail her routine. It’s a classic tale of be careful what you wish for, except that Garnier pushes it to the edge, metaphorically and literally. More than once I turned the page wondering where he’d take us readers and muttering to myself “did he really dare?”. It’s a roller-coaster read and a slim book you can easily read in one or two sittings.

It’s dark and realist, perfectly right for my taste. It’s not a Scandinavian thriller but the homegrown equivalent. As I take a few days off in the French countryside, where I always wonder about those tiny villages we cross on the way, with so many closed businesses, small farms with perpetually closed shutters and a rotting 2CV in the yard. So much for romantic countryside and sunset over the mountains! It’s often depressing, but Garnier manages to make it terrifying. Those old biddies who go to the supermarket, I’ll certainly be careful not to cross them. Especially if they look nice.

Things to enjoy, Things to let go

The Best Places to See Cherry Blossoms in Paris from paradisefoundaround.com

Spring is in Paris at last! I hope it has reached you too. There’s a subtle change of mood in the air, and people are at last dropping their black feather jackets in favor of more colorful clothes. All this makes me eager to try new stuff, shiny new books and also to make a little spring cleaning of books that don’t inspire me much.

Did I mention how much I love podcasts? Oh, probably just a million times already, but you won’t escape another repetition as I absolutely need to mention Anne Bogel’s podcast “What should I read next”. I’m completely hooked, and would love to have my own literary matchmaking. Even if I don’t share her literary taste, her conversations include a variety of people with diverse literary taste, which is very dangerous as I keep adding to my wishlist after each episode. I need to add a disclaimer: listen only to your own risk.

Another recent post I most enjoyed is Marina Sofia’s post on book reviews and book ratings: Honesty, Likability and Book Reviews. You should check her very honest view and read the lively discussion in the comments! I added my two cents, but as I typed away I realized that I hadn’t thought it through, nor am I really consistent between the feeling conveyed through my blog posts (I often am more critical than I’d like to sound) and the number of stars that I liberally stick on a site like Goodreads. In Goodreads and Netgalley, my policy is to give 4 stars whenever I had a good time with a book. I don’t want to be stingy, and 3 stars seem too “average” to me. After reading this post I thought that ratings seems so much like school, and different education systems have a different view on what is a good grade or not. In France, a perfect copy at school is worth 20/20, but it’s very rarely given, many teachers prefer to give a 19/20 and don’t have a culture of encouragement and praise. Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t give many 5 stars ratings.

Inspired by spring cleaning resolutions and fortified by this call to honesty in book reviews, I realized this morning that the latest Netgalley book I tried wasn’t doing anything much for me: Sarah Painter’s In The Light of What We See. I was just not into it. It might just be me, but I’m not going to force myself to finish it with the hope that I’d warm up to it later on, because my frustration might play against the book (that happened before!). It’s a realist story with some hints of supernatural in it, which should be alright with me, except this time it just rubbed me the wrong way. Alternate chapters are my pet peeve when not really necessary in the plot, and I had no patience to see the link between the two young women I was presented with. I didn’t care enough for them, and I felt that I had some idea where all that was going. But it might just a question of poor timing, it seems like the kind of light book I could pick up again during summer holidays.

The one that starts in Dickens and ends in the bush

If you haven’t read anything by Kate Summerscale, you’re in for a surprise. I bet that you will be mesmerized by the amount of research that she packs into each of her sentences. And she manages to make her text highly readable and entertaining! If she says that the room was dark at 5pm the day the jury came back with the verdict, I challenge you to find a contrary proof: the room wasn’t dark at 4.59pm yet. But she will go on to explain that there was actually a pea-soup fog that day due to soot particles and what kind of lamp was in the Old Bailey. That’s trademark Summerscale, and it might at first feel a bit overwhelming, but if you’re anything like me it’s also fun to learn so much on a variety of nitty-gritty subjects.

But if you have read Kate Summerscale before (I read the Suspicions of Mr. Whicher and Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace and enjoyed the former a lot more), this book still comes as a surprise. I got this one through Netgalley and thought that she was staying in the vein of her two previous books: describe a true crime in Victorian England and paint in minute details the context, mentality and society of this particular event.

This time, the crime is particularly horrible: in the summer of  1895, a 13-year-old boy, Robert Coombes is found guilty of stabbing his mother to death. The public was particularly shocked to learn that the boy, together with his 12-year-old brother Nattie, spent 10 days enjoying themselves and spending money while their mother’s body lay upstairs, decaying in the heat. The big brother expressed no regret for the act, nor did he show any feelings and explain the cause of his action. People were accusing him of being a monster of depravity, a sign that modern Western civilization was decaying, especially since lower class children received mandatory primary education. These children were using their reading skills to read penny dreadfuls, cheap magazines full of horror stories and unbelievable crimes. Excitable, nervous dispositions like Coombes’ were pushed into crime. The late Victorian mentality as explained by Summerscale is fascinating in its hysteria and panic fear of death and degeneration. Luckily, because of his young age, Coombes was not condemned to be hanged but was found insane and sent to an asylum.

But the surprise lies elsewhere: when the guilty verdict comes, the book is only halfway through. What was Summerscale going to fill the rest of the pages with? I wondered.

[If you intend to read it, it might be better to stop reading now. I won’t give spoilers exactly, but…]

Also, what were the odds, that within a month’s time, I’d read two different books about late Victorian British asylums and the rather benevolent policy that managed mentally-ill people there? I didn’t even seek them out, they both fell into my lap. It was mere serendipity. Coombes was not detained in the same asylum as the one that inspired The Ballroom to Anna Hope, but a rather similar one, Broadmoor, in Berkshire. There he remained for a number of years, going from a sociopathic boy to a depressed teenager and to finally a responsible adult.

This part of Summerscale’s book is to me the most interesting. How a boy who had committed something awful and was thrashed by the press and public opinion as doomed to an early death was able to reinvent himself and lead a full, honorable life. I won’t go into details, but Coombes was 32 when the first World War started, to which he took an active part, and he emigrated to Australia, where he died in 1949. I’ll leave you at that, so that you too can wonder at the strange ways of a long, eventful life.