Wolfgang Büscher, Hartland, on foot through America (2011)

End January I was suddenly in the mood for long-distance hiking. Don’t be afraid, my hiking boots are still gathering dust in the basement, and I didn’t suddenly change my mind about exercising. Instead, I went to the movies to see Wild, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, and I picked this book up at the library.

I wasn’t blown away by any of those two. As much as we get to learn in perhaps too much details the reasons behind the hike in Strayed’s book, Büscher’ motivation is quite elusive. Strayed’s voyage is mainly a moral and spiritual one, one of self-discovery, of redemption and healing. Büscher has no such ambition. A German professional travel writer, he is used to long and lonely trips on foot (most notably from Berlin to Moscow) and walks for the sake of discovering new places. Both are courageous and enduring, both are rather candid in their story, both had lonely days and risky adventures and intense encounters.

But both experiences were too intimate to really connect with me. They were walking for themselves, and they left me behind on the road.

Why did I pick this book at the library? The title was intriguing: Heartland, where on earth is that and what does it look like?

As much as I know by cultural impregnation of the East coast (New England and New York actually), the Pacific coast, Texas and Louisiana, I feel that I know next to nothing about the land in between those coasts. Actually, like most Europeans, I can’t really fathom a life spent so far away from any large body of water like ocean or sea. Or from any foreign country. The only thing about this place is the Little house in the Prairie which introduced me to the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Other than those, the one and only thing about Omaha, Nebraska I knew was that Danielle lives there, so it must be real. I’m not even sure I would put it on a map even if my life depended on it.

We follow Büscher along his 3500km trip from the Canadian border into North Dakota to the Mexican border out of Texas, mainly along Road 77 from Missouri to the Rio Grande. There aren’t much in terms of vistas and monuments. But there are a lot of interesting cultural references to Native Americans, and how Germans are fascinated by them since the 19th century. I had heard of Winnetou while in Germany, but I had no idea how deep this story ran.

I used to read a lot of travel writing back in my twenties when I had the opportunity to do some solo travel. My favorite writer is Nicolas Bouvier, a Swiss writer with a wonderful eye and a wonderful style who traveled the world in the 1950s. But now traveling is hardly something special. You have to do something really physically challenging, dangerous, or have other reasons behind your travel (as in Wild, but also Eat Pray Love) to be worthwhile. I wonder if blogs have ruined travel writing as a literary genre.

If you find me too blasé, perhaps it’s time I take a real hike myself?

Laurent Gaudé, Le Soleil des Scorta (The House of Scorta, French 2004)

I have discovered Laurent Gaudé with a mythological story centered on Alexander the great, “Pour Seul Cortège”. I was fascinated by his style, a poetic, rhythmic chant that immediately elevates the story to the level of the tragedy (it’s no coincidence that Gaudé also writes for the theater). In French, we say that this style “has breath”, because you can immediately imagine someone on stage reciting such an epic poem. If it withers away, short of breath, the story soon falls flat.

I wondered how it fared with a more prosaic story, or at last with a story closer to our times. The House of Scorta (English title, whereas the original title centers on the sun) is the saga of a southern Italian family set in the Puglia over five generations from the end of the 19th century. The family is dirt poor, their origin infamous, a ruffian just out of prison mistaking an old maid for the woman he used to love. The main characters are his grandchildren, Carmella and her three brothers. After trying their luck in America, they come back and set up a cigarette smuggling business in their hometown.

Yes, it “had breath”. The story is full of sun, of heat and dust. The style was straightforward and full of images, not a word too many. As with the previous book, we soon feel that Gaudé aims at something larger  than life, something like destiny.

I had some problem with this story, but as the book won the Goncourt prize I tend to think it’s my problem and not really the book’s. I couldn’t really empathize with the Scortas, because all these notions of “blood is thicker than water”, “the family is more important”, “you can’t get far away from your ancestors sacred soil” are totally foreign to me. On my family people move, go to new places, start anew elsewhere, reinvent themselves. The Scortas, in the other hand, stay put. I don’t say it’s unbelievable, or wrong. Gaudé makes a well written saga out of it, and I enjoyed it, but it just doesn’t resonate with me. Sometimes his powerful style won me over, but at times I felt like there were too many Italian clichés.

Nevertheless, I will certainly read other novels by Gaudé.

Steffen Kverneland, Munch (2013)

I confess that when my husband received this massive graphic novel as a Christmas present, I raised an eyebrow and wondered where it would fit on our crowded shelves. But I was all about giving it a chance, as Edvard Munch’s paintings are really intriguing and I am already reading the biography of another painter, Gauguin, trying to understand how these people managed to break away from the conventions of their times to try radically new painting styles.

I was eager to discover, but I can’t say the graphic style of Steffen Kverneland appealed to me at once. You can see it: very angular, and close to caricature. Even now I don’t really like it, but after finishing the book I find it fitting to Munch’s life, even though Edvard Munch’s paintings are anything but angular.

But Munch’s bohemia life had a grotesque, cartoony aspect, especially as he and Strindberg spent nights after nights drinking and partying. Munch’s manifesto was that he never wanted to painted what he saw, but what he had seen (as in, what he remembers feeling at that time, I guess).

The story of this massive book is not completely linear and cut at times by the own rendition of Kverneland himself and his mate Lars Fiske (via photos and cartoons) researching, discussing and visiting landscapes of famous paintings and other places important to Munch, trying to see what he’d seen, preferably with a little help from a strong liquor. These funny interruptions made the atmosphere lighter, less dark and deep. It was rather welcome, as Munch is not really a fun, extrovert type.

Nevertheless, I came out with a more complex, I dare even say muddled, image of Munch than the simplistic one I had before. My reference was a movie I’d watched a few years ago on DVD, a 1974 movie by Peter Watkins which centered on his childhood and coming-of-age years. It felt as if Munch was mysterious, morbid, haunted by vision and hallucinations, surrounded by death and smothered by the moral taboos of his time. Yet now I have a more down-to-earth vision of his entire life (after all, he had a long life: 1863-1944), he experimented with different painting styles and he decidedly knew how to promote and sell his art. His family had indeed known some deaths, but no more than the normal of these times. It was actually the fashion of the turn-of-the-century (and Munch following the trend) to insist so much on morbidity, darkness and decadence.

There’s a fascinating article in English by Kverneland on Eurozine, explaining his whole project.

Reading Notes: James Ellroy’s Perfidia (2013)

I remember vaguely discovering Ellroy in my late teens, with the Black Dahlia. It was a shock. Never before had I read something so dark and orchestral. The short sentences, the ellipses, the choir of characters, all navigating between violence, ambition, vices and some principles.

It was in French that I read the Black Dahlia, then the rest of the L.A. Quarter. Later on I tried another of his earlier novels, the one with the serial killer’s point of view (Killer on the Road) and it was all too much for me. I couldn’t stomach this point of view. I don’t think I even finished the book. I needed the distance of the historical setting. 1950s L.A. is like a movie background, I couldn’t (and mostly still can’t ) take it realistically.

Then a few years later, I tried American Tabloid, this time in English. It was another shock. Ellroy’s original voice was totally different from what I had imagined in French. All these words I didn’t understand. Slang? 1950s words? Invention? Cop lingo? L.A.? There were so many sentences (3 words long, but still) where I had no idea what was going on. I soon threw in the towel.

This January, I saw that my workplace library had bought Perfidia in English edition. I decided to give it a try. I decided not to be daunted by the words I didn’t understand. But I still feel out of my depth. The only comfort is that I remember some of the recurring characters from the first L.A. Quarter (but only vaguely, not in details). But it’s reasonable that reading Ellroy shouldn’t be a comforting experience.

I am barely 100 pages into this massive 700 pages thing. I am not yet sure I’ll finish it, but so far his vision of L.A. just the day before Pearl Harbor and on the days immediately following the event is haunting.

You might find me naive, but never before had I heard talking about F.D. Roosevelt in such bad terms. Now, his image is that of a brilliant war hero (at least in Europe) and in high school we’re all studying the New Deal as the most brilliant strategy to fight the Depression. But Ellroy shows me a different picture.

Likewise, my summer reading experience with The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka showed me the Japanese community in California under a globally positive light (the traditional story of the hard-working immigrants who eventually make it in America, only to be cruelly and unfairly treated during the war). With Ellroy, I’m pretty sure that the picture will be much darker.

I’m bracing for the next 600 pages. Have you read it? What say you?

Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: everyday life in Dickens’ London (2012)

Judith Flanders has been a favorite historian of mine for quite a while, as it was before I set up my blog that I read her Circle of Sisters, about 4 sisters in the Victorian era who had strong connections with the painting and artistic communities of pre-Raphaelites and Edward Burne-Jones, and one of them was Rudyard Kipling’s mother.

Moving away from biographies she seemed to have chosen to present Victorian life in its minutest details. Her huge Victorian house volume was a hoot if you enjoy all kinds of trivia on domestic life, or if you’re just curious, after reading Victorian novels who are often lofty on sentiments, to know how they were in real life.

It was just a matter of time before I continued with her depiction of Victorian life, this time focused on the city and streets of London. Let me tell you, it was a Magnus opus. So many pages full of details, references, images, notes, and names! I regretted not to know London any better and I would have loved her to do the same about Paris, which would have resonated with me a lot more. Nevertheless it was fascinating by all accounts. It’s like perusing an encyclopedia, except that Judith Flanders is so methodical that she walks you from dawn till night telling you exactly how it felt, smelt, sounded, looked like.

From what the streets were covered with, to how the sewers came to exist (a lot of people fighting against their creation, despite increasingly disgusting evidence that things had to be… well… taken care of if you wanted to avoid cholera epidemics), from what you could have to eat at any hour of the day or night to whether women were really prostitutes or were just walking among men in a disreputable street. I learnt quite a lot, but I’m not sure I’m going to use all this knowledge anytime soon. So let me share it with you, if I have managed to arouse your curiosity:

Did you know for example, that before people had watches and clocks in their home, they paid a guy to come and knock on their window at the time they were expected to wake up, so as to be on time at work?

Did you know that the streets were so noisy with horses hoofs, people’s shouts etc. that people had to turn to side streets if they wanted to talk? (especially as some road surfaces were made of wood!)

Did you know that it was possible to rent the previous day’s newspaper by the hour?

Did you know that working class families had no place to cook meals in their homes (rooms, rather), no stove or oven or open fire, so that cookshops were set up, a sort of communal oven where the meat and veggies were brought by the women and baked in their own dishes? and the women complained that the cookshops owners were always shaving off meat out of the baked dishes?

The basis of her investigation is Dickens’ life and novels, but you don’t need to have read every Dickensian novel to start on this journey. But you very well might decide to read some of his novels after finishing this book.

Reading Aloud with My Oldest: The Day I Started Being Read To

Back when I had to read every single day the same board-book, there were times when I wondered when it would stop.

When I started the new series about Read aloud books, I wasn’t even aware how soon the day would come when my oldest would read independently.

But he’s firmly 6.5 now, and he’s reading! Alone! (Every scrap of paper and cereal box!!)

Then one evening came when I felt a bit tired or overwhelmed and when my son said: “My turn! Tonight I am reading to you!”. Let me tell you, it was awesome.

I feared it would be twaddle, but I even enjoyed the book, picked by my son from the class bookshelf: The Monster Series by Ellen Blance and Ann Cook. Published in the 1970s, it is as old as I am and I love the illustrations by Quentin Blake! They’re deliciously quaint and easily recognizable.

The sentences are very short and straightforward, but there is a real plot and a real voice. It’s amazing how little is necessary to build a story. It took my son 10-15 minutes to read the whole book word by word, and he even took the time to ponder on the watercolour images.

It took me a while to track down this book, because there’s precious little on the internet about Ellen Blance (yes, there are still people who are mostly unknown on the web, isn’t it reassuring somehow?) and Monster in France is known as Dinomir (which sounds a bit Russian or Slavic, together with a hint of dinosaur) and my son’s school edition has no name on the cover (isn’t that mandatory?)

I didn’t grew up learning to read with Monster/Dinomir, but I’m happy that my son did.

Do you remember what book you first read cover to cover?

The Writing Resolution: January Status

Without really realizing it, I did indeed write every single day in January. And for 27 out of 31, a lot more than the minimum threshold of 50 words!

It definitely proves that it’s easier for me to do something every day than something every week, even on a set day of the week. I’m a routine kind-of girl (even if they’re nerdy routines). And knowing that I have this activity in my daily schedule (just like brushing my teeth, I guess) just makes it accessible, not something to dread or fuss about.

When I’d established the Writing Wednesdays, I saw Tuesdays coming with a tad of anxiety: what was I to write on the next day? Would the creativity be there at all?

Now, I don’t pause, I just need to choose if it’s easier for me to write during my lunch break, on my commute (thanks to the wordpress app on my phone), or after the boys are in bed. I can write on my private blog or here, or I can journal (which is often more jotting down lists of ideas in random order than a proper text). It doesn’t even mean that I have to spend my whole evening on it and wake up exhausted the next day.

And yes, don’t ask, but I count the words and write it down. I won’t apologize, but it just helps somehow. The tally says 7600 words for this month, and I can’t say I sweated that much.

Does it mean it’s easy and natural to me after one month? I wish, but no.

I still have to face my demon, the story ending. After one month I am no closer to finishing a fictional story (any of them). Maybe it’s the left-brain thing and my resolution is too more right-brain or vice-versa, but I just can’t get fictitious characters to move, live and do something in such small spurts of writing time. I can do memoir pieces, and I can do close-to-reality fiction, but nothing more. And when I feel the anxiety coming, there’s always a good book to blog about here, so, you know, I chicken out.

Well, I have still 11 months to find out a good strategy…

Michael Connelly, The Gods of Guilt (2013)

I can’t seem to be able to curb my Mickey Haller addiction. When the last one finished, the cliffhanger was so huge I could hardly wait. How do people manage it when they’re reading books fresh from publication? Luckily, I usually don’t.

I immediately went online to see if there was another one in the series. Reassured, I could wait a bit, but not too long. I could not resist the library copy, especially as it was in English. I had to know if Mickey Haller, the defense attorney whose office is a Lincoln backseat, had turned his coat as he’d announced: he was going to run for District attorney.

I’m not sure how possible or even believable it is in the American justice system, but that wouldn’t be possible at all in the French system (and I’m not even talking about the backseat office thing, what French person would trust a guy without a proper office?), because prosecutors are appointed by the Justice Ministry, not elected. They’re civil servants with jobs for life. Now, my knowledge of the American justice system is sketchy, based on novels and series (Law and Orders anyone?), which might not be the best for facts, I grant you.

But Haller a D.A.? I just couldn’t picture it (I do realize that I speak way more about the previous book than this one at hand, but that’s ok): having his hero flip sides so completely is to me the equivalent of professional suicide for a writer specialized in courtroom drama, isn’t it?

Anyway, my distress was short-lived as Connelly regained his composure and made Haller lose his campaign. Haller was back in the backseat of his car, where it suited me. Full of contradictions and racked with guilt, compounded by the fact that his ex-wife and his daughter refused to talk to him anymore.

He had helped a prostitute years back, trusting her when she’d said she wanted to leave town and start anew in Hawaii. But when Haller learns that she’s dead, it seems that he didn’t know her at all. She’s been playing the Pretty Woman in a L.A. classy hotel. He’s called to defend her alleged killer, her digital pimp, who tells him she’d recommended him. The plot is so convoluted that I won’t even try, but rest assured that you’ve got twists and turns and hair-raising scenes. Connelly is such a writing powerhouse.

I enjoyed the book a lot, the investigation part as well as the courtroom part. I’m not too sure how much of it is plausible, but at that stage I don’t really care. The guilt-ridden gumshoe is a cliché, but the guilt-ridden attorney pulls it off. He doesn’t shy away from manipulations and even theater tricks to win a lawsuit, but the one thing he’s not is crooked. He has a moral compass that inevitably puts him in dangerous situations, defending people he only regards as innocent, against all odds. He’s a bit like a modern-day knight in shining armor, except the damsel in distress would be a prostitute or a digital pimp!

Interrupted: Carol Goodman, The Lake of Dead Languages (2002)

I’m sure that ten years ago, I would have been right in the target readership of this book: the setting in a secluded all-girl boarding school in Upstate New York, with Gothic tones and plenty of ominous foreboding. It is Gothic chick-lit, centered on the Latin teacher, a divorced mother of a preschooler, who returns to teach at her alma mater. She had left school under dark circumstances, after two of her roommates had committed suicide (or so it seems). I can’t imagine a man being drawn to this kind of plot. My younger self certainly was.

Yet, more than hundred pages into the story, my interest slightly waned. There were too much foreboding, too much back and forth between the present and the past, and the symbols were quite heavy-handed (a frozen lake! midnight skinny dipping! brooding teenagers! self-mutilation and drugs! disappearing journals full of secrets!). I knew that  this book wasn’t going to be the kind I’d be proud of finishing. Some things are just bad for you, like too much ice cream.

Guess what? Perhaps I’m a grown-up now, even for books. Or perhaps it’s the effect of good resolutions. I skimmed the rest, just out of FOMO. Misplaced FOMO, as it turned out. The amount of coincidences necessary to tie all loose ends was just beyond all plausibility.

But now, after this mild disappointment, I would love to immerse into a good atmospheric Gothic novel, something truly excellent. I have always been a big fan of Bram Stocker’s Dracula, it might be time for a re-read? Or do you have any other suggestion?

Charlotte Otter, Balthasar’s Gift (2013)

I could start with “I should have read this book a long time ago”, or “I’m like the last person on the blog world to post about this book”, or “why oh why did this book linger for so long on my nightstand?”… and I could tell you a lot of excuses. The truth is, I bought this book first when it came out in German, because Charlotte Otter is a delightful person whose blog I have been reading for ages and because I like crime novels with a deep sense of setting.

But I’m reading German very slowly these days, and my understanding level is not really enough to follow a well-crafted plot full of characters and twists and turns (did I mention fights?). So the book remained there half-read. I got frustrated. Not with the book, but with myself, for forgetting the languages I was fluent in before (I’m not even starting on Chinese), for failing myself, and failing Charlotte who had taken extraordinary lengths to have this book published (can you imagine that she also has three kids and a corporate job?).

And then I decided to look facts squarely like they are, and not waste energy and time in guilt and regrets, a bit like Otter’s heroin Maggie Cloete who rushes headlong into her investigations even if it means putting herself at risk. I wanted to enjoy the detailed South-African background of the book, understand the deeper issues of Aids during the 1990s, and for that I had to let go of the German book. Mid-December, I bought Balthasar’s Gift in English this time, and it was such fun!

Dark fun, but still. Everything I know about South-Africa is through the media or hearsay, but Charlotte managed to make the country alive under our eyes, in its complexity and density, without slowing the plot down with too much explanation. The only downside of this book is that there is a lot going on, probably enough to fill two books, so that it takes a while to have all the strands neatly tied up at the end!

In this mystery, Maggie Cloete, a determined crime reporter in Pietermaritzburg, hasn’t followed up on a call by Balthasar Meiring, an AIDS activist, who urged her to take an interest in the trial of a quack accused of selling fake Aids drugs. A few days later, the AIDS activist is shot, and soon Maggie feels that it’s more than just a random robbery killing.

I won’t probably buy the next book in German, but I’ll gladly read the next Maggie Cloete mystery!