The one where a German nun beats me up

Lorette Nobecourt, Clôture des merveilles (2013)

Don’t fear for my health and safety, the beating was entirely metaphorical. But still: where James Ellroy, his language and crowds of characters didn’t defeat me, a 12C German nun’s mystic visions left me searching for the nearest exit. I tell you truthfully, I didn’t go further than a third of the book (in audio version), and much of it with white knuckles.

On paper it could have been a good match. Hildegard von Bingen is a classic, a woman, and I like historical biographies that are on the fringes between fiction and non-fiction. She’s not exactly a household name but she’s been quite hyped up (her music! her sensitivity! a strong female figure in a men’s world! her natural, holistic approach to medical care! one of the few female saints doctors of the Church!), so I was eager to learn more.

But the experience was a total disaster for me. First I didn’t like the voice in the audiobook. The woman insisted on each word as if she was declaiming a tirade on stage and articulated each syllable especially the “H” of Hildegard. I am aware that the writer chose each word with lots of care, reminding me slightly of Marie N’Diaye’s Three Women. But Nobécourt’s writing is a lot of “tell” and very little “show”. We don’t see Hildegard as much as we get to hear a homily about her with lots and lots of poetic analysis.

The words were beautiful, but the sentences made absolutely no sense to me. On the best days I thought it was all my fault. I have to assume that the book written for a Christian reader, and even more specifically a Catholic one. I am none of those, and I don’t have an extensive knowledge of the Catholic theology. On the worst days, it nearly made me laugh, although it’s also my fault. I am by no means a mystic person, what I like most are books that remain with their feet firmly on the ground (although magical realism appeals to me), so that I found it all very pompous and frustrating. Frustrating because I couldn’t see beyond the big words and big concepts and couldn’t reach the real woman in her flesh and blood.

I just have to make peace with the conclusion that this book is not for me. Especially after I heard of another Hild, another Middle-ages woman who became a saint: Hild by Nicola Griffith, whose review at Eve’s Alexandria immediately convinced me to add it to my TBR list!

The one about the universal secrets lurking in small-town Canada

Alice Munro, Dear Life (2012)

In truth, I don’t know what to say. A collection of short story is a hard genre to write about, especially if they are not really thematically organized. Should I focus on one, two, all of them? Alice Munro is one of my favorite writers, and what she writes about is ordinary life, more or less, so it’s even more difficult to make a sweeping assessment beyond “I enjoyed it a lot”.

These stories can be called classic. You might even say that its characters might remind you of other stories by Munro. The ageing woman with dementia. The bored housewife tempted by adultery. The man who missed his chance at love. The girl who gets dumped. They all speak of a provincial, small-town life where people judge their neighbors on being respectable and conventional. Some are set in the immediate after-war, some even earlier in the 20th century. None seem (to me) as contemporary. Some women in Munro’s stories find this stifling and try to break away, but few manage to do it, or to do it without regrets. There’s a sadness in most of these stories, and this sadness is universal. It’s a subdued world, where epiphanies come in slow-motion, where catastrophes send ripples for many years to come.

I enjoyed all of these stories, the fictional ones as well as the four last ones that are more like memoirs, or flashbacks about Munro’s childhood in this small-town Ontario. The only drawback is that I can’t seem to identify them one by one, and to separate them for the previous collections I read. They’re a further addition to the wonderful Munro images and memories I keep in my head and in my heart, and I hope that they will be other still to come.

The one where dandruff is poetry too

Judith Viorst, It’s Hard to Be Hip over Thirty (1968)

I found this unfinished post among my drafts, as I read this collection late last year. No wonder I kept it aside, as it’s always very difficult for me to find anything to write about poetry.

I have been taught to take poetry with deference, to keep it at arm’s length and to over-analyze every word for an obscure and deep meaning. Witty poems is something I discovered very recently indeed, thanks to blogs, one day when someone (may s/he be thanked again!) pointed me toward Taylor Mali’s Typography.

Wow, a poem can actually makes you laugh out loud! (I haven’t found French comic poets yet, but I’m not trying too hard to be honest)

I discovered Judith Viorst with her witty poem collection about being in your forties, and I loved it so much that I had to get the earlier decade as well! (well, now you have a rough idea of how old I am… so much for anonymity). I felt particularly lucky that Persephone has republished this short volume, and this is a very chic addition to my little grey collection (and don’t let me start about the matching bookmarks).

In this collection, she deals with the adjustments that come after getting married, from the single, dating young professional to the classic role of a stay-at-hom wife and mother in the suburbs. Some of her references have become dated but she managed to make me laugh out loud several times, especially on divorce, which isn’t the funniest subject per se.

I can’t say I recognized myself in every poem, which often portray the American clichéd perfect desperate housewife. Some of the poems are tinged with lost ideals (those lofty ideas of a 1960s feminist clashing against ordinary life) and a bit of cynicism, but to me they mostly ring true! Getting older is something universal, making compromises in marriage is unavoidable. What I loved is that none of these poems pretend to be chefs d’oeuvre, yet they manage to be both witty and hard to forget.

Here is one excerpt about motherhood:

Last year I had a shampoo and set every week, and
Slept an unbroken sleep beneath the Venetian chandelier of
our discerningly eclectic bedroom, but
This year we have a nice baby,
And Gerber’s strained bananas in my hair,
And gleaming beneath the Venetian chandelier,
A diaper pail, a portacrib, and him,
A nice baby, drooling on our antique satin spread
While I smile and say how nice. It is often said
That motherhood is very maturing.

And another, my favorite:

…It’s true love because
When he went to San Francisco on business while I had to stay home with the painters and the exterminator and the baby who was getting the chicken pox,
He understood why I hated him,
And because
When I said that playing the stock market was juvenile and irresponsible and then the stock I wouldn’t let him buy went up twenty-six points,
I understood why he hated me,
And because
Despite cigarette cough, tooth decay, acid indigestion, dandruff, and other features of married life that tend to dampen the fires of passion,
We still feel something
We can call
True love.

Just a note and a question

Last week has been hard. Rather awful, if truth must be told. I won’t go into details here, but I have learnt shocking news about a friend, and I am only slowly getting my balance back. It has been very hard to write down 50 words a day in those circumstances. You’d think fiction might provide a welcome escape window, but it didn’t work for me.

I recently heard someone say that when you’re sad, you should go and learn something. I found out that it is true. So expect some non-fiction reviews over here in the next few weeks. I have read the intro and part of the first chapter of the gigantic Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty, and I quite enjoyed it, but I had to let it go because the waiting line for it extends out of the library’s doors and so you can’t extend your 3 weeks loan for it, although it is 700 pages long.

Still, I want to ask you: what do you read when you’re sad? What is your go-to favorite to heal? Poetry? Comfort read?

In the meantime, I have a few post drafts to finish, so don’t worry, this place won’t go on hiatus.

The one where the trader’s truth is bigger than fiction

Jérôme Kerviel, L’Engrenage, Mémoires d’un trader (French, 2010)

I’m not sure how famous (infamous) the name of Kerviel is overseas. But in France, he has become a generic name. He’s that guy who worked for the Société Générale bank and lost 5 billion euros (7b$) in 2008 at the start of the subprime crisis.

There was a lot of running jokes at the time (well, better laugh than cry, eh?) calling him the 5-Billion-Euro-Man in reference to the 1970s 6-Million-Dollar-Man, or even T-shirt announcing: “I’m Kerviel’s girlfriend”. But of course, it was no joke. The guy was accused by his employer of breach of trust, forgery and unauthorized use of the bank’s computers and arrested.

This book is his defense and memoir, published just before he was found guily and sentenced to 5 years in prison and to reimbursement of the €5b (on appeal, the prison sentence was confirmed but not the reimbursement).

A lot of people felt at the time and even now that his employer could not have been totally ignorant of Kerviel’s acts. In his book, he alleges that not only has he been tacitly authorized, but also encouraged by his managers. He was caught in a frenzy of speculation, totally disconnected from the reality of the amount he played with, and the management was okay with it as long as the bank could make a profit out of it. When the situation turned sour, everybody washed their hands of him and said that they didn’t know.

The book rather confirmed my previous opinion that Kerviel was not the only guilty party in this sad story, but it didn’t manage to convince me that Kerviel was completely innocent. It’s hard to sympathize with Kerviel upon reading his book. I don’t believe he’s a fraud, and he didn’t get rich with his extremely speculative operations. But I don’t buy his “look how normal I am” thing. He speaks a bit about the prejudices that people have against financial traders, as being greedy, workaholic sociopaths who earn millions each year, but the book didn’t manage to paint quite a different portrait.

Société Générale has been found guilty of lack of control by the banking authorities, but it’s rather light compared to Kerviel’s own fate. In French legal system, there is no legally binding wishful blindness. The company has since improved its control systems, but overall has recovered from the financial crisis unscathed, contrary to his one employee who is now in jail.

The best part of the book is to give us an insider look into the practices of these young men at the core of big banks, who are given the keys to international economy and stability, and who play with them carelessly. That alone is already frightening, validating the old movie Wall Street from the 1980s: nothing much seems to have changed since Michael Douglas played Gordon Gekko. Equally frightening are the chapters where Kerviel tells how police investigators and judges were out of their depth with financial techniques and so were fed arguments by SocGen’s legal team, rather than challenging their case.

Unexpected Lessons

Last Sunday I went to a show by a Japanese theater company: Egg, by Hideki Noda. It was over 2 hours of intense live drama, tragedy, comedy, dance, pop songs and noise special effects. I had prepared myself by reading the program, but the real experience came as a complete surprise (I rarely go to live performances, maybe that’s why it had such an impact on me).

It is difficult to sum the story up, but it revolves around an imaginary sport, Egg, and its Japanese team vying for Olympic qualification. Yet as the play unfolds, we are left to wonder if the story takes place for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, or the 1964 games, that marked the return of the country on the international scene, or the 1940 games, that were cancelled due to World War 2. In the end, we are reaching the real roots of the Egg, which is not a sport at all, but a coverup for biological warfare experiments by Japanese soldiers in China’s Manchuria. From the euphoria of sport games we are transported into a dark and blood-chilling denunciation of real historical events, crimes that Japan has still difficulty to look in the eye.

The play resonated with me as I am always interested by individual destinies caught into the turmoil of history, and at what point a person takes a stand on a particular event, to confront it or to adjust to it.

I have been mesmerized by the creativity and the energy of the performance, and it has made me think about what I can take out of it for myself, beyond this particular show.

My thoughts are quite messy, but here are the key ideas I had after leaving the theater.

> Don’t stay on the surface, dig deeper into the story and into the characters’ emotions. The plot was full of surprises. Every time I got my footing again, the floor was dropped from below and the plot went literally elsewhere. (This reminds me of the excellent podcast This American Life, whose best stories have different levels, raising new questions at every step)

> Don’t be afraid to dare and experiment. It might clash sometimes, but perhaps not so. Kawai songs with black-and-white propaganda movies. Off-color, outré jokes paired up with a reflexion about freedom, responsibility and terror. In real life, I am a quiet person, but on page, I can be loud if need be. Creation is not the place to be shy. I can write something quiet and low-key and unassuming, but it should just be the prelude to something interesting, otherwise the reader’s interest will wane.

> Don’t insult your public’s intelligence. On top of being in Japanese language with subtitles, the show I attended had an incredibly complex plot structure. Flashbacks intricate into flashbacks. Characters substitutions. People turning out to be different from expected. Contrary to my fears in just reading the program, on stage it was flawless. I could not explain it to you in details, but as I saw it unravelling before my eyes I understood it all and it made perfect sense.

> Do your best at every instant. The actors gave their maximum during the whole show, running across stage at full speed, shouting and fighting and crying. I was energized just by looking at them. I have set myself a target of writing every day, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of quality in the end. It means that at the editing stage, I will have a big job to cut and re-densify the story.

> Set up some devices and use them at tricks along the story. The decor was very simple, but every object on stage had multiple uses and possible meanings (boxes morphed into ruins, sports lockers, showers, walls, corridors, tribunes, even train waggons during the show). Director Noda used time and space ruptures and sudden changes of pace, that certainly gave me food for thought.

Reading Aloud with my Oldest: Twaddle

I discovered this word while listening to family-centered podcasts. May I bother you to repeat once more how much I love podcasts? Love, love, love them. Ok, I’m done on the subject (for now).

I didn’t even know what twaddle meant, and judging only by the sound it made me think of a duck. But the disapproving tone of the conversation and the context made it clear enough that it was something… bad. The context was a conversation about libraries and how to steer the kids towards the good books and avoid the twaddle. Although I’m sure that the (American, Christian, homeschooling) podcasters and I (European, non-Christian, full-time working mother) wouldn’t quite share the definition of what is a good book, I totally relate to their concern.

Before my older son got to school, I felt that twaddle was rather easy to control: it came as Disney spinoff cardboard books or dumb ultra-gendered books with cars. They seemed rather harmless and we could always offer an alternative. If Baby Smithereens insisted we would give in and that would take 5 minutes at most.

But as my kid grew up, he became a bit more opinionated, and also more influenced by the marketing sirens, although we don’t have a tv connexion in order to avoid the nastiest commercials.

Pikachu via Wikipedia

Enter Pokemon. If you have a vague notion of it, you’d think Pikachu is a kind of cute cuddly toy. Big mistake! I am being surrounded by obsessed 6-7 years old (and you might remember that obsession takes a whole new meaning at this age), and  Pokemon’s merchandising has branched out into probably every daily life activity, including books!

I feel lucky because French libraries don’t stock twaddle in general, and Pokemon in particular, acting as a guardian with superpowers: if it doesn’t exist, you can’t have it. But…

But supermarkets’ books aisles have it, and bookshops have it… One day or the next I was doomed to give in. I refused flat-out to pay good money for having twaddle in my home. I have principles! So much to my shame, I got on to Bookmooch to exchange one for free.

Perhaps there was a huge relief sigh at the other end of the barter when twaddle left the home of the Bookmooch giver.

I refused flat-out to read twaddle aloud. I have principles! Now you’re a big boy, you’re 6 3/4, you can read alone!

Unfortunately the book was in English, sigh, I gave in (parenting is about compromises, isn’t it?) because having a book and not being able to read it is probably the worst frustration ever.

I swear I didn’t understand what I was reading and translating. Even Ellroy’s Perfidia has a clarity that a Pokemon book hasn’t. My son, next to me, was glued to the words that came out of my mouth. I sort of understood the Greek Pythia who delivered oracles without being aware of what she’d say.

I quit after Chapter 3. There’s a limit to my patience. Even my son said it was better to catch episodes on Youtube. He later got another book in French via grandparents (ah, twaddle, if you chase it out the door, it will come back through the window), but he got the lesson: he’s reading it all by himself.

That policy suits me fine. I want him to discover great books, and I plan to read aloud as long as he’s interested (and some more?) but I won’t control every single book that goes through his hands.

What do you think? Am I too passive and fatalist about twaddle?

A short housekeeping post

I’ve been quick to dismiss it before as too self-helpy for a rational, grown-up French gal like me, but I must say it works, those “choose a word for the year” and those tips about crafting a resolution that might actually work.

I said I would report my progress here, and so it is: In February, I wrote every single day but 2. I forced myself to write more on my private blog where I work on a short story and other unfinished fiction stuff.

It was hard. Harder than in January in fact. I have moved past the novelty stage and it is more like a real routine, with its ups and downs. It’s easier to do it every day, but sometimes I find I have simply nothing to say! The short story is not over yet , and I’m not even sure it would qualify as “short” anymore. I am forcing myself to move forward and not edit, so I’m sure that a lot of my daily words are crap. I am stalling, because I should end with a nice “bang” resolution, and it is awfully difficult to produce a “bang” on 20-30 minutes a day.

Nevertheless I found that writing on my phone during my commute at the end of the day works well: better for book posts, and less for fiction but anyway… It makes a good transition and I am less tempted to brood over stressful unfinished job things once home. Funnily enough, during the few days off I took this month it was even harder to write or carve out that time during the day. I ended up writing on my phone in bed (much to my shame!)

I am immensely inspired by Alex’ 101 Goals in 1001 Days, so I feel paltry with my one tiny goal. But so far so good. See you end of March for another update, and hopefully the one short story will be finished by then!

**

As I was grumbling and sighing once more for missing out on my favorite bloggers’ latest posts, I have resolved to abandon WordPress Reader and turn to Feedly. The transition seems okay so far. I have been able to import my blogs list in a few seconds. What RSS reader are you using and loving?

The only downside I see so far is that I won’t be able to “like” WordPress posts anymore with the easy-lazy gold star feature, but as a blogger I enjoy real comments far more than gold stars, so it will force me to be more personal and comment more!

The one with the shark-bitten victim in the rooftop pool

Heinrich Steinfest, Nervöse fische (German, 2010)

I’ll be brief and to the point: I didn’t like this book and barely skimmed to the end. I do enjoy it when Vargas chooses a quirky main character, writes slightly absurd dialogues or situations.

But there’s a limit before it all becomes ridiculous. And this limit is highly personal (and cultural). Mr. Smithereens doesn’t enjoy Vargas’ quirky Inspector Adamsberg. And I have just discovered I don’t enjoy quirky Inspector Lukastik from Austrian police in Vienna, even though I do love Vienna.

Not everything quirky is endearing, not every oddball police inspector makes a good crime novel hero. It seems to be a literary fashion of sorts, don’t you think? As much as geeks and nerds are now in fashion, inspectors in crime novels need to have some eccentric traits to justify their cleverness in discovering the most complex cases. Boring inspectors, like for example Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s inspector Martin Beck, are now a minority in fiction, whereas I am quite sure they are closer to reality than all the Adamsbergs or Lukastiks in the world. Or am I just making this up for the sake of rants?

Here I had the feeling that the writer piled high all the most bizarre situations, to begin with a shark-eaten victim found in a swimming pool at the top of a building in Vienna, added weird people with improbable backgrounds and limited social skills and threw it all together to dazzle the readers.

Dazzled I was not, but it might be German humor, which I never really get. I felt that the writer had a lot of fun and didn’t take the plot very seriously. There were many grand allusions to Wittgenstein and to music, and I might have learnt tidbits of weird information, but… If someone else reads it, I’d be glad to know what I did miss out!

**

On a completely different topic, after so many years of having a rigorous rule for post titles, I was getting bored with it and decided I’m going to try an homage to Friends. I am very forgetful of names and titles in real life (no offense to anyone, it’s all my fault), and my husband is very good at guessing and remembering (he’s like a human Imdb sometimes, but a lot more fun!). I end up naming a show “the one with the delightful dresses in the huge British manor” (that would be Downton Abbey) or “the one where the cute one plays tricks and guesses the truth” (that would be The Mentalist), and same goes with books and actors and movies I’m afraid. If you find it too confusing I’ll always add the book reference in the first lines of the post as usual. If these new titles make me even more forgetful than usual, I might revert to the basics.

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?