The One with the big C in Sweden

Johanna Thydell, I taket lyser stjärnorna (Swedish 2003); In the Ceiling the Stars Are Shining (French 2010)

I continue my investigation of the YA / Middle Grade shelves at the library, and I took this one home because I wanted to try another Scandinavian novel.

Yes, I readily acknowledge that this is very vague. And probably unsatisfactory to you. There was the nice cover art (I’m sort of partial, and I hate to be). There was the glowing blurbs and the fact that the book won a national prize for YA literature in Sweden. There was also the French publisher, Thierry Magnier, that regularly publishes very intriguing YA books.

Yet as I came home and started reading, I had to wonder how come I was spending hours of my limited free time reading about a Swedish 13-year-old middle-school girl whose mother was dying of breast cancer. This is no fun.

No fun to Jenna indeed, who is having all these very normal qualms about boys, BFFs, body changes, curfew, getting invited to parties, possible alcohol drinking, possible kissing and generally growing up and becoming a young woman. All that, while her mother is getting weaker and weaker and spending more and more time in hospitals. Jenna’s mother is a single parent, which means that Jenna’s grandparents come over and start taking care of her, which is all the more difficult for her to accept.

Despite the difficult subject (things don’t magically go better, this is no spoiler), Thydell has managed to hook me and I read the whole book in a few sittings. I bet teenagers will cry buckets over it. As an adult and a mother, it was also heartbreaking to read because of course I couldn’t help but identify with Jenna’s mother.

What is the magic formula that Scandinavian writers have to pull us readers in, although I have never set a foot in Sweden? Is it the relatability? The tell-it-like-it-is approach, the one that pulls no punches? The simplicity that makes it universal? (I’m not approaching the Ikea cliché, no I won’t). Is it the noticeable absence of prudish tiptoeing around issues like sex, death, religion and body? I’m sure there must be some characteristics of Swedish culture that are very specific, exotic and not understandable to me, but this book spoke to me and made me see life through Jenna’s eyes without filter nor distance. Which is a testament to the quality of the book, and made it totally worthwhile.

The One with the Pestering Widow

Georges Simenon, La Veuve Couderc (French 1942, English title: The Widow)

Part of my plan for 2017 was to read more Simenon, which meant in my mind more Inspecteur Maigret. But it turns out that the volume we own at home is a collection of his serious novels (“les romans durs”, “the hard novels” according to Simenon’s own terminology), not the lighter Maigret police investigations (although one can discuss if Maigret is lighter, at least it’s more plot-driven and was definitely written to entertain). So the hard way it went…

I chose La Veuve Couderc at random, because I was maybe expecting a glamorous widow (like the NYRB cover?). But it is anything but glamorous, bucolic or romantic.

The widow in question is Tati, a 40-something year woman (which in 1942 made her an old woman), uneducated, ugly (she has a huge mole on her face) and rather unsympathetic. She has been a farm girl, a servant from the age of 14, and she slept with the master’s son (and the master himself) a few years later. She managed to get herself married to Couderc and after the master fell into dementia, her husband died and the thriving business went bankrupt, she hangs on to the farm and takes care of the old master, fighting her two sisters-in-law who want to get rid of her.

But we don’t get to know her first thing. We enter the novel through a vision of a man walking in the sun as seen from a crowded bus. We are in a peaceful countryside, a quiet canal and sunny meadows. It is the scenery as seen by Jean, whom we discover is a young man fresh out of prison. He is free, without any destination, any project, any money. He meets Tati on the bus coming back from the market and she hires him as a farm hand.

Jean and Tati are an unlikely couple. He is 28, educated, son of a rich businessman in the city. Yet Simenon manages to make it a very linear story, as if nothing was surprising. The atmosphere is slow and heavy and the two characters seem doomed from the start.

There are moments of lightness, when Jean discovers the farm life and takes joy in simple manual activities and the routine of life with the animals. He was adrift, and the farming life grounds him for a time, but not for long: soon his guilt, his restlessness and his nightmares come back to haunt him. Tati, on the other hand, has felt frustrated for years, stuck in the farm with her father-in-law. She bosses Jean around, but when things get more personal between them it gets out of hand.

It’s not an easy read by any means, not because its gore but because of its hopelessness. Yet as I am finished with this one I am quite ready to continue with another “roman dur” by Simenon.

 

Writing ’17: April Status & a Literary Visit

Mmh, I hesitated to write a quick post or not. The jury is still out there (on May 12!!), because I guess it might get boring for you guys.

For me, the monthly roundup is clearly an effective incentive : it is no coincidence that I finally found the time to finish my last corrections and to send my novella on April 28, when the end of the month was looming! I didn’t have the feeling at the time, but objectively I have found a kind of rhythm and I only missed 3 days in April. I really enjoyed writing in cafés again and I look forward to my next session!

20170509_164424I would hate to be boring, so I will also entertain you with my recent visit to Balzac’s home. Because every French pupil has to read at least one or two of his novels before finishing high-school, my experience of Balzac (1799-1850) is tainted by the memory of drawn-out analysis in class or graded papers, which is a terrible fate for any writer. The few times I tried Balzac in my adult life, it was a far more enjoyable experience and I should definitely try again (one of his shorter novels).

His lovely small house is located in a wealthy, hilly neighborhood in Western Paris, which used to be a separate village back when Balzac was living there. He thought it was the countryside, and indeed it is still very peaceful! His house is built on hillside, with one entrance accessible through a flight of stairs, and another entrance three storeys below that opens into a narrow lane. There’s a garden and many trees.

20170509_164058The house is quite cute, although there are not much to see (a desk and chair and a teapot). The atmosphere is serene (now), and I sat in the garden in the sun to read a short story sent by Danielle, although I understand that Balzac often ran away from his debtors through one gate when they showed up at the other gate.

20170509_162559There are exhibitions in the rooms, presenting all the characters of Balzac’s enormous series of books, that he envisioned as a presentation of all possible aspects of human society. The pictures of his characters filled an entire room, and another one is devoted to Balzac’s obsession with editing and revising his work.

After visiting Dickens’ House in London in February, is this a new thing of mine? Paradoxically, as we are preparing our move to the suburbs, the memory plaques that celebrate Paris’ homes of famous artists are becoming more interesting to me.

The One with the Dark Princesses Fantasy

Maria Turtschaninoff, Naondel (2016)

The first book by Maria Turtschaninoff, Maresi, attracted my attention in Netgalley but I was not in the mood. When the prequel of this book was published by Pushkin Press, I was very eager to read it! I understand that Maresi is the story of a women’s abbey set in an island of a fantasy world, and that Naondel explains how the abbey came to be founded. Nonetheless, I didn’t feel that I was missing out by reading this book without the first one; they can be read totally independently.

The book is targeted for middle-grade or YA readers, and I wasn’t really sure it was appropriate. The book is mainly about prejudice, violence and unfairness against women, so there are some shocking ordeals explained in this book and I wouldn’t probably expose a young teen to so much. It’s not graphically described, but still it may be harsh, especially psychologically.

Naondel is set mainly in the kingdom of Karenoko, an exotic mix of Asian and Arabic culture. Women are subservient creatures kept in harems. When they are born princesses, their fate is to be beautiful, marry according to their father’s political alliances or business interest and bear sons. When they aren’t princesses, they’re slaves and their body doesn’t belong to them either. In this harsh world we hear the voices of Kabira, Garai, Estegi, Orseola and other women trapped in this golden cage.

Although the book presents strong female characters and how the most unfair and cruel treatments don’t break their spirit and courage, until they finally find their way out of oppression, it lacks nuance (the bad guy is a purely evil psychopath and everything is made for us to hate him through and through). It uses rape over and over (not in details), until I found it the demonstration useless and boring. Of course this book is feminist, but there is enough abuse against women in the real world and in the history not to add some more in an imaginary world.

I enjoyed the various kingdoms of this fantasy world and the various subcultures that Maria Turtschaninoff has built. The different women have each their own voice, which I found interesting, but it was not enough to convert me.

Check out Elle’s interesting take on this book, compared to another dystopian novel!

Thanks to the publisher Pushkin Press and Netgalley for a free copy of this book in exchange for a honest review.

The One with the Temptation of Nostalgia

7cavaliersT3Jean Raspail, Jacques Terpant, Sept Cavaliers (French 1993 novel; graphic version 2009-2010)

I have started a post a while back, an enthusiastic one. Then I added a few sentences, a bit more reserved. And then nothing for a while. Now this post is nowhere to be found on WordPress, but that’s not that bad. Because I don’t quite know how to put this in writing.

I have discovered this graphic novel at my workplace library, an adaptation of a novel whose title is really unique: “Seven riders left the town at dusk by the Western gate that wasn’t guarded anymore”. Have you ever seen a book whose title is a full sentence?

The graphic story is set in 3 volumes and the art is exquisite, using the traditional French-Belgian “ligne claire” (clear line design). Except for the clear line, nothing is clear in this story. We discover a dying kingdom, a beautiful country of mountains, countryside and seaside where the population has died or disappeared. There has been a civil war, one guesses, but we aren’t told whom against whom. Except, by hearsay, we gather some evidence of terrible destructions and deaths. Children have broken loose and turned against their families. The few survivors hide and attack the passer-by in fear of new exactions. No trains arrive at the station, no boats follow the lighthouse’s indications and there are few supplies left anyway. The king commits suicide just after the seven riders leave the town, so I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler. They are a band of loyal men, young and old, who decide to try to reach a bridge on the other side of the country, both by desperation and bravado. What else can they attempt?

This story is really fascinating and charming, but it works like a spell. You can’t stop reading, and your judgment is suspended, and then when you close the book (in my case, the three books), you don’t quite know what happened.

7cavaliers-1What is the writer’s purpose? Is it only fantasy? In some moments I was really reminded of Lord of the Rings’ saga, especially the feeling that the great kingdoms of the Elves or Rohan have passed their heydays and now only doom and gloom remain. The feeling that Frodo and Sam try to do their duty even if their quest seems hopeless at some point. Not a particularly uplifting mood, but a very powerful one nonetheless.

Those seven riders are the last remnant of civilization, they stand for loyalty, aristocracy, Christian faith and moral values. It felt nice, until it started to feel icky, especially when bands of ennemies started attacking and they were distinctly African or Arabic clichés.

There was greatness to serve among the last to the rear-guards of a finished world. (my translation)

I won’t say that the graphic novel is overtly racist, but it is promoting a reactionary philosophy to say the least. When I looked up the author, Jean Raspail (born 1925), I discovered that he was indeed a deeply conservative, old-Catholic, pro-monarchy, controversial journalist, novelist and adventurer. Not really my cup of tea at all.

It’s quite worrisome when those ideas are presented with muted colors, elegant sentences and impeccable grammar rather than the yelling abuse of some recent political meetings we have grown used to. Because they seem so fine at first. Then you can understand their lure of nostalgia for some people who are taking refuge in the extreme.

Still, the end of civilization is not yet at our gates, with 65% voting for Macron yesterday. Whew!

 

 

The One with the Grief of Exile

Leonor De Recondo, Rêves Oubliés (2012)

I am going to be bold and make assumptions wild guesses (which I can’t prove or disprove): I think that this book’s author, who is also a professional Baroque violinist and who plays in orchestras led by world-class conductors, might be an INFP (or possibly an ENFP).

Yes, I can feel it. No, I never met her or even saw her. But her book is so full of feelings that I, as an ISTJ, feel a bit overwhelmed. I understand that I might have lost a good number of you readers by overtly referencing Myers-Briggs, but it’s really the first thing I thought when I finished this book.

Alright, perhaps not the first thing. This novella presents a Basque family (from the Spanish border in the Pyrenees mountains) who has to leave their home in a hurry because of the Spanish civil war in 1936. They leave so quickly, so secretly, that the meal they cooked is still on the kitchen table. They cross the border to France, and there, a life of exile awaits them, and the war in France with its dangers and suspicions, was even tougher for foreigners.

The story is told through the husband first, then through the wife. A strong love unites them both and it’s the best pages of the book. I have really not much against the book, except that it was so sentimental and I’m not used to that.

The real weakness I found was that everything was told on the same level, using the same elegiac tone. The main characters weren’t fully developed because the characters were rather introverted and didn’t show much. There was no ebb and flow between tension and release, no narrative arch. Because of its short form it was okay, but I prefer my historical novels to have more depth and more bite.

The One with the Cheeky Loner

Over the last few months our family developed a serious crush on Vincent Cuvellier. I mean, not particularly Mr. S. who seems immune to his charm, but the rest of us…

Our 3-year-old has practically robbed the library. Even the almost-9-year-old, who is practicing eye-rolling and deep-sighing before he really qualifies as a tween, quotes full sentences of several books. And I, the adult, keep finding relatable moments in my everyday life.

Before any of you starts worrying and wants to call my husband to tell him about a certain man who is leading us astray, let me clarify.

He’s not a lover, not a rock start, not a guru. Vincent Cuvellier is a kids lit author.

He has written the quite successful series Emile (well, successful in French-speaking countries, I guess). “Emile is invisible”, “Emile wants a pet bat”, “Emile takes out the trash”, “Emile invites a girlfriend”, “Emile and the boxing dance”, etc. Once you fall in love with one, you need to have them all. These are small, think books, illustrated by Ronan Badel, featuring a little boy with a very, very serious view on life. My guess is that he’s four-going-on-forty. He’s quite obstinate and a loner. He wants to decide for himself and be strong, but obviously it doesn’t really turn in his favor.

Vincent Cuvellier has also written very poetic image books (The first time I was born, or another one about a class taking a school trip to the mountains and who has a massive pillow fight in the middle of the night), and some books for middle graders. And over the weekend I also read in just one setting his autobiography “That time when I became a writer”, and I could see even more reasons to like his work.

I like how direct and straightforward his writing is. No polite words, no convoluted sentences. He writes like a kid speaks, even with some small grammar mistakes. His life hasn’t been easy, because he hated school and dropped out of school before reaching high-school. His family wasn’t wealthy at all, so he took small jobs, was broke, got on the dole, tried theater because he wanted to flirt with girls, but all the time he was writing, mainly for himself. Freedom is so important for him, and I can see it in Emile too. When he was 16, he wrote something for a contest, a very provocative text, and he got first prize. That’s “the” time when he became a writer.

It could be a bildungsroman and end on this fairy tale kind of ending, the social revenge when the high-school dropout gets noticed and famous, but no, that’s so not him. What happened next spoke to me, the adult. He struggled even more after he got published. His first success was lucky, and he took him another 15 years to write a second book.

I do think this short book should be required reading in writing retreats. Because it’s so energizing and freeing to see someone who has gotten rid of the pretense, the artificial and the guilt. Vincent Cuvellier and Elizabeth Gilbert go hand in hand.

So here you go, you have nothing to fear for my marriage. I’m in safe hands.

The One with the Fearless Dozen

Pénélope Bagieu, Culottées (French 2016)

Pénélope Bagieu is often associated in France with girly comics (Josephine, and her first bestseller called something like “my life is so very fascinating”), but she is also a feminist and she has dipped her toes in more serious work more than once. I had enjoyed her graphic novel The Blank Page that she did together with Boulet a few years back.

This book is made after a blog she published on Le Monde web page (a proof, if needed, that it was serious!), presenting a series of women who have defied conventions and have decided their own fate in times or cultures that weren’t supportive of them (which means, basically, everywhere since the beginning of times, no?).

The choice is personal and very diverse, from an Australian woman who invented the swimsuit to a Chinese empress, from a native American warrior to a Dutch woman who wanted to marry a man outside her own faith. Some are very ancient, some are still alive. Some have inspired millions of people, some have just been nearly forgotten. Some have changed the world, some have “only” changed their own life, their own gender or their own mind.

“Culottées” in French means those (females) who wear knickers, but in French it also means those who are bold, in a cheeky way, because “culottes” is now underpants but used to be breeches, worn by men, who were the bold ones as a matter of course. The subtitle is “Women who only do whatever they want to”. Pretty inspiring, isn’t it?

Bold and cheeky is the exact tone of Penelope Bagieu’s endeavor, as she finds a good balance between awfully serious subjects (sexism, prejudice, hatred, violence against women) and the light-hearted, humorous tone.

The format is the only thing that I could criticize: the blog was all about regular vignettes and the book feels like a systematic collection of them, without the added value of getting deeper into those women’s lives. For some of them, it feels dreadfully short.

The Second Time

louvre1There was this feeling of déjà vu; but the fact that I knew what to do made it even better.

I checked out of work early and went to a special, trendy place, this time a co-working café where you pay by the hour and can snack, drink and work.

It was rather crowded and noisier than I thought but I was very motivated. I had about two hours to do the job. I had listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast on the train, and she said something about welcoming rejection letters.

Within two hours, all the last corrections to my novella were entered, spelling and grammar checked (again!), and I had checked the chapters for size and consistency. I got myself a mint tea and a butter cookie. Next to me was a guy who was working on a website, on my left there was a woman who had loads of pens and markers and was doodling logos on a big notebook.

Did I feel like I belong? Not really. These places always seem like clichés of themselves, like symbols of what they want to be (cool! young! creative!), but I don’t care and I do enjoy leaving my routine behind.

Sometimes a tourist came in and asked for a coffee, the barman tirelessly explained how it worked, and most tourists just bought a takeaway hot drink (it’s unseasonably cold here!). I left the café a bit elated, and went to a copy shop.

A stylish girl stood at the desk with the mandatory bright red lipstick. The copy shop was close to chic boutiques and bank headquarters, Opera and rue Saint Honoré. The girl looked at me quizzically after she opened my old, battered USB key and gave me a quote of more than 50 euros for two copies of my novella. It was ridiculous, and I couldn’t help but think that she was judging me. I promptly left the shop and found the old place close to home who had made me copies back in November for a very flat rate.

Maybe I have not accumulated enough rejections yet, but sending my story out gave me a boost of good mood and hope. I had decided that I would send it out before May 1st, and I have met the deadline, even if just barely.

The One on the Long Marriages’ Taboos

Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity (2006)

I fear any explicit explanation about this book will only get me spams and trolls, as I venture into the dangerous territory of… the erotic life of lifetime partners. At the risk of getting unwanted attention, I will  totally recommend this book. And this, no matter what goes on behind private doors at Smithereens’ house.

I first heard of Esther Perel through a podcast of Garance Doré, Pardon My French, which I am not subscribed to despite being a total podcast addict (I can’t remember whose blog steered me towards it). But this one episode was priceless: I was floored by this talk so that I ended up listening to it twice, watching her on TED talks and… buying the book. No wonder she has almost 10 millions views on her TED talk!

What I like about Esther Perel is that she has a deeply perspective that comes from  European roots, American life and practice and also, if I’m not mistaken, Freudian psychoanalytical theoretical framework. The result is that she doesn’t shy away from hard truths, and what she advises is very different from conventions or any moral judgment. For example, she rehabilitates the value of fantasy and takes a courageous stand on infidelity (as opposed to serial monogamy). She is also able to see through the moral views of puritanism that may explain some deep differences between Europe and America.

Her book’s themes revolve around the questions of desire and intimacy once two people have “settled down”. It is well-known that routine can cause boredom which can cause problems in long-term relationship. It is also well-known that babies, which are somehow the consequence of sex, don’t make it easier for the couple, now parents, to enjoy a lot more sex, but rather the opposite. Women who become mothers may struggle with this shift in their identity and that may impact their sexual life. To these commonplace issues that are everywhere in women’s magazines, Perel answers with compassionate, open-minded and rather unconventional solutions… which may start by not offering solutions per se. She is frank that there’s no one-size-for-all magical recipe and that intimacy and sex is so deeply personal that every person and every relationship must find its own balance.

The book was so interesting that I underlined many sentences, something extremely rare for me. I can’t say I’m going to read a long series of books on this topic but Esther Perel is surely a name to remember.