The One with the Sad Husbands

Raymond Carver, Short Cuts (1993)

I’ll assume that you have read some Carver stories and that you know how well written they are. Not one word is misplaced, not one is too much, and the atmosphere is set in a few sentences that are enough to build a whole world.

But oh my, what a world. I have read Carver before and he’s a master, but the experience of reading Carver is a post- #metoo world is that you cannot avoid noticing what a harsh this world is for women (a blue-collar world of the 1960s or 1970s?), how much abuse they get, how little consideration they get from their husbands and other men, how they’re supposed to stay quiet and follow the men’s orders. Many stories’ characters are husband and wife, ignoring each other, misunderstanding each other, cheating and lying when they are not hiding even darker secrets or suspecting their significant other of it, and there is a deep pessimism about marriage in general.

One could argue that the men don’t get a better treatment and that Carver’s pessimism is about life in general, not just marriage. He exposes people’s empty lives and dirty little secrets with a cold irony (at most), and he leaves the judgment to us readers. Beneath the simple surface emotional (or real) violence is lurking.

I know that these 9 stories have been made into a choral movie by Robert Altman but I haven’t watched it, and most probably won’t, as I enjoyed each of these perfect little, sad bubbles on their own, and I don’t want to have artificial, random links built between them. I’ll surely read some more Carver, but I guess I need a pink and sweet palate cleanser before the next collection.


The One where Harry Works for Mickey

Harry Bosch, The Crossing (2015)

I have sorely neglected this blog, being busy writing elsewhere. And my stack of read books to review has grown so much that it is threatening to crush me down. Virtually.

Where should I begin? With Harry Bosch, of course! Michael Connelly’s legal thrillers / police procedurals are the ultimate comfort food in books, if you like well-plotted mysteries like I do. I was sniffling and coughing and working my way through a big box of Kleenex, but I knew that my favorite L.A. detective didn’t care for my red nose. He was busy elsewhere fighting criminals. And not for the police anymore!

The last Harry Bosch I read, The Burning Room, was good but not great. I would never advise someone who doesn’t know Harry to start there. Although I didn’t admit it to myself at the time, it became glaring once I started the next book. Because this one, The Crossing, is great. Harry is back in shape! With inner conflicts! And hunches! And… and I should stop adding exclamation marks every few words, otherwise you’ll think I’m totally irrational.

Well, we go a long way back, Harry and me, so I may not be the most objective reviewer around. When I got to meet his half-brother Mickey, the Lincoln lawyer, I enjoyed it even more and couldn’t wait to see them reunited in another mystery. Almost dismissed from the LAPD, Harry plans to enjoy his retirement and has hired Mickey to defend himself against his former employers who pushed him out. Mickey has other clients to defend too, among which a guy who seems very, very much guilty of murder (based on DNA evidence found on the victim), but who has no motive, unless you accept the DA’s interpretation of a random, frenzied attack. Mickey wants Harry to investigate, but crossing the line between working as a policeman and working for the defendant is a tough choice to make.

It’s a question of personal choice, but one that will make him hard to talk with his former colleagues, friends, and even his own daughter who is not keen on this change either. Soon enough, Harry finds some disturbing details in the case, that convince him that the real murderer is still out there, and this, in Harry’s book, is a compelling duty, even if it costs him some friendships and endangers his own life.


Parallel Reading: Girls at the brink of the 1970s

Don’t think that I’m doing a catch-all post to quickly get rid of reviews that are long overdue… On the contrary, writing a post for each book would be easier for me, while trying to link books together is a bit of a challenge, to be honest. But that’s in that spirit that I read them, so here is my experience of parallel reading.

To start, even though it’s harder for me to report, the reading experience is so, so fun! I love when books talk to each other. Over the last 3 months I read 3 books that clearly had a lot of common ground: “America”, by Joan Didion, is a French collection of 11 essays taken from several of her best-known collections: “The White Album” (1979), “Slouching towards Bethlehem” (1968) and “After Henry” (1992). The second book was Emma Cline’s “The Girls”, an oblique retelling of the Manson murders, but also a coming of age story of a 14-year-old angsty girl in 1969 California. The third book, “Mercy, Mary, Patty” by Lola Lafon is a French take on the Patty Hearst kidnapping, told obliquely by a French young woman in the present day and a young girl with her American teacher at the time of the trial.

The first obvious parallel is the end of 1960s and 1970s, when the summer of love has turned sour, when drugs and violence have taken the high ground over idealism and peace and love. I haven’t witnessed it first hand, but I was born at the end of the 1970s when the mood was dark and hopeless and I have never fully understood what was in the air to shift so much from the hopeful days of the 1960s.

The second obvious parallel is young women and girls, as main characters written by female authors. None of these female voices in the three books are exactly likeable. They’re angsty, a bit whiny, both entitled and so unsure of themselves. Violaine in “Mercy Mary Patty” is the pet student of an American exchange teacher in high-school, she’s been chosen to help the teacher with the Hearst material to prepare for trial. She’s highly persuadable and in awe of these exotic characters (both Patty Hearst and the teacher), highly out-of-place in small town 1970s France. Evie Boyd in “The Girls” is lonely and lost, also in awe of Suzanne, the wild, dark (“feral”) young woman in an exotic cult that rejects everything Evie was taught in her upper class, ordinary family. Joan Didion does not quite use the same voice but she doesn’t hide how lost she felt. Although older at the time, a professional journalist whose mission is to observe the people she meets, I can’t help but think that she was strangely fascinated by these weird people in Height Ashbury (and perhaps in Manson’s ranch too, as we see her buying a dress for cult member turned trial witness Linda Casabian). And she was very close to a nervous breakdown.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Emma Cline read Joan Didion (required research reading, isn’t it?), and the result is that in my mind, Evie could very well have crossed paths with Joan in one of these dingy, decaying places where people did drugs all the time, or that Joan could have been invited to a polite party organized in California by Evie’s parents. Violaine, on the other side of the Atlantic, could very well have befriended Evie. She could have been fascinated by Manson or another guru if gurus were roaming the French countryside at that time (not that I know of… California is a far cry from the French Atlantic coastlines). Violaine is taken by the radical protest that her teacher introduces her to, she sees an authentic, pure idealistic woman in Patty Hearst, a young girl like herself who has gone beyond the lies of the civilized society and stifling, conventional parents. Violaine has a massive girl crush in Patty, similar to Evie who has massive girl crush on Suzanne, but doesn’t seem to be as fascinated by Manson. What adults see is that Violaine and Evie are taken into a cult, but what we see from the inside is the adolescent fascination for something different, whatever the discourse (political or spiritual) it takes. Joan Didion, as an adult (she is 35 in 1969, after all), looks at those drifting adolescents and younger with dismay, the same way Evie’s parents and her father’s girlfriend look at her.

The last parallel I’ll draw between the 3 books is the way the writer has addressed her stories and her characters. In the 2 novels, the writer has chosen an oblique approach, with the narrator speaking from the wisdom of her later years, a narrator is contemporary to the reader. Evie has not joined the cult herself but kind of drifts on the periphery (which saves her when things turn dark). Her life afterwards is basically a huge failure. Violaine has not joined any protest group and she has nothing to link her to Patty Hearst herself. Her life afterwards is basically… well, nothing much either. The oblique approach of “Mary, Mercy, Patty” and “The Girls” is what caused my reservations about both books. I didn’t care so much about the present timeline plot, I wanted to be with the girls and experience things firsthand. And I found that it was a bit too easy to make Violaine’s et Evie’s adult lives dull and empty.

Of course, Joan Didion didn’t choose such an oblique way for her essays, but she still starts the White album with this very famous sentence that looks back to the end of the 1960s from the end of the 1970s, in a failed attempt to make sense out of it.  In some ways, even after three books, the era will keep its mystery.

Quick Reading Notes

Last Thursday, I finished both The Girls by Emma Cline and the Raymond Carver’s short story collection Short Cuts within the same day, and then I promptly proceeded to come down with a big cold. Is that literature’s fault? I’d say yes and no.

Certainly, both books were so sad and melancholy that my immune system must have been down and unable to fight the passing virus. It certainly helped that I could read that much because I was stuck at home with my 4yo son who had a cold of his own.

The logical move after a few heavy books would be to pick a light, even humorous book, and I did just that, grabbing the Ellen DeGeneres fun book “Seriously… I’m kidding” that was on my nightstand since my birthday.

I might be weird and special, but when I have a cold I’m not very good with humor books. I’m not that great with humor books when I don’t have a cold, to be honest. And something with having to grab a Kleenex every ten minutes or so makes reading jokes not really funny. I love Ellen (come on, who doesn’t? she’s so fun on screen), but she’s not that funny on print. It feels so random and silly babble, and it helped pass the time, but it’s in no way memorable.

Now, I will just move on and turn back to comforting books… I haven’t finished the second volume of Outlander yet, but if it doesn’t spell comfort read, I don’t know what does. Also, I’ve discovered that I have The Crossing by Michael Connelly on my Kindle library. I’d even forgotten that I’d bought it on a whim when it was a monthly Amazon promotion. Between Claire Beauchamp, Jamie Fraser, Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller, all these powerful characters will be teaming up to help me get rid of my cold as soon as possible!

The One with the Bastille Before and the One on the other side

Jean-François Parot, Le Prince de Cochinchine (French 2017)

Well, this might look like a catch-up post to you but truly I don’t think I can be objective with this book, and as I don’t want to give spoilers either, what can I say? I’m too deep into Jean-François Parot’s mysteries by now, and this is the 14th… so it’s practically family by now. Like most fans I enjoy meeting again and again all these familiar characters, and to see how all of them are evolving or staying true to themselves.

The year is now 1787 (the previous one was set one to two years before that), and it’s only 2 short years before the well-known Bastille events (well-known to us readers, of course, not to the oblivious characters). To say that the characters are dancing on the brink of disaster is the biggest understatement of the whole series. Mystery plots aside, I guess it’s what makes Parot so hugely popular. And of course, Parot plays with our nerves when he alludes to the weaknesses of King Louis 16th, to the mounting dissatisfaction and unrest in the countryside and the cities. The hero gets thrown into the Bastille prison for a short while, and you can almost see Parot wink at us. The research is impeccable as always, but it’s not really a leisurely read because Parot likes to mix several plot lines together, from the petty crime to the international high-level treason and it’s sometimes tough to follow (at least, to my exhausted mind).

Now I want to contrast and compare briefly with another novel that is set on the other side of the Channel during the very same period: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. I got it as an ARC through Netgalley, but I’m totally stalling at 10%. The book is just as rich with research and period details as Parot’s, but the pace is so slow that I’m going to take a break (a long one, possibly forever?). I was first charmed by the beautiful cover art and then I thought that I would learn a lot about people living and breathing at the same time of Commissaire Nicolas Le Floch but not having the same concerns. So far I have met Mr. Hancock and also the high-class prostitute Angelica Neale and it made me think of characters with similar ambitions and prospects on the Paris scene of the 1780s. Both writers adopt a very different point of view. Gowar switches points of view between different characters but remains at their level, while Parot remains firmly behind Le Floch’s back but give us an occasional head up on what it means nationally, politically or socially, or even at international level. I am a bit disappointed because The Mermaid… is gorgeous in writing and seemed right up my alley, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the characters so far. Am I missing out on something? Should I salvage the book or let it gather dust on my digital shelves?

The One with Rebel Chinese-French Teens

Chloé Cattelain, Ma Vie à la Baguette (French, 2015)

Mr. Smithereens gave me this book last year… and I wished I had started it earlier, because it was such a delight!

The narrator and main character is Kevin, 17, a first generation French-Chinese teenager full of contradictions. He’s born in a French town, but classmates and teachers always highlight his Chinese identity (or mistake him for Korean, in a hilarious, awkward scene where the popular girl in class, a big K-pop fan, invites him over to her party and hopes to make out, until he reveals his country of origin). He wants to have a girlfriend, have fun, but his father wants him to get good grades and study all the time. Kevin’s father is a sort of “Tiger dad”, who demands a lot because he loves his boys but doesn’t know about to speak to them.

Kevin, his little brother Michael (14) and their father are forever in-between China and France, both culturally and literally. The boys get to spend all their holidays in Beijing, with his father’s family relatives, while their father meets local contacts and takes them to no-end of business dinners for his trading company. They are stuck in awkward silence and misunderstanding, especially since the boys’ mother passed away a year before.

Clearly, there is an elephant in the room, and I will spoil it a bit for you (given that the book is in French only): it deals with the June 1989 events on Tiananmen Square.

I was suspicious at first, because it’s a middle grade / YA novel and the tone and voice is often off when dealing with big subjects. I was also suspicious, because the writer is French (she’s a teacher of Chinese language from what I understand) and I didn’t trust how much she could create the realistic voice of a Chinese family.

I was weary of clichés, but I was totally wrong! The boys seem totally real in their own struggles, and their relatives in France and China behave, talk and think like real people to me. Kevin is shy and ballsy in turn, the adults around him are clammed up with grief, fear, regret and other reasons. No one is black and white in this story and readers of all age will get food for thoughts.

The title has a lot of double entendre: “baguette” is both Chinese chopsticks and your typical French bread, but to live under the “baguette” means to be ruled hard, as per Kevin’s father exacting education standards.

I love this publisher, Thierry Magnier, and it surprises me over and over with its teenaged / YA novels.

The One with Anxiety as your Game Opponent

Reid Wilson, Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry (2016)

I don’t have O.C.D. or any diagnosed anxiety disorder, but I like to think myself as a rather cautious person, and with many things on my plate last year, I found myself worrying more than usual. A book title focused on anxiety would have discouraged me, but by talking about noise in my head and worry, I felt right in the apparent target.

I was first surprised by the tone of the book, then I grew to like it, although it felt a bit repetitive and patronizing at times and could have been edited of many pages in my opinion. It seems more relevant to people with serious anxiety, panic attacks and OCD than the average worrier like me. Reid Wilson’s tone is direct and straightforward (and a bit too verbose to my taste) and his take on anxiety is that it’s a game opponent, a cunning adversary that feeds off your fear and that plays a lot of tricks to have your fears flare up.

By personalizing anxiety as if it was an evil character, Wilson (who is a PhD clinical psychologist) makes it something separate from our own head and our own past experience. He makes it possible to prepare a strategy to beat this opponent at its own game. The strategy includes trying to separate noise from signal, i.e. baseless worry from justified need to learn more or be alert about something, and seeking out a frequent exposure to the cause of anxiety (the more the better, and Wilson even devises a point system to score every time you get anxious, acknowledge and still moves forward).

I read slowly because it’s a bit short of 400 pages (I guess it could be half that size with a good editor) and I wanted to apply his tips before posting about it here. I didn’t follow the whole step-by-step approach but I had his guiding principles as I recently traveled by plane (I’m a nervous flier) and I think I handled it better than usual. A few points to score for Wilson’s method!

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher HCI Books for the ARC.

The One with the Somali Juliet

Fartumo Kusow, Tale of a Boon’s Wife (2017) 

It feels like a first novel, and it feels like something close to the author’s heart so I don’t want to be overly critical.

There are many things I liked about this novel: it taught me stuff about Somalia, that there is a cast system like in India and that people are discouraged to marry across cast boundaries. That there was some prosperity and peace in this country somewhere in the 1970s or 1980s and that the government tried to abolish the cast system. I liked Idil, the main character of this novel, and I liked her pluckiness as a girl, her fidelity to her beliefs and her love as a grown woman and as a wife and mother, her courage in front of the ever darkening adversity. She does not mop around, she picks herself up and moves forward.

It is a very emotional book and while some things go as wrong as you would predict it, some things go even worse. Most readers will be drawn to Idil early on, because she is so relatable to our Western thoughts and she doesn’t understand why she should be inferior to men and marry according to their wishes and to the cast system instead of marrying for love. She is from the upper class / aristocratic caste (Bliss) and she falls in love with a young man from the lowest class possible, the Boons. We get to care about her and it’s tough to read all the hardships she goes through. It felt too much, but I guess it’s only fair game given the recent Somali history. The most heartbreaking characters are those of Idil’s mother and Idil’s sister-in-law, who have internalized the traditions and prejudices and who are blaming other women for men infidelities, or justifying decisions that are detrimental to themselves with fatalism. I wish these two characters would have been portrayed with more subtlety.

The biggest weakness of the book is in the ending, in my opinion, that feels hurried and rather illogical. Baddies in this book are really evil, and it makes no sense that Idil would fall into every trap of theirs. Despite these few problems, I still wanted to read until the last page and that’s a good enough sign.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher Second Story Press for the review copy.

The One with the Tokyo Pilot’s Wife

sous-le-ciel-de-tokyo-1-delcourt_mSeiho Takizawa, Sous le ciel de Tokyo (2 vol., Japanese 2010, French 2017-18)

I have finished in one setting, this afternoon, a two-volume manga about Japanese war planes.

Should I repeat this sentence? Can you believe it? Ahem, which part of the sentence didn’t you quite believe? That I finished a book in one setting, or that I devoted an afternoon to a manga about war planes, of all things?

Yes, all this is highly implausible, but it did happen, just like snow in Paris last month. Weird and unusual. But I recently read 400 pages on Japanese war bikes, so I’m staying within the same theme, just switching transportation mode, right? Not exactly.

Just like the unclassifiable Taiwan novel, this manga is pretty much one of a kind. It’s a two-volume seinen manga (i.e. for adult men, but not porn) set in Tokyo during WWII. The two main characters are husband and wife. Husband Shirakawa is a test pilot in the Japanese airforce. Wife Mariko is a housewife with her own strong character. Their fairly balanced and realistic relationship is quite refreshing in a manga world that is often full of clichés. He is passionate about planes (and it gets as technical as you can get, for people who love this kind of subject – not me), but he also wants to eat during the flight exercise and the lunchbox Mariko prepares for him is often one of those small surprises that make the couple believable.

Mariko is devoted to her husband but also has her own interests and friends. She’s worried about him but it’s not everything in her life. They are suitably patriotic for the period, but they’re not brainwashed: the scene when Mariko as a pilot wife is called to lecture the neighborhood by the local safety committee is part comical part heart-wrenching.

What I enjoyed most is that the mangaka has obviously taken a lot of care to recreate the daily life in those troubled times, down to the food, the houses, the clothes, etc. (the last volumes present a few pages of detailed explanations). Also the planes, obviously, but that was not what interested me most. It was quite an interesting change to see the war in Japan but not to focus on Hiroshima and the nuclear attack. Mariko and Shirakawa allude to the event, and she tends to disbelieve it. Finally, it was great to end the book not on Japan surrendering to the US, but to follow Mariko and Shirakawa for a few months afterwards, to show what it meant for a professional air force soldier, the uncertainty of demilitarization and the difficulties of the after-war period.

I’m always on the lookout for atypical mangas and this one was a complete success for me. I’m not sure if it is translated to English.

The One with the Twisted Sisters

Nicholas Blake, The Dreadful Hollow (1953)

I confess that I was going to thrash the book: knowing that this is a reprint from 1953 and that the author is dead since 1972, I thought I wouldn’t do much personal harm. But then I learnt that Nicholas Blake is actually the pseudonym of poet Cecil Day-Lewis, and I was so perplex that I stopped writing this post altogether.

Nicholas Blake apparently wrote a whole series of rather cosy mysteries featuring amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways from the 1930s to the 1960s. This one is the 10th, and maybe not the best (or at least I hope so). I chose it on Netgalley because I wanted to read a classic British mystery and it seemed to fit the bill. Unfortunately it has quite aged and not like a good wine.

In short, I could not suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy this story. There are many characters, but the crux of the mystery revolves around two sisters, one crippled after the discovery of their dead father’s body and one who has dedicated her life to helping her sister. There are also two brothers (one of them falls in love with the second sister) and a religious maniac. It starts as a poison pen mystery, but soon graduates into assault and then murder, but the pace remains a bit too leisurely for my taste.

How does this rather dull story fit into the writing list of a Poet Laureate? I am still scratching my head, especially as Nigel Strangeways is supposed to be modelled on Auden. Maybe Day-Lewis needed that to pay the bills. It’s hard to resist the pun, and declare that the book was just what it promised : dreadful and hollow, but it wasn’t really that bad. The atmosphere rang true, but not the characters, and the plot was too convoluted for its own good, ending in total implausibility.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC (although I’m not sure they’ll thank me for this post)