The One with the German Kate Reddy on a Bad Day

Mareike Krügel, Look at Me (German 2017, English 2018)

To say that Katharina is having a stressful day is the understatement of the whole novel. The book starts and ends within one day… and what a day! Katharina is a woman in her 40s, a mother of two (a teenaged boy and a ADHD middle grade girl), a wife to an architect who works in another city during the week and leaves her to manage home alone, a daughter to a woman who died of breast cancer when Katharina was in her teens, a sister to a musician woman who is rather self-centered, a helpful neighbor to an excentric couple, a part-time music teacher for pre-k kids, and many other different hats. But nobody really looks at her and sees her as she is, stressed-out, overwhelmed and afraid.

She hardly has time to catch her breath between driving her daughter around, solving out issues of a clothes dryer on fire, lost pets, injured neighbors, son’s girlfriend, daughter’s first period and desperately trying to stay on top of daily chores. Still, these tasks are nothing compared to deeper problems that lurk at the back of her mind. Katharina has discovered a lump in her breast, and her marriage to Costas is not at its best. But she can’t (or won’t) settle down to take these questions in, she runs from one chore to the next in a whirlwind of daily activities and small worries. She’s a bit like a German cousin of Kate Reddy (from Allison Pearson’s bestseller), but a pessimistic Kate without the benefits of British witticism and Pearson’s chick lit obligatory happy end.

Although I could totally empathize with the nature of Katharina’s problems, it was difficult for the first half of the book to connect with her as a character. We jump from one scene to the next, from one problem to the next without getting properly introduced to Katharina, and she doesn’t come out as very likeable at first. Also, it’s a feminist stream-of-consciousness novel, but imposing an endless to-do list on the reader is unfair, I have my own mental load, thank you very much!

I did persevere (slightly because the book is set in Lübeck and I have such fond memories of this town!) and I was glad I had, because the second half was much better. We get to the back stories and the deeper issues of Katharina’s life and the ending just blew my mind and nearly made me cry.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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Kids Lit Special: 3 Choices

As much as I have read big books with difficult grown-up themes recently, I have also fallen in love with beautiful picture books for kids. Pictures draw you in first, and then the short texts need to be straightforward and powerful. In stressful, busy times, picture books offer a moment of beauty and escapism to the tired, frazzled brain, and it works equally well on parents and children.

I still read aloud to my youngest son every night before he goes to sleep, and I enjoy my weekly trip to the library to stock up on 15 picture books of every genre. Of course, some are just twaddle, but others are pure gems of art and poetry. I am quite good at not buying adult books, but weirdly enough I can’t resist buying beautiful picture books! These are my latest discoveries:

How to Live Forever by Colin Thompson (1995) both for text and illustrations. It’s a magical book for any book lover: imagine a secret world that lives on a library shelf! tiny characters who live inside books! book spines shaped like doll houses! Because the pages are so full of books and details, you can literally spend hours poring over the tiny houses made of books with whimsical titles (inspired by real books, with so many puns). The story itself is a melancholy quest by young hero Peter who wants to find the only book missing from the shelves, and who actually bears the same title as the book you have in hand (oh, metafiction for kids!) A bit like Mirrorstone by Michael Palin, the story is less interesting than the world and the unforgettable images that the author has built. It was quite a hit for mother and son alike.

Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats (1964). I was seduced first by the vivid colors, not only on the cover but on each page. Having a black child as a main character is also unusual (I learnt online that Keats was one of the first writers to do it) and I loved the effectiveness of the story that only requires a few words to build a plot. For anyone who has seen his/her child frustrated with whistling, the story, simple as it is, rings very true. It’s one of those skills that you don’t know how to explain, until they know how to do it by themselves.

Le Bois dormait by Rébecca Dautremer (2016) is a splendid variation on Sleeping Beauty. In French we say “the beauty of the sleeping grove”, highlighting the villagers who are asleep because of the evil curse. This book’s title is “The grove slept” (only one letter away from “the sleeping grove”) and in this version, the beautiful princess is not the focus of the story, but the whole village, stuck in a beginning-of-the-20th-century slumber.The book alternates between a white page with only two characters etched with a simple pencil line on the left, and the opposite page in colorful , luscious painting. On the left, two men are walking and speaking about what they discover on the right page. We only get to hear what the funny, plump character say to his genteel companion, who might well be a prince (wink wink). The paintings are so atmospheric and full of melancholy, and the text is both poetic and slightly ironic. This one is a keeper!

New Library Crop (Fall Edition) and a Blogiversary!

When I opened WordPress today, a small note reminded me that I started this blog 12 years ago… Each year I forget and find myself bewildered… and happy! And what better celebration than with a crop of new books?

I have received last week a small box of books in English for my workplace library. Here are the latest acquisitions:

  • Sophie Kinsella, Surprise Me
  • Sue Grafton, Y is for Yesterday
  • Anne Tyler, Clock Dance
  • Aja Gabel, The Ensemble
  • Sarah Miller, Caroline, Little House Revisited
  • Madeline Miller, Circe
  • Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology
  • Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians (although the movie hasn’t reached France yet, and I’m not sure how it will be marketed over here. I took this one because we have quite a number of Asian employees working at the headquarters)
  • Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen, The Wife between us
  • Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine
  • Robert Harris, Munich
  • Curtis Sittenfeld, You think it, I’ll say it (short stories are often a tough sell)
  • Dan Brown, Origin

I tried to add a few books for male readers (a minority at my workplace, I’m not sure how typical it is) with Dan Brown, Robert Harris and Neil Gaiman. The library patrons want something fun and escapist, and I cannot send an order without a Sophie Kinsella or something equally sweet and rosy. I have absolutely no librarian training, and I have no idea how they do the selection. I tend to pick from bestsellers lists, from blogs (especially if a book gets mentioned in several unrelated circles) and also I check on Goodreads ratings. I also try to judge if the language is not too complex because English is the second language for most of the library patrons… but that’s a tough criteria because how can you tell from the outside, or from a short excerpt?

20180921_125318Can you guess which one was borrowed first?

Thinking about this order for fall, I just realized that I totally forgot to share with you the photo of the spring acquisitions (even though I have taken a picture when I’d received the box, for my records). I don’t want you to imagine that readers at my workplace have only a dozen new books (in English) each year!

The One with the British Mandate Palestine Killer

Ehud Diskin, Lone Wolf in Jerusalem (2018)

This book is a bestseller in Israel and promises a “thrilling tale of love, loss, and revenge”. I’m going to cut to the chase and say that it made me quite uncomfortable, although I read it to the end and enjoyed learning and thinking about the many historical facts that are inserted into the novel.

The book is set in Israel (then under British rule) between 1946 to 1948 and centers on David Gabinsky, a Jewish survivor from Belarus. David has a somewhat unusual trajectory during World War II, as he escaped early on from the ghettos, joined the Jewish resistance fighters against the Nazis and local Antisemitic thugs. His role was to set up ambushes, terrorize and kill local Nazi troops by guerilla tactics. At the end of the war, without any living family to return to, he decides that Europe is no place for him and for Jews anymore. He rallies Israel and decides to support the foundation of a Jewish state his own way: not by posting leaflets and demonstrating, but by doing what he does best, which is killing soldiers. Of course, he has some twitches of conscience, but overall not that much, since he considers it’s for the greater good. Every British soldier depicted in the novel is a truly contemptible anti-Semite, so it’s hard not to feel David’s righteous anger.

I would argue that the book is a nationalist history course of the difficult establishment of the state of Israel, made palatable to younger readers by adding some sex, action and tears. It’s very interesting because it’s a little-known period, and a complex one. Quite a number of advanced praises come not from writers or literary critics but from the president of Israel, ministers and generals. It’s surprising, but it says a lot about the book as well. I am not knowledgeable enough to analyze exactly if this interpretation of history (and in particular of British mandate over Palestine) is biased or not (and I’m totally ready to concede it’s not, if proven to me by facts), but I would advise to tread carefully.

Because of my personal family history, it started to disturb me early on, when David turns his back on Europe and can’t see any other future for Jewish people than going to Israel. But of course that is his (fictional) choice and his view. I am not informed enough about the different Jewish resistance movements (namely the Lehi and the Irgun) but this novel made me want to understand more. It is disturbing to me that just as British people in the book are uniformly bad guys, every Jewish character in the book is nice and selfless (has no money problem, learns hebrew in a jiffy, finds a job immediately and generally integrates him/herself into Israeli society like one big happy family despite a few minor disagreements)… and agrees that British soldiers need to be killed. It is also disturbing to see that such a storyline is bestseller material in Israel, and I feel that for Western audiences this English translation would benefit from a post-face that would explain historical facts and put events and positions into perspective.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

 

The One with the Magician’s Maid

Mary Hooper, At the House of the Magician (2007)

I loved Mary Hooper’s Fallen Grace several years ago and her name stuck with me (weird, given that the name isn’t so special and that there are actually more than one writer with the same name, Goodreads tells me). So when I saw that my library’s YA shelves had one of her books I borrowed it, hoping that I could make it a joint reading with my 10-year-old (boy). But the cover art is so girly that he couldn’t come anywhere close, and firmly dropped the book on my own nightstand. Message received loud and clear: I’ve read it and haven’t forced it on him.

The novel is set during the second half of the Elizabethan reign (the Tudor queen, not the present one). Like all Hooper’s books this one has a lot of research and a postface with some more history to let readers know what is historical and what is fiction in the book they’ve read. I really appreciated that, and I bet that the glossary of old words would also be useful for a young reader. I’ve watched my fair share of BBC historical movies with Queen Elizabeth but I still can’t get enough. The same period is a very troubled one in France with religious massacres and royal shenanigans, and it’s studied very briefly in school, so that by many aspects people from this period are hard to understand for me. I appreciated that Hooper steers clear from the common mistake of creating anachronistic characters (my pet peeve) and feisty young feminist girls centuries ahead of their times.

Lucy, the main character, is a girl from a poor background who runs away from her abusive father and finds a job as the maid and nanny of rather well-off kids, whose father happens to be the Queen’s magician (a real historical figure). Lucy is totally fascinated by the Queen and hopes this job will help her see her idol. There is some supernatural in the story but it doesn’t take over the whole story. Lucy is likeable and believable in her naivety. It’s a middle grade novel, and so it’s not as dark and threatening as it could well have been if the very same story was told for an older audience in mind. It’s the first of a 3-books format so it lacks a bit of tension at the beginning while it sets the backstory. As you can feel, I’m not over the moon, but it was an honest, fun read and I don’t regret the time I spent with Lucy.

A One of a Kind Mall Library

I have loads of books to write about, but first… why don’t we take a little detour through Seoul, Korea? We have a wonderful fun family trip this summer there and I can’t help but mention this very special place that will send all book-lovers drooling…

SeoulCoex4The library is located in a gigantic mall in the Gangnam neighborhood (yes, the stylish one of the song’s fame). The library is not the sort you can check books out to read them home. It’s the kind of place where you sit down and read for hours (with a venti latte, possibly). I think you can buy books too but it’s not common.

It’s not a completely quiet place but it’s a restful enough place when you have been shopping and visiting the aquarium with the kids and trying virtual reality. It’s filled with natural light and the space makes you want to stay forever.

I loved the architecture, although the immediate question any book lover has is: how do I reach for this novel high up there? (Answer: You don’t. Anyway, it’s in Korean, so no regret). A lot of people seemed to be stopping by for a while, and there were tables for people to study. Our friend told us it’s a great place for students to date. You bet…

SeoulCoex3

The minor problem is that I can’t read any Korean (I’m just starting with the alphabet) but there were international magazines and also some books with photos. I was told there were also e-books on loan. It was a great experience, but also a slightly frustrating one. Wouldn’t that be great to replicate this concept in Western malls?

The One with the Stasi Office Cleaner

Michelle Barker, The House of One Thousand Eyes (2018)

This YA novel is set in the German Democratic Republic in the early 1980s; but it’s democratic only by name. Lena is a young woman who has lost both her parents in a factory accident and who has dropped out of high school. She lives with her aunt who has a good position in the ruling Communist party and who has found her a job cleaning offices by night at the headquarters of the National Security services, a.k.a the Stasi, the terrifying secret police.

But Lena is also a girl who spends her life under a cloud of fear and suspicion. When her parents died she had a mental breakdown and was sent to a psychiatric unit, a terrible place where a lot of abuse took place. She has to behave and toe the party line (and her aunt’s) otherwise she might be sent back there. She also has an uncle who writes, has anti-party leanings, and who suddenly disappears…

The book was terrifying and sad and gripping and heartbreaking. Barker has done her research well and it rings very true. Life in East Germany in the early 1980s was not as harsh as in the immediate post-war, or while Stalin was still alive, but it doesn’t mean that it was liberal. It doesn’t only mean that people couldn’t wear jeans, drink Coke and listen to Western rock and roll. It means that everyone could be a police informer, and the slightest critic uttered against the regime (or the simple yearning to something different and better) could change your destiny.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but I particularly liked that the ending was not all rosy. People make complex decisions when they are in complex situations, and the novel allowed for this. I believe a lot more in a flawed character rather than in a perfect, fearless hero.

I’d recommend it to large YA audience, but reader’s discretion is advised because of sexual assault and abuse.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The One with the London Fox and the Accra Shrink

Aminatta Forna, Happiness (2018)

(Pardon the pun, it was just too hard to resist – but the book is not comic)

I downloaded Happiness from Netgalley because Annie (from A Bookish Type) loved it so much back in February. It even made it to #1 of her favorite books of the first part of the year. Her review was so glowing that I jumped on the ARC. To be honest, I wouldn’t have thought to choose this book because the title is so lame. It was not love at first sight. It took me a while to grow into it, because it’s a meandering book with many people and many stories, but like happy fairy tales, in the end, they lived happily ev… oops, I should say, I really, really liked it.

I liked it because it’s one-of-a-kind. I liked it because it’s a book free of clichés, and full of great characters and great ideas. The female main character is Jean, an American middle-aged, divorced biologist, who currently lives in London to study foxes who have adapted to urban environment. The male main character is Attila, a psychiatrist from Accra, who has worked for decades to treat civilians traumatized by war and who is in London for a few days to deliver a keynotes speech at a conference. Their meeting is a long shot. Their becoming friends is unlikely. Their falling in love is nothing short of a miracle.

Jean and Attila have lived through a number of catastrophes, big and small. They have grown and evolved and learnt some truths. They are good people, but they aren’t perfect. The book is about connections, common humanity in face of loss, death and life events. It goes against the grain when it speaks about tragedies and death as normal parts of life. Attila teaches (it feels a little preachy, at times, but the character is so wise that I’d listen to his lectures anytime) that Western people have pushed death out of their lives so much so that people stricken with loss and grief are treated as pariahs. On the contrary, people from other parts of the world acknowledge that life is fragile, don’t expect things to go well all the time and close rank around the bereaved. It surely is an idealistic view of non-Western people (as my recent reading about Indian slums has shown), but it’s also a refreshing reminder when picture-perfect images of happiness ever after are pervasive on the (mostly Western) internet (or else, you’re doing something wrong and here’s the 10 steps).

Besides Jean and Attila there are many secondary characters that I loved in the book: a community of immigrant street cleaners, hotel staff and street performers who live in the city but aren’t seen and acknowledged. They help Jean to record fox sightings across town, and will help Attila when the need arises.

The book makes you feel rather hopeful in humanity, and that’s a rare treat these days. I hadn’t heard of Aminatta Forna before and I’m glad of this serendipitous discovery (thanks Annie!). I’ll be definitely checking her other books out.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The One with the Cameras in the Tube

Clare Mackintosh, I See You (2016)

Zoe Walker is an ordinary Londoner. She is a lower middle-class, divorced, remarried mother of two late teens / young adults, she works in a realtor’s office, and she commutes everyday at the same time in the same train. Pretty boring, uh? One day, her routine is disturbed when she sees a photo of herself in the newspaper classifieds. Needless to say, she hasn’t put it there herself. Who has taken her picture and why? It would be a coincidence, or a small joke, if Zoe didn’t recognize the face of a recent murder victim: she too had her photo in the same obscure classified ads.

The idea that we’re being watched all the time is hardly a new one. Cameras, evil computer viruses and misuse of social media is newer but not innovative. Stalkers are a common trope of fast-paced thrillers. The last few years have seen the huge commercial success of domestic noirs, with ordinary wives and mothers as new (if unreliable) heroines. “I See You” takes these different themes and shakes them into a rather efficient new mix.

I wasn’t completely blown away by the book. It was a good page-turner, but not great (meaning that it is a bit forgettable afterwards), because the last few twists seemed a bit stretched, and the underlying argument (why the crime is committed at all) wasn’t quite convincing to me (telling more would be a spoiler, and I think you should go and judge for yourself).

The best parts of the book were those in Zoe’s head, when the feeling of safe anonymity that she feels in her daily commutes (and that I do feel, to be honest) is replaced by the paranoia of being vulnerable and all too visible in the crowd (not a comfortable idea to entertain when you use public transportation daily). The parallel with Paula Hawkins’ Girl on the train is a complete marketing ploy, unless you want to create a bookshelf dedicated to women and (British) public transportation.

The One with the Slums and no Millionaires

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012)

Sometimes  the universe conspires to make you read a particular book. Have you ever had this experience? What were the chances that I’d pick up a non-fiction book set in an Indian slum? I don’t know much about India, and have seldom read any book about it. But my workplace library had it (weird?! we usually only have bestsellers), Anne Bogel mentioned it in her podcast WSIRN (I think it’s in this episode), and then the Sinica podcast (of all things!) mentioned it among random favorites.

So, thank you, universe. It was well worth reading. It’s a piece of non-fiction like no others (or if there are others out there, please let me know!). I would have thought it as “novel inspired by a true story”, but the postface made it clear that Katherine Boo actually interviewed and followed each of the “characters” of the book for quite a long time (4 years!) in order to “get it right”. I don’t know enough about India to judge if it is right or not, but I did learn a lot through the book so I hope very very much that it is as truthful as it is memorable.

I had heard about India’s extreme inequality between the richest and the poorest, all living side by side. But I had not heard of the degree of corruption in the political, economic and judicial systems.  Government or foreign aid money is funneled into the pockets of some people under the guise of opening schools for poor kids, of installing public infrastructures like sidewalks or sewers, but it’s all pretense. As soon as the foreign aid worker or the official have turned their backs, the thing disappears. And don’t let me start on the judicial process, the health system and on the police crime stats.

Another shocking fact from the book is the absence of any sense of community among the slum dwellers. Poverty makes them think of themselves first, and their family second. Oftentimes if they can benefit from a neighbor’s misery they won’t hesitate to take it.

In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of a mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.

The book is not specifically a call to action, nor is it a tear-jerker tale of misery told by a well-meaning Westerner, but a complex portrait of the other side of the Indian miracle, that many people want to ignore. It is not a pessimistic book because some people in the slum find ways to be hopeful, but if they survive very few of them thrive. What is sure is that individual striving is not enough and that a political overhaul would be more than necessary to bring some solutions to the problems described in the book. I do wonder what Indian readers make of it.