Random Bookish Thoughts March 29

  • Mid-March I was at an all-time low with the books I’d selected for the month’s Unreadshelf challenge. My anxiety has sky-rocketed and reading a book of weird Israeli short stories or a manual teaching me the best way to not yell at my kids didn’t seem really relevant. I even considered quitting altogether.
  • Today, 2 days before the end of the month and after two full weeks of strict confinement, things are definitely better, and like the good (?) student I was, I’m making huge progress under tight deadline. I may not finish the short story collection, but the parenting guide is almost to its end.
  • Speaking of progress, remember my Dracula readalong project with my elder son? We’re now starting chapter 13 (ominous number!) and it’s been great fun all along. (although it’s a chunkster and not all parts of the plot are equally fascinating).
  • We also tried to find a little more about real Transylvania through Google maps, about 1890s fashion for men and women, about blood transfusion history and blood types (I don’t think I will spoil much if I tell you that some character needs a blood transfusion, and the fittest is deemed more appropriate, without any checks for his blood type).
  • I’m not back to my normal reading pace, but yesterday I broke down and actually bought 2 books on Kindle! Dear Mr. Smithereens has ordered a huge history biography of Lord Mountbatten, but I’ve indulged in something way less serious, and a lot more comforting: a romance praised by Anne Bogel : Headliners, by Lucy Parker, and The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, a cozy mystery set in 1920s Bombay. Both were less than 3$, so I can’t say I’ve been splurging too much, and it was instant delivery (in this weird period when mail people are not coming much anymore). Bets are open on which I’ll start first!

The One behind the Curtain of Poirot and Marple

John Currant, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks (2009)

Let’s be honest, depending on your level of fascination for Agatha Christie, this is the perfect book to own and to peruse on occasions, or to borrow from the library just to get an understanding of its content. I borrowed it from the library, but I’m considering re-borrowing it from time to time.

Because it is huge (almost 500 pages) and very detailed, it is very difficult to read it from cover to cover, and I haven’t tried to. I read the beginning, and then dipped from one chapter to the next, following my mood and my memory of favorite Agatha Christie’s novels.

This book is actually the painstaking transcription of the many notebooks that Agatha Christie used to draft her plot ideas of all her books, and she was one messy writer! It took a lot of decoding to understand random note jottings about possible characters, plot points, lies, twists and red herrings, and to make the link with the final novel. There were 73 notebooks, and she apparently used whichever was the closest when inspiration struck, or wrote plot points at the back of grocery lists and such.

If you don’t love Agatha Christie’s books and haven’t read a good number of them, this book is almost useless, it will only suffocate you with random details and dishing out spoilers by the dozen. But if you love her books, it gives you a precious view of her creative process and of her very, very rich imagination.

I only wish I could have 1% of her imagination. Looking at her lists of suspects for a crime is like watching a professional champion playing the Rubix cube when you’re inept at it (like me). She tries different combinations, tries several motives on each of her characters to see if it fits them well, reuses formulas in different books but with variations and within a few lines, a full book is etched, voilà!

It’s really a perfect companion book to check upon after finishing one of her published novels, to see how she came to build it. It really made me want to read and re-read some Poirot and Miss Marple!

Pod Review March 21-27

CaptureWell, some things went better than last week and some other things didn’t really improve. Clearly, I haven’t found my groove when it comes to podcasts and confinement. I miss them, but I really can’t see when I’d find the time to listen to them. The house is way too noisy most of the time. Any trick or tip?

  • Sorta Awesome #237 10 Things to look forward to in Spring 2020
  • Tsh Oxenreider The Good list #Comfort in Crisis
  • This American Life #695 Everyone’s a critic
  • This American Life #696 Low Hum of Menace

The TAL episode #695 contains some funny moments (Amazon reviews, anyone?), but the most chilling / intense one is about a Chinese self-made reporter who wants to go places and report the truth about a situation on Youtube, which is a pretty dangerous endeavor in China. He went to Hong Kong to investigate about the protests and riots, but earlier this year he went to Wuhan to report about the coronavirus, and it got very scary and tragic.

If you want to hear something more uplifting, the Sorta Awesome episode was just perfect. Reddit fashion advice, fitness programs on Youtube (we tried them all!), etc.

What have you been listening recently? I would love your entertaining and funny recs!


The One against the Nazi Euthanasia Crimes

Melanie Metzenhin, A Fight in Silence (2019)

I was tempted by this hefty (400+ pages) ARC on Netgalley because at some point last year I was looking for a sweeping historical novel, and in particular a WW2 book with an unusual angle. This one completely met, even exceeded that criteria.

This book is about what the Nazis did to people with disability, both physical or mental. The Nazi ideology was all about racial purity, and it was not only Jews, gays and Romani people who didn’t meet the crazy standards. People with disability were suspected of having impure genes, and therefore they should not be allowed to pass on their genes. Even their parents were suspects, since they had given birth to “imperfect kids”.

I knew of the eugenicist policies in Nazi Germany from the history textbooks in high-school, but I had not thought it through. I had not thought about what the Nazis required from doctors who were previously supposed to treat patients, and now were asked to fill in evaluation to sort out the less handicapped from the more handicapped, who would be “disappeared” after transfers away from their home-base hospital.

This novel takes a large view of history, and I’m rather grateful for that, except when it took a lot of pages to really enter deeply into the subject. It starts in 1926 when two people meet at med school and fall in love. Richard and Paula live in Hamburg, and at that time the medical studies in psychiatry are flourishing and all sorts of new, non-aggressive therapies are being developed, to move away from the brutal treatments of shell-shocked soldiers from WW1. Of course, not all doctors are on-board, but Richard and Paula are hopeful and are passionate about medicine and psychiatry. After marrying, Paula works as as a doctor in a children’s hospital, but when they have kids, one of them is deaf. They take on sign language and early intervention, and all would be well… if Hitler didn’t arrive to the government.

I liked the book, but I didn’t love it. First, it dragged at times, and I really thought it could have been edited down a good number of pages. Second, there was no element of surprise in the plot. Good people were good, bad people were bad, some bad stuff happened during the war… I might be a bit blasé by having read too many WW2 novels, but still, to me war novels are exactly about putting people under extraordinary circumstances and seeing unexpected events and reactions. See a great example of this in Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave.

And third, speaking about good people, Richard and Paula are such parangons of pure perfection! They can see from the very start how Nazi ideology bad is, they are ever so courageous, stand up against the Nazis, they see through any piece of propaganda… I know we all want heroes and I’m grateful for some optimism (especially right now), but somehow after 400+ pages it stretched my disbelief a bit too far, especially knowing what I know from history books about the overwhelming support to Hitler in the general German population. See by comparison the Bernie Gunther’s novels, for example, that show that even good people were slowly corrupted by the twisted ideology pervasive across all sectors of society. I do trust the writer, a professional psychiatrist, to have her facts right about this particular part of her profession’s history, but the overall atmosphere seemed too rosy and naive to my taste.

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

The One with the Post-War Killer

Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place (1947)

This book has been on my wishlist since 2016 and I can’t remember what had pushed me to add it, except that I already knew Dorothy B. Hughes and how good her noir novels are. Back in 2012, I’d read The Expendable Man and I’d loved it.

A dear friend sent me this book as a present more than one year actually, and I hadn’t exactly jumped on the book to finish it as soon as I’d started. In fact, I read the first few pages, took a deep breath, closed it and put it on my nightstand. In February, the #Unreadshelf challenge was to read a book gifted by someone and I took this as a nudge to be serious, at last, about this book. Still, it took me a while to get into the mood to read it and I finished it not long before the end of February, despite being a more 250 pages long.

No wonder, because the book puts you right into the mind of a very cold and disturbed man, and you don’t leave him until the last page. [Spoiler alert for the rest of the post] Dix Steele is the narrator, and there’s not much to make him endearing. He is certainly charming, he has his glorious days as a pilot in WW2 to talk about, but there’s something seriously wrong about him. He’s a loner, and despite trying to woo women and invite them in fancy restaurants, he seems to have no situation, no job and no real money other than what his uncle sends him, or what he manages others to give him. He’s a bit like Ripley (whose first novel comes out in 1955), and I wonder if perhaps Highsmith had read Hughes?

Dix Steele arrives in California to reconnect with some friends and to write a mystery novel. That’s what he says. But at the same period there’s a serial killer in California who attacks women, rapes them and kills them. I wasn’t sure immediately that Dix Steele was this killer, but as the book start you see him look for a lone girl and stalk her and it’s really chilling, even if there’s no killing and no graphic description of anything. Dix Steele is an angry man, and he’s a misogynist. It does not make for a comforting read at all.

Hughes writes extremely well though. She has some flash of brilliance, but the tone is mostly rather spare because it’s a “must” in the noir genre. She also conveys the progressive breakdown of Steele into a spiral of violent paranoia. Because of this choice of point of view, the book is a lot more disturbing than a classic noir like Chandler’s. It makes Philip Marlowe look a bit shallow and slow-witted in comparison.

Dix Steele is most threatened by the wife of his best friend Brub, Sylvia. I wish she had been more in the foreground, but making her an intelligent, active women and not a mere passive femme fatale, was probably already a big enough challenge to the genre conventions. Dix Steele is also attracted by his sexy neighbor Laurel, but he doesn’t love her, he distrusts her from the very start. In the end, Sylvia and Laurel are the ones who uncover the truth about Dix Steele.

There’s a great article by Megan Abbott about Hughes’ subversion of the genre in this novel.


Pod Review March 14-20 + Random Bookish Thoughts

CaptureHow the world changed in a single week, right?

Weirdly enough almost one week of confinement did not bring me more time to read, write or listen to podcasts, but rather less (ok, a lot less, to be honest).

My podcast time was mainly my commute (or during repetitive tasks at work) and that has been nixed since last Friday. My concentration is not at its peak to say the least, so I don’t really progress much in my reading. I still have my full time job (for how long?), plus cooking, cleaning (or overseeing the cleaning “attempts”), overseeing the school thing (I have a first grader and a middle schooler). And to distance myself 😉 from the Pinterest worthy colorful hourly calendars that flourish here and there, I seem to have blocked full hours of anxious Facebook scrolling of the local town information and hours of worry-time, including the coveted slot of 3-to-4am.

Here’s is the paltry list of what I listened to this week:

  • Family Secrets by Dani Shapiro Episode “The Lobster Shift”: sorry I did’t have the emotional bandwith to connect. I may try another episode still.
  • Radiolab The Other Latif Episode 4
  • Radioloab The Other Latif Episode 5
  • Radiolab The Other Latif Bonus Episode (there’s something of a theme here)

I’m rather overwhelmed by the amount of great content available out there during this weird period. Part of me even sort of wished I would have less work to be able to listen to it all, enjoy yoga or a craft, listen to concerts and operas. But the work reduction will come soon enough, and I will have other worries then. I saw the hashtag Coronacation and it really ticked me off. At least tomorrow is the weekend and I will try to do something different !


The One with the first Santa Teresa P.I.

Sue Grafton, A for Alibi (1982)

And now back to our regular book posts, a post I prepared end of February for a book I’d finished late January, in a pre-Coronavirus parallel universe.

I don’t know if it makes me an opportunist or a contrarian, but I’m not known for reading book series in order. Fortunately I have bookish friends who are much more consistent than me. I have read some Kinsey Millhone in the past, but not the first one (and I would be hard pressed to know which one), and that was ages ago, aeons ago even, since it was before this good ol’ blog’s birth.

So when Danielle sent me this book, I was very glad for this opportunity to reconnect with Kinsey and read her first adventure. But after the first few chapters, I realized that I had confused Kinsey Millhone with V. I. Warshawski! That’s a pale excuse, but both books were published the same year, and there’s this early 1980s setting that kept distracting me.

It’s not as if I never read any old noirs, but those I read recently are set more often in the 1950s than in the later decades. Kinsey is very modern in her energy, her thoughts, her attention to sport and her determination to succeed in her independent career, but I kept smiling with nostalgia when researches were done without internet and when people left messages on land lines. It was like a 1980s time capsule: I kind of pictured Kinsey with big hair, blue eye-shadow and shoulder pads. I was grateful that Grafton took her time to describe Santa Teresa, especially as I’ve never been to California, a California before the internet bubble and the Silicon Valley.

The story was not rushed and clues didn’t fall magically on her desk. Kinsey is not as tough as my memory of Warshawski (which I should re-read too!), I’d say she still has some naivety in her, and I wonder how her character evolves over the subsequent books. While the story takes a rather leisurely pace, the plot was interesting and I didn’t guess the ending, so I’d say it was a very promising debut, especially knowing that Grafton went on writing almost the whole alphabet.

Random Bookish Thoughts 03/15

  • Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, the book I chose for a readalong with Laila of Big Reading Life and Rebecca is great! I’m almost at the end, and I don’t want to go too fast to savor every minute of it. The style is gentle and elegiac, full of old people wisdom, and as far away from the noise of the world as you can get, and that’s exactly what I need right now!
  • Other #unreadshelf challenge selections are not so far advanced. I’ve just read a handful of short stories by Etgar Keret. So far I enjoy them, although it’s very different from the other books I’m currently reading.
  • My last #unreadshelf challenge is the parenting classics “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk“, but it’s not going well so far, because I got a first edition from the 1980s and I have a difficult time connecting with the vignettes and dialogues.
  • I have just opened a French version of Agatha Christie’s Halloween Party with Hercule Poirot and I think I’ve found my next book.

Random Bookish Thoughts 03/14

blurred book book pages literature

As you read this, your life has probably been impacted in big or small ways by the spread of Covid19 across the globe. I will not go into mundane details here, I want to keep my news appropriately bookish.

  • Our local library is closing down tonight, and you wouldn’t believe how many patrons were there this morning. My elder son reported that the shelves were totally empty of… Naruto, One Piece, My Hero Academia, and all the other popular manga series. I don’t like them, can’t recommend them, but it’s great to see that while some people stock up on rice and pasta, some others stock up on books. We filled up each card to the max, but to be honest, that’s always the case.
  • I personally closed down my workplace library yesterday noon too. It felt strange and sad to put a notice on the door without a reopening date.
  • I have decided to put one book on hold for a while: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was 100 pages into it and enjoying it (as much as one can enjoy a book that is ultimately about the Biafra war), but I don’t need gloomy literature right now.
  • I have also decided to not read / watch any catastrophic / post-apocalyptic fiction until further notice. No reread of Station 11 for me (although I’d loved it). I’ve always been very edgy with these books anyway.
  • I am not quitting my #unreadshelfproject challenge, weirdly enough it seems even more relevant these days (not counting the load I came back from the library with). Still, I will prioritize comfort books and silly whodunnits as much as needed. No big literary ambition here, and I might even have time to weed out our shelves.
  • Speaking of #unreadshelf challenge, I’ll report at the mid-month mark tomorrow. I hope that this weird season will at least enable me to post more often.

Pod Review March 7-13

CaptureNo book post this week, I realize with a bit of surprise (the last 7 days were amazingly slow and fast at the same time), but things have gotten rather interestingly weird and distracting within the last few days. I’m *not* going to apologize.

I finished the audiobook on Tuesday after a marathon listening session over the weekend and twice 3 hours long train rides. Yes, I took trains (no judging!), but I have the feeling that this will be the last time for a long time. This is my last day at my office today until further notice, and the last day at school for the boys too. The last few chapters I was literally itching to go back to my regular podcast routine!

  • Sorta Awesome #234 Go-to recipes and foodie memories
  • Sorta Awesome #235 Overcoming Analysis Paralysis
  • IHIBILI #138 Scream

I have the feeling that I will have some time for podcasts in the coming weeks! Hit me with your best recommendations. Anything escapist will be welcome.