The Writing Resolution: September

It may be the crisp air of the mornings, or the new stationery and pens from the “Back-to-School” aisle, or the return to routine after the summer’s adventures, but September has been a good month for writing.

I have written every single day but two, and I have finished a short-short story and started editing it. It’s quite simple and straightforward, but for one who never finishes stories (who never used to finish any story?), it’s not that bad! The next step is to polish it a bit more and to send it to some trusted friends for a fresh look. I have also written many blog posts on my phone, but you haven’t seen them yet because they are lying around in the drafts folder, waiting for a reread, editing and polishing (which I can’t do on my phone). There’s no stopping this old lady who has recently blown her ninth birthday candles! (Are blog-years like dog-years?)

I have recently looked into my drawers for some unfinished texts and found dozens of them. Which one(s) should be saved and resurrected? Which ones are better off left untouched and forgotten? My first idea was to try to complete some small memoir pieces, but I might try some fiction instead.

The colder months and the Nanowrimo are looming: although I have no intention of joining  it whatsoever this year, I like to cheer from the sidelines and remember what an awesome challenge this is. This got me thinking: what story would you write for a Nanowrimo? what story would be worth the sweat and stress and effort of a whole 30-days, 50,000-words adventure? You tell me!

The one for the sake of Gongbao Chicken

Diane Wei Liang, The House of the Golden Spirit (French 2013)

I’m hesitant to say much about the book because I will be either too harsh or too soft. This is a mystery for which I cared little about who actually done it.

I read it because it’s about ordinary life in Beijing, especially in the eastern district of Chaoyang, that I called my home for more than two years. So every tiny allusion to a street, a building, a restaurant dish, a daily scene on the street was a sweet memory, and I can credit the writer for painting very real life snapshots of Beijing life. I also must say that the translation to French wasn’t quite as good, and I think that it must have been translated from English by someone who has never been to Beijing (some places are full of typos or have been mistaken for people’s names, but I am definitely finicky here and probably the only one to have noticed).

Wang Mei is an endearing character, a Security official turned private investigator in a dingy office, a single young woman with a thwarted love history, a daughter of a typically Chinese overbearing mother, whose love is expressed in food and who keeps asking about prospective marriage and grandchildren (Chinese mothers have a lot in common with Jewish mothers, I found out), a young woman who survived the Cultural Revolution with some untold family scars, like many people in China. She’s sometimes naive, but she knows that investigations, like any business in China moves forward thanks to guanxi, personal relationships, and she is clever enough to know when to use them.

I won’t really go into the plot, because I didn’t find that it was Ms Wei Liang’s forte, but I liked her characters well enough (especially the older policeman). She’s a Beijing parallel to Qiu Xiaolong’s mysteries who are set in Shanghai. Both writers seem to belong to the same generation of students who have left China after Tiananmen, and who have a critical view to the society’s evolutions. Common themes are corruption and making compromises with one’s values within the regime.

I’m not sure I’ll soon return to Diane Wei Liang’s remaining books in the series (this one is #3 and reads quite well as a standalone), but I sure look forward to eating some Chinese food! This book was a mouth-watering experience fueled with personal nostalgia.

Blogiversary: the Ninth Edition!

Wow, this blog is turning nine today! I can’t fully realize it, yet this blog has been in my life for so long now that I can’t imagine how I’d be without it. All of this to say, I’m not stopping anytime soon.

This place has been a place to check in and hold myself accountable when it comes to writing and trying new challenges, without any guilt-inducing pressure. I’m not sure exactly why (and I wished it worked as well for exercises plans or diet plans), but hitting “publish” works wonder.

This place is also turning into an annex of my brain when it comes to books (hmm, maybe it’s middle-age, but I sometimes check my own posts to see if I’ve read a book by such and such… please tell me I’m not the only one!)

But of course this place has been much more than that, or else I’d just add to a cold Excel database. This is now my own private café to meet some people equally interested in books, have a quiet moment and share views and favorites (including thrash a book from time to time). I appreciate every comment that you all have taken the time to send me along the way.

choux_pierrehermeThis summer I was lucky enough to meet another blogger in real life, and we had a lovely day with coffee, cakes and books. I dream of being able to do that more often, so if your path ever leads you to Paris, drop me a line. In the meantime, I’ll just offer you a virtual tea with cakes and cookies and a sip of champagne to celebrate!

The one with the eerie echo

Eric Faye, Nagasaki (French 2010, English 2014)

I have been dipping my toes back into NetGalley, where I’ve had an inactive account for years (but without a Kindle it didn’t work back then), and the first book that catches my interest is a book set in Japan written by a French author (whom I’ve never read before) on a subject that I’ve been reading just a month ago. Can we agree to call this serendipity? Let me count the ways:

  • I have a stupid prejudice against weird reluctance to try prize-winning contemporary French writers; and I need a small nudge from a translated edition to confirm that this writer’s voice has reached beyond Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the tiny district in Paris where  publishing houses all compete for drama.
  • I can’t really resist the appeal of trying new Japanese literature (although this one hardly qualifies…)
  • I’m very interested about Western writers who create a story and characters in a culture completely different from their own, and who do it convincingly in my eyes (in this respect this book reminded me of Fog Island Mountains by Michelle Bailat-Jones, who is also set in Japan).
  • The story of the novel eerily reminds me of the manga series I started reading during summer, called in French the Leeches, where a young woman lives in other people’s flats while they are at work. And it seems that the novel is inspired by a real incident.

Here, M. Shimura is a textbook salaryman, a middle-aged meteorologist of Nagasaki, single, lonely and rather boring, a tidy man probably on the verge of OCD. He notices that a few yoghurts have disappeared from his fridge (would I even notice?) and takes a ruler to check that indeed a few inches of orange juice are missing from the bottle overnight. His next step is to buy a webcam, only to discover that a middle-aged woman is living in his own home, not only by day while he’s away, but in a spare room’s closet by night (I can relax, I have no empty closet and no spare room whatsoever).

The book is very short, rather a novella. It is very approachable, although the author uses M. Shimura to tell about loneliness and existential angst in big cities. I liked the low-key melancholy of his voice and his dignity, although this incident upset his whole life. I was taken aback by the abrupt change of tone and point of view at about two-third of the book, where the voice switches to the woman’s. I didn’t quite enjoy the end that felt almost unfinished and would rather have stayed longer with M. Shimura. Nevertheless, it was an interesting discovery and I’m ready to read more by Eric Faye.

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The one that turns out shockingly outdated

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Making of a Marchioness (1901) and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst

It wasn’t part of my plan to revisit Frances Hodgson Burnett because I loved her Little Princess as a child (don’t let me start on the Japanese anime version Princess Sarah, I would probably make a fool of myself!).

No, I just saw this book in the Persephone list and (I’m embarrassed to say) downloaded the Gutenberg version on my Kindle. I expected saccharine and late Victorian conventions, but I have to say it went well beyond my expectations. I mean, for worse rather than for better. It’s written like a melodrama, but there are too many disturbing elements for the magic of suspended disbelief to apply.

The first part is a sort of Cinderella tale, but one where Cinderella would only rely on her naivety and honesty, not on her looks and wit. Miss Emily Fox-Seton is genteel and (insufferably) kind, but she doesn’t have any money, so she has to work as a dignified assistant, and the prospect of getting into middle-age (34!) in this precarious status is a bit daunting. Oh, but she doesn’t rebel against her fate, that wouldn’t be very polite… and it would require a lot more thinking that Miss Emily is used to. But don’t worry, that’s perfectly alright, because the book’s Prince charming doesn’t really like women who are intelligent and witty, he’d rather have a quiet wallflower (or no wife at all, but in this matter he too doesn’t have a choice, he has  to have an heir). She’s here to breed and smile, so that the lord and master can rest after his day’s work. Given that Miss Emily is not exactly young, the production of an heir might be trickier than for other possible girls in the cattle fair wedding market, but as we are in a fairy tale, the miracle occurs indeed.

This first part is a rather weird mix, because Burnett switches from bits of social commentary about the fate of single women without marriage prospect, bits of factual information about how women get by with a small budget (prices included) to traditional sentimental fluff. Burnett doesn’t seem to believe very much in her own main character, informing us readers several times that Miss Emily is a bit simple, which is presented as a virtue. At some point I decided that she wanted to ridicule her, but no, she’s rather a creature to be pitied. Burnett probably wanted to expose the hypocrisy of Victorian gender stereotypes, and ridicule what a true “angel of the home” looks like amid less virtuous, but more real people, but as she ends the first part with Miss Emily’s successful marriage, I was a bit lost.

The second half goes on to portray her married life, which would be insufferably dull, but for some evil people whom Burnett throws as Miss Emily’s Lady Walderhurst’s nemesis. Burnett adds a few bitter lines about bad marriages and domestic abuse, but the main point is a Victorian gothic plot that is not very tense (you can smell the happy end by miles). The moment where my tepid feelings turned decisively against the book was the forced exoticism and the slighting remarks on the half-Indian, half-English woman (read: half-good, half-evil) and her evil Indian servant. Indians and in general people with a dark skin are cunning and their strangeness is irreconcilable, despite Lady Emily having read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. This part is such a heap of racist, colonial clichés, certainly common in 1901, that it makes for an uncomfortable read if you’re not reading it at a meta level.

If I’m trying to be Fox-Seton-like kind and forgiving, I’d say the first part is worth reading for its social subtext. I try to rationalize it saying that Burnett probably wanted to write a different book, but settled for a conventional potboiler. But if I am 21st-century-blunt, I’d say some old texts are better left gathering dust. Age is no excuse in this matter, and 1901 was a great year for other more memorable books with memorable women caracters, like Claude à Paris by Colette, The Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (Tony), Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

The Writing Resolution: a brief intermission

Writing by Jonathan Kim on Flickr

I haven’t posted an August update because if you’ve been following this blog during summer, you’ll know that I pretty much interrupted the project for three weeks.

I’m not proud of it because I hadn’t expected it, but I don’t feel guilty either, as I was busy with… life, which makes for the best writing and reading material in the months and years to come.

Before I get back to the regular posts about books, let me just share with you a bit of unexpected wonder. A few days ago, I finished a (tiny) story, and for the first time in a very very long time, I don’t think it totally sucked. Yeah!

(The thing I’m leaving aside here is that during the holidays I tried to edit another story I’d finished during spring, and I really wanted to throw it all away. Whether there’s anything to save in there, I’m not sure. I’ll pick it up again where the leaves will be golden.)

Maybe, just maybe, this project finally pays off and I’m back in the saddle.

The gloomy one that leads me back to the museum

Biographies in graphic format seem to be very trendy these days, or is it just me? I had read the huge opus about Edvard Munch earlier this year, and being in the mood for more decadent end-of-the-century Viennese Secession (to go along with my Freudian mood), I turned toward Egon Schiele.

I’m not so passionate about Egon Schiele’s art as to put his drawings or paintings on my walls. Ahem, I don’t think many people would, given that a significant part of his art is erotic. But one thing you can deny is that his art is expressive and intense. The characters often stare at you and challenge you unashamedly to look at ther body, clothed or not.

The book is a classic biopic, so the graphic designer concentrated on Schiele’s life more than on his life. The result for me was mixed feelings at best. It’s nobody’s fault if Schiele’s life was really depressing and cut short at age 28 just after World War 1 by the deadly Spanish flu. Turn-of-the-century Austrian society was torn between a small innovative and rebellious minority and a huge repressed and repressive, conservative, bigot majority. Schiele’s family was middle class, his father a train station master in a small provincial tow.  Schiele was passionate about painting and art, but he also was not a very nice young man. Self-centered, interested in sex and women but not ready for a serious relationship, interested in marriage if it can bring him money to support his art, he’s a tough one to sympathize with.

The book doesn’t quite help either, because the artist has chosen a realist style (opposed to the grotesque, almost cartoony style chosen by Kverneland for Munch) and a restricted palette of greys and sepia like old faded pictures. So the mood remains gloomy and dark all the way.

Now, maybe I shouldn’t get interested so much in his life and focus on his art instead. Is it possible to like someone’s art without appreciating his life’s choices? I hoped to understand more how Schiele came to draw provocative paintings and drawings in such an original and visceral style. I probably should head to the museum instead.

The one I confused with another

Eliette Abecassis, Un secret du Docteur Freud (French, 2014)

Eliette Abecassis is one of these female French writers I had never read before, just like Lorette Nobécourt. Except for the facts that their first names sound similar, that they are both beautiful and that they have the same age, I had no real reason to mix them up.

Yet I did. I had tried Lorette Nobécourt fictional biography of Hildegard of Bingen and had abandoned midcourse. I wanted to give her another chance… and I borrowed from the library a book… by Eliette Abecassis. Oops!

I’ve been thinking for a while that I should read some more Freud, or about Freud, so this semi-fictional account of the last days of Freud in Vienna appealed to me. The setting is 1938, and Freud remains strangely hesitant to flee the Nazis for London. Indeed, he doesn’t know in detail the murderous intent of the Nazis, but still he knows that they are violent, hateful and that Freudian psychoanalysis is a movement that goes against everything they profess. Yet, his age, his illness, his phobia of trains, his reluctance to leave his ageing sisters, his attachment to Vienna and Austria make him waver. He’s an old man who very much lives for his past and he’s no longer a man of action. His children, his friends and supporters, among which Marie Bonaparte ranks very high, all try to nudge him towards safety. But something deeper explains his reluctance to leave: he wants to recover personal letters that he wrote to his friend Fliess.

This book can work as a refresher for Freud’s theories and life history. Despite the title, there’s no big secret in this short book. But I was disturbed by the very straightforward and cold voice of the book, especially as the point of view is mainly Freud’s. There’s a little bit of everything about psychoanalysis, no name remains forgotten, so I felt it was a bit too much of a good thing, especially for such a short book.

I was going to conclude that having tried two books by the same writer that both left me cold, I could now quietly withdraw, but since it turns out that I’ve tried one book for each author, I feel I now have to give them both another chance!

But instead, I should probably go get another book by Freud himself!

The one with a Chef Extraordinaire

Christophe Blain, In the Kitchen with Alain Passard (2011)

This book is a weird crossover: part cookbook, part graphic novel. Part reverent portrait of a great chef, Alain Passard, part ironic reportage about following the chef and his assistants for 3 years and falling head over heels for his extravagance. There are recipes beginning each “chapter”, but I’m not sure if they are meant to be made at home by the reader.

Alain Passard is a French gastronomy master, but not the kind of chef that would go on TV. He’s passionate about food and creating new ways to appreciate produces, especially vegetables. He’s practically vegetarian, and keeps several gardens in France that explore old vegetables varieties and grow organically everything that will be used in Passard’s restaurants. He comes out as uncompromising about quality and technique, but as the same time a bon viveur (I love this pseudo-French)

Christophe Blain, the graphic artist, has something for great men. He’s the artist behind Quai d’Orsay, another graphic novel inspired by the memoirs of a lowly diplomat working for the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In that book, the Minister was a man bigger than life, and his assistants were fawning over him and blindly obey his whims. Passard is that kind of genius too, and nowhere is it more obvious than during a double page aside where one of Passard’s female assistant gushes over her boss with blushing cheeks as if she was in love with him.

The result is a very interesting literary and artistic experience, as Blain tries to replicate produces and techniques with his art, by showing hands and faces. His style is quite minimalist, so it’s really a challenge to represent on paper a sensory experience that was mainly based on taste (of course), smell, texture (touch), sound (the din of the kitchen, the reverent whisper of the restaurant) and only partially on sight.

But if you manage to read this book to the end without feeling hungry and wanting to try new ways to cook your usual vegetables, even if you’re not a foodie, I will be very surprised indeed!

The one with my middle-school swashbuckling crush

Michel Zévaco, Le chevalier de Pardaillan (French, 1907)

$_35I don’t really know what takes me to revisit some of the books I loved as a child or a teenager. Because, people, when I think about it reasonably, I can’t really see the benefit:

  • I am a grownup now, so I know better. I read better too (at least I hope so)
  • it’s not as if I had nothing to read (insert huge TBR pile here)
  • it’s very likely that I will end up disappointed by the book, by the hero I cherished, by my teenaged self, or all of the above.

It’s not so say I read a lot of crap as a child, but the reasons why some books stuck with me well into adulthood are that they resonated with me at a certain age, not really because of their literary brilliance.

Anyway, I’ve done it again. Sherlock Holmes last summer, Pardaillan this time (before the summer break). And the good news is, it was fun. I had no problem swallowing the 544 pages of heroic adventures where the shiny Chevalier defends damsels in distress under the reign of French king Charles IX during the civil war between Catholics and Protestants. Pardaillan refuses to take sides, falls in love, fights left and right, always to defend the innocent, the unfairly accused, the weaker party. He crosses the path of many historical figures especially as this book (part of a long series) tries to explain how the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre came to happen (in 1572), the same events Dumas evokes in his Reine Margot.

I guess I couldn’t help but introduce the name of Dumas in my post. Pardaillan is highly inspired by Dumas’ D’Artagnan. Indeed, it is hard as an adult to read a chapter without comparing with the other book (I hadn’t read it as a child). And I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t quite measure up. Yes, the hero is dashing and the plot is romantic and highly convoluted. But Zevaco’s text first appeared as a daily series in a newspaper, and obviously there was little editing and a lot of repetition, lyrical flights of fancy, rhetoric questions to the reader, digressions etc. Dumas is a chatterbox, but Zevaco manages to beat him at it.

I can tell very precisely when I started reading this book: 1988. That was the year the TV series was released in France (thank you, weird internet trivia). Its main actor, Patrick Bouchitey, is pictured in the photo above. Isn’t he dashing? (in the late 1980s way, that is) I was starting middle-school and got a serious crush on the series actor. Plus, I got to learn a lot more on a particular history period that the history teacher ever explained to us. And I wasn’t afraid to read huge tomes from the grownup shelves! So you see, I’m not really disappointed with my old tween self.