The one with the widow looking for excitement

Pascal Garnier, Too close to the edge (French 1999, English 2016)

I’ve never read Pascal Garnier before, which is obviously a shame, and it seems ironical that an English translation would be my first introduction to this French writer. As a matter of introduction, I have to thank Marina Sofia for her titillating review which in turn made me request the book through Netgalley.

Pascal Garnier’s text starts in a deceptively quiet and banal way. Eliette is a retired, recently widowed woman who lives on her own in the Alps. Her adult children live in Paris, far away, with their own lives and worries, and she gets along with her neighbors well. But her loneliness leaves her slightly discontent and bored. She wishes something unexpected would happen to derail her routine. It’s a classic tale of be careful what you wish for, except that Garnier pushes it to the edge, metaphorically and literally. More than once I turned the page wondering where he’d take us readers and muttering to myself “did he really dare?”. It’s a roller-coaster read and a slim book you can easily read in one or two sittings.

It’s dark and realist, perfectly right for my taste. It’s not a Scandinavian thriller but the homegrown equivalent. As I take a few days off in the French countryside, where I always wonder about those tiny villages we cross on the way, with so many closed businesses, small farms with perpetually closed shutters and a rotting 2CV in the yard. So much for romantic countryside and sunset over the mountains! It’s often depressing, but Garnier manages to make it terrifying. Those old biddies who go to the supermarket, I’ll certainly be careful not to cross them. Especially if they look nice.

Things to enjoy, Things to let go

The Best Places to See Cherry Blossoms in Paris from paradisefoundaround.com

Spring is in Paris at last! I hope it has reached you too. There’s a subtle change of mood in the air, and people are at last dropping their black feather jackets in favor of more colorful clothes. All this makes me eager to try new stuff, shiny new books and also to make a little spring cleaning of books that don’t inspire me much.

Did I mention how much I love podcasts? Oh, probably just a million times already, but you won’t escape another repetition as I absolutely need to mention Anne Bogel’s podcast “What should I read next”. I’m completely hooked, and would love to have my own literary matchmaking. Even if I don’t share her literary taste, her conversations include a variety of people with diverse literary taste, which is very dangerous as I keep adding to my wishlist after each episode. I need to add a disclaimer: listen only to your own risk.

Another recent post I most enjoyed is Marina Sofia’s post on book reviews and book ratings: Honesty, Likability and Book Reviews. You should check her very honest view and read the lively discussion in the comments! I added my two cents, but as I typed away I realized that I hadn’t thought it through, nor am I really consistent between the feeling conveyed through my blog posts (I often am more critical than I’d like to sound) and the number of stars that I liberally stick on a site like Goodreads. In Goodreads and Netgalley, my policy is to give 4 stars whenever I had a good time with a book. I don’t want to be stingy, and 3 stars seem too “average” to me. After reading this post I thought that ratings seems so much like school, and different education systems have a different view on what is a good grade or not. In France, a perfect copy at school is worth 20/20, but it’s very rarely given, many teachers prefer to give a 19/20 and don’t have a culture of encouragement and praise. Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t give many 5 stars ratings.

Inspired by spring cleaning resolutions and fortified by this call to honesty in book reviews, I realized this morning that the latest Netgalley book I tried wasn’t doing anything much for me: Sarah Painter’s In The Light of What We See. I was just not into it. It might just be me, but I’m not going to force myself to finish it with the hope that I’d warm up to it later on, because my frustration might play against the book (that happened before!). It’s a realist story with some hints of supernatural in it, which should be alright with me, except this time it just rubbed me the wrong way. Alternate chapters are my pet peeve when not really necessary in the plot, and I had no patience to see the link between the two young women I was presented with. I didn’t care enough for them, and I felt that I had some idea where all that was going. But it might just a question of poor timing, it seems like the kind of light book I could pick up again during summer holidays.

The one that starts in Dickens and ends in the bush

If you haven’t read anything by Kate Summerscale, you’re in for a surprise. I bet that you will be mesmerized by the amount of research that she packs into each of her sentences. And she manages to make her text highly readable and entertaining! If she says that the room was dark at 5pm the day the jury came back with the verdict, I challenge you to find a contrary proof: the room wasn’t dark at 4.59pm yet. But she will go on to explain that there was actually a pea-soup fog that day due to soot particles and what kind of lamp was in the Old Bailey. That’s trademark Summerscale, and it might at first feel a bit overwhelming, but if you’re anything like me it’s also fun to learn so much on a variety of nitty-gritty subjects.

But if you have read Kate Summerscale before (I read the Suspicions of Mr. Whicher and Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace and enjoyed the former a lot more), this book still comes as a surprise. I got this one through Netgalley and thought that she was staying in the vein of her two previous books: describe a true crime in Victorian England and paint in minute details the context, mentality and society of this particular event.

This time, the crime is particularly horrible: in the summer of  1895, a 13-year-old boy, Robert Coombes is found guilty of stabbing his mother to death. The public was particularly shocked to learn that the boy, together with his 12-year-old brother Nattie, spent 10 days enjoying themselves and spending money while their mother’s body lay upstairs, decaying in the heat. The big brother expressed no regret for the act, nor did he show any feelings and explain the cause of his action. People were accusing him of being a monster of depravity, a sign that modern Western civilization was decaying, especially since lower class children received mandatory primary education. These children were using their reading skills to read penny dreadfuls, cheap magazines full of horror stories and unbelievable crimes. Excitable, nervous dispositions like Coombes’ were pushed into crime. The late Victorian mentality as explained by Summerscale is fascinating in its hysteria and panic fear of death and degeneration. Luckily, because of his young age, Coombes was not condemned to be hanged but was found insane and sent to an asylum.

But the surprise lies elsewhere: when the guilty verdict comes, the book is only halfway through. What was Summerscale going to fill the rest of the pages with? I wondered.

[If you intend to read it, it might be better to stop reading now. I won’t give spoilers exactly, but…]

Also, what were the odds, that within a month’s time, I’d read two different books about late Victorian British asylums and the rather benevolent policy that managed mentally-ill people there? I didn’t even seek them out, they both fell into my lap. It was mere serendipity. Coombes was not detained in the same asylum as the one that inspired The Ballroom to Anna Hope, but a rather similar one, Broadmoor, in Berkshire. There he remained for a number of years, going from a sociopathic boy to a depressed teenager and to finally a responsible adult.

This part of Summerscale’s book is to me the most interesting. How a boy who had committed something awful and was thrashed by the press and public opinion as doomed to an early death was able to reinvent himself and lead a full, honorable life. I won’t go into details, but Coombes was 32 when the first World War started, to which he took an active part, and he emigrated to Australia, where he died in 1949. I’ll leave you at that, so that you too can wonder at the strange ways of a long, eventful life.

The one deep into Cambodia ghosts

Patrick Deville, Kampuchéa (French, 2011)

I feel myself a bit stuck in my creative writing right now, but luckily (ahem), there are quite a few books that I’ve finished and never got a chance to talk about here…

When I read my first Patrick Deville book two summers ago, a semi nonfiction about the man who had discovered the pest bacillus, I knew I wanted to read others. Still, Kampuchéa remained on my nightstand for nearly six months and it’s rarely a good sign.

But in that case, it just reflects the leisurely pace of Patrick Deville. The book feels like a travelogue,  but Deville isn’t the kind of traveler to visit a country in three days and he doesn’t let you hurry too much.

This book is an exploration of a country’s history, and the country that fascinated Deville also fascinated me, so I appreciated all the more his attempt to write about it and the difficulties of his project. Cambodia has a complex, tumultuous, multifaceted history, especially as the last centuries are intertwined with Western history and its ideologies.

Cambodia is stuck between Thailand and Vietnam, but always had its own separate identity. At its heyday, during the 12th century, the Cambodian kings built the famous temple structure of Angkor Wat , but the kingdom fell into decadence and now it’s a maze of sublime palaces lost in the jungle. Add to this geographic and ethnic uniqueness the arrival of colonial powers seeking to extend their area of influence. Cambodia was a hot prize to be taken by either the French or the British colonial empires, and the former prevailed (barely). Deville centers his book on Henri Mouhot, a French scientific explorer who discovered Angkor Wat almost by chance in 1860 and unwittingly changed the course of Cambodia’s history by putting it on the conquest trajectories of Western colonial empires.

During and after the French debacle in Indochina, Cambodia was pummeled by bombs as collateral damage of the Vietnam War. But when the communists took over Saigon, the Khmers Rouges installed a terror regime in Cambodia that makes Vietnamese regime look like Disneyland. They destroyed their very own country by indoctrinated blindness and millions of people succumbed until the Vietnamese kicked them out (not too far, just into the jungle) to conquer the land. Wikipedia says that Khmers Rouges are “responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians (Khmer), nearly a quarter of the country’s then population”

Wow, here I am, trying to cram 2000 years of history into a blog post, while I ought to talk about the book itself. Which is not that easy.

Deville is trying to make sense of this history by being there and looking for all the layers of history, contradictory and half forgotten. Cambodian population is young and doesn’t know much of its past. It’s part a  travelogue, part an investigation, part fictional re-enactment of key history moments and figures. One question throughout the book is how the rise of Khmer rouges was possible at all. Somewhere down the line, the true question is if French colonial culture was somehow responsible for breeding monsters whose crazy ideal was to create an egalitarian utopia on earth at all costs.

But that question is very difficult to answer because Khmer rouges have left precious little information about themselves. They didn’t leave many (incriminating) documents and didn’t trust the written word altogether. During this crazy regime, people who knew how to read and write were already pointed out as a dangerous intellectual who wasn’t meant to live.

I visited Cambodia too and these questions haunted me too. It’s hard to look at this country and not to ask them. I feel lucky that I was familiar with the subject already when I opened the book, and I understand that readers with no prior knowledge may feel lost at sea, because Deville’s style is to mix past and present, images from the historical documents with scenes he witnessed on the road. Still, it’s worth sticking it out even if you don’t plan a trip to Cambodia anytime soon. Another recent and fictional take on Cambodia (with allusion to the recent past and the corruption and trauma that the country still endures) was Nick Seeley’s Cambodia Noir, which I enjoyed a lot too.

Progress at the Library

I’m slowly starting to find my stride at my workplace library. I have now more confidence to manage the “whole library” by myself during the opening hours (1 1/2 hour during the lunch break), which includes managing The Computer (enter books, loan out books, register their return, check a person’s account, find where a book is due to come back… all which requires a lot of patience because we’re dealing with a very moody old system), answering questions, shelve books.

I was so happy to get to know the regulars and be able to help them make new choices. Some people know what they’re looking for from the get-go, but many people seem open to or actively seeking suggestions, a lot more than at our neighborhood library. It’s so fun to try to guess a person’s taste based on the returning book! I’m just like a living Amazon algorithm (a better-looking one, I hope). When a shy, gentle middle-aged woman returned a Jojo Moyes, I steered her towards Kate Morton. Last week a nice young person thanked me for recommending Mr Rosenblum’s List to her. She really made my day!

One big topic at my workplace library is how to choose books for one’s kids. Comics and kids books have the largest circulation by far. Parents are both idealistic and realistic. Some weeks they take a thicker novel and the next week they’ll go for the silly comics that everybody discusses at school during recess. Today I convinced a mother to bring home Helen Keller’s story by Lorena Hickok  to her mature 10-year-old, a book I remember loving as a child.

I’m usually an introvert but I find it fun to be with other book-lovers, even when they mostly request bestsellers! Well, don’t go thinking that an uninterrupted flow of readers drop by during my service hours. Rather, I also spent some quiet time alone, scissors and tape in hand, covering the rest of my new English books. When I ordered English books and received my big box, little did I know that it was only the start of a longish process to get them checked by the accounting that will pay the bookshop, registered, stamped, and covered. At last they are ready to go out into the world!

And for those who placed bets the last time around, the first book to be borrowed was… Station Eleven by Emily St Jones Mandel! I didn’t rig the game, but I confess that I might have had some influence in that choice, since the person asked for my advice…

The one with the crazy lemon cake’s family

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010)

Oh my, how I wanted to love that one. From the back cover, it seemed exactly like my kind of book. A girl who suddenly has the ability to taste the emotions of whoever cooked the meal she is eating. Who can read sadness in a lemon cake, anger in a cookie, or nothing at all in a bag of industrial snacks. Given that the heroine is very young (9) when she discovers her “gift” and that the family secrets she gets access to “thanks to” her ability are rather depressing and heavy, no wonder that she eats as little home-made food as possible.

It’s quirky, and a special blend between realism and surrealism that is often labelled “magical realism” -but not the Garcia Marquez kind. I liked Rose Edelstein because she is a very normal teenager despite her gift, and she doesn’t make anything special with it. Most of the time she wishes she could live without this gift. She also thinks her parents are losers, which is a totally normal view for a teenager, and she grows up to discover that they are slightly more complex than what she credited them for. I loved that part.

Where Aimee Bender lost me was with the brother. Up to that point I could have loved this book, but at that precise moment I wanted to throw it away and stop my reading. Rose’s brother also has some gift, but it doesn’t really show before half or two-third of the book. At first, we assume he might be autistic or Asperger’s or just a selfish nerd. Then I assumed he was mentally ill, or that his instability just grew worse. I was quite unprepared to the “revelation” and it was all so bizarre that I didn’t know how to handle it. I would rather have Bender go overboard and give him something really huge, like to be able to fly or something. But that? Meh. To me it looked like it was weird for the sake of being weird, without adding anything to the plot. On the contrary, it was even detrimental to the plot, because at that point it slipped into absurd and I stopped caring for any of them.

I guess I could have done with Rose being an only child and Bender delving deeper into Rose’s parents evolution, instead of just alluding to it. Still, I thought that the book had a lot of potential and I’m not against trying another book by her!

The one with too many Muggles

J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy (2012)

Back in February Mr. S. got me the audiobook of The Casual Vacancy from the library and it took me a while to fully enter the atmosphere of the book: it wasn’t before I reached the third of the 500 pages, that was cut in no less than 110 audio chapters, that I started being hooked in: I was in for the long run!

I wasn’t expecting anything like Harry Potter. I knew by reputation that Rowling has now the ambition to write for grown-ups, but I can also see why the die-hard fans of Harry Potter were unsettled and disappointed: nothing could be further away from Hogwarts than the small English town of Pagford, with its typical picturesque setting, its petty intrigues, and the feeling that you can’t escape anywhere. Here, no world to save, no extraordinary creatures, no bigger-than-life saga. And yet, when I come to think of it, I can see something of Harry Potter’s world in this book: its mean and selfish Muggle relatives, Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and the meanest boy Dudley.

How do you deal with books that are fascinating but incredibly bleak? I was in a sort of funk in the last few days, and I realized that I’d probably overindulged in The Casual Vacancy.

This book is a world in itself, a small town packed with people and rumors and back stories and tiny plots, but these people… argh, they are all so terribly depressing! If they’re not petty and violent and jealous and arrogant, it might be that they are stupid, or weak, or blind. Their children, their spouse, their neighbors and siblings… They are all on edge with secrets, scandals and rancor that threaten to spill over any instant. Sometimes the characterization verges on grotesque, but most of the times, they feel very human, with flaws and moments of redeeming aspirations.

Even if you can’t relate to any of them (I’m a city girl at heart and have never lived in a small town), you can’t escape being sucked in, because they are all living under your gaze and you’re like a semi god watching the anthill and seeing the path of one insect inescapably cross the path of another one. Rowling is so clever at creating a collective life made of tiny little seemingly random acts, a tragedy in the making. I just found the ending a bit too melodramatic, but I still enjoyed the experience: it was as if I was living in Pagford for a few months. I won’t definitely be moving in for good, knowing what I know now, but how Paris’ anonymous crowds seem alluring and comforting by comparison!

Writing ’16: March Update

March has been long and cold, marred with so many virus and rainstorms. In an ideal life, that would be the perfect time to hunker down in one’s study, by the fireside, to write deep stories in the long afternoons and evenings.

But with this picture you can look what writing looks like in real life. My writing right now, with two boisterous boys and a tiny apartment. I can’t claim a room of my own, but I have cafés everywhere, with comforting hot chocolates when the weather and the muse don’t cooperate.20160110_153059

I have learnt to jot words on paper (and into my phone) at random times, in public places. Last time I heard a published author say aloud that writing (in comparison to blogging) had to be done in long chunks of time, I sighed and felt rather upset jealous.

I don’t have long chunks of time. But I still plow on. I treasure those few minutes and I don’t waste any of them. As soon as I sit down in the café my brain is focused on the writing, any writing. It’s crazy to see how much my writing process changed from a few years back. This March I posted rather little on the blog, because I was busy with a memoir-slash-essay I wanted to finish. Or at least the first draft. I wrote everyday but for 3 days.

And somehow I did finish the essay! Although I haven’t got back to edit it just yet, it felt great to write the last sentence, as if I was freeing myself from a burden. The last few words were written in one of those cafés, and last Sunday, I brought my older son at a M&S cafeteria at the nearby mall where he studied the Lego catalogue while I was writing away. Apparently he rather enjoys it, provided it doesn’t last too long.

The awesome news is that I have applied to a writing retreat for June. A whole week by myself (with adults! writers! workshops! feedback!) to write. I can’t really imagine it just yet, but it seems so luxurious. I feel so grateful that we have found a way as a family to make it possible. A little more than two months and I’ll be there!

The one with stationery put to good use

Lisa Beazley, Keep Me Posted (2016)

I normally don’t so this but I feel like talking about this book midway through the novel, not even waiting for the end. To be honest, my expectations were low. I thought it was chick-lit with one-dimensional characters and a rather predictable plot. Two sisters, one a housewife in New York with her two toddlers, the other an expat wife in Singapore, decide to write each other letters in the age of Internet, Facebook and Twitter.

It could have been clichéd all around, but instead I found myself rooting for both sisters equally! Back from my years in China I still remember the expat wives who throw themselves into projects to fill their perfect days in the golden cage. I can bet that the author has some first-hand experience because it rings true! And from living in Paris I also know something of the nagging doubts about raising kids in a small apartment in the big city while others move out to the suburbs. The exhaustion of having young kids and trying to have a great marriage at the same time, while transitioning from two salaries to only one (a choice I didn’t make but that friends did) could have been the pretext to a lot of whining but she pulls it off nicely.

Of course, as a stationery lover I can fantasize about women of my age who are really making use of these cute correspondence sets instead of letting them gather dust in a drawer (ahem). Several years ago we tried a slow mail experiment with another blogger but it was way too hard, too slow and it petered out, because we didn’t know each other that much beyond what a blog can reveal. I had this blank page in front of me and I didn’t know what to fill it with. It felt like a monologue rather than a dialogue.

But of course I love the romantic idea of exchanging letters! Before I got married there were a few months where my future husband and I were separated and we exchanged real paper letters, as a supplement to e-mails (there was no Skype at the time, which will tell you a little about old that all is😉 !) Still I was quite impatient to get those envelopes and I still have them tucked away somewhere with a bow (yes, people may doubt it but sometimes I’m a romantic at heart)

I won’t tell you about the twists and turns of the plot itself, but if you look for an entertaining and quick read and if you have a thing for old-fashioned paper and pen, look no further.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the ARC!

The one with the old-fashioned nightingale

Ruth Rendell, No Man’s Nightingale (2013)

I’m sorry this blog has been a bit quiet lately, because I have finished several books already, have many drafts lying around in my virtual drawers and no energy to finish any of them! Things have been hectic on the home front and I just look forward to the long weekend.

I’m a Ruth Rendell gal rather than a Barbara Vine gal. Which means that I feel a bit lost when she’s in psychological thrillers that span a long period and often finish in an open-ended way. I prefer more straightforward, solid plots with some police procedures and a nice, clean resolution with preferably a guilty person behind bars (a bow nicely tied for each story line is not mandatory but much appreciated). Which means that I enjoyed Inspector Wexford every time we met while he was still in activity.

As he retired, things got trickier. He had no longer the legitimacy to investigate (even he still had the inclination, and surely a lot of time on his hand), and that he no longer could make sure that the guilty one was dealt with by the police. This time, it’s the small town’s vicar who got murdered. But we’re not in the Agatha Christie’s world, and the vicar is a woman, and not only that, she’s a single mother of Indian descent. Wexford’s wife being a regular church-goer, his former deputy Burden who is now a superintendent involves him into the investigation.

As a very bizarre wink, I found that I could not associate the nightingale reference in the title to anything else but the P.D. James’ novel “A shroud for a nightingale”, my probably favorite Inspector Dalgliesh mystery!

My understanding is that Ruth Rendell wanted to show how investigations are fraught with coincidences, mistakes, assumptions and errors. This made me think of the MOOC course I followed offered by the University of Queensland: The Science of Everyday Thinking, on how humans think and what usually clouds our rational minds. Wexford and Burden, with a long career behind them, still have preconceptions and prejudices that put them on the wrong track. And sometimes, the bits of discussions you have with the cleaning lady, which are normally so annoying and superficial, are really turning points into deep drama.

That said, it’s certainly not the best Wexford investigation and I would never recommend to start with this one. I think the plot itself would have been neater, tighter and with a lot more edge if the investigation had been led by some other policeman, or maybe the victim’s daughter.