The One with Crowds of Parisian Women

Anne Sebba, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation (2016)

Overall, I don’t read much non-fiction, although I’m often tempted by history books, or psychology books. The only thing is that it takes me ages to finish them, so when I only dip in and out of a book (in French we use the word “picorer”, or “peck” like chickens), I tend not to mention it here.

Anne Sebba’s book was on the Acquisition shelf at our local library, and I’m a sucker for historical daily life accounts. When I was a teenager I read a famous (in France) big book by Henri Amouroux: la vie quotidienne des Français sous l’occupation (The daily life of French people during the war). It was detailed, but having been published in the 1960s, it was still a very male-oriented account. So I was really glad that a woman had focused on the women perspective, and on Paris, since I could relate more.

I can’t say I read the book throughout, because of two problems: first, the book is really about the 1940s, so quite a number of chapters are devoted to the post-war period from 1946 to 1949, and I thought it was weird and misleading. The second is that the book is really unfocused. Countless people are mentioned, changing from one paragraph to the next. Sometimes you meet one person again in a later chapter, sometimes not. Each year is a chapter, but I couldn’t understand how structured it was beyond that. Also, Anne Sebba chooses to have a broad definition of her subject: she includes Parisian women when they have been deported and imprisoned in Germany (it’s a difficult read), as well as international women who lived in Paris during or after the war.

That is not to say that the whole book is to be dismissed. I can understand how important it is to not simply stop the book at the end of the war and look at the aftermath for all those women. It’s fascinating to see how women had very different life choices, between resisting the Nazis, hiding Jews, or collaborating with the Nazis, or trying to do as if nothing happened. It’s quite well-researched and full of nuggets of information, and I would be glad to return to it as a reference book from time to time.

The One with the Medieval Automaton

Kate Ellis, The Mechanical Devil (2018)

Well, I guess it’s all my fault. It’s a bit late to join a party at episode #22, isn’t it?

I was expecting something like Midsomer Murders, and I got something close, as British quaint countryside villages go, complete with pubs, old castles and churches, but it would rather compare to a Midsomer episode on steroids. There were so many people, back stories, plots weaved all together in the most layered club sandwich I’ve eaten for quite a while. The story was a bit slow to start, but it was a mad scramble at the end to tie all story lines nicely and clearly.

In 400 pages, you’ll find at least two murders, one kidnapping, one crook or two, a fake clergyman, a legal assistant turned baker, a serial philanderer, a rape, slashed tires, threatening calls, a cleaning lady or two, one dead man from 1993, several dead people from the 1550s, a disappeared cat, … and dozens of policemen and their families.

It felt like the first time your boyfriend takes you to a family gathering. You’ll find yourself sitting next to countless cousins you have no clue how related they are, the old doting grandma who alludes to something someone said two decades ago, and the old uncles who will chuckle in the corner with some anecdotes you don’t understand. Either you love very much your boyfriend, in which case you stay and listen to all the stories, either you find you don’t love him that much and you run for the hills.

Well, I did warm up to Wesley Peterson, but maybe not to the point of catching up all 21 previous volumes. I may be distracted, but I completely missed that he was black from the first chapters, so I found myself terribly embarrassed in retrospect by one-third of the book. My fault, sorry about that. It’s also entirely my fault that I had my geography totally wrong and I didn’t know that Dartmoor was in Southwest England and not in the Northeast as I thought. That said, it didn’t spoil the fun of the story.

Pod Review – April 6-12

CaptureLet me try something new here. As Smithereens is titled, this place is about reading and writing. But I keep most of my writing private these days, and in truth I spend quite a lot of time listening. I hate the word “consuming” but I do go through far more podcasts episodes than book chapters these days. A lot more than I care to admit.

I have always loved radio (French NPR-type stations and the BBC on short waves, that were the 80s…), and podcasts have replaced it in the most awesome way! Nowadays I have my daily commuting time, some of my cooking time, and I also have some boring weekly work tasks that I do while listening (I work in an open office, many people have earbuds anyway). So that is quite a lot of listening time!

Let’s try a little experiment. Since a blog is essentially a web-log, I’ll try to log in all the podcasts I’ve listened to in a week and tell you about the gems I found along the way. I hope that you’ll like it!

Podcasts episodes of this week:

  • Radiolab, Asking for another friend (a mixed bag of science questions, one very very good about the subway tracks making music in NYC)
  • This American Life, #670 Beware the Jabberwock
  • This American Life, #671 Anything Can Be Anything
  • Sorta Awesome, #188 Awesome Ways to Practice the Art of Homemaking
  • What Should I Read Next? by Anne Bogel, #179: Life is short & my TBR is way too long
  • What Should I Read Next? by Anne Bogel, #178: The Next Right Thing for your reading life
  • Parenting Great Kids with Dr. Meg Meeker, #50: Finding Balance For Working Moms (with guests Christy Wright and Rachel Cruze)
  • Reply All, #139 The Reply All Hotline

And the gem of the week goes to… This American Life, #670 Beware the Jabberwock, that is fascinating (conspiracy theories) and dark (internet trolls) and heart-breaking (Sandy Hook) and also inspiring (the bad guys don’t always win).

#UnreadShelfProject April

49304967_411823712689749_2472884066192988807_nI always say that I’m bad at book challenges, but I am perhaps starting to get the hang of it! Considering that this particular book challenge is not about adding books to my TBR list and rather taking some out of it, and considering that the prompts are the easiest to follow…

This month, Whitney Conard from @theunreadshelf is encouraging us to tackle the Most Recently Acquired books on our TBR pile. Easy peasy! I was even tempted to buy a book so that I would have the pretext to read it right away…  (naughty, I know)

But wait a second, what book(s) did I recently got? Does a book that was gifted to me count, or just those I did buy for myself? I thought I had kept my spending habits in check, but truth be told, when I logged into Amazon I was surprised to see that since 1.01.19 I had still bought 4 books for myself, plus one for my kid and one for my brother. I would have sworn I had bought none at all!

  • Stretched Too Thin: How Working Moms Can Lose the Guilt, Work Smarter, and Thrive by Jessica N. Turner (on Kindle)
  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
  • The Girl with the Golden Eyes, a classic by Balzac (which I read, whooh! and loathed!)
  • The Lady From Zagreb (Bernie Gunther) by Philip Kerr (on Kindle too)

And I got several for my birthday too (thank you DH, thank you friends)! And I downloaded quite a lot of books on Netgalley!! (I am really unreasonable, but I blame it on Annie from A Bookish Type, who keeps discovering books that seem right for me!)

  • The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson (via Annie)
  • The Quickening and the Dead by J.C. Briggs
  • The Middle Ground by Jeff Ewing
  • The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson (via Annie)
  • Life by Lu Yao

It seems that my TBR is growing unbeknownst to me behind my back… So, I am going to resist buying yet another book, or download new Netgalley copies (this is sooo hard!) and I am going to commit to 3 titles to finish before end of April:

  • Life by Lu Yao, which I chose because it’s been a while since I read Chinese novels, and this one is a bestseller from the 1980s (nostalgia!)
  • The Middle Ground by Jeff Ewing, which I chose because it’s a short story collection and set in parts of California that are far from L.A. and S.F. (travel!)
  • The Mechanical Devil, a British mystery that was gifted to me by Mr. S. (comfort!)

I feel that with 3 books, I am upping the challenge, but I’m cheating a little, since I have started all 3 and so far I like them. Wish me luck! What are you finishing this month?

The One with the Bizarre Floor Plan

Soji Shimada, Murder in the Crooked House (Japanese 1982, English 2019)

Locked room mysteries are classic intellectual games. You assemble a small group of diverse people who seemingly have nothing to do with one another, lock them up (remote island, storm, snow, whatever), and then one person dies in a locked room nobody had access to. Investigate, rinse and repeat. In most cases, the “how” and “who” takes precedence over the “why”. The reader has the feeling that he can play along and guess who the murderer is because he feels that he has the same level of information as the police has.

In this Japanese novel, a dozen people are invited to spend Christmas at the Hokkaido villa of an eccentric millionnaire. It’s on the northernmost tip of Japan, so expect lots of snow and ice foes (living in a moderate climate, I had to look it up). The house itself is crazy, with a leaning tower (à la Pisa), different staircases getting to different bedrooms, air vents and rooms that aren’t really level. Even though the description is quite thorough, the floor plan seems so bizarre that I couldn’t really picture it in my mind. I had a Netgalley ARC, and it would be nice if pictures or drawings were included in the published version.

Alas, the setting was probably the most important character in the book, as it entirely determined how the locked room crime was prepared and executed. I can’t say that Agatha Christie’s characters are always fully fledged, and the genre doesn’t require a lot of character development, but I found that the different suspects in this particular mystery were rather two-dimensional. The result is that many descriptions seemed fastidious to me, and the explanations at the end were far-fetched and implausible. It reminded me of the 1980s manga my son likes, Detective Conan. Still, I’m always on the lookout for mysteries written by other than American and British writers, so it was an interesting discovery.

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


The One with the Weirdest Love Tryst

Honoré De Balzac, La Fille Aux Yeux D’Or (The Girl with the Golden Eyes, French 1833)

Dear Honoré,

Are you perhaps feeling a bit overworked? Isn’t it time that you take some time off with Mrs. Hanska? Your recent work has been a bit subpar, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the latest text I read. I know you need this job to make ends meet, but I wonder if you haven’t been overdrinking (coffee? anything else?) to meet a deadline, because it doesn’t seem like yourself.

You start with such broad considerations about Parisians that the reader would think you’re in for a 400 pages novel, while it’s only a novella. Then you zoom in on an unpleasant ambitious young man called Henri de Marsay, and his mate Paul de Manerville, and for a while you can’t seem to decide which one is your main character. Sadly, you go for the most unpleasant of the two. Henri de Marsay has potential indeed, as he is an unrepentant womanizer, and I couldn’t wait for him to get his comeuppance, but sadly this story doesn’t show that.

Of course Henri falls at first glance for yet another beautiful girl, Paquita, and he seems even slightly obsessed by her because she is not as easy a prey as the other women he dated. She is an exotic girl kept in a gilded cage by a powerful foreign lover. I couldn’t even understand where she comes from (it took me a while to ascertain that you wrote Havana), and you don’t seem to be very clear about that either, as long as she’s foreign, innocent and illiterate. Basically a sex doll. Could you at least try to make her a bit more interesting? I know that beautiful girls without money were powerless, but could you at least pretend that she has a brain by giving her a few lines? Henri will find a way to get to her, and after one night of love, tragedy strikes.

Well, I can’t say I was very surprised. I guess you needed to spice it up, so you included a lot of (non graphic) sex, lots of blood, the lurid description of a crime scene and even a doomed (of course!) lesbian relationship. Please don’t tell me you’ve gathered all these plot points to increase your audience. I’m sure that you will gather quite a number of outraged letters from your contemporary readers, but I must warn you that these things don’t last. At best you’ll get many rolled eyes and perhaps a few contemptuous feedbacks from feminist readers for the poor treatment of your female POC characters. You’re not #woke, man.

The One with the Guinea Pigs Getting Married

Alain de Botton, The Course of Love (2016)

I’d like to finish March by mentioning one of my challenge books chosen for… February; as it seems awfully late to report on it and I would be mortified to start April with this one still on my list.

The reason why I waited too long it that I didn’t finish it. Halfway through, I decided that it wasn’t going to cut it. At least, the #Unreadshelf Challenge is about making a decision, so it wasn’t a waste of time. Still, I had high hopes! Alain de Botton is one of Mr. Smithereens’ favorite non-fiction writers. We probably have all of his books at home and Mr. S is not going to part with them. This one is an especially gorgeous object with its navy-blue cover, and it was a present by Mr. S too!

Uncharacteristically, it’s not a non-fiction book, it’s a novel. Rabih and Kirsten meet, fall in love, get married, and live the course of a long marriage. There are tears, kids, mortgage, stress, dirty laundry, the threat of an affair, all sorts of life events, and we see the pitfalls, joys and mistakes gathered along the way. No “happily ever after” for De Botton!

Sadly, it didn’t work for me. But I’m totally convinced that it will work with a lot of people. In fact, I probably would have been engrossed with it somewhere in my twenties, when I was wondering about relationships and marriage, and when I was reading a lot of Freudian-based psychology. What the book shows is that marriage is a lot of work, that married people need to work on their relationship and on communication, and that nothing is to be taken for granted. It’s a very valuable lesson for all at all ages!

What I really had a hard time was that every few paragraphs De Botton intervenes to provide commentary and analysis. It’s even in a different typography, so that we don’t miss it. In fact, it’s not a novel, nor an essay, it’s a guide-book. So much so that I couldn’t quite immerse myself in Kirsten and Rabih’s lives, I felt that I was looking at shop window mannequins that were only demonstrating De Botton’s point. Because of this method, I never connected to the characters themselves (even though I have my own fair share of experiences about starting a stupid fight about some petty details). I can’t find fault to most of De Botton’s points, but the heavy-handed treatment was irritating. I’d much rather read a straightforward non-fiction book.

The One with Upper Case Bombs and Bffs

A.J. Pearce, Dear Mrs Bird (2018)

How shall I put this kindly ? It’s not the book’s fault, it’s me – and bad timing. If I had not read Everyone Brave is Forgiven before, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. I would have been kinder because the book is definitely on the lighter side of historical fiction. The heroine is plucky and warm-hearted and I didn’t really doubt that the novel would have a suitable happy ending.

But the book had just too many parallels with Chris Cleave’s: two best girlfriends leaving their families behind to do their bit in the war and join defense efforts during the London Blitz. Mary and Hilda are upper class London girls who volunteer as ambulance drivers, while Emmy and Bunty are middle class countryside girls volunteering as telephone operators for the fire department. All four girls will have more than a brush with danger during the Blitz. And there’s love. And tears. Emmy’s ambition is to become a war journalist, but the only job she gets is as a typist for an advice columnist, a prickly, snobbish, aristocratic live-in cliché. Her boss only wants to answer to upper-case Proper letters, and never any real-life, heart-wrenching dilemmas, which puts Emmy in a quandary.

It was all good and fine (and a tad predictable, to be honest), but I had a problem with the upper-case everything. I mean, why are so many words with CAPS? Are we supposed to be deafened by the bombs or by the good feelings? It was so pervasive that it Did Actually Hamper My Reading and Made It Even A Bit Ridiculous. At the same time, I feel bad picking at it because the book’s intention is mainly to entertain and provide light-hearted comfort.

The One with the Privileged Kids in the Blitz

Noel Streatfeild, Saplings (1945)

Ok, can I bend the rules? I have selected this Noel Streatfeild’s novel for one of my two #Unreadshelf challenge in March, and I just can’t see myself finishing it by the end of the month. What shall I do ?

It’s not bad or boring (it’s a bit on the slow side but for a good reason), but it’s good AND depressing, and I’m not in the right mood to appreciate the book at its true worth. I don’t want to discard it either, I feel that it’s the kind of book you read slowly over the course of several months, a bit like Dorothy Whipple’s Priory, another Persephone novel. Perhaps there’s something to the older novels that don’t accommodate speed and efficiency. People in the 1930s or 1940s had probably fewer entertainment and wanted their books to last longer and fill out their long evenings without television or iPad, instead of whizzing through within a few days for a reading challenge.

If I were to apply the strict rules of the Challenge, I would probably let go of this book. But it will stay, both on my nightstand for the time being, and on my shelves later on. The book starts in summer of 1939 in the English home of upper-middle class Wiltshire family. There are 4 kids: big sister Laurel who is sensitive and shy and on the brink of teenaged turmoil, then Tony who wants to be good and valorous, then Kim who is a showoff, then baby Tuesday. The father Alex is very close to the kids and knows that the war will be tough on everyone. The one I had problems with from the start was the mother Lena, who is so superficial and also depicted as lacking mother’s instincts. She wants to keep her distances from her kids who are at best nice accessories to her own show. She is quite happy to delegate the care of children to a governess and a nanny. Then the war starts, the children are evacuated away from London, far from both parents despite the insistence of Alex that his wife would be with the kids, and their lives start to spiral out of control. Well, the rest pretty much goes downhill from there.

I hear that Noel Streatfeild is well known for a kids classics Ballet Shoes. I have never heard or read it, but I might. Streatfeild has a wonderful eye for “getting” kids and it makes me feel that she could write an awesome YA book with a happy ending. This one, on the other end, is clearly for adults.

It is clear that Streatfeild is advocating for the children to her adult audience, who in 1945 is probably more preoccupied by putting food on the table in front of the kids than by thinking of their psychological trauma. The Wiltshire kids are rather privileged compared to other children in the book, and to children who were directly targeted by the Nazis like orphan Jew children whose fate is highlighted by  Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar in another Persephone book. But it doesn’t mean that Laurel, Tony and Tuesday haven’t suffered, and that they won’t carry the weight of war for a long time.

The nagging doubt I had for the half of the book is that their mother may well have laid the foundations for neurosis on all of her kids, even without a world war. Of course Streatfield wants us to dislike Lena and like Ruth the governess, but I was not comfortable with this blanket condemnation of the unmotherly mother, a woman who wants to be a wife before a mother and only made poor choices for herself and her family.

The One with the Anti-James Bond

Kate Atkinson, Transcription (2018)

I will confess right here and there and be done with it. I cheated. After a good 100 pages of the novel, I felt the overwhelming urge to know if it was just a slow start leading to something interesting, or if I needed to stop right now, because the book felt dull.

So I went to Goodreads and I read all the spoilers.

And then I continued reading and I enjoyed the book a lot more. How weird is that? Did you ever do something so naughty? The thing is that I hardly feel guilty because I would have given up on a good book.

The novel’s main character is Juliet Armstrong, an orphaned girl from London who is recruited in 1940 as a typist for the MI5, to transcript all the recordings made of Fifth columnists who meet up in a bugged flat. The chapters alternate between 1940 Juliet, and a more mature Juliet in the 1950s, who now works at the BBC and also keeps a safe house for her secret employer. Both jobs are mostly dull and Juliet doesn’t seem to enjoy it much.

If you think that spies are nearly as glamorous and thrilling as James Bond, don’t read that book. Juliet is no James Bond girl. She’s a bit plain, sometimes very naive, and she is not a heroine. She gets to wear a nice dress and jewels some times, but she doesn’t end up in bed with the dashing hero, or ahem… not exactly. 90% of her work is drudgery, while the remaining 10% frightens her all too much. It’s hard on the reader because she comes out not quite likeable.

Of course, this being Kate Atkinson, there is no place for Ian Fleming’ first degree entertainment. Kate Atkinson knows our expectations with the genre and she toys with them. Many scenes are full of humor, both in 1940 and the 1950s. The tension and the dramatic scenes come to us in unexpected ways, especially considering the standard spy novels tropes. All the while we know that Juliet is an unreliable narrator (from the very beginning, her transcriptions of poor quality sound recordings are full of her own interpretation or imagination), so despite reading spoilers, there were many, many questions left unanswered at the end of the book.

I must confess that I prefer Atkinson’s more straightforward novels and that I am very eagerly looking forward to the next Jackson Brodie novel which is due this year. Transcription’s postface is well worth reading because Atkinson reveals some historical, accurate sources for her fanciful inspiration.