Emily St. John Mandel, The Singer’s Gun (2010)

When it comes to British or American writers, I try to read as much as possible in the original language. Sometimes I settle for the translation, but I always wonder how faithful it is in tone and style. That’s what happened with this book by Emily St. John Mandel.

After falling in love with Station Eleven, and again with The Glass Hotel last year, one of my bookish resolutions was to read more of her books. But Kindle versions were rather expensive, no second-hand book available from my trusted source and no paperback in new versions? My library, on the other hand, has perfectly available copies of most of her books in French… So, I have read “On ne joue pas avec la mort” (One shouldn’t play with death), aka The Singer’s Gun. Weird title choice, right? That’s where my nagging doubts kicked in. Did I miss out on something? I suspect I did, because regardless of the skills of the translator, I couldn’t find the usual dashes of brilliance of the writer’s style, and I missed it.

Still, the story and characters were quite good. It’s a thriller, and a mystery, and a family drama, and a character study all tied together. Here the main character is Anton Walker, whom we first meet alone on an Italian island. He is a newlywed but his wife has left him. He doesn’t seem to have a job. How he came and what he’s doing there will take 200 pages to clarify, but nothing is as it first appears. And as soon as you have peeled off one layer of explanations (often half truths) then another layer starts to appear. Any other way of telling the story would have made me despise or hate Anton, but on the contrary I feel his tragedy and his lack of options and bad decisions. He is weak, but so human.

It is of course a standalone novel, but I can find echos of other books by St. John Mandel. A chorus of people whose fate is intertwined in complex ways. People who lie for good reasons (or not), the get-rich-fast scams (The Glass Hotel), flawed relatives, people who start over and invent a new identity for themselves some place else…

Just like the other books it’s very hard to sum up and to do it justice in a blog post. It’s an experience you have to get immersed in. And it confirmed me in my wish to read all of Emily St John Mandel’s books!

Pod Review June 18-24

This is the final stretch of the marathon… school year over here, and I’m getting so tired that I can’t really concentrate on podcasts. Some shows have just been background noises and I can’t remember one single thing that was said, so I indeed won’t mention them here… Conclusion: the ones that make it to this post are really, really good because even my scattered brain has been obliged to pause and listen.

This is the case for the great conversation between the Lazy Genius Kendra Adachi and Kate Bowler: #253 How to give yourself permission with Kate Bowler. It is a generous and kind conversation between two wise women, and frankly who doesn’t need that right now?

On the contrary, I’m going to quit Heidi World mini-series right here and there: I’m not a fan, and this has probably more to do with the form rather than the content. These episodes are long narrations read by Mollie Lambert, and here is my problem: her voice is droning on and on at the same pace, it just lulls me to sleep. It reminds me of Karina Longworth of You Must Remember This, but on a bad day. I acknowledge that this is highly personal, so if you want a dark tale of the seedy underworld of LA in the early 1990s you can still try by yourself.

Instead, I’ve started the season of NPR Rough Translation about Work and it is fascinating. The first episode is about China and how a small-time thief turned slacker icon on Youtube was completely squashed by the Chinese regime who can’t tolerate anyone contesting the culture of hard work and blind obedience to the Chinese ruling values. The second episode is about Lunch break culture in France, and of course I had to listen! I started with a critical eye because Americans have often a false, clichés idea of La France, but at the end I’d learnt a few things about my own country!

To end this post (and because it’s already the end of the day here as so many events are unfolding in the US) I can’t help but mention that I listened this week to an episode by NYT The Argument, from beginning of May, about the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court’s leak. It’s weird to have listened just a few days ago 2 people talking calmly about the odds of this decision being overturned. I’d rather have them get a bit more outraged, and I know The New York Times wants to keep a measured voice to contrast with all the noise and violence on social media, but it’s rather sad to listen to hopelessness, resignation and exhaustion.

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (2018)

When this novel came out I knew that at some point I would read it, but I waited for quite a long time. It was because I’d worked on a short story / novella on the same premises: rewrite one of the Greeks classic myths (the Illiad and Aeneid) taking the point of view of one of the anonymous women mentioned in passing (those stories are full of names and details). I loved working on that story, but I didn’t finish it. Having a famous writer write and publish something similar was incredibly validating and somehow frustrating… But now my feeling is that thanks to the attention and time I devoted to the original Greek story, I enjoyed the novel even more!

The tragedy of Troy defeated by the Greeks is here told by Briseis, a woman who used to be a wealthy queen of a neighboring town but was enslaved by Achilles. She is mentioned many times in the Illiad because she’s a disputed war prize between Achilles and Agamemnon. But the Illiad doesn’t let her speak or act, she’s mere chattel and she of course has no say whether she is raped by one or the other glorious hero.

Pat Barker gives her an inner voice and the gift of observation and survival. Briseis has feelings and opinions and she is an actor of her life at different points of the book. Pat Barker also gives a reality of the fate of countless women that were enslaved to male warriors and whose lives depend on them. She describes the camps where soldiers lived and waited for the battle with rats and drunken parties and women in shacks doing chores. This is brutal and violent and does a great job counterbalancing Homer’s epic poetry (his chants are full of blood but the pictures are glorious and beautiful still).

The book is stunning and full of complexity, characters are multilayered and attaching, nothing is black-and-white, even in disturbing places, like when some women end up being in love with their master. But Briseis understand that even though women are basically invisible, their children (born out of rapes from Greeks) will still fondly remember their Trojan mothers. The descendants of the victors are also the descendants of the Troyan women somehow (probably a big difference with modern extermination wars where it was not possible for victors obsessed with racial purity to have kids with their concubines and still acknowledged as their own).

This is not a fun book but indeed a memorable one. I see that Pat Barker went on to write more about the fate of the Trojan women but given how gruesome this might be, I’ll prefer to wait before trying it.

Pod Review June 11-17

I’ve just taken a look at my last week’s pod review post and I had to laugh. Catch up on Normal Gossip and discover Heidiworld? It seems that I grossly over-estimated my podcasting free time (aren’t we all?). Yes, I have downloaded those episodes, but they sit quietly in the queue… I have only started 5 minutes of Normal Gossip’s new season out of guilt (just before starting this post…) Meanwhile, we had a crazy busy weekend and I have to deal with those estate matter which require focus… and no earbuds.

I am also slowly discovering that in podcasts, just like in books, I need to have a strong DNF policy. I am getting better about DNF-ing books, but there’s something about interrupting a person who talks, I don’t really do it… (Manners or shyness? 🙄) I always think that in the next 10 minutes, s/he will say something more interesting, and to be honest, it happened quite often.

One example of podcast episodes I finally managed to DNF: Midlife Matter, How to avoid a midlife crisis. I really wanted it to work for me (because I relate to midlife… not to midlife crisis, or at least I hope), but nope. Too Christian and privileged for me.

One example of podcast episodes I DNFed with some nagging guilt: Sorta Awesome #391 How to stop the body shame spiral, with Amanda Martinez Beck. The topic is great, but after 15 minutes I couldn’t keep the interest.

One example of episodes I didn’t DNF and didn’t regret it: Honestly with Bari Weiss. I only tried 1 episode so far: Your attention didn’t collapse, it was stolen, with Johann Hari. The first part of the podcast just repeated facts I knew about from the Center For Humane Technology, about the hidden cost of the constant interruptions and notifications. But then the guest moved on to what to do about it, without being a luddite, and it was very interesting. I need to confirm my first impression of this podcast and I’ll report back here.

This week I caught up with Rough Translation (NPR), with an April episode about the Good Russians. There are 100,000s of Russians who leave Russia and are not really welcome abroad. They lived in a Westernized bubble and ignored Putin, but then the bubble burst.

The oddest episode I listened to this week is about… poop and Neanderthal: Radiolab has an episode called Neanderthal’s Revenge, and it might well amaze you (and gross you out).

I managed to try another new podcast this week: Ask Lisa, with Dr. Lisa Damour, a child psychologist I’d discovered in an episode of What Fresh Hell podcast. She has her own podcast obviously, and I tried an episode about Kids’ anxiety. But shh… you’ll know more about it when I’ll reach the 2-episodes mark.

Well, the week didn’t go according to plan but it’s not too bad… Let’s not make any plans for next week’s podcasts except to have fun with what’s in my queue! What’s your own plan? Happy Friday everyone!

Mark Stay, The Crow Folk (2021)

This is one of those books whose cover was calling out to me at the bookshop. In my edition, there’s a subtitle: “June, 1940. Rationing. Blackouts. Witchcraft.” which was really brilliant. And it’s true, there’s all that. But the execution? Not so much, or at least, not for me.

Faye Bright is the 17yo daughter of the publican in a small British village. She helps her father out and is eager to do her bit for the Home Front if only the men would let her. Her mother died when she was young, and now Faye has found a notebook of hers, which reveals that Faye’s mother might have been… a witch. The village gets under attack, not from German bombers, but for a bunch of creepy scarecrows that seem to have come alive.

It might be only me, but the book rubbed me the wrong way. It’s neither here not there. I couldn’t make up my mind if it was for adults, children or YA. The main character is supposed to be 17, but I couldn’t believe in her. The magical world that is presented here doesn’t make sense to me, and is just juxtaposed next to period details of World War 2, it could easily have taken place at any other moment in time. The bad guys are creepy, but the danger isn’t quite clear, and the war’s dangers are rather abstract too.

Well, guys, I was not convinced. If you want witches and creepy atmosphere in a rural British setting, I’d recommend The Ocean at the end of the lane by Neil Gaiman. It’s a lot darker, even without the need of blackout wardens.

Patrick Modiano, In the Café of Lost Youth (2007)

Now, that’s more like it… After the distasteful / disastrous encounter with Place de l’Etoile, Modiano’s first book, this more recent novel is what most people expect for this author, and it’s a good (albeit melancholy) story.

The focus of the book is Louki, a young woman who used to be a regular patron of a café in Paris, and who died after throwing herself from a window. The book is an attempt to understand her, but also the impossibility to really know who Louki was.

We’re not sure who the narrator is at first, and then once I thought I’d nailed it (a shy young man in the café, probably Modiano’s alter-ego, who many years later will remember Louki), then the voice changes. Sometimes it’s Louki herself, sometimes it’s a private investigator who has been hired by Louki’s husband. Not only does the point of view change, but also the time setting. At some moment we’re in an undefined past (the 1960s maybe?), sometimes we’re in the present and looking back at the past events. One of the good points of this book is the experience of feeling lost (as the title mentions), but it’s probably not for everybody.

The tone of the book is nostalgic but it’s not to say that the past is all rosy. Louki grew up with a single mother who worked at night at the Moulin Rouge and in her absence she took to walking alone in the streets, being arrested for vagrancy. Louki later belongs to a group of friends, but this is very vague, and there’s also some drug addiction involved, contributing to her general despair and loneliness.

The Café of Lost Youth is to me a reference to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. Modiano could actually borrow Proust’s title in its entirety. Louki is lost to the now adult narrator, as is the group of people she was with and many buildings and streets of Paris. As the song goes “Paris sera toujours Paris” with its Moulin rouge, landmarks, streets and cafés, but it’s also never the same.

One could also say that Modiano is always telling the same story about the past, but it’s also never the same. And I love it!

Pod Review May 28 – June 10

It’s been a fortnight since my last podcast chronicles, and I’ve only been listening to one podcast… one series actually. Until last Wednesday I was on a Bennington College ride, and there was no stopping me! 13 episodes of 1 hour each, it was quite an investment of my time, but I didn’t regret it. It gave me a great insight into the literary and academia world of the early 1980s (I was a child then) and it made me think of my own university times (in the late 1990s, and not so decadent).

Once Upon a Time at Bennington College, by Lily Anolik, gave me a strong urge to read The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and to read a bit more by Bret Easton Ellis. It was not only the dirty details of coke-fueled parties on campus, in Los Angeles and New York, but it was also a coming-of-age story, a competition story between budding writers, a story of friendships starting, blooming and dying. At some point it also explained clearly the influences between writers’ generations, from Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway, to Joan Didion, and finally to Bret Easton Ellis. I really enjoyed understanding better how the 1980s young writers defined themselves in context and in opposition to their literary predecessors, and in opposition to one another. And it’s great to have the perspective of a few decades to understand better what was a fad from a real cultural phenomenon.

After such an intense immersion, the usual podcasts I listened to yesterday paled in comparison. If this podcast has been said to belong to the new trend of “Cool Girl podcast”, I need to investigate the others in the category! I tried an episode of The Argument on the inflation and the economy, but I really didn’t share their views. European analysis of the situation is very different.

On the pod menu for next week, get a fix of great laughs with Normal Gossip Season 2, catch up on my usual favorite shows and also try Heidiworld, a series that was mentioned in the newsletters I read more than once. What’s on yours?

Joining 20 Books of Summer ’22

I know it’s not good to start a blog post with an apology, but… we’re already 6 days into June and I am only now announcing my plans to join 746 Books’ yearly summer challenge. It’s true that I hesitate a lot before joining any kind of reading challenge. It’s true that I have a lot on my mind these days and the last thing I need is any extra pressure, especially on leisure activities. But at my normal pace, I should be able to read at least 20 books without too much pressure, right? And I will use as much as I need the option to drop and switch…

So here are my tentative plans… which I prepared from my bed, having promptly caught a nasty but short-lived virus… You will therefore understand that my plans are a bit foggy:

1- Finish what I’ve started. Yes, I’m shamelessly including books that I started in May or earlier. Does it count as cheating? I hope not, because I’m such a multiple-books woman that if I was to start afresh, it would soon be the end of June (that was what stressed me out last year…)

  • 1- Fair Warning by Michael Connelly
  • 2- A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie
  • 3- The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  • 4- Red snow in December by Simone van der Vlugt
  • 5- Ghost Music by An Yu
  • 6- Work: A Story of Experience by Louisa May Alcott

2- Read from our shelves (mine, physical or virtual, or my husband’s). Some titles have been gathering dust, some were already in the Summer challenge last year (ah-hum), some I want to give a last try before culling… (but I won’t tell you which 😉)

  • 7- The Journey Home and Other Stories by Malachi Whitaker
  • 8- A short story collection by Ruth Rendell
  • 9- 1 novel by Elizabeth Taylor, I know my husband had one…
  • 10- Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • 11- Harbour Street (Vera Stanhope) by Ann Cleeves
  • 12- Death Is Now My Neighbor (Inspector Morse) by Colin Dexter
  • 13- One pick among those: Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis / A Circle of Quiet (Crosswicks Journals #1) by Madeleine L’Engle / something by Pierre Bayard

3- Read from the library, not completely random, but preferably by my authors of choice… (it seems easy but it isn’t, I’m getting lured by shiny new books all the time! 🤷‍♀️)

  • 14 and 15- 2 books by Modiano
  • 16- The Secret History by Donna Tartt (my current obsession, linked with Less Than Zero in the above category… all this due to the podcast Once upon a time at Bennington college)
  • 17 and 18- 2 books by Du Maurier
  • 19 Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
  • 20- 1 book by Emily St. John Mandel

Expect this list to change quite a lot during summer, especially as not many of them are in my Kindle and I will need to take the minimum for my vacation away from home.

Laura Lippman, Sunburn (2018)

A while ago Leila from Big Reading Life got me thinking about TBR and lists kept on Goodreads or elsewhere. I mentioned that I had a “on-hold” list of books that I’d started, abandoned but don’t really want to give up on – and I realized that it was a bit, well, stupid. It really felt that I’d created a “should read” category that would weigh on me and make me feel guilty. High time to revisit that list and get read of it, one way or the other. Either read it or let it go.

Sunburn was one of those books that I had on shelf. As I was going for a break I took it in my luggage and planned to not come back with it, read or unread. So which one do you think it went?

My first reading attempt was stopped before page 100. The story is set in small town Delaware where a private detective is following a young beautiful, red-head woman in hiding. No, stop, it’s not so straightforward: it’s a private detective posing as a cook, working in an old-style diner alongside a runaway woman posing as a waitress. We don’t know what she’s running from and why he’s following her. We have his inner monolog and hers, and I remember being annoyed that much of the thoughts was: I know he knows I’ve lied, but he doesn’t know that I know he knows, so… Far too convoluted if I was tired or not fully focused.

Luckily the second time around, I was more relaxed, more patient (this is indeed a slow burner), and more open to suspending my disbelief. Characters in this novel are shady and not entirely likeable, and the atmosphere it conjures is definitely a noir movie. What is unusual is that for most of the book we’re not quite clear what the crime is. There’s a thick web of secrets and I didn’t see the ending coming. Laura Lippmann is indeed a plot master!

I’m glad I persevered with this book, although as a red-head myself, I’m not a great fan of the mysterious, venenous red-head woman trope.

Catel & Bocquet, Alice Guy (2021)

The tandem of authors, Catel (pseudonym for Catherine Muller) as a visual artist and José-Louis Bocquet as a writer, are now well established in France for creating graphic biographies of overlooked (female) celebrities, like Olympe de Gouges, or Kiki de Montparnasse. Alice Guy is exactly the kind of feminist heroine that needed such a biography.

I’m pretty sure that the name Alice Guy doesn’t ring a bell to most of you, but if it does, kudos to you! Alice Guy is the first female movie producer and director worldwide: she starts creating just 3 years after the first movies are invented by Lumière in 1895. Originally working as the secretary to Léon Gaumont, she had the idea to create fiction movies, instead of real-life scenes, and as those were successful she went on to direct literally hundreds of short movies.

In 1907, she married and left Gaumont to follow her French husband to the United States where they wanted to develop the movie industry, before the rise of Hollywood. She owned movie studios in Flushing NY, then in New Jersey until about 1917, when her husband leaves her for an actress. Alone with kids and penniless, her career in the movie industry basically stops around 1920 at age 50. She dies in the US in 1968, but the history of cinema had long since blotted her out completely. Biographies of Gaumont and others didn’t mention her, and as most of her movies didn’t survive, her role was largely forgotten until the late 1990s where cinema specialists started to hear from her again.

Catel and Bocquet give Alice Guy a well-deserved spotlight. The biography is quite linear and not very innovative in form, but since the information is not well-known, it is very valuable. After the graphic section, a long postface provides a short biography and context for all the people mentioned in the book, it must have been a huge work! I don’t want to rant about patriarchy (again?), but as movies became more and more important and big money was involved, women like Alice Guy who had great ideas and business acumen were pushed to the sidelines, and now female directors and producers are still in the minority.