The One with the Fall of a Decadent Aristocrat

Laura Thompson, A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan (2014)

I started this book on the wrong foot. It was a Christmas present from my husband who had been lured by the promise of true-crime-meets-Downton-Abbey… which seemed exactly right for me (damn Amazon algorithm… I hate it when I am predictable). But despite the blurb I soon felt that I wasn’t the target audience of this book.

The first pages were so confusing that I almost quit. First, the author assumes that you know all about the Lord Lucan’s case, and she assumes that you know what the media told at the time (1974, that is). In short, she writes for a British audience of a certain day and age, which I clearly am not. Her point is to counterbalance the clichés and assumptions that were made at the time about the victim, the presumed murdered, and the events and come up with a new version, but I was totally unaware of the case!

There are pages in the book that seem off-topic, like the list of all the aristocrats ever tried for murder, or the ancestors of Lord Lucan and their behaviors during the 18th and 19th century. But when she finally gets to the topic itself, I got fascinated by this peculiar milieu and their life during the 1960s-1970s, an era that I haven’t lived myself. The author went on and on about the gambling circles of that period and what the atmosphere must have been like, and tried with some success to underline the difference between the truth and the myth around it, because as soon as you write down that Lord Lucan was a professional gambler, he came out as a degenerate sinner once and for all.

The writer repeats several times that Lord Lucan was badly judged by the media and the public because he was an aristocrat, and therefore prejudiced against. I am not British, but it seems to me that Lord Lucan was both an object of fascination and hatred, and that Brits do have a complex relationship to aristocracy, to say the least. We may say that we French people have a complex relationship to our own aristocrats too, but there are relatively few left, since our complex relationship led us to kill a good number of them during revolutions (just kidding).

Anyway, I sort of muddled through the book. I didn’t quit, but it could have been a much more pleasant experience if the structure was more straightforward and a lot tighter. The part I loved best was about trying to make sense of what went between Lord and Lady Lucan, beyond the myth and the clichés, to discover a destructive and obsessive relationship. Lord Lucan was probably less guilty than what the tabloids made him to be, and Lady Lucan is certainly no innocent angel either.

I’m a newbie in the true crime genre, and I have been wanting to read more, although this one is probably not the best to start with. What other true crime books would you recommend?

The One with the Dutch Dinner

Herman Koch, The Dinner (2009)

Oh boy do I need a palate cleanser after such a dinner!

When Marina Sofia recommended this Dutch book as part of her Euro27 Challenge, I knew I needed to investigate. I’m not one to shrink from a disturbing book, and one that is so cleverly built and with that much suspense and tension makes for a quick, addictive read.

The book is built around a dinner night at an upscale restaurant with four guests: Paul, the narrator, a history high school teacher in sabbatical and his wife Claire, Serge, Paul’s big brother, a famous politician expected to be soon elected as Prime Minister and his wife Babette. The book starts in dark humor and social satire, but very soon you find that there isn’t much to laugh about.

Small-talk makes way for more difficult and tense exchanges between the four people, as we gradually discover that both sets of parents have agreed to meet to discuss some horrifying act that their teenage sons have committed. The back story brings about the violent jealousy between the two brothers, the secrets and lies in each marriage, and Paul’s beliefs and thoughts.

It is not a nice and pleasant read, and the characters are not likeable, especially Paul who is clearly unreliable from the beginning. In the murky waters of moral conundrums, you cannot help but wonder where things have veered off course. Whose fault is it? What would you have done in their position? Who is innocent and who is guilty? Koch gives us precious few information to work with, so that our assumptions are little by little shaken and challenged and forced toward a new configuration.

The ending is full of twists and turns and shocking revelations, but I felt it was a bit over the top. I could not quite swallow the theory that bad behavior and violence were due to a genetic factor at all, and the whole nature vs. nurture question felt forced from that point on. I have seen on Goodreads someone analyzing the characters in this book as fascists and I felt it was quite an interesting angle (dehumanizing other people, believing in the superior value of the strong against the weak), rather than just another book about evil psychopaths.

I would not recommend it to anyone looking for a pick-me-up, but it looks like a fabulous fodder for book group discussions.

The One with Icelandic Dementia and the Waterless World

Olivia Clare, Disasters in the First World (publication date: June 2017)

First of all, I am grateful to Grove Press, Black Cat and Netgalley for the chance to read the advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. It is my choice to challenge myself by reading more short stories this year, of new-to-me authors, and this book was right up my (g)alley.

Challenged I was indeed: not that those stories were really disturbing (not like Joyce Carol Oates’, another collection I finished recently), but I must say that some of the stories of this collection made me feel that I was in over my head and that I was missing something.

Not all of them, luckily. The first story, Petur, grabbed my attention from the get-go:

Ash fell from the wind. She began to take long walks. Before breakfast, after lunch, she walked the weed-pocked path to the lake. White ash turned the lake’s surface to desert and the tops of the fjalls invisible.

An old woman travelling to Iceland with her son might feel like the kind of once-in-a-lifetime trip à la Oprah, but when you learn that the son thinks his mother has dementia, that the mother is slightly disappointed that her son would be so utterly banal, and that they are both stuck in Iceland countryside by the eruption of the volcano, you realize that Olivia Clare has a vision of her own, where nothing is black and white (or rather ash-grey). I read the online magazine version (in Ecotone), and I noticed definitely some slight modifications between the book version and the magazine version. The magazine version is more explicit, the book one is more elusive (which might explain why I could have the feeling to miss hidden meaning here and there), but I liked the latter better.

The next short story, Olivia (which I had to wonder, is or is not related to the author), is seen through the eyes of a rather meek and very anxious housewife who resents the arrival of a friend’s son in their home. The young man is looking for a job in the city, but his presence in the house upsets the delicate balance of things in the household and he’s not your typical polite house-guest. After a few stories that resonated less with me, the last story of this collection, Eye of Water, felt extraordinary. It could be classified as science fiction but is quite intimate, set in a time where a drought in California and Utah has turned water into something more precious and more expensive than drugs and alcohol. This one story was probably the saddest, and yet there are unforgettable images.

Olivia Clare’s writing is all in subtlety and nuances. The title of her collection seems self-deprecating but somehow sets the right tone. Her characters’ problems are huge but intimate yet their lives are rather privileged. It would be easy to dismiss the magnitude of the emotions they experience but they are nonetheless of the heartbreaking sort. Her style is neat and concise. Even though not all stories were right for me, her voice made me stick to it and I would be glad to read more of her.

Parallel Reading

Colmar Toibin, Nora Webster (2014)

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Blank Wall (1947, Persephone reprint 2003)

No, this post is not a sneaky attempt to post about two books for the price of one, diminishing drastically the pile of books to be reviewed. Bear with me…

I blame myself that I read too many books at the same time. I’ve been known to have up to 9 books on my “currently reading” list of Goodreads. Ugh… It’s not that I have a magical power to read one book with one eye and a second with the other (I wish!). I start one book, then get distracted with another, then come back to the first for a few evenings, then start an exciting one from the library… But the advantage is that sometimes my readings collide.

Take Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, a shiny new acquisition from the library, on my left, and The Blank Wall, a Persephone shiny grey book from my own bookshelves, on my right. Apparently, not much in common. A 1940s American noir / suspense novel (that reminded me of Patricia Highsmith in part), versus an Irish contemporary psychological / literary novel. Both vying for my attention (and my limited free time!)

Where in one hand a dead body has to be dealt with in the first twenty pages, and the whole book takes place within a week, Colm Toibin’s novel in the other hand spans several years and nothing dramatic really ever happens. It’s a slow-moving book where buying new furniture for the living room carries a weight and a meaning that leaves you rooting for Nora, while in The Blank Wall, issues were more life-and-death, scandal or prison, but it took me a longer time to warm up to Lucia.

And yet, despite the differences, under my eyes, Nora began to talk to Lucia, and Lucia to Nora. These two books were really worth reading side by side!

Both features wives and mothers of teens and grown kids. They are alone and obliged to act and take decisions because of their husbands’ absence (Mr Webster died recently and Lucia’s husband is at war in the Pacific). Both women are not used to assert themselves, they express strong opinions in their mind but look proper and meek in front of others. Both are not really likeable characters at the beginning (in my 21st century eyes) because they are so limited in their thoughts and actions, and then by the end of the book they have both evolved, have discovered that they can decide, act and stand for themselves and I grew to like them.

Nora lives in a small town in 1960s Ireland and Lucia lives in a small town in 1940s outside New York. The context in both books provided in each case some new level of reading for me: the political events and the women’s movements for Nora, the war and the home front for Lucia. Both books are quiet feminist manifestos in a sense, full of delicacy and subtlety.

In both books, children are not painted under the positive light you’d expect. Lucia’s kids, Bee (around 17) and David (14-15) are selfish and spoilt. David behaves like a little master and gives orders to his mother, while Bee rolls her eyes at her mother who can’t understand anything. Nora has 4 kids, two nearly graduating daughters and two younger boys. Nora, as a typical 1960s parent, is not one to talk much about feelings or to show her love. There is a real distance between Nora and her daughters who obviously have a much more liberal, modern mentality.

Lucia’s daughter would be of Nora’s age, if I am not mistaken, but Bee is so empty-headed (the whole book comes from her poor choice of a boyfriend, this girl begs to be grounded for a few months) and Nora so provincial that they would probably have nothing to talk about together. But I’m sure Nora would have loved to have the opportunity to travel to the States, given the opportunity.

This was my first brush with Colm Toibin and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, who is deemed the Godmother of Noir. Definitely not the last I hope!

The One with the BFFs Going South

Agnès de Lestrade, Il faisait chaud cet été là (2013, French, 60 pages)

Going on with my investigation on YA short novels or novellas, this one stood out between noir and mainstream. The story is told by Blanche, a rather shy and sensible 14-year-old who has the rare chance to go on holidays with her best friend. Violette has invited her to spend the summer together in the South of France, in Provence, at Violette’s grandmother’s. Blanche comes from a less privileged background, with many siblings, her parents own a restaurant and often ask her to help out. Violette’s father is a surgeon, she is an only daughter used to be the center of attention. At the middle school she has an aura that fascinates all her classmates, including Blanche, who is in awe of her and feels clearly inferior.

Blanche feels lucky to have been chosen by Violette, but once they have settled down in the grandma’s house, the mood turns darker and more oppressive. Violette is no longer the sunny, funny, generous girlfriend. She has sudden flashes of temper, jealousy, violent rage, and then she calms down and begs Blanche to stay. Blanche is unsettled and afraid. The threat becomes bigger and bigger until Blanche’s life is at stake.

It’s a psychological thriller for middle-grade readers, but the writer hasn’t oversimplified or toned down any of the strong emotions and the dark situations. The story is told by Blanche talking to Violette, which makes it more straightforward and powerful. We readers are not quite clear about the exact nature Violette’s mental illness. The tone of the book is rather pessimistic for middle-grade conventions, as Violette doesn’t seem to heal and the ending is quite dark.

I quite enjoyed the novella, and I borrowed it from the library especially because it was a novella, but weirdly enough, I almost wish there was more of it. I found that the story would have benefited from a bit of back story on the girls’ friendship, and the ending seemed a bit abrupt.

The One with the Weak and the Cruel

Joyce Carol Oates, Dis Mem Ber and Others Stories of Mystery and Suspense (2017)

Alright, folks. What screams “scatterbrained” more than 9 abandoned blog posts drafts about so many finished books? I think of something, I write a paragraph (or two), and then my to-do list catches up with me…

But not tonight. I am determined to do justice to… Joyce Carol Oates’ latest short story collection, that will be published in the coming months.

Does Joyce Carol Oates need me to do her justice? Erh, well… probably no. She is so prolific and I feel that many people know what to expect when they start one of her stories. Which might sound like they’re boring and repetitive, but… hell no.

I was so grateful for the publisher and Netgalley to send me a free copy of her latest collection, but when their routine feedback questionnaire asked me if I would consider buying the book for a friend, I didn’t know what to answer.

Joyce Carol Oates is a consummate storyteller and a master of the craft, so of course the stories were well written and spun their web around the reader so that they are vivid and unputdownable. But they are very dark and disturbing, and would I really offer that to my best friends? More like a poisonous gift to my ennemies, I’d say.

There’s only 7 stories in the collection, but plenty of food for thought. The title story is about a young girl who is fascinated by a cousin of hers, a Rowan Billet who has a bad reputation (for good reasons?) and who takes a weird interest in her young relative. The girl is not only paralyzed by fear of danger and the ominous sense of dread, but she’s also like hypnotized, like the proverbial mouse in front of the snake. Another story is about a young university student who gets more and more obsessed about the suicide / murder of another student. Witnessing the downward spiral of this young woman is not a pretty read. Two other stories’ main characters are widows, the second one more striking with the apparition of a Great Blue Heron as a vengeful, cruel and bloody monster. The last story is a pearl of dark humor taking its inspiration in the always-perky safety messages you get when you are on an airplane.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the stories about widows were somehow a reflection of Joyce Carol Oates on her own grief. But I believe she is too much of a storyteller to make too obvious connexions. I could give it a warm recommendation, but it’s more icy cold and chilling…

Writing ’17: February Status

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February wasn’t a bad month when it came to writing. I managed to write every single day but for 3 days, considering I was away with the kids for almost a week (which is typically not conducive of writing). I didn’t focus on any single project and felt a bit scatterbrained: a few words on a story here, a few diary entries there, one or two unfinished blog posts. I finished quite a few books that I’d read for the last 2 months, so my drawer is full of book blog drafts (that you will get to read soon enough!).

On the fiction side, I have received a rejection for my novella. I had sent it to a small French press specialized in novellas back in December. The market for short stories in France is quite limited (there are no literary journals publishing fiction), but there is a market for short novels. This small press was looking for novellas exactly the size of mine, so I had to try!

At the same time, browsing through their back list gave me an inkling that their published novellas were probably too high-brow / experimental / literary compared to my noir-ish / realist story. Which was confirmed to me last weekend.

The rejection e-mail was detailed enough to let me know that the person has read my story (in full or not, I can’t tell). It still stings, because it criticizes the lack of formal creativity and such. It’s a bit hard to hear said so bluntly, especially as genre fiction is not meant to be formally creative (I don’t mean to say that genre fiction is badly written, but genre fiction means that there are some conventions, by definition). I appreciated that the person took the time to tell me exactly why though.

If it’s not a good fit, at least it has encouraged me to look elsewhere and find another small press that would be interested in genre fiction and short novels. I have found a few names where I could send my manuscript in March.

The One for the Digestively Challenged and all those with Gut Feelings

Giulia Enders, Darm mit Charme (German 2014, English title : Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, 2015)

There was a period two years ago when this book was mentioned in every copy of every woman’s magazine I picked up in every waiting room I was sitting. The writer is a beautiful young woman, very far from the cliché of the German scientist or doctor. The book is full of cute little doodles, very far from the expected dryness and complexity of a science book. And since everyone is born equipped with a digestive system that is put to (good?) use every single day, this book has a universal potential audience.

It is informative and fun, but it was too much for me. So much so, that my eyes glazed over soon after I passed the halfway mark and that I only skimmed the rest. This book is an easy target for bad puns, still I’m going to venture there: I could not digest the mass of information. Joking aside, I was slightly annoyed by the constant use of human metaphors to describe the “motivation” and “behavior” of diverse bacteria in our digestive system. It certainly helped understanding complex notions to laypeople like me, but it also felt infantilizing.

Still, I can’t deny that I learnt lots of stuff, especially on the structure of the digestive system. She is quite persuasive on the benefits of having bacteria inside our body, which explains why we shouldn’t use antibiotics but for the most acute illnesses and not for simple colds. The part where I was disappointed not to get more information about is the link between the digestive system and the rest of the body (brain, or other). I wish there would have been more about that topic, which was only alluded to.

Ms. Enders is very enthusiastic and endlessly fascinated by her subject, but it left me a bit cold. It might seem trite, but I couldn’t find a good timing to read this book. Reading it at night seemed too hard, reading it before mealtime made me hungry, and after mealtime made me way too self-absorbed in my own digestion.

The One that Makes Me a Neat Freak

Eve Schaub, Year of No Clutter (To be published March 2017)

When I chose this book on Netgalley, I hadn’t heard the first thing about Eve Schaub at all and therefore had no preconception whatsoever. As it was an ARC, it didn’t have the definitive cover, lest I would have stared and… passed.

I didn’t know she was a blogger mostly known for her yearly project on living without sugar. If I had known it, I may have not requested the book because I’m a bit tired of these yearly projects landing a book deal. I’m totally game when stumbling upon a blog that makes real-time updates of such a project, but translated into a book it’s often clunky and uneven.

So I came to the Year of No Clutter without prejudices to this book and I’m glad I did. I was looking for some versions of  Americanized Konmari and it wasn’t that at all, but it was fun and gentle and the perfect comfort read. It is not a how-to book full of magical methods to achieve minimalism. It is a memoir of a person who has hoarding tendencies, but who comes to terms with her own personality quirks and why she might have a thing for… things. The style is witty and fun and you soon feel that Eve is like your next-door neighbor. With a serious case of TMI.

Except she would never be my neighbor. This book is light and fun (and at times not so light, because hoarding comes from anxiety and deep issues and loneliness and insecurities, which is not the best topic for banter) – yet it’s such an American problem. I don’t say there aren’t any hoarders in France, but I can’t think of even a word for it. And for a typical Parisian, this book (by the sheer amount of stuff she owns and the number of square feet involved) feels a bit like Schadenfreude. Marie Kondo was a bit too woo-woo for my taste, but she as a Japanese has the same issues I face with far too few square feet to put my stuff.

Ultimately the book was a comfort read, even though perhaps for the wrong reasons. I have some clutter in my home, but I realized it wasn’t due to the quantity of stuff but to the scarcity of space. Eve Schaub made me understand that I am no hoarder whatsoever, because she seemed to live on a different planet than mine. It was fun visiting her planet, but I was glad returning to mine.

The One with the Four or Five Sisters

Malika Ferdjoukh, Cati Baur, Quatre Soeurs. Tome 1: Enid (2011). Tome 2: Hortense (2014)

les5verdelaine-731877A few weeks ago when I said that I was stressed out and in a bookish rut, Stefanie suggested a graphic novel, and she was right! I grabbed the second part of Cati Baur’s graphic adaptation of a French middle-grade bestsellers “Four sisters” like I would grab a comforting blanket and a hot cocoa. Then I realized that somehow I hadn’t blogged about the first tome, which I discovered by chance last December, and it’s high time that I correct this oversight.

To be honest I wasn’t even aware that these were bestsellers in France, I was only attracted by the cute, watercolor-style designs, but the librarian soon convinced me that there are actually throngs of Sisters fans who have read it in novels (it’s a series of 4 books for each season) and who were eagerly waiting for the graphic version to be released. Don’t go imagining something like Hunger games or like a girly Manga. There is some  supernatural involved and some romantic cuteness, but Four Sisters is very French.

Who are these sisters and how many of them are they exactly? Like the Three Musketeers who are actually 4, these Four Sisters are really 5. You could find parallels with the famous March sisters, but Ferdjoukh’s characters are so endearing and girly and modem that it would be a shame to deny their originality.

There’s Enid (9) who loves solitary adventures in the garden or near the sea, and has a sweet spot for animals that are despised. There’s Hortense (11) who never goes anywhere without her secret diary. She’s shy but in this volume she’s challenged to take drama classes. There’s red-headed Bettina (14) who’s lovely except when she gets on everybody’s nerves. She has 2 BFFs and spends her time plotting with them. There’s Genevieve (16) with highly developed homely and mothering instincts. She’s so sweet and takes care of everyone, but her way to let off stream is to take secret thai boxing classes. There’s Charlie (23) who has dropped out of med school when their parents died in a car accident to become the bread-winner and head of the family.

The five “four sisters” live by themselves in a derelict mansion by the sea, in a place that looks like Brittany or Normandy. They are orphaned, but their parents still visit them as friendly ghosts. The little world created by Ferdjoukh is also full of friends, relatives, boyfriends and pets (even if only the house rat).

What clicked with me was the language. It’s hard to describe here, but Ferdjoukh uses original metaphors and funny names that are so endearing that I couldn’t wait to read all these dialogues. It’s poetic and light and witty and was perfectly suited with the graphic treatment, these four red-cheeked, wavy-haired, round girls with pointed noses and pastel watercolors. Although I have never read any of Ferdjoukh’s numerous middle-grade novels, what I discover here reminds me of Susie Morgenstern or Judy Blume.

I can’t wait to read the two remaining tomes, and also to discover more of Malika Ferdjoukh’s novels!