The One with the Bizarre Chinese Criminals

A Yi, Two Lives (2020)

This book made me feel all the feelings… but not those you’d want to feel. Doubt, upset, indifference, shock, anger, guilt… So I’m releasing all of them, and I decided today to leave this book DNF. It’s just not for me.

A Yi is the pseudonym for a Chinese writer, who used to work as a policeman and whose name is now in more than one list of the up-and-comings in contemporary Chinese fiction. I was tempted. “Tales of life, love and crime” (as the subtitle promises) ? Short stories? Stylish cover? Sign me up!

The doubt arose very soon because I really have no clue what I was reading for long stretches of the book. It made no sense to me. People talked, people went in and out of rooms, but I didn’t “get” it. I even started to doubt the stylish cover. What is this weird red-eyed furry blue animal exactly? Now, I’ve dealt with bizarre and grotesque in Chinese literature before. In fact, I rather enjoyed Ma Jian’s China Dream last year. But this one is another, rather chilling, animal.

After doubt came indifference. I didn’t manage to care for any character, but I’m not sure if it was expected from me, as the characters were not likeable. Actions seemed random, as were the sudden bursts of violence. It came so out of the blue that I was shocked. And then I was angry, because women were getting killed over nothing and I’m fed up with this kind of crap in literature (as in real life, but if I can avoid reading about fictional ones, that’s better). And then I felt guilty, because I possibly misunderstood the whole thing and it might be my fault… And the cycle started over again.

Another reader will probably enjoy it better than me. In fact, I’d love for someone to explain what I’d miss. But right now, I’ll just pass.

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

 

Pod Review Jan. 18-24

CaptureHere’s the weekly recap:

  • Sorta Awesome #227 Three simple steps to an awesome 2020: meh, not convinced
  • Scattered #1: Soy Andres, a Tus Pies: interesting topic, but many conversations are in Spanish (which I don’t understand at all) and I’m a bit frustrated, but I’ll give it another chance.
  • Radiolab: There and Back Again: about the mysteries of bird migrations
  • Change ma vie by Clotilde Dusoulier #124: le Tapping
  • This American Life #690 Too Close to Home
  • Sinica Podcast: Jerome Cohen on the Hong Kong (Oct. 31, 2019 episode)
  • 10 Things to tell you #47 10 Ways to feel better: some basics, but a good reminder
  • Invisibilia 2019/11/22 Love and Lapses: about dementia and the reversal of roles
  • ♥ The Longest Shortest Time #217 Busy Philipps Works the Postpartum Hollywood System

Nothing really dazzled in my podcast week, until the very last day, when I listened to The Longest Shortest Time’s episode. I don’t know Busy Philipps, but what she had to say about body-shaming in Hollywood, while not really surprising, still made me quite angry.

The One with Old-Fashioned CSI

Martin Edwards, The Measure of Malice: Scientific Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics, 2019)

Reviewing a short story collection is arduous and unsatisfying. I’m not going to badger you with a recap of each story and it’s normal that some stories will be better than others. But in a very short sentence, is this collection worthwhile? Yes.

The British Library Crime Classics brings back some forgotten writers from the Golden Age; it’s quite an interesting endeavor! All these stories have in common is that science plays some crucial part in finding the truth. But as science is very large, you will find doctors, dentists, specialists in chemistry, in ballistics, etc. Of course, as Golden age novels go, some stories have aged too much (science has made big progress, and we no longer believe that the murderer’s face is printed on the victim’s retina). Also, it’s mostly an old white male affair, and sometimes it grated on my nerves (especially that patronizing, insufferable detective Morelle in The Case of the Chemist in the Cupboard by Ernest Dudley) but you can still find some gems in the bag.

My favorites in the book are: “Broken Toad” by H.C. Bailey, “Purple Line” by John Rode, and “The Contents of a Mare’s Nest” by R. Austin Freeman. There was famous names, like Conan Doyle (not at his best in my opinion) and Dorothy Sayers, but the fun of the book lies in discovering new-to-me, half-forgotten authors. Of course, upon finishing the book I had to go to Gutenberg and see what mysteries from those 3 are available in the public domain… That might not contribute to a healthy TBR pile, but at least it does contribute to a healthy bank account!

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

 

The One with the Stubborn Shanghai Bride-to-be

Wang Anyi, Fu Ping (Chinese 2001, English 2019)

Howard Goldblatt is one of my personal stars when it comes to translating Chinese literature to English. And Wang Anyi is a big (female) name in Chinese literature (although it’s been decades since I read her). So when Goldblatt translates this novel by Wang Anyi, I want to read it, and to finish it, even if it’s not immediately comprehensible or enjoyable.

I believe this novel is interesting almost as much by what’s not in it, as by what it contains on paper. So I can understand why many readers must feel off-kilter or frustrated.

Fu Ping is a young Chinese orphan girl who is supposed to get married to Nainai’s grandson. To be sure, bride-to-be and groom aren’t exactly in love, since they haven’t met yet. This marriage is not exactly what Fu Ping wants, although she has few other options. It’s rather the consequence of a long-shot familial strategy from Nainai. Nainai is an ageing live-in nanny to some Shanghai privileged brats, and she decides to take Fu Ping in to have a closer look at the girl, who does not conform to the dutiful daughter-in-law idea at all. Fu Ping is rather passive and stubborn and uncommunicative, a very true-to-life teenager in my experience. Characters in this novel are plentiful and quite nicely developed. We get a glimpse about the daily life and struggles of Chinese working class and lower-middle class in and around Shanghai, and what is forefront in their minds.

What struck me most is that everything we learn about China’s history during the Mao era is definitely *not* forefront in their minds. I spent many pages trying to set the exact time period of the novel. I believe it must be the late 1950s or early 1960s (some web pages say 1964 but my ARC didn’t say). Politics are noticeably absent from the book, and this is *Huge*. Nainai charges’ parents are cadres in the Communist party who are busy with campaigns, but it’s only an aside and not a positive one since their daughters are brats and the parents don’t know what happens at home. Fuping’s uncle works in a cooperative, but it doesn’t seem to have changed the traditional, century-old ways of working on the river. Propaganda is absent, as are tragic upheavals of the Chinese history (unrest, political terror, famine and other catastrophes)

Marriage arrangements made by relatives without the bride and/or groom’s consent are often the staple of the old-days Communist approved literature (see Raise the Red Lanterns, for a fine example). Those books were often tear-jerking tragedies from the pre-1949 world, as this was supposedly abolished in the new world. Here things are not pathetic and black-and-white, but a lot more nuanced and matter-of-fact. Fu-Ping is not exactly a likable heroine. Nainai is not a scheming villain: in my point of view she just wants to ensure that she will have someone taking care of her in her old age, although her plan totally backfires.

The novel has some weaknesses, for sure: a meandering story jumping from one character to another, a hurried ending (which I defy anyone to have seen it coming)… Still, after a bumpy start I got to care about Fu Ping, Nainai and the others. Wang Anyi does an awesome job at making daily scenes alive, and I particularly enjoyed when the whole gang goes to a Chinese opera show during the new year festival, it felt so real! The book is a very good evocation of a world that is aeons away from present day China.

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

The One with the 3 Paris Seamstresses

Fiona Valpy, The Dressmaker’s Gift (2019)

I will start by saying that I don’t think it was the right book for me for so many reasons. Perhaps I should learn from this and swear off any book written by a non-French author set in France with French characters. I get tempted every single time and I get disappointed more often than not. (But I’m not sure I can hold true to this promise.)

The book moves between present-day Paris (2017) where the young British Harriet has found a one-year internship in a fashion PR agency, and the WWII, when three young women, Claire (Harriet’s grandmother, but rest assured it’s not much of a spoiler), Mireille and Vivienne are fashion seamstresses sharing a flat and working together, who have to choose if they want to stay passive, collaborate with the Nazi invaders or join the Resistance.

Okay, so what didn’t work for me [spoilers ahead, stop right here if you want to read this book]:

  • the present-day chapters seemed like fillers at best, or/and very cliché and clumsy. the conditions in which Harriet gets this job made me raise highbrows; and Harriet’s character lacks consistency and depth
  • too many coincidences: the first one comes when Harriet moves into the same Paris building where her grandmother Claire lived, sharing a flat with another granddaughter of the trio… more highbrow raising. It’s not the last. I almost got a highbrow cramp from so much raising…
  • not enough about sewing and fashion itself.
  • inherited trauma. This one is kind of a deal-breaker for me, as this topic is at the heart of the whole story. There’s a postface by the author about this theory, that trauma may have ripple effects on later generations. While I can understand some of this theory (but nothing genetic IMHO), I really took offense of the way it’s applied to this story, not so much on Harriet’s mother (Claire’s daughter), but when it comes to Harriet itself.

What I liked:

  • The friendship between the three girls
  • the unglamorous side of Resistance action
  • The reference to Paris’ Galliera fashion museum – truly a must-visit if you’re interested in fashion

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

 

The One with the Dirty-Mouthed Stork Mates

Benjamin Renner, Un bébé à Livrer (A Baby to Deliver, French, 2015)

December was kind of busy and stressful (was it not?), so I needed a good laugh. I borrowed this comic at the library and it delivered exactly what I needed… not a baby, obviously… I laughed through and through for the whole 290 pages.

Granted, it’s not always subtle… A stork gets injured on its way to deliver a baby to Avignon, and it convinces a totally irresponsible rabbit and a dumb duck to take its place and finish the job. Both of them are definitely not the sharpest crayons in the box, and they don’t even know where Avignon is. The rest is an adventurous road-trip where the two meet hilarious challenges and invent crazier solutions. A grumpy pig joins the duet out of concern for the baby. They travel in the truck of a butcher, learn to milk a cow, have some weird encounters with humans, meet exotic animals on the run to the Philippines, build and test a giant catapult and even hijack a plane…

The book, if it was ever translated to English, should have a giant warning for language, but it is hilarious and absolutely irresistible. It’s great to have a book where elementary-ages, tweens and adults can laugh together.

Pod Review Jan. 11-17

CaptureHere’s are the podcasts I listened to this week:

  • ♥ Radiolab Breaking Bongo: such a subtle episode, about activists using real news but also fake news to fight their country’s dictator
  • Best of Both Worlds podcast #126: 2020 Goals
  • Edit your Life podcast #185 – a bit frustrating because of too many references to previous episodes
  • Sorta Awesome #226: All the awesome of 2019
  • The Good List: Ridiculously Small (It’s Tsh Oxenreider’s very short new podcast)
  • The Good List: Father Brown
  • The Good List: A Journal, Whatever Works
  • Radiolab Man Against Horse: a fascinating science and sport episode, where we learn at last why humans are equipped with… butts.

Both Radiolab episodes I listened to this week were excellent, but my heart goes to the media episode, Breaking Bongo, because it had so many layers and went into totally unexpected depths.

ETA (01/19) I’d forgotten a third portion of Tsh Oxenreider’s new podcast, they are so short (15 minutes) that I had time for another and didn’t write it down!

The One with the Lagos Girls and the First Lady Dalloway

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Arrangements and Other Stories

This short story collection is a selection by a French publisher to present 5 pieces from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with French on the right page and English on the left, a popular method for advanced learners to start into English literature without being too intimidated. (I could write endlessly about the weird pedagogic methods of teaching foreign languages in France where most people end up too ashamed and traumatized to utter a single word in front of the occasional American tourist. I guess you didn’t come for such a rant. Ahem, I step down from my soapbox).

Because of this rather arbitrary choice, there is no unity or thread to find among those stories. The first one is a story first published in the New York Times during the 2016 campaign. Adichie chose to write a day in the life of Melania Trump à la Mrs. Dalloway. Like Mrs. Dalloway, Melania is going to have a party on the evening and we follow her thoughts and interactions with Donald, Ivanka and other people in a stream-of-consciousness fashion.

Now, I sure don’t want to waste my time following every interaction of the real POTUS and FLOTUS, but their fictional counterparts’ day is fascinating, all the more as Adichie wrote it before they were elected. It is rather mind-blowing to read this story now that he’s been elected and that we know how the future turned out. I don’t know about you, but I can’t for the life of me remember what Mr. Dalloway is supposed to do all day. But I bet he was not going to get impeached or start a war with a nuclear country.

The other stories are very different and centered on Nigerian women, with themes intersecting the ones I read in Americanah: the marriage arrangements of a rich Nigerian man who has a wife in the U.S. and a mistress in Lagos (in Imitation), the exile of a young Nigerian girl as she arrives in the U.S., the mutual misunderstanding of the emigrants when they communicate with their family and friends in the home country. The American Embassy is a real tear-jerker and I need to give an advance warning because it deals with the death of a child (I was not warned and it hit me like a ton of bricks). I was even angry that Adichie would use this plot for a short story, I expected more of her.

Despite my small reservation on this last story, I loved this collection and it confirms that I need to read other novels and short stories by this now-favorite author. (I read it in September and I’m sorry it took me so long to review!)

The One with the Snapshots of Marriage

Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation (2014)

A few years ago I was looking specifically for a book written in brief scenes, and this book came warmly recommended by at least two friends. So I promptly bought it, and promptly set it on a shelf to gather dust… Sigh.

In retrospect, I think I was worried that this might be too literary for me. But despite my trepidation I enjoyed it quite a lot. It’s not hard to read, and the fact that the book is less than 180 pages is an added bonus! (It was part of my December #Unreadshelf challenge)

The story is told from an unnamed woman and chronicles the ups and downs of her marriage, especially as it stumbles upon an affair (I don’t want to be spoilery). Sometimes it feels like stream of consciousness, but not in the Mrs. Dalloway sense, more in the Instagram story way, although it was published in 2014 before all the hype. The story moves seamlessly between a “you” and “me” point of view, then a “he” and “she” phase when the marriage gets rocky and the wife’s mental state gets unstable, to a renewed “you” and “me” and “us”. It is poignant without being overwhelming; some snippets are very beautiful (and quotable on IG?), while others are very down-to-earth like a post-it note (bedbugs treatments, anyone?).

You might seem that anyone can put together a mishmash of snippets to make up a story, but on the contrary, it’s Jenny Offill’s talent and craftsmanship to be able to weave together strands of various color and quality to create a story that stands upright on its own.

The One with the Victorian Sociopath Mom

Steve Robinson, The Penmaker’s Wife (2019)

Let’s see what I can do in a 20 minutes’ slot. Can I finish a post? Probably not if I had a very fine analysis of a long book. But in this case, it won’t take so many words to tell you that this book didn’t work for me.

Victorian crime fiction? Sign me up. Also, I have nothing in principle against unlikeable or unreliable main characters, and I’m pretty okay with people doing evil things for good reasons (it happens so much in real life that books have to reflect that, right?).

So, on paper, I was probably going to enjoy the tale of Angelica Chastain, a young mother who successfully disappears together with her young son, to flee an abusive situation and the squalor of 1880 London poverty. She reinvents herself in Birmingham, tricks her way into a friendship with genteel women and secures this way first a job, then a marriage for herself and a wealthy future for her beloved son. On the way up the ladder, she doesn’t mind getting rid of problems… and of anyone who threaten to uncover her web of lies.

In retrospect I guess what sold me on this ARC was the Victorian stylish cover and the promise of a mix between Peaky Blinders and Alias Grace. I haven’t watched Peaky Blinders at all, although some of my younger colleagues gushed about it. I have very vague memories of Alias Grace, which I read decades ago on a Margaret Atwood spree after The Handmaid’s Tale. But this one doesn’t seem to compare. The characters feel rather one-dimensional, and the plot is full of happenstance situations (lucky ones for Angelica, and unlucky for people around her).

I don’t want to enter into the discussion about writers writing or not writing characters that are far from their own gender / racial / cultural experience, but this is one case where I feel that the male author didn’t particularly make his female main character believable. Adding a lesbian dimension to her character was really too much for my taste, not that I was disturbed by it, but it made me roll my eyes. Historical references seem rather dropped into the story and I was frustrated not to learn more about penmaking business since it was directly in the title of the book, and I’m a stationery addict after all!

That said, it made me curious to learn more about Birmingham and also about the penmaking manufacturing.

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