Six Degrees of Separation March 2023

I always want to play to this delightful monthly bookish game held by Kate from Books Are My Favourite and Best, but I actually rarely post about it, I mostly have fun playing around in my head with book titles. I’m awfully slow with this game, but this time I’d love to be able to post before the end of the month! (Just for your information, this post draft has been sitting there for more than 2 weeks, and has actually barely escaped the trash…)

This month’s starting book is Passages by Gail Sheehy, a non-fiction book published in 1976 that I haven’t even heard about. The blurb says that it’s a classic bestseller, but for sure it wasn’t at my parents’ home. The word that set my imagination on is Passage, and therefore I got to another book I haven’t read.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster is a classic bestseller of another genre, but I’ve always been too intimidated to read it. I’ve read other books by Forster but my memory is totally blurred and I might have just watched the movies. For this one, I know something ambiguous and mysterious and scandalous happens in a cave in India, and I never got past this.

Another book where something mysterious and scandalous happens to women in frilly Victorian dresses in a natural setting is Picnic at Hanging Rocks by Joan Lindsay. This one I watched the movie and read at a young age (possibly too young to understand any double entendre).

I have an inclination for boarding school novels where things are not always as proper as one might think. That’s why my next move is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, where a school mistress has a clear influence on her students, and not for the best. Of course, from there I could have doubled down on boarding school and Maggie Smith (who is Miss Brodie in the 1969 movie) by pivoting to Harry Potter… but no, too obvious. I could have gone to another manipulative teacher and pivot to Donna Tartt’s Secret History, but I didn’t want to stay in a school environment.

Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News is one of her novels featuring Jackson Brodie. Miss Jean Brodie and Jackson Brodie indeed share the same family name, could they be related? I don’t really think so. Jackson Brodie is a tough guy with a tender heart, and while Miss Jean Brodie is a strong woman of her own, we’re left wondering about the heart. Anyway, Jackson Brodie is played in the TV adaptation by Jason Isaacs, who has also played another character from popular fiction…

Isaacs is the famous Captain Hook from John Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan. To be honest, I’m not a fan of the story. Fairies and pirates and Wendy playing the little mother for everyone. I confess that I’ve not read the book. I know that there are plenty of retellings for this classics, but so far I have not been tempted (I’ve heard great things of Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen though). It’s a slightly long jump, but I’m going to go with another retelling with one of those secondary figures that are supposed to be passive and perfect.

I’ve read The Penelopiad an eternity ago (16 years?), but I still remember it vividly. By removing the spotlight on Odysseus I discovered the power of retelling and paying attention to characters who have been ignored and belittled by the traditional (male) views.

I’m not quite sure how to conclude this 6 steps fun adventure. I feel that I’ve really gone a long way from a personal development non-fiction back to the Antiquity by way of Scotland and the Pirates island… What would be your own chain?

Anne Berest, The Postcard (French, 2021)

This book is the perfect example of ambivalence for me: I love it, but I am disturbed. The book is about the Holocaust and the multi-generational ripples of Antisemitism on a French Jewish family. The book is heart-breaking and moving and whatever you want to call it… but there’s the problem, right on the cover: it says “A Novel”. Now is it? What is real? What is fiction? I couldn’t wrap my head around it and I could not ignore it. France has a particular subgenre in literary fiction called auto-fiction. I’m usually okay with it, but not this time.

Anne Berest’ mother receives in the early 2000s an anonymous postcard with just 4 names written on it. It shocks and upsets her but she refuses to explain any of it to her daughter. Its only 20 years later than Anne takes an interest. Turns out that the names are those of the parents and siblings of Anne’s mother, all of them victims of the Nazi persecutions and killed in extermination camps. So the question becomes: what happened to those relatives? And also, who sent the postcard?

But it’s not the only questions by far. Anne Berest is quite ambivalent about her Jewish heritage, not practicing at all but even hiding it in some occasions, because antisemitism still exists in France and sometimes life is easier when you don’t say you’re Jewish. She gets challenged by more religious Jewish friends: is she really Jewish?

The book is torn between 3 pilars: the reconstitution of Anne Berest’ Jewish relatives destiny from Russia to their tragic deaths, and of her grandmother’s improbable survival, the suspenseful mystery around the postcard, and Anne’s contemporary private doubts and interrogations. I really loved this long genealogy of strong women. I was deeply moved, but the word “novel” kept nagging at me. Did she make up some of the most melodramatic parts of the story? Did she invent details of her ancestors’ journey she had no information about? I really think the book works have warranted a postface.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Pod Review March 17

My podcast history for this week is rather simple. I just binged on all 8 episodes of The Coldest Case in Laramie, a Serial and New York Times production. I must say that Laramie didn’t evoke much in my mind beyond old-fashioned TV series. (This might absolutely date me, I’m afraid). Weirdly enough, I listened to the whole mini-series the week when it started to be not cold anymore. Spring has arrived in the form of wonderful magnolias and other blooming trees. My suburban town’s city hall has a garden lined with magnolias, I always really enjoy visiting the mayor’s garden in the month of March. I even spotted a Eurasian jay calling out in the business district, a very rare occurrence indeed!

The Coldest Case in Laramie grew on me as I followed the different disappointing leads in the never closed investigation of the 1985 murder of Shelli Wiley. Ever since 1985, people have suspected a few men, police investigators have come and gone, some of them barely touching the file, some of them so convinced of a particular lead that they might have not looked too closely at other possibilities. This is not a flashy podcast like Serial season 1, when we all breathlessly followed the case. This is a mellow, nostalgic trip where the investigative reporter Kim Barker, who spent her childhood in Laramie and hosts the show, realizes how misleading our memories all are. We are sure, absolutely sure, that something happened one way or another, that someone said something, and then when we finally check the facts, it was never true. At some point Kim Barker concludes “we are all unreliable narrators”, which is both unsurprising and heartbreaking in that case.

I had little time for other podcasts, but I still want to mention the latest Lazy Genius podcast: #305 Dinner Permission with Ali Slagle, which is a call to let go of any guilt related to cooking dinner. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, in fact beige mush can be very good and filling! Those 2 ladies’ philosophy is quite close to mine (my dinner plates are almost never aesthetic) and I noted the reminder that I should also take into account what I feel like cooking rather than what I feel like eating. A very timely reminder as I’ll start to plan what we’ll be having for the weekend and next week!

Seo Mi-Ae, The 30 Best Ways to Kill your Husband (2022)

The joke is that my husband gave me this book for my birthday, knowing that I love Asian literature. It did *not* give me ideas!! But it gave me an opportunity to practice one of the good resolutions I had for 2023: get better at DNF and not feel bad about it. I quit this book at about 25% in, and I did not hesitate much. That counts as progress! I just told my husband that the joke was funny but the book, not so much, and that I would give other women a chance to learn something. And off it went!

Look at the cover, all pastel hues and a carrot! You’d think that the book is tongue-in-cheek, dark humor, wouldn’t you? It is not. It is quite grim. I know that domestic violence is a serious issue in Korea, and that female discrimination is strong. These stories are another proof of that, and there’s no chance for a laugh. I believe the cover is quite misleading. The writing of the book felt quite flat, and I couldn’t decide if it was the author or the translator.

Still, I’m glad I had a chance to discover this small indie French book publisher specialized in translating Korean literature. I’ll be checking out whatever else they have in their catalogue.

Adrienne Weick, La Septième Diabolique (2022)

Full disclosure: I personally know the writer and her family, but I have bought the book on my own accord and am reviewing it as independently as I can. But for sure I can’t pretend that my reading has not been biased in some ways! “The Seventh She-Devil” is Adrienne Weick’s first published book, she won first prize in a yearly literary competition organized by the French conservative newspaper Le Figaro to discover new literary talents. There are no literary agents in France so literary competitions are often the way to go here.

The book is mostly a literary mystery in the style of a caper. An unlikely tandem of a grouchy old writer and a naive but eager student are investigating the lost manuscript of a 19th century writer in a derelict Normandy mansion. The student had agreed to be the writer’s assistant for a research weekend in Normandy, only to find himself stranded there as the old man suffers a fall down the stairs. The stairs actually hid old letters suggesting the existence of an unpublished manuscript by Barbey d’Aurevilly. The rest is an adventure with twists and turns set in Normandy and in Paris’ suburbs. The level of violence is quite mild and the readers who have come to the book for the “devil” in the title may find themselves a bit disappointed.

You will probably feel that you’re missing out on the plot if you haven’t heard of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly. He is a classical French author of the 19th century, mostly famous for a (then) scandalous short story collection: The She-Devils. That’s the allusion of the title! French students often study him in high school lit class. In each of those 6 stories, a passionate woman commits a crime, and generally behaves in a scandalous (read: sexuality!) manner. Adrienne Weick did a quite thorough research on Barbey d’Aurevilly, on Normandy history and also on the events surrounding the 1870 war, when the Prussian army defeated the French and attacked Paris and its suburbs. Barbey’s (in)famous book was published right after the war so it is only understandable that he might have been working on it during the events. I learnt a lot! As a matter of chance, I had just started another book on the 1870 war by Zola (a big volume I haven’t finished yet) and the two books sort of talked to one another, I really love when it happens.

I enjoyed the strong sense of setting of the book. Normandy is a quiet countryside with small villages that always seem to have seen better days and whose inhabitants keep to themselves. It’s easy to imagine family secrets and grudges held for generations. The countryside is quite green there because, well, it rains quite often. Adrienne Weick obviously loves this region and she really makes you want to discover it too! “The Seventh She-Devil” is mostly set in Valognes, a small town called “the Versailles of Normandy” because of wealthy families having built their estates in classical style during the reign of Louis the 14th. I also appreciated the foray into suburban history, because Paris too often steals the limelight when it comes to historical monuments. French suburbia also has a strong history of past glory, palaces and chateaux, but those have often been destroyed by historical events like wars or by economic growth and urban planning. Finding traces of them is a mystery in itself!

Pod Review March 10

Oh my, this post is going to be short because I hardly had time for podcasts this week. Blame it on work… I hope next week is going to be more balanced! At last, we got some rain after a very worrying dry spell in January and February. I’d almost forgotten how the air smells fresh after rainfall! My umbrella was quite out of practice.

This week I finished the series The Evaporated: Gone with the gods, about the thousands of Japanese people who willingly disappear every year. They leave their problems, debts, family members behind and start over thanks to an administration that doesn’t look very hard and doesn’t use (until recently) unique authentication. The series investigate multiple aspects of this cultural phenomenon. It could be more tightly edited, and sometimes it doesn’t avis clichés, but I still found it fascinating.

As my mind was filled with work things, I returned once more to the podcast Work Appropriate by Ann Helen Petersen. The episode Building Confidence with Josh Gondelman. This podcast is really growing on me! I don’t know if it’s Gondelman (I need to listen to his own show!) or the interactions between the two that made it flow.

On another note, Edit Your Life with Christine Koh also had a great episode: Thriving Iin midlife with Lizzie Bermudez, with good insights on boundaries.

I am looking forward to a restful weekend. Enjoy yours in restful or active versions!

E.C.R. Lorac, Post After Post-Mortem (1936)

When I saw a new British Library mystery book by Martin Edwards on Netgalley, I immediately jumped on the chance to read it. I am actually enjoying more and more this collection, and what great discoveries it promises! The name of Lorac was slightly familiar to me, I think I might have encountered it in another British Library Crime classics short story collection, although I haven’t found the proof. I was very pleasantly surprised by the novel. Some classic mysteries have aged better than others, and this one hardly shows that it’s actually 87 years old! It is still full of dynamism and wit, and swiftly moves from charming banter to a breathless bit of action. I hope that at 87 I will be the same!

The story takes place within the Surray family, a well-respected and quite successful family from Oxfordshire. The five adult children have each made a success of themselves, but one of the 3 daughters, Ruth, the successful novelist, seems slightly under pressure after the (successful) publication of her novel. Still, her big brother Richard, the successful London psychiatrist, dismisses it and advises her to take some time off. But just a few days later, Ruth is discovered dead in her room from an overdose of sleeping pills. Should I mention that at this point they don’t seem quite successful anymore?

Indeed the family’s luck has turned, but their first instinct is to prevent scandal, hush it up and have the case closed as soon as possible. Still, after the coroner renders a verdict of suicide, Richard gets her late sister’s letter in the mail (the post after the post-mortem from the title), whose enthusiastic tone casts a large doubt on his sister’s suicidal thoughts. So, if it’s not suicide, then it would be murder, and who would want to kill Ruth?

I really enjoyed the clever plot and the many twists and turns. At some point the action is almost at standstill because all the people that Inspector McDonald interviews are reluctant to tell him secrets concerning other people. That’s a fresh change from the mysteries where everyone is a gossip eager to spill the bins. After the middle the action picks up with some surprise events and revelations.

I felt that the psychology was really a strong point in the story and not what I expected from a book of that era. I enjoyed the family dynamic even more when I learnt from the introduction by Martin Edwards that E.C.R. Loras was indeed a woman! I would really be interested to read other mysteries by this writer, it’s a shame she’s not better known.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Pod Review March 3

Last week’s trip to the Loire Valley was great but lots of work was waiting for me upon my return so I had little time for podcast and fun. I spent most of my week catching up in order to be able to say by Friday that I’m no longer overwhelmed. One treat I discovered this week is that I could get a cup of yogurt and granola from a place just minutes from my office and eat it there in a very quiet space when I was not in the mood for breakfast at home. There are very few open places in the business district in the morning so my previous options were quite limited. I might use this again in the future!

What best time to listen to a depressing podcast but the week you come back from a trip? On the one hand, I’m no longer exhausted, the trip gave me a boost, on the other hand I have many things on my mind and might not be in the mood. But when would I ever be? Anyway, this week I tried the Serial production podcast We Were Three by Nancy Updike from This American Life team. I’ve heard that Serial team has launched a new podcast last week but I wanted to give this one a chance first. I’d listened to a part of the episode featured in TAL last year but had switched off a few minutes in because it was too much.

Rachel, the main focus of the podcast, learns from her brother that their father has died from Covid. Rachel and her father had not talked for a long time and their last words were acrimonious but Rachel still had hoped that they would one day reconcile. Then Rachel realizes that her brother has Covid too, and urges him to go to the hospital. A few weeks later though, her brother dies, having checked himself out of the hospital that he distrusted, influenced by conspirationist theories he and their father believed.

This story is harrowing and heart-breaking. You might think it’s about Covid and conspiracy theories but it’s really not. You might think it’s about the health care system in the US and the economic insecurity and their consequences but it’s really not. It’s more about a broken family and a lifetime of abuse and trauma and the relationships between parents and children that come out of it. It’s a lot to take in (in only 3 episodes), but beyond the deeply flawed people there was still love and hope. It’s also about grief and I think that it would resonate with lots of people because of the universal topics it managed to reach. Only if you give this podcast a chance, and if you are ready for with unflinching ears.

After this podcast I was indeed ready for something lighter and funnier (well, anything except tax returns would be lighter and funnier). I listened distractedly to a Sorta Awesome episode about snacks. I had no ideas so many snacks were ever eaten in the US. You guys are quite serious about that! French people are traditionally more 3-meals-a-day people with maybe one snack in the afternoon, so we definitely have less choice.

But the best fun episode of the week was undoubtedly Radiolab’s Golden Goose episode. It’s a two stories in one. In the first part, there’s the story of the Golden Fleece award, a satiric prize given out by politicians for science projects that would wasted taxpayers’ money. It was given from 1975 to 1988 and made fun of projects politicians didn’t understand anything about or found useless. As a consequence, science institutions were a lot stricter in funding fundamental research for fear of being ridiculed.

The show then goes on to lay out the scientific community’s revenge. Turns out that laypeople might not understand some research topics, but those often produce very useful and interesting results even if they’d started as weird (like the GPS, that started out as a research to help people who were too lazy to learn how to read a map…). The scientists decided to give out the Golden Goose awards. Radiolab presents some fascinating award-winning projects that seem completely weird. Have you heard of killer snails, capable of killing fishes with their harpoon-tentacles? Well, me neither, but I can guarantee that my kids were interested.

May your weekend be free of killer snails and full of nice books and podcasts!

Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Before the Coffee Gets Cold (2015)

In a particular small café of Tokyo, urban legends say that you can travel in time. But few actually try, because there are many rules that Kazu, the barista, will gladly explain while serving a cup of choice (not the Starbucks kind with lots of cream and ice, only delicately roasted specialty coffee). You have to sit on a particular chair that is rarely empty, you have to stay on the chair and therefore can only see people who have already been in the café at some point, you can’t do anything in the past that will change the present and you can’t stay longer than the time your coffee will get cold. Beware of the consequences if you transgress any of those rules!

This Japanese novel was originally a theater play, comprised of four stories of time travel all linked together by the setting and the characters. It seems that the author may have wanted to present each story separately, because each time we get “the rules” explained again which was a bit weird. It is totally quirky and gives you a great ride if you let it. It took me 40 pages to get into the right mood, because at first I kept confusing the characters and I was not expecting the sentimental, feel-good tone of the story (I was reading a noir novel in parallel). I went along with the magical realism and the various characters, that feel so very Japanese to me!

Now, after finishing the book for a few weeks, I realize that the stories and characters might not appeal to American readers. The values behind all those stories are often about sacrifice and accepting one’s fate instead of fighting and finding one’s own way. For example, the first story is about a successful young professional woman, whose boyfriend has decided to leave her to pursue his own career in the US. She wants to return to the day they were in the café when he announced his decision to her. I don’t even think the story would be possible with a contemporary American female character. She would not have given the guy a chance, she wouldn’t have staid with him, she wouldn’t have accepted the breakup or even tried to return in the past. The rest of the stories are equally traditional, and they only appealed to me because I know that some Japanese people tend to think that way (or used to, at least).

Some moments feel sappy, some others feel downright heart-breaking, it really depends on the emotional state you find yourself when you read them. The book also made me nostalgic of some Asian cafés (in Taiwan, in South Korea) with a cosy and sophisticated atmosphere. Perhaps I just didn’t know the rules, but if I’d sat on one particular chair, something would have happened…

Pod Review: February 24

I’m writing this post from an old cottage in the country with rather sketchy internet. We’ve been instructed to avoid streaming but the owner didn’t forbid blogging! Luckily I’d downloaded lots of podcasts before leaving home, but no new show this week. I was busy elsewhere, spending quite some time visiting Chateaux of all kinds, but all of them quite splendid even in the winter cold. We didn’t have the blooming gardens and Instagram-worthy blue skies, but we definitely avoided crowds and could imagine for a hot minute that those palaces belonged to us…

I listened to an eye opening episode of Pantsuit Politics on Health care, where the situation in Western countries is discussed regardless of the various national health care systems. People are always complaining that there are not enough doctors and nurses but it’s not clear that adding more would actually solve the problem fully. The economic model around care is highly imperfect, but there’s also a lack of management and efficiency (much impacted by Covid recently).

I finished the mini-series Cover-Up on the Chappaquiddick events but I was rather disappointed. The podcast presented many people, hypothesis and weird events in a rather muddled way. I may have lacked total concentration on some episodes but I expected more from the show.

I went on a thematic binge around the topic of weight, body changes etc.:

  • Gastropod on calories: I’d never even wondered how calories are actually measured. Truth is, it’s a painstaking process… and a highly imperfect one. Measures can be wrong by up to 30%. And a calorie is not actually the same for everyone, nor for every food (feeling satiated counts a lot too).
  • The Holderness family podcast did an episode on weight gain linked to perimenopause and menopause. Turns out, the doctor’s advice to eat less and move more doesn’t quite work for this stage of life (duh)
  • Maintenance Phase did a recent episode on myths around fat people, as the two hosts discuss Aubrey Gordon’s new book, “‘You Just Need To Lose Weight’ and 19 Other Myths About Fat People.” I’m a big fan of those eye-opening discussions, as fat phobia is very prevalent over here and hardly ever discussed.

I really enjoyed listening different podcasts on a similar topic. It was rather a chance thing as I happened to have those episodes downloaded on my phone but I wonder if I could do this more often.