The One with the Despicable Cop

Romain Slocombe, L’Affaire Leon Sadorski (2016)

I bet this book will not sell its rights in the US anytime soon. It is very French, and very disturbing, and right now this is not what the American readership wants to read at all.

Leon Sadorski is the most despicable character I’ve encountered in a long while. He’s violent, Antisemitic and racist, sex obsessed and sexist, anti Communist and anti gays. He’s corrupt, he lies all the time and he’s not courageous. And he’s rather full of himself because for the moment the law is clearly on his side, so he needn’t worry too much.

Leon Sadorski works for the French police, which in 1942 works hand in hand with the Nazi occupation force. Not on an equal footing though. The Germans are always a bit condescending with the French, always suspicious of potential resistance spies, always weary of people who proclaim too much their newly professed love for Hitler. Sadorski knows how to deal with them: submissive, brown-nosing, taking them to visit Montmartre red light bars, looking the other way as a German officer chats his own wife up. He used to have problems with his hierarchy back before the defeat, but since France has decided with Marechal Petain to tow the line and learn from the German model, his colleagues fear and respect him. He knows somewhere deep that he’s always walking a fine line, but so far he has been one lucky bastard.

This novel is not for the faint of heart. Physically as well as morally, what we get to see is really revolting. Of course, that’s what the author wants. And he comes with lots of details to make daily life in Paris in 1942 vividly real, and those collaborators also very real. Slocombe actually mixes fictional characters with a lot of real people who got really close to the Germans during the war and who got away with it, becoming famous artists, wealthy businessmen or even politicians after the end of the war. Slocombe combed through the archives of the police force and the reports of this era are not pretty.

It didn’t take me to long to finish the book. The mystery itself is not the most interesting. But it made me uncomfortable because I felt like a voyeur. I couldn’t get away fast enough and I felt dirty afterwards. It is interesting but I’m not about to try another. It was one of my June picks for the Unreadshelf challenge and I’m glad I’ve got rid of this one!

Pod Review July 4 -10

Very little time for podcasts this week. The few I listened to were rather gloomy, so they didn’t make me reach for my phone in eager anticipation. The Invisibilia episode is quite depressing (warrants a full trigger warning in my opinion), as are several sections of This American Life’s which is on Covid. It might be my own filter, but even Happier had some sad undertones when Gretchen Rubin and her sister went over all the plans they were unable to fulfill due to Covid.

  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin #279 Halfway through 2020: Check In with Your #20for2020 list and #Walk20in20—and a Spotlight on Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy.”
  • Revisionist History Hedwig’s Lost Van Gogh
  • This American Life #709 The Reprieve
  • Invisibilia The Last Sound

Revisionist History was a bit of fresh air in the middle. It’s not necessarily funny-ah-ah (after all, it deals in part with art pieces that Germans Jews had to sell to save themselves from Nazis), but it was very eye-opening about things we value and put into museums and their intrinsic value. Sometimes Gladwell’s oratory style gets a bit on my nerves, but he always comes with a fresh perspective and show me things I’d never thought about. Do you know what a McGuffin is? I have Gladwell to thank for discovering that.

#Unreadshelf Challenge July Update

I managed to finish the 3 books I’d decided to read for the Unreadshelf Challenge before the end of June, which is pretty unusual! I’m far behind with reviews, but the reading part went well, thank you very much! I guess it’s because I decided to forego non-fiction in my June picks, as I’m notoriously dragging my feet with non-fiction. But non-fiction is coming back in July, I promise, because I still want to keep this reading goal for 2020, even as so many other goals are sliding (hello, monthly movie nights at the cinema! well, see you in 2021, maybe…).

For July, the prompt given by Whitney Conard from the Unreadshelf Challenge is to have other people choose books for myself. She presents it as “ask for people to help choose your next read.” Now, do I like to ask for help in general? No I don’t. Do I like delegating my book choices to someone else? Of course not! And I don’t do Book-stagram or real-life book clubs either.

So my plan was definitely low-key and low-tech. I lay all the TBR books on my bed, made a separate pile for non-fiction, and I let my 2 kids (6, 12) come into the room. Of course, they complained (they’re little French people, remember?). They didn’t want to be bothered, they didn’t understand what the books were about, they don’t read any English. So I told them to get rid of any book covers they didn’t like, until there would only be 3 books on the bed, 2 books on the fiction side, and 1 on the non-fiction side.

Soon they liked the idea of being in control of something in their mother’s life, after I promised that I would submit to their choice anyway. So yes, it got pretty random, and there was an unfair advantage for the prettiest cover art. Here are the 3 titles that got picked:

  • Princess Bari, by Korean writer Hwang Sok-yong, because my younger son was clearly taken by the title and the mysterious woman on the cover. I’m really happy with this choice!
  • Burn-Out: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, because the cover is pink and because my elder son has heard of burn-out so he felt better choosing a title he could understand. I’ve heard so much good about this book from a lot of different sources.
  • My bonus pick is La diplomatie du panda by Jianxiu Mi. My kids would vote for any book cover with a cute animal. It’s actually a crime mystery set in China in the 1980s, a book I bought before the end of lock-down. I’m a bit weary, because I’ve read that Mi Jianxiu is actually the pen name of a French writer. I really would have loved to read a mystery by a Chinese writer. If it’s not satisfying it, I will drop it.

I’ve already started Princess Bari, and today I read the introduction of Burn-Out. It seems rather a tight schedule though, because none of them is particularly short and it’s already 1 week into July. Wish me luck with this month’s challenge!

Pod Review June 27 – July 3

This week my listening went in a lot of directions. I chose to listen to different podcasts on racism that I’d downloaded in the last few weeks, and it was very eye-opening, sometimes depressing but also hopeful in some ways. I also got to understand more about the Internet (on allowing or taking down posts on social media, on the influence of algorithms on people’s thinking…). But there was also some music discussion with Song Exploder. It’s always great to discover new music and to understand what the creator’s intention was.

  • Change ma vie by Clotilde Dusoulier #151 les ruminations
  • NYT The Rabbit Hole, ep. 1 Wonderland
  • NYT The Rabbit Hole ep. 2 Looking Down
  • 10 Things to tell you by Laura Tremaine #68 Hometown Friends
  • Radiolab Post No Evil Redux, an old episode about social media self-defined rules for taking down some posts, reviewed in view of the recent POTUS tweets / Facebook posts
  • 💙 Invisibilia (04/03/2020) White vs. white. About the case of a man who self-identifies as Black, while others see him as white. Who is right? Who is white?
  • Invisibilia (03/16/2020) The Reluctant Immortalist: about a weird creature that might be immortal: the hydra, and its even weirder researcher that looked into this topic, and then let it go. It is rather bittersweet.
  • The United states of Anxiety: Keep calm and check your bias (March 26, 2020)
  • Change ma vie by Clotilde Dusoulier #136 Impatience
  • Song Exploder : Tame Impala – It Might Be Time
  • Code Switch May 31, 2020: A Decade Of Watching Black People Die – probably the most depressing episode in my week.
  • Song Exploder: Apparat – Goodbye (Theme from “Dark”)

I really loved Laura Tremaine’s discussion with some of her Black girlfriends and classmates from her Oklahoma hometown, it was authentic and refreshing. But I think the most fascinating discussion was Invisibilia White vs White episode, where different definitions of race get discussed in depth.

The One with the Evil Nazi Stepmother

Kate Quinn, The Huntress (2019)

This is one of the books I checked out from my workplace library just before the lock-down started mid-March. Granted, the idea of a Nazi woman who killed innocent kids point blank and escaped to the US to remarry and become a perfect Boston housewife – stepmom is not completely uplifting, but it perfectly filled its mission to take my mind off the pandemic, take me towards other historical times and other struggles.

Of course, this woman is the title of the book, but really the book centers on other characters who are even more interesting than her. There’s Jordan McBride, a young Boston girl who dreams of being a famous photographer while preparing to get married to her high school sweetheart. There’s Nina, a wild Siberian girl obsessed with flying planes, who has made it to the only elite all girls Soviet air fighter squad. There’s Ian, a British war journalist who has teamed up with Jewish American veteran and sweet-talker Tony to hunt Nazi war criminals in hiding. How these guys get together is the core of the story. What their own secrets are and where their own motivation to hunt the Huntress come from is as interesting (or more) as the hunt itself.

It is a brilliant page-turner, so that I never got the chance to wonder while reading if any of these characters were entirely believable, and if their association was even remotely possible (I suspect not). Suffice to say that the pace, the tension and the twists of the plot all did a very good job to suspend my disbelief all along the 500+ pages. I know from the postface that the author was inspired by some real Nazi-hunters, and by some real Soviet female bomber squad, but I also understand that she took a lot of liberties with history too.

The plot is not without weakness, I realized after having turned the last page, especially the Boston story line with Jordan McBride. Of course, we’re meant to understand that the 17 year old has an investigative instinct and that she knows in her guts that something is wrong with her father’s new girlfriend (who soon becomes her stepmother). But compared to the war scenes everything seems a bit anecdotal and rosy. I felt that there was some missed opportunity to explore something deeper and/or darker (à la Madmen).

Nina Markova, on the other hand, is the real deal, and her relation with Ian would have been enough to make the book stand on its own. I wanted to know more about her, and to learn more about what happened next, although all story lines are nicely tied up in the end.

I would be interested to read Quinn’s previous bestseller, The Alice Network.

Pod Review June 20 -26

I can’t believe it’s Friday already! I certainly haven’t listened to as many podcasts as I’d wish. Still, I did much better than last week, and I tried a new pod which I enjoyed.

  • The Happiness Lab bonus episode: Good screens and bad screens; it’s the first time I try this podcast which I discovered through Laura Tremaine. I will certainly return to it.
  • The Good list by Tsh Oxenreider #30 Write what you like; as in, remember the tiny details of our present life in a journal or something.
  • Radiolab Nina (June 6, 2020): about a performance by Nina Simone just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King
  • Sorta Awesome #248 The Best Drink is the one you enjoy: probably more than I need to know about alcohol.
  • Sorta Awesome #249 Internet Life Hacks
  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin #276 Design your summer: we actually did it together with the kids even before listening to this episode
  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin #277 Schedule an Empower Hour
  • Life coach school podcast with Brooke Castillo #318 Future self in Uncertain times
  • Radiolab Graham (June 6, 2020): about the legal arguments used at trials of cops shooting innocent Black people – very informative and surprising in its conclusions
  • The Good List by Tsh Oxenreider #36 Two-Week Summer; as in, short-term planning for this exceptional period will save us from disappointing cancelled plans made too long in advance.

I usually give out a gold star of sorts, but today I’ll say a word about a podcast episode which remained on my mind but in a perplexing way. I normally listen to the Lifecoach School Podcast with Brooke Castillo to boost my confidence or morale, because she is punchy and positive. The start of this episode was exactly right in this respect: she advocates choosing to believe a positive outcome of the pandemic, instead of a gloomy one, because since no one knows the future there’s nothing to gain by being especially pessimistic about the future. Then she moved on to say that one should not blame outside circumstances for not reaching one’s goals, and it didn’t sit well with me. I know that this thought is at the base of Castillo’s method, but this time it sounded a lot like blaming and guilt-tripping to my ears. When it comes to some special circumstances, let’s say a pandemic, but I could also mention systemic racism, I do believe that circumstances might well prevent you from reaching your goals, and that’s not the person’s fault. I might have misunderstood Brooke Castillo’s point. I also discovered that she has a page on racism on her website and I’ll be interested to learn more about it.

The One with Lucy Barton’s Neighbors

Elizabeth Strout, Anything is Possible (2017)

This is no use starting this book if you haven’t read My Name is Lucy Barton before, but except for this caveat, if you have read it, you’re in for a treat, there’s more Lucy! When lock-down started to ease in France in May, our local bookshop started to open up slowly and we could only order whatever they has in stock, and they have precious little in English. I felt so lucky to snag this book, especially as I’d had it for a while on my wishlist!

It was my pick for the #Unreadshelf challenge prompt on backlist titles. No, I’m not going to announce that there’s a third book about Lucy Barton (well, I wouldn’t mind), but there’s actually another book with Olive Kitteridge (also on my wishlist, of course). I’d not read anything else by Elizabeth Strout, but she seems to have created fascinating small worlds (the fascinating little village of Amgash, Illinois, for Lucy, and the fascinating little village of Crosby, Maine) and we just can’t get enough of it. It’s a bit similar to those old train sets where we can see tiny figurines walking on a road or standing in front of a train station and we’re wondering who they are, and to which other figurines they are related.

We see people intersecting other character’s lives, creating events by mistake, misunderstanding and malice. People look at their neighbors and make assumptions, educated guesses, or ignore them altogether. We readers are privy to all these secrets, the small miseries or terrible pains some of them go through, and we have the full view, how satisfying to play God! There are many weak ties between the stories, but of course all of them mention Lucy Barton, even if only in passing, because they’re all surprised that their small village has a famous person who has managed to go away and become successful in New York.

We get a better picture of Lucy Barton’s background, things that were only alluded to in the first book, and these are not the portrayal of happy people. But they are complex, and deep, and you feel as if you really get to know them. The book is not hopeless though, and each story has its own closure. I highly recommend this book, even for people who are not really into short stories.

The One with the Desperate Flight

Cyril Pedrosa, Trois Ombres (French 2007, English Three Shadows 2008)

When I first returned to the library a few weeks ago after almost three months, my first impulse was to borrow some graphic novels for grown-ups, because I had not read any since March. Graphic novels are rather expensive and heavy (mailing costs) and I read them far too fast to make it worthwhile buying them (yes, I know, sorry). I took Three Shadows completely on a whim, because the cover seemed intriguing.

I should probably have looked it up a little bit better, but I was in a hurry to load up our library cards with all those books!

If I had known it was about a child death, I don’t think I would have borrowed it. It seemed like a fantasy quest of a dad and his little boy, fleeing away from shady bad characters. Three shadows show up one day up the hill in front of the idyllic family cottage. Of course, by the middle of the book it was pretty clear that these hooded riders are metaphorical, but at the beginning I was blindsided! We don’t know where and when the story is set, but the theme is universal, treated like a dark fairy tale.

When the riders don’t leave, the family gets antsy, and the mother downright anxious. Against her husband’s will, she visits the nearby town to take advice from a wise old woman / fortune teller. But the father refuses to hear the message she comes back with, and he takes the little boy into a desperate flight away from the shadows. Their journey is long and they make all sorts of people along the way.

The author has done a fantastic work of telling a heart-breaking story with very few words but lots of fantastic, fluid lines. It’s not really my type of design, and I was not really ready for the story itself. I grew into it, but at some point along the journey, I found that the author has somehow lost its focus. The ending, though, was really marvelous because it was tragic and hopeful at the same time. If I have some reservations, I’m quite ready to acknowledge that the problem lies entirely with me, and once you know what you’re getting into, it’s a roller-coaster of emotions and you won’t forget this book for a while.

The One with the Indian Lady Lawyer

Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018)

It might have been the most perfect book for Coronavirus / quarantine yet: it took me to a whole other era (1920), a whole different continent: India, with a different culture, vocabulary, food, manners, concerns, but it was also cozy and darling. My brain was so relieved to be in another world! After buying it on impulse in March, it was one of my May picks for the Unreadshelf challenge, and my only regret was that I could not pair the reading of the book with a visit to an Indian restaurant. (maybe later? there are a good number of yummy dishes described in the book)

The main character is Perveen Mistry, a young woman working as a solicitor at Mistry Law. But she’s not any woman: in 1921, she’s one of the very few Indian women to have studied law in Great Britain, supported by her parents. She’s a strong character and it’s hard to not like her from the beginning (and even more as the story unfolds). She’s not allowed to appear in court, but she drafts contracts, and in this book, she’s the only one able to help three rich widows with their inheritance, as these women are Muslim living under purdah (a seclusion from all men but their husband, in separated quarters of their estate on fashionable Malabar Hill). The case becomes more complex as the (male) estate manager gets murdered.

Apart from the eponymous widows, the book is full of back story information about Perveen herself. It takes most of the book and more than the murder mystery itself, so that the book feels more like a historical fiction. Perveen belongs to the Parsi community (which I didn’t know much about, except that they are related to the Iranian religion of Zarathustra, which I had encountered some time ago in a great graphic novel). The book is rich with descriptions of Parsi customs and situation in the British empire, but it never feels heavy. I learnt so much in a very entertaining way. Perveen’s personal backstory is quite fascinating, the only downside is that it is told through flashbacks and it rather slows the action set in present day.

For a cozy mystery (very little blood on scene, although there are some emotional / physical abuse in the story), it gave a lot of historical, social and political issues to think about. Plausibility is rather stretched, but it seems that there was indeed a female Indian lawyer in the early 20th century: Cornelia Sorabji. I’d love to read the next volume.

Pod Review June 13-19

It was not a big week for podcasts. In fact, I hardly know how I spent my time in this post-lockdown week. Very full working days (apparently, we must catch up for lost time… uh?), lots of long-delayed errands, much hand wringing about school mandatory reopening next Monday. Yes, folks, insert eye-roll emojis, but French schools are mandatory again for primary and middle school kids, for the mere two weeks until school year end early July… Schedules probably require a Masters degree in Microsoft planner (especially if you work and if you have more than one kid). I throw up my hands and give up. If their attendance record is not good, I don’t think I care much at this stage.

Oh but wait, you were expecting something about podcasts and not only a slice of real French life, right?

  • 💙 10 things to Tell You by Laura Tremaine: #67 Social Shaming – very interesting and timely. Well worth listening to if you’ve ever been tempted to say: “I’m not judging, but…” and insert some remarks about social distancing or not, wearing masks or not, gathering or not, etc. Of course, we all knew in theory already that self-righteous social media images don’t tell the full picture, but in Covid times, what does that mean?
  • Radiolab Dispatch: 6 Strange Times: fascinating science tidbits about time slowing down (or not)
  • On Being with Krista Tippett: Stephen Batchelor, Finding ease in aloneness – I’m an introvert, so I never had any difficulty with the idea of being alone. Back in 2013 I’d read a book by Batchelor and I have a fond memory of it.
  • The Good List with Tsh Oxenreider: The Golden Hour – not for me. I’d love to have an hour to explore, play and discover, but right now, it’s not realistic.
  • Edit Your Life Podcast #201 Everyday Frugal Edits – some good ideas here, some of which I practice already, some I want to try (dry beans?), some of which don’t really appeal to me (handkerchief really?)

I’ve downloaded a huge pile of podcasts for the next week(s) and look forward to discovering new audio treasures!