The One with the Forgotten Baltic Tragedy

Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray (2011)

The book’s title calls for a lot of stupid, inappropriate jokes, but it’s not the writer’s or the publisher’s fault if this one came before the soft p trilogy you’re thinking about. And it’s a shame really because this book’s subject is nothing to laugh about.

As an exception, I will warmly recommend you this book that I did not finish. It was simply too much for me, as it follows a young Lithuanian girl arrested with her family in 1941 and sent to Siberia by the Soviet authorities.

It remains little known that this little Baltic country, after being invaded by Nazi Germany, was annexed to the Soviet Union. Baltic people didn’t get free for another 50 years, and their intellectuals, liberals, teachers, military and religious people were deported en masse from 1941 to 1953. Lina is 15 when she gets deported, and she has to fight and be strong day after day, year after year throughout her ordeal to Siberia. The book is quite grim and I had to skip pages, although it is classified as YA. I visited the Baltic countries in 2007 and the book reminded me of many museum visits that precisely evoked this painful past. It’s a difficult read but very informative. I understand that the novel was inspired in part by Mrs. Sepetys’ family. I also want to read another novel by Ruta Sepetys : Salt to the sea, about the Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy.

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The One with the Nursing Home Gangster

Benjamin and Julien Guérif, Le Petit Sommeil (French, 2011)

There aren’t many noir novels for middle grade, perhaps because publishers think young readers prefer escaping to fantasy lands where superheroes, princesses and wizards fight for lofty causes. But there are exceptions, and this one is a rather good one.

Pierre has to find an internship to validate his highschool year. Because he’s shy, not well-connected and not particularly ingenious, he only finds a job at his mother’s workplace: a retirement home. It’s a rather brutal reality for a teenager whose only dream is to become a sports journalist.

He quickly understands how hard his single mother works to make ends meet, and how tough her working environment is: the manager is not very friendly, the old people act weird, there’s even an old man who scares and bullies everyone in the nursing home. Strangely enough, this old man seems to take Pierre under his wing. But is it for good reasons?

The book’s title is a nod to the Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe. I’m not a big fan of Bogart, but I like Chandler, and I should probably reread him. This short novel has all the ingredients of a noir movie, with lies and manipulations, gangsters, burried secrets, a road trip and a pursuit. Pierre is thrown into adult problems and learns to make choices that may impact his whole life. I would recommend it to 14-15 years old.

The One with the Deglamorized Hollywood

Marin Ledun, No More Natalie (French, 2013)

I read this novella in one setting, it’s quite dark and bitter, like a cliché noir movie. The characters are all desperate fools, cornered by failures, weaknesses, money problems, lost love and booze. Lots of alcohol and lots of dope in the story. The atmosphere is so heavy that it’s hard to breathe. Tragedy will strike before sunrise. The small detail about this story is that all these characters are real.

Ledun tells his version of the fatal night in 1981 when Natalie Wood was found drown in California not too far from the yacht where her husband Robert Wagner and the actor Christopher Walken were partying too. The inquest said it was an accident, but Ledun uses Wagner’s fictional voice to tell the quite plausible story. Mr. Smithereens had told me the story (I didn’t know! In my mind Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken could never belong anywhere together… I’m so naive sometimes) but I can’t help but prefer Marin Ledun’s version, given that we’ll probably never know the truth.

The One from the Junkyard to Harvard

Tara Westover, Educated (2018)

I read an excerpt of this bestselling memoir on Season of Stories (although it wasn’t technically a short story), and I broke a self-imposed ban on buying hyped-up new books. Not only did I buy it, in hard-cover (gasp!), but it did jump up the queue and I couldn’t wait to start. Why?

I was attracted to the idea of a young woman who was born in a fundamentalist family, never went to school but still managed to get to university and get a degree from Cambridge and Harvard. I am also fascinated to see how a young woman could start to think by herself after living in a tiny world with a warped sense of reality. I have been drawn before to this kind of storylines like in “I am Forbidden” by Anouk Markovits. I expected the sort of brainwashing against women and against education in general, I didn’t expect that much of the memoir revolved around abuse (both physical and psychological) from the author’s brother and supported by her parents. I expected poverty and hardships, I didn’t expect so many life-threatening accidents due to reckless behaviors (either in driving or in working in a junkyard without apparently any safety measures or equipment), that were only treated with herbs and prayers.

The story is very compelling and I rooted for the author (how could I not?), although I had (still have) my reservations. There were so many holes in the story, and I found the book rather unbalanced between the childhood years and the later struggles to get out of the tight family circle. Of course I don’t expect Westover to tell us every single thing, but I found it hard to believe that she could just be admitted in good and expensive schools and thrive there without any help. It’s rather unfair not to admit whatever help she got, and it casts a doubt on other parts of the story too.

The book strongly reminded me of another rag-to-“riches” memoir, The End of Eddy, that also took place in a backward, poor, violent and abusive circle (no religion though). The writer was saved by education and by a top-notch university degree. But the tone was still vengeful and bitter. At the end of the book, both Westover and Louis seem to pull us readers into a family feud that is still unfolding, and don’t seem to have waited long enough to get the necessary wisdom and distance to their respective childhood trauma. I don’t want to downplay the hardships they went through and the individual merit of their particular academic success, but to me the journey is still ahead of them and they’re far from closure.

 

The One with the Twist on the Noir

Fabrice Colin, Sacha Goerg (and R.J. Ellory) Chicagoland (French 2015)

Ellory wrote in 2012 a three part e-book novella, Three Days in Chicagoland, and Fabrice Colin and Sacha Goerg adapted it into a graphic novel. I’d never read any noir by Ellory but he is now on my radar for sure!

This story is a classic noir, set in 1956 Chicago, and focusing around the brutal murder of a primary school teacher. Each short story is the vision of a character close to the victim: first the sister, then the cop, last the killer. It is quite atmospheric, and Sacha Goerg’s graphic art helps see things in each character’s perspective. His style seems a bit naive at first, but his hand is a bit shaky and the fine lines are never completely straight, which adds to the feelings of the situation, the grief and anger in the case of the sister, the tired determination and the lingering doubts in the case of the cop, and the desperation, guilt and trauma in the case of the killer. The page setting is quite cinematic.

I have already borrowed several YA novels by Fabrice Colin, who is a prolific writer in many genres (fantasy, SF…) and my son has enjoyed his series Wonderpark, but I didn’t know that he had an interest in the noir genre, which is really not for kids.

I need to confess that for a long time, I confused Ellroy and Ellory, because they were next to one another on the crime shelves at the library. Isn’t that the most pathetic reason? I wonder if the two writers ignore each other or if they resent their forced proximity. I always went for the former, but now I guess I need to explore the latter. Any recommendation?

The One with the Big Bad F-word

Allison Pearson, How hard can it be? (2017)

I loved it but boy did it sting! I had read the first novel “I don’t know how does she it” probably around 2005, at any case before starting this blog, and I had always felt that the ending could not end just like that. For those who haven’t read it, Kate Reddy realized she could not have it all (gasp!) and left London and her job in a big financial fund to go north near her mother to take care of her kids (gasp!). As a full-time working mother I felt it was a bit of a let-down (well, to be honest, I just felt betrayed). I don’t have a blog post about reading the book, but I remember that it loomed on my mind when I became a mother in 2008 and when I had to return to my day job 2 1/2 months after, as per French legal dispositions:

How I come to rethink Allison Pearson’s “I don’t know how she does it” not as a pink-covered chick lit hit but as a dark and desperate cautionary social tale à la Dickens.

How did Kate Reddy grow and evolve over nearly 2 decades? Well, she approaches the terrible age of F… Fifty, that is. She has two teenagers, a husband going through midlife crisis, ageing parents, and she needs to get a proper paycheck to balance it all. But as she quickly realizes that the big bad F-word scares employers away, she decides to take drastic measures… and lie about her age.

It is sharp and hilarious and unvarnished about the dilemma that women face around the age of F… (the age that must not be named!), the double standard, the physical changes (hot flashes, forgetfulness, etc.), the invisibility, the age discrimination, etc. I will not reveal the ending but it is charming and uplifting and unrealistic enough to make Kate Reddy firmly belong in chick lit land. But Pearson has a piercing eye for details and comical situations and the plot often walks a fine line between comedy, tragedy and social criticism. For those who have read the first book as for the newbies who are anywhere near the age of F… , the book comes highly recommended!

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

The One with the City in Ruins

Frank Goldammer, The Air Raid Killer (German 2016, English 2018)

I snatched the chance to read this mystery / thriller on Netgalley when I saw that it was set in the city of Dresden at the end of World War 2. I have first heard of the massive bombings of the city of Dresden in highschool in the 20C history class, but it was abstract to me. The city was bombed by Allies in an attempt to discourage German civilians and hasten the end of the war. The number of dead people at the end of 3 days bombings was equally staggering for the 17 year old-me as for the 40 something me. I read in Wikipedia that an independent history investigation said that 25000 people died. But even with pictures it remains mind-blowing to even imagine what people went through. I read Slaughterhouse-Five
by Kurt Vonnegut and the Emigrants and the Natural History of Destruction by Sebald but it was still hard to grasp. What better way then, than turn to fiction?

I didn’t care much for the killer part. I am a bit jaded about serial killers doing terrible things to young women, but I must say that 1945 Dresden is a great context for it. The end of the Nazi era gave plenty of opportunity for a lot of sociopathic / psychopathic people. Plus, the disorganization of all structures including the police, the influx of thousands of refugees fleeing the Soviet soldiers’ progression, the lack of reliable information, the rumors and the endless queuing for food make for a very credible background for a psychopath killing spree to go unsolved or even unseen.

I really liked police detective Max Heller. We see him pair up with a dangerous Soviet inspector and still doggedly search for the killer despite adverse circumstances. I may have my doubts about the historical credibility that a German policeman would have been able to keep his job throughout the Nazi era without adhering to Nazi ideology in any way, but I’m willing to leave my doubts aside for now, until I get to know him better!

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

The One with the Other Woman

Honoré de Balzac, Une Double Famille (French 1830)

After our visit to Alexandre Dumas’ private castle in May, I was in the mood for a classic but not of the 600 pages variety. This Balzac novella, part of the Scenes of the Parisian life, was just right, like Goldilock’s bowl of porridge: not too long and not too short, not too depressing and not too dated. This one was sitting idle in my Kindle so I grabbed it first. Reading classics is all about finding quickly something readable, otherwise I lose the motivation (there are so many other more modern books vying for my attention!)

The novella was published in 1830 in newspapers and has been title A Double Family, as well as The Virtuous woman, and given Balzac’s cruel view of family and love stories, and the context of the period, I kinda expected a tragedy without much surprise. But old dear Honoré should not be taken for granted…

It has the weird structure of a slow burn love story (but is it right for a novella?) where we are introduced to a poor nice girl who gradually gets noticed by a wealthy man who passes by her window every evening. She is shown as pure and virtuous, but her mother obviously wants to throw her into his arms, if only for their economic survival. Fast forward to the poor nice girl, much less poor, being kept by the wealthy man in a fancy Paris flat, with 2 kids. Of course these two are not married, but still the portrait of domestic life is full of contented, warm happiness. Is the girl really the Virtuous woman of the title? How could Honoré get away with that in 1830?

The second part shows an ambitious young lawyer who is thinking of marrying a wealthy, well-connected young girl from a small town. But after a short time of marriage, the pure, well-bred young girl reveals herself as a total religious fanatic who sees everything as sin and only listens to her religious advisor (who has an eye for her money too). She rules their home with no pleasure, strict food restrictions, poor taste and no affinity to her husband’s intense social life and ambition. Of course she’s officially the Virtuous one of the title, but it’s also a domestic hell. I must say that I was a bit surprised by Balzac’s virulent attack against religion (not as faith, but as organized rules). It’s also a novella about marriage, ambition, hypocrisy and Paris life for poor people. It’s not Balzac’s best but it was well worth it.

 

One on the Side and Three for the Road

Sometimes I need a little nudge to take decisions… like DNF a book, for instance. I still have a few misgivings about abandoning a book. I sometimes wait ridiculously long before I decide to turn my back on a story (because I know how difficult it is to write a book, I suppose). I always fear that I’m missing out on something and that the book will redeem itself in the next chapter, or the next… I prefer skim-reading the rest just to make sure.

But there’s nothing like a fresh batch of new books to help me get rid of these scruples. Yes, that book might be good in the end, but it doesn’t hold the appeal and so… I am allowed to be fickle, aren’t I? The book that made me hesitate a lot is Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, of which I had heard a lot of good things. Yes, yes, I know, you probably loved the book… But I started it and I didn’t connect with the main character, Hadley, who marries Ernest Hemingway and moves to Paris with him, until… well, it’s no spoiler to say that their marriage ends badly.

I don’t know if I knew too much about Hemingway, or too little (I’m not a great fan), and I don’t know if McLain has done extensive research or how fictional Hadley’s portrait really is, but… I did sigh a lot at Hadley’s passivity and I just couldn’t see myself spending 250 more pages with her (I stopped at 20%). Hemingway is not my kind of guy, I just felt sorry for Hadley, but it’s not enough to sustain a passionate interest on my side.

So what am I going to read instead? I splurged for 3 books on Amazon, which is a rare treat these days (I have so many books at the library and at home, TBH) and I’m really looking forward to crack their spines open as soon as possible:

Kindred, by Octavia Butler: I really don’t know how I heard about this book, but since then the name Octavia Butler is popping up left and right calling for my attention.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover: I heard a lot of good reviews, but the tipping point for me was the excerpt I got through Season of Stories, that convinced me that I needed to get my hands on it.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave: I’ve been meaning to buy this one for my workplace library since the beginning of this year, but it wasn’t listed, so… what can I say, I got it for myself!

Have you read any of them? Which one would you start with?

The One with the Senior Party Gone Wrong

Harlan Coben, Don’t Let Go (2017)

Who doesn’t know of Harlan Coben? Who hasn’t read Harlan Coben? His page boasts 60 million copies worldwide… and yet I didn’t open one before this year. I’ve always been very snobbish and steered clear of his bestsellers… until I didn’t. And it was a hell of a ride, causing me a few short nights.

I was looking for an efficient page-turner, but not anything in the 800 pages category. This one was half this size and wow, did I turn the pages quick! I was sucked into the story in a few pages and didn’t… let go (sorry, I had to put this bad pun somewhere… Book titles with “let go” are just so banal that I wonder how publishers keep them apart – literally there are over 3300 books titles with these words in Goodreads!)

I have to give kudos to Coben for the masterly way he achieves to stretch the limits of my disbelief and critical thinking as if it was a rubber band. Where other authors would make me roll my eyes with similar questionable ingredients (a narrator with a totally improbable name, Napoleon Dumas, a twin brother, a disappeared girlfriend just before prom night, an abandoned military base), here I have no time to roll my eyes and I just get on with it, (almost) no questions asked. Alright, if I dissect the storyline I can see that it has holes and weird bits patched together, but overall I was too smitten to notice. Like a typical magician tricks.

I liked the pace, the twists and the humor. Nap Dumas has indeed a twisted past and a questionable relation to due process of law, but what kept me reading was his one-liners (or more precisely, Coben’s). If Coben’s other bestsellers are all as efficient as this one, I know where to turn for comfort next time around. So tell me, what is your favorite Harlan Coben’s book?