Pod Review Oct. 12-18

CaptureThis week flew by so fast that I almost forgot to post this list of precious acoustic nuggets of brilliance (aka podcasts)

  • Sorta Awesome #215 The Awesome List Fall 2019
  • Heavyweight #25 Becky and Jo
  • Heavyweight #26 Beverly and Van
  • Change ma vie by Clotilde Dusoulier #113 Mieux entendre votre intuition
  • Change ma vie by Clotilde Dusoulier #114 Le Bouton Pause
  • This American Life #581 The anatomy of doubt – this episode is really gut-wrenching, and the original story behind the Netflix series Unbelievable
  • Edit Your Life podcast #177: How To Deal With Difficult People with “Rage against the minivan” blog author Kristen Howerton

Actually, all of them are good, or very good, but my heart goes to the classic TAL episode.

The One with the Swiss Blues

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata (2016)

I don’t know where I first heard of Rose Tremain but it was not for this novel of hers. Yet when I discovered that my local library had a title by her (and only this one) I had to try. My experience with this story was not totally convincing, but I understand why people speak in awe of this author and I’d like to discover more of her.

The Gustav Sonata has many stories layered together, and when I see the author navigates seamlessly from one to the other I can see her crafts(wo)manship. But the story itself didn’t appeal to me, and the structure in 3 parts felt a bit disjointed.

At the heart of the book there’s the story of a friendship between a shy Swiss boy who is raised in poverty by her very stern and conservative mother, and a rich Jewish boy who plays the piano like a prodigy but suffers from debilitating stage fright. The friendship starts when the boys are 5 and lasts a lifetime, and once again I applaud at the ability Rose Tremain has to develop her characters and their relationships all along their lives.

Gustav, the Swiss boy, falls in awe of Anton, because Anton is everything that Gustav cannot be. Gustav is welcomed in Anton’s family, but Gustav’s mother hates Jews. And Gustav’s mother doesn’t love Gustav very much, for reasons that are made clearer in the second part of the book. The setting is post-war Swiss, a dull and strict place where fun is forbidden. It’s not about the war itself, but it plays on the outskirts, as it shows the rather shameful position that the Swiss authorities played in front of their Nazis neighbors. After having welcomed Jewish refugees for a while, the frontiers were closed to Jews from 1938, and Gustav’s father plays a small role in this tragedy. In the third part of the novel, we find Gustav as a rather successful hotelier in his hometown. He’s as always the loyal and dependable one, but as he gets into his 60s he gets some clarity and wisdom and takes bolder decisions.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of bad timing, but it was hard for me to get drawn to any of the characters, and so I might need to try another novel by Rose Tremain to be convinced. Would you have a recommendation for me?

Interview with Fate Changer’s Author

I am honored to know L.M. Poplin in real life and I was so happy to read her latest book “Fate Changer: Penny Lost“, a book full of adventures, time travel and dangers. It’s the first book in a series and I can’t wait to read what happens next. Laura agreed to answer a few of my questions.

> Penn is a strong 14-year-old protagonist with a lot of challenges to overcome. When you created her, did you think of your own 14-year-old self ?

Yes and no. Penn’s insecurities are definitely my own. I often felt invisible growing up, and as an introvert, I could be really shy in certain social settings. However, much of Penn’s strength is inspired by my childhood best friend, Heidi. Despite having to undergo multiple open-heart surgeries, Heidi never let pain nor discomfort get in the way of her goals. She played basketball. She backpacked the Sierra Nevada. She went river rafting and rappelling and rock climbing. Never once did I hear her complain. Never once did I see her give up.

> As an adult living in 2019, what would you say to Penn? Do you think she would listen to you?

I would let Penn know that I could see her. I would tell her that she matters. But I would also try to listen to what she had to say. Honestly, I don’t know if Penn would believe me. A lot would depend on how well we knew each other. I don’t like it when people throw out blanket statements about how we’re all special, and we all have inherent worth. Even though I think it’s true–I really do believe in the dignity of all people–such platitudes mean nothing coming from someone who doesn’t even know my name.

> What did you interest you in 1915 Boston as opposed to other historical times (especially given Boston’s long and rich past) ?

Honestly, I originally chose the time period because of the penny. 1915 was one of the earliest years of the Lincoln head design. But Boston in 1915 was such an exciting place. Much of the city as we know it now was just taking shape. Fenway Park. The Franklin Park Zoo. Children’s Hospital. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The Museum of Fine Arts. The iconic Triple Decker. So many important buildings were constructed around this time. Transportation was expanding rapidly into the system we use today. The more I researched the time period, the more I fell in love with it.

> Was it difficult to write convincing fight scenes ?

I actually took boxing lessons when I started writing Fatechanger. As soon as class was over, I would hurry to the lockers, where I had stashed my notebook, so I could write down everything the teacher said. But the actual writing part came much more easily than I thought it would, considering how sensitive I am to violence. I tried to focus on what each character wanted in the moment, and then I visualized what they would be willing to do to get it. That said, I still cried when Penn had to fight Jimmy the second time.

> Can you give us just a hint about what happens in Fate Changer volume 2 ?

Penn has a lot to learn in book two! She needs to learn to control her abilities so she can time travel at will. She also needs to learn the limitations of her abilities, because there are some people she cannot save no matter how desperately she wants to. Most importantly, however, she will learn exactly why she’s a Fatechanger and whose fate she must change (a family member, not her dad, who we met in book one!)

Pod Review October 5 – 11

CaptureHave you listened to something great this week? For me, it was rather a hit-and-miss kind of week:

The meh… not for me

  • Sorta Awesome #214 the Enneagram gets married – I still don’t get Enneagram, is there a number for me?
  • This American Life #682 Burn it down
  • Brooke Castillo #287 Passing through neutral. Way too abstract for me this time
  • The Simple Show by Tsh Oxenreider #205 My Good List summer series with Cindy Wang Brandt

The good

  • Edit your life Podcast #176 Fall Plans
  • Change ma vie by Clotilde Dusoulier #116 la colère (anger)
  • Reading the end #123 Settings, more hatening and a game – I confess that I half-listened to some parts of the conversation, but questioning the importance of book setting was interesting, and the literary game was super fun!
  • Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam The one habit that can revolutionize your time
  • Rough Translation Oct. 2 Mom In Translation – the season finale

The great

  • Best of Both Worlds podcast by Laura Vanderkam and Sarah Hart-Unger: #110 Interview with from Grown and Flown author Lisa Heffernan on teenagers
  • Heavyweight #24 Jimmy and Mark. What can I say? I was so looking forward to this new season, it gets me every time. I cringe at the beginning at the awkwardness and before the end I’m melting and I’m on the verge of tears.

The One with the Little Boston Time Traveller

L. M. Poplin, Fate Changer: Penny Lost (2019)

The book starts in 2019 Boston, when Penny, a sickly and lonely girl roams the city without anyone caring much for her. Her mother works a lot to raise her and pay for the medical bills incurred by Penny’s heart condition. At school and in town, with her baggy clothes and her boyish figure, she is practically invisible.

But suddenly, by a weird turn of events, she finds herself in 1915, without friends, money or support. She needs to survive in this familiar yet strange city of Boston until she will find a way to return to 2019. Her first move is to pretend to be a boy and set out to work in the streets, first as a pickpocket, and then as a newspaper boy. Along the way she gets to meet a lot of other young boys (and girls), finds a way to use her uncanny knowledge of the future (to 1915 people) and escape all kinds of dangers.

Penn is a strong 14-year-old protagonist, but at first she doesn’t know her strength, as she’s shy and awkward and has been shielded by her mother all her life. She is literally weak-hearted, but she has a big heart (silly puns! couldn’t help myself!) and she finds out how courageous she actually can be. As for many time-travellers (I’m thinking Outlander and Kindred but I’m not overly familiar with the genre) she has a lot stacked against her: her health issues, her gender and her ignorance of the 1915 ways of life, but she is resourceful and a real competitive fighter!

I also enjoyed the lively atmosphere and research centered on Boston in 1915. I don’t know the city all that well but it was a fond reminder of popular old places. The historical research has obviously been thorough and you get a good feeling about what life on the streets was back then.

As a reader you need to suspend your disbelief long enough to accept the idea that Penn would live and fight on in 1915 with her serious heart condition and without treatment (which the author acknowledges at the end), and that she would pass as a boy without being discovered, but Penn is such a treat to follow, I kept turning the pages to know how her adventures would turn out. I really enjoyed her spirit and her loyalty to her friends. The book is targeted for a middle grade audience, but it’s really an entertaining read for all ages.

Full disclosure: I know the author personally, but it didn’t influence my opinion of the book. Stay tuned for an interview with the author to be posted on this page this weekend!

#UnreadShelf Project September Update & October Plans

49304967_411823712689749_2472884066192988807_nI’m really glad I joined this challenge this year. I feel that I have made some progress in reading from our own shelves and limiting all the books I take home from the library. The only problem is that every time I open a cupboard, I tend to discover new piles of unread books!

In September I had chosen 3 books and I finished them three, albeit at the very last minute. I have already reviewed Jen Campbell’s short story collection and Greer Macallister’s historical novel, I have yet to talk about the very fun Fatechanger by L.M. Poplin and… drumrolls please… she will get interviewed on the blog!

Rather classically, this month’s prompt by Whitney Conard is to choose scary books:

This month, I am challenging you to tackle a book off your unread shelf that SCARES you. This can be a horror novel – or it can be a book that terrifies you because of its length or subject or overblown hype. YOU get to decide how to interpret this!

Well, I don’t know that we own any horror novel left, or more precisely, we used to own one and I got rid of it during my last weeding out session (it was Voices by Frank Tallis, and it was the third time I was dithering about this big book that had quite a number of poor reviews… off it went).

And since three books in September was a bit over-ambitious, I’m going to aim for only 2 books:

  • the first has probably some scary bits, because my memory of Coraline or of The Ocean at the end of the lane is still quite vivid in my mind. It will be Neil Gaiman’s short story collection “Fragile Things”
  • the second will probably have some tension elements in it, and quite sincerely I’m also scared to be disappointed by it. It will be the latest Jackson Brodie’s novel by Kate Atkinson: “Big Sky”


The One with the Female Pinkerton Agent

Greer Macallister, Girl in Disguise (2019)

I was looking for an entertaining historical mystery, and I bought this one book without giving it too much thought. I think it was recommended by Anne Bogel’s website. It’s actually historical fiction more than mystery, and it’s based on an actual person, which I didn’t know until midway into the book, and which makes it something of a partly fictional biography. I would really advise the publishers to put this information before the book starts instead of in the very last pages, because it really changes the way I read the book, and I understood better some of the author’s choices.

The Girl of the title (why girl? it’s high time publishers move on from this silly trend) is Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective, a job she secured by being bold and inventive and fearless. When the book starts, it’s the 1850s and Kate is widowed from a man she didn’t love. She doesn’t have any money and is unable to find any other paying job in Chicago as she can’t cook or clean. Somehow she manages to convince Pinkerton himself that women will be able to go where their male colleagues can’t go. Despite her colleagues’ prejudices and jealousies she manages to climb the corporate ladder, so to speak, and become a supervisor.

Every chapter is a “little anecdote” along the way of Kate’s career (at least it feels like such), and I felt that the pace was not very smooth, all the more as Kate didn’t seem to have much character development. Macallister aims at giving a long overview of Kate’s career and show how central work was important in Kate’s life (more than family, friends and love) but because of this choice the cases she solves are not developed fully enough for me to care, and the story feels a bit disconnected, both in plot and in characters.

Even if I was unconvinced, I learnt some things along the way about the Pinkerton agency and about the atmosphere during the Secession period and it was entertaining, so it was still worth it.

Pod Review Sept. 28 – Oct. 4

CaptureThis week I binged on Rough Translation from NPR, which were all very very good, but nonetheless they didn’t make it to the podium. Why? I chose something that made me laugh (priceless in those weird times) and something that made an impact in a very, very short time.

  • Rough Translation 07/10 When Failure Is A 4-Letter Word
  • Rough Translation 07/24 What Would Jesus Drive? (on evangelicals and environment)
  • Rough translation 09/04 When We Talk About Love (on dating in China, and finding love in unlikely places)
  • Reply All #148 Bedbugs and Aliens – a wild Yes, Yes, No session
  • Through Line April 4, 2019 America’s Opioid Epidemic, truly shocking about the Sackler’s family push to promote Oxycontin despite the known risks.
  • Rough Translation 09/18 Liberté, Égalité and French Fries
  • The Simple Show by Tsh Oxenreider #208 Sabbaticals + work
  • ♥ Radiolab Silky Love – the scientist expert on eels is eel-arious. There’s a quest for eels’ ovaries, Aristotle, Freud and the mysterious Sargasso sea.
  • Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam 09/11 The biggest time waster of all; 6 minutes that nail it down, I really saw myself in this short episode.
  • Song Exploder Brittany Howard “Stay High”

The One with More than the Girl on her Period

Stephen King, Carrie (1974)

I didn’t save this post for October and the creepy, cold Halloween mood, I am just… late. It was the end of August and very hot in the library without A/C when I stumbled upon Carrie by Stephen Kind, and I was very surprised that it was more a novella than your usual King door-stopper. So I had to take it home with me.

I didn’t watch Carrie in the 1980s, I didn’t read it either in French or in English, but of course the iconic red image of the Brian De Palma movie has never left my brain once I saw it all those years ago, probably from the TV program magazine, which I read more than I really watched TV. This was pretty much what I knew about the movie: a girl has her period and she makes it a bloodbath. Or something like that.

I was surprised how rich and good it was, even if I knew how it would end. I was even more surprised to learn that it was Stephen King’s first published novel. There are so many themes interwoven in the plot, so definitely the bloody prom image everyone knows is just one part of the story. There is religious extremism, abusive mother – daughter relationship, friendships, so many messed-up adults, social criticism, etc. Most secondary characters have a back story.

I was also surprised by the fact that it’s not a linear story, but rather a collection of newspaper clippings, witness accounts in front of an official commission, stream-of-consciousness writing inside Carrie’s mind, letters, excerpts of books published after the “incident” (which was a bit confusing, because some of the action is dated well into the 1980s while the book was published mid-1970s). Basically even if you haven’t watched the movie, you know from the start that something awful has happened. The buildup to the catastrophe takes its time, which I enjoyed a lot, and we also get allusions about the fallout on what’s left of the town of Chamberlain, Maine.

The popular image I’d got is that Carrie was evil, but I’d missed how much of a victim she really is. Without the telekinetic powers it would be a heart-wrenching tale of bullying and abuse. That’s why it hasn’t aged and it’s still relevant and shocking now.


The One with Angels, Mermaids and Beating Hearts

Jen Campbell, The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night (2017)

Were you the type at school to finish up an essay right on the night before it was due? For me, it was not always, but definitely I remember those times bad enough. I can’t say I enjoyed this rush of adrenaline, because I tended to freeze and not remember my best ideas.

And yet, here I am, on the very last day of September, with only a few hours to go before October, trying to finish this short story collection in time for the #unreadshelf challenge, that threatens you to get rid of books when unfinished at the end of the month.

Fear not, I won’t get rid of this book, although I might give it away to friends (and buy another copy for myself again). I enjoyed the collection, but it is best enjoyed slowly and not under a deadline. The atmosphere is soft and dark, slightly creepy at times (or more than slightly), or melancholy. Each of the 12 stories have uncanny elements in them, sometimes more obviously than others. I had misunderstood that there would be rewriting of folk tales, but actually Campbell uses popular figures like angels, mermaids, witches, to play with and do something slightly unexpected.

The two stories that stood out for me were the first one, Animals, and Margaret and Mary and the End of the world. Animals is quite dark and gets you from the very start:

These days, you can find anything you need at the click of a button.

That’s why I bought her heart online.

It was delivered this morning along with my groceries, tucked inside a cardboard box, red oozing out the sides. They’d tied a half-hearted bow around the edges, a tag with promises of customer satisfaction and a thirty day warranty.

‘Our hearts are played classical music from the moment they begin to grow. Bred to love. Built to last.’

I was hooked! In this weird world, love and physical hearts are objects that people seek out and use (or misuse). The narrator is very unpleasant, but I couldn’t stop.

In “Margaret and Mary and the End of the world”, the author is inspired by the famous Dante Gabrielle Rossetti’s painting “Ecce Ancilla Domini”, where a frightened, meek Mary receives the news that she is pregnant with Jesus. Campbell manages to weave into this story a lot of images and heavy themes, like abuse, pregnancy and anorexia. Despite the sadness it is quite a memorable story told in bits and pieces.

I’m not very knowledgeable in this style of stories, but they definitely reminded me of Kelly Link. The book might just be the right sort if you look for something uncanny and want to start the Halloween season in the right mood.