Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club (2020)

The Thursday Murder Club is not a club where murderers meet on Thurdays to commit their crimes. It’s a weekly appointment for 4 members of Coopers Chase Retirement Village in Kent, all fast approaching 80 years of age, to put their skills and brains together to investigate cold cases. The story is told by Joyce Meadowcroft, a very proper retired nurse, who has been recently invited by Elizabeth, the group leader, to join the club, as Elizabeth’s best friend Penny is now in hospice care. In a retirement community, it is expected that some members will die. But it would be from illness or old age, and not from being murdered. Soon the group of friends is thrilled (!) to learn that the village property developer has been found murdered, and of course they are very keen to provide help to the local police.

This has the perfect recipe for a great cozy mystery: quirky and endeading characters (imagine Miss Marple who would have joined forces with other nosy old people; the bonus would be that each of them used to have a career or skills that would come handy to unmask criminals). I adored Joyce, and Elisabeth. I liked that the book has a really comedic quality, but also it can venture into a more melancholy tone.

I didn’t know that Richard Osman is a British TV celebrity, and frankly, I couldn’t care less, because the mystery, setting and characters are all delightful. I understand that this is his first novel, and at some points it shows a little, as the pace is rather uneven and there are too many characters and backstories crammed between the covers. But it is a resounding success, and a great entertaining read, and I’m sure to be looking to the next mystery that our friends of the Thursday Murder Club will be investigating.

Pod Review July 17-23

It’s really starting to feel like true summer! For one, we had the Tour de France next door last Sunday, and it was a minute of great fun. I don’t think people realize that for neighboring people, it means 2 days of intense police regulation (towing cars out of the way in the whole town) and the champions are literally all gone after 90 seconds. Secondly, both my kids left for sleep-away camps last Monday, which allows their parents to enjoy quite a bit of quiet and freedom. There’s still work, of course, but it’s definitely not the same. As I had to run last-minute errands and take the kids to the train station with a lot of waiting time, I could put in lots of podcasts!

  • Radiolab: Kleptotherms: fascinating science about our body temperature(s), which very much varies depending on so many factors that it’s a wonder why we screen people based on a single figure.
  • 💙 The Mom Hour: #319 House Rules for travel and vacation. It has been literally years since I listened to the Mom Hour and I’d forgotten how good it is. This episode gave me so, so many brilliant ideas, I almost can’t wait till my kids are back to apply them… well, almost… 🙄
  • The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill: Ep. 1 Who killed Mars Hill? [new-to-me] As recommended by Susan Wise Bauer. It’s not my usual jam, but I was curious to learn what went wrong in this mega church organization
  • Sorta Awesome #316 Summer Meals Extravaganza
  • NPR On Our Watch Episode 5 Neglect of Duty. I am always outraged after I finished listening to this podcast. Perhaps I should not continue, for my blood pressure’s sake.
  • Gimlet How to save a planet: The Beef with Beef: how important is it to change one’s diet? Interesting answers… It’s better to reduce a bit the consumption of this particular meat rather than becoming vegetarian. Who would have thought?
  • Part-Time Genius: 9 absurd inventions you (probably) won’t see on Shark Tank: this one really made me laugh!
  • This American Life #741 The Weight of Words – a rerun
  • Lazy Genius Podcast #219 A Midsummer Pep Talk: I don’t feel I’m struggling this week in particular, but always good to hear
  • Decoder Ring: Murphy’s Law. Who was this Murphy and what did he really mean? An intriguing mystery
  • Radiolab: The Vanishing of Harry Pace Ep. 5: about a Black singer who first sang operas to white audience

I tried only one new podcast this week, but I re-discovered The Mom Hour. I had the wrong idea that the show was mostly about babies and toddlers but their back catalogue is actually on a lot of topics! I intend to check it out on a more regular basis.

Ha Jin, A Song Everlasting (2021)

I was glad for a chance to read a new novel by Ha Jin, although it has been a long time since I read anything by him. I read The Crazed and Waiting, and it had left me with a good, if hazy, impression (that was before I started this blog, so we’re speaking of decades now). I especially remember The Crazed, which I must have read in Beijing or in Hong Kong around 2002-2004, and it was such a shocking enormity at that time to read about Tiananmen events. It is even worse now for sure, and I do wonder if Ha Jin’s books can be bought in foreign languages bookstores there now.

When the novel starts, Yao Tian is a professional and renowned singer in mainland China and he tours the U.S. with his (state) choir. A friend in N.Y.C. asks him to come and sing one night on his own for an overseas Chinese concert. The gig pays well and Yao Tian needs the money to save for his daughter’s U.S. college. He accepts, but upon his return in Beijing, he learns that the concert was funded by Taiwanese organizations and his participation is therefore treated like a treason. The scandal boils over and Tian, fearing that his passport will be confiscated and refusing to abandon any future prospects of singing internationally, takes the first flight to the U.S., leaving his wife and daughter behind.

What feels first like a temporary situation is actually a big turn in Yao Tian’s life. The Communist government tries several times to make him apologize and come back, but he refuses every time. Branded an enemy of the motherland, he won’t be able to return, even for tragic family circumstances. In the U.S. Yao Tian has to make himself a new life, find jobs, and try to never forget his passion for music.

I personally read the book like a page-turner. The writing is plain, and sometimes too detailed, but I really rooted for Yao Tian and I wanted to know if he could succeed in his new life and what would happen to him, his friends and family. Odds really seemed stacked against him, and his story is that of a determined person who discovers by chance how much freedom means to him. At the very beginning he says that politics is not important to him. In fact, he sings at the Taiwanese concert essentially by personal greed, and he leaves China because he feels that his career will be stifled without a passport. But the more he endures, the more he understands that he needs to choose freedom over and over again (every time the Chinese Embassy’s contacts make a proposal, or every time there’s something or someone back home that calls for his presence).

In the context of current US/Chinese tensions, this is a very interesting novel. It is squarely, almost naively pro-America, from a Chinese-born writer who has been living in the U.S. since just before the Tiananmen events in 1989. Of course it makes me wonder how autobiographical this whole story is, but it is most probably a mishmash of things that Chinese emigrants have lived through. As a European reader, I cannot help to find that his vision of the U.S. is a bit too idealistic, especially when Yao Tian gets good healthcare and keeps on being lucky with jobs opportunities and being so successful and adaptable. It’s almost as if Ha Jin was making a side-by-side comparison of the two countries over the course of a life (more like 7 or 10 years). The unforgiving position of the Chinese authorities is quite believable I’m afraid. And it’s also interesting to see how people change over the course of the book, although Yao Tian is probably not the one who changes the most.

This book changed a bit my perception of Ha Jin because I didn’t remember the previous books I read to be so rooted in mundane details of life, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It opened my appetite for more Chinese or Asian books!

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

Han Kang, The Vegetarian (2007)

The Vegetarian is a hard book to write about, I’m sure all those who have read it will agree with me. First of all, it’s not a book about eating meat or refusing to eat meat. Yeong-ye is an ordinary Korean housewife, and cooking meat is what one does for one’s husband. Meat is central in Korean food, vegetarians have probably a harder time there than in Western countries, and the decision to refuse meat is shocking, like a provocation against the rest of the family members.

At first I thought the book was very close to “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” by Cho Nam-Joo, which I read at the very beginning of the year. Yeong-ye, like Kim Jiyoung, is in an unhappy marriage, and pressurized by gender expectations of the traditional Korean society. Yeong-ye, like Kim Jiyoung, seems to find a way out in some psychotic crisis.

But then Han Kang takes a sharp turn and goes way beyond the feminist manifesto written by Cho Nam-Joo. The Vegetarian goes into disturbing territory, weird and sometimes close to the supernatural. I was surprised by the three-part structure of the book, I even mistakenly thought the stories might be independent, because the jump from the first story to the second is so brutal. The first part centers on Yeong-ye’s first manifestation of her crisis, then the second part takes place some time later and is focused on her brother-in-law, who fantasizes about her, the final part takes place even later and centers on Yeong-ye’s big sister who dutifully visits her in her psychiatric ward and tries to make sense of what happened to both of them.

It’s a tough read because there’s a lot of abuse, and the men are particularly unsympathetic, but the toughest part for me was the mental illness and the violent images that Yeong-ye’s brain keeps producing in her dreams. It was a highly unusual book, but I’m glad I read it, as part as the 20 Books of Summer.

Summer Challenge Midway Status

I’ve been toying with the idea of this post since the beginning of the the week, but by Wednesday I was slightly appalled to see that I was not close to 10 books out of the planned 20… And I felt sad and guilty… which is probably why I normally avoid reading challenges. But then I remembered that this particular challenge, hosted by Cathy from 746 books, is graceful enough to let people a lot of wiggle room, for switching and changing course in the middle of the challenge! Hurray!

The fault for my lack of progress is… big chunksters. I selected the books without looking how many pages they were, especially when it comes to Kindle books and ARCs where you can’t judge by a quick look. I got over-ambitious with long books. Karen Maitland’s Company of liars is 576 pages (and I can’t say I’m totally won over… yet… but Mr. Smithereens keeps telling me that it is all worth it, so I’m not quitting), Liu Xinwu’s Wedding Party is 400 pages… Hamnet is 372 pages and Red Snow in December is another 438 pages. I know it’s weird to look at books in this way, especially as it really depends how the reading goes. Sometimes 200 pages can feel sluggish and 400 can go awfully fast.

I see that historical books tend to be big, and since I have several of them in my selection, I decided to drop Red Snow in December by Simone van der Vlugt and replace it with a manga. In spring I’d bought the second tome of Akiko Higashimura’s fictionalized autobiography: Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey and I was in the mood for something light and quick. And I’ll probably drop Hamnet too because I feel that the subject is too heavy for summer, right now I’m in the mood for some more mysteries.

So where am I today? I have finished 7 books (reviewed 4), and I have started another 7 (I’m a champion of parallel reading, especially when dealing with different genres). Considering that I’m still working and that I will have several weeks off in August, I still feel that I can get to the 20 by September 1. But I can’t swear that I won’t make one or two other switches before the end…

What about you? Is your summer reading going as planned or have you changed your plans?

Pod Review July 10-16

This week was French national day, which usually means summer heat, community bal, fireworks, military parade and a day off. But this year, the weather was completely off kilter, it rained non-stop (but luckily, not with consequences as catastrophic as in Germany and Belgium). Thanks to that short week I had more time for podcasts, in particular to finish some series I’d started.

  • 10 Things to tell you by Laura Tremaine #123 How to feel pretty (when you don’t)
  • Decoder Ring: The Karen (new to me)
  • Death, Sex and Money: the 7 hardest conversations I’ve ever had on this show (new to me)
  • Death, Sex and Money: “The lying stops now”: your hardest conversations
  • Sorta Awesome #313 Sisterly Advice Edition
  • Rough Translation Home/Front series Marla’s War
  • 💙 Rough Translation Home/Front series Marla’s List
  • Rough Translation Home/Front series Rebels on the Valley
  • This American Life #740 There. I fixed it.
  • Radiolab: The Vanishing of Harry Pace Episode 3 & 4
  • Criminal #162 I fought the law
  • Short Wave: It’s okay to let go of herd immunity

This week I tried two new shows. Death, Sex and Money is a celebrated podcast, and I’d wanted to try after listening to Anna Sale in another series. It was perhaps bad timing, but it didn’t really work for me. I might try another time again though. The other show was Decoder Ring, which explains the source of pop culture phenomenon. It was a fun discovery, I intend to try some more episodes.

The best episode I listened to this week was the conclusion to Rough Translation’s season about the gap between civilians and military. Marla Ruzicka, which is the focus of a two parts episode, is an extraordinary woman who managed to bridge that gap, in order to bring concrete solutions to the tragedies of civilian victims in armed conflict. First a pacifist and anti-war activist, she gradually changed her beliefs (losing many of her friends in the process) as she went to Afghanistan and mingled with “professionals” of war: soldiers, journalists, humanitarian aid workers… The story of what she initiated, and her charm and energy, is well worth a listen, and it’s both uplifting and heart-breaking.

The other podcast that moved me (almost to tears) about the last part of the This American Life episode, about the gradual loss of freedoms in Hong Kong and people contemplating exile. These events are not particularly hidden, but because it’s a tiny, daily step to constrain people more and more, we don’t realize it until too late, like the proverbial frogs that don’t jump out of the pot of boiling water when the temperature is raised little by little. A depressing one but I can’t ignore it.

Ann Cleeves, The Darkest Evening (2020)

I watch Vera Stanhope mysteries on TV, but I must confess that I haven’t read many Ann Cleeves mysteries in book format. In fact, I only read one, The Glass Room, and it was back in 2014! This is definitely something I should work on, because Ann Cleeves delivers a solid plot with characters I enjoy, and instead of wasting my time with some stories that hook you up but stretch your credibility beyond reasonable limits (I’m thinking Domestic noir, Girl on the train and friends), I should turn to classic British countryside whodunits such as this one.

The Darkest Evening starts with a snow storm, something that’s always nice to read about when you’re at home in summer (even if the weather is not really summery these days. Vera takes a wrong turn on the road, and she finds an empty car, doors open, stuck in a snow drift. Inside the car is a baby in his snowsuit, unharmed, but not trace of any adult around. Vera takes the toddler to the nearest shelter she finds on that road: her cousins’ big mansion.

If you’re familiar with Vera Stanhope, you probably know of her stinginess, her propensity to call everyone “love” and her dogged determination to solve crimes, even if it means bossing her team around at ungodly hours or in bad weather to follow some clue. I remembered from TV episodes that her father was an excentric and raised her on a lonely, run-down house on the moor. In this book, we get to learn that her father was the black sheep of an otherwise rather wealthy family. The Stanhopes are the lords and ladies of the manor, overlooking the villages and the farms but the manor itself is in bad financial shape.

I enjoyed this book with its numerous characters with secrets and backstories, the gossips and lies and the reveal totally took me by surprise. It’s always fun to see people underestimate Vera because of the way she talks or walks. I could picture Brenda Blethyn playing in this story. I don’t want to wait another 6 years to read another book by Ann Cleeves!

Jen Sincero, You Are a Badass (2013)

As a non-native English speaker (or ESL apparently), I got stumped for some time with the word “badass”, because it doesn’t seem to have a French equivalent. It has a swear word in it, but people obviously use it as a praise. So much so that French teenagers have adopted the American word and are now using it all the time (or is it only my teen? Most probably not). But what it really entails remains elusive to me: at least the book presented me with some good picture of Jen Sincero, a self-proclaimed badass writer: carefree, unafraid of what the others may think of her, taking bold choices to achieve big success. I get that part of the appeal is to be unafraid to write down swear words, but when the swear words are not in your own language, I wouldn’t try it for fear of a misunderstanding.

This book was on my wish list for a number of years (since it’s out? it’s possible), but it seems that I waited for too long and this one went past its use-by date. I read it quickly (but with long interruptions in-between) and I wondered all the way if it was worth my time. The answer is: “probably not”. I’m all about cheerleading books, and mood-boosting books that motivate me towards trying new things out of my comfort zone. French people are not known to be very positive and are also rather conservative so I could use all the American help that I can get. But really, most of the book is a mashup of ideas that I’ve read elsewhere. It would have been interesting if I hadn’t heard of them before.

Still, there are aspects of the book that I couldn’t accept, especially in 2021. This whole vibration / manifestation thing is really a pet peeves of mine (not only me surely!), especially when a person speaks from a place of privilege. How can one say after Covid that if you want something hard enough, you’ll get it? (speaking of luck, money and success in particular). Well, the world just set about to show us little humans that there are forces out there that don’t care less about what we wish for and how we work on vibration. Also, if you live in a racist and sexist society, no matter how hard you’ll wish for success, cards are clearly stacked against you.

I have really nothing against living an awesome life, I’m trying to every day. But I’m not sure that people who are broke will benefit from reading that they should buy a very expensive car and live their life as if they had money because wealth will come to them. It reminds me of the whole Rachel Hollis thing and not in a good way. I’m probably not a badass, but I guess I’m fine with that.

Pod Review July 3-9

Just a quick note for today. I have used my free time this week to catch up with old episodes of Sinica Podcast, and it was a great experience. This year I’m all about discovering new podcasts, but sometimes I forget how good the old ones are! I particularly enjoyed the episode with Paul French, the author of Midnight in Peking. The episode made me want to buy his other books!

  • Edit Your Life #235 Supporting Aging Loved Ones
  • Invisibilia The Great Narrative Escape
  • Sinica: City of Devils, a Shanghai Noir with Paul French
  • 💙 NPR Short Wave: Is the Sperm race a fairy tale?
  • Change ma vie by Clotilde Dusoulier #201 Où j’en suis: vie familiale
  • NPR Short Wave: Reflections on Coronavirus a Year in
  • Sinica Covid 19 origins revisited with Deborah Seligsohn
  • Sinica China’s new youth with Alec Ash and Stephanie Studer

The best episode I listened to this week was NPR Short Wave, an episode that Laila from Big Reading Life had recommended about the sperm race. This one was full of surprises. Everything we learnt in science class was not really true… and biggest surprise (?) what we’re taught is heavily influenced by the patriarchy. I won’t say anything more, but this one is a must-hear. Thanks Laila!

Nathalie Léger, Suite for Barbara Loden

Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden (French 2012, English 2015)

I discovered Nathalie Léger thanks to Rebeccah Hussey’s newsletter and I loved the first book I tried well enough to want to try another of her “trilogy”. I can’t say that I fell in love with her books, because these are not so easy to love, and they are clearly out of my usual comfort zone, but I found in them something very original and a subtlety of feelings that made me want to dig deeper. Both are short and non-fiction and utterly difficult to classify.

The White Dress was about a performance artist. This book is about another visual artist, an American filmmaker who was also an actress and the wife of Elia Kazan. I had not heard of her before this book, and although her husband’s name and movies’ names are familiar to me, I haven’t watched them myself. Barbara Loden has made a very unique film, Wanda, which is about a woman who is drifting away. In Léger’s book it is sometimes difficult to separate Wanda from Barbara Loden, and also from Nathalie Léger herself.

Just as the previous book, the story is meandering and fragmentary. Léger is given the job to write a biographical notice about Barbara Loden for a film encyclopedia, something brief and to the point, and she finds it unable to achieve this goal. To describe the life of any individual in a few sentences is an impossible task. Instead she dives deep into the tenuous traces of Loden’s life, the few memories gathered here and there from people who knew her (some refuse to talk altogether). So Léger obsessively watches Loden’s movie Wanda, with the hope to understand the woman behind it. The movie, starring Loden as the main character, is based on real events, where a woman participated against her will to a bank robbery.

The tone of the book is melancholy. Wanda is helpless and unloved, she follows a tragic path on her own, she’s not the strong heroine that we would love to see. Barbara Loden will make only one movie in her life, will not meet success and recognition, and will die of cancer in 1980. Ultimately it is about loneliness and freedom, but it is still mysterious to me what Léger wanted to achieve with this series of books. We also get to read a bit more about Léger’s mother and her disastrous marriage and divorce. I still preferred the book White Dress because I felt more connected with both the narrator and the subject than in this book. I guess my reaction would have been different if I had watched the movie itself. I will gladly read the third book about yet another female artist: the Countess of Castiglione.