The One on the Sweet Power of False Memories

– Moi, reprend-il, les souvenirs que je vends deviennent de vrais souvenirs. Comme si tu les avais vécus.
– Mais comment c’est possible? je demande.
– Ah ça, bonhomme, c’est mon petit secret. Et puis franchement, quelle importance de savoir comment ça marche? Après tout, quand tu vas chez le charcutier, tu ne lui demandes pas comment il arrive à rentrer un cochon dans ses propres boyaux. Le charcutier te vend du bonheur en tranches. Enfin, si tu aimes le saucisson.
” Moi j’ai eu envie de vendre des petits bouts de bonheur à ceux qui n’en ont pas eu assez, ou pas du tout. Souvent on regrette de ne pas avoir vécu ceci ou cela. La vie nous mène par le bout du nez et pas toujours où on voudrait. Eh bien moi, j’essaie de réparer un peu les oublis de la vie.

– The memories I sell, he said, become true memories. As if you had really lived them.
– How is it even possible? I asked.
– Listen buddy, that’s my own secret. Really, is it important to know how it works? After all, when you go to the butcher, you don’t ask him how he manages to fit a pig into its own guts, do you? The butcher sells you slices of happiness. That is, if you like cold cuts.
As for me, I wanted to sell little bits of happiness for those who don’t have enough, or any at all. Often people regret not to have experienced this or that. Life has us on a string, leading us not always where we want to go. Me, I try to make up for what life misses.

Ghislaine Biondi, le Marchand de souvenirs (Oskar Editeur, 2013) (my translation)

I came across this very short, very cute book at the library on the table for middle grade / teen lit new acquisitions in genre fiction. I say cute because I’m partial to round corners and getting a nice object does make the difference when choosing a book. Depending on your nerdy inclinations, I realize you might think that its either a pretty specific or a pretty broad way to discover new books.

The library I go with my youngest son is specialized in kids lit (i.e. has a very limited adult selection) and the building they’re in is very strange (a converted space under the roof, with lots of mezzanines, nooks and crannies) so I am always surprised how they have organised their sections. There’s one “room” for teen mainstream novels, but genre fiction each has its own shelf, so that I’m easily lost and prefer to rely on new acquisitions.

This book is very short but deep and sweet, and I instantly fell for it. Antoine is a teenager on his first day of summer holidays from middle school. His mother raises him on her own and he doesn’t know his father. She works as a cleaner during the day, so they can’t afford the seaside vacation he’d love, and his best friend has gone away, so that he expects his holidays to be boring and lonely. Except he finds a new shop close-by where the owner sells fake memories, objects that give to the person who buys them the experience of memories of things that he has never experienced. The boy first tries his hand on memories of seaside vacation, and they’re so good and so real, that he soon goes back to the shop to buy more and get memories of the father he never knew.

In a few sentences the situation is firmly established and the fantastic part weaves itself into the daily routine so smoothly that you can see it and believe in it just as easily as the boy himself. It doesn’t depart too much from reality, in the sense that the boy knows which memories are real or fake, but remembering things nonetheless gives a little nudge to reality and has an influence on present situations, if only through a lighter mood, a different decision to make, etc.

I’m really impressed that the writer could pack so much into a mere 55 pages and look forward to exploring more about this small press.

The next library batch

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The librarian job is a lot more physical than what I’d thought. There’s a lot of hauling book piles left and right, crouching near the lower shelves and reaching out to the top ones (I’m kind of short), I wonder if I could pass it off as exercise. And the next craft session will be… plastic covering, since a new box of freshly picked English books has just been delivered. This is sooo much fun!

I have chosen in the best-sellers lists this time, and I’ve tried to find a balance between thrillers, romantic, historical, women’s issues and crime. I have tried to keep the language not too difficult because most readers have English as a second language  (ESL) and they get nervous about large page numbers and vocabulary.

Because I’m too lazy to type all the book titles on this i-pad  (which is so inconvenient it makes me cringe), I thought you might like a quick picture of this particular library corner, actually the only one with natural light (we’re an office building after all).

Part of the fun is to buy books I’d personally love to read, and if they’re not taken away by then, I might take “The nightingale” with me in holidays. But the first one to go away, about five minutes after the picture was taken, was “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty. Would you have guessed? Which one would you borrow?

The Power of Escapist Literature

(I’ve kept this draft on my phone for a whole week, sorry about the delayed posting, but you’ll sort of understand why…)

Never mind all the books that I’ve finished ages ago and that I want to post about (some other day).

Never mind the 4-5 books that I am currently reading (at least officially) and that need to stay half-finished on my nightstand for even longer.

Never mind that I took a day off to go to the zoo and that the big boy confined us instead to the very hot flat with a box of Legos because he vomited in the street.(*)

Never mind, because I found a book that swept me off my feet and provided the escapism, the  entertainment and the adventure I needed (not to mention, the sexy bits). And believe me, that doesn’t happen every day. In fact, the fun I had and my eagerness to return to the book just highlighted by contrast the kind of slump I had been through before, a slump that I hadn’t really acknowledged.

OK, so now I bet you want to know what is this miracle book that can heal thwarted plans, heat wave and kids’ sickness all at once. Don’t go expecting highbrow literature or some unknown French author. No, this book is the perfect beach read that everybody has been raving about; I’m not even original. It’s the Outlander series (after only 2 days I’m 180 pages into book 1) by Diana Gabaldon. In case you’ve missed the marketing, the book (that was published in the early 1990s) has recently been made into a series that promises hot, young, partly uncovered men under the excuse of historical fiction.

The premise of the book is hard to take seriously: in the immediate postwar Scotland, an English former nurse and her husband, an Oxford don, are in holidays in Inverness to “reconnect” after years of separation due to the war. But the young woman ventures into a strange place in the woods and finds herself suddenly transported back in 1743, alone and defenseless. Her survival and her hope to return to contemporary times are soon linked to a gorgeous Scottish warrior she falls in love with (does adultery count when you’re time-traveling? Apparently, the debate is raging on the internet, in case you’ re running low on contentious issues).

Now in true French fashion, I should hesitate between an eye roll, a shrug or a “pfff…”: not deep enough, not literary enough. And yet it works! Yes, it’s often trash and sexy, but it’s well written and so very compelling. I don’t often read romances, but this one reads very very fast and it takes your mind off the sad news all over the world. With the Scottish people being the good guys and the English the bad guys, it almost reads like a post-Brexit revenge fantasy for the European female readers.

So now if you’ll excuse me, I have some serious Scottish business to return to.

(*) Between the time this post was drafted and published, the son feels better, the zoo has received our visit and I’m around page 400 now.

The One with the Brexit Preface

A few weeks ago I requested a new thriller from Netgalley. It promised suspense and attracted me with a few opening lines. I had no other clue to judge a book, and I must admit I thought of Le Carré.

The book itself (at least in the ARC edition I was given) opened with a note by the author, a British female novelist who had publishing for children before (middle grade or YA?). This note was dated December 2015.

This foreword just astonished me, so much so that I had to stop there and could not really proceed to the story at once. It was violently against Europe, against Schengen borderless area, against German Chancellor Merkel, saying that she should resign for accepting refugees into Europe. And all this was written just six months before Brexit.

How prescient! A few days later, it wouldn’t have surprised me anymore! I probably have stumbled upon a vocal proponent of the 52%… something I luckily am not too often exposed to.

I had hoped that literature, especially “comfort genres” such as mysteries, might escape the craziness of our present world. Of course, I realize how inconsistent I must sound, since I also love when thrillers and noir novels are deeply rooted in a socio-economic-political contexts. Perhaps it’s because noir novels have a long tradition of supporting the underdog, the weaker members of society, the outcasts and marginals. I’m not that naive, I am aware that a lot of thrillers are indeed conservative, but I didn’t expect such a blatant declaration at the beginning of the book. Even if that was the writer’s intention, shouldn’t the publisher or agent have said something? Maybe the purpose of the editors was exactly to target those 52%? Not a bad economic calculation after all.

Call me prejudiced, but reading the foreword didn’t predispose me to enjoy the book. Quite the contrary. The beginning was clunky and highly unbelievable and I soon threw in the towel. That’s why I don’t want to mention the author’s and the title’s name. Hopefully a much better thriller will soon replace it in my memory. I’m really looking forward to some escapist literature. Because in the meantime, look at the mess that the 52% have created…

Writing ’16: June Update

What a month, my friends!

A month of new friends, of discoveries and revelations, of some regrets over mistakes, of school party and Harry Potter and a newly 8-year-old, a month of going places, of going nowhere, of taking stock of where we are. A month of deadlines, strikes and Brexit.

It was indeed a month of writing, but it was probably a bad month for writing stats. Yes, I finished a story. But I missed many days in the aftermath. Yes, I received amazing support, but I’m still floundering about goals and intentions.

This story I wrote, it had been in my mind for so many years, I was used to its incompletion, I was used to returning to it to add a few words, it was comforting to have it always somewhere nearby, and now it’s done. I would never have achieved it but for the amazing writing retreat I joined. I wrote for hours on end, something I didn’t know I could.

VilleferryI know what the logic next step is: editing it and sending it to a few good souls before thinking about sending it out into the world. But even that, I waver and procrastinate as if delaying that step will change anything. It’s really like a baby, whom you want to hold dear but now that it’s doing his own thing it’s no longer just about you. It’s time to shape it and polish it so it’s standing on its own. I have still many other stories that are waiting in my drawer.

Even if I did not write every single day, June was a very exciting month for my writing. It was a blessing to meet other writers in a supportive circle, to share our common struggles, to dare expressing our weaknesses, doubts and hopes. It was a true retreat because we stepped out of our routines and our worlds and entered a peaceful bubble for a few precious days. I hope it will fuel me for energy and sense of direction for the remaining months of the year!

The One with the All-Too-Obvious Secret

Fabrice Humbert, The Origin of Violence (French 2009, English 2011)

I realize that I have finished this book a while ago and not mentioned a word about it. Probably because I was a bit embarrassed not to be able to synthesize a clean, tidy opinion about it. At times I thought it was a very interesting book, at times I thought it was voyeuristic and complacent, at times I was just unimpressed. There are just so many books about the Holocaust, sadly (and horrific mass murders justified by racial or religious hatred have just continued, even more sadly); so many books about memory and family secrets.

A young high-school teacher visits the concentration camps together with his pupils, when he suddenly sees an old photograph with a Jewish inmate that bears a striking resemblance to his own father. Upon his return the young man starts to ask questions in and around his family, to discover that his father was born from an affair between his mother and the man who died in the concentration camp, his real grandfather. (This may look to you like a spoiler, but believe me, anyone can deduce that *secret* rather early in the book). The young man becomes obsessed with this grandfather and tries to confront his bourgeois upbringing to get to the bottom of the family secrets.

Maybe I have a problem with family secrets revolving around WWII, because this book reminded me of another novel, Memory by Philippe Grimbert, which didn’t work well for me either. Too bad.

The Origin of Violence is rather messy, as is my opinion about it. There are lyrical thoughts on the nature of evil (hence the title), a part set in the camp where no details of the brutality and horrors of death are spared to the reader. This part is quite difficult to read, but as the book is quite well documented, it is the most satisfactory. This is put together with a rather navel-gazing accounts of the difficult career of the young teacher in a tough neighborhood, of his romance with a beautiful German woman, of his difficulty to write the story of his grandfather. As Humbert himself is a high-school teacher turned writer, it is difficult to not wonder if any of the story is based on actual facts. The narrator is decisively unlikable, and probably untrustworthy, but it was the juxtaposition of some many random elements that made me uncomfortable.

The one with the boss from hell

Tammy Cohen, When She Was Bad (2016)

I was sold on this book when Marina Sofia mentioned with enthusiasm this newly released thriller set in an ordinary workplace:

Kudos to the author for portraying so faithfully a place where targets, egos, ambitions, rivalries all are ripe fodder for resentment and murderous intent. A new boss soon creates a toxic atmosphere in a team in a recruitment consultancy. As distrust rises and tempers flare, matters are not improved by off-site bonding events (ah, yes, those dreaded things!).

I too wonder why crime stories aren’t set more often in the office, in those open floor plans where everybody watches everybody else’s movements, is pitted against each other, where nasty pieces of gossips are exchanged at the proverbial water-cooler, with lasting damages and collateral victims. In fact, for a while I wanted to write such a mystery, but every time I built up a twisted plot full of hidden manipulations and dark secrets, I heard something even worse at the water-cooler. So my story lay in smithereens (ah!), defeated by hard, cold reality (psss… I work in one of those open floor plans too).

Tammy Cohen’s book had me sitting at the edge of my seat for a good while, because I could relate so much with the toxic work environment. The boss in the book is somehow worse than the one in “The Devil wears Prada” (a reference as far as horrible bosses go). From very early on, she wants you to know that one of the main characters is a monster capable of violence, so you can’t help but watch everyone with distrust and fear. I loved how she built up the tension and the pace, even if the characters are slightly too archetypal.

The book is built on a dual narrative line, and unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the second one as much, which revolved around a horrific case of child abuse. I hadn’t seen the final twist coming, but the resolution felt a bit rushed to my taste. Despite some reservations, the whole experience was fun and I hope to read a few more office noirs instead of the now ubiquitous domestic noirs.

I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The mysterious question of style

I had a fabulous week at the writing retreat where I mostly… well.. wrote. That was exactly why I’d come, and it did fulfill all my expectations there. But not only that.

Getting to ask myself tough questions about how to write, and how to write well, was like an unexpected cherry on the cupcake. Brainstorming answers with other talented writers from diverse horizons opened up new avenues that I had never considered before.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about style and voice. Although I am very aware of style when it comes to other people’s text, these questions don’t come naturally to me regarding my own texts.

13434818_10153546139196363_3564516578708349722_nHow do I define my own style? Do I even have a style? I tend to see these questions in terms of stylistic choices, when building sentences, when choosing one word over another. I have a micro approach, so to speak, not a macro one.

I know what styles I like. When I read Pascal Garnier, something immediately clicked. Not only did I like his plots and characters, but his very direct style, ordinary yet very precise spoke to me. Nothing convoluted, nothing too elegant. Fred Vargas’ style is too fanciful for me (yet I do love her books!)

The writing retreat forced me to put words on the style I’m trying to achieve, especially in the latest story I wrote (and finished, woohoo! I told you words had been pouring!)

I received heaps of encouragement during the retreat, and the place we were staying at had a huge library where I checked out all the great noir masters I want to follow. Simenon, Pouy, Modiano (not noir but…) are on my list for the coming weeks and months. Manchette, Goodis are names I need to discover. I was reminded of the book by Francine Prose : Reading like a writer, which I plan to reread too. Anyone I’m missing?

As you can see, I have a whole summer full of gloomy reading and happy writing ahead of me! What about you?

The one in Bombed-Out Hamburg

Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, On the Other Side (1979, Persephone 2007)

This precious Persephone book is a collection of letters written from October 1940 to January 1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg to her children while she was living in Hamburg, separated from them by war (4 of her 5 children were living overseas by then, most in Allied countries). She wrote moving letters of her life under the constant air raids, especially the bombings in 1943 which practically destroyed everything in the city. She wrote letters but had no means to send them, so it actually reads like a rather down-to-earth diary, although perhaps the cool tone and the stiff upper lip are all for the sake of her children (and maybe the Nazi snitches who might have stumbled upon them, so she barely touches any political subject before the very last days of the war).

Is there anything more depressing to read that the diary of a woman who survived the massive terror bombings in Hamburg, Germany during WW2? Well, to start, I could think of a few even more depressing ones about that period, to be honest (If you want to go that way, there’s the diary of the anonymous woman from Berlin, or of course the Diary of Anne Frank). Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg wasn’t your average German citizen on any account: even without knowing anything about her, I knew, from having been to Hamburg, that there is a big street named after her family and a metro station too. Born in 1879, Mathilde was married to a university professor who was never a Nazi, but she was indeed a woman of considerable means. She had domestic help throughout the war and knew people who could help her with permits, with resources, who could secure a hospital stay when needed and sometimes a letter from the overseas children. Luckily, her home was never bombed out and she didn’t lose everything in the fires or destructions. In short, there were many people a lot worse than herself.

But still, the book is a harrowing read, because Mathilde is such a nice little old lady and she sees her life gets smaller and smaller every day. Every comfort disappear until very little is left. Parents and friends die around her. She’s never sure if she is going to come back home alive when she goes queuing up for hours to get some food. Very little food. She’s left with her memories of past family reunions, of past Christmas, of past luxury, and you can’t help but feel for her.

The quality of this writing is that it hasn’t been retouched later on with the knowledge of what was going to happen next (or at least it doesn’t feel so). Each letter is written with the mood of that day, the latest peril still fresh in mind. It’s heartbreaking to feel that at the armistice her hopes were so high that the situation is going to improve soon, and yet the state of Hamburg and the German population at that time is in such disarray that the situation actually worsened before it could improve. For an Anglophile such as Mathilde, the general distrust of the occupying British army, that often regarded the whole German population as Nazi collaborators without exceptions, was a bitter disappointment too.

I had a summer job in Hamburg once while I was a student. The city seemed very unwelcoming to me. Very unromantic, tough and cynical. There were traces of the bombings if you knew where to look: so few buildings were dated pre-1945, and so many were just ugly concrete, hastily built buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, and there was the lone spire of Nikolaikirche, an old Gothic church that was destroyed during the attacks except for its tower that is still standing as a memorial against war. The city must have changed beyond recognition within just a few years.

I guess my appreciation of the city would have improved if I’d read Mathilde’s letters back then. I’m glad that the letters were saved and published, it’s a precious testimony, both intimate and universal, from a viewpoint that rarely gets to light, especially for the immediate after-war period.

The One with Sex And The City of Hong Kong

Amy Cheung, Hummingbirds Fly Backwards (Eng. 2016, Cantonese 1995)

I don’t normally go to Netgalley to look for foreign books (which I usually read in French anyway), but when I saw the name of the author, distinctively Cantonese, and saw from the short line of bio that she was *not* Chinese-American but a popular writer in Hong Kong, I realized how few such titles are featured on Netgalley. And I also knew that it was high time I read this title and certainly, if possible, a few other Chinese books in the coming months.

I used to read a lot of Asian books but I fell off the bandwagon a few years ago, because they were harder to find and also nobody gushed about them on the Internet (in the English or French Internet, at least, and I don’t have a clue where to look for Chinese book-bloggers, if such thing exists). All this to explain how I was delighted to read this book translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie and published by AmazonCrossing. Hong Kong writers are so little known in the West, you see. Even in Asia, as other Asian capitals love to argue that Hong Kong is only a business place and not a place with soul.

Amy Cheung is apparently categorized in the romance category (see this Chinese article in English), but I’d rather put her firmly into chick-lit territory: her heroines are cheeky and spunky. They are fiercely independent and buy sexy lingerie for themselves, and if some thug tries to steal it from their balcony (imagine flats stacked by the dozens…) they aren’t afraid to hide and give him the fright of his life. They are both pragmatic and romantic and reminded me of the 4 friends of Sex in the City. I’ll let you guess you’d be the Carrie, the Charlotte, the Samantha and the Miranda (well, to start with they’re only 3, so my comparison only brings me so far), but you’ll probably have a better grasp of the book.

The lingerie bit is not a detail that I put here to attract dirty spammers, no (hell no!), it plays a role to highlight the freedom (financial, emotional) and the struggles of each of the women (insecurity about one’s body is universal). The main character, Jeoi, owns a lingerie shop, she reunites with an old friend who comes shopping there, and the story was originally published under the title 《三个A Cup的女人》(Three women who wear A-cup bras). AmazonCrossing decided that this title  in English would *not* attract the right kind of readers, and I totally see the point (I searched under this name and… oops, you don’t want to try, trust me). As other Cheung’s bestsellers, and if my Chinese skills are not too rusty (I would never manage to read novels in Chinese, but I grasp the overall meaning of Wikipedia articles), this novel has been serialized in a popular newspaper, but it doesn’t show in the final edition.

I may be biased because I had this strong nostalgia of Hong Kong places while I read it, and I don’t usually read romance books of any kind really (although my venture into Amish territory might qualify) but I enjoyed the trio of girls. Even if the book is not meant to be highbrow literature, these women may epitomize Hong Kong spirit as I understood it, a blend of Chinese and Western, and I am grateful that AmazonCrossing gave me a chance to discover that author and that book.