A Boston Book-cation

Danielle has posted yesterday about a book-cation to Jerusalem, and by now I am seriously dreaming about books set in Boston where we will be… next week!

During spring I watched the movie version of The Bostonians by Henry James (the Merchant Ivory version with Vanessa Redgrave). I listened to Haruki Murakami’s memoir of running along the Charles River to prepare a triathlon (that I will never do!). It’s been a while but I still have a fond memory of a cozy mystery set around the Mount Auburn Cemetery, and perhaps we will get there. Boston suburbs make me think of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, and of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar (which I had trouble finishing a lifetime ago). On a whole other planet, there’s the detective rabbi from Harry Kemelman’s series. And of course there’s Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter too.

I didn’t remember that Shutter Island was supposed to be an island off Boston coast. Nor did I know that Dennis Lehane’s crime fiction is set in Boston, because I never managed to get past the few first pages of Mystic River (I’m probably missing out, perhaps I’ll be inspired to try again after our trip, who knows?).

In pop culture, I associate Boston with Ally McBeal (which probably will make you guess my age) and Legally Blonde, a silly movie I still can’t disown (shake your head in disgust if you want, to me it’s a feel-good movie for one of these bad days…).

If I extend my book-cation to embrace all of Massachusetts, of course we might go to Concord and see a bit of Louisa May Alcott, or try Lenox for a quick hello to Edith Wharton who adored France, although her Massachusetts-based Ethan Frome is even more depressing than her other city tales. Or maybe Salem for the Crucibles? Or Amherst for Emily Dickinson? The choice is so hard, and I haven’t started to dream about bookshops yet.

What did I forget? Do you have any recommendations for books set in and around Boston? Any special place?

A Summer Book Bargain

(I haven’t forgotten about my suspenseful riddle on mangas… I’m just waiting to pass by the bookshop once more to get a decent picture of it, thought it might be fun! And meanwhile…)

Naughty me! I’ve been good for a number of months, taking books from the libraries or reading from the huge backlog gathering dust on our own bookshelves, but e-books have the power to make me yield: it’s not as if they are adding to the clutter or if they are taking any physical space. Therefore, sneaking one in my virtual shopping basket doesn’t feel like a real purchase.

The only thing that slows me down is that French e-books are priced more or less the same price as the paper book, which publishers justify by the amount of intellectual work that needs to be paid in any format. I get it, yet at a purely instinctive level I feel a bit cheated. In one case I have something in my hand to show for my money, in the other I have a magical flow of data that surges out of nowhere (that’s the land of the clouds) to flies into a device that already lay on my table. Yes, I realize that this representation makes me an old dinosaur. Anyway, call me inconsistent and stingy if you want but I am still reluctant to pay 15 euros for an e-book.

Which make Amazon Kindle promotions almost impossible to resist!

They do it on English books (because they’re bound by French laws for the local ones) but a book for 1.99 or 2.99 for a limited time only? What’s a book blogger to do?

So last weekend I splurged and instant-bought my way to e-book paradise:

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel for 2,69 euros: I’m normally fearful of post-apocalyptic books, but I heard so much good about it that I’m going to give it a try.
  • The Secrets of Station X: How the Bletchley Park code-breakers helped win the war, for 0,99 euro. I’ve loved the Bletchley Circle in DVDs, and the real story seems just as fascinating.
  • The Beekeeper’s apprentice by Laurie R. King for 0,99 euro: I’m a sucker for all things Sherlock. I can’t help it.
  • The complete plays of Shakespeare for 0,49 euro!

Fortunately, I managed to stop my shopping spree there and then. But I just let you know so that my European friends can enjoy those great deals as well!

The one that made me pause and bow down

Raymond Carver, Trois Roses Jaunes (French 1988), Stories from the collection Where I’m Calling From

I knew I was going to love it, and I won’t pretend I really saved it for any special occasion. But everything and everyone had told me that the day I would finally start reading Raymond Carver I would love it.

To add to the confusion, apparently the French publishers picked and chose in the short story collection and just published 7 stories out of the 37. How they did this choice, I have no idea, there’s no pre- or post-face. My hope is that they published the remaining 30 under a different name, as my husband reported that the library has several collections. The only drawback is that they’re all in French. I’m still struggling to identify the corresponding stories in English.

Sometimes an American author’s voice get lost in translation, because the short sentences become dry and blunt and banal. That’s why I always prefer reading in the original text if possible. Here, it took me a while to get used to Carver’s style, but I was immediately at ease, because I could so relate with his intention. Understated feelings and despair, untold pain, ordinary situations and struggles, very short pieces, realist settings but not particularly set in time and place.

It was a treat to read a short story every day, although it was often with a heavy heart that I parted from the main character. A heavy heart when we left the man whose ageing mother was once again moving and making endless petty difficulties in “Boxes”. A heavy heart when we left the man whose whole family sucked money out of him until he could no longer care for himself in “Elephant”. A heavy heart when we left Chekhov on his deathbed while all the bell boy could only think of was what to do with a champagne cork, missing the big event entirely. Some main characters are unpleasant and/or downright pathetic, like the cheating husband in “Menudo”, or the husband who pretends to have an excellent memory and to understand everything about his wife, only to see her leave him under the police’ protection in “Blackbird pie”.

Although it was sometimes hard to follow Carver in seemingly trite stories full of tacky characters, I found myself in a familiar writing environment. These are my kind of stories. Not that I really can write those, I wouldn’t pretend that, but I walk along those lines. And I hope the journey with Carver will be very long.

The one that makes you double-check the locks

Librairie 16 rues Moines 75017 Paris

This is where it all started… a small comics place without a name…

Daisuke Imai, Sangsues (French 2015, Japanese “Hiru” 2011)

Here comes the post that answers the probably most suspenseful question of summer (besides “when can I be on holidays pleeease?”): “which manga did I choose?”… Offered three tantalizing options by a very professional bookseller, I went with the manga called “Leeches”.

Yes I know, yucky! Isn’t this title evocative enough? Indeed it is very creepy. So creepy that I’m effectively hooked.

I could have gone with the zombie/freedom of art one, but I am a mother of two young children, one of which is able to read on his own and interested in any comics/manga that lays around, and the art was quite explicit, so I kept the title in mind but couldn’t really buy it. A responsible mother wouldn’t do that. That’s what you call self-censorship.

Anyway I don’t regret my choice. “Leeches” is full of promises, considering that it’s the first of a 6-part series. It highlights a bizarre Japanese social phenomenon I was hardly aware of: the disappearing act of thousands of people in Japan, who simply go missing one day. The name is “johatsu” like evaporation or disappearance. Apparently the police doesn’t really try to find them, or can’t due to administrative red tape.

While preparing this post I stumbled upon an investigative book about such people, by Léna Mauger and a French (Belgian?) photographer Stéphane Remael. I didn’t read the book but his pictures from his website are quite sad and haunting, as disappeared people or their families left behind say a few words about their distress and why they chose to leave everything and go under the radar: bullying by the yakuza, debt or job loss, struggle with their spouse or family… They disappear into the anonymity of big cities, just like this manga’s heroin (but the comparison stops there).

Yoko is a young woman who has ran away from her family to go find her boyfriend in town, but had to leave him too (I don’t want to disclose too much). Without any resources or friends she hides away in plain sight, while normal people go about their lives, she sneaks into empty flats to use other people’s belongings, food, bed. Nobody seems to notice subtle changes in their home (I believed I would, but with a baby at home, if something is not exactly at the same place when I come back from work I wouldn’t pay attention). Yoko takes care to leave before the rightful owner comes back, and with a rota of several people working different schedules, she actually survives quite well, until she discovers she’s not the only one to have such a bizarre lifestyle, and that other “leeches” don’t like her to mess about.

The story set in the anonymous big Japanese megacity is quite believable to my foreign eyes. There is lots of loneliness, sadness and quite a quota of violence in it (but no zombies). Luckily for my ability to sleep at night, I like to believe that Japanese people have weird habits, that they are very private and don’t care for their neighbors, and that it wouldn’t be possible in my little Paris neighborhood where concierges (caretakers) would notice or ask questions about a new girl sneaking in and out of the building.

Or would they really?

The one at maximum velocity, too much for my tired brain

Pierre Lemaitre, Sacrifices (French 2012, Camille, English 2015)

Sometimes I’m just plain stupid. No, don’t be polite, just wait, let me explain.

When I heard about Pierre Lemaitre’s thrillers, most probably through Marina Sofia or Sarah early this year, I squirreled away a little note and added to my ongoing TBR list. I didn’t bother writing down the title, since it was so clever to have each volume named after each main protagonist. It never occurred to me that they were the titles chosen for the English translation, and that the French publisher hadn’t done the same clever choice.

Now when I visited the book donation shelves at work, I stumbled upon a thriller with a rather banal cover (a woman’s face behind broken glass) with a bland title (Sacrifices) and a bland writer’s name.

Something like Pierre Lemaitre, a name that didn’t. Ring. Any. Bell. A name like that is the French equivalent of Jack Miller, Fred Jones or John Doe. A combination of Peter Rabbit and Doctor Masters (yes, someone has been watching DVDs…). Seriously, didn’t any publisher tell him to change his name for something more memorable? It feels like a false name someone would give for a very bad alibi. Ok, that’s no excuse.

The opening scene was quite something. I would say mind-blowing if it wasn’t already a spoiler. The alternate voices, the breathless pace, the tongue in cheek, snarky glance towards the reader… It was highly addictive. I had a weird feeling of déjà vu.

Then I hit the bulge of the middle part and the pace kind of lost a little steam. Especially as the book referred to previous events in 2 books I hadn’t read. Which was just as well, because in the midst of all this violence and mystery, my brain was trying to tell me something. Like this book should remind me of… Like this writer’s kind of famous for…

Needless to say there was a rather embarrassing “aha” moment, not the Oprah kind, but that sounded more like “duh”. That unknown writer had won the highest literature prize in France, the 2013 Prix Goncourt, that is advertised possibly everywhere in France (even newspapers stands have it in train stations)… and it stood… on my nightstand since April (a slow read, but that’s a whole other story).

But I hadn’t made the connection. Yes, now you agree that I am stupid. Or very very tired.

I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in order, but it would have required a degree of intelligence that I hadn’t possessed at the time. It’s been a while since I read something as violent (the opening scene especially) and I normally don’t mind, but I think it wasn’t the best way to be introduced to Commandant Verhoeven, even if Lemaitre is a master at plotting and story-telling. I would add that Pierre Lemaitre is a writer to watch for, but I’m not fit to dole out lessons.

The one about the one-man comics shop

Finding a good bookseller is like finding a new friend. It’s a rare occurrence when it clicks.

As a principle I try to support independent bookshops when I don’t buy English books, but I rarely meet a passionate and knowledgeable seller who takes the time to find the book that I would love.

The nearest indie bookshop has a bit of everything, from art books to children’s corner, from classics to travel guides. They will push you towards bestsellers, and if you come with a title, they’ll order it for you for the next few days, which is not so bad. But they never try to put themselves into the customer’s shoes and get personal (that’s typically Parisian, you need to be there at least 3 years before you get a nod of acknowledgement).

On my way to the market on Saturday mornings I pass by a tiny bookstore specialized in comics and manga. They also have some children’s books. I shouldn’t really write “they”, because it’s all a one-man affair. For years I’d never stopped, because the store seemed a bit messy, and I mostly borrow graphic books from libraries, because I don’t really trust my choices and want to try stuff I’ll be able to return. Like that happened more than once. Also, I am prejudiced to think that this kind of shops mainly targets young nerd-ish male readers. A middle-aged mother with young kids and a stroller full of vegetables and cheeses fresh out of the market? I thought I wouldn’t exactly be welcomed.

I came in during winter to buy a picture book for Baby S and I ended up buying one for my older son as well, Chien Pourri (Rotten Dog?), a hilarious tongue-in-cheek series about a stray dog (I’ll post about it one day for sure). My son fell in love with the series: the shop owner obviously knew his stuff.

I came in again for children’s books, and then last Saturday I took the plunge and asked for advice. How to describe my taste in graphic novels? Standalone preferably to series, no fantasy or superhero, no horror and no kinky stuff but no special allergy to violence. I was looking for a shojo but nothing twee. He offered Taniguchi as a first choice, and when I said I knew a lot of his works, the conversation got going.

He said he had exactly the thing for me: Solanin. When I said I’d read it and loved it, it was like a new ping-pong game. What now? He offered a lesser-known Taniguchi centered on a detective specialized in finding lost dogs. I’d loved it too! (although I didn’t review it? It doesn’t seem to have an English translation though) We were now evolving in familiar territory.

He came up with 3 serious propositions:

– the first about an old man leaving his family behind, by Takashi Murakami. Although I loved the cover art, I was less taken by the manga design itself (you can get a sense here) and it was kind of depressing for a summer weekend… It’s a two-part manga (bonus point) and the shop owner said it was his personal choice.

– a second option is the first of a 5-part series by Daisuke Imai, about a young woman who decides to leave her life behind (is there a trend here?) and who lives by stalking other people and entering their apartment when they’re at work. She has access to several flats and thinks she’s one of a kind, but then she finds out that she’s not the only one living off other people, on the outskirts of normal life. The French title means “leeches”, so you get the idea… It really looked intriguing, but a bit scary in the realistic vein…

– the third option was quite bizarre and ventured into deeper topics (not that the previous two were light either): censorship and the limits set to the creator’s freedom. Can a mangaka write about anything, and if so, will he get published? The title is Poison City, by Tetsuya Tsutsui. Here, the artists sets out to design a ultra-realist zombies series and has to navigate publishing politics and much more. Apparently the manga alternates chapters between the zombie story and  the publishing story. I’m not fan of zombie to say the least, but the topic of this option really appealed to me.

Now, what would you have chosen? I let you guess, and I’ll give you the answer in a few days, with a proper review.

The one about growing up in a lost world

Maxim Leo, Red Love: The story of an East German family (English, 2013, German, 2009)

I am amazed how this fairly unassuming book has managed to send me reeling. You may wonder what is so interesting about an adult man in Berlin who attempts to write a memoir about his parents and grandparents by asking them hard questions. An adult who tries to recall what kind of homework he had in school, what was boring and what was exciting at recess. In a sense, the nostalgia for one’s childhood is universal. There were good stuff, bad stuff, your parents did things that didn’t make sense at the time, you were clueless, things change, get over it.

The land of your childhood has disappeared for everyone, but it takes a whole new meaning when the actual land has actually disappeared. Like, for real.

Maxim Leo’s childhood land was the German Democratic Republic (as in: on the bad side of the Berlin wall) and it has really ceased to exist overnight, the morning after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. He was 19.

The book is highly intimate and complex, but it reflects how the history of Germany during the 20th century has shaped a family through 3 generations at least. His maternal grandfather was a boy raised into a secular Jewish family when Hitler rose to power: his family flew to France in 1933 and he grew up to join the French resistance, escaping death by a hair’s breadth. His paternal grandfather wasn’t exactly a member of the Nazi party, but what happened in Germany during those years didn’t exactly disturb him, he supported them to the point that he hung swastikas flags at his own windows. While the other grandfather was in the Resistance and later on the winners’ side, this one was in the Wehrmacht and later a prisoner of war in a camp. The paternal grandfather was loyal to the Communist party that had saved him. He rose to a high level position in the party, so that Leo’s childhood was fairly protected and not deprived. The maternal grandfather did also find his place in the new Soviet country by supporting the ideology and starting anew.

Leo’s parents had a fairly more complex relationship to the regime that oversaw their own childhood’s and adult’s life in minute details. They were told what to think, what to do from an early age, but Leo’s mother had a hard time with that, trying to keep her mind free while remaining loyal. Leo’s father was a rebellious artist and didn’t follow the expected lines.

Leo himself is the product of this conflicting history and what his parents made of it, each in their own way. When he sets out to get answers from them, it is both heart-breaking and eye-opening, like an intimate tragedy. I held my breath for most of the book. I remember the 1980s and I remember the struggles and the divided loyalties. I remember those days in 1989 where we sat in front of the television and tried to make sense of those events. We were only sure of one thing: that the world would never be the same.

The book spoke to me because I am about the right age and because I found parallels with my own family’s background, but I’m sure that it would also interest anyone interested to see how a century’s worth of conflicts and ideologies translate into personal lives.

The Writing Resolution: June Status

With less holidays and disruptions in the routine, June has been a rather effortless month for writing.

Or rather less effortful, if I may say so.

It doesn’t mean that I didn’t need, like previous months, a few days off. But at least I don’t require so much self-control and self-discipline, and I don’t stress so much and guilt-trip myself about when I’m going to fit a writing slot into my day and what the heck I’m gonna write about.

The downside is that I wrote a lot for journalling purposes and not so much for books posts (you’d have noticed) or short stories. But that’s fine with me.

Also, I have small pockets of time during my commute or during my lunch break but once they’re gone, it’s over for the whole day and I rarely get back to those small tidbits of writing. The result is that I have lots of short, interrupted spurts that go in every direction. I don’t want to change my ways for now, nor do I want to put constraints on my freshly rediscovered creative writing brain. I don’t want to delete them, nor are they automatically worth a larger story, but I’m thinking about patchwork.

Does that make any sense?

Korean Patchwork Jogakbo from Hanji Light

Before I attempt another clumsy comparison (I was trying my hand yesterday at Aphra Behn vs. Madame de Lafayette, and look at where it leads me), I hasten to add that I haven’t sewed any patchwork myself, although I admire them (I’m a lurker of this fabulous site) and have done some stitching in the past.

Ok then, patchwork vs. writing. Both are pieces of art, long-term labor of love. Structure also is important. You have to have the grand idea in mind, then you can adjust the small pieces within the frame in different patterns until you find the best one. Small details pieced together to mean something larger, by repetition or by contrast.

I’m not sure if the comparison is apt, but I’ll bear this in mind during the July month. Maybe I’ll collect enough blocks to create a complete piece soon!

The one where I attempt to compare a royal slave to a French princess

Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688)

It’s the first time I read such an old classics in audio format. I have listened to classics before, but 17th century novels are quite a different world away from a 19th century Balzac or a late 19th century detective fiction.

The language, its flourishes and peculiarities, the structure, the length of chapters, the circumvoluted circumstances, the slightly clichéd characters… It was a challenge for me not to have the printed word in front of me to cling to. Thankfully, the reader from Librivox was skilled and very articulate, and the book isn’t really that big. Also, I made sure that I wasn’t missing anything big by reading the summary online.

I wasn’t really swept off my feet by the story, but that’s alright, I didn’t expect to. It was really interesting to see a novel set in the West indies especially as a dose of realism showed that Behn knew her business (I was comparing it to fictional foreign countries in Voltaire’s Candide, for example). It was interesting to see this first portrait of black people under a positive light, especially after reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s casual racism in Emily Fox-Seton novels, that were published more than 200 years later (more on that one later!).

Of course, Oroonoko is not meant to be a modern hero, and the book is not meant to denounce racism and slavery at all. In fact, Behn is quite content with slavery for ordinary people, she really sees it as degrading when it affects superior (a.k.a aristocratic) people. That’s to be expected for the period, but that does put a damper on the vague claim that Oroonoko was the first anti-racist novel written by a woman. As for the women in Oroonoko, I was rather disappointed to see so little of them.

The most fascinating part was the insight I got from Aphra Behn’s life from checking it on the internet. She’s not known at all in France, in fact, so it was all news to me. Comparing it with the classics that I was taught in French lit class, at the same time of Oroonoko’s publishing, there were Racine, Corneille and Molière plays and La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette (1678).

I am probably comparing apples to oranges, but I must say that the comparison is not quite favourable to Behn, as La Princesse de Clèves feels to me a lot more subtle and less cliché then Oroonoko, although I might be prejudiced by my education. As far as drama goes, I found the Princesse de Clèves’ renouncing to her true love more heart-wrenching than Oroonoko killing his own true love, probably because the former speaks more to me in modern terms than the latter. It might be because it’s more psychological and introspective. Perhaps one ought to compare Oroonoko with sentimental novels like those of Madame de Scudéry, which are known for being full of adventures, and sentimental twists and turns where lovers are separated and reunited by fate countless times. I have but studied a few pages of Scudéry in class, because they’re typically very long and verbose, but perhaps my comparison doesn’t hold.

I’m quite interested in international literature comparisons, but my own knowledge is too limited. Is there an English classics akin to the beloved Princesse de Clèves? I’d love to make new discoveries.

Characters’ Arcs in Non-Fiction, and Going Beyond Mere Facts

When growing up (I can’t really pinpoint when that all changed), I didn’t really enjoy non-fiction as a piece of writing. To me, non-fiction was textbooks, informative, neutral, useable… or not. They needed to convey information to me, which they did more or less clearly, more or less completely, and that was all.

How naive I was!

I never even questioned the way a non-fiction could be written, all that mattered was content. I was very bad at figuring out the writer’s angle, what he deliberately kept out of his narrative, where he fibbed and where he just got it wrong. What I managed to see in fiction after I learnt the basics of literary analysis, I completely ignored it in non-fiction, even in memoirs.

As you can imagine, that led me to a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of mediocre grades in essays (and ah-ah moments later in life when that perspective changed). I just recently realized how skewed my view was as I reread some books I’d loved as a high-school student.

I would never have dreamt of a world where I could find a piece of non-fiction riveting per se, and where I would enjoy a non-fiction writer’s writing, like I do for Janet Malcolm’s for example.

I remembered being totally clueless about the concept of “creative non-fiction” a few years ago. Only recently did I got aware of the idea of creating your life story and how important the structure of the narrative itself is for making sense of it all (although I was drilled at university about the art of writing French-style essays, that have a very rigid and uniform structure).

When I got started on podcasts two years ago, this awareness increased tenfold. I started to get interested in story arks, because nowhere but in a “This American Life” story is more evident that those pieces of non-fiction are carefully constructed to move us listeners, to make us react and want some more. Needless to say, I was addicted to Serial from the first episode!

Today, I followed a link on the The Longest Shortest time podcast website, and it took me to “Howsound”, a podcast about radio apparently. There’s a lot of technical stuff I don’t understand and don’t care about in radio, but this audio analysis about story arc and character change in a non-fiction piece of radio is really fascinating.

As is the picture of the arc that Hillary Frank drew about a book she wrote at the planning stage (she’s a YA writer on top of her podcasting activities):

I can only dream of the day I’ll be able to draw such a chart about one of my (fiction) stories, but this is clearly a great inspiration. Have you ever tried such a chart?