The one in the whirlwind of Black history

Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman (1981)

I didn’t know what to expect from Maya Angelou. My only knowledge of her, being a Caucasian French woman, is through Oprah Winfrey (whose fame crossed the ocean, but by name only). I heard of long and adventurous life, but I didn’t know that this book was just a part in her memoir, and a small part indeed.

This book packs a lot of history and a lot of names within just a few years of her life. It starts in 1957 when she moves from the West Coast to New York with her son and joins the Harlem Writers Guild. She then proceeds to explain how she came to work for Martin Luther King, then to almost marry someone, then to actually fall for a South African freedom fighter in exile who brings her and her son to Africa (Cairo) but soon disappoints her with his philandering and domineering behavior. The final pages of the book are set in Ghana in the early 1960s, but it ends so abruptly that I was somehow frustrated for lack of a better editing and closure.

I was impressed by Angelou’s voice, her strength, self-reliance and wisdom. I was floored by her sense of freedom. She never stops moving forward, and setbacks, grief and sadness are just brief intervals before she picks herself up again and goes for the next thing. Her life (or the glimpse on just 5 years of it!) is so full of life-changing decisions that I was riveted, but also exhausted. She offers a very large perspective on events happening around her in America and Africa at the same period, and with so many portraits, it’s really a collective history as well as a deeply personal one.

My weird feeling is that Angelou seems both deeply rooted in a community, culture, historical moment, as well as a whirlwind of emotions, reactions taken at the spur of the moment (why did she agree to marry a man she didn’t really love? why did she suddenly turn her back and decide for Africa?). I admired her, but I couldn’t really understand her.

As a European reader, the experience of reading this book is nothing short of an eye-opener, because I don’t think I have read anything so blatant about what it means to be a Black, African-American woman in mid-20th century and to hear it from her own voice. We don’t talk about races in France, so I wasn’t comfortable reading that she distrusted white people and visibly thought that white people could not understand Black people. I may have misunderstood that part myself, and that was probably the result of her times and her heightened political conscience. It is really fascinating to see how African and African-American activists rubbed shoulders, influenced one another (I’m really treading lightly because my knowledge of it is very limited), and how the early 1960s with the new independent states in Africa raised hopes for so many (and not only in Europe and white America). More than half a century later, we are so far from that wind of freedom and optimism that we have mostly forgotten about it.

The one to read with a Russian map, a history book and a strong drink

Philip Kerr, The Man without Breath (2013)

This one is not for the faint-hearted, but if you have followed Bernie Gunther’s adventures so far (this is, gasp, the ninth book!), you’ll know what to expect: noir, noir, and more noir. There are times where you actually seek out the darker side of the mirror and want to send Polyanna back to La-la-land with marshmallows. Bernie Gunther is the ideal hero for these ventures into historical nightmares.

This book is set in 1943. Things are not turning out very well for the Nazis on the Eastern Front. This is the place to avoid at all costs if you’re lucky enough not to be a soldier, and Bernie Gunther has found the weirdest job possible, working as an investigator for the Wehrmacht War Crime bureau. Apparently such a Bureau existed in real life and wasn’t overly preoccupied with the Nazis’ exaction against civilians, Jews, Communists and other people who kept disappearing overnight. No, the purpose of this Bureau was to address military indiscipline within the army and trying to show that the Soviet army did commit even worse crimes than the German.

Enter the Katyn massacre, where thousands of Polish officers have been slain in a wood near Smolensk (midway between Moscow and Minsk) and left in shallow graves. Nobody local is speaking, but the Germans are glad to finally hold the proof that the Soviets are worse than themselves. They’re also aware that they need to publicize this crime very soon, because when the Soviet troops will recover this territory (people on the front line at that time don’t delude themselves about Nazi victory), they’ll likely accuse the Germans of having committed the execution themselves. Proving that the Soviets committed it, on the other hand, is likely to break the alliance between Western countries and the USSR. I guess this war crime is the height of surreal cynicism between two totalitarian regimes, and the worst part of the novel is to know that Philip Kerr is inspired by real facts and a lot of research.

As if there wasn’t enough darkness in the novel, there’s also a few other murders and a proper investigation and mystery that is solved swiftly with a bow at the end. This part is not as interesting as the historical backdrop and the struggle for Bernie to keep his integrity in a rapidly decadent landscape. But I’ll still read anything in this series, provided I’m in the right mood.

The Writing Resolution: September

It may be the crisp air of the mornings, or the new stationery and pens from the “Back-to-School” aisle, or the return to routine after the summer’s adventures, but September has been a good month for writing.

I have written every single day but two, and I have finished a short-short story and started editing it. It’s quite simple and straightforward, but for one who never finishes stories (who never used to finish any story?), it’s not that bad! The next step is to polish it a bit more and to send it to some trusted friends for a fresh look. I have also written many blog posts on my phone, but you haven’t seen them yet because they are lying around in the drafts folder, waiting for a reread, editing and polishing (which I can’t do on my phone). There’s no stopping this old lady who has recently blown her ninth birthday candles! (Are blog-years like dog-years?)

I have recently looked into my drawers for some unfinished texts and found dozens of them. Which one(s) should be saved and resurrected? Which ones are better off left untouched and forgotten? My first idea was to try to complete some small memoir pieces, but I might try some fiction instead.

The colder months and the Nanowrimo are looming: although I have no intention of joining  it whatsoever this year, I like to cheer from the sidelines and remember what an awesome challenge this is. This got me thinking: what story would you write for a Nanowrimo? what story would be worth the sweat and stress and effort of a whole 30-days, 50,000-words adventure? You tell me!

The one for the sake of Gongbao Chicken

Diane Wei Liang, The House of the Golden Spirit (French 2013)

I’m hesitant to say much about the book because I will be either too harsh or too soft. This is a mystery for which I cared little about who actually done it.

I read it because it’s about ordinary life in Beijing, especially in the eastern district of Chaoyang, that I called my home for more than two years. So every tiny allusion to a street, a building, a restaurant dish, a daily scene on the street was a sweet memory, and I can credit the writer for painting very real life snapshots of Beijing life. I also must say that the translation to French wasn’t quite as good, and I think that it must have been translated from English by someone who has never been to Beijing (some places are full of typos or have been mistaken for people’s names, but I am definitely finicky here and probably the only one to have noticed).

Wang Mei is an endearing character, a Security official turned private investigator in a dingy office, a single young woman with a thwarted love history, a daughter of a typically Chinese overbearing mother, whose love is expressed in food and who keeps asking about prospective marriage and grandchildren (Chinese mothers have a lot in common with Jewish mothers, I found out), a young woman who survived the Cultural Revolution with some untold family scars, like many people in China. She’s sometimes naive, but she knows that investigations, like any business in China moves forward thanks to guanxi, personal relationships, and she is clever enough to know when to use them.

I won’t really go into the plot, because I didn’t find that it was Ms Wei Liang’s forte, but I liked her characters well enough (especially the older policeman). She’s a Beijing parallel to Qiu Xiaolong’s mysteries who are set in Shanghai. Both writers seem to belong to the same generation of students who have left China after Tiananmen, and who have a critical view to the society’s evolutions. Common themes are corruption and making compromises with one’s values within the regime.

I’m not sure I’ll soon return to Diane Wei Liang’s remaining books in the series (this one is #3 and reads quite well as a standalone), but I sure look forward to eating some Chinese food! This book was a mouth-watering experience fueled with personal nostalgia.

Blogiversary: the Ninth Edition!

Wow, this blog is turning nine today! I can’t fully realize it, yet this blog has been in my life for so long now that I can’t imagine how I’d be without it. All of this to say, I’m not stopping anytime soon.

This place has been a place to check in and hold myself accountable when it comes to writing and trying new challenges, without any guilt-inducing pressure. I’m not sure exactly why (and I wished it worked as well for exercises plans or diet plans), but hitting “publish” works wonder.

This place is also turning into an annex of my brain when it comes to books (hmm, maybe it’s middle-age, but I sometimes check my own posts to see if I’ve read a book by such and such… please tell me I’m not the only one!)

But of course this place has been much more than that, or else I’d just add to a cold Excel database. This is now my own private café to meet some people equally interested in books, have a quiet moment and share views and favorites (including thrash a book from time to time). I appreciate every comment that you all have taken the time to send me along the way.

choux_pierrehermeThis summer I was lucky enough to meet another blogger in real life, and we had a lovely day with coffee, cakes and books. I dream of being able to do that more often, so if your path ever leads you to Paris, drop me a line. In the meantime, I’ll just offer you a virtual tea with cakes and cookies and a sip of champagne to celebrate!

The one with the eerie echo

Eric Faye, Nagasaki (French 2010, English 2014)

I have been dipping my toes back into NetGalley, where I’ve had an inactive account for years (but without a Kindle it didn’t work back then), and the first book that catches my interest is a book set in Japan written by a French author (whom I’ve never read before) on a subject that I’ve been reading just a month ago. Can we agree to call this serendipity? Let me count the ways:

  • I have a stupid prejudice against weird reluctance to try prize-winning contemporary French writers; and I need a small nudge from a translated edition to confirm that this writer’s voice has reached beyond Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the tiny district in Paris where  publishing houses all compete for drama.
  • I can’t really resist the appeal of trying new Japanese literature (although this one hardly qualifies…)
  • I’m very interested about Western writers who create a story and characters in a culture completely different from their own, and who do it convincingly in my eyes (in this respect this book reminded me of Fog Island Mountains by Michelle Bailat-Jones, who is also set in Japan).
  • The story of the novel eerily reminds me of the manga series I started reading during summer, called in French the Leeches, where a young woman lives in other people’s flats while they are at work. And it seems that the novel is inspired by a real incident.

Here, M. Shimura is a textbook salaryman, a middle-aged meteorologist of Nagasaki, single, lonely and rather boring, a tidy man probably on the verge of OCD. He notices that a few yoghurts have disappeared from his fridge (would I even notice?) and takes a ruler to check that indeed a few inches of orange juice are missing from the bottle overnight. His next step is to buy a webcam, only to discover that a middle-aged woman is living in his own home, not only by day while he’s away, but in a spare room’s closet by night (I can relax, I have no empty closet and no spare room whatsoever).

The book is very short, rather a novella. It is very approachable, although the author uses M. Shimura to tell about loneliness and existential angst in big cities. I liked the low-key melancholy of his voice and his dignity, although this incident upset his whole life. I was taken aback by the abrupt change of tone and point of view at about two-third of the book, where the voice switches to the woman’s. I didn’t quite enjoy the end that felt almost unfinished and would rather have stayed longer with M. Shimura. Nevertheless, it was an interesting discovery and I’m ready to read more by Eric Faye.

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The one that turns out shockingly outdated

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Making of a Marchioness (1901) and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst

It wasn’t part of my plan to revisit Frances Hodgson Burnett because I loved her Little Princess as a child (don’t let me start on the Japanese anime version Princess Sarah, I would probably make a fool of myself!).

No, I just saw this book in the Persephone list and (I’m embarrassed to say) downloaded the Gutenberg version on my Kindle. I expected saccharine and late Victorian conventions, but I have to say it went well beyond my expectations. I mean, for worse rather than for better. It’s written like a melodrama, but there are too many disturbing elements for the magic of suspended disbelief to apply.

The first part is a sort of Cinderella tale, but one where Cinderella would only rely on her naivety and honesty, not on her looks and wit. Miss Emily Fox-Seton is genteel and (insufferably) kind, but she doesn’t have any money, so she has to work as a dignified assistant, and the prospect of getting into middle-age (34!) in this precarious status is a bit daunting. Oh, but she doesn’t rebel against her fate, that wouldn’t be very polite… and it would require a lot more thinking that Miss Emily is used to. But don’t worry, that’s perfectly alright, because the book’s Prince charming doesn’t really like women who are intelligent and witty, he’d rather have a quiet wallflower (or no wife at all, but in this matter he too doesn’t have a choice, he has  to have an heir). She’s here to breed and smile, so that the lord and master can rest after his day’s work. Given that Miss Emily is not exactly young, the production of an heir might be trickier than for other possible girls in the cattle fair wedding market, but as we are in a fairy tale, the miracle occurs indeed.

This first part is a rather weird mix, because Burnett switches from bits of social commentary about the fate of single women without marriage prospect, bits of factual information about how women get by with a small budget (prices included) to traditional sentimental fluff. Burnett doesn’t seem to believe very much in her own main character, informing us readers several times that Miss Emily is a bit simple, which is presented as a virtue. At some point I decided that she wanted to ridicule her, but no, she’s rather a creature to be pitied. Burnett probably wanted to expose the hypocrisy of Victorian gender stereotypes, and ridicule what a true “angel of the home” looks like amid less virtuous, but more real people, but as she ends the first part with Miss Emily’s successful marriage, I was a bit lost.

The second half goes on to portray her married life, which would be insufferably dull, but for some evil people whom Burnett throws as Miss Emily’s Lady Walderhurst’s nemesis. Burnett adds a few bitter lines about bad marriages and domestic abuse, but the main point is a Victorian gothic plot that is not very tense (you can smell the happy end by miles). The moment where my tepid feelings turned decisively against the book was the forced exoticism and the slighting remarks on the half-Indian, half-English woman (read: half-good, half-evil) and her evil Indian servant. Indians and in general people with a dark skin are cunning and their strangeness is irreconcilable, despite Lady Emily having read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. This part is such a heap of racist, colonial clichés, certainly common in 1901, that it makes for an uncomfortable read if you’re not reading it at a meta level.

If I’m trying to be Fox-Seton-like kind and forgiving, I’d say the first part is worth reading for its social subtext. I try to rationalize it saying that Burnett probably wanted to write a different book, but settled for a conventional potboiler. But if I am 21st-century-blunt, I’d say some old texts are better left gathering dust. Age is no excuse in this matter, and 1901 was a great year for other more memorable books with memorable women caracters, like Claude à Paris by Colette, The Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (Tony), Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

The Writing Resolution: a brief intermission

Writing by Jonathan Kim on Flickr

I haven’t posted an August update because if you’ve been following this blog during summer, you’ll know that I pretty much interrupted the project for three weeks.

I’m not proud of it because I hadn’t expected it, but I don’t feel guilty either, as I was busy with… life, which makes for the best writing and reading material in the months and years to come.

Before I get back to the regular posts about books, let me just share with you a bit of unexpected wonder. A few days ago, I finished a (tiny) story, and for the first time in a very very long time, I don’t think it totally sucked. Yeah!

(The thing I’m leaving aside here is that during the holidays I tried to edit another story I’d finished during spring, and I really wanted to throw it all away. Whether there’s anything to save in there, I’m not sure. I’ll pick it up again where the leaves will be golden.)

Maybe, just maybe, this project finally pays off and I’m back in the saddle.

The gloomy one that leads me back to the museum

Biographies in graphic format seem to be very trendy these days, or is it just me? I had read the huge opus about Edvard Munch earlier this year, and being in the mood for more decadent end-of-the-century Viennese Secession (to go along with my Freudian mood), I turned toward Egon Schiele.

I’m not so passionate about Egon Schiele’s art as to put his drawings or paintings on my walls. Ahem, I don’t think many people would, given that a significant part of his art is erotic. But one thing you can deny is that his art is expressive and intense. The characters often stare at you and challenge you unashamedly to look at ther body, clothed or not.

The book is a classic biopic, so the graphic designer concentrated on Schiele’s life more than on his life. The result for me was mixed feelings at best. It’s nobody’s fault if Schiele’s life was really depressing and cut short at age 28 just after World War 1 by the deadly Spanish flu. Turn-of-the-century Austrian society was torn between a small innovative and rebellious minority and a huge repressed and repressive, conservative, bigot majority. Schiele’s family was middle class, his father a train station master in a small provincial tow.  Schiele was passionate about painting and art, but he also was not a very nice young man. Self-centered, interested in sex and women but not ready for a serious relationship, interested in marriage if it can bring him money to support his art, he’s a tough one to sympathize with.

The book doesn’t quite help either, because the artist has chosen a realist style (opposed to the grotesque, almost cartoony style chosen by Kverneland for Munch) and a restricted palette of greys and sepia like old faded pictures. So the mood remains gloomy and dark all the way.

Now, maybe I shouldn’t get interested so much in his life and focus on his art instead. Is it possible to like someone’s art without appreciating his life’s choices? I hoped to understand more how Schiele came to draw provocative paintings and drawings in such an original and visceral style. I probably should head to the museum instead.

The one I confused with another

Eliette Abecassis, Un secret du Docteur Freud (French, 2014)

Eliette Abecassis is one of these female French writers I had never read before, just like Lorette Nobécourt. Except for the facts that their first names sound similar, that they are both beautiful and that they have the same age, I had no real reason to mix them up.

Yet I did. I had tried Lorette Nobécourt fictional biography of Hildegard of Bingen and had abandoned midcourse. I wanted to give her another chance… and I borrowed from the library a book… by Eliette Abecassis. Oops!

I’ve been thinking for a while that I should read some more Freud, or about Freud, so this semi-fictional account of the last days of Freud in Vienna appealed to me. The setting is 1938, and Freud remains strangely hesitant to flee the Nazis for London. Indeed, he doesn’t know in detail the murderous intent of the Nazis, but still he knows that they are violent, hateful and that Freudian psychoanalysis is a movement that goes against everything they profess. Yet, his age, his illness, his phobia of trains, his reluctance to leave his ageing sisters, his attachment to Vienna and Austria make him waver. He’s an old man who very much lives for his past and he’s no longer a man of action. His children, his friends and supporters, among which Marie Bonaparte ranks very high, all try to nudge him towards safety. But something deeper explains his reluctance to leave: he wants to recover personal letters that he wrote to his friend Fliess.

This book can work as a refresher for Freud’s theories and life history. Despite the title, there’s no big secret in this short book. But I was disturbed by the very straightforward and cold voice of the book, especially as the point of view is mainly Freud’s. There’s a little bit of everything about psychoanalysis, no name remains forgotten, so I felt it was a bit too much of a good thing, especially for such a short book.

I was going to conclude that having tried two books by the same writer that both left me cold, I could now quietly withdraw, but since it turns out that I’ve tried one book for each author, I feel I now have to give them both another chance!

But instead, I should probably go get another book by Freud himself!