Unfinished Business: The One with the Bad Hair Days

Sofi Oksanen, Norma (Finnish 2015, English 2017)

I’m in the middle of moving house, and I need good books to see me through this hectic time. Nothing difficult, nothing too challenging, nothing too slow, nothing too fast either (I’m exhausted and can’t follow). Something entertaining, something that takes me far away from cardboard boxes, movers, contractors, registration forms and bank statements.

I thought that magic realism would do the trick and borrowed Norma by Sofi Oksanen from the library, but I could not finish it. To be precise, I read a third of the book, then skimmed the rest. It was probably bad timing. I have read Purge and had liked it. It was not love at first sight but I appreciated Oksanen for pulling no punches and having a strong, original voice.

This novel is daring because it mixes magical realism and fantasy with a dark thriller. Without the magical realism part it would be very tough and chilling. When you add this weird ingredient, the recipe tastes different and confusing… but I’m not sure if it tastes better.

Norma’s mother, Anita, who works in a hair salon, has jumped in front of a metro in Helsinki. Norma can’t believe she committed suicide, and soon enough she discover things about her mother that she didn’t know. Those two lines would be so cliché, if Norma herself had not a very unique characteristic: her hair is growing continuously and intensely (requiring several cuts a day!). Even though the story kind of fell flat for me, I could not help but wonder how Oksanen had come up with such an idea.

Soon enough we are embarked into a plot where Norma’s very special hair has unwittingly taken part to an international traffic of hair extension. I could hear my eyes rolling. I could see Oksanen’s point of women’s body exploitation loud and clear but I couldn’t really muster the energy for caring and being outraged. It was just too weird and abrupt.

Now, I think I’m going to head back to comforting territories for my next read. An Agatha Christie or a Ann Cleeves mystery maybe…

The One with the Heartbreaking Virago

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge (2008)

All I knew when I started the book was that lots of people had praised it. And that it was about a woman in a small town in Maine. Nothing more.

Which left me with so many surprises. First, the structure. I love linked short stories but only rarely read them (any other examples you’d recommend?). Second, the main character. Olive Kitteridge is blunt and sometimes spiteful. She is often angry and rarely compassionate. She has a no-nonsense, cold approach towards her family, her husband, her son and her neighbors. She’s the epitome of the unlikeable character. I was definitely not ready for it. Third, the sadness and gloom of the subject. This is not – I repeat not – a fun read to be attempted if you’re any way depressed or thinking about your own mortality.

The edition I got had lilac calligraphy and a woman with a red raincoat walking close to the seashore. Hmm… Why is the cover art so subdued and romantic like a chicklit / romance? This is so misleading. There’s nothing subdued and romantic about Olive. The red raincoat is there to tell you about Olive’s uncompromising choices in fashion and in life. She doesn’t care what other people think of her. She watches herself grow old with the same unflinching stare, and it’s not really pretty.

There’s a lot of humor in the book, but it doesn’t cover the darkness of it. Even if you dislike Olive and get attached to the other characters, village life in Maine seems so depressing, except for little moments of grace. What saves the book are those moments, and the beautiful language and characterization. I definitely want to read more of Elizabeth Strout.

The One with the Beating Heart

Maylis de Kerangal, Reparer les vivants (2014, English title: The Heart / Mend the Living)

Oh, how could this happen? I grumble, sigh and moan about all those books that weren’t great exactly, but when I finally read a great one, I forget to post about it? That’s exactly what happened with The Heart, which I finished in London, back in February! After Pawel Huelle’s stories, here is another post about a book that should not be forgotten.

After presenting my apologies to the book, its author and you all readers, I finally remember what stopped me from writing a post. After reading the Bridge back in 2011, I became an instant fan of Maylis de Kerangal, her unique style, her special literary project of fictional non-fiction, so I knew I would love The Heart.

And I sure did. I finished the book within two days (it was the holidays, after all). But why is it so difficult to explain why I did love it? It’s a collective book, so there’s not one main character, just dozen of them. The style is also very particular to Kerangal. Long, meandering sentences that often take the whole page or more. It’s not for everybody, but I happen to l-o-v-e it. It’s very inspiring, and then in the same breath, I know that I won’t ever be able to write as well as she does. (and I’m alright with it)

This book is about a heart. Young Simon is 21 and dies in a stupid car accident. But his young, healthy, precious heart can be saved to be transplanted to another person. Will his grief-stricken parents agree to the organ donation? Will everyone in hospitals across France be ready for the delicate intervention? Who will get Simon’s heart? Who will take care of Simon’s heart at every step of this process? It’s literally a question of life and death (no pun here) and the plot, although linear, is full of suspense.

More than the plot itself, the structure of the book is interesting, where the movement of death and the movement of life cross each other without fully extinguishing the other. Not only do we feel for the characters, all of them in their uniqueness and individuality: we learn (left-brain) about the surgeon’s secret dreams, the mother’s past, the nurse’s lover, the coordinator’s passion for music.  But we also learn (right-brain) about what it takes for a transplant to work and how organ donation is organized in France. All the way, the language adds beauty and depth, and helps the reader follow the fast pace of the book, that replicates the pace of a beating heart.

Exceptional.

The One with the tender music of old Europe

Pawel Huelle, Moving House and other stories (Polish 1991, English 1996, French; Rue Polanki et autres nouvelles, 2000)

Confession: I started typing this blog post on my (3 year old) phone and the WordPress app got all weird on me. Also, I have come to the conclusion that a post draft I started in April disappeared into the ether, so I’m trying to catch up on book reviews for those I have finished ages ago, before they disappear too!

So let’s stick to the facts (mmh, who am I kidding): this short-story collection was very interesting and I’m so glad : a- that this Polish writer got translated into French and English; b- that my parents gave me this book several years ago; c- that my 2017 “read-from-my-own-shelves challenge” finally made me pick it up; d- all of the above.

Anyway, I bet that you’ll want something a bit juicier than that. And the book is largely worth it. It is set in Gdansk, the Polish town that used to be German up to 1945 (under the name of Danzig). No, strike that, it’s much more complicated! Gdansk has forever alternated between German and Polish rulers and even became a “free harbor” with some autonomy. At the end of the WW2 it suffered a massive population exode (Germans from Danzig, but also from Eastern Prussia and beyond, making for hundreds of thousands of civilians desperately making their way west, under heavy air raids and the threat of Soviet army). Gdansk is also the place where, in the 1980s, the Solidarnosc movement was born, a rebellious force against the Communist ruling party, so strong that it led to its demise.

This bit of history is fascinating to me, but imagine what it means for someone to be born in this place! In many stories by Huelle, Polish characters have to live with the past and linger in a weird nostalgia. The stories are all set in the postwar, Communist era and several are in fact coming-of-age stories.

The title story made me sigh: a little boy is soon moving away from a house shared by several households. This house used to belong entirely to an old German woman, Madame Greta, who has been dispossessed by the Communist regime and only has one room now, filled with her piano and memories. The boy’s parents forbid him to go there, because they hate and distrust everything German, but as the parents are preparing to move the boy is attracted by the music and he gets to meet with Madame Greta.

There’s a story about a table, a household object that the narrator parents got from a displaced German who left Gdansk at the end of the war. The narrator of another story, “Snails, Puddles, Rain” goes with his father to chase snails. We get to learn that his father has only found this odd job after being kicked from several more qualified jobs, because he doesn’t toe the Communist party’s line.

I have a feeling that the French collection does not have the exact same stories as the English collection, but if you have a chance to read it, don’t be intimidated by Polish names and by the obscure history of this small part of Eastern Europe! This is probably the first Polish writer I’m reviewing in this blog (in 10 years, can you believe it?), but I hope not the last.

The One with the ripple effect along the Canal

Barbara Vine, The Child’s Child (2012)

It took me mere days to finish Alison Lurie’s book, while it took me months to finish this one!

This book was on my list of 10 for 2017, picked from my own shelves and my long TBR, so I really, really wanted to finish it, but otherwise I’m not sure I would have. I know that Barbara Vine’s books are slow, so I gritted my teeth, waiting for the reward at the end, but none came. Or I missed it, which is entirely possible.

This book is a story within a story, and I must say that I found the inside story, a supposed novel taking place from 1929 to 1947 (which makes for the bulk of the volume) less interesting (if more historically researched) than the other one which is contemporary and frames the other plot like two bookends.

Both stories have parallels and explore the themes of homosexuality and of children born out of wedlock. Both events were deeply shameful in the past and led to people hiding their true nature for years and years, basically their whole lives. In both stories a young single woman gets pregnant and lives together with her homosexual brother. Ruth Rendell shows how society stigmatises gays and single mothers and how it has grown a bit more tolerant but not much more throughout the century. Well, it’s not really big news, or is it? There is a very strange discussion in the book about which fate is worse, and I couldn’t make sense of this strange tug-of-war.

It didn’t help that the main characters of the 1930s plot are deeply unsympathetic. The single mother, especially, is so self-centered that it was hard to feel sorry for her. I bet this is what Ruth Rendell had in mind, especially as the meek 15-year-old who finds herself pregnant and ostracized by her very rigid family turns into a very rigid adult who condemns her gay brother and rejects her own daughter who seems more open and modern. Of course, making her so judgmental and so rigid made her gay brother’s life even more of a burden, but it makes for a dreary read.

It was quite interesting to see the long-standing effects of guilt and shame and how it shapes the relations of people around the main characters. It was also interesting to see a crime that goes unpunished for years only to find a solution by chance.

I would have been interested to know more about Grace, the contemporary PhD candidate who finds herself pregnant while writing her thesis about Victorian single mothers. The dialogues between this young woman, her gay brother and his lover, supposedly set right now, were really stiff and formal, but still the conflict of emotions was quite real. I would also have been interested to learn how a young woman could continue her PhD studies despite being pregnant, given that the glass ceiling in academia is only too real. Alas, that’s not at all what Ruth Rendell had in mind.

It’s probably not one of her best, and I think I’ll stick to Inspector Wexford’s investigations now.

The One with the Artists Retreat

Alison Lurie, Real People (1969)

Wow. I had finished a string of books that left me between “meh” and “blah”, and I was starting to fear that it had something to do with me. And then, luckily, a book that grabs me and within days makes me feel and think at the same time. So unexpected! (Somehow, despite Alison Lurie’s reputation, I had feared that this book had aged… not at all)

Real People is set in the fictional artists colony of Illyria in New England (apparently very much inspired by famous Yaddo, near Saratoga), where Janet Belle Smith, a mid-range short story writer, has been admitted again for the summer. We readers get to read her diary.

I had read things by Alison Lurie in the late 1990s-early 2000s, pre-blog obviously, so I don’t remember what. But this book, short, highly readable, perceptive and funny, made me want to read her all over again.

It talked to me at so many levels. It’s both deep and funny, and when you start to wonder if it’s not a bit too cliché she surprises you with an abrupt switch or a deep observation. Obviously, I could not help but identify with the main character, the struggling short story writer, mother and wife. She brings her own insecurities and doubts and snobbery and naivety to the plot. She is forced to ponder how honest she can be in her writing, how honest about herself, and to wonder if she hasn’t been “too nice” in her writing as in her life. But at the same time she has this moral superiority about her that makes situations both witty and awkward for the reader, and that will certainly bring her comeuppance at the end.

Artists colonies are so fascinating, and I’d been wanting to attend one forever. I was lucky enough to go to one last year in June, with a small group of supportive women, and I wish I can go there again next year. I could not help but compare what goes on at Illyria and what I experienced last year. In Illyria, there’s a covert spirit of competition and a sexual tension. Artists in Illyria went there with something to prove, if not to themselves, but to the other artists and the retreat’s organizer. It might be okay for some people, but don’t think it’s quite the atmosphere I personally would need to create. I guess you go to an artist colony to be removed from the world, and if the colony recreates the usual stress of the world, it’s not worth going.

On a lighter note, it reminded me of another novel set in a writing retreat, an Ann Cleeve’s mystery, the Glass Room. And of course, there’s a body in the library…

Six Degrees of Separation

I first heard of the Six Degrees of Separation meme through Marina Sofia of Finding Time to Write. And then I noticed that Elle played too ! It seemed so much fun that I had to try. The meme is hosted by Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest and picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps.

This month’s pick is Shopgirl by Steve Martin, a title I had absolutely no clue about. All I knew about it was Marina Sofia’s short description, about a satire of life in Los Angeles. But it was enough to let my bookish imagination run wild as I immediately thought of…

 

1- Bret Easton Ellis’ Letters from L.A. It’s a short story / novella that I read years ago (like 10 years!) but memorable, because I don’t usually read about L.A. and I don’t really enjoy satire, which I often mistake for grotesque tragedy (oh, wait, maybe that’s what it is about?). Letters from L.A. is one story from the collection The Informers. Of course this is not his best-known book nor is it the most shoking one…

2- American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis was a book that shocked me as I read it in my early 20s. I didn’t read graphic violence or porn or gore, or anything in the horror genre, and it was physically hard for me to read on. I was sure it was going to be an important book, although maybe for the wrong reasons.

3- Which led me to The American Pastoral by Philip Roth, another title claiming to be the “Great American Novel”. Especially as a non-American, these titles always seem daunting and I waited way too long before starting this novel which proved engrossing and sensitive. But after one Roth I couldn’t stop, so I had to pick…

4- Philip Roth’s Plot against America, an alternate history novel that imagines what would have happened if anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh had won the US elections over Roosevelt, stopping the US from entering the war against Nazi Germany. Of course, it made me think of another alternate history bestseller…

5- 11/22/63 by Stephen King, that left me breathless and reeling after 30 hours on audiobook last year! To a French person of my generation, the series of numbers of the title doesn’t automatically mean J.F.K., but once my mind was set on the 1960s and the Kennedys, I thought of another one…

6- Black Waters, by Joyce Carol Oates, is the retelling of a famous deadly event of the late 1960s, in which a girlfriend of Ted Kennedy’s drowned in a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts near Martha’s Vineyard.

In 6 steps, I moved from the West Coast to the East Coast, and from light satire to dark psychological terror! It was so much fun, I might want to try taking another detour… What about you, what are your 6 degrees?

Writing ‘017: May Status

coucousI can’t believe how quickly May disappeared! On the writing front I can’t say I’ve made much progress, although I only missed 3 days of writing in the month.

I have been busy writing posts (a lot of drafts in the drawers, you guys, but I will finish them soon, I promise!) and writing silly stories. I have 3 unfinished stories where I just kind of rambled on quirky situations, one of them very nearly finished but I can’t seem to find a satisfactory ending.

I suspect it’s because they aren’t very good. I aimed at entertaining myself from the current stressful situations (mortgage! real-estate closing! moving! politics! climate! world doom!), but I wasn’t entirely successful, so I don’t even want to imagine bothering a reader with my silly stories. I read widely this month and many stories (and movies) reminded me to try new things and be more daring. I love being baffled and disturbed by a story. I don’t think I have the peace of mind to do it right now in my own writing. I’m so busy with life stuff that my imagination has very little room for the time being. But it’s only a season, and during fall things should return progressively to a new normal.

On the submitting front, I sent my story to 2 more publishers this month, but one of them apparently disappeared. That is, my manuscript envelope came back with “address unknown”. How weird is that? (Yes, before you ask, in France most publishing companies want you to send your story printed on paper, they don’t want e-mails… we’re a very traditional country… ) Do you think they went bankrupt or moved away? Their website and Facebook is still at the address I used. At least, I didn’t get a rejection letter…

Monday List

I know I have finished many, many books that I should write about first, but… this Monday being one of these days, where nothing goes exactly as planned, I just have the energy for book lists.

These are the books that dear Mr. Smithereens spoilt me with for Mother’s Day:

Agatha Christie, Absent in the spring. Published in 1944 under the name of Mary Westmacott. Mr. S read it from the landlord’s bookshelf at our rental in London back in February and declared it great. The back cover says that it is among her “six bittersweet novels with a jagged edge, as compelling and memorable as the best of her work”. I wish there were some undiscovered Miss Marple’s for me to read, but this is the next best thing. I’m quite intrigued!

Chloé Cattelain, Ma vie à la baguette. (My life with a rod of iron, which in French sounds like a baguette bread, or a chopstick) Two Chinese-French teenagers (born in the north of France from Chinese parents) have to deal with family secrets and intercultural adjustments. I had noticed this one (from the publisher Thierry Magnier – did I mention how great this publisher is?) at the YA library, and apparently Mr. Smithereens had noticed it too! The weird thing is that I was born in the north of France too, and during my childhood there were very few Chinese immigrants there!

F.R. Tallis, The Voices. Mr. S and I both had loved Frank Tallis Viennese mysteries, but Tallis had grown fed up of this particular era and genre (or so I interpret), because he launched himself into a totally new genre: a terrifying ghost story! I don’t read horror, but now that I have dipped my toes into Stephen King, I can’t say never. It’s set during the 1976 heat wave, and Paris has been very very hot these last few days… Should I wait for October to start this one? Or maybe Mr. S. wants me to run hiding into his arms?

Yang Liu, East Meets West. This one is a tiny design book full of simple infographics, the left page for Western culture, the right page for Eastern culture. I had loved the Paris / New York book by Vahram Muratyan, this is the same principle. Of course, it’s full of clichés, but it should be a lot of fun too!

I also got a piece of “pencil art” from my 3-year-old and a poetry with lots of glitter from my almost 9-year-old! Wow, despite Monday woes and stress, I am indeed lucky!

The One with the Sorry Self-Made Jerk

Georges Simenon, Le Bourgmestre de Furnes (1939)

Wow, does this man know how to dampen the mood! He called these novels “romans durs” (tough novels) but not because they are violent, but because they are gloomy and hopeless. After the tragic fate of the young man fresh out of prison, I tried another one, the fate of the mayor of a small town in Flemish Belgium. No less tragic this time again.

This book is the wonderful, chilling portrait of a powerful, heartless man. Joris Terlink was the son of a poor shrimp fisherman in a tiny hamlet, but through intrigues and sheer ambition he has become a wealthy manufacturer of cigars and the mayor of the small market town of Furnes, near Ostende. Everybody in town treats him with deference and calls him Boss, but it’s more out of fear than respect. He has enemies in the traditional Catholic upper-class of Furnes. He stands firm against corruption, but he refuses in the same way to help people with a small job and money, because he made his own fortune without help. He’s a bully at home and a bully at work, a solitary man whom you don’t pity. Unless you take a peak at his private life and you discover that the people around him are also horrible, and that the only human being for whom Terlink shows any feeling is his adult daughter who is mentally deficient and whom he keeps in a room at the top of the house.

Well, I told you it was no picnic, right? I bet Simenon could push any positive-thinking expert over the edge in less than 200 pages. Poor Pollyanna would have to take antidepressants…

This is not a murder investigation, but there is one dead guy though. An employee of Terlink’s, a guy who needed money to finance his girlfriend’s abortion. The girlfriend is 16, un wed, and the daughter of a powerful Catholic man, a direct competitor to Terlink’s position. Would you expect for one second that Terlink would lend this guy money? I don’t think so. So the guy kills himself and tries to kill the girlfriend, making it into a huge public scandal. Of course Terlink benefits from the scandal, the girl’s father resigns and the girl is sent to a nearby seaside resort to give birth to her child far from the judging eyes of Furnes people.

What happens next is probably akin to a burnout or a midlife crisis, in my modern eyes. Terlink should rejoice or launch himself into more business. Instead, he dithers and wavers. He ditches boring meetings, plays hookie from the town hall and instead finds himself increasingly often at the seaside resort, attracted (in a non-sexual way) to the 16-year-old girl, who, instead of being shameful and repentant, enjoys life on her own with two other carefree women. This girl clearly would be his own fantasy daughter, if only his own wasn’t ill. He discover an alternate lifestyle, free of duty, work, Catholic sin and social pressure far from his little town. This is also a sign of social evolution, between the old society based on fishing and market and field work, and the new one with tourism and restaurant, dancing, entertainment …

Would you think that Terlink starts over and become a joyful guy, enjoying his money and buying himself the pleasures of a young lover? Come on, that’s Simenon! Terlink could, but that’s not who he is deep down. The novel ends rather gloomily, this breather being short-lived and doomed to become the mayor’s downfall.

I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who feels under the weather but otherwise it’s really interesting to watch a man you would judge as a jerk at first sight become a complex, flawed and pitiful human being.