The One with the Melancholy Writer in Hospital

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton (2016)

I’d loved Olive Kitteridge, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I’d read Elizabeth Strout again with her celebrated Lucy Barton, that so many book bloggers had recommended. The good news is that the opportunity came earlier than I’d thought with an ARC of the French version that will be published in the fall.

I fell into this book quicker than with Olive K., and I read this short novel in almost two evenings, a real holiday treat to have these longer uninterrupted stretches of reading! (It definitely helps that I don’t really “get” German TV). These were beautiful hours spent with Lucy Barton and her mother in the hospital, talking about little nothings,  about neighbors and extended family members. Nothing much happens, but what matters is the undercurrent of love and emotions. Lucy and her mother were estranged and the fact that she flew to New York to stay on her daughter’s bedside for 5 days and nights meant a lot.

I loved every page of this melancholy, understated novel. There’s no big bang, no showy revelation of a secret, but rather the complex texture of life and time and deep feelings. Although Lucy is a writer and words are important to her, she struggles with emotions that she can’t pinpoint exactly or things that can’t be expressed fully. The writing flows but is never flowery. The structure goes back and forth between the 1980s, Lucy’s childhood in dire poverty and her later life many years after the episode in the hospital. It’s sad but not gloomy or overwhelming; it only makes you think about your own family and relationships, about understanding people (or not), and how childhood has probably a lot more influence on your choices later in life than you’d think. It’s the perfect book to savour on a rainy day together with a hot tea (or maybe, in German fashion, a long coffee and a generous slice of cake).

Thanks to Netgalley and the French publisher Fayard for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The One with the Normandy Nurses in Love

Soraya M. Lane, Wives of War (2017)

Alright, please don’t roll your eyes just yet. I have nothing against a schmaltzy novel from time to time for a quick pick-me-up. I have been known to experiment with Amish romance and once with Nightingales romance, and I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I own it.

I can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I chose this book on Netgalley on basis of the cover mainly. I can’t say my expectations were very high in the literary realm. I wanted to be swept off my feet by good feelings, by love stories and accounts of heroism and dedication and selflessness. I certainly didn’t want to think too hard, as I was looking for the perfect easy summer read.

Well, now I can’t go and complaint that the characters lacked a bit of depth, that the writing was not flourished enough and that the plot was a tad predictable? It’s called Wives of war, so when you get to meet 3 British single girls on their way to military hospitals on the eve of the Normandy D-Day, it doesn’t qualify as spoiler to tell you that they will end up… well, married.

This is fluffy romance fiction and readers who complain about lack of perfect historical accuracy in the way those girls talk and behave, or on the way nursing is described, have simply chosen from the wrong bookshelf.

The contract has been fulfilled: it was entertaining, I cared enough for the three girls to follow their adventures (yes, all the way to the altar) and it wasn’t disturbing or stressful (very few gory details about war injuries, thank you very much). It’s not unforgettable, but it was fun, and wholesome.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher Lake Union Publishing for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Writing ‘017: July Status

TerrariumLet’s keep it brief, shall I? As expected, July wasn’t the most startling period to write. I tried to write every day, but I stopped for 5 days because… well, boxes, disruption of routine, last-minute repairs and shopping, exhaustion. I have not found my new routine yet, and with the summer August break, I can’t see that happening before September. I have been writing my diary, but my creativity is low. I don’t have the energy to submit again, especially after visiting some chain bookstores where row after row of books seem rather interchangeable.

Meh, don’t worry about me, a change of scenery will help freshen things up, and I might get new ideas! We are off tomorrow for two weeks. I am bringing my Kindle with me, fully stocked with exciting titles. We will be discovering Bavaria and resting from the recent events on the banks of the Danau, the Isar and the Inn rivers.

The One with the Ugly Belles

Elizabeth Ross, Belle Epoque (2013)

The end of June was full of last times for our family. Last trip to the neighborhood market, last days at this school, last time we got to Parc Monceau, last times to the library. Of course it’s hard to say goodbye, especially as we were lucky to have such a good library network in Paris.

The neighborhood library I went was specialized in children and YA books (with only a small shelf for parents to get their bookish fix), so it led me to extend my interest towards the YA novels. I was looking for a sweeping period novel that would take my mind off the busy to-do list. I don’t mind foreign books set in Paris as long as research is good and characters are believable. All the more when it’s a historical novel. I love to remind myself that so many people lived in Paris in different centuries.

Belle Epoque is a novel that was inspired by a little-known Zola (very) short story. Zola imagined that wealthy upper-class families hired ugly companions for their daughters to appear even more beautiful and striking by comparison, in an effort to help them shine in society during the season. Ross used this basis to explore the fate of Maude Pichon, a 16-year-old runaway from the countryside and poor single girl in the capital, hired by such an agency because she is plain enough; and the fate of Isabelle, a wealthy débutante whose mother has chosen Maude to accompany her everywhere, both as a “faire-valoir” and as a spy, because Isabelle is not interested in marriage and would prefer studying at university and having her say in this new century. The backdrop of the story is the 1900 Universal exhibition in Paris, that saw the building of the Eiffel tower that so many back then found ugly. I didn’t care so much for Maude’s back story in Brittany and for her love interest that seemed a bit fake, but the portray of friendship and the conflicts of loyalty sounded quite right.

The concept of “repoussoir”, or “beauty foil” is such an unusual idea, although the underlying themes of inner vs. outer beauty, of the pressures of conventions on beauty, are rather common in YA. The ending tied too many bows for my taste (which made it implausible) but I guess this is part of YA conventions. I really liked that the book made Maude not exactly likeable, but oh-so-relatable, when she felt so much self-loathing about her own appearance and yet compared herself to other repoussoirs, hoping that she would look less ugly than them.

I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the themes, because the cover art had led me to expect soapy romance. Yes, I get that the girl beside the Eiffel tower has no face, but this cover art is on par with so many historical romance novels covers, isn’t it?

 

The One with the Strong-Willed Homesteader 

Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Letters of a Woman Homesteader (1914)

I know you can’t tell, but the setting has changed dramatically between the time I started and finished this book, as we’ve moved. But don’t misunderstand, we’re still close to Paris and the move (conclusion of a 6 months real-estate affair) is just a 20 miles transfer to suburbia. Nothing really comparable to the experience of this Woman Homesteader: her daring adventures made our endeavors very small and easy in comparison.

Talking about settling down in a new environment, here’s one female writer who has a pretty hands-on knowledge about it. Elinore Pruitt Stewart decided almost on a whim (at least, that’s what she tells us) to take a job in Wyoming in a ranch. A widow and single mother working in the city (she was a housekeeper), she wasn’t afraid to leave it behind and start anew in what many people say a man’s world. The book is made of (very much edited, I’m sure) letters she sent to a friend back in town from 1909 to 1913. These letters are full of little stories, but the author’s point throughout is to convince the reader that homesteading is completely feasible for women (single ones especially) and that the life she chose would be a better option than remaining in the city and working for a meager salary.

It’s a fun and easy read, a bit like an adult Little House in the Prairie, which I adored as a child. There’s hard work for sure, but the author kind of glazes over hardships so that every anecdote and letter has a happy ending. The author is such a positive Pollyanna that I (the naturally critical and grumbling French) could not help but wonder what she held back. She married her employer but he doesn’t appear much in the letters. She had a daughter from her first marriage, but she doesn’t speak about getting her to school or giving her any formal education: the girl just kind of tags along in her mother’s adventure. She hardly ever speaks of being lonely, afraid or even doubtful. She seems to value independence and hard work above all, but then you realize that she didn’t really make it alone, as she got married a mere 6 weeks after arriving into her job, making a convenience marriage rather than a love marriage. (see a very interesting article on Jstor on the discrepancies between what she writes and what really happened: Single Women Homesteaders: The Perplexing Case of Elinore Pruitt Stewart, by Sherry L. Smith, Western Historical Quarterly 1991)

Far from convincing me that homesteading was an enviable career for any woman, the book highlighted to me how exceptional Elinore was (we’re on first name basis) and the need for comfort and convenience and community that many people choose over the freedom and risk of such an adventurous life.

The One Onboard the Trans-Siberian Railway

Maylis de Kerangal, Tangente vers l’Est (French 2012)

I was determined, for once, not to let years pass before I took another Kerangal novel. After all, if I declare my love and admiration for her work, her books should bump many others on my TBR list, shouldn’t they? So when I saw this short book at the library, I jumped on it and finished it in (almost) one sitting, which is awfully rare for me.

It’s more of a novella than a novel anyway, but I was immediately sucked into Kerangal’s special style, her long sentences and inventive choice of words. The setting of the story is the Trans-Siberian Railway, this famous train line that connects Moscow to Siberia by way of Lake Baikal and many small cities in Far-Eastern Russia. The train is really a main character: we hardly leave it from page one to the end of the line, with its slow pace, days of boredom for passengers who travel for a whole week, its iconic samovar for hot water, its nasty toilets, its stops in stations where peddlers try to sell food to the passengers. Kerangal actually made the trip herself and the book was created from her experience.

As I lived in Asia, the Trans-Siberian Railway exerted its magic aura on many expats. Some French expats with no pressing business to attend to chose to return home after their stint in Asia by taking the Beijing-to-Moscow Trans-Mandchurian Railway, a variation of the Trans-Siberian. I envied them, but I’m not sure I would have been patient enough to make such a long and slow trip.

In the novella, two unlikely people meet by chance in the train. A French woman has just left her Russian lover and runs away from him, taking the opportunity to reflect on their relationship and the reasons why she came to Russia with him. A young man, almost a boy, is a conscript and the train is taking him to his military base, but he doesn’t want to go and tries to desert. Their chance encounter will impact both lives and brings a real tension in the book (I won’t spoil it here, but I hope it gets translated into English!)

Kerangal’s style is really addictive, and I can’t wait to start another one!

The One with the Cold Case Cold Beauty

Lissa Marie Redmond, A Cold Day in Hell (to be published Feb. 2018)

I found this title on Netgalley and it perfectly fitted my circumstances: I wanted a no-brainer, no-nonsense police procedural to keep me entertained while filling up boxes (96 in total, but who’s counting, right?).

Lissa Marie Redmond is a recently retired homicide detective of the Buffalo (NY) Police Department: although I don’t know much more about her, I believe from the plot minutiae and cast of characters that she has evidently applied the motto: “write what you know”.

The novel’s main character, Lauren Riley, is a 40-something sensible (yet beautiful!) female police detective in the Cold case unit of the Buffalo Police Department. She usually investigates in the D.A. team, but this time she moonlights as a private investigator on the defense side, because the lawyer has somehow convinced her to meet with the accused and that she could not believe him to be guilty. A high-school student with no previous rap sheet is accused to have strangled a wealthy woman in her car after having had sex with her, but Lauren is unconvinced.

The book read easily and it was quite entertaining, because there are many interesting people to meet. Lauren’s sidekick investigator in the office is the one I liked best, because I got a real feeling of camaraderie, office banter and the general highs and lows of the cold case investigations. But there are also Lauren’s ex-husband, who is cute and charming (but a cheat at heart?), the father of her daughters (not the same guy, this one abusive and stupid), the boss, the D.A., etc. You can tell that Redmond is building the setting for a whole series here, so it’s nice that we get all this background information, even if some stories are clearly left open at the end of this book.

The problem I had with the book is that I wasn’t really surprised by anything. It was good to remind me that trials and investigations take months in reality and don’t have necessary an ideal, clean-cut result, but I wish there would have been a quicker pace and more thrilling revelations.

Also, I don’t get the title and find it rather bland. There’s no real hell in this story, and there are so many other books with the same title. The cover art is also very nondescript and I think the book would deserve a better package. But these reservations weren’t serious enough to spoil the experience and I would be glad to follow Lauren Riley’s next adventures.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

Inventory: a Bullet Point Post

I’m I was in full moving mode right now last weekend as I wrote this post:

I’m not sure I can write a proper box post instead of filling yet another box, but it’s nice to take a break. I’m not quite sure how long our internet connection will be working, so here’s a little bookish inventory:

  • Books I have set aside for the moment: David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day. Some stories made me laugh hysterically, but I’m usually pretty bad with foreign humor and I’m not in the mood for satire and self-parody right now. But I’ll return to it as soon as the summer is over, because reading a few pages at a time feels refreshing.
  • Books I need to review here for about… three or four months? I can’t seem to be able to sit down and write about Black House and Lewis Man by Peter May. Why? No reason at all. They’re great and entertaining. Perhaps you’ll know about them whenever I’ll finish the trilogy (with The Chessmen)
  • Books in paper that lay around here: less than 10 as of tonight for the whole flat. Sigh… Therefore…
  • Last minute bookish impulse purchase on Kindle: 3 – as if I was anywhere near deprivation, I stocked up on free Kindle classics in the form of two Balzac novellas, and I was grateful (for once) that Amazon had my credit card number stored as I bought a Michael Connelly’s thriller with defense lawyer Mickey Haller teamed up with Harry Bosch in The Crossing.
  • Last minute impulse download from Netgalley: 2 – A Cold Day in Hell by Lissa Marie Redmond and Mask of Innocence by Marion Shepherd, because I need some comfort read. Classic police procedural and a historical fiction seem to tick all the boxes (sorry for the pun)
  • Books in my Kindle that I have started: 5 – A Cold Day in Hell, out of curiosity, then a Balzac, called A Historical Mystery and I have 3 others: The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau; a short story collection by Chekhov, and Letters of a Woman Homesteader, by Elinore Pruitt Stewart. From Russia to France, from Wyoming to Buffalo, New York (I had to check where it is exactly), from the French revolution to the present time!

Edited to Add: The move went smoothly and we are settling down into our new home. You’ll be relieved to learn that I’ve been reunited with my tons of precious paper books (otherwise my Kindle would have exploded soon). As you can see, the internet got fairly quickly reconnected too. More soon!

Six Degrees of Separation: July

I had so much fun last month, so I’m taking a few moments off from filling up boxes to think about book titles (always better than wasting time on Instagram or Pinterest, right?). 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.

866451-HangingRockThis month’s pick is Picnic at Hanging Rock, a Joan Lindsay novel set in Australia, in a stifling all girls’ boarding school. (Unless last month’s novel which I didn’t know at all) I read the novel and saw the movie waaay too early as a teenager, and it was very striking and memorable to my young self. I remember the frilly dresses (completely inappropriate for the rocky wilderness) and the heated atmosphere. I have a thing for novels set in boarding school and so I thought of…

76817-LittlePrincess1. Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the first novel I read about boarding school. The Japanese anime series was totally addictive when I was a kid, and I reread many times the book. Another gloomy view of boarding school that marked me as a teenager was of course…

10210-JaneEyre2. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, that starts with some memorable chapters set in Lowood charity school. Jane’s indomitable character, both unflinching and idealist, made me think of another girl on the cusp of adulthood, but seen this time from a cynical, satirical point of view:

581559-CharlotteSimmons3. Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but Charlotte Simmons is portrayed as a naive, idealist, pure girl from a small-town highschool entering an elite university, and I can’t help but think that Jane Eyre, if not for her Victorian moral backbone, could easily have turned out into a Charlotte Simmons. At any case, that was exactly what Jane was determined not to become.

9844-Prep4. Another outsider thrown into a cut-throat school environment is Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. I read it a few years ago, back to back with Charlotte Simmons, and I must confess my memory is a bit hazy. It’s set in a boarding school so we definitely stay in the same setting. Still I remember loving more…

6185835-AmericanWife5. American Wife, by the same author Curtis Sittenfeld, on a banal, bookish, rather conventional Midwestern middle-class girl who ends up marrying the future President of the United States (not Trump, obviously, but a fictional Bush). I remember liking this soft-spoken main character who teaches elementary school and works as a school librarian a lot. The presidential train of thought was a tough one to follow, so the best association for this book would be…

11806495-SummerWithoutMen6- A Summer without Men, by Siri Hustvedt, for the recurrent setting in the Midwest. Many books by Hustvedt reference her native Minnesota, but I chose this one because, well, an all-female cast of characters was a nice allusion to Hanging Rocks’ school, and the main character in this novel also teaches girls during the summer.

From Australia, to London, to Yorkshire, to New York and the Midwest, hopping from one girls school to the next, I have somehow come full circle, haven’t I?

Unfinished Business: the Self-Help Edition

It’s probably not the right time for me to read books on how to have a more balanced life, right in the middle of a house move. While I certainly need more balance in my life right now, it’s just that I can’t really pack my life’s belongings and unpack my deep thoughts and life goals in the same month.

In that spirit I decided that two books I tried in that realm weren’t probably going to make the cut and get packed with the other books. They were definitely going to find themselves other owners (I put them on the donation shelves at my workplace), and if I’m not mistaken they have found them already, as they were not on the shelf last time I passed by.

I hope that Samantha Ettus‘ book, The Pie Life has found a working woman with kids as its new owner, because the book is more for her, although Ettus claims it’s for everyone. The principle is very easy to understand: that life is very diverse and can be compared to a pie, whose slices are each very different and all taste delicious. She advocates going from one slice to the next without guilt. She is obviously a very ambitious, very driven woman and it will appeal to women who are aiming for a career equally or more successful than their partner. Although I am a full-time working mother, I didn’t resonate much with the book, probably because I have never felt any guilt about working and in France and especially in Paris this is totally normal. I believe American working mothers face a lot more criticism and feel more torn and guilty, in which case the book should help. I also didn’t resonate with the book because my career isn’t my priority at the moment.

I hope that Christine Carter‘s book, The Sweet Spot, will find an active, outspoken, laid-back, extrovert owner. I have followed Christine Carter’s newsletter and blog for a while, and I must say that I didn’t enjoy the change of format and pace. What works in short paragraphs and daily bursts of energy is too much for me when it comes in long chapters. Christine Carter introduces happiness concepts with lots of scientific backup, which is nice, but the main ideas are a bit similar to those in The Happiness Project or other that are easily found online. I must say that Christine Carter comes too much like an extrovert for my own taste, and many tips she gives are based on her personal life, which is hardly applicable to my own case. Overall still, I liked it better than the Ettus book, because she had a more laid-back approach.