The One with the German Girl who Looked the Other Way

Barbara Yelin, Irmina (German 2014, US English edition 2017)

Goodreads tells me that I’ve had Irmina on my TBR list since March 2015, when I heard about its publication in French. I’m nothing if not consistent and the title immediately caught my eyes when I saw it among standalone graphic novels at our new library.

Irmina is an ambitious young woman who wants to be free, make her own money and earn enough to be comfortable and respected and generally choose her own life. She has chosen to study at a typist school in London in order to become a translator. She comes from a good family but the money has mostly gone to fund her brothers’ studies. The only problem is that Irmina is 18 in 1934 in Nazi Germany.

The first part of the book is set in London where Irmina studies. She bristles at the prejudices that British people have against Germans, against foreigners in general, and forms an unlikely friendship with a West Indies black young man who is as ambitious as she is, as serious as she is. Their friendship turns into (almost?) love, but the practicalities of their precarious situations (no money, exams, no accommodation) keep throwing obstacles at them. Irmina returns to Nazi Germany, hoping to be back later, only to find out that it’s less and less possible.

The book is impossibly tragic. We see doors closing one after the other on Irmina’s dreams, and herself becoming a hardened, embittered version of her younger self.  The design itself becomes darker and darker. Because she is so ambitious and self-centered and wants to achieve some degree of material comfort, she gets herself into a marriage with a SS and into further compromises that change her and her life more and more. She closes her eyes on what happens around her, because what first is a question of comfort becomes a question of survival. She is not really a nazi (or is she?), she is not really a feminist (but she has dreams of her own), she’s trapped yet she’s not innocent, and the question of her guilt and her responsibility is left completely up to the reader. So many times we get to turn the pages backwards to try and see what else she could have done.

What makes it even more gut-wrenching is that Irmina is inspired by the true story of the author, Barbara Yelin’s own grandmother. The story doesn’t stop in  1945 but in the 1980s when Irmina gets to reconnect with her West Indies friend of a lifetime ago.

It’s so fascinating to see middle-aged Germans revisit the lives of their relatives under the Nazi regime and to present a balanced view of their responsibility in letting the Nazis take over and commit their crimes. It’s not a fun book but it is a very timely book when people wonder what it exactly means to stand up for their values.

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The One about the Ceylan Cruise Liner

Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (2011)

I know this will sound silly, but I was attracted to this book because I love browsing through the “O” shelf. The shelf is short and very diverse, and at the library I volunteer it’s right next to the lending desk. Therefore, Michael Ondaatje, of The English Patient’s fame.

The Cat’s Table is nothing like the English Patient, but the tone is equally kind and luminous (as far as I can remember, because I read it in pre-blog times). It’s a novel, but the narrator is an adult named Michael who travelled as a child, alone, from (then) Ceylan (now Sri Lanka) to Great Britain in the 1950s aboard one of those big liners who took three weeks to cross the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. And guess what? Michael Ondaatje also did this trip as a boy.

I guess it can be classified as a bildungsroman because Michael experiences the world and grows up during these three weeks. He gets to meet very diverse people and to make his own judgment of them (wrong or right) independently from what the adults would say. We also get a glimpse of the adult Michael has become, what his life has been so far and how his whole life has been influenced, in big and small ways, by this trip. We see the freedom of plays and pranks that Michael and his two friends Cassius and Ramadhin engage into every day, and we see the inscrutable world of the adults, full of allusions and mysteries that the boys do not comprehend yet.

The boat is a capsule world in between colorful Ceylan and grey Britain, a world between his father and his mother (who are divorced), and he doesn’t know what to expect. Time is suspended. He vaguely understands the meaning of exile and that he will encounter difficulties and racism later but at this point of his journey he has no clear comprehension, which makes his later allusions to growing up as an immigrant even more gut-wrenching.

There’s a fine line in the book between breathtaking (albeit mindlessly childish) adventures, dreamlike visions of exploring the boat, nostalgia of his lost childhood and sadness and tragedy. It’s a book to savor slowly (which is a difficult pace for me in this season) and not to rush through. I must say I didn’t understand everything what happened to every passenger, so if you need all the i’s to dot and t’s to cross in stories it might be a problem, but personally I enjoyed the atmosphere nonetheless.

The One with the Accident of the Train Across the Lake at Midnight

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)

Marilynne Robinson is one of these writers I have always been afraid of. Every time she’s mentioned, people speak about The Great American Novel, and I’m always convinced I won’t “get” it, and only Americans can “get” them. Another of these writers is Annie Dillard. I have started numerous times Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and never went beyond page 10. One day I’ll come back to it, I know, so many people have told me that I am missing out, but… intimidated I am.

I borrowed Housekeeping from our new library (more on that later!), and quite frankly I mistook it for Home, of which I had heard raving reviews from people who don’t only read highbrow books (I honestly don’t remember who especially). I didn’t know that Housekeeping was her first novel. I didn’t know what it was about. I didn’t know it had been published in 1980. In Modern Mrs. Darcy website, My name is Lucy Barton was recommended for people who love Marilynne Robinson, so why not try it the other way round ?

The first sentence made me pause, so pregnant it is with hidden messages :

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.

Wow. This packs so much into one single sentence. The orphans (why? how?), the absence of men, the family relationships, the formality and distances of Mrs., Misses, the conservatism (naming one’s daughter like the mother), the mystery of “when they fled”. I was hooked, and no longer intimidated!

The style is everything in this book. There are images that will stay with you for a long time, like that of a train that crashes into the cold lake, lost forever with the narrator’s grandfather in it. The pace is slow and nothing seems to happen, yet a lot goes on beneath the surface. I could never tell when the story is supposed to be set, or where it’s supposed to be. It could be in an imaginary place of fairy tales, but not the Disney version, the dark and sad ones, like Grimm or Andersen. It also reminded me of the melancholy witches of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the end of the lane.

The story is told by Ruth, and Ruth is all about her family’s past, and everything she says assumes a dreamlike quality. The writing is both simple and powerful, a bit like the Bible, so that everything happens feels like a myth or a metaphor.

At times the timeless story hit some hard places, especially when it incorporated some elements of reality, of normalcy. In particular, when Ruth’s sister Lucille decided to not follow Ruth and their quirky aunt Sylvie anymore, and when she decided to go to school and dress like a teenager and do what teenagers typically do; i.e. to conform and fit in, instead of staying on the margins of the town. When the village authorities showed up at Sylvia’s doorsteps trying to make her realize that Ruth had to lead a normal life and go to school. It was a hard landing from the dream to the reality for me, because deep down, I didn’t really “get” them and would rather identify with Lucille than with Ruth and Sylvie.

Still, the heartbreaking ending reconciled me with the whole novel when Ruth and Sylvie leave the village behind in a powerful scene and drift away across the country, hoping to find Lucille in Boston one day.

The One with Miss Marple’s Yankee Grandma

Anna Katharine Green, The Affair Next Door (1897)

Alright, this blog post is so long overdue it’s starting to be ridiculous. I can’t even remember when I read this book, but I’m pretty sure I was living in another house and wearing T-shirts: somewhere during spring (I mean this year, still).

My memory is fuzzy now, but I think it’s Danielle who mentioned a while back Girlebooks, a site with a lot of well-edited free ebooks. How could I resist? I loaded up on Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels, on Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s homesteading memoir, but then I was tempted by one of these old school mysteries, The Affair Next Door. I’ve tried the site again today, but there seems to be a problem with it now. Yet it’s not difficult to find a copy of this book elsewhere, it’s in the free domain.

While perusing through the oldies, I took a wrong turn. The name of Anna Katharine Green vaguely spoke to me. It reminded me of some classic sleuth story I’d read years ago. I thought she was the author of the Circular Staircase, a whodunit that had its fair share of implausibilities, but still readable and entertaining. Had I properly checked my own blog (insert eye roll here), I would have known that The Circular Staircase had been written by Mary Roberts Rinehart, while the one I read by Anna Katharine Green was the investigations of Violet Strange, which I had not really enjoyed.

Sometimes being wrong has its advantages, since I started the book with a positive prejudice, not the memory of the insufferable debutante that made me roll my eyes so much I’d got a headache. Instead, I discovered a nosy, busybody spinster with a high opinion of herself, who still managed to help the police with a complicated mystery involving a woman crushed under a bookshelf in an empty house.

Miss Amelia Butterworth could be the grandmother of Miss Jane Marple, but she’s not as cute and  likeable. She’s not your typical mousy grandma with her needlework, she’s a pompous, self-important old woman whose neighbors actively avoid her (shouldn’t it tell you something about her?). She has moments of doubts but most of the time she’s annoyingly proud of her sleuthing talents. Which are okay, but nothing spectacular. I mean, she still needs a real man to solve this mystery, ahem (Anna Katherine Green was probably progressive for her time, but not too much ahead of it). It’s 1897 after all, but if you’re annoyed by patronizing remarks coming from men, you should definitely pass.

I’m very sure that if Miss Amelia Butterworth was living next door I would avoid her too, but as a  fictional character she’s fun, because the writer treats her with kind irony. The mystery holds up and the pace isn’t slack. In terms of literary history, Anna Katherine Greene is born in 1846, which puts her one and half generation older than Agatha Christie. It’s possible that Christie read Greene’s mysteries and was influenced by it, although I don’t know if she would have cared about American novels.

Unfinished Business

Marion Shepherd, Mask of Innocence (2017)

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000)

The DNF pile is by definition a mixed bag. Even if I try hard to find something, anything, there is absolutely nothing to link Mask of Innocence with David Sedaris’ short story collection, except for the fact that I didn’t finish either of these two books.

Actually I stopped trying to read these two books somewhere during the summer, but I kept some illusions to finish the Sedaris collection until recently. Until I was stuck in the middle and a gentle reader suggested I filed bankruptcy on some of my huge pile. I only post about them both together because I didn’t want to single the Mask of Innocence out. (There was an interesting discussion over at Café Society recently about what to do when one does not exactly love a book… I definitely choose to review, as is the case today)

This one was a poor choice on my side, and my excuse for it would be the great cover photo (who wouldn’t be interested to know more about this mysterious, glamorous red-head? confession: I’m a red-head myself). The novel’s subtitle promised “love, lust, loyalty and deception”, and it did deliver some, but I was annoyed by the lack of clear historical setting. We never learn exactly when the book is supposed to take place, and it’s probably just as well, because historical accuracy is neither here nor there. The main character, Francesca Merchant, lives in the big house in the Cotswolds. People ride horses, maids do curtsies a lot, mysterious events in the evening are lit by candles, but characters speak and react as 21st century people, and that grated on my nerves. I read 25% of it and then skimmed through the rest. There were twists and turns galore, but the whole adventure was not for me.

As for the Sedaris, it started great and it somehow petered out after a third of the book. There were days I could relate to the zany, dysfunctional family character Sedaris paints, but I discovered that it takes a particular mood to fit a Sedaris story. When I feel great and snarky and confident, I laugh out loud. When I feel less than great and tender and shaky, I don’t see the humor in it and sometimes it feels mean and/or pathetic. But it’s probably me.

That said, the stories about France are great and many expats will probably relate. I hope I will return to this collection one day when I feel in the right mood.

The One with Fake DVDs in Beijing

Xu Zechen, Running Through Beijing (2008)

I borrowed this book from the library because it had been so long since I read a contemporary Chinese novel. It was the first one I found, and I must say the choice was serendipitous. It was really fresh and true to my memory of living in Beijing in the early 2000s.

The French cover attracted me in the first place, it was one of those ubiquitous old walls covered with mostly handwritten ads, that lure poor people and fresh immigrants into all sorts of scams: job offers for menial, dangerous, illegal jobs, dormitory beds in cellars, rooms to rent by the hour (with or without the service of a prostitute included), fake papers, fake certificates, contraband goods “fallen off the truck”. I have made pictures of these walls myself, because the accumulation of torn, rain-soaked papers with calligraphy and just a few words and a mobile phone number are pretty aesthetic, and whole stories go untold in a few spare words, just like Hemingway devised a tragedy with the famous six words about baby shoes.

The novel is set in a particular neighborhood of Beijing, in Zhongguancun (it’s in the original title  跑步穿过中关村), which wasn’t where I exactly live although I went there sometimes. Zhongguancun is the university district, and the novel’s characters are all in the early 20s. They are mostly lonely, adrift, far from their hometown and they want to make it in the capital and not have to come back penniless home.

As the book starts, the hero Dunhuang sets foot out of prison where he stayed for the previous 3 months for selling counterfeit ID papers. His best mate and mentor in the trade, Baoding, has not yet been released. With just a few bucks in his pockets, Dunhuang drifts through the city and meets a girl who sells pirated DVDs.

You may think it’s hard to root for small-time crooks, but Xu shows their hopes, their struggles and their humanity. He never judges them harshly, even if they don’t always play fair, when they lie and curse. I loved the energy of the characters, especially in the scenes where Dunhuang discovers that he can run across the city to deliver his pirated DVDs to his customers, instead of relying on the clogged roads full of cars and bus or on easy-to-steal bikes. Running through the city is a powerful, unusual image, because nobody does that (highlighting how much of an outsider Dunhuang still is). The city is so polluted that people don’t do intense sports outside except for old people who do slow gymnastics. It’s often too hot or too cold to run, and I suspect that Chinese people don’t like running. Anyway, I have not witnessed anybody running through Beijing.

I read this book in French, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the English translator of this novel is Eric Abrahamsen, whom I briefly met in the early 2000s in the then Beijing writing group. The language of the book is slangy and popular and full of accent (not the least the fake Beijing accent that provincial immigrants take on to appear more local). It is way cheaper than a flight ticket to Beijing and it is so completely real.

The One with the Family Secrets in Pink and Lilac

Camille Jourdy, Juliette (French 2016)

Oh, how big a difference one day makes! When I started to read this graphic novel I was stressed out by some ongoing renovation project and I was annoyed by the main character of the book, an anxious, meek, slightly depressed, slightly aimless young woman named Juliette, who takes a break from her life and job in Paris to rest for a while in her family.

I was annoyed by the naive design of this graphic novel, all in pink, lilac, pastel tones. I feared it would be too schmaltzy, a real tear-jerker. I was innerly boiling at her passivity. Get a grip, girl! Stop your idle navel gazing! You can’t possibly have a good reason to be so anxious! In brief, I was being stupid, because if Juliette had been real, none of what I’d say would have put her out of her funk. Existential crisis doesn’t solve itself in minutes with a bullet-point epiphany over lunch.

The next day, the renovation was going well, and I was in a better mood for Juliette. Yes, she’s the meek one, but what a family! She has a big sister, Marylou, who works cleaning and caring for elderly people. She is a strong, big woman who takes care of all matters in her family, but secretly she has a lover. Juliette’s and Marylou’s parents are divorced and don’t get on with each other whenever they get together.

Short daily scenes full of humor or sadness show the tiny dramas, struggles, and quests for love and happiness. We never know exactly why Juliette has come back, but we still get to empathize with her, her friend and her whole family. She is slightly hypochondriac, clearly highly sensitive, and she’s not the dynamic super heroine à la Wonder Woman but after a few pages I had totally forgotten how annoyed I had been!

It’s a quiet, melancholy book, with no big tension but true big questions hidden behind the small details, the few words and the poetic tone. Who plays what role in a family and can one change? How do you position yourself with adult, ageing parents? What can you do with family secrets? The story is left open-ended but I liked it that way.

Camille Jourdy is the author of another graphic trilogy, Rosalie Blum, that has been made into a movie this year. I haven’t seen it, but she reminds me of Malika Ferdjoukh Four Sisters graphic novel series.

The One with Shakespeare in 6th Grade

Tracy Chevalier, Black Boy (2017)

With some determination and patience, I have come out of the Middles… by finishing some books, and dropping others (the short story collections, which I may always come back to anyway). And because I don’t want to forget my train of thoughts, I’m skipping over a dozen of book reviews to address the question: was Tracy Chevalier right to transpose Othello to an elementary school?

To be frank, I was rather unconvinced. Yes, it was a daring move. Othello is Osei Kokote, a diplomat’s son from Ghana, arriving in an all-white elementary school of D.C. (in the 1970s). He’s in 6th grade, which makes him 11 years old. Desdemona is Dee, a blond angel and teacher’s pet who is loved and admired all around the playground. The whole tragedy unfolds within a day, from first bell to recess to lunch to after-school. I found myself torn between two different attitudes:

If you start this book knowing it’s a retelling, it becomes rather obvious and the pieces of the tragedy click together without much surprise. You appreciate the subtle nods to Shakespeare here and there, but you’re just here for the performance, not really for the story itself.

If you don’t know about Othello, then the story seems a bit weird. I don’t quite believe that  11-year-olds are able of such passion and manipulation within such a short period of time. They don’t sound like kids that age, but rather maybe 15 or more? I couldn’t help but check repetitively what age are 6th graders in the US, because I couldn’t really place the characters’ thoughts and feelings and actions with their supposed age (especially as I have a 9 almost 10-year-old at home). Osei’s reactions to Iago (sorry, Ian) lies and manipulations are a bit implausible because he’s the son of a diplomat and has had many experiences of changing schools and meetings new (and probably equally prejudiced) classmates.

I was in the middle, because my knowledge of Othello is shaky at best. I appreciated the force of the tragedy and the race aspect that Tracy Chevalier chose to highlight. Osei is the new boy in school, but he’s also the only black boy, and the way teachers and kids react is so cruel and racist, that it is the real trigger of the tragedy, rather than jealousy.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

The One with the  Body in the Gallery

Judith Flanders, A Bed of Scorpions (2015)

Arrgh, this is the second time that a post draft disappears from my phone’s WordPress app. This is the evil punishment that WordPress engineers have come up for people like me who start so many blog posts and never finish them. They know that I bow my head with shame and guilt and that I will never complain… After all, I have only started this book in… June… and finished it… within days.

Was it good? Oh yes, of course, it was good. But I’m no objective reviewer, because I love everything Judith Flanders writes about. (That’s why it took me so long to write this post!) When she wrote serious books, I immersed myself in the Victorian world she describes. And now that she writes cosy mysteries, I rejoice in the familiar characters and the witty banter. I’m sure that Flanders sneaks in a lot of realistic details in her plots, but to me it’s pure escapism.

Samantha Clair is a sensible, 40ish single woman working in publishing (and who has no illusion about this business), plagued with an overbearing (but supremely efficient) mother, but she also has a- a boyfriend in Scotland Yard, b- friendly neighbors and c- friends in contemporary art galleries. It’s hard not to feel for her (not that I identify with her particular situation, but…). I’d love to be friend with Samantha Clair, but she’s an introvert so she might turn down my invitation and stay home to read a good book. Anyway, when her friend’s partner in the gallery is found dead, she (unwittingly of course) meddles with the investigation.

She’s a classic mystery heroin, fun and plucky (although a little too self-deprecating for my taste), so opposite with the moping, over-anxious heroine from The Woman in Cabin 10. Now that I have checked that Judith Flanders wrote a third book in the series, I will quickly add that one to my reading queue!

The One with the Luxury Nordic Cruise

Ruth Ware, The Woman in Cabin 10 (2016)

Am I becoming a picky reader? (or: Should I consider that I’ve been a hidden picky reader all the time, and that I can no longer hide?). This book was so hyped up last year, that I expected a feast of thrills and doubts and hypothesis, along with twists and turns that I would never ever imagine.

Gone Girl on a Boat? I was so sold on that.

Instead of which, meh. The main character share some similarity with those of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train: unlikeable and unreliable. Is that becoming a trademark? Where did all the nice, feisty, reliable main characters disappear? (Did anyone from marketing throw them overboard? eh, eh…)

Instead of being alcoholic and traveling by train, the narrator (Lo, a nickname for Laura) travels on a luxury boat and has deep anxiety (she’s on medication for it), heightened by a recent burglary in her home (while she was there). The scene was realist enough, frightening enough, and I should have felt sorry for her, but instead she grated on my nerves the wrong way.

She was rather weak and dull, and after the intense moments of the burglary and of the scene she witnesses on the boat, the investigation itself is rather slow and boring. The locked-room configuration (à la Agatha Christie) had lots of potential but it was not really satisfying, especially as things moved towards the implausible at the end. I was waiting for a twist, … a tiny, confusing one came on the last page but it was too late for me.