The One with Proper Nostalgia

Patrick Modiano, L’Herbe des Nuits (2012 French / The Black Notebook, Eng. 2016)

Allow me to wax nostalgic for a second (or two), because as I am writing this post, WordPress just reminded me that today is my tenth blogiversary! I can’t believe I have been doing this for a decade, can you? (Dear husband, always the optimist, believed it was for longer than that). I don’t remember how we did before Google, but I am starting to not remember how I did before I had this blog!

It’s quite fitting to the occasion, actually, that I was about to post about Modiano, because he is all about memory, looking back at the past to understand new meanings or distort the actual facts. His tone is definitely nostalgic – and I’m starting to get the hang of it.

I didn’t have a great experience with the first Modiano, So you don’t get lost in the neighborhood, but this one was already a lot better, although one may say that it was sort of similar.

This time, a mature writer, Jean, revisits an old notebook he kept as a student, back when he was scribbling away in notebooks, unpublished yet and dating a girl named Dannie. She is a charming, mysterious girl and holds the young man under her spell, even if he guesses that there is a lot more to her than what she lets on. They spend time in bars, meet shady characters, go to places that aren’t Dannie’s but for whom she nonetheless has the key. She has moments of guilt, of doubt, of desperation, but then she gathers her wits and carries on under Jean’s bewildered gaze. Dannie is not her real name, nor is she a real student, but still Jean can’t help but follow her across Paris, night after night, adoringly.

As the previous book the sense of place is prevalent. Characters are drifting like shadows, but real streets, real buildings, old neighborhoods of Paris that have undergone radical transformation between the 1960s and the present time (here especially Montparnasse) are all characters in the book. I love the poetic of the French title of this book, The Grass of Nights, although the English title is more precise. Modiano invites you to revisit the places you have been in your childhood and look for new meanings. I arrived in Paris in 1994, more than 20 years ago, close to Montparnasse, and certainly the city has imperceptibly changed (not so radically than Chinese cities, but still), giving the impression to stay the same while being slightly different. That’s within this tiny gap between what we remember and what really was that Modiano builds his stories that are both thin and deep.

The One with Cohorts of Chinese Serial Killers

Gang XueYin, A Devil’s Mind (English Oct. 2016)

It is quite understandable that China, having imported and adapted lots of Western concepts, would do the same for books, especially thrillers that are highly readable and quickly consumed. That is not to say that China doesn’t produce vastly original books of its own, but just to explain why I was curious to read a serial killer thriller with Chinese characteristics. Let’s say that I started out of intercultural curiosity, and that it is the sole reason that I finished this book.

Long gone is the day where writers didn’t write crime stories because crime supposedly didn’t exist in the Chinese proletarian workers’ paradise. From the several titles that Amazon Crossing has translated, I picked one at random because none seemed particularly set in a recognizable place. In that case, the main action is set in “J city of S province in southern China”, which is plain weird and highly frustrating for people like me who love settings. But I can understand. When touching with sensitive topics, Chinese writers protect themselves by making it crystal clear that it is fiction and that they don’t talk about any real bad, deviant, corrupt person.

The novel centers on Han Yin, a criminal profiler teaching within the Department of Criminal psychology at a police academy in northern China, but who, as the book opens, is asked to come and help the police team in J city. The local police has a dismembered victim that uncannily resembles a cold case of 1996: they fear that they might have a serial killer on the loose, and as the police takes a lot of flack from the public they request the analysis and assistance from professor Han Yin.

Now we all know that profilers in classic American serial killer novels are supremely intelligent and perceptive, but Han Yin is something else. Besides being handsome and charming, this guy only needs to look at a file and ask two questions before knowing who is lying and who is telling the truth. After visiting the crime scene, he often has a complete profile of the killer with age, occupation, childhood trauma, marital status, etc. You would say that with so much information it’s a shame the police isn’t capable to arrest the guy on the spot! Well, often enough they actually do! Beyond the case of the two dismembered victims, the book is littered with victims, gruesome crimes, and successful investigations. Wherever Han Yin goes, he finds a serial killer. I couldn’t decide if he was a clairvoyant or a walking disaster.

People who read this book but have never been to China will think that the country is most unsafe, but this rather over-the-top succession of crimes and resolutions is in my opinion the result of a faulty structure. The novel desperately needs some padding and some pacing, but since the author can’t put in any realist description of locations, any deep criticism of social problems (serial killers are ideal in that respect, they’re deviant and pervert due to their unique individual evil nature, not due to some wider issue), any deep introspection, then he fills the void with corpses. It becomes mechanical, and a bit ridiculous, if it weren’t so gruesome.

In short I do find the book terrible, but so terrible it becomes entertaining, at a meta level. By reading in between lines you can say that the book only confirms that lives of migrant workers are cheap and that if they disappear, nobody much cares, but that’s not really in the book. I can’t say I recommend it, but I don’t regret having read it.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for a honest review.

The Forgotten Trove

As days shorten and we spend more time indoors, I begin to go over our shelves and cupboards to see if we can get rid of unnecessary stuff before moving next year. It’s a long time before we do actually start packing, but selling stuff, finding the right recycling, donating and sorting out takes time, so I do it bit by bit, totally at odds with the whole Konmari philosophy.

From (no, it's not my home)

From (no, it’s not my home)

I had totally forgotten about one particular bookshelf, that holds treasures both read and un-read, and I should try to incorporate more of these un-read books into my queue rather than yielding to the temptations of the library. Here are some titles that held my attention:

  • Siri Hustvedt, the Sorrows of an American
  • Graham Greener,  the Quiet American
  • Ethan Canin, For kings and planets
  • Pawel Huelle, Rue Polanski (a Polish short story collection)
  • Three collections by Raymond Carver (I need to check which stories I already read)

Although I am guilty of buying books and letting them gather dust too, many of those unread books belong to my husband and so I have never even leafed them through. My husband has lots of books by Alison Lurie and Javier Marias and David Lodge. I remember loving Alison Lurie’s collection Women and Ghosts, but I don’t remember reading anything else, even the famous Foreign affairs (now I know that we own a French copy AND an English copy of this book, which seems a bit too much for a tiny Parisian apartment, don’t you agree?).

It would be awesome if (if only…) I could stick to the decision to read those books first and not go to the library and bring back others! Alas, I am running a library every Friday and I go to another one weekly with the kids, so I don’t really believe I can go cold turkey on libraries. Maybe I should take comfort in the thought that after moving, even if we find a place far away from a well-stocked library, I will still have all those titles available on a whim.

What would you read next from this treasure trove?

The Start of the Never End

It’s been a while since I was looking for a successor to Harry Potter. And I finally might have found one.

I didn’t look for myself, but for my son who is hooked (who am I kidding here? for my son and myself!). The deal for my son is that he has to read the book before he watches the movie, but I’m not sure it’s exactly an incentive, because he wants to read all of Harry Potter all the time. We started when he was 7, and I read aloud part of the book, letting him read a few pages during the day before I picked up the book again at bedtime. The second book of Harry Potter was for Christmas, and the third came with his 8th birthday in June. The book was finished midway into our trip to Scotland (bringing an anxious discussion about what should he read next, and what kind of French book for kids is available in Scotland – answer: none, so we tricked our way to downloading some titles on my Kindle!)

The road leading to the 4th tome of Harry Potter will be long, so I was looking for sagas and bestsellers appropriate for him, but then a few days ago, when I opened my internet browser at work, Google had a Doodle celebrating the 37th anniversary of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. I knew I was on to something big!


a pair of chubby little hands

Anyway, I just couldn’t wait for the next trip to the library, where I grabbed a copy of The Neverending Story, and I started reading it to my boys. It was an instant hit! Dragons, boys on a quest, creatures of all kinds and dimensions (my little one was fascinated by the tiny people who ride on racing snails and beat up the other delegations – clearly a personal fantasy of revenge).

We have been reading every night, and as I don’t know the story myself it’s also fun for me to discover new adventures (I don’t know where I was in the 1980s when the movie came out… mmh, I bet I was immersed into The Hobbit). We love it so much that, before returning the book to the library tomorrow, I had to buy the book (hardback no less, since the paperback is no longer available).

A few descriptions are a bit too long for the kids and the little one often interrupts to make sure he understands which character is good and which one is evil, but my 8-year-old is riveted. He clearly projects himself into Bastian and Atreju. We’re about one third into the book and it has done miracles to our evening routines so far.

Have you read it as a child or later? Do you remember the movie?


The One about the Legacy of Torn Lives

Sara Novic, Girl at War (English 2015)

I’m really glad of this opportunity to read Girl at War thanks to and the French publisher Fayard. Ever since the book was published in English I was curious of this book about a girl who spent her childhood in Yugoslavia, lost her parents during the war between Croatia and Serbia and was then adopted by American parents and raised as a typically American teenager.

Obviously there are many themes woven together in this story: war, trauma, grief, adoption, coming of age, cultural shock, guilt (and I won’t spill it all here), but I first came to this story because I could relate to Ana, the main character who is ten at the start of the Balkan war in 1991. I was in high school when the Balkan war broke off in 1991 and as a West European it was both shocking and senseless. We had been fed the “end of history” and universal reconciliation when the Berlin Wall had fallen two years before, and now people were killing each other on the doorsteps of the European Union. We had been brought up thinking Yugoslavia as a united country and ignoring ethnic differences and historical bad blood. Especially as a teenager, where all things are black and white, the messy war felt as if someone was taking the rug from under my feet and announced that my neighbors were very much likely to kill the people next door.

The war is seen through the eyes of Ana, a tomboyish ten-year-old Croatian from Zagreb. I like this childish perspective on events big and small, with its naivety and adaptability. Ana and her friend seem to take in their stride the sudden change of mood among adults, the food rationing and air raid alerts, the questions about ethnicity and the sudden leaving of men who are going to fight. They don’t get explanations from the adults, so it might be a bit difficult for a reader who would have not heard of the facts.

As a matter of fact, it might be a good idea to get a refresher on Wikipedia on Croatia during the Balkan war while one reads this novel, if only to clarify that Zagreb was not where the fighting was (it’s when Ana and her parents have to go to Sarajevo that things turn tragic), and that the role of Croatia in the later conflict was not completely pure. But you don’t need to know all that to feel for Ana, to understand her personal tragedy and to understand how her uprooting to the United States and her subsequent adoption by an all-American family could only be difficult.

We alternate between ten-year-old Ana and twenty something Ana who now is a brilliant student at NYU but suffers from (untreated) PTSD. Her friends and adoptive family don’t know much or anything about her past because it’s too foreign and too difficult, so she lies and fakes. At some point in the book she decides to travel back to her native Croatia to get answers – and get closure. That was another part of the book where I strongly related to Ana’s quest. We visited Croatia a few years ago, a country that is now a very touristic place for Europeans. It was an uncanny experience to realize that this beautiful place full of magnificent landscapes, beaches, historical landmarks was the same country that had suffered in the civil war. It seemed that people had put it all behind hoping to forget. No wonder that the book doesn’t tie all the plot lines neatly at the end with a bow, because there is no easy resolution for Ana.

Writing ‘016 : August Update

I didn’t write much during August, at  least not as much as I’d imagined considering I had long holidays. But those were a family vacation abroad, so whatever free time was spent with the kids discovering new places and new ways of living (fish and chips, anyone? I am seriously overdosed). Still, I can say that writing occupied much of my spare brain space.

I do find myself at a crossroads, and for the moment I am stalling without taking any big decision. The first big question is either writing in English or writing in my own language. Typically this month, I worked on the edits of a story as planned, which is written in English, but now I hesitate if I should rewrite it in my mother tongue. Assuming I could really make a decision, the next choice would be either trying to submit my stories somewhere or using this time to write some more (knowing that my time resources are limited and will stay that way for a while at least).

I received very encouraging feedback from friends on my story, and I have some clearer ideas about editing it (on the margins). Receiving feedback is something I’m not quite used to because a. I rarely finished stories before b. I hardly ever showed my stories to anyone but my husband who is very supportive but he won’t go into the nitty-gritty details that a fellow writer would enjoy. Hearing praises or criticism about this particular story feels a bit weird because I am done with it by now, as if it were someone else who had written it. It’s easier to cut sentences and review one’s own text more objectively in these circumstances, but it’s also harder to write new paragraphs into this story.

The question that comes next is often the most problematic for me: then, what do you want to do with it? I’m always like: well, was I supposed to do something? I always thought the point of it was to have fun writing, and submitting does not really count as fun. My dream isn’t really to have my name on a big book (or am I fooling myself here?) There is enough competition in my professional life already (and I’m sorry to say, in my parent life), I’m not sure I have it in me to push, and push harder, so that this story finds a magazine somewhere to get published. Yet, of course, I’d love that more people could read it.

The One in The Weird Maze of Hong Kong

Hon Lai Chu, The Kite Family (2015, Eng. 2016)

You can’t say I was lazy or fickle on this book. I tried hard, very hard. I had high hopes, because Hong Kong literature is not something that you often stumbled upon, and I have such fond memories of my years living there that I am often prejudiced in favor of any novel set in or written in Hong Kong. And this short story collection came with high credentials: it won the New Writer’s Novella first prize from Taiwan’s Unitas Literary Association and was named one of the Books of the Year by China Times in Taiwan.

Yet, I don’t do well with absurd. I don’t mind disturbing stories, I actually kind of enjoy magical realism, but I am a picky reader when it comes to surrealism. I just don’t get it, most of the times, unless I am able to care for the main characters.

I really enjoyed the book introduction by translator Andrea Lingenfelter, which highlighted some of the stories’ themes and allowed me to better understand some metaphorical meanings of the stories.

But still, few of them were really engaging to me. I had difficulties to relate to any character and to like them. One story’s main character is a guy that only finds his purpose in life as he becomes a chair. Another story features a family with a weird illness of obesity, to the point that the person will eat objects and that no room will be able to contain her body.

I was sorry to miss the point of most of these stories. Definitely this book is not for me, but probably will find other readers who are more tolerant with surrealism.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for offering me a copy in exchange for a honest review.

The one with CSI of the Song Dynasty

Antonio Garrido, The Corpse Reader (Orig. Spanish 2011, English 2013, French 2014)

This book is at times incredibly frustrating, at times very satisfying. It’s sold as a historical mystery, but I would argue that it creates its own subgenre as a crossover between a forensic procedural, heavy with scientific details and gore autopsy close-ups and a very complete manual of life in China Song Dynasty in the 12th century.

Think Kay Scarpetta, turn her into a man, into a Chinese man, make her wear a black silk bonnet, and throw her back to the Middle Ages to proceed to a postmortem autopsy. Without her fancy scientific instruments of course.

Still, there are many differences between this book’s main character and Kay Scarpetta. One of which is that the hero is probably the unluckiest man on earth at that period. Also Kay Scarpetta is likeable, whereas our hero is not really.

He’s a young man of 20, from a good, if not very wealthy family, and although he has studied medicine with a great master and is said to have a great intelligence and intuition, in everything but medicine he is so naive and stupid that you soon want to slap him. The first half of the book shows him getting more and more miserable as he loses his family, position, friends, money and dignity. He makes one stupid choice after another, and you can be sure that anyone he trusts at any time will betray him within a few hours or days. Even more frustrating, he doesn’t seem to learn from his errors. How can you then believe that he’s able to tell accurately the cause of death, thus earning himself the name of “corpse reader” and a reputation that will raise the emperor’s interest and make him an investigator to a very special and secret series of crimes committed close to the imperial palace?

If you don’t get too annoyed by the main character, the historical part of the book remains fascinating and well worth the read. Song dynasty in the 12th century was a period where China had a lot of threats but also a lot of creativity and artistic expression. Administration was very organized and it looked like quite a modern state. Garrido manages to bring this period alive and you almost can smell, feel, see what it was like back then (not all smells and sights were quite pleasant I’m afraid).

One last point: I was first drawn to this book by the French cover, that is a reproduction of a Song painting. But the English cover is totally unappealing to me and feels like a cheap B-movie from Hong Kong in the 1980s. I would never have picked up this book with the English cover! Would you?

The One where Hello Kitty Turns Angry

Risa Wataya, Kawaisoudane? (Japanese 2011) Pauvre Petite Chose (French 2015)

At first glance it’s a very light book, perhaps even a bit shallow. Julie is a Japanese young woman, employed at a department store selling luxury clothing, who is both ambitious and naive. When her boyfriend, a Japanese raised in the US, announces to her that his ex- is moving in with him, because she has no job and no money for the rent anymore, she raises her eyebrows but eventually comes round to it, because he assures that there’s nothing between them anymore, and that Westerners are cool with it.

She sure doesn’t like it, but she likes even less the prospect of rocking the boat because she loves him, or so she thinks. She doesn’t want him to think she’s uncool and a traditionally uptight, provincial Japanese girl, when he’s supposed to know the ways of the (Western) world. They each keep their own studio, but Julie still believe that he prefers her over his ex. Unless… Doubts and confusion gnaw at her until she can’t avoid confrontation anymore.

I thought I would finish reading within just a few hours, but in the middle of the novel I though “wow, it’s so clever!” and decided to slow down. Risa Wataya packs a lot within this short, short plot (142 pages). Economic uncertainty, job pressure, mindless sexist routines of female jobs, love disappointment, ambition and self-improvement at the cost of denying her own personality, self-doubt, broad cultural considerations brushed up with lots of humor.

Risa Wataya has received the Akutagawa prize when she was only 19, in 2003, and the Kenzaburo Oe prize for this very novel. While the main character is typically Japanese, the theme of the social pressure to conform is quite universal.

I don’t speak Japanese, but I saw that the original title Kawaisodane has been translated into different ideas that are slightly different. One is “isn’t she pitiful?”, which could equally refer to Julie or to the jobless ex-girlfriend. Another is “isn’t it a pity?”, and the French one is literally “Poor little thing”. In French depending on the tone the interpretation can range from pity to snarky to complete contempt. Another funny thing to contemplate is the difference between the French cover (where poor Julie is starting to find it not so funny anymore) and the original Japanese cover, where everything is just a cute (cutesy) world of girly fashion and flowers, the perfect world Julie aspires to.

Two Maigret for the Road

Georges Simenon, L’amie de Madame Maigret (1950 / Eng: Madame Maigret’s Own Case)
Georges Simenon, Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue (1950)

Coming back from holidays, I find my WordPress drawers accumulating dust and drafts. Quick, quick, I want to mention a few more books before the summer ends!

In June when I went to the writing retreat we were lucky to have a wonderful library at our disposal. They were second handbooks, old paperbacks and yellowed classics, but I found the crime shelf particularly inspiring.

I borrowed several Maigret mysteries because I wanted to study them rather than getting absorbed by the plot itself. After all, I’d come to write and not to read! Simenon may have been a not very nice person in life, but as a writer he’s certainly an impressive figure to behold. He wrote hundreds of novels and hundreds of stories, often completing a full draft of a novel within one week! He’s famous for his enormous production, but also for his very simple and straightforward style, very concise yet highly readable, and for fleshing out a character in just a few words, one sentence or two, enough to create a vivid image in the reader’s mind.

Researching this post I stumbled upon an article by Peter Foorde about the inaccurate translations of Simenon’stories into English, that demonstrated that in the 1930s and 1940s a certain amount of padding was added to Simenon’s texts because his style was deemed too simple.

How did he achieve this without characters being mere clichés? Taking random paragraphs of one novel was a very good exercise, as was the systematic comparison of first paragraphs for his short story collection “Maigret and the tail-less piglets”. I had watched the TV version of several of these stories and so the story became easily secondary compared to the characters and description. Not one word was wasted. Sometimes it is even terse, and it’s not particularly flattering for characters presented this way.

When the two books were finished, I was awed by Simenon’s craft. The stories were nuanced yet simple, the characters had depth yet were shown with few sentences. Simenon said that the most important piece of advice he received on writing was not to be literary. He sure isn’t, and yet his books are literature, not just commercial pulps.

What an inspiration! What a teacher!