The One to view hear loss under a new light

Cece Bell, El Deafo (2014)

I first heard of this graphic memoir through the podcast Longest Shortest Time and I was intrigued: the coming-of-age memoir of a girl who became deaf after a meningitis, translated into bunnies? Ahem, more specifically a super-hero bunny with a phonic ear apparatus plugged into her long floppy ears? I feared it might be super-sappy.

From just listening to the podcast I appreciated the purpose of the book, but I could only tell if it “worked” as a graphic novel by reading the book myself. Luckily enough it has very quickly been translated to French and I found it just a few weeks ago among the latest acquisitions at the library. In French, El Deafo has been translated into Super-Deaf. And it was awesome!

I decided to read this book along with my elder son, who is 8, because I thought it might be an interesting topic of conversation that we don’t usually cover in the family. After all, there is a deaf child in his school (who has a cochlear implant, as far as I know), but he’s not a friend of his. His grandparents have some degree of hear loss but he doesn’t know much about disability in general. I wondered how my 8-year-old would react, because I don’t know how I, as a 8-year-old, would have reacted to such a story.

First he was kind of proud that I would read the same book out of genuine interest (and not making him read a book that I’d enjoyed as a child). Then he was really worried by the illness that made Cece deaf. He wanted to know what it was and how anyone would get ill. I didn’t realize it would be scary for him! Then he was completely absorbed into the story and he liked it a lot. I wished he would express himself about his reading experience but I guess I’m expecting too much of an 8-year-old. He summed it up as “Cece’s life sucked a lot! First this sickness, then the ear thing, then his friend hurt her eye too! How unlucky she was!”. Strangely enough, the bunny translation, and the fact that she hides her phonic ear in overalls made my son unsure of Cece’s gender (he assumed she was a boy until a love interest developed during the early teenaged years).

I loved the experience of read-along and it was the perfect book for this! It really explains how hear loss impacts your life, but it is charming and positive and not gloomy at all.

The One with the Wrong Zip-Code

Olivier Norek, Code 93 (French 2014, not yet translated to English)

Ok, here is the challenge : I have 20 minutes before dinner time, do you think I can hit the Publish button with a whole post within this time frame? Perhaps, if I revive one of these half-finished drafts I have in my virtual drawer.

This book is definitely worth reviving a draft for. Actually, I’m a bit ashamed to post about it only now, since I read it at the end of… June (o.m.g!!) and was rather taken by it. But you know how it is. You’re 100% enthusiastic about a book and want the whole universe to discover this author, then days, weeks go by and you can’t quite put the finger on what made it so great.

Code 93 is a noir-cum-police procedural that deals with drug trafficking, seedy sex trafficking, thugs from the derelict housing estates around Paris, far from the nice neighborhoods and tourist places, but close enough that wealthy criminals and thugs at the bottom of the ladder occasionally cross. 93 is the zip code for this area, and believe me, everybody in France knows that it’s a badge of shame. Drivers with 93 on their license plate are insulted, job applications with address in the 93 are not considered seriously, the prejudice against 93 is real and causing deep injustices to the people who live there.

How did I come to pick up this particular book about this sad place? A conspiration, my friends. Not one nudge from the universe, not two, but three of them! After that, I could just pass it up.

The first one was a radio interview of writer Olivier Norek following his success at Lyon literary festival Quai du Polar. His voice was friendly, efficient, the kind of guy who knows what he’s talking about. Indeed, Olivier Norek was (or still is?) a police officer working in the toughest districts neighboring Paris. So you can’t deny the ring of authenticity that his novel has, which is all the more frightening as the crimes he writes about are not for the faint-hearted.

The second nudge came from Marina Sofia, who posted about this book in early June. Then I met her in real life and she praised the book once more, convincing me that I needed to check on it. The last nudge from the very persistent universe was to literally put the book into my hands when I had to shelve it at my workplace library. Duh!

The pace is impeccable, the main character, detective captain Victor Coste, is nice enough but complex enough to raise lasting interest (you can see it’s the first of a series) and the police office politics reminded me of the UK series “Scott & Bailey” or “No Offence” (with fewer female protagonists) both set in the difficult areas of Manchester. I’m not sure if anyone can make sense of the comparison between 93 and Manchester but you’ll get the feeling.

Very dark and gloomy. Compromises and corruption. Professionals trying to do their job in the worst circumstances. Amateurs of cosy crimes, this one is not for you, but for the others, Olivier Norek is someone to check out.

Writing ‘016: September Update

20160928_165121Oh my… When its already the eleventh of the month when you finally find the energy and time to review the previous month, doesn’t it tell you already all what you need to know? That’s a very accurate case of eleventh hour.

September was not all roses and red leaves (actually figs and dahlias, as we had a nice Indian summer here in Paris), it was just crammed with deadlines on the work front and many big and small adjustments on the home front, and all this left me precious little time to write.

It was hard to concentrate and focus on edits or on new creative endeavors, so I rather spent my precious minutes on the blog, not that you reader noticed much as I piled up drafts and never found time to edit, add pix and press that Publish button.

Hummm, my old demons of never finishing seem to rise up from the grave just in time for Halloween! Is it an incurable case of perfectionism or of exhausted foggy brain? Whatever the cause, I will just try to fight this terrible habit and publish this post tonight!

Danielle’s Stories – or, The 1000th

This is apparently my 1000th post to be published. How’s that for an old blog? It makes me feel as if I was actually sitting on a huge pile of dictionaries.

This milestone should probably warrant a very serious recap, but I’m kind of lazy, so I prefer talking to you about my latest reading adventure together with Danielle, that is both delightful and full of surprises.

During summer, Danielle and I started a mail exchange of short stories. We would send each other favorite stories and thus expand our reading experience. The added excitement of receiving actual mail in the letter box with stationery and stamps is delightfully old-school.

It’s been a fun exercise to try and find stories for someone who has read so widely already, not to mention that many short stories collection I own are in my mother tongue.  I am so glad Danielle had this idea, because I sometimes feel stuck in a rut with short story collections (I always return to beloved authors) and when someone picks a story for you in particular, you pay closer attention and it’s been awhile since I haven’t practiced close reading.

The first package I received, just in time before we left for Scotland, contained a short story by Rosamund Lehman and a short story by Ray Bradbury.

The Winter Dream by Rosamund Lehman is an atmospheric scene and a reminder that not all short stories need a big bang and a huge suspense to stand on their own.

Apparently not much happens in this story. A lady is in bed with the flu, her two kids are playing around in the garden, a man has come to destroy the bee nest that is right under the bedroom window. Does that make a story?

Underneath, there is a strong undercurrent of melancholy and doubt. Is it wrong to destroy the bee nest? Yes, the bees has stung guests and kids. But it was an exciting topic of conversation, a hope of a future bounty of honey, the constant humming and buzzing of life. The lady contemplates the destruction with sadness and ambivalence. Is it time to get rid of the bees? The gardener seems to think it too late, or maybe he likes to contest the lady’s order with his male expertise. Yet there’s a closeness without any flirtatious undercurrent, an understanding and respect between the sick woman and the old man, regardless of social status and gender. Also, we get to understand that it’s the war, but the tragedy of war stays in the shadows although all characters are aware that it will change everything forever.

The second story she sent me is The Playground by Ray Bradbury, which is great because I have only ever read Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 at school (a required reading) and I’d never have tried it on my own, being easily turned off by anything Martian. But this one story is set firmly on the ground (please forgive my bad puns), and if it goes anywhere it rather descends into hell than goes up into space.

Mr. Charles Underhill is a widower, he raises his son Jim with the help of his unmarried sister Carol. At 3, Jim has never entered the local playground. As a mother who came to the playground when my boys were just a few weeks old in the pram, i immediately thought “helicopter parenting” and was ready to judge Mr. Underhill harshly. But the playground in this story is not the benign place with safety-regulated slides and swings, soft ground to prevent bruises, a dozen of nannies looking out on the kids and ready to separate strifes before they go too far. No, the playground here is a jungle where evil deeds go unnoticed and unpunished. No adult supervision regulates the kids on the prowl. Mr. Underhill remembers that childhood isn’t an idyllic period, he knows about bullying, violence, and he’s ready for anything to spare this harsh realities to his own son. Carol, instead, insists that Jim should get on with it at an early age, so that he gets used to it and learns to stand his ground.

As a reader, as a mother, as a very rational person, I naturally tend to side with Carol, and rather doubt Mr. Underhill’s sanity. But what if he was right? What if it wasn’t just the sensitivity of a grieving father? And what if there was actually a way to spare his son?

The story is quite creepy. “Without Ray Bradbury there would be no Stephen King”, as the latter said, and I can see the parallel between them in the mix between suburban ordinariness and horror nearing the surface. Also the writing was very good.

In my first package I sent Danielle a story by Hillary Mantel (ahem, I’ve totally forgotten to post about this collection!) But if you want to start your own short story experiment, Danielle pointed out to a special event organized by Penguin Random House, A Season of Stories, from October 11 to December 30, to receive short stories directly by e-mail. No fancy stationery, but you have the added bonus of getting totally exclusive stories! Of course, I signed up immediately. Who is going to join us?

The One that Missed The (Dark) Point

Pascal Garnier, The Eskimo Solution (French, 1996, English 2016)

I fell in love with Pascal Garnier last year (all the more metaphorically that the poor guy died in 2010) when I discovered “Too close to the edge” and “The front seat passenger“. So I was ever so grateful when a nice publicist at Gallic Books contacted me for another helping of my Garnier discovery. I love that they have set to make Garnier more visible and available to English readers!

Unfortunately, this particular book didn’t quite resonate with me as much as the previous ones. There was this narrator, Louis, a loser, who is a writer in Normandy trying to finish his book for the deadline. The narrator in his book, though, is another loser, another Louis, who comes up with the idea that getting rid of elderly people could be a sort of gift to humanity – especially to his friends who have problems with their elderly parents or who badly wish to inherit some money. He compares it to the Eskimos who apparently put their old ones on ice to starve to death (I didn’t it, ugh).

As you see, this theory firmly puts the book into cynical and dark humor territory, but I didn’t really manage to follow it all the way there. Perhaps it was me, but I have the feeling that this book was a bit all over the place, and switching from one Louis to the other didn’t help. Also, I learnt that this book was his first published, so it might be an explanation. As losers go, I much rather enjoyed the pathetic one from The Front Seat Passenger.

But one occasional miss doesn’t make me less enamored with Pascal Garnier’s books, and I’m just getting ready for the next one!

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.