The One with the Other Woman

Honoré de Balzac, Une Double Famille (French 1830)

After our visit to Alexandre Dumas’ private castle in May, I was in the mood for a classic but not of the 600 pages variety. This Balzac novella, part of the Scenes of the Parisian life, was just right, like Goldilock’s bowl of porridge: not too long and not too short, not too depressing and not too dated. This one was sitting idle in my Kindle so I grabbed it first. Reading classics is all about finding quickly something readable, otherwise I lose the motivation (there are so many other more modern books vying for my attention!)

The novella was published in 1830 in newspapers and has been title A Double Family, as well as The Virtuous woman, and given Balzac’s cruel view of family and love stories, and the context of the period, I kinda expected a tragedy without much surprise. But old dear Honoré should not be taken for granted…

It has the weird structure of a slow burn love story (but is it right for a novella?) where we are introduced to a poor nice girl who gradually gets noticed by a wealthy man who passes by her window every evening. She is shown as pure and virtuous, but her mother obviously wants to throw her into his arms, if only for their economic survival. Fast forward to the poor nice girl, much less poor, being kept by the wealthy man in a fancy Paris flat, with 2 kids. Of course these two are not married, but still the portrait of domestic life is full of contented, warm happiness. Is the girl really the Virtuous woman of the title? How could Honoré get away with that in 1830?

The second part shows an ambitious young lawyer who is thinking of marrying a wealthy, well-connected young girl from a small town. But after a short time of marriage, the pure, well-bred young girl reveals herself as a total religious fanatic who sees everything as sin and only listens to her religious advisor (who has an eye for her money too). She rules their home with no pleasure, strict food restrictions, poor taste and no affinity to her husband’s intense social life and ambition. Of course she’s officially the Virtuous one of the title, but it’s also a domestic hell. I must say that I was a bit surprised by Balzac’s virulent attack against religion (not as faith, but as organized rules). It’s also a novella about marriage, ambition, hypocrisy and Paris life for poor people. It’s not Balzac’s best but it was well worth it.



One on the Side and Three for the Road

Sometimes I need a little nudge to take decisions… like DNF a book, for instance. I still have a few misgivings about abandoning a book. I sometimes wait ridiculously long before I decide to turn my back on a story (because I know how difficult it is to write a book, I suppose). I always fear that I’m missing out on something and that the book will redeem itself in the next chapter, or the next… I prefer skim-reading the rest just to make sure.

But there’s nothing like a fresh batch of new books to help me get rid of these scruples. Yes, that book might be good in the end, but it doesn’t hold the appeal and so… I am allowed to be fickle, aren’t I? The book that made me hesitate a lot is Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, of which I had heard a lot of good things. Yes, yes, I know, you probably loved the book… But I started it and I didn’t connect with the main character, Hadley, who marries Ernest Hemingway and moves to Paris with him, until… well, it’s no spoiler to say that their marriage ends badly.

I don’t know if I knew too much about Hemingway, or too little (I’m not a great fan), and I don’t know if McLain has done extensive research or how fictional Hadley’s portrait really is, but… I did sigh a lot at Hadley’s passivity and I just couldn’t see myself spending 250 more pages with her (I stopped at 20%). Hemingway is not my kind of guy, I just felt sorry for Hadley, but it’s not enough to sustain a passionate interest on my side.

So what am I going to read instead? I splurged for 3 books on Amazon, which is a rare treat these days (I have so many books at the library and at home, TBH) and I’m really looking forward to crack their spines open as soon as possible:

Kindred, by Octavia Butler: I really don’t know how I heard about this book, but since then the name Octavia Butler is popping up left and right calling for my attention.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover: I heard a lot of good reviews, but the tipping point for me was the excerpt I got through Season of Stories, that convinced me that I needed to get my hands on it.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave: I’ve been meaning to buy this one for my workplace library since the beginning of this year, but it wasn’t listed, so… what can I say, I got it for myself!

Have you read any of them? Which one would you start with?

The One with the Senior Party Gone Wrong

Harlan Coben, Don’t Let Go (2017)

Who doesn’t know of Harlan Coben? Who hasn’t read Harlan Coben? His page boasts 60 million copies worldwide… and yet I didn’t open one before this year. I’ve always been very snobbish and steered clear of his bestsellers… until I didn’t. And it was a hell of a ride, causing me a few short nights.

I was looking for an efficient page-turner, but not anything in the 800 pages category. This one was half this size and wow, did I turn the pages quick! I was sucked into the story in a few pages and didn’t… let go (sorry, I had to put this bad pun somewhere… Book titles with “let go” are just so banal that I wonder how publishers keep them apart – literally there are over 3300 books titles with these words in Goodreads!)

I have to give kudos to Coben for the masterly way he achieves to stretch the limits of my disbelief and critical thinking as if it was a rubber band. Where other authors would make me roll my eyes with similar questionable ingredients (a narrator with a totally improbable name, Napoleon Dumas, a twin brother, a disappeared girlfriend just before prom night, an abandoned military base), here I have no time to roll my eyes and I just get on with it, (almost) no questions asked. Alright, if I dissect the storyline I can see that it has holes and weird bits patched together, but overall I was too smitten to notice. Like a typical magician tricks.

I liked the pace, the twists and the humor. Nap Dumas has indeed a twisted past and a questionable relation to due process of law, but what kept me reading was his one-liners (or more precisely, Coben’s). If Coben’s other bestsellers are all as efficient as this one, I know where to turn for comfort next time around. So tell me, what is your favorite Harlan Coben’s book?

The One with the Swedish Regatta

Viveca Sten, Closed Circles (Sandhamn #2; Swedish 2009, English 2016)

This one is a thick (454p) trade paperback offered by Dear Mr. Smithereens on Mother’s Day. Let’s just say that this one is not really a keeper (the book of course! Not the hubby! Darling do keep on getting me new crime novels, I love you!)

This is a Swedish cosy mystery (by which I mean that the level of violence is very light, and at any rate inferior to the level of violence and exasperation that I felt reading it), but technically it might qualify as a police investigation. The victim is a rich lawyer and the next president of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club. The killer has to be one of the many people attending a regatta close to Sandhamn Island. Pick you choice.

Aside from pushing me to check on Sandhamn exquisite holiday homes for the wealthy Swedish (red-painted bungalows! breathtaking seaviews!), this book didn’t work for me (perhaps a photo version would work better). The Swedish reputation for very noir, gritty, scary mysteries is not really upheld here. Viveca Sten is no Camilla Läckberg, Jo Nesbo or Henning Mankell. I mean, I don’t need gory crime scenes at all costs, but it  wasn’t what I expected. It didn’t help that I guessed the killer halfway through. The red herring was so fat it was practically Moby Dick.

I wasn’t expecting a Pulitzer, but the writing itself grated on my nerves. I don’t know if the translator (Laura A. Wideburg) remained true to the original but the sentences are all very short and spare, and no chapter is longer than 3 pages (which explains why there are 90+ of them). It feels like a book made of blog posts, not a true novel.

Well, at least I could add Sandhamn as a new dream destination for summer holidays (given the price tag, it’s just a fantasy), so not all is lost! And given that plenty of Goodreads reviews are 5 stars, you can still give it a try, it’s the perfect season for a regatta…

The One for the New Feminist Mother

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions (2017)

This short book is 15 pieces of advice that Adichie gave to a friend who just had a baby girl and wanted to raise her as a feminist. It’s very short, blog-post like short, and I wondered for a while if it was worth publishing it as a book. But the content should definitely be widely available both in electronic and in paper format!

I wanted to applaud at every suggestion, but sadly it’s not anything new, and it doesn’t mean that these thoughtful principles are universally respected, far from it! It reads like a brief primer to feminist ideas, but I’m afraid it will only convince those who are already feminists. It’s simple, efficient and well put, but as a mother of two boys I wish she would have written a book about raising a feminist boy, and not a girl. I appreciated that the tone of the book was full of poise and hope and not depressing as those subjects could easily become.

It’s my first read by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but definitely not the last: I’m really looking forward to reading her novel Americanah.

The One with the Writer as an Evil Double

Delphine de Vigan, D’Après Une Histoire Vraie (French 2015; English: Based on a True Story, 2017)

This is so bad of me not to review one of my favorite books of this year, isn’t it? I mean, I would gladly buy a pile of this book and put it in the hands of my best friends, if I could, but write a blog post about it? Nah, too hard, let me just drop it for 2 months and see if I can still remember it.

Most books, after two months, are vague souvenirs gathering cobwebs in a corner of my very busy mind, when they are not completely forgotten (that’s why I started this blog in the first place, remember?). Normally my enthusiasm withers after a while, but in that case… it’s just as fresh as the first day. I would happily start the book over again, and again, just to marvel at it and see if I can spot how de Vigan did it.

The story in one sentence: Delphine is a bestselling writer who is on the verge of burnout after her last success and finds herself unable to write. She meets a new friend, L., whose friendship is intense and makes herself indispensable in Delphine’s life. Who is L.? Is this friendship helpful or toxic? Does L. even exist? I won’t develop further, but this story is also only the basis, on which so many extra levels can be built.

It’s a reflexion on literature, on the creative life, on self-doubt and finding one’s voice as a woman and as a writer. It’s also a first-person narrative with a narrator who may or may not be Delphine de Vigan, who had a huge bestseller and had to answer the perilous question of “what to write next”. It’s also an interrogation about novels who are based on a true story, and how much truth there is in novels, or in autobiographies, or in what French authors call “autofiction”.

Some reviewers have called it a “perverse thriller”, others simply a “great mindf…”. Both are true in my opinion, but you’ll want to have your own opinion.

The Mitford-less Upstairs Downstairs Cozy Mystery

Jessica Fellowes, The Mitford Murders (2017)

I reached 60% of this book, then I gave a look at the tall (tall! it feels like a euphemism) pile of books waiting on my nightstand and I decided: I’ve given it a fair chance, and life’s just too short. Now let’s skim the rest and move on. (Then I started an angry blog post about it, and just left it to rot gather dust for a whole month, because, clearly, I had better things on my mind)

I wanted to love it (I mean, Mitfords, the roaring 20s, a murder – true crime!, a perfect book cover with a pretty font, what’s not to love?). I wanted to like it, but it didn’t move quite nearly fast enough. The Mitfords are just a pretext, they make cameo apparitions with their weird nicknames and quirky lifestyle, but the narrator is poor Louisa, a girl who gets to work for the Mitfords as a nursery maid by curious unbelievable means and just for a while. Louisa is no Mitford, her boyfriend is no Sherlock, and the murder story would almost work without Mitford at all. So why bother? The subtitle on the cover “Six sisters, a lifetime of mystery” is clearly misleading.

As for the murder story, it’s based on a true crime, so I believe the writer worked with some real historical constraints, but the pace was slow and many part of the development stretched my disbelief just way too thin… until it just broke (or whatever the apt metaphor is here). Some things were well researched, but the characters didn’t seem to react in a historically / socially appropriate way, and that’s one of my pet peeves. Sorry folks, not for me. Maybe I should try some original Mitford instead?

The One with the Writer behind the Husband

Annie Goetzinger, Les Apprentissages de Colette (French, 2017)

I’m not a huge Colette fan. I probably should be, but I started Colette at the wrong time in my life and I didn’t persevere. I know, I know, you’re all shaking your head in disbelief, well I know at least Mr. Smithereens is, since he’s a big Colette fan.

In an attempt to reconcile with her, I borrowed this graphic novel (by a woman!) from the library, about the beginning of Colette’s literary career, from her marriage with Willy to her divorce from Jouvenel, her second husband, in 1923. I knew already about Willy signing Colette’s book and Willy’s philandering habits, but I didn’t know the details. This book starts when Colette is still a shy, small-town girl with a drawl from her native Burgundy. It’s not quite clear even after reading the book why those two got married, but it wasn’t a love match nor a money match. Willy was sure to get a young wife who wouldn’t be troublesome with his own philandering (before and after the wedding). Or so he thought…

The book follows her first attempts at writing a memoir / novel under her husband’s guidance. Willy employed several ghost writers and he obviously thought that his wife would be just another (non-paid) one. We see how she gets more and more confident, and more and more jaded about her marriage. She gets lovers of her own; she gets to know intellectuals and journalists and the most popular figures in Paris; she works as a journalist, but also as a scandalous actress who appears onstage barely clothed; she gets married again, has a daughter; she grows into the famously independent and rule-breaking woman that we know.

Although I was interested in the subject, I didn’t warm up to the book’s design, and it didn’t help me to warm up to Colette’s life. Annie Goetzinger draws very distinctive characters, they all seem a little deadpan, which makes them slightly aloof. But the period details and costumes (all those Edwardian and Roaring twenties dresses!) are very well-researched and will convince Colette’s fans and fashion historians alike.

The One with the What-Ifs

Jo Walton, Starlings (2017)

What if one of Jane Austen’s letter wasn’t sent to her sister Cassandra but Troy war’s Cassandra?

What if the old woman didn’t really suffer from dementia but was actually visited by aliens?

What if Joseph told his own version of the Annunciation?

What if Google’s search engine wanted to act morally by orienting some of its answers to our questions?

What if people sent a spaceship to colonize another planet in a few generations, but that their descendants no longer wanted to go there?

What if kids who had saved the world with magical powers during their childhood (Narnia style) grew up to become accountant, art historian and fake fortune tellers?

What if a fairy was discovered in the garden by an unimpressed 5-year-old?

What if the magic mirror from Snow White’s evil queen could speak for itself?

What if aliens did write SF books about a weird world full of creatures called “humans”?

What if clone technology had permitted anyone to give birth to a baby Jesus (and what would they grow up to become)?

These are a few of the numerous questions that Jo Walton set about to answer. The book is a mixed bag of short stories (some flash fiction), poetry, even a play and a writer’s bio in verse (that one is a keeper). A lot are funny, a few are set in dystopian worlds, a few are rather dark but not many. I chose this book on Netgalley a bit randomly, because the name rang a bell and I wanted to read some short story in genres that I don’t usually read. I’m glad I took this chance, because it was worth it, and the stories never took themselves too seriously (something I often fear when it comes to SF). Between the time I started and finished the collection, I read another Jo Walton, Farthing (which I reviewed first) so I’m now convinced that this prolific writer can indeed write great stories in a wide range of topics and tones.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The One from Romance to Kids Lit

One of Murail’s long list of publications. Aren’t they cute?

Marie-Aude Murail, Auteur Jeunesse, Comment Le Suis Je Devenue, Pourquoi Le Suis Je Restée? (French 2003, “Kids Lit Writer, How I become one, Why I remained one”)

I’m just going to mention this book briefly for those who might be interested in this highly specific topic, for a number of reasons:

  • it’s in French only, by a French kids lit novelist whose novels haven’t been translated as far as I know, about the French publishing market.
  • the book is out of print (this one comes from the library)
  • it has valuable information, but it’s not a how-to book by any means

Aren’t I a good salesperson? But please do stay on for one more minute.

I indeed borrowed it because I thought Marie-Aude Murail would spill out tricks of the trade, you see, and because she has indeed a successful career in kids lit (from kids to middle grade – her favorite audience – and to teens novels, although I don’t think it would completely qualify as YA; she has 85 separate books listed on Goodreads, just to give you a rough idea).

Marie-Aude Murail has a great sense of humor and deeply friendly voice and rather than tips and tricks, it’s her love of words that best comes out of this quick read. The specifics of her own career make it a bit difficult to replicate for aspiring writers. She wanted to earn some money at home and actually started her career by writing romance novellas for romance magazines (many haven’t survived but Nous Deux is the title that French people have in mind, it runs with romance short stories and photo stories since 1947, and it used to have a massive readership), under a pseudonym and with a highly-formatted type of stories. Basically the plot line and names of characters were given to her, and she had a very limited time to deliver the goods. Although not something that most writers are eager to confess, I do agree that it must be highly formative.

It helped a lot when she started to write for kids and she discovered that most kids lit publishers also have a long set of constraints that they pass on to their authors, may it be about words (no complex vocabulary), tense (present), or plot development. I wasn’t quite aware but France has a law regarding kids lit, and it provides every publishing company with a framework.

This law was passed in 1949 when American comics were massively imported and were viewed as a danger to the youth (was it?). It actually forbids publishers to sell books that would contain too much violence (now that’s good) or anything that would be an offence to morality (now that’s vague) or to the sensitivity of young audiences – especially for anything related to sex or porn.

I do wonder if other countries have these laws and whether it has helped steer kids lit towards a better quality, or instead has contributed to help censorship and to ban books about difficult topics. What do you think?