The One about the Two Salomes

Colombe Schneck, La Réparation (2012)

I have read this book quite soon after finishing “Dix Sept Ans” (Seventeen) last fall. This second book by Colombe Schneck, read in close succession, confirms that she likes to pack a lot of emotions, controversial questions and heavy subjects in not many pages and with an apparently breezy writing. She seems a bit superficial and egocentric, but she’s really not.

This time it’s the Shoah, or more precisely Schneck’s research on what happened to her grandmother’s sisters and their family during the Second World War. Schneck’s maternal family comes from Lithuania, a well-to-do, respected Jewish family who thought that they had nothing to fear. How wrong they were! Her grandmother’s sisters survived “somehow”, but their spouses and children didn’t. They remarried and had other children, and the first children were not talked about in Schneck’s family during her childhood.

After decades of silence, and not many questions, Schneck wants to discover what hides behind “somehow”. More precisely, she wants to discover the fate of little Salome, a 6-year-old girl who died during the Shoah, and who has the same first name than Schneck’s daughter, a name chosen at Schneck’s mother’s request years before. Schneck’s mother never explained anything to her and remained stuck in the trauma of the past. She is a character I would have loved to learn more about, yet she remains in the shadows. On the contrary, Schneck’s grandmother and her sisters are alive on the page and seem quite formidable women, each in her own style.

It’s hard to read this book in one setting. It’s hard to read this book sequentially, going from one page to the next just as the writer has planned it, because the subject is so heavy and the emotions so raw. I prefer taking a few pages here and there. There is a turning point in the middle of the book that will take your breath away, but I guess it wouldn’t be fair for me to reveal it, although the book hasn’t been translated to English.

It’s easy to compare this book negatively to Daniel Mendelsohn’s Lost. Schneck’s book isn’t as deeply researched, and many things are left unsaid, perhaps to respect the family’s privacy. The part where Schneck goes to Lithuania seems weirdly anticlimactic, but still the courage and the authenticity of the project makes the reading worthwhile.

Danielle’s Stories: Sylvia Townsend Warner Edition

Danielle’s enveloppe was waiting on our doorstep just before New Year’s Eve. How wonderful that she had chosen stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner! I’ve only ever read her novel Lolly Willowes but I adored the book and always vowed I should reread it. But it’s even better to discover something new by her.

I kind of saved these three stories for a special occasion. I had a business trip and to be able to go out to eat (even in a run-of-the-mill, train-station type of chain restaurant) by myself and read while eating was a good moment. To eat alone is not very funny, but with Sylvia Townsend Warner, it’s instantly better.

These three stories really reminded me why I’d loved Lolly Willowes. They feature quirky characters, banal, mundane situations that suddenly turn whimsical, defiant young women who seem prim and proper until they let you guess their feelings and thoughts. They seem so very British. Witty and warm, a bit like one of the first Harry Potter volumes. And sometimes it’s downright comic, like this part, in “Love”:

[Dinnie and Avery are viewing a cottage, to possibly rent it from a young couple]

“What rent-” began Dinnie. […]

At the same moment a door opened, a coffee tray was put down with a clatter, and the short stout young man said, “I hope you’ll excuse me, but the house in on fire.”

He darted away, leaving the door open behind him. The young woman hurried after him. A waft of flame came down the wide chimney like a goblin, flared, vanished. Avery shut the door and the window opening on the calm landscape.

Dinnie was on her feet. She had emptied a log basket and was filling it with their Staffordshire chimney ornaments.

“You get down the pictures, Avery. We can’t just sit here fiddling. We’ll take everything we can outside, the poor creatures!”

I don’t know about you, but I could so visualize the scene that I nearly broke in a peal of laughter (all by myself in the restaurant). The story is seen through Avery’s eye and is a great portrait of marriage, where two people may love each other deeply yet remain strangers to one another (at least to some degree).

In “Tebic”, Sylvia Townsend Warner tosses an unknown object in front of our eyes, refusing by all means to define what it is, and just letting us see how a simple thing can create tensions within two people and can highlight many aspects of their personality. It’s quite clever really, and if I have now my own opinion of what a Tebic really is, I wish other Tebic-lovers would show up to discuss the matter in depth.

In “Flora”, a young woman is introduced by her boyfriend to an eccentric, pompous scholar who lives as a recluse in the moor. He treats her disdainfully and her reaction is both subdued and whimsical: “I was sufficiently tired by my walk to feel chilled, and, from feeling chilled, to feel intimidated. To rouse my spirits, I began to nurse rebellious thoughts”. The second visit by Flora to this old misogynist snob is both comic and sad.

After finishing these three stories, I had only one thing left to do: order the whole collection from Amazon Marketplace! With luck, I’ll have the book in hand within a few weeks, with seventeen more stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner!

 

The One that Shouldn’t have Come First

Guillaume Prévost, Cantique de l’Assassin (2016)

I have just written a post about Eve Schaub’s Year of No Clutter, for which I’d received an ARC through Netgalley, and just before posting it I realized the publisher has requested that we’d wait for the publication date (March 1st) to post reviews. It’s the first time I have seen such a request, and while I obliged, it felt weird, especially as I got the book 3 months ago, read it in November and I already thought I was a bit late. Did anyone of you have such a request?

So instead of posting what I intended (the post is now scheduled for March 1st, thanks to WordPress fancy options), here’s a short-short note on a book that only took me days to finish.

I have received Le Cantique de l’Assassin (the Murderer’s Hymn) as a present the day after Christmas, and I was done with it on January 1st. The first book completed in 2017! Yet I doubt it will leave a long impression on me. It’s a mystery set in France in 1920, but the main drawback is that it’s the fifth book in a series… that should be read in order. I guess that if I had started with the first book (La Valse des Gueules Cassées, with a title referring to the aftermath of World War I and the millions of mutilated vets with no resources or no perspectives) I would probably have warmed up to his recurring hero-detective François Claudius Simon.

But by the fifth tome, being introduced to this guy so full of back stories and mysteries, I felt as if I’d been thrown right into a Dumas serial swash-buckling saga at a random page in the middle. It was hard for me to care, and the amount of twists and turns and revelations and attacks was too much for me (perhaps I’d had too much to eat over the holidays, but I wished I could put the book plot on diet). It was a fast read, but it was soon put on the giveaway pile.

 

The One with a Danish Ghost (but Not Hamlet)

Birgit Lorentzen, Cykose (Danish 2011, French 2013)

Recently I went looking for Harper Lee’s To kill a mockingbird in the YA area of our neighborhood children library, and I discovered that our library doesn’t have it: much to my surprise, this book is not well-known over here in France, but I want to read it in 2017, so I will probably buy it… or maybe go to an adult library branch because I just can’t believe that the book is nowhere to be found.

Instead of Lee, I went for Lorentzen (the writer next up on the shelve), because I was intrigued by the idea of a Danish ghost story for teenagers. It seems quite improbable for a small press to venture into such an improbable project. And yet, I hardly could drop the book, because it was suspenseful and fresh and creepy!

Luisa would be a typical 15-year-old with a father fan of sports, an annoying little sister and a mother who hasn’t got her bearings with her daughter yet, if only she could sleep at night! Every night, a young girl visits her and terrifies her. The ghost seems so real, but Luisa is the only one to see her… until another student from her high-school, Thomas, reveals that he can see her too! Luisa isn’t sure what to do: she isn’t really into supernatural stuff, and Thomas is a weirdo everyone makes fun of, as he is in a special class for kids with mental health issues. She doesn’t want to be associated with him, and yet he seems to be the only one who can help her getting rid of the ghost. Thomas is charming and has a sweet spot for Luisa, but tracking the ghost also seems to unbalance his mental health even further, and puts his life at risk.

I enjoyed this quick read quite a lot in the last days of December. I love the way that the supernatural is weaved into real teenagers’ life, and there’s nothing woo-woo about it. It reminded me of the book with the shop that sells memories, which was targeted for middle grade readers, although this one is for readers a bit more mature. I love the way the adults around Luisa and Thomas are not bad people, but not doing a great job at parenting either. Of course, Luisa and Thomas develop some kind of relationship, but there’s nothing mushy-gushy about it either, especially in the ending. It’s great that characters, even secondary ones, get that much depth within not so many pages.

No-nonsense Scandinavian YA magical realism, I call it. If it’s a real thing, let me know, I want to read more of it! (In fact, this book is the first of a series, so I *will* probably get more of it!)

In which I break the conventions by following them

In a decade of blogging, I have learnt a few things about myself: that I enjoy reading memes but not joining them, that reading challenges are not for me (pressure, guilt trips and all… no thanks), and that my reading plans mostly get derailed by random choices and nice covers of new acquisitions at the library.

That is why I usually refuse to set any precise good resolutions regarding my reading. At most, I did vague intentions. On the other hand, I am surrounded by shelves full of books that I own (jointly with Mr. S., that is) that I’ve never read. In the face of an impeding house move (mmh, not really soon, but keeping me busy), I can’t really live with the idea that I’ll move boxes after boxes of unread books just so that they will gather dust in another home.

It seems only logical that 2017 would be the year I start reading the books that are at arm’s length, instead of those from the bookshop and the library. (I swear, it’s not my first purpose to weed out our shelves, I don’t hope to read disappointing books that will get donated – but surely once I’ve read them I’ll take a decision).

Knowing my tendency to be distracted by shiny new literary objects that cross my path, I don’t want to set a number that I will surely fail (more guilt trips? no-no). I have only the objective to read a certain number of books according to a list, and not the majority of my yearly reading.

That’s where I come full circle and find myself back where everyone is traditionally in these few first days of the year: making book lists for 2017. I have pondered over my overcrowded shelves and here’s my 10 books for a start:

  • Javier Marias short story collection: While the women are sleeping (1990)
  • Dorothy Whipple, The Priory (1939) – the Persephone bestseller
  • Wallace Stegner, Crossing to safety (1987) – I must have read the first few pages ten times already, it’s high time I follow through.
  • Maylis de Kerangal, Réparer les vivants (2014) – I have loved Kerangal book about bridge building, everything indicates I should love this one, but I couldn’t get to it, even though it was made into a movie
  • Emmanuel Carrère, le royaume (2014) – I am a self-professed Carrère fan
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, the White Guard (1926) – why am I afraid of Russian literature?
  • Alison Lurie, Real People (1969) – because Lurie + writing retreat…
  • Pawel Huelle Short story collection in French “Rue Polanski”
  • Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, Deconstructing penguins – it’s about talking books with the kids, and go beyond “was it good?” and “did you like it?”. I bought it in the US but I could use some good idea now.
  • Barbara Vine, the Child’s Child (2012) – Vine’s beginnings are always slow but normally the ending leaves me bedazzled and quite proud to have persisted.

I finally left out big names that I still hope to read this year, like Chandler, Simenon and others, for whom I’ll go to the library and do some research. I hope I can at least stick to that list and if I do I’ll be able to be more ambitious next time! Which one should I start with in your opinion?

The Day of my Inner Nerd

stats-thumb-290x217-264I let my inner nerd persona out in the open only once a year (or so I hope, but if you see her roaming on this blog during the rest of the year, please stop her, muffle her and drop me a line): today is the day where my inner nerd is allowed to compute stats about my reading (and writing too). So let her gloat for five minutes, and if you’re not into these kind of things, come back tomorrow where I will discuss books for their quality, not their sheer quantity.

Nerdish Smithereens is happy to report that we (the nerd and I) have read 76 books in 2016, a bit more than last year. My reading is about equally shared between French writers (30%), American writers (21%), British (22%) and the rest of the world. I read mostly contemporary books, because Netgalley books are a big, and growing share of my reading (21 books this year, vs 6 last year when I started for real). Still, I can see that I requested fewer books in the later part of the year, and I want to keep that trend down and be more selective about ARC books that require my time and attention. In 2016, I read almost no audiobook (because podcasts took up most of my listening time), at the notable exception of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 that was more than 30 hours long!

I’m glad to see that I seem to have tamed the mystery monster (the one that makes you read one thriller or murder mystery after the other until you have only read from that genre!), at least in paper form (that genre only accounts about 20% of my reading). Alas, Mr. Smithereens can attest that I have *not* tamed the mystery monster hidden in the TV and DVD player, because he would like to watch other shows than murder mysteries, which he only gets to do when I am busy… writing for the evening.

Speaking of the writing front, I have managed to keep the momentum that started in 2015. My resolution is to write every single day, blog or no blog, fiction or diary or book posts. Some days are tough, some days words are pouring (hmm, perhaps not so much). The threshold of 50 words minimum was low enough to make me stick to it (it’s the principle of Tiny Habits, and apparently, yes, it’s a thing). Every month, I missed 3 to 5 days, but overall the word count added up. I wrote 318 days out of 365, and this year even holidays and family time didn’t completely derail my plans.

Of course, going to a writing retreat for the first time in my life was a major motivation, but almost as important is the accountability that this blog gives me. So I owe you, reader, for your continuous encouragement along the way!

So now, let me lock my inner nerd up once more and throw her calculator away. Enough about the past, let me turn to this brand new year and send you, reader, my warmest wishes for 2017!

Christmas Literary Bounty

20161229_203714The short interruption wasn’t really planned, ahem, but family visits took us across France and time and wi-fi weren’t exactly aplenty. On the other hand, we had plenty of food (foie gras, buche and the like), plenty of sweet moments… and plenty of presents of the literary sort as well!

My husband surprised me with books that I know little about and would not have selected myself!

  • a biography of Philip Sassoon
  • a biography of 6 society ladies in the Roaring twenties and before the Second World War
  • a philosophical novel about marriage
  • a venture into true crime with a nanny killed in Belgravia (it’s been a long time since I wanted to try something in the true crime genre)
  • a murder mystery with a secret mission to Moscow in 1920
  • another murder mystery based on the true story of a catholic priest who ran a huge fraud and inspired some theories of the Da Vinci code
  • (not in the picture, a book about Hamilton, the musical!)

Now, with the poorly lit picture of the book pile, can you guess (without checking on Goodreads) which is which? Bonus point if you can guess which book I have already started… I hope your bookish wishes were fulfilled during the holidays!

The One with the Golden Dream of the American in Paris

Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon (2000)

I can’t remember who recommended to me “Paris to the Moon”. It might be back in the spring when I was looking for books about expats in Paris for my workplace library, to stock up on English language shelves for the foreign employees. Or maybe in one of those literary  podcasts with an episode on travel writing. I thought it would be fun to see my own city through the eyes of a foreigner, especially one who comes with the reputation of the New Yorker in tow.

This collection of essays, a chronicle of tiny details or brief introductions to life in Paris (French cuisine, cafés, gyms, maternity hospitals, playgrounds, etc.) gives snapshots of his life together with his family (he had a young son, and a daughter was born in France during his stay) in Paris from 1995 to 2000.

The high point of the book is Adam Gopnik’s writing. His sentences are precise and evocative, they carry feelings as much as cultural explanations. He has a great understanding of French people, it’s not patronizing or exotic. The portrait of his kid playing in the Jardin du Luxembourg almost brought tears to my eyes. His voice makes you want to buy a ticket to go… But wait! I’m already here! Or am I?

Adam Gopnik’s Paris is more than 20 years old. I took my time reading the essays, because it was like finding pictures from the past. I know some things never change and we French people are very resistant to change, but still you should not think that the book is still valid nowadays. Yes, the Ritz is still there (but has undergone a 2 years renovation). Yes the Jardin du Luxembourg is still there, but those tiny details that are so precious in the book, well, they mostly no longer exist (just an example: gyms are pretty normalized now in Paris). The impact of globalization has made his remarks on French culture not completely false, but certainly to be taken with a grain of salt.

You might argue that it doesn’t really matter. Beyond the particulars of Paris in the late 1990s, you can see the deep love of Gopnik for all things French and Parisian, the culture shock he goes through, the misunderstandings and the progressive adaptation of the author and his family to a new culture and environment. Missing your own country while wanting to stay… This is universal and I remember all too well the contradictions of my own life as an expatriate in Asia not to relate with everything he writes.

But the thing that made me ambivalent about the book is that Adam Gopnik’s life was very privileged. I don’t know about many Americans in Paris, and I don’t remember if the exchange rate of the dollar at that time helped much, but the flat he rented, the lifestyle he had, the restaurants he patronized regularly, most of it is not within the average Parisian’s budget. The chapter where Gopnik movingly writes about the maternity ward where his daughter was born, brought tears to my eyes because it was so well written, but made me cringe at the same time, because he had selected a very exclusive private clinic, where everything, I’m sure, was perfect, because nothing was paid for by French social security. (ok, right, I might have been jealous)

This book is more literature than journalism. More personal memoir than travelogue. If Americans read it before arriving for the first time in Paris, they might be very disappointed, but it’s not my case. It’s an exquisite, pricey pair of rose-tainted glasses to look around me at the city of Lights, to remember some, to wonder and to explore some more.

The One with Chinese Millenials in Nepal

vent-1-768x556Golo Zhao & Bao Jingjing, Au gré du Vent (French 2016) / Up in the Wind (China, 2014)

I know there’s no sense in trying to finish every book started before New Year’s eve (I’ve given up) and I know that there’s no more sense in trying to finish every book post I’ve started drafting in here… but I’m still trying. It feels good to start the year with a clean WordPress slate, and by Dec. 20 I still have the impression that I can meet this goal.

Just for the sake of trying, I want to mention an intriguing graphic novel I read a while ago, a movie tie-in apparently (I’m not clear which one came first because I haven’t seen the movie anyway), and a Chinese manga (a.k.a manhua), a genre I’ve rarely tried.

“Up in the Wind” is the story of two Chinese people traveling to Nepal, the land of happiness. But it’s not a tourist trip in the general sense, because they haven’t chosen the trip nor the destination. Yumeng, a young Chinese woman who works as a journalist in the very competitive and superficial environment of a lifestyle magazine in Beijing (or is it Shanghai?) has been sent to Nepal to write a travel report on why Nepal’s happiness index is so high despite poverty. She had hoped to be assigned to Tuscany and feels short-changed. An ambitious girl and a social climber, she still hopes that this trip and her article will land her a big professional success, but local difficulties of Nepal derail her plans. Instead, she gets a self-awakening of sorts, when she has to face who she is, her fears and her doubts.

Alongside Yumeng is a lanky young man, Wang Can, who is essentially a spoilt, arrogant rich kid, who has to travel to Nepal if he ever wants to come back into his father’s good graces after he jilted his bride-to-be at the altar.

The manhua was quite weird. On the one hand, you have the frustrations of this ambitious young woman who is often humiliated by richer and higher-ups (her boss in the big city says to her: “It’s your job to write as if you’re living it up on 25k a month, when you are just a 2k-earning nobody.” As conventional stories go, she has this coming-of-age experience of discovering deeper meaning beyond money and success, especially at the end of the book when she fails to meet her deadline and loses her job.

On the other hand, you have a conventional romantic comedy storyline where Yumeng falls for Wang Can after much bickering and many disputes. But not for one instant did I believe that those two would make a durable couple, nor did I believe that the change undergone by Wang Can would be more than superficial and short-lived. The ending was quite opened and vague, and added to the uneasiness.

On one hand, it wants to show Nepal as a more spiritual place where people are friendlier and have deeper relationships, but on the other hand we only see clichés about Nepal and the story tells more about Chinese millenials than about Nepalese people.

I liked very much the design and colors by Golo Zhao. The landscapes especially are breathtaking, even if it’s only a backdrop. I wonder which storyline the author Bao Jingjing wanted to push forward and how much of this mixup is due to editing and formatting for the big screen. It was an interesting, if not totally convincing reading experience.

The One that brings Orpheus to Italy

Laurent Gaudé, La Porte des Enfers (2008, French) / Hell’s Gate to be published in English in 2017

Laurent Gaudé’s books require a certain mood. It’s not the kind of books that you take lightly if you have a small pocket of time in-between your daily chores. It’s not the kind of books that you pick up if you want an entertaining read. No, that’s serious stuff, and you should probably sit down and turn off your phone.

Laurent Gaudé embarks you in an epic story and you cannot disembark before the next harbor. There’s nothing small and quiet in Gaudé’s stories. Emotions are heightened, people invoke the gods or fate or other super-human forces.

This time he takes us to Naples, Italy. The cliché is that Italians are hot-blooded, but here even introverted Scandinavian readers (assuming they can read it in French or English) will have a hard time staying dry-eyed with his first scene, or with the end of the book. It probably would warrant a trigger warning of sorts if it was contemplated for publication in the U.S. as it deals with the death of a child. But the death itself comes within the first few pages, so there is a lot more to it. The whole book is about grief and the consequences that this untimely death has over the child’s parents lives.

Except it goes into uncharted territories with this rather common theme. Gaudé dares to take the mythical story of Orpheus and transpose it into modern life. The child’s mother is devastated and challenges her husband to kill the child’s murderer or to bring their child back from death. And then the father meets someone who claims that in a hidden corner of the old town of Naples, a door leads to the underworld. He doubts it, but then he has to go and see for himself.

I will not reveal the secrets of this mesmerizing book. Not only are the themes powerful, but Gaude’s writing is gorgeous. I hope that the English translator will convey the rhythm of his sentences, both elegiac and violent.