John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016)

I never thought I would say something like that about a Harry Potter book but this one left me “meh”. It sure isn’t awful but there’s nothing to rave about either. Mostly, it felt a bit pointless. The Deathly Hallows offered to all fans a climax and a closure; it’s really tough to have anything come after that.

So what can The Cursed Child offer? A revisit to best loved characters, almost twenty years later. Time is not kind to anyone, and fans probably hate to see the kind of adults Harry, Hermione, Ron and the others have become. I don’t mind so much, but the whole thing about parenting is hard felt rather heavy-handed.

It offers also a new visit into famous moments of the canon, thanks to time-travel devices. But after the first moment of surprise the whole time-travel thing feels more like a gimmick. (And we all know that I’m not allergic on principles to time-travel in literature) Even my son commented that there was enough back-and-forth to give you motion sickness. The plot itself was not really what I expected of J.K. Rowling. There are really implausible parts (I don’t want to go into spoilers, but there’s a particular awkward detail that really beggars belief), inconsistencies and some predictability, which does not make for a good cocktail.

I love the Harry Potter series (still love it despite this one, which I don’t really consider part of the story), and I transmitted this love to my elder son, so that was only logical that I would buy him this book. It was perhaps a fault of mine that I didn’t read it before giving it to me. My son rather enjoyed it (but not to the degree of the rest) and when he told me to read it, I added it to the pile… for a full year and then more (to my shame). I picked it up for the Summer reading challenge (#20BooksofSummer organized by Cathy from 746 Books) because I wanted to something easy and light. In that respect it was alright, and it was entertaining in a fully nostalgic way, plus it was a good opportunity to talk again about Harry Potter with my rapidly-growing teenager.

I have a mild curiosity about how all this magic and time travel translates onto the stage but I surely wouldn’t pay a fortune to get tickets.

Pod Review June 12-18

School’s pace is beginning to slow down before grinding to a halt in 2 weeks’ time (only 1 week for my middle schooler). Invitations and fun opportunities are sprouting like shoots after the rain. We have had a few days of big heat (pretty early for the season), which made me yearn for office A/C. On Wednesday, big surprise, the government announced out of the blue that they dropped the mask mandate outdoors for… the next day! (because Covid figures are in free fall – I remember an article in the NYT about exponential decrease, but it’s really weird to live it). It felt so great to go somewhere without mask for the first time in… a very long time. (Being mask-free was part of the appeal to start running, but I’m an absolute beginner and I don’t go far…). Two days in, people are still a bit uncertain about this sudden change, as we’re still supposed to mask up when in crowds (farmers’ market, school dropoff). This morning I saw about 20% still wearing them as I dropped my son to school. I bet this proportion will decrease very soon.

  • Sorta Awesome #305 Awesome list of Summer 2021: my favorite kind of relaxed show with an Asian cucumber salad and breathable nail polish (who knew?)
  • On Our Watch Ep.2 Conduct Unbecoming. This show gives really shocking recording of police interviews, where a woman who came complaining about a highway patrol harassing her was belittled and ridiculed, the policeman even said that she didn’t understand English and that she smelled of alcohol.
  • Best of Both Worlds: How to cultivate friendships at work and beyond with Shasta Nelson; I’m glad she pointed out the 3 main aspects to deepen friendships: positivity, consistency and vulnerability. That said, Shasta Nelson’s website is a bit scary, I’m not sure I would be friend with her IRL.
  • Sorta Awesome #302 Have the best summer based on your personality type. I was glad to hear all sorts of suggestions, even for people who are supposedly not my type!
  • The Best Advice show: Imposing Deadlines with Laura Herberg. A bit misleading for me. I don’t have problem with deadlines set for myself, I was thinking about negotiating deadlines with others, which is not the point of this episode.
  • Radiolab The dirty drug and the ice cream tub. Fascinating piece about serendipity in drug research. Also, remind me never to open the fridge of an Indian scientist.
  • 10 Things to tell you with Laura Tremaine: #116 Selfie Shame. All those squirmy moments around taking a picture of oneself and sharing it with others online. Interesting.
  • Short Wave #417 The Science behind that fresh rain scent. [new-to-me] I was a bit surprised by the very short format, I’m more familiar with the 30-45mn format of Radiolab which lets the producers go deeper into the subject.
  • 💙 Short Wave #418 Yep, we made up vegetables. The second try was way better than the first, now that I knew it was just of fun bite-size helping of science. Made me laugh and made me think, and a good conversation starter with the kids at dinner time.

Laila from Big Reading Life recommended Short Wave in a recent comment, and I liked it a lot! I have to pick and choose into their large back catalogue, but the episode on vegetables was a hoot. Strawberries are not berries, and not even fruits, and vegetables don’t exist. Who knew? If you’re intrigued, check it out, it’s only 12 minutes long and no boring science!

Els Beerten, Allemaal willen we de hemel (2008)

French Title: Nous voulons tous le paradis (2015) – Paradise is what we all want

Now it’s clear that I miss a system that tells me easily where I’ve first heard about a book, but it’s safe to say that this book has been in my TBR list for years, since 2017 actually (that’s when I added it on Goodreads): a book about war in Belgium is not that common. This is a young adult novel, but I’d say it has enough complex situations and all sorts of nuances to suit most adult readers. In France it is published in two volumes but the author originally published it as one. And by the way, after having researched my blog and my notebooks for hours, I’m officially reverting to using the title of the book as the post title, because it’s just way easier. It’s probably for the best if I spare the blog world my silly puns…

The story is told in short chapters that switch narrators and timeline. The shtick is that it never says who is speaking, you have to deduce it. There are 4 characters speaking in turn: Jef – a teenager in 1942, whose family believes that if they keep their head down and steer clear from the German (Nazi) occupying forces, they will be ok, and so they don’t want to have anything to do with resistance against the Nazis either. Ward, Jef’s best friend, whose father committed suicide before the war, and whose mother manages the village’s grocery shop. Renée, Jef’s sister, is secretly in love with Ward. And last, Rémi, Jef’s little brother, who is fed up with being always “the little one”. Ward plays the saxophone like nobody else, and all are united by music and friendships, until something happens that makes even the name of Ward taboo in the family and the whole village. As we dive deeper into the story of this broken friendship, we understand that Ward has been lured into the Nazi ideology and has volunteered to join the ranks of the Flemish troops on the Eastern front, to fight against the Soviet Union alongside the German Nazis.

At the end of the war, scores are settled. Jef is the village’s hero for having helped the resistance on one special occasion, and Ward has disappeared. When he returns in 1947, after having passed as a German for years, he will be judged and sentenced for treason and collaboration with the Nazis. But nothing is as clear as it seems. Why did Ward go away? Why didn’t his friends stop him? What happened between them? Ward was heavily influenced by the local schoolmaster and the Catholic priest to enlist in the Nazis troops; they appealed to his faith and his willingness to defend his people. But he was not the only one under influence, and lies and naivety have tragic consequences all around.

Flanders is the part of Belgium that doesn’t speak French (Wallon), they speak Flemish, which is not Dutch either (don’t go and vex people all around!). Nazis considered Dutch and Flemish as almost Aryans, so that they held both countries under their direct leadership and tried to foster nationalism to enlist people into the Nazi ranks (as second class citizens nonetheless). Which worked to a certain extent, especially as Flemish had been despised by French-speaking Wallons for decades. And as a full disclosure, my husband’s family is Flemish from the French border.

The novel is a tragedy of many layers and nuances. It is really heart-wrenching and I couldn’t wait to turn the pages to understand each of the characters’ choices and destiny. It’s too bad it’s not available in English, because I feel that it would be such a good book club choice.

The One of the Last Minute Before

Florian Illies, 1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts (German 2012, English: The Year before the Storm, 2013)

This is a funny book about a time that was all too serious. It borrowed it on a whim from the library, and I must say that I went in and out of it rather than reading it from the first page to the last. The premises of the book are easy: to recap month by month, day by day, what happened to people (famous ones, or people who would have some reasons to be famous later) on that innocent year of 1913, a bit more than a century ago. Of course, this is a literary ploy, as the book was ready to be read in 2013 exactly. But even if I missed the mark by… 8 years (!), it’s still very interesting.

We see Marcel Proust writing La Recherche du temps perdu, but we also see some guy learning to play the trumpet, a boy named Louis Armstrong. We see Kafka being miserable after a failed marriage proposal. We see a guy named Hitler painting rather badly. It’s a lot of anecdotes, some silly, or mundane, some marked by melancholy and a sense of foreboding. The tone is ironic and the anecdotes pivot from one to the next on a pun or a mere coincidence. And coincidences run aplenty. Famous people cross each other’s path, they go to famous painting exhibitions, react to scandalous new art performances (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), admire each other or insult each other.

It is a geological section of the world on any given year… and what a year! To enjoy this book, you need some knowledge about German writers and painters from that particular period, otherwise I’d say that it would seem rather mundane and even pointless… or you’d need to spend a lot of time on Wikipedia (well, that might be a choice for the weekend, but consider yourself warned). At that period, everyone was keeping a detailed journal, or so it seems, and so some famous writer’s toothache is reported alongside an intellectual dispute over the meaning of life, since they happened the same week of 1913. It really sent me down a rabbit hole of thoughts. In 1913, there was only 1,6 billion people on earth, now we humans are probably 7,8 billions, what kind of a book could be written about 2020, or rather 2019, if we take the same approach? What anecdotes would make it to a book written in 50 years’ time with perfect hindsight? I wonder…

The weakness of the book is that it’s awfully Germano-centric. The whole world of 1913 happens between Berlin, Vienna, Prag, and Paris. America is seldom mentioned, and Africa, Asia, South America, the Pacific are not mentioned at all. But still, it was a lot of fun.

If you want an audio companion to this book, try Radiolab’s episode: Dispatches of 1918, which looks at a special year across the globe (in Germany, but not only there), to see the aftermath of the war and of the flu epidemic. To think that this episode happened only 5 years later than the book sent me to a whole other rabbit hole… 🐰

Pod Review June 5-11

Summer is here! (but school’s not over yet). I’m going back to work on premises 1 day a week for now, and it feels weird… and quite enough to be honest. Maybe as the temperatures will continue to rise, air-conditioning will actually entice employees like me to return more often to the office! In northern part of France most people don’t have A/C at home… We need to find our feet on this new normal, but we’ll probably stay in flux until September 1st (when all of France gets serious again).

I might be getting antsy due to summer, but some familiar shows are getting a bit boring (it might be only me). Luckily others, like Rough Translation, have found a new interesting twist on their topics. Rough Translation has been specialized in culture divides and I enjoyed its international approach, but it was getting a bit stale, until it started to look into a new cultural divide: soldiers against civilians.

  • The Best Advice Show: Quit Future-Tripping with Stephanie Wittels Wachs (and Harris Wittels): a short, but timely reminder against anxiety
  • NPR Rough Translation: Home/Front: a new season focused on the gap between the military and the civilian world. Very American-centric, but very interesting.
  • NPR Rough Translation: Home/Front, Battle Rattle: a love story between a veteran and a civilian; not easy to listen to, but moving, and wow, I admire that woman! (there’s another part of this story and I look forward to hearing the rest)
  • This American Life #738 Good Grief
  • Zigzag podcast with Manoush Z. [new-to-me] Step 1, The Pulse. This is a 6 steps project led by Manoush (please allow me a moment of total fan-girl)
  • 💙 NPR On Our Watch: In Good Faith [new-to-me]
  • Lazy Genius: #111 What I’ll be cooking this summer. A 2019 episode, but I need some inspiration into my meal plan for summer, and it hasn’t aged. Very good ideas!
  • Invisibilia part 3/3 of the Chaos Machine: a looping revenge. I was not taken in by this story, and it’s a shame because I feel that it could have been better if done by the team of This American Life or Radiolab.
  • Throughline Operation Nemesis: about the revenge against the Turkish people responsible for the Armenian genocide in 1915. Is it ok to kill someone who has killed thousands of people?

I tried 2 new shows this week. I heard about the Zigzag project through Gretchen Rubin’s newsletter, and I’ve stopped after the first episode, not because it was not good, but because I wanted to take it seriously and do the questions myself on the side! It’s about aligning your values with your professional ambitions. It’s very interesting and exciting!

The other show was completely different, and no less good. In “On Our Faith”, NPR and NQED are investigating about police internal investigations. It is shocking, complex, and so much deeper than what I’d thought. We get to witness police abuse, and then blatant lies and cover-ups. I don’t know if the situation is particular to the U.S. police, but the journalists’ work into this web of lies is really a public service to American communities.

I keep finding great content, and my listening queue is beginning to be almost as long as my TBR pile! I barely dare asking what good shows you’ve been listening to lately 😉. Happy weekend!

The One with the Mumbai Fiancee

Anisha Bhatia, The Rules of Arrangement (2021)

The life of wealthy Mumbai young women is full of luxury and modern amenities, but for some matters it is still governed by traditions, especially when it comes to marriage. A young woman must marry before she is 25, to a young man presented to her by her parents, and she must smile, be thin and fair-skinned. She can’t be overly interested in her career, she can’t utter her opinions in front of prospective in-laws, she can’t paint her nails black and fart when doing yoga.

I downloaded the review copy of this book expecting light romance, but this is slightly misleading. While the book indeed has some tropes of the genre (happy ending, love triangle, office romance…), it is more about a young woman breaking away from social conventions and family expectations to forge her own destiny. The love story is not really the center stage here.

Zoya is very good at her marketing job, but she is fat and dark-skinned, and her chances of marrying well are shrinking fast, to the despair of her family, especially her mother and aunt. Zoya can’t really say no to them both as they conspire to get her married to a wealthy young man. It doesn’t seem to matter that he is actually a health and fitness freak, while Zoya doesn’t do sport, that his calorie-counting mother wants her prospective daughter-in-law to stay home and dutifully have kids, while Zoya dreams of New York. It doesn’t matter that the young man might have a few skeletons in his cupboard, especially when Zoya’s family may have been totally lying when presenting her as well. Indeed, this is not a match made in heaven.

There were quite a few weaknesses in the book, starting with this weird pigeonholing in the wrong genre. Secondary characters are rather schematic, the pacing is a bit uneven and the ending predictable from the get-go. Some scenes seem more than implausible (but plausibility and romance are not known to go hand in hand). Also, I can’t avoid mentioning that the novel is not even attempting to sugar-coat the fatphobic remarks that Zoya encounters every day from everyone, including in her own train of thoughts (Zoya is a strong character but nowhere near perfect). I understand that the book might not be for everyone but I guess it’s a reflect of Indian culture as well.

Still, The Rules of Arrangement has redeeming qualities. I really enjoyed the immersion in Indian culture (and that the author expects us to take it in stride, instead of dumbing it down with too much exoticism). We might have come in for a Bollywood glittery story, but we get to see how much stress and sadness there is behind the curtain for the women. I enjoyed how the writer shows the complexity of mothers and aunts who put pressure on daughters to perpetuate a tradition they themselves were also victims of.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

The One with the Artist Bride

Nathalie Leger, La robe blanche (French, 2018; English Title: The White Dress, 2020)

I first heard of this writer and this book from Reading Indie’s newsletter, and I was sort of piqued that I’d never even heard of a French writer.

The White Dress is the sort of book that resists categorization. It’s probably an essay, although it could also be a novel intercepted with real facts. The narrator may be Nathalie Léger herself but I can’t say for sure, even though I will assume so in this post. She hears about the artist Pippa Bacca through the news and becomes obsessed with her. Pippa Bacca is a young performance artist, who left her native Italy in early 2008 wearing a bride’s white gown to travel across Europe depending on people hospitality and kindness. It was an artistic gesture of hope and trust, trying to meet people along the road from Italy to Jerusalem crossing the Balkans (just a few year after a terrible war) and Turkey. She hitch-hiked from place to place, and wherever she stopped, she met with local people and midwives and explained her artistic endeavor for peace, filming herself to document her trip.

Unfortunately, after a few months, Pippa Bacca meets a tragic death in Turkey, raped and murdered by a man who has taken her for a ride. Her idealist quest for peace has ended in senseless violence. Even worse, the murderer stole her video camera and filmed the wedding of one of his own relatives. It is both shocking and senseless, and Nathalie Léger never tries to give definite answers to all the questions that this event raises. What was Pippa trying to demonstrate? What about this wedding dress? Was she naive, religious or something else? Léger refers to a lot of other female performance artists and interrogates what is performance art and what are female artists attempting with these quests. I am personally fascinated by Marina Abramovic‘s performances, and I am aware that for most of these pieces, artists don’t provide a ready-made explanation of what they want to do, so as a reader you’re left with the mystery, even more so as Pippa is no longer alive.

The book has a second story line about the narrator’s own mother and her attempt to come to terms with a fault divorce. Léger’s father sued her mother for divorce, humiliating her publicly, and she never could defend herself. Along the book, we see the daughter and the mother getting closer to one another. It’s a bit confusing at first because the two lines of the book are apparently nothing to do with each other, but when I finished the book I could see it as an exploration of different aspects of violence against women.

I really enjoyed this book, even though it is very different from what I’m used to read. I find similarities with Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder, which is a personal inquiry into a real person, dead a long time ago, and how mysterious the life of others can remain despite our attempts. The White Dress is a part of a trilogy; I look forward to read the two other parts.

PS. The White Dress is available in English from the Dorothy Project, as are the two other books in the trilogy.

Pod Review May 29 – June 4

Now that most people in my immediate circle are having their first Covid vaccine shot, I’m more willing to listen to all these podcasts about transitioning back to “normal life”, which were out in the US one or two months ago. I found some comfort in the realization that probably everyone, on both sides of the Atlantic, has mixed feelings and some trepidation. I am not one to always go for silver linings, but it’s true that I enjoy some parts of lock-down life. I am in no hurry to being back in the office more than 1 day a week (2 maybe? but the HR department doesn’t seem to be aligned with my wishes…). But I look forward to a more normal summer and I’ve been busy making plans to travel to neighboring countries in August. I keep fingers crossed that crossing borders will go smoothly!

  • Floodlines by The Atlantic, episode 8: The Wake: the final episode of this series was heart-breaking and just as great as the rest of the series. It’s not really optimistic, but I really enjoyed it
  • Radiolab Brown Box: this is a rerun on an episode about Amazon warehouses and it was really eye-opening
  • Best of Both Worlds: #198 Pet Peeves; mmh, let’s say that I don’t share these women’s pet peeves
  • Best of Both Worlds: #199 All Things Summer; I needed to hear the two hosts talk about their plans to kick me into gear to plan our own summer.
  • Sorta Awesome #291 Back to… normal?
  • Edit Your Life #231 Preserving Slow Living Post-Pandemic
  • Throughline Five fingers crush the land; about Chinese government’s systematic policy against the Uighur community. Even though I am familiar with many things about China, this episode was very good and informative and necessary.
  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin #327 Something to remember: Gretchen passed out on live TV
  • 💙 Radiolab The Rhino Hunter; this is a rerun of a favorite episode. It’s well… complicated… and I love how this show is never shy about nuances and never gives a black-and-white answer to a question that so many people answer way too fast: is it ok to kill endangered wild animals? The episode is full of twists and I challenge you to finish it with the same opinion that you started it with.
  • Retire Sooner with Wes Moss: Clark Howard on Saving More and Retiring early. I’d enjoyed the first episode I’d tried from this show last week, but that second helping was disappointing. I didn’t care at all about the guest, and I’m guessing that podcasts that interview people about their lives’ journey is just not for me.
  • How to Save a Planet: Recycling, is it BS? I learnt quite a lot about this episode.
  • We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle: [new to me] Anxiety, is it just love holding its breath? This show is a bit on the long side for me (1 hour), but I really enjoyed what she says. I’m not a die-hard fan of Glennon Doyle but I think she’s basically a good person. I was afraid that the show would be too preachy or intense, but it is nothing like that.

I only tried one new show this week but it was a good experience (to be confirmed with other episodes). I learnt so much through podcasts this week, in topics as varied as plastics down-cycling, about panic attacks and racial discrimination against Uighurs in China. What have you learnt through podcasts?

The One with the Metal Detectorists

Elly Griffiths, The Night Hawks (Ruth Galloway #13, 2021)

This is only my second Ruth Galloway mystery but I am already invested in this tightly-knit community of interesting characters – and I also know that this book won’t be the last I read in the series! I discovered Ruth Galloway and her little Norfolk village in March with #11 (yes, I know, this is not reasonable) and this one is #13, but I could catch up without any problem. I won’t say the book can’t read as a standalone, but if you do, be aware that you might soon get addicted like me and that you’ll want to read the rest!

Ruth Galloway is an archaeologist (and now the head of her university department), and so to her, metal detectorists are just annoying amateurs who are messing around and messing things up. I’ve hardly ever seen metal detectorists in my part of the world but I had never thought they actually could find real historical artifacts! But here, not only do they find an old burial site on the Norfolk coastline, but they also discover the body of a recently deceased person. And this person may not have died of natural causes… That’s one of those (happy?) coincidences where Ruth Galloway finds herself once again at a crime scene at the same time as DCI Nelson, who is also the father of her child.

I let myself being entertained by a mystery full of twists and red herrings, but I cared less for the whodunnit than for the interactions between the large cast of characters. Is Ruth going to enjoy her new position at work? Why is her newly recruited professor so cocky? Will Nelson ever consider retirement? What kind of Norfolk tradition and old tales will the mystical druid Cathbad refer to this time? How is it possible for a druid to be happily married to a police inspector? Where is Clough? (that one may have its answer in volume #14 that I missed). Thanks to Griffiths’ great skills at characterization and witty dialogues, I actually cared about this small world as if all these people really existed. (I do wonder how she keeps track of all these people though…)

The book will keep you turning the pages late into the night, and if you’re anything like me, Norfolk coastline will probably be added to your list of destinations to visit one day.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Shall I or Shall I Not? (Summer Challenge)

I rarely venture into reading challenges because I can’t hold myself to the discipline when there are so many books vying for my interest out there.

But Laila from Big Reading Life made it more accessible for me, and all of a sudden, I might decide to join Cathy’s summer challenge (from 746 books), after all! What? Committing to 20 books between the beginning of June and the end of August, when the schedule is the most unpredictable, and when I even might not be close to my books and to my computer?

The trick is that Laila is not deciding all the 20 books all at once, she gives herself some “wiggle room” as she says. The proverbial light bulb went on in my mind! I want some wiggle room too! That was the exact thing that stopped me from joining the challenge, because if I needed to commit to 20 titles right now, I would probably take 2.5 months to decide !

But if I decide for, let’s say… 15… 12… 10? And then decide later for the rest, while leaving that beloved… “wiggle room” for library books and last minute switches, then all of a sudden 20 books are not so daunting anymore! Let’s see if I can gather a solide base (in no particular order):

  1. Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
  2. Magda Szabo, The Door
  3. Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet
  4. Han Kang, The Vegetarian
  5. Karen Maitland, Company of Liars
  6. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
  7. Ann Cleeves, The Darkest evening
  8. Simone van der Vlugt, Red Snow in December
  9. Pierre Bayard, Aurais-je été résistant ou bourreau?
  10. Sylvia Townsend Warner, English Climate, Wartime stories

These 10 books are all physical copies I own, and some are large format (which may not be suitable for August when we will do our yearly family trip). So the rest of the 10 slots will be made of library books, ARCs or e-books. Among them I still have the goal to complete with each of my sons the big book we have started: The Three Musketeers for my older son and the first tome of the Lord of the Rings with my younger son. That would be great if it was done before they start school again but it’s an ambitious goal as both books are currently on stand-by.

What about your summer reading plans?