The one with my middle-school swashbuckling crush

Michel Zévaco, Le chevalier de Pardaillan (French, 1907)

$_35I don’t really know what takes me to revisit some of the books I loved as a child or a teenager. Because, people, when I think about it reasonably, I can’t really see the benefit:

  • I am a grownup now, so I know better. I read better too (at least I hope so)
  • it’s not as if I had nothing to read (insert huge TBR pile here)
  • it’s very likely that I will end up disappointed by the book, by the hero I cherished, by my teenaged self, or all of the above.

It’s not so say I read a lot of crap as a child, but the reasons why some books stuck with me well into adulthood are that they resonated with me at a certain age, not really because of their literary brilliance.

Anyway, I’ve done it again. Sherlock Holmes last summer, Pardaillan this time (before the summer break). And the good news is, it was fun. I had no problem swallowing the 544 pages of heroic adventures where the shiny Chevalier defends damsels in distress under the reign of French king Charles IX during the civil war between Catholics and Protestants. Pardaillan refuses to take sides, falls in love, fights left and right, always to defend the innocent, the unfairly accused, the weaker party. He crosses the path of many historical figures especially as this book (part of a long series) tries to explain how the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre came to happen (in 1572), the same events Dumas evokes in his Reine Margot.

I guess I couldn’t help but introduce the name of Dumas in my post. Pardaillan is highly inspired by Dumas’ D’Artagnan. Indeed, it is hard as an adult to read a chapter without comparing with the other book (I hadn’t read it as a child). And I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t quite measure up. Yes, the hero is dashing and the plot is romantic and highly convoluted. But Zevaco’s text first appeared as a daily series in a newspaper, and obviously there was little editing and a lot of repetition, lyrical flights of fancy, rhetoric questions to the reader, digressions etc. Dumas is a chatterbox, but Zevaco manages to beat him at it.

I can tell very precisely when I started reading this book: 1988. That was the year the TV series was released in France (thank you, weird internet trivia). Its main actor, Patrick Bouchitey, is pictured in the photo above. Isn’t he dashing? (in the late 1980s way, that is) I was starting middle-school and got a serious crush on the series actor. Plus, I got to learn a lot more on a particular history period that the history teacher ever explained to us. And I wasn’t afraid to read huge tomes from the grownup shelves! So you see, I’m not really disappointed with my old tween self.

The Writing Resolution: Fifty Words

Departure Lounge. Jet-Lag. Friends and Family. And dogs. Swimsuit, Pond, Canoe. Blue Jays, Cardinals and Hummingbirds. Libraries, Bookstores. Lobster rolls, clams. Iced lattes. Air-conditioning. Cream cheese and bagels. Tourist tchotchkes, museum pass. Meeting people in real life. Seeing people after decades. Missing people. Heavyhearted goodbyes. Acorns in the emptied suitcase.

Twenty-two days without blog writing, or much writing at all. I missed it, yet I didn’t really miss it.

How do I ease back into a routine so easily interrupted? These are my fifty words for my first day back. Don’t worry, book posts will resume soon!

The Writing Resolution: July Status

Can someone please tell me how stay-at-home mothers manage to write? I have been working most of July days and my writing routine has run pretty much smoothly those days, but since a few days I’m at home and that’s the time I can’t seem to write anything much. I still stick to the 50 words minimum and it works, but I still haven’t found a definitive direction to my writing.

Which doesn’t bear well for August where we will be away on family vacation, but I guess I’ll try to journal and find an arrangement with Mr. Smithereens for some free half-hours stolen to the schedule somehow.

But alone at home with 2 boys shrieking and running wild? I’m not even facing sibling rivalry, they’re just too excited about playing tag (End of July is when Paris empties itself, so at least we’re not bothering the neighbors). Even if I could sneak some time during the baby’s nap (during which the big boy is reading Harry Potter to himself! heaven!), I’m either too tired or I can’t think straight. Sesame Street is not doing anything for my creative juices.

I have tried to think anew about old unfinished stories: why did I abandon them? Is it a fatal flaw in the plot, characters or just a lack of momentum in my own writing? I find it hard to let these stories go, because at one time I found them valuable. I am still caring for most of them, but I’m convinced that they probably need a complete do-over to work effectively. It reminds me of a post by Dad who writes on Character’s Hauntology. These stories are still haunting me. I guess I have to get to the bottom of why they haunt me first.

Reading Aloud with my Oldest: The Big Adventure Starts

We have embarked on an adventure.

Not yet the big trip across the Atlantic, but an equally fantastic one, and one that will take us for a far longer journey together. We have embarked on an adventure that starts on Privet Drive, and we’re very soon going to board a train to Hogwarts School.

Yes, you guessed it, my son and I have started reading Harry Potter together. He had his 7th birthday last month (just a blink of an eye) and I gave him the book, for a mother-son readaloud project.

It’s really the first time we tackle such a big chapter book, except Kipling’s Just so Stories, which were, well, just stories. So I kind of braced myself for the transition (especially after listening to the Readaloud podcast where they advise simpler chapter books first), and I waited quite a while before getting the book even though he’d asked for it, having heard about it at school. One thing that decided me is that I absolutely wanted to read to him the book before he’d watch the movie, because to me it would be spoiling the imaginary world that the book would build in his mind. Although he has already seen the movies posters everywhere in town, I don’t want him to see Harry Potter only as Daniel Radcliffe.

The first chapter was a little tough, as it took a few pages to just set the decor of Privet Drive and of the Dursleys boring routine. My son really wanted to get to Harry, and preferably not Harry-the-baby, but Harry-the-boy-with-awesome-powers. (Can you tell he already identifies himself?).

From the second chapter on I could tell he was hooked. He really tried to understand the minutiae of Harry’s life among the Dursleys, and was not rolling his eyes when I asked if he understood a difficult word or two (which he didn’t, of course, but then as I read aloud I sometimes switch to simpler vocabulary. No offense, J.K. Rowling, but considering I’m already reading a translated book, where Hogwarts is known as Poudlard, I don’t really mind). I caught him reading by himself in-between evening read-aloud sessions, which is clearly a sign of success, but kind of difficult for me to follow.

He can’t wait to see the moment when Harry meets his friends Ron and Hermione. I can’t wait to see him discover the trio. I have suitcases to fill and endless lists to check-off before our departure to America, but as a matter of books for my oldest, I think we’re all set. What do you think?

A Boston Book-cation

Danielle has posted yesterday about a book-cation to Jerusalem, and by now I am seriously dreaming about books set in Boston where we will be… next week!

During spring I watched the movie version of The Bostonians by Henry James (the Merchant Ivory version with Vanessa Redgrave). I listened to Haruki Murakami’s memoir of running along the Charles River to prepare a triathlon (that I will never do!). It’s been a while but I still have a fond memory of a cozy mystery set around the Mount Auburn Cemetery, and perhaps we will get there. Boston suburbs make me think of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, and of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar (which I had trouble finishing a lifetime ago). On a whole other planet, there’s the detective rabbi from Harry Kemelman’s series. And of course there’s Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter too.

I didn’t remember that Shutter Island was supposed to be an island off Boston coast. Nor did I know that Dennis Lehane’s crime fiction is set in Boston, because I never managed to get past the few first pages of Mystic River (I’m probably missing out, perhaps I’ll be inspired to try again after our trip, who knows?).

In pop culture, I associate Boston with Ally McBeal (which probably will make you guess my age) and Legally Blonde, a silly movie I still can’t disown (shake your head in disgust if you want, to me it’s a feel-good movie for one of these bad days…).

If I extend my book-cation to embrace all of Massachusetts, of course we might go to Concord and see a bit of Louisa May Alcott, or try Lenox for a quick hello to Edith Wharton who adored France, although her Massachusetts-based Ethan Frome is even more depressing than her other city tales. Or maybe Salem for the Crucibles? Or Amherst for Emily Dickinson? The choice is so hard, and I haven’t started to dream about bookshops yet.

What did I forget? Do you have any recommendations for books set in and around Boston? Any special place?

The one that reminded me of serial

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)

It’s Rebecca who put me on track with this book, Rebecca whom I had the pleasure to meet in real life during my holidays! Those who know me know how I love all things Serial (I’m still mildly obsessed and I recently binge-podcasted Undisclosed on the plane) and I love all things Janet Malcolm ever since I read The Silent Woman (again at Rebecca’s recommendation), but I don’t know how I didn’t make the connection between those two. Sometimes, things right under my nose escape me (like that recent example).

The Journalist and the Murderer is basically what happens when a man accused and convicted of having murdered his wife and kids (Jeffrey McDonald) is approached by a journalist (Joe McGinniss) in order to write a book about his story. The accused allows him inside his place, inside his defense team, all with the idea that the journalist’s book will cast a positive light on him as he tries to appeal his sentence. They get very close and apparently friendly. But when the book comes out (in 1983), McDonald discovers that he is described as a psychopath who is surely guilty of the murder. The weirdest part is that the murderer then sues the journalist for breach of trust, saying that he has been misled. A jury has then to decide if it’s morally defensible for a journalist to be friendly with the subject of his investigation in order to get more information.

Needless to say, my first reaction to all this was: only in America!

My second reaction was to compare it point by point to the odd relation that developed during the podcast season between convicted murderer Adnan  Sayed and radio journalist Sarah Koenig. Not that Koenig, as an excellent professional, seemed ever too friendly or misleading with Sayed from what we got to hear. She kept a critical eye, but at times she herself warmed up at the idea that Sayed is such a nice guy that he couldn’t have done it. I don’t really remember how she came to learn about this particular case, but wasn’t she called out by the defense team?

I have enjoyed Serial a lot, not only for the suspense of who really killed Hae min Lee, but also for the quest of trying to establish the truth of a situation and the truth about anything. The deeper into the investigation, the closer Sarah Koenig comes to the realization that you can’t ever know for sure what happened. Even phone towers don’t scientifically tell you for sure where a person was. A phone booth may or may not have been in a supermarket, a butt dial may or may not have been received by a phone. When you move to people and their memory and feelings, things get even blurrier. In the end, like in all noir movies or in a Philip Kerr thriller, you get away slightly shaken by this doomed quest.

As for McGinniss, his intentions weren’t nice, even if he probably didn’t deserve the harsh opinion that the jury got on him (the case was settled out of court as McGinniss paid McDonald a rather huge amount). He desperately needed this book to be successful in order to keep his career afloat, and his book had better be full of dirty revelations (these were the 1980s, but I don’t think it has changed much, or for the better). Malcolm tries to remain neutral while she is herself the journalist investigating McGinniss, but the result is still that McGinniss looks pretty sly (which is better than being a sociopath, I guess). She casts some harsh moral judgment on journalism in general, as being indefensible (no wonder that some journalists rose in fury). The relation between the subject and his writer is that of a confession where the subject tries to make himself as interesting as possible, while having no control over the final result. In principle, I believe she nails it, but some journalists still do a pretty good job at trying to keep a moral clarity.

This made me think about what Sayed might think of Serial’s huge success, to what extent he tried to manipulate Koenig, and to what extent she fell prey to it or was aware of it. Needless to say, the podcast’s success certainly helped pushing his attempts at revision of his conviction (I’m not quite sure where things are right now). But it could have gone both ways, and in fact Koenig concluded herself that she couldn’t be sure of Sayed’s innocence, admitting that there was a chance that he was indeed guilty.

Like every time I read Malcolm, there was much to think about, and I look forward to reading another of her books! Any recommendations?

A Summer Book Bargain

(I haven’t forgotten about my suspenseful riddle on mangas… I’m just waiting to pass by the bookshop once more to get a decent picture of it, thought it might be fun! And meanwhile…)

Naughty me! I’ve been good for a number of months, taking books from the libraries or reading from the huge backlog gathering dust on our own bookshelves, but e-books have the power to make me yield: it’s not as if they are adding to the clutter or if they are taking any physical space. Therefore, sneaking one in my virtual shopping basket doesn’t feel like a real purchase.

The only thing that slows me down is that French e-books are priced more or less the same price as the paper book, which publishers justify by the amount of intellectual work that needs to be paid in any format. I get it, yet at a purely instinctive level I feel a bit cheated. In one case I have something in my hand to show for my money, in the other I have a magical flow of data that surges out of nowhere (that’s the land of the clouds) to flies into a device that already lay on my table. Yes, I realize that this representation makes me an old dinosaur. Anyway, call me inconsistent and stingy if you want but I am still reluctant to pay 15 euros for an e-book.

Which make Amazon Kindle promotions almost impossible to resist!

They do it on English books (because they’re bound by French laws for the local ones) but a book for 1.99 or 2.99 for a limited time only? What’s a book blogger to do?

So last weekend I splurged and instant-bought my way to e-book paradise:

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel for 2,69 euros: I’m normally fearful of post-apocalyptic books, but I heard so much good about it that I’m going to give it a try.
  • The Secrets of Station X: How the Bletchley Park code-breakers helped win the war, for 0,99 euro. I’ve loved the Bletchley Circle in DVDs, and the real story seems just as fascinating.
  • The Beekeeper’s apprentice by Laurie R. King for 0,99 euro: I’m a sucker for all things Sherlock. I can’t help it.
  • The complete plays of Shakespeare for 0,49 euro!

Fortunately, I managed to stop my shopping spree there and then. But I just let you know so that my European friends can enjoy those great deals as well!

The one that made me pause and bow down

Raymond Carver, Trois Roses Jaunes (French 1988), Stories from the collection Where I’m Calling From

I knew I was going to love it, and I won’t pretend I really saved it for any special occasion. But everything and everyone had told me that the day I would finally start reading Raymond Carver I would love it.

To add to the confusion, apparently the French publishers picked and chose in the short story collection and just published 7 stories out of the 37. How they did this choice, I have no idea, there’s no pre- or post-face. My hope is that they published the remaining 30 under a different name, as my husband reported that the library has several collections. The only drawback is that they’re all in French. I’m still struggling to identify the corresponding stories in English.

Sometimes an American author’s voice get lost in translation, because the short sentences become dry and blunt and banal. That’s why I always prefer reading in the original text if possible. Here, it took me a while to get used to Carver’s style, but I was immediately at ease, because I could so relate with his intention. Understated feelings and despair, untold pain, ordinary situations and struggles, very short pieces, realist settings but not particularly set in time and place.

It was a treat to read a short story every day, although it was often with a heavy heart that I parted from the main character. A heavy heart when we left the man whose ageing mother was once again moving and making endless petty difficulties in “Boxes”. A heavy heart when we left the man whose whole family sucked money out of him until he could no longer care for himself in “Elephant”. A heavy heart when we left Chekhov on his deathbed while all the bell boy could only think of was what to do with a champagne cork, missing the big event entirely. Some main characters are unpleasant and/or downright pathetic, like the cheating husband in “Menudo”, or the husband who pretends to have an excellent memory and to understand everything about his wife, only to see her leave him under the police’ protection in “Blackbird pie”.

Although it was sometimes hard to follow Carver in seemingly trite stories full of tacky characters, I found myself in a familiar writing environment. These are my kind of stories. Not that I really can write those, I wouldn’t pretend that, but I walk along those lines. And I hope the journey with Carver will be very long.

The one that makes you double-check the locks

Librairie 16 rues Moines 75017 Paris

This is where it all started… a small comics place without a name…

Daisuke Imai, Sangsues (French 2015, Japanese “Hiru” 2011)

Here comes the post that answers the probably most suspenseful question of summer (besides “when can I be on holidays pleeease?”): “which manga did I choose?”… Offered three tantalizing options by a very professional bookseller, I went with the manga called “Leeches”.

Yes I know, yucky! Isn’t this title evocative enough? Indeed it is very creepy. So creepy that I’m effectively hooked.

I could have gone with the zombie/freedom of art one, but I am a mother of two young children, one of which is able to read on his own and interested in any comics/manga that lays around, and the art was quite explicit, so I kept the title in mind but couldn’t really buy it. A responsible mother wouldn’t do that. That’s what you call self-censorship.

Anyway I don’t regret my choice. “Leeches” is full of promises, considering that it’s the first of a 6-part series. It highlights a bizarre Japanese social phenomenon I was hardly aware of: the disappearing act of thousands of people in Japan, who simply go missing one day. The name is “johatsu” like evaporation or disappearance. Apparently the police doesn’t really try to find them, or can’t due to administrative red tape.

While preparing this post I stumbled upon an investigative book about such people, by Léna Mauger and a French (Belgian?) photographer Stéphane Remael. I didn’t read the book but his pictures from his website are quite sad and haunting, as disappeared people or their families left behind say a few words about their distress and why they chose to leave everything and go under the radar: bullying by the yakuza, debt or job loss, struggle with their spouse or family… They disappear into the anonymity of big cities, just like this manga’s heroin (but the comparison stops there).

Yoko is a young woman who has ran away from her family to go find her boyfriend in town, but had to leave him too (I don’t want to disclose too much). Without any resources or friends she hides away in plain sight, while normal people go about their lives, she sneaks into empty flats to use other people’s belongings, food, bed. Nobody seems to notice subtle changes in their home (I believed I would, but with a baby at home, if something is not exactly at the same place when I come back from work I wouldn’t pay attention). Yoko takes care to leave before the rightful owner comes back, and with a rota of several people working different schedules, she actually survives quite well, until she discovers she’s not the only one to have such a bizarre lifestyle, and that other “leeches” don’t like her to mess about.

The story set in the anonymous big Japanese megacity is quite believable to my foreign eyes. There is lots of loneliness, sadness and quite a quota of violence in it (but no zombies). Luckily for my ability to sleep at night, I like to believe that Japanese people have weird habits, that they are very private and don’t care for their neighbors, and that it wouldn’t be possible in my little Paris neighborhood where concierges (caretakers) would notice or ask questions about a new girl sneaking in and out of the building.

Or would they really?

The one at maximum velocity, too much for my tired brain

Pierre Lemaitre, Sacrifices (French 2012, Camille, English 2015)

Sometimes I’m just plain stupid. No, don’t be polite, just wait, let me explain.

When I heard about Pierre Lemaitre’s thrillers, most probably through Marina Sofia or Sarah early this year, I squirreled away a little note and added to my ongoing TBR list. I didn’t bother writing down the title, since it was so clever to have each volume named after each main protagonist. It never occurred to me that they were the titles chosen for the English translation, and that the French publisher hadn’t done the same clever choice.

Now when I visited the book donation shelves at work, I stumbled upon a thriller with a rather banal cover (a woman’s face behind broken glass) with a bland title (Sacrifices) and a bland writer’s name.

Something like Pierre Lemaitre, a name that didn’t. Ring. Any. Bell. A name like that is the French equivalent of Jack Miller, Fred Jones or John Doe. A combination of Peter Rabbit and Doctor Masters (yes, someone has been watching DVDs…). Seriously, didn’t any publisher tell him to change his name for something more memorable? It feels like a false name someone would give for a very bad alibi. Ok, that’s no excuse.

The opening scene was quite something. I would say mind-blowing if it wasn’t already a spoiler. The alternate voices, the breathless pace, the tongue in cheek, snarky glance towards the reader… It was highly addictive. I had a weird feeling of déjà vu.

Then I hit the bulge of the middle part and the pace kind of lost a little steam. Especially as the book referred to previous events in 2 books I hadn’t read. Which was just as well, because in the midst of all this violence and mystery, my brain was trying to tell me something. Like this book should remind me of… Like this writer’s kind of famous for…

Needless to say there was a rather embarrassing “aha” moment, not the Oprah kind, but that sounded more like “duh”. That unknown writer had won the highest literature prize in France, the 2013 Prix Goncourt, that is advertised possibly everywhere in France (even newspapers stands have it in train stations)… and it stood… on my nightstand since April (a slow read, but that’s a whole other story).

But I hadn’t made the connection. Yes, now you agree that I am stupid. Or very very tired.

I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in order, but it would have required a degree of intelligence that I hadn’t possessed at the time. It’s been a while since I read something as violent (the opening scene especially) and I normally don’t mind, but I think it wasn’t the best way to be introduced to Commandant Verhoeven, even if Lemaitre is a master at plotting and story-telling. I would add that Pierre Lemaitre is a writer to watch for, but I’m not fit to dole out lessons.