The one with Quaker quilts

Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway (2012)

I must admit that I used to have prejudices against Tracy Chevalier: The girl with the pearl earring (which I think I read in a previous life), The lady and the unicorn (which I’m sure I haven’t) made me think that she had found one recipe for churning out bestsellers, taking a famous piece of art and weaving any kind of romance into it.

But I stumbled upon Remarkable creatures on audio book and it was such a fun read that I decided to give her a second chance.

This time, with the role of Quakers communities in Ohio in the underground railway around 1850. As a European, I don’t know much about the historical facts, and so I enjoyed the informative part quite a lot. I also appreciated to be told the story from the point of view of a non-American, a recent immigrant, a British Quaker girl, Honor Bright, who’d come to Ohio to accompany her sister due to get married. I like that she’s not chasing the American dream, it’s just that she couldn’t stay in her community after being jilted by her fiancé.

She spends quite a while complaining about the strange way Americans behave, and I understand that out may be annoying for some readers, but to me out made sense as a rather immature girl who had led a sheltered life in a small village, brought up with high principles but who didn’t have to face any moral dilemma to put them into practice. It’s a classic coming of age story as well as a classic immigration story of finding a new home in a new country. While I don’t want to give away all the plot, it became obvious to me early on that Honor is the runaway of the title, running away from her old life and in part from herself.

I have little knowledge of Quakers at all, the little bit coming from Patrick Gale’s Notes of an exhibition. The Quaker part and the quilting part were the ones I enjoyed most. I liked that Honor, as an expert quilter compares American and British techniques and sees her new country in light of these differences in sewing and stitching. Isn’t that quite true that we judge new places we visit through tiny facts we gather and through very personal lenses of interpretation? I look forward to checking exactly how both types of quilts look like.

The one that makes you grateful to remain unpublished

Posy Simmonds, Literary Life (2003)

Posy Simmons’ art is deceptively simple, plump characters, round noses and eyes, neat little English shops and Cotswolds picture perfect countryside, beautiful doctors and nurses in uniform reminding us of 1970s photo novels.

All this little world is perfectly polite and nice, and that’s all the funnier when the bite kicks in with typical British wit.

This book is actually a collection of one page cartoons that had been previously published as a regular feature in the Guardian. In this respect reading it from cover to cover is a bit too much, it’s more pleasant to dip into the book for one our two pages at a time, especially these days when you’ve been to your favorite bookshop and come back dreaming you’d quit your job and have your own, or when you hear of indie publishers, or when you’ve received a rejection message and contemplate your manuscript gathering dust in your drawer.

Because if you follow Simmonds to the letter, you’ll just let your manuscript alone and find another activity for your free time!

She has a little something for everyone: for ageing writers with over-inflated egos, for aspiring writers who have “rustic block” in their nice thatched cottage, for writers who write badly, for children books writers who are never considered seriously (anyone can do it), for indie bookshop owners who are self righteously jealous of the bigger chain stores but secretly go there, for the YA writers who want to sell the next bestseller full of scandal, for the writer’s partner who can’t cope anymore and for the readers too!

Sometimes it is funny ah-ah, sometimes she nails it so cleverly that it makes me cringe a little, the (few) times I recognize myself in it, especially the young mother who tries to juggle writing and a baby.

I’m not knowledgeable enough to recognise if Simmonds satirizes some real-life authors and publishers (it sometimes feels like she’s settling some score, even though I’m not sure with whom), but I guess it’s fair enough.

At any case it makes a great present for aspiring writers and book lovers.

The one with the blind wizard

Ursula Le Guin, Gifts (2004)

I wanted to try young adult fantasy for a while, so I thought Ursula Le Guin was a good reference point. The truth: that’s the only name that came to mind as I walked through the young adult shelves at the library. Neil Gaiman was another, but there wasn’t any translated title available.

As a newbie in that area I noticed that young adult fantasy literature is often series of 3 books with cryptic but related titles, and heavily air-brushed cover art. Is it a convention of the genre? Ironically enough, as I am more familiar with Victorian literature than 21st century YA, I wondered if it wasn’t a strange resurgence of the Triple Decker, or just an unconscious nod to the mammoth trilogy of the Lord of the Ring.

Anyway. Gifts is the first tome of the Annals of the Western Shore, a land that resembles Middle-ages.

The book is told by Orrec, a young blind man who lives in the remotest regions of this land, a place that feels like Scotland. Clan owners there have gifts, magical powers, like being able to call animals, or make people sick, or destroy, for which they are respected and feared. But at the time the story starts, their heyday is already in the past. They retain a certain power, but their estates have faded, their wealth is over, people from the city no longer fear them as much because they don’t really believe in their gifts anymore.

The narrator is the heir of one such estate and should be proud to have a strong gift of “unmaking”, so strong in fact that he has to go around blindfolded for fear to destroy stuff (and people) unwittingly. We get to learn about Orrec’s family and childhood and how he copes with his gift. It’s a classic coming-of-age story.

It was hard for me to really connect with Orrec. I wasn’t really disturbed by the fantasy part, the imaginary land and the magical powers. In fact, I kind of liked it. But Orrec’s story was quite low-key and slow-paced. I could guess most of the story beforehand. Orrec’s girlfriend Gry was a far more interesting character in my opinion, but she didn’t get as much space in the book.

My first dip into this new-to-me genre was not a failure, but not enough for me to embark in the complete trilogy. But I’ll certainly try another Ursula Le Guin one day.

Any other YA fantasy recommendation?

The one where the King of France has no backbone

Alexandre Dumas, The Flight to Varennes (1860)

M. Smithereens knew I’d had a ball with Dumas’ Twenty Years Later, so he chose this audiobook for me last time at the library, a book that’s part travelogue, part reconstitution of the 1791 King Louis 16th’ flight from Paris and his arrest in the Argonne area, halfway between Reims and the German border.

I enjoyed it, but it was clearly less fun than a real novel, especially because of Dumas’ insufferable pretension. He starts with explaining at length how all the historians who have written about this episode all had it wrong, and that he, the great Dumas, was the only one to go there and get first-hand witness to give him an account. Needless to say, he comes out as a major prick.

If you get past that tone of his, you get an interesting story about a turning point of the revolution. You follow the events mile by mile and you get to realize how big events that make it into History books (with an upper-case H) are just a string of tiny, mundane moments: at each single point, things could have gone differently if someone had just said something different. Without a series of delays and little mistakes, the flight could well have succeeded. After all, they were stopped but 30 miles away from their destination, a fortified fortress full of loyal royalist soldiers. And the perspective of alternate history is just bewildering. As Dumas states:

“Had Louis XVI not attempted to fly, or had he attempted it and succeeded, quite other events would have followed in place of those which actually transpired. There would have been no civil war, no war against neighboring states, no September 2nd, no Terror, no Bonaparte, no Elba, no Waterloo, no St. Helena.”

Dumas shows how events were messy, and that there’s no clear-cut interpretation. Even people who stopped the king and his family don’t seem all fanatical republicans. They are less moved by big ideas and ideals, and more by hesitation and improvisation and trying to do what’s proper or what looks good for them.

Even though Dumas spends time describing places he visited, the most interesting part is the portrait of the royals. King Louis 16th and Queen Marie-Antoinette come out as petty, boring bourgeois without much (any?) grandeur.

All along it seems like they can’t really make up their minds, or when they finally have, that they have never realized that they needed to change their ways or disguise themselves or make do with outside constraints. It’s a weird experience to look at them so stuck in their old habits, and at the same time, so mediocre and vulgar. For example, they delay the day of departure in order not to miss their monthly allowance. They are stuck on decorum and prefer bringing a lady higher in the protocol ladder in their carriage than an armed guard who could have come in handy. The Queen even got lost in Paris because she insisted she knew the way better than the postilion, and he couldn’t possibly challenge her.

We know that they are running for their lives, but they definitely don’t. They are afraid of any violence, and don’t want to take any risks, while basically doing the thing that will incense the whole country. Dumas explains how remote the royals were from their people, especially as they were made to marry foreign princesses from a very young age. The fact that they were basically betraying the country they were supposed to be ruling by God’s will hasn’t obviously crossed their minds.

Eventually, I couldn’t clearly understand Dumas’ feelings about the royals themselves. He seems to despise them as persons, but seem overall favorable to monarchy, especially compared to the excesses of revolution and the Terror that came after these events.

This book came timely as I had finished the awesome Swedish DVD series “Anno 1790″. It made me interested to read more about the people living during French revolution. Any recommendation?

The one about the atomic ripple effects

Fumiyo Kono, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (2004)

Another manga for me, but not a great success on my side. I would have loved to love it. It deals with a subject too often overlooked: the longterm consequences of the atomic bomb on people from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The book is made of 2 stories, the one set in 1955, the second a two-part novella set in 1987 and 2004. Very cleverly, the manga is not about the fateful events themselves, and we get no horrific, realistic depiction of victims and death. On the contrary, the story is about what survivors went through and how events still shape reactions and prejudices against Hiroshima people.

The first story was more straightforward and accessible to me: a young woman who survived the bombing as a little girl and lost all her family members but her mother, lives in a slum and works as a seamstress. She is quite shy, especially as a young man takes a romantic interest in her. As he declares himself, she suddenly has a flashback of the events she went through, runs away from him and soon after falls sick due to radiations.

The second story was very complex in terms of plotting, and while the characters had depth, I kind of missed a lot of the subtle hints of backstories and references and I couldn’t stay afloat with the flashbacks and all. It was totally lost on me. What I understood, though, is that Hiroshima people were treated with distrust, not compassion, and that they were “damaged goods” even decades later, not worthy of getting married with, or be friend with, just in case their mysterious illnesses would be contagious or transmitted to their children. I’m not sure if this is still the case and how the tragedy of Fukushima has had any parallel consequences in today’s Japan.

The excuse for my lack of attention is that I didn’t really enjoy the art, which looked sometimes simplistic, sometimes clumsy, sometimes cute. In my opinion, it was not nervous enough, it was barely touching the surface of the issue (yes, I know how Japanese it sounds). I can only dream what the precise pencil of a Taniguchi would make of such a story, I bet I would have needed a box of handkerchiefs close by. But here, I was just annoyed because the whole story was way too polite and didactic. Obviously the author has researched her subject at length, and I’m told there are many little details to make Hiroshima quite real on paper (geographical details, dialects, lots of end notes), but in a way her intention of showcasing a little-known story was quite heavy-handed.

Mmh, I am aware that I criticize the book for being both too polite and too heavy-handed. Perhaps it’s not the book’s fault then, perhaps it’s just bad timing on my part.

The big reference on that subject is obviously Black rain, from Masuji Ibuse. I watched the movie by Imamura as a teen, and it was a shocking experience, so I never had the courage to read the book. Did you read it?

Short Writing Update

I did it! I did it! Cue “Happy” on loudspeakers and the appropriate dance moves! That story is… done!

That story “just” needed some 800 words more, but I finally finished the last scene.

I now have a bloated shitty first draft, that I’m going to edit some day soon.

My writers friends, what do you think best? Should I start editing right now that the story is still fresh in my mind, or should I let it sit for a while so that I’ll see its weaknesses with more clarity and distance?

I hope that your Easter weekend is starting out well, with lots of reading and writing (and chocolate bunnies) ahead of you!

The writing resolution: March status

Oh March… what a rollercoaster! I had fairly wholesome plans to simplify our life (getting rid of stuff, selling stuff, donating stuff) my computer (like purging the mailboxes), and to complete some ongoing projects, especially:

  • Write every day at least 50 words (that’s less than this first paragraph)
  • Complete one of those Moocs I had started end of last year (The Science of Happiness)
  • Finish one story.

You read that last bit right: actually finish the damn thing.

I never finish stories.

No, that’s not exact. I have not finished a single piece of fiction since 6 or 7 years. At least.

Not finishing makes me feel awfully guilty. Like I have lots of unfinished business lying around everywhere in dusty drawers.

What I aimed at was not the edited, polished, clean piece of writing. I just wanted to have that shitty first draft Anne Lamott talks so frankly about.


To be kind to myself, I have done quite a lot, but before Mid-March arrived we got some awful news about a friend and it just made everything so heavy and dark. It sucked. I needed time alone doing nothing and watching the kids play.

But in the last 10 days or so, may it be the deadline of this resolution (I always work better with a deadline, and that might be part of the problem, or of the solution), I reached a new momentum. I wrote longer stretches and more easily.

At the end of the month, I have written every day but for 5 days.

I have not 100% finished this story. It still lacks half a page or a page probably, before I can get to the editing. I kept delaying my way to the end, so there are probably a great deal of unnecessary words and lots of repeat, especially as I have forced myself not to look back at previous pages before adding to the story.

But I’m almost there. It’s a feeling that I had forgotten about. Keep your finger crossed that I don’t lose steam right now!

In April, I want to finish the story for real, and edit it, but I also want to post more here as I have finished many books which I never got to write about.


The one where a German nun beats me up

Lorette Nobecourt, Clôture des merveilles (2013)

Don’t fear for my health and safety, the beating was entirely metaphorical. But still: where James Ellroy, his language and crowds of characters didn’t defeat me, a 12C German nun’s mystic visions left me searching for the nearest exit. I tell you truthfully, I didn’t go further than a third of the book (in audio version), and much of it with white knuckles.

On paper it could have been a good match. Hildegard von Bingen is a classic, a woman, and I like historical biographies that are on the fringes between fiction and non-fiction. She’s not exactly a household name but she’s been quite hyped up (her music! her sensitivity! a strong female figure in a men’s world! her natural, holistic approach to medical care! one of the few female saints doctors of the Church!), so I was eager to learn more.

But the experience was a total disaster for me. First I didn’t like the voice in the audiobook. The woman insisted on each word as if she was declaiming a tirade on stage and articulated each syllable especially the “H” of Hildegard. I am aware that the writer chose each word with lots of care, reminding me slightly of Marie N’Diaye’s Three Women. But Nobécourt’s writing is a lot of “tell” and very little “show”. We don’t see Hildegard as much as we get to hear a homily about her with lots and lots of poetic analysis.

The words were beautiful, but the sentences made absolutely no sense to me. On the best days I thought it was all my fault. I have to assume that the book written for a Christian reader, and even more specifically a Catholic one. I am none of those, and I don’t have an extensive knowledge of the Catholic theology. On the worst days, it nearly made me laugh, although it’s also my fault. I am by no means a mystic person, what I like most are books that remain with their feet firmly on the ground (although magical realism appeals to me), so that I found it all very pompous and frustrating. Frustrating because I couldn’t see beyond the big words and big concepts and couldn’t reach the real woman in her flesh and blood.

I just have to make peace with the conclusion that this book is not for me. Especially after I heard of another Hild, another Middle-ages woman who became a saint: Hild by Nicola Griffith, whose review at Eve’s Alexandria immediately convinced me to add it to my TBR list!

The one about the universal secrets lurking in small-town Canada

Alice Munro, Dear Life (2012)

In truth, I don’t know what to say. A collection of short story is a hard genre to write about, especially if they are not really thematically organized. Should I focus on one, two, all of them? Alice Munro is one of my favorite writers, and what she writes about is ordinary life, more or less, so it’s even more difficult to make a sweeping assessment beyond “I enjoyed it a lot”.

These stories can be called classic. You might even say that its characters might remind you of other stories by Munro. The ageing woman with dementia. The bored housewife tempted by adultery. The man who missed his chance at love. The girl who gets dumped. They all speak of a provincial, small-town life where people judge their neighbors on being respectable and conventional. Some are set in the immediate after-war, some even earlier in the 20th century. None seem (to me) as contemporary. Some women in Munro’s stories find this stifling and try to break away, but few manage to do it, or to do it without regrets. There’s a sadness in most of these stories, and this sadness is universal. It’s a subdued world, where epiphanies come in slow-motion, where catastrophes send ripples for many years to come.

I enjoyed all of these stories, the fictional ones as well as the four last ones that are more like memoirs, or flashbacks about Munro’s childhood in this small-town Ontario. The only drawback is that I can’t seem to identify them one by one, and to separate them for the previous collections I read. They’re a further addition to the wonderful Munro images and memories I keep in my head and in my heart, and I hope that they will be other still to come.

The one where dandruff is poetry too

Judith Viorst, It’s Hard to Be Hip over Thirty (1968)

I found this unfinished post among my drafts, as I read this collection late last year. No wonder I kept it aside, as it’s always very difficult for me to find anything to write about poetry.

I have been taught to take poetry with deference, to keep it at arm’s length and to over-analyze every word for an obscure and deep meaning. Witty poems is something I discovered very recently indeed, thanks to blogs, one day when someone (may s/he be thanked again!) pointed me toward Taylor Mali’s Typography.

Wow, a poem can actually makes you laugh out loud! (I haven’t found French comic poets yet, but I’m not trying too hard to be honest)

I discovered Judith Viorst with her witty poem collection about being in your forties, and I loved it so much that I had to get the earlier decade as well! (well, now you have a rough idea of how old I am… so much for anonymity). I felt particularly lucky that Persephone has republished this short volume, and this is a very chic addition to my little grey collection (and don’t let me start about the matching bookmarks).

In this collection, she deals with the adjustments that come after getting married, from the single, dating young professional to the classic role of a stay-at-hom wife and mother in the suburbs. Some of her references have become dated but she managed to make me laugh out loud several times, especially on divorce, which isn’t the funniest subject per se.

I can’t say I recognized myself in every poem, which often portray the American clichéd perfect desperate housewife. Some of the poems are tinged with lost ideals (those lofty ideas of a 1960s feminist clashing against ordinary life) and a bit of cynicism, but to me they mostly ring true! Getting older is something universal, making compromises in marriage is unavoidable. What I loved is that none of these poems pretend to be chefs d’oeuvre, yet they manage to be both witty and hard to forget.

Here is one excerpt about motherhood:

Last year I had a shampoo and set every week, and
Slept an unbroken sleep beneath the Venetian chandelier of
our discerningly eclectic bedroom, but
This year we have a nice baby,
And Gerber’s strained bananas in my hair,
And gleaming beneath the Venetian chandelier,
A diaper pail, a portacrib, and him,
A nice baby, drooling on our antique satin spread
While I smile and say how nice. It is often said
That motherhood is very maturing.

And another, my favorite:

…It’s true love because
When he went to San Francisco on business while I had to stay home with the painters and the exterminator and the baby who was getting the chicken pox,
He understood why I hated him,
And because
When I said that playing the stock market was juvenile and irresponsible and then the stock I wouldn’t let him buy went up twenty-six points,
I understood why he hated me,
And because
Despite cigarette cough, tooth decay, acid indigestion, dandruff, and other features of married life that tend to dampen the fires of passion,
We still feel something
We can call
True love.