The One to Get Lost in Paris

Patrick Modiano, Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (2014) / So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood (English 2015)

This draft of mine has been lingering for more than one month somewhere in a dusty WordPress drawer waiting for the right moment, or maybe waiting for the revelation?

It’s been years since I wanted to try a Modiano, but I’m afraid I’ve started with the wrong one.

An old man, Mr. Daragane, spurred by a vague but uncomfortable phone by a stranger, suddenly remembers old memories of his childhood, names that don’t really ring a bell in an old address book, places he might have been to, people who might have taken care of him as a child. Everything is quite fuzzy, his memory is vague at best, and it’s not even clear why he (let alone I) should care.

I appreciated the reflection on memory and false souvenirs (which is exactly why I picked this one in the first place) and I liked the tone but I felt as if I was missing the point of the story. Perhaps there’s no point altogether, but this was a frustrating experience nonetheless. It’s even harder when it’s a national treasure and a Nobel Prize for literature and you feel you should a. be awed or b. just shut up about your own ignorance. I therefore choose c. try another Modiano asap.

The weirdest experience was perhaps when I visited the Goodreads page for this book (in the English version), which called the book a “haunting novel of suspense from the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature”:

In the stillness of his Paris apartment, Jean Daragane has built a life of total solitude. Then a surprising phone call shatters the silence of an unusually hot September, and the threatening voice on the other end of the line leaves Daragane wary but irresistibly curious. Almost at once, he finds himself entangled with a shady gambler and a beautiful, fragile young woman, who draw Daragane into the mystery of a decades-old murder. The investigation will force him to confront the memory of a trauma he had all but buried.

I had to pinch myself to be sure we were talking about the same book. “Threatening voice” and “shady gambler”, I got them, but the mystery of a decades-old murder? I have completely missed that one. People called the book a “noir”, and I get that the book is totally atmospheric like a 1950s movie. Paris streets and buildings are right there on the page. I could almost see the grainy cliché of a beautiful woman with impeccable lipstick who would spend hours in a café staring into the void and playing with her cigarette in her (perfectly manicured) hand. But if “noir” has some components of sadness, inevitability, slow pace that are in the book, “noir” also normally has a plot and some truth to discover at the end.

Strangely, despite its title, I felt completely lost in the neighborhood. Only the familiar street names gave me some frame of references. But again, it might have been Modiano’s intention from the start. Intriguing and unsettling.

The One with Black Spots and Dark Magic

Karen Maitland,  The Plague Charmer (to be released Oct.  2016)

I am incorrigible. Yes, I love historical fiction, but I should know by now that post-apocalyptic fiction is a high danger zone for me. I raved about Station Eleven but it was the exception; it wasn’t too violent and it kind of glazed over the worst of the mass dying. I should remember that post-apocalyptic fiction not only gives me shivers and nightmares, but that I tend to withhold any critical view and believe everything that is written on the page!

So what on earth was I doing when I chose a Netgalley book centered on the plague epidemic in the Middle Ages? Did I think it would be miraculously a quiet book, soothing enough to lull me to sleep? You bet it isn’t. The Black Death wiped out one out of three people in Europe, after all. If it’s not apocalyptic non-fiction, I don’t know what is!

Historical fiction at its best makes you feel as if you were living in a different century altogether, and boy does it work. The only thing is, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed living in this era. Well, it wouldn’t have been much of a choice because between dying at birth, starving, falling prey to thugs or storms or usual sicknesses or banal accidents, I wouldn’t have survived 5 minutes. But apparently some people did manage to survive and have kids before they died, duh. But only just barely.

The book takes place in a small fishermen’s village in England and in its nearby castle in 1361. After a storm a ship is washed up on the shore, with only one survivor, a strange woman with ominous words and evil intentions. A box is taken from the ship that probably shouldn’t, because soon enough the villagers recognize the deadly signs of pestilence (because the was a previous epidemic a decade earlier or so). Who will die?  Who will be saved, and at what cost?

The book circles between half a dozen different characters who tell what happens in turn. Some are likable, some not so much. One is a castle court dwarf, one is a fisherman’s wife, one is a crazily devout woman, one is a clever lady used to courtly politics, etc. The author doesn’t romanticize or over-simplify the people lives in the Middle Ages, nor does she give them more knowledge and wisdom that what they’d have known or experienced. It’s one of my pet peeves when characters behave in a modern way in a historical novel, and I found none of it in this book. Not to say that everything was completely realistic in the plot, because there are supernatural forces in the book, but these do really well blend in into this atmospheric, superstitious period drama.

Recommended if you are not squeamish and don’t have a deadline the next morning, because you’ll probably sit up late to reach the end!

I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Writing ‘016: July Update

westerBanner-2I am writing this post from Scotland, and whatever happened during the month of July seems quite far, far away… Looking at my notes I see that I wrote almost every day. But my writing was all over the place, with most of it being for blog posts and bits of scenes that sounded clunky and didn’t really go anywhere.

Regarding the long story I finished in June, I found that editing it was quite a challenge. I did some minor correcting and tried to make some scenes clearer, but I didn’t make any big change. I sent it to some friends for review after that. I’ll perhaps see editing under a new light once I’ll get my friends’ feedbacks. Whatever I did anyway, adding a few words or cutting a sentence or two, the wordcount is still firmly in the realm of a novella rather than a standard-sized short story. I am aware that novellas are probably the worst form because they exceed the magazines size requirements, and they don’t get published on their own either because they’re too short. But toward the end of the month I realized that small press in France seem more diverse in terms of novel size than what I expected so overall it’s rather good news. A month ago I still held tight to this story, but I feel that I have now let it go and I am ready to progress on something else now.

The One with the Brexit Preface

A few weeks ago I requested a new thriller from Netgalley. It promised suspense and attracted me with a few opening lines. I had no other clue to judge a book, and I must admit I thought of Le Carré.

The book itself (at least in the ARC edition I was given) opened with a note by the author, a British female novelist who had publishing for children before (middle grade or YA?). This note was dated December 2015.

This foreword just astonished me, so much so that I had to stop there and could not really proceed to the story at once. It was violently against Europe, against Schengen borderless area, against German Chancellor Merkel, saying that she should resign for accepting refugees into Europe. And all this was written just six months before Brexit.

How prescient! A few days later, it wouldn’t have surprised me anymore! I probably have stumbled upon a vocal proponent of the 52%… something I luckily am not too often exposed to.

I had hoped that literature, especially “comfort genres” such as mysteries, might escape the craziness of our present world. Of course, I realize how inconsistent I must sound, since I also love when thrillers and noir novels are deeply rooted in a socio-economic-political contexts. Perhaps it’s because noir novels have a long tradition of supporting the underdog, the weaker members of society, the outcasts and marginals. I’m not that naive, I am aware that a lot of thrillers are indeed conservative, but I didn’t expect such a blatant declaration at the beginning of the book. Even if that was the writer’s intention, shouldn’t the publisher or agent have said something? Maybe the purpose of the editors was exactly to target those 52%? Not a bad economic calculation after all.

Call me prejudiced, but reading the foreword didn’t predispose me to enjoy the book. Quite the contrary. The beginning was clunky and highly unbelievable and I soon threw in the towel. That’s why I don’t want to mention the author’s and the title’s name. Hopefully a much better thriller will soon replace it in my memory. I’m really looking forward to some escapist literature. Because in the meantime, look at the mess that the 52% have created…

The One on the Sweet Power of False Memories

– Moi, reprend-il, les souvenirs que je vends deviennent de vrais souvenirs. Comme si tu les avais vécus.
– Mais comment c’est possible? je demande.
– Ah ça, bonhomme, c’est mon petit secret. Et puis franchement, quelle importance de savoir comment ça marche? Après tout, quand tu vas chez le charcutier, tu ne lui demandes pas comment il arrive à rentrer un cochon dans ses propres boyaux. Le charcutier te vend du bonheur en tranches. Enfin, si tu aimes le saucisson.
” Moi j’ai eu envie de vendre des petits bouts de bonheur à ceux qui n’en ont pas eu assez, ou pas du tout. Souvent on regrette de ne pas avoir vécu ceci ou cela. La vie nous mène par le bout du nez et pas toujours où on voudrait. Eh bien moi, j’essaie de réparer un peu les oublis de la vie.

– The memories I sell, he said, become true memories. As if you had really lived them.
– How is it even possible? I asked.
– Listen buddy, that’s my own secret. Really, is it important to know how it works? After all, when you go to the butcher, you don’t ask him how he manages to fit a pig into its own guts, do you? The butcher sells you slices of happiness. That is, if you like cold cuts.
As for me, I wanted to sell little bits of happiness for those who don’t have enough, or any at all. Often people regret not to have experienced this or that. Life has us on a string, leading us not always where we want to go. Me, I try to make up for what life misses.

Ghislaine Biondi, le Marchand de souvenirs (Oskar Editeur, 2013) (my translation)

I came across this very short, very cute book at the library on the table for middle grade / teen lit new acquisitions in genre fiction. I say cute because I’m partial to round corners and getting a nice object does make the difference when choosing a book. Depending on your nerdy inclinations, I realize you might think that its either a pretty specific or a pretty broad way to discover new books.

The library I go with my youngest son is specialized in kids lit (i.e. has a very limited adult selection) and the building they’re in is very strange (a converted space under the roof, with lots of mezzanines, nooks and crannies) so I am always surprised how they have organised their sections. There’s one “room” for teen mainstream novels, but genre fiction each has its own shelf, so that I’m easily lost and prefer to rely on new acquisitions.

This book is very short but deep and sweet, and I instantly fell for it. Antoine is a teenager on his first day of summer holidays from middle school. His mother raises him on her own and he doesn’t know his father. She works as a cleaner during the day, so they can’t afford the seaside vacation he’d love, and his best friend has gone away, so that he expects his holidays to be boring and lonely. Except he finds a new shop close-by where the owner sells fake memories, objects that give to the person who buys them the experience of memories of things that he has never experienced. The boy first tries his hand on memories of seaside vacation, and they’re so good and so real, that he soon goes back to the shop to buy more and get memories of the father he never knew.

In a few sentences the situation is firmly established and the fantastic part weaves itself into the daily routine so smoothly that you can see it and believe in it just as easily as the boy himself. It doesn’t depart too much from reality, in the sense that the boy knows which memories are real or fake, but remembering things nonetheless gives a little nudge to reality and has an influence on present situations, if only through a lighter mood, a different decision to make, etc.

I’m really impressed that the writer could pack so much into a mere 55 pages and look forward to exploring more about this small press.

The next library batch

image

The librarian job is a lot more physical than what I’d thought. There’s a lot of hauling book piles left and right, crouching near the lower shelves and reaching out to the top ones (I’m kind of short), I wonder if I could pass it off as exercise. And the next craft session will be… plastic covering, since a new box of freshly picked English books has just been delivered. This is sooo much fun!

I have chosen in the best-sellers lists this time, and I’ve tried to find a balance between thrillers, romantic, historical, women’s issues and crime. I have tried to keep the language not too difficult because most readers have English as a second language  (ESL) and they get nervous about large page numbers and vocabulary.

Because I’m too lazy to type all the book titles on this i-pad  (which is so inconvenient it makes me cringe), I thought you might like a quick picture of this particular library corner, actually the only one with natural light (we’re an office building after all).

Part of the fun is to buy books I’d personally love to read, and if they’re not taken away by then, I might take “The nightingale” with me in holidays. But the first one to go away, about five minutes after the picture was taken, was “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty. Would you have guessed? Which one would you borrow?

The Power of Escapist Literature

(I’ve kept this draft on my phone for a whole week, sorry about the delayed posting, but you’ll sort of understand why…)

Never mind all the books that I’ve finished ages ago and that I want to post about (some other day).

Never mind the 4-5 books that I am currently reading (at least officially) and that need to stay half-finished on my nightstand for even longer.

Never mind that I took a day off to go to the zoo and that the big boy confined us instead to the very hot flat with a box of Legos because he vomited in the street.(*)

Never mind, because I found a book that swept me off my feet and provided the escapism, the  entertainment and the adventure I needed (not to mention, the sexy bits). And believe me, that doesn’t happen every day. In fact, the fun I had and my eagerness to return to the book just highlighted by contrast the kind of slump I had been through before, a slump that I hadn’t really acknowledged.

OK, so now I bet you want to know what is this miracle book that can heal thwarted plans, heat wave and kids’ sickness all at once. Don’t go expecting highbrow literature or some unknown French author. No, this book is the perfect beach read that everybody has been raving about; I’m not even original. It’s the Outlander series (after only 2 days I’m 180 pages into book 1) by Diana Gabaldon. In case you’ve missed the marketing, the book (that was published in the early 1990s) has recently been made into a series that promises hot, young, partly uncovered men under the excuse of historical fiction.

The premise of the book is hard to take seriously: in the immediate postwar Scotland, an English former nurse and her husband, an Oxford don, are in holidays in Inverness to “reconnect” after years of separation due to the war. But the young woman ventures into a strange place in the woods and finds herself suddenly transported back in 1743, alone and defenseless. Her survival and her hope to return to contemporary times are soon linked to a gorgeous Scottish warrior she falls in love with (does adultery count when you’re time-traveling? Apparently, the debate is raging on the internet, in case you’ re running low on contentious issues).

Now in true French fashion, I should hesitate between an eye roll, a shrug or a “pfff…”: not deep enough, not literary enough. And yet it works! Yes, it’s often trash and sexy, but it’s well written and so very compelling. I don’t often read romances, but this one reads very very fast and it takes your mind off the sad news all over the world. With the Scottish people being the good guys and the English the bad guys, it almost reads like a post-Brexit revenge fantasy for the European female readers.

So now if you’ll excuse me, I have some serious Scottish business to return to.

(*) Between the time this post was drafted and published, the son feels better, the zoo has received our visit and I’m around page 400 now.

The One with an ounce of happiness hidden inside

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear (2015)

I was so looking forward to reading Big Magic, and I want to say upfront that I thoroughly loved it. Yet, it might not be for everyone, and even for people who know me, it might come as a surprise.

Elizabeth Gilbert looks like a wonderfully nice person, but the thing she is definitely not is quiet, reasonable and low-key. Internet pegs her as an ENFP, and I’m an ISTJ (sorry non-MBTI people, in this very case this particular frame of personality analysis is very very apt, so Google it if needed and bear with me). The problem is right there, we don’t have even one letter in common. Where I am rational, she is emotional. Where she wants to hug you, I want to keep my distance. Where I organize and analyze, she just wings it and flashes forward. Where I follow up and feel guilty if I don’t finish, she lets go and moves on to the next dream without regret or remorse. ENFPs and ISTJs are normally a match from hell.

Except sometimes it works out fine! (albeit from a distance)

Yes, many pages made me cringe, especially when she gets all woo-hoo about divine inspiration, about the Muse jumping from one person to another via a hug (a hug of all things, how American!). It makes a fun story for my kids but I didn’t find it particularly useful for me. Yet her analysis of our Western culture that insists on being serious and passionate to the point that one must suffer alone like a martyr in order to create fascinated me. It resonates a lot with my own findings that french writers are supposed to be lonely geniuses writing their chef-d’oeuvre in their Parisian attic (it’s better to be in Paris to get published) and the distrust on any formal training in the literature art (MFAs don’t exist in France, you either have genius or you don’t). She offers an alternative model, the trickster’s, where play and fun and fearlessness and not-taking-yourself seriously are paramount. I love it.

Elizabeth (yes, something in her makes you want to be on first name basis) is such an antidote to that serious, elitist, privileged way of thinking: the way her book Eat Pray Love was a product of privilege had disturbed me before, but this one is not self-centered and more like a gentle, universal encouragement to follow one’s own creative outlet wherever it takes you.

It’s an antidote to bad mood, to self-doubt and to guilt trips. I would recommend it to anyone who suffers occasionally from these symptoms, and I bet there are quite a few of us!

PS. Good news : I have listened to her Magic lessons podcast with pleasure, and apparently a second season is coming soon!

Writing ’16: June Update

What a month, my friends!

A month of new friends, of discoveries and revelations, of some regrets over mistakes, of school party and Harry Potter and a newly 8-year-old, a month of going places, of going nowhere, of taking stock of where we are. A month of deadlines, strikes and Brexit.

It was indeed a month of writing, but it was probably a bad month for writing stats. Yes, I finished a story. But I missed many days in the aftermath. Yes, I received amazing support, but I’m still floundering about goals and intentions.

This story I wrote, it had been in my mind for so many years, I was used to its incompletion, I was used to returning to it to add a few words, it was comforting to have it always somewhere nearby, and now it’s done. I would never have achieved it but for the amazing writing retreat I joined. I wrote for hours on end, something I didn’t know I could.

VilleferryI know what the logic next step is: editing it and sending it to a few good souls before thinking about sending it out into the world. But even that, I waver and procrastinate as if delaying that step will change anything. It’s really like a baby, whom you want to hold dear but now that it’s doing his own thing it’s no longer just about you. It’s time to shape it and polish it so it’s standing on its own. I have still many other stories that are waiting in my drawer.

Even if I did not write every single day, June was a very exciting month for my writing. It was a blessing to meet other writers in a supportive circle, to share our common struggles, to dare expressing our weaknesses, doubts and hopes. It was a true retreat because we stepped out of our routines and our worlds and entered a peaceful bubble for a few precious days. I hope it will fuel me for energy and sense of direction for the remaining months of the year!

The One with the All-Too-Obvious Secret

Fabrice Humbert, The Origin of Violence (French 2009, English 2011)

I realize that I have finished this book a while ago and not mentioned a word about it. Probably because I was a bit embarrassed not to be able to synthesize a clean, tidy opinion about it. At times I thought it was a very interesting book, at times I thought it was voyeuristic and complacent, at times I was just unimpressed. There are just so many books about the Holocaust, sadly (and horrific mass murders justified by racial or religious hatred have just continued, even more sadly); so many books about memory and family secrets.

A young high-school teacher visits the concentration camps together with his pupils, when he suddenly sees an old photograph with a Jewish inmate that bears a striking resemblance to his own father. Upon his return the young man starts to ask questions in and around his family, to discover that his father was born from an affair between his mother and the man who died in the concentration camp, his real grandfather. (This may look to you like a spoiler, but believe me, anyone can deduce that *secret* rather early in the book). The young man becomes obsessed with this grandfather and tries to confront his bourgeois upbringing to get to the bottom of the family secrets.

Maybe I have a problem with family secrets revolving around WWII, because this book reminded me of another novel, Memory by Philippe Grimbert, which didn’t work well for me either. Too bad.

The Origin of Violence is rather messy, as is my opinion about it. There are lyrical thoughts on the nature of evil (hence the title), a part set in the camp where no details of the brutality and horrors of death are spared to the reader. This part is quite difficult to read, but as the book is quite well documented, it is the most satisfactory. This is put together with a rather navel-gazing accounts of the difficult career of the young teacher in a tough neighborhood, of his romance with a beautiful German woman, of his difficulty to write the story of his grandfather. As Humbert himself is a high-school teacher turned writer, it is difficult to not wonder if any of the story is based on actual facts. The narrator is decisively unlikable, and probably untrustworthy, but it was the juxtaposition of some many random elements that made me uncomfortable.