The One with the Intuition Mistakes

D.A. Mishani, A Possibility of Violence (origin. Hebrew 2013, English 2013)

This crime novel frustrated me no end, so much so that I considered stopping several times. I still kept at it until the end because I expected a kind of enlightenment at the end, which didn’t come.

First things first, I noticed this writer several years ago in a Rouen library that has a very wide offering when it comes to international crime novels. I couldn’t remember if I’d read his book after all, so I borrowed the second one in the series from the library. This was a big mistake! The second book starts just when the aftermaths of the first investigation are still haunting the hero, and I felt that I was missing out. If you want to try this author, please note that you should start with “The Missing File”.

It should have been a warning sign that the hero and I were not exactly… compatible. At the beginning of the book Tel Aviv inspector Avi Avraham comes back from a long vacation in Belgium, some necessary time off after a major screw-up in a previous case. Yet he seems unable to move one with his life, or to learn from his mistakes. The next case he takes seems rather random (a fake bombing attempt on a daycare), but Avi is so full of hesitations and second-guessing that he quickly got on my nerves. His interviews of some potential suspects lead him towards another potential crime that has never been reported or perhaps does not even exist. He follows his guts, then doubts his guts to the point that he fails to follow obvious leads. I found it not very plausible, if not in psychology, but at least in terms of police procedures. It looks as if Avi’s boss and colleagues let him do whatever he feels like. Moreover, I couldn’t really understand what went on between Avi and his Belgian girlfriend and that annoyed me even more.

If you’re interested in Israeli detectives and mysteries, I would rather recommend Batya Gur.

Pod Review July 6 – 12

CaptureThis week’s podcast list is definitely short because my earbuds are busy with an engrossing audio book (more about that later) :

  • Change ma vie by Clotilde Dusoulier #106 Let go (2/3) #107 Let go (3/3) #108 injustice
  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin #226 Celebrate the summer solstice
  • ♥ Invisibilia Bonus Episode Prayer from 2018/11/23 (here): a very moving account of the 20-something who has a sudden health crisis and who must re-learn to speak, with the strange help of his father’s prayers.
  • Radiolab mini-series G part 2 Problem Space on IQ tests’ good and bad uses.
  • WSIRN #191 When a great book wrecks your reading life, with an Outlander fan who has some difficulty to read something else!

The One with the Chinese Nightmare

Ma Jian, China Dream (2019)

I’ve discovered Ma Jian with Red Dust, published in 2001. I read several of his other books, which are all banned in China, before this blog existed, and I have not returned to him since. It was long overdue, although Ma Jian’s books are not treading on thin ice with political topics and they can be a rough ride!

The book title is Ma Jian’s take on President Xi Jinping’s official China Dream, a heavily-Photoshopped propaganda about Chinese’s bright future. Ma Jian’s China Dream, on the contrary, is grotesque and full of gore and sex and violence. The dream is heavily influenced by repressed memory of the Cultural revolution, which was more like a civil war with heavy artillery and brutal executions than a quiet battle of ideas between Communist factions.

In the book, Ma Daode is a successful small town bureaucrat, in charge of the local China Dream bureau. His success is measured in the number of mistresses he has and the amount of bribes he receives. Bureaucrats are all competing to propose the best idea to apply the China Dream slogan in their city. His own idea is to develop a chip to implant in people’s brain in order to erase private dreams and also old bad memories. He probably would be the first customer for his own medicine, since his mind is hijacked by irrepressible memories of his youth during the Cultural revolution. The Cultural revolution also saw youth groups compete to be the most faithful to Mao ideology, only they did it with firearms, hand grenades and knives.

I don’t want to spoil anything for you guys, but let’s suffice to say that Ma Daode was as much a victim as a perpetrator of the Cultural revolution, and we can interpret his lust for power and sex as a way to suppress emotions and memories.

The result is hallucinatory and harrowing, but memorable. You can imagine Ma Jian’s large grin as he takes “self-sabotage” to a whole new level.

#UnreadShelf Project July

49304967_411823712689749_2472884066192988807_nIn books, the middle chapters are a dangerous zone, sometimes as doldrums or “sagging middle”, after the first dashing chapters have lost steam and before the “mad dash” to the resolution. Yes, it’s a cliché, but clichés have nuggets of truth. And it’s the same for reading challenges I guess. The middle months are a killer.

I still want to hold fast to this one challenge, but the monthly prompts are getting harder and harder for me. Let’s see what Whitney proposes for July:

Our goal is to read our own shelves this year, and we are tackling those books one challenge at a time. This month, your goal is to read a book from a series on your unread shelf!
I know many of us loooove to collect series we love. Anyone else guilty of loving the first book and promptly buying the other 7 all at once? No, just me? 😉
Hopefully this will be an easy one for you all. Surprisingly, I only have 4 books (out of 247!!!) that fit this challenge.

An easy one? Mmh, think again. Sorry Whitney, but I’ve never bought the 7 next volumes after finishing the first one. I’m not one to follow series regularly and in order, and with my limited shelf space, I tend to read series books from the library. It’s not to say that I don’t love series, in fact I love to return to characters and locations that I’ve previously enjoyed:

  • Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller by Michael Connelly : only from the library
  • Bernie Gunther by Philip Kerr : one on my Kindle, but I was saving it for the August holidays
  • Commissaire Adamsberg by Fred Vargas : I have read pretty much everything
  • Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander : only from the library
  • Nicolas Le Floch by Jean-François Parot : I have read pretty much everything

So, what do I currently have on shelves that may be considered as part of a series?

  • Mangas ! (I own some, but I tend to re-sell it after finishing them, and with the money I almost always buy a new one… it’s a bit like a loan with interest)
  • Agatha Christie mysteries ! (I could have said George Simenon, that will be for next time)
  • Persephone classics ! (yes, it’s a stretch, but you only need the pretty little row of grey books on my shelf to know that I have a serious addiction)

I chose one of each:

  • Isabella Bird by Taiga Sassa (T1). I’m all for unconventional manga series, and this one is apparently based on a real-life female traveler of the 19C!
  • Agatha Christie, Destination Unknown (yes, it’s a standalone, but I still choose it)
  • Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes (considering I have read 2 other Panter-Downes books from Persephone, I think it fully belongs to the challenge prompt). I don’t really intend to finish this hefty book by the end of the month. Once again it’s a book to dip in and out and return to on occasions, so if I make a serious dent into it that will be good enough!

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#UnreadShelfProject June Update

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Aranyak: Of the Forest (1939)

Oh my, how come did nine days of July already fly by without me choosing any new books for the next #Unreadshelfproject challenge?

But since you’ve already been waiting a while, let’s take one more day and review the June books. The goal was to do some virtual travel to new-to-us destinations, and I chose two extremes: Norway in winter, and India in summer. The first was not a great success, but the second one was a surprisingly nice discovery.

You would think that I would better understand a European woman and her son in a small  town than a Bengali man in the early part of 20C spending years in the deepest jungles of Northern India? Well, think again.

I can’t even start to pronounce the author’s name, but he’s apparently well-known for this classic book, and also it seems that the language he used in the book was very special. I can’t tell. There are many local words used in the English version, and luckily there’s a lexicon at the end. Despite this difficulty, it was like following a young man on a difficult journey.

The narrator starts as a young graduate living the noisy and exciting city life, except that he has little money and no job. He is offered a job in a faraway forest to manage the estate, but when he gets there, he’s in full culture shock. We get to see how he slowly gets to understand the place, nature and people in this area. The loneliness he first experience upon arrival is replaced by fascination for the nature and a deep love for the people who live in the area, even though his job contributes to destroying what he admires by distributing land to people to exploit it and cut down the forest.

There is a deeply humane voice and a nostalgia that permeates the book and makes you care. This is definitely a slow read, one that you have pleasure returning to after a few weeks or months. I didn’t read it to the end yet, but I’ll count it as such for the challenge, because there’s no way I’m going to get rid of this book just yet.

Pod Review June 29 – July 5

This week, the podcast menu on my phone was quite all over the place, from darkness to tax filing, from China scholars ethics to… MILF?Capture

  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin #221 Do you yearn for a reset? – I chose this episode because I probably do.
  • Reading the End with Gin Jenny and Whiskey Jenny episode on Alyssa Cole’s romance Hope Divided. It’s a long one but it taught me quite a lot about the romance genre that I didn’t know about
  • Sorta Awesome #201 Don’t fear the pivot! Made me discover Mel Robbins 5 seconds journal
  • Root of Evil #4 The Minotaur, #5 Traumatic Reenactment, #6 Supposing I did kill the Black Dahlia, #7 The troubling questions #8 You Only Have One Family. To say that I’m conflicted about this podcast is the understatement of the day. I almost stopped midway because I felt that theories were unsubstantiated, that it was voyeuristic and manipulative. In the end I’d say it is a problem of structure and garish cliffhangers. I can’t say I recommend it.
  • Sinica 06/37 Antony Dapiran on the Hong Kong demonstrations
  • ♥ The Longest Shortest Time #187 MILF – where it comes from, how it got successful, what consequences and should mothers reclaim the word? Surprisingly deep…
  • Reply All #144 Dark Pattern on tax filing through private companies who are misleading people and cheating – I never understood the US tax system, and I got a confirmation how weird it is.
  • This American Life #354 Mistakes were made, about half-baked apologies, and the poem This is just to say.
  • Sinica March 14: Is there really an epidemic of self-censorship among China scholars?

The One about the Not so Quiet Brave Ones

Joel Dicker, Les Derniers Jours de nos Pères (2011 French, The Last Days of Our Fathers, untranslated)

Sometime I don’t understand myself (no wonder if others don’t either, wink wink). Some years ago, I had read the bestselling novel of this young Swiss writer, and I had not liked it (to say the least). So why oh why did I ever think that I would love this one?

Don’t go believing that it’s because I’m so generous and prompt to give second chances. I have nothing against second chances, but let’s face it, my TBR isn’t getting any shorter and time is limited, so I strongly believe countless good books are waiting for me out there.

No, it’s probably because of the topic: the SOE and especially the French section. The British intelligence service managed to transform people (volunteers, but ordinary people all the same) into super agents who would jump out of planes in the middle of the night and hide in plain sight among the French population to do sabotage, organize resistance networks, distribute weapons and spy on the Nazis. I had read a great book about the SOE a few years ago and it was clearly not enough.

So I was ready to forget the unfortunate Quebert expérience if I learnt more about the courageous French SOE agents. Yes indeed, I learnt some, since the first part of the book is set in the training camps and secret schools. But soon I remembered: Dicker is unbelievably verbose. I can’t believe that nobody thought to tell him the famous precept: “Show Don’t Tell”. He shows, and he tells, and he underlines it again, in case you haven’t quite got it completely, in the most sentimental and symbolic way.

Yesterday I wrote about a very understated graphic novel on untold war heroes who took courageous decisions, here the author lays it on with a trowel, even though I agree that these people were extraordinary and need to be better known in France. I have read 33% of the book (in audio version), and I can’t deal with it any more. It’s a DNF for me, but I have given it more than a fair chance.

The One with the Quiet Righteous One

Patrice Guillon & David Cenou, Un Juste (2016)

This starkly black-and-white graphic novel is the story of the co-author’s grandfather, who took the courageous decision to hide a whole family of Jews during World War two, next door to his own home in the South-West of France. There is no place for grey in the book’s pictures, but the population of Nazi-occupied France was forced to make difficult choices, and all shades of grey of compromises, cowardice, profiteering and non-involvement were found. The book shows that courage didn’t always mean joining the Resistance and carrying weapons against the Nazis and the French collaborationists. Courage was both very simple and very difficult.

Un_Juste_CH_p92-704x1024The first hero in the story is Henri, who doesn’t particularly talk politics but falls in love for a charming Jewish girl, Myriam Levy. Courage means that when she tells him of her religion, he doesn’t see any problem. He still wants to marry her. Moreover, he arranges for her whole family to cross the border to Southern France where there aren’t as many Nazis, and to find a safe place to stay.

One day in 1942, Fernand is contacted by one of Henri’s friends to see if he would agree to rent some property to a Jewish family. Fernand is a man of few words, and he has many friends and contacts in the countryside. He doesn’t like the Germans and the Pétain government, but he has not gotten involved and just turns a blind eye when his son mingles with the resistance and advise him to stay safe. The war has not been too harsh for his business and his family. He has plenty of food and doesn’t seem to need the rental money. Does he turn these cumbersome tenants away? No, he doesn’t hum and haw, even knowing the risks. The Levy family may be reported any time by a nosy neighbor, a disgruntled employee or a policeman who does his job a little too well. Fernand and his wife would be arrested and deported as well.

I liked that we see the details of living arrangements between the two families. The war and its dangers are seen at a micro level which makes it all too relatable. At the end of the war both families went their separate ways, but decades later, Myriam contacted Fernand so that he would be recognized by the Yad Vashem organization as a Righteous among the Nations.

This is probably not the best or the most comprehensive graphic novel about WW2, but it is a gentle approach that could suit middle-school kids who learn about the events for the first time and need to understand how daily life was impacted.

Pod Review June 22-28

CaptureThis week’s NFM (Not-For-Me)

  • The Next Right Thing by Emily P Freeman #105 Hold space when someone dies #107 Create Space – too spiritual for me
  • Change ma vie by Clotilde Dusoulier #105 Le lâcher prise (1/3) – but I might listen to the rest of the episodes on this topic, because summer is a great time to let go.
  • The Simple Show by Tsh Oxenreider #200 All things British – I’m also a self proclaimed Anglophile but I wasn’t convinced.
  • Forties Stories by Christy Maguire #11 Lindsay Mead (although I love her blog A Design So Vast)

The Good

  • Sinica April 12 Mark Rowswell (Dashan) on the difficulty of learning Chinese and the soft power of Chinese language
  • Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam 06/20 Enjoy social media without wasting time – set a timer before I scroll, why not? but I am not convinced I’ll have the discipline.
  • Radiolab series G: The Miseducation of Larry P
  • Root of Evil mini series: the true story of the Hodel family and the Black Dalhia: #1 Saved by the Ghetto #2 A skilled surgeon #3 Georges gift – very very dark, I want to keep listening but there is a lot of artificial cliffhangers that get on my nerves.

The Great

The One with the Mindless French Killer

Jean-Patrick Manchette, La Position du Tireur Couché (English title: The Prone Gunman, 1981)

It’s been a while since I wanted to read a noir by Manchette. He’s a well-known noir writer (1942-1995) whose novels are violent and radical, just like Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000), Thierry Jonquet (b. 1954) or Didier Daeninckx (b. 1949). Like them his books are leaning on the left, in the sense that the system is rotten and rather hopeless.

I knew his name and reputation, but I was not quite expecting the relentless violence and lack of feeling. In Izzo or Daeninckx, the plot is also the pretext of a character study, a social denunciation or a psychology study when people are put in moral quandaries. Here, no psychology whatsoever. We look at the characters from the outside, see a mouth twitch, eyebrows narrow, cigarettes being smoked (a lot), people getting hurt (a lot), but we are offered no chance to see emotions, doubts, fear, anger, pain. We also have to suspend moral judgment, because the hero is a killer, and yet we feel empathy for his quest.

It feels weird, often comical, and I understand some readers must have been thrown by this style. The story looks conventional from the outside, but at closer look it’s really not. A cold-blooded hit man wants to retire, find his childhood sweetheart and enjoy his money. His boss doesn’t agree to let him off the hook, unless he does a last job. Things soon go downhill. Isn’t it the plot of many noir novels?

The hit man is called Martin Terrier (like a rabbit’s hole in French), and his name is mediocre at best, ridiculous at worst. For most of the book I hesitated if he was very intelligent or very stupid. Terrier is a very fastidious man, and he likes to make plans. But life doesn’t go according to plans. The book can be easily read in one or two settings, because the action is non-stop, it’s hard to stop and the writing is spare and fluid. The ending is bitter, strong and heart-breaking.

It certainly won’t be my last Manchette.