Kids Lit Special: Room on the Broom (2001)

It’s been a long week, folks, so I’m not going to write about century-old classics tonight… Just another kind of classic: a kids’ favorite, and a favorite of mine, that I wanted to mention here after reading about other childhood books.

“I’m a dragon as mean as can be, and witch with French fries tastes delicious to me.”

This is the one quote my toddler boy (16 month old) gets every day, and we both can’t get enough of it, especially as we’re French!

The Gruffalo from Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler was a favorite at our place when the big brother started kindergarten, but we all fell into the broom story a bit later on. In fact, I am the most enamored of the three: the big boy is a tad too old, and the baby loves the rhyming sing-song and the dog, cat and “crack!”, but he sure don’t get the story in details, especially as I read it in English. (yes, I have translated to them, but it’s less fun without the rhymes)

I love the rhythm, the structural repetitions with slight changes at each round, I love the practical details (to dry the wet magic wand in the fold of the black cloak) and the tongue in cheek wit. To me, it’s a great book for fun and adventures, for team spirit, for gratefulness and generosity (take on all those friends who helped you along the way, even if you don’t think you have room for everyone!) I kind of wish I would know it by heart, and if I continue reading it every day or so, this dream will pretty soon be fulfilled!

What’s your favorite picture book for kids? If you have kids, what’s the one book you practically knew by heart?

The one that got redeemed thanks to Leonard Bernstein

Voltaire, Candide (1759)

I wish I knew how teachers should teach classics so that teenagers are not definitely turned off by them for life.

I mean, how often does that happen that a perfectly good book gets ruined because you’ve read it at too early an age, where the average response to great literature is to roll your eyes, say “whatever” and wait for the bell announcing the break? Or because you had to dissect half a paragraph for hours and you got a bad grade?

I’m afraid there’s so magic formula, but I wish there were. Because you would then avoid the embarrassment as an adult of trying one of those classics again, just on a whim or because you have the faint feeling that you missed out on something, and then, bam, you “discover” a really great book. And you wish you hadn’t lost all these years.

That’s the literary equivalent of your mother’s “I told you so”, except that your literary class teacher had a moustache and handed out bad grades by the dozen (French education isn’t really about giving encouragement).

Anyway, back to Candide. I won’t go into details of the plot (sorry, won’t help anyone copy-paste their book report), but let me tell you I had no idea it was so explicit and blunt. I thought Voltaire was prim and proper, if not exactly wholesome and bland. I thought its irony was in the polite form of 18th century royal court flourished language (just like this cover: they kiss, wink wink, but they’re not in an X-rated movie). Anyway I was wrong. I still wonder how the teacher managed to find a paragraph to dissect that wouldn’t be explicit. Voltaire’s Candide is not politically correct at all.

I wondered if it did translate well into English and if American readers weren’t offended by all this. This touches slightly to the current debate about whether Charlie cartoons are offensive, to which the American answer seems to be a resounding “yes”, while the French answer ranges from “no” to “maybe, but get over it ah ah”. But I’m digressing.

Is Voltaire offensive? Well, it’s a satire, not subtle wit or irony, so you shouldn’t expect anything but a caricature. Is it modern and readable? Absolutely. The best proof is what sparked my renewed interest in that novella: Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, whose famous aria by Cunegonde “Glitter and Be Gay” is a favorite in our home.

I recently watched the opera in DVD and wanted to compare with the original text, believing that Bernstein had modernized the story. But the version I watched is true to the text and quite fun. And the American audience doesn’t seem offended.

The one that reopens the nature vs nurture debate

Robert Barnard, Out of the Blackout (1984)

I jotted down the name of this book ages ago after reading a blog post about WWII Britain (don’t remember where) and it took years before a bruised copy arrived from Bookmooch. Indeed, it starts in 1941 during the London blitz. But it all is rather misleading.

The book actually spans from 1941 to the late 1970s, and the blackout in the title is rather the main character’s quest for his own past. So what I thought was a classic whodunnit set during the war turned rather unexpected, in the vein of a psychological mystery à la Barbara Vine (but shorter).

Imagine a little boy of about 5, Simon, who find himself among other children refugees sent away from London by their parents to seek safety in the British countryside. The only thing is, this boy isn’t on any list and the name he gave is fake. Who is he? To the family who welcomed him, it doesn’t matter much. They raise him as their own, and when at the end of the war nobody comes to fetch him, they adopt him and give him their own name.

To the boy, who becomes a young man then a mature one, his adoptive family is paramount and his love for them genuine, but he still wonders and the mystery of his origins nags him as he finds himself in familiar surroundings around Paddington Station. The story moves by jumps to 1964 as he has managed to identify his birth family and to move in incognito with them as a boarder.

The Simmeters, his birth family, are not a nice bunch indeed, so you shouldn’t wait a teary reunion scene. Greedy, dishonest, lazy, uneducated, racist and antisemitic, who would want a birth family like that? Unexpectedly, Barnard evoke that part of the British population that was rather sympathetic to the Nazis and who had to keep low-key during the war lest they’d get arrested. Of course, Simon could have left it at that point, but he was convinced that his mother had been murdered by his violent, pro-Mosley husband. So he wants to get to the bottom of it.

The book is weird, because not much happens and Simon is rather detached, although there’s no question he takes his quest to heart. And his quest takes him nearly a lifetime, amidst a marriage, a divorce, a career, another marriage and family life. Simon is a nice chap, a good guy through and through, and yet his birth family couldn’t be more different.

In classic novels, or Victorian ones, there are often cases of mistaken identities or orphans from a different social backgrounds brought up in lower classes or the reverse. The Victorian answer is the triumph of nature over nurture: Oliver Twist stays a nice boy despite his hardships, etc.. But here, at the end of the puzzle, we’re left with a nice, satisfying twist that leaves no doubt as to Barnard’s position: nurture has won over nature in Simon’s life.

The one where I try a bonnet ripper as medicine

Beverly Lewis, The Shunning (1997)

Back in March when things went a bit hectic-tragic, I found myself in need of serious comfort read. I mean, not even a cozy mystery set in an English garden would have done it. I wanted sugar and good feelings and wholesome people having not-so-difficult difficulties… and the promise of a happy end.

So I returned to one of my weirdest acquired taste: Amish novels.

I don’t know a single other European person reading those, or even aware of their existence. (After a quick Kindle search, indeed Amish novels have been translated into Dutch and German, duh!) But apparently it’s a thriving niche market, and so far it has always worked its magic for me with previous titles by Wanda Brunstetter and Beverly Lewis, taking me faraway to another world with its own rules, a world more caring and more gentle and more quiet than my own. I bet that’s the whole point.

Now already you’re shaking your head at my Amish romance taste, and I’m just going to confess something even weirder: I didn’t read it in order. Like, I did start at page 1, but as soon as the pace slacked a bit I shuffled the pages forward to any sentence that grabbed my attention, only to return to a few pages backward if I had the sense that I’d missed a key plot point.

Obviously that was the result of my short attention span in stressful times, and it was also the reflect of the… ahem… rather formulaic and the… ahem… rather predictable story. But even consumed not exactly as the author prescribed it, the effect of this particular medicine remained efficient: within a few hours I was less stressed-out, a bit sedated perhaps, but certainly less gloomy.

The injection can be repeated every day for a few days until the patient is fully recovered, but beware of overdose, lest the patient would start wearing bonnets and refuse to use any electric appliance or car.

This one novel is about a young woman who struggles to find her true place within the Amish community, wonders about the outside world and (slightly, gently) rebels against the rules (don’t expect her to smoke something illegal and to try one night stands: she sings outside the church and refuses to throw away her guitar). and gets the strictest punishment that the Amish can design for their own: she’s shunned, which means that none including her own family and friends is allowed to interact with her, they look through her and don’t talk to her: a kind of very efficient social death in tight-knit communities.

This book is the first of a trilogy, but I won’t bother reading the others. The plot is sweet and the characters very attaching (if not quite relatable to my own experience), and rest assured that noone does anything remotely unproper in the whole book, but I’m already convinced that the gentle heroin will find her happy ending and her prince charming.

The one where 20-somethings find a life purpose

Inio Asano, Solanin (2006)

I was searching for non-clichéd standalone mangas via Amazon (i.e. no fantasy / ultraviolence / sex / SF / Pokemon), and the algorithm found Solanin for me. I am very grateful for the Amazon algorithm, but I remained a bit suspicious of its taste, so I hope the next thing I did will not make me a total cheapskate in your eyes: I borrowed it from the library.

Solanin is about Meiko, a young 20 Japanese girl, just out of college, who hasn’t a clue what to do with her life. She’s doing the conventional, expected thing as an Office Lady (a junior clerk) and is bored to tears. Her boyfriend Taneda has a creative job that he seems to like, but it is part-time and doesn’t even pay the rent, so he always ends up crashing at her place. Together with other friends from university, Taneda play in a rock band that mostly gets to meet for rehearsals and drinks and pity party. One day on a whim Meiko quits her job, essentially because she feels inadequate and fears that she lives a passionless, lifeless dreary life. She has six months’ savings to figure out what she wants in life.

At about the same time, Mr Smithereens and I sat through a few episodes of Lena Dunham’s Girls, and we had that awkward conversation where we tried to pinpoint what people see in it, and ended up wondering if we were just too old, or too European to “get it”. I kept sighing and wanting to tell those girls to “just grow up” and I felt totally out of synch with what’s supposed to be the icon of a generation (is it?).

But weirdly enough, the manga and the series both deal with early adulthood, and figuring out who you want to be, and unsurprisingly given their respective cultures, they don’t give the same answer, although both answers must be credited with avoiding clichés and simplistic resolutions.

I had a hard time relating with Solanin’s main character at first, especially as I didn’t quite warm up to the design itself. But she kind of grew on me, especially as she starts out as meek and dreamy and ends up taking more risks and decisions than I’d expected. Quitting seems an immature reaction at first, but after a tragedy strikes the small circle of friends realizes that they can’t delay taking chances if they ever want to live their dreams. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers but I was taken completely off guard by this tragedy that occurs around the middle of the manga (end of tome 1 for those 2-volumes editions) and I totally respected the author for trying something so daring for the genre.

It reminded me of the podcast Lit-Up on that episode where they discuss what makes you an adult.  Their discussion with Meghan Daum points that having a child is not necessarily the (right) answer, and that often it’s when something bad has happened to you, the first glimpse of life’s unfairness or brutality defines adulthood. In Solanin we see characters growing up in that direction under our very eyes, and that’s very moving.

The writing resolution: April Status

I’m quite happy to report that in April, I managed to write 28 out of 30 days. That felt almost like a true habit (it is often said in women’s magazine that you need 21 days to form a habit, but as a matter of fact, for me and this particular habit, I’d say 100 days would be a better number – I don’t know if it’s encouraging or depressing).

It felt great to finish a story (on April 3), but I didn’t quite managed to revise it up to now (taking a print copy everywhere with me doesn’t count), and as I had no momentum for another story right afterwards, my writing was more scattered this month. But I was also more on the blog, which was more fun (even if I didn’t quite write as many book posts as I wanted!). Writing here is also a chance to interact with you all, and I have tried in recent days to comment more and not just to lurk around.

I realized that I needed, not exactly a posting schedule, but a kind of record of my writing to be able to aggregate bits and bobs into complete stories. I do keep a private blog, which is an ideal tool to be able to write on the go (in my phone), but blog posts are not easy to aggregate and they’re not meant to be shuffled around into a complete story.

I wonder if I’m not missing out on some other clever technology. Torn apart between hi-tech and lo-tech, I have fallen in love with the bullet journal (in Moleskine!) and that’s where everything I need to do in my private life ends up. Just today I got a glimpse of MarinaSofia’s post-it wall and I’m full of admiration.

What trick do you use to keep track of your writing?

The one on how to survive the Gulag

Eugenia Ginzburg, Into the Whirlwind (1967)

I picked this Persephone book after a Prokofiev biography that left me with more questions than answers. What was it like to live through Stalin’s huge purges of 1937? What was the cost of surviving? Why did people not realize how totalitarian state was going to eat them up?

This book didn’t answer the questions either, and still raised others. But at least I got a glimpse of what women endured behind bars, and I got it in full details. Eugenia Ginzburg was not a opposant to the Communist regime. Far from it. In fact, she was an enthusiast Party member and had a quite successful career in journalism and university in Kazan. Her lifestyle was by all counts that of a bourgeois family. But in 1937 she was arrested as so many people around her (her husband, colleagues, friends…). Everyone seemed to expect getting arrested, and yet it seems that people thought that their own personal case was only a misunderstanding that would be cleared up within a short time. Lots of people still respected the great leader Stalin and thought that the purge campaign was the result of some minister’s initiative and would soon be corrected. Ginzburg wasn’t into the personality cult, but she still believed in the principles of communism, and she too struggled to make sense of a Party that kept devouring its own children and was building a Kafkaesque system.

After a number of months in prison and a mock trial of 7 minutes, Evguenia was sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag, and not to death as she had come to fear. She spent years in solitary confinement and describes very well how she nearly got crazy from this inhuman treatment. Yet those years were not defined by physical hardships (she finally got in a cell with another woman, managed to communicate with next door inmates and got access to some books). The bitterer years were still to come, as she was transferred to labor camps in the Far East (Vladivostok), where she nearly lost her life from deprivation and exhaustion.

The original Russian book was published in 1967 after being smuggled to the West. It ends abruptly in as it is supposed to be followed by another book detailing the next years of forced labor and exile: “Within the whirlwind”.

Her testimony is so rich in details and names that you can’t read it but with respect. Yet Ginzburg herself comes very much alive through her pages, as a wonderful optimistic, energetic and resourceful person, a fun woman to be around, especially in dire circumstances. She recited poetry for pages and pages on end. That she survived her ordeal of more than 20 years is a miracle, but I can somehow guess that with such an open, easy and strong personality, she would put luck on her side more than once. Some sentences made me tick, like when she says that “prison, and especially solitary confinement, ennobled and purified human beings” and that it was after being transferred to Kolyma that she encountered ugly people who sought to take advantage of the system.

Reading such a harrowing memoir is strangely enough not too depressing, mainly due to Ginzburg’ clear and powerful voice who never seems to despair of the human race in general. I wondered at times if it hadn’t been whitewashed, but I prefered believing in her fortitude. The most heartbreaking moments were when those women allowed themselves to think of their children, abandoned to orphanages or relatives and taught to distrust or forget their parents.

The one I didn’t get

James Salter, All That Is (2013)

I have a complicated relationship to James Salter. Not that I know him personally, but back in the days I had fallen in love with his short story collection “Last Night“, and I had professed myself a Salter fan. Then I read his memoir “Burning the days“, and I wasn’t sure anymore. That was 2008.

What seven years can do to your memory… I had forgotten everything about my bad experience of “Burning the days” and had kept intact my glowing souvenir of his stories. That’s why I was really looking forward to reading “All that is”, a new novel after a long time.

The book starts with a bang and continues with a murmur. It opens when the main character as a young man is aboard a war ship at the height of Pacific war in 1945. The battle scene is lyrical and full of promises. But peacetime is far less exciting than wartime and things go downhill from there. Main character Bowman goes to school, finds a job, marries, divorces, has adventures, finds another love, has successes and failures, is wronged and wrongs someone else as a revenge.

Everything after the first chapter is grey and muted, and soon feels completely unimportant. The sentences are carefully crafted, but then in the middle of the book I couldn’t help myself: Is that all that is? And it’s not even a pun.

Bowman is cold and unemotional. Is he supposed to be a bad guy? I’m not sure.

Perhaps it’s the whole point of a book. Replicate a life in its high and low points, in its moments of bravery and its moments of baseness. Does it make a good book? I don’t know. The writing is quite good and elegant, but without a compelling story, and a (at least slightly) relatable character, it wasn’t enough for me.

I kind of wish the same story was presented to me as a series of linked short stories. But now, all I’m left with is the question: what did I miss?

A short bullet post

In May I will (probably):

  • write a little every day
  • follow MOOCs (my latest passion!), notably that on Iliad and the Trojan war offered by Colgate University via EDX, and the self-paced course on historical fiction,named Plagues, Witches and War, offered by University of Virginia and full of videos by writers such as Geraldine Brooks
  • sew something (springtime somehow makes me grab my needle)
  • cook something with cardamom, and chia seeds, not necessarily together (the chia craze has crossed the Atlantic)
  • spend lots of time with the family (May has so many French public holidays)
  • try my own personal combination between a bullet journal and a commonplace book (can’t seem to choose)
  • dream about my forthcoming trip to the US!

Books I look forward to reading:

  • Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the murderer
  • Patrick Deville, Kampuchea
  • Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes (I just received the Biannually catalogue of Persephone, and I’m highlighting way too many titles!)

What are you reading these days?

The one without maple syrup in a darker Vermont

Eric Rickstad, The Silent Girls (2014)

I have Sarah from Crime Pieces to thank for finding this book. It was quite a while since I haven’t read a book like that: a combination of noir, thriller, horror and police whodunnit. It was a good mix, but it’s difficult for me to tell a lot about the story without giving away too much. Let me try.

The hero is an ex-cop turned private investigator in the tiny Vermont town of Canaan (please pardon me, I didn’t know it was a real place just next to the border, that weird line that is totally, like, horizontal between the US and Canada. Even in real life it doesn’t seem exactly thriving).

The police needs him to look for a missing girl who is legally emancipated: they are worried but unable to launch an official investigation. Franck Rath, following the rules of the genre, has some issues of his own: he’s still rehashing his guilt over the gruesome murder of his sister, more than a decade before, which made him abandon the police force to raise his sister’s baby as if she was his own.

With a nasty backache, a recent empty nest (girl in university), and the disturbing prospect of his sister’s killer being release on parole, he soon gets convinced that not only one, but a series of young women have disappeared for years in the area. The hypothesis of a serial killer is hard to sell to the police though, as these girls are all different and no body has been discovered. Until…

I won’t go any further, but I was quite impressed by the book and some touchy issues he addresses. The main character is suitably flawed, the atmosphere is chilly and gloomy: it’s really no advertisement for Vermont (the only thing I knew about Vermont is maple syrup, and it’s not even mentioned here!), and those tourists who come to resorts for the landscape are chastised for destroying the environment and offering little to the local economy.

After a huge “bang” opening (which might be misleading as I definitely thought of Stephen King), the pace of the first half is rather slow, but I liked it. I needed some time to get acquainted with the place and people (so far removed from the American dream). The last part is sustained at a breathtaking pace, with an incursion into gothic and gore that I didn’t expect.

It has quite a potential for a series, but the ending (a twist I certainly hadn’t seen coming) make it unclear whether it’s meant to be a stand alone. Eric Rickstad is indeed a man to follow.