The one that goes deep into Bletchley Park

Michael Smith, The Secrets of Station X (1998)

I have a thing for Bletchley Park, yes I do! I don’t remember when I first heard about it, but my interest was rekindled a few years ago by the ITV mini-series “Bletchley Circle“, who focused on a group of girlfriends in the early 1950s, all apparently quiet housewives or secretaries, who actually had worked at Bletchley Park during the war. Lately there was a BBC program presenting Bletchley Park’s women, and also a movie about Alan Turing’s life (which I haven’t seen).

So I took the opportunity of an Amazon promotion to buy The Secrets of Station X, in order to know more about Bletchley. And I did learn a lot alright, and perhaps too much for my own taste! This book tells in excruciating details every single code that has been broken during the war in Bletchley, which means that there are a lot of repetition (like, they get a bit of information, then get stuck for a while, get frustrated and then there is a breakthrough and then it is all clear, so they can move on to the next code… ugh!).

Michael Smith obviously did a lot of research, and had a lot of first-hand interviews with people who worked at Bletchley Park (at the peak, there were no less than 10,000 people, many of them women). The result is a huge mish-mash of interesting facts, trivia, personal memoir excerpts, all put on the same level, or so it seemed to me. We can jump from the use of codes to help fight the El-Alamein battle, to the logistics of having so many people in a rather small place, to the memory of Americans and British playing together during breaks, to the different particulars of each hut of the Park.

At the beginning Smith took some time to explain how an Enigma machine worked and how the de-coding went, but I didn’t really understand and so I was soon out of my depth. I would have enjoyed a more synthetized approach, but I guess that’s probably in another book out there.

Enough already with the hard and down-to-earth realities of non-fiction! This book put me in the mood for a good spy novel. Any suggestion?

The one not to read by the beach

E.F. Benson, The Face (1927)

The mood for creepy stories doesn’t strike me often. Besides, being notoriously bad at blog group challenges, and keeping any kind of reading deadlines, I usually have fun reading all about the traditional October R.I.P. challenge in friends’ blogs and cheering from the sidelines.

But the other day (I wrote this post when it was only yesterday, but never came round to edit it before tonight) Danielle dared us all to try at least one of those short stories she was reading and her invitation came at the right moment, just after I finished a book and wasn’t really enthusiastic about the others I’d started. What is more efficient to escape a “meh” situation than a pretty good scare? I took the laziest way: I found the audio version and downloaded it right away on my phone. I wasn’t disappointed.

“The face” is a pretty straightforward story about a recurring nightmare, how we rationalize this fear, how we trivialize the dream, how we find every good reason to distract us away from it and to shrug it off.

If we go all meta, we can also see that it says something of the power of storytelling, that is all too easy to despise a simple story especially in the genre of horror, because they are supposedly not highbrow, but just give it a try and see if you won’t have goosebumps.

Now that Danielle has convinced me, I’ll go and download all the others available stories of E.F. Benson, but I’ll probably finish them long after Halloween has come and gone. Perhaps for the winter solstice, when the year is at its darkest?

The one in the whirlwind of Black history

Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman (1981)

I didn’t know what to expect from Maya Angelou. My only knowledge of her, being a Caucasian French woman, is through Oprah Winfrey (whose fame crossed the ocean, but by name only). I heard of long and adventurous life, but I didn’t know that this book was just a part in her memoir, and a small part indeed.

This book packs a lot of history and a lot of names within just a few years of her life. It starts in 1957 when she moves from the West Coast to New York with her son and joins the Harlem Writers Guild. She then proceeds to explain how she came to work for Martin Luther King, then to almost marry someone, then to actually fall for a South African freedom fighter in exile who brings her and her son to Africa (Cairo) but soon disappoints her with his philandering and domineering behavior. The final pages of the book are set in Ghana in the early 1960s, but it ends so abruptly that I was somehow frustrated for lack of a better editing and closure.

I was impressed by Angelou’s voice, her strength, self-reliance and wisdom. I was floored by her sense of freedom. She never stops moving forward, and setbacks, grief and sadness are just brief intervals before she picks herself up again and goes for the next thing. Her life (or the glimpse on just 5 years of it!) is so full of life-changing decisions that I was riveted, but also exhausted. She offers a very large perspective on events happening around her in America and Africa at the same period, and with so many portraits, it’s really a collective history as well as a deeply personal one.

My weird feeling is that Angelou seems both deeply rooted in a community, culture, historical moment, as well as a whirlwind of emotions, reactions taken at the spur of the moment (why did she agree to marry a man she didn’t really love? why did she suddenly turn her back and decide for Africa?). I admired her, but I couldn’t really understand her.

As a European reader, the experience of reading this book is nothing short of an eye-opener, because I don’t think I have read anything so blatant about what it means to be a Black, African-American woman in mid-20th century and to hear it from her own voice. We don’t talk about races in France, so I wasn’t comfortable reading that she distrusted white people and visibly thought that white people could not understand Black people. I may have misunderstood that part myself, and that was probably the result of her times and her heightened political conscience. It is really fascinating to see how African and African-American activists rubbed shoulders, influenced one another (I’m really treading lightly because my knowledge of it is very limited), and how the early 1960s with the new independent states in Africa raised hopes for so many (and not only in Europe and white America). More than half a century later, we are so far from that wind of freedom and optimism that we have mostly forgotten about it.

The one that turns out shockingly outdated

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Making of a Marchioness (1901) and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst

It wasn’t part of my plan to revisit Frances Hodgson Burnett because I loved her Little Princess as a child (don’t let me start on the Japanese anime version Princess Sarah, I would probably make a fool of myself!).

No, I just saw this book in the Persephone list and (I’m embarrassed to say) downloaded the Gutenberg version on my Kindle. I expected saccharine and late Victorian conventions, but I have to say it went well beyond my expectations. I mean, for worse rather than for better. It’s written like a melodrama, but there are too many disturbing elements for the magic of suspended disbelief to apply.

The first part is a sort of Cinderella tale, but one where Cinderella would only rely on her naivety and honesty, not on her looks and wit. Miss Emily Fox-Seton is genteel and (insufferably) kind, but she doesn’t have any money, so she has to work as a dignified assistant, and the prospect of getting into middle-age (34!) in this precarious status is a bit daunting. Oh, but she doesn’t rebel against her fate, that wouldn’t be very polite… and it would require a lot more thinking that Miss Emily is used to. But don’t worry, that’s perfectly alright, because the book’s Prince charming doesn’t really like women who are intelligent and witty, he’d rather have a quiet wallflower (or no wife at all, but in this matter he too doesn’t have a choice, he has  to have an heir). She’s here to breed and smile, so that the lord and master can rest after his day’s work. Given that Miss Emily is not exactly young, the production of an heir might be trickier than for other possible girls in the cattle fair wedding market, but as we are in a fairy tale, the miracle occurs indeed.

This first part is a rather weird mix, because Burnett switches from bits of social commentary about the fate of single women without marriage prospect, bits of factual information about how women get by with a small budget (prices included) to traditional sentimental fluff. Burnett doesn’t seem to believe very much in her own main character, informing us readers several times that Miss Emily is a bit simple, which is presented as a virtue. At some point I decided that she wanted to ridicule her, but no, she’s rather a creature to be pitied. Burnett probably wanted to expose the hypocrisy of Victorian gender stereotypes, and ridicule what a true “angel of the home” looks like amid less virtuous, but more real people, but as she ends the first part with Miss Emily’s successful marriage, I was a bit lost.

The second half goes on to portray her married life, which would be insufferably dull, but for some evil people whom Burnett throws as Miss Emily’s Lady Walderhurst’s nemesis. Burnett adds a few bitter lines about bad marriages and domestic abuse, but the main point is a Victorian gothic plot that is not very tense (you can smell the happy end by miles). The moment where my tepid feelings turned decisively against the book was the forced exoticism and the slighting remarks on the half-Indian, half-English woman (read: half-good, half-evil) and her evil Indian servant. Indians and in general people with a dark skin are cunning and their strangeness is irreconcilable, despite Lady Emily having read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. This part is such a heap of racist, colonial clichés, certainly common in 1901, that it makes for an uncomfortable read if you’re not reading it at a meta level.

If I’m trying to be Fox-Seton-like kind and forgiving, I’d say the first part is worth reading for its social subtext. I try to rationalize it saying that Burnett probably wanted to write a different book, but settled for a conventional potboiler. But if I am 21st-century-blunt, I’d say some old texts are better left gathering dust. Age is no excuse in this matter, and 1901 was a great year for other more memorable books with memorable women caracters, like Claude à Paris by Colette, The Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (Tony), Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

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 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?

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 starring Mary Pickford in black and white

Miriam Michelson, In the Bishop’s Carriage, 1904

I didn’t know at first that Mary Pickford played the heroine Nancy Olden in a 1913 silent movie from which only a few pictures remain. Apparently it was so popular that it was remade in 1920 into yet another silent movie that got lost too. On my part it was pure luck: I just picked this title up from the Librivox free audiobook library because the writer was a woman and I thought it a bit unusual for the adventure/mystery genre.

Once I knew about Mary Pickford, an imaginary movie started playing in my mind. The heroine would have a slightly stilted walk, her long blond curls rolling around her and bouncing at her every move, all the more as Nancy Olden gets to run away from the police a lot at the start of the book. She would wear those nice shoes and dresses we all admired in the first season of Downtown Abbey. She would make exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions, her mouth open (oh my good I will be discovered!) and her eyelashes fluttering (can I flirt my way out of prison?).

It was a nice discovery. The plot is a fast-paced, first-person account of a cute, sassy, spunky girl who grew up in a harsh, miserable orphanage. She has become a professional pickpocket, using her beauty and apparent innocence to play tricks together with a young crook, Tom Dorgan, whom she loves. Despite her dark background and her controversial choice of career, she’s not one to whine. She has a quick tongue and lots of nerve. Nancy Olden grabs every life line that gets thrown towards her by chance encounters (the eponymous bishop is only the first, she enters his carriage under disguise to escape the police and plays a schoolgirl in full breakdown).

It has gotten a bit outdated at times, and the writing is clumsy at other times, but by most accounts it has well stood the test of time, as the heroine is quite resourceful and independent-minded, making her a very modern American girl.

No wonder that Mary Pickford made a huge success with it. Nancy Olden is an unconventional girl. She doesn’t wait for the Prince Charming, she even saves her own very Charming Prince!

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.