The One with the Breakdown in the Desert

Mary Westmacott (aka Agatha Christie), Absent in the Spring (1944)

[This is the first in a series of posts related to books read in 2017, because my reading pace completely outran my blogging time. No reason to forego a blog post, right?]

I don’t remember how I came to think that Agatha Christie wrote romance novels under the name of Mary Westmacott… This is SO entirely wrong! There’s nothing romantic in this book, on the contrary!

Now, I remember that I read somewhere that the novels written under this pen name dealt with “crimes of the heart”, whatever that means. I took it to mean romances (as in agonizing over heart issues), but I am now sorry I didn’t even try to make sure I was right.

It’s obvious that I misread and that “crimes of the heart” meant psychologically heavy subjects, because this book is about what happens when a woman suddenly bares her soul and finds there something not totally appealing. This is such a departure from the usual Agatha Christie characters, who are often archetypal and whose psychology is described in broad strokes. (I’m a fan, so I don’t mean to say that they are uni-dimensional cardboard characters, but I’m aware some people say so).

Mrs Joan Scudamore is the proud wife to a country notary and the self-satisfied mother to three adult children, all apparently very successful. She is returning to London after visiting her daughter who lives with her husband in Baghdad as expats, when she finds herself unexpectedly stranded on her own waiting for a train. It’s the first time she is alone and has nothing to distract herself with, so after a few days the only thing she has is her memories, her doubts and her feelings. Something is rotten in the state of the Scudamores, and Joan, with all her British stiff upper lip, is close to having a full-blown mental breakdown. Her perfect life has big cracks in it, and the truth is not so pretty. People have been lying to her, and she lied to herself too.

I guess Agatha Christie’s goal was to make the reader uncomfortable and she succeeded all too well! Her main character is not very likeable; and she grows worse by the minute as we get to read her thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. The book is called by the publisher “bittersweet with a jagged edge”, and I do see what they mean. For people used to Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, you know you’re onto something dark and raw when within the first dozen pages, someone casually says to Mrs. Scudamore: “You know, you’re the sort of woman who ought to be raped. It might do you good.” How shocking! Not your typical body in the library indeed. Likewise, the resolution of this “crime of the heart” does not tie neatly every strand, we are left wondering how much the desert episode has really changed Mrs. Scudamore.

I’m sorry that it took me that long to try Agatha’s “crimes of the heart”, but it won’t be the last for me.

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The One with the Great Elopement Scheme

Georgette Heyer, Snowdrift and Other Stories (1960, 2016)

Of course, I had heard of Georgette Heyer, but I had never read anything by her until this December. I am not a big romance reader, although I have been known to indulge in some heavily sugary treat before. The first time I remember reading romances was during college, when I found some in the recreation room of the boarding house I lived (managed by Catholic sisters, of all things! I bet they never opened the second-hand books that gathered dust there!). It made sense to me to try Georgette Heyer’s short stories to close 2017 when I tried to read all kinds of short stories.

You won’t be surprised that Georgette Heyer’s stories are very clean and witty, and provide light-hearted entertainment with lots of costumes and a happy ending guarantee (I have just finished Downton Abbey, so I was in the right mood for it). I didn’t take them very seriously because most were quite short, so that the plot line between the 2 people meeting and them falling in each other’s arms at the last minute wasn’t developed enough. There are a lot of love at first sight, a lot of funny misunderstandings, a lot of elopement schemes (so many couples running to Gretna Green that they likely were stuck in traffic!), a lot of dashing young men with shiny Hessian boots. They were a bit interchangeable (once again due to the format), but I enjoyed the light banter between the characters and the overall feeling was playful and charming.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher Sourcebooks Casablanca for the review copy.

The One with the Down-At-Heel Mansion

Dorothy Whipple, The Priory (1939)

Wow, it took me about 6 months to read this book. Yes it’s a big book (536 pages, and I’m not counting…), but still, I’m not generally afraid of big books (Outlander? 11/22/63?) Actually, it was a tough read for me, and there were many times when I wanted to give up on it.

It’s only because this book was on my shortlist of 10 titles I wanted to read in 2017 that I stuck with it (more on this resolution another day). There were times when I did wonder why everybody had such a glowing opinion of the book. There were long weeks where I didn’t even crack the spine open and it sat there, collecting dust.

Is it any good? Now that I’m on the other side, I can say “yes” and I finally “get” why this book was a publishing success during Dorothy Whipple’s life, and why Persephone Books has it on its bestseller list, and why it has a 4.18 average on Goodreads at the time I write this post. But for the first half of the book (probably 250 pages in), I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t get the characters, I didn’t warm up to any of them. And there are many of them.

The Priory is a mansion where the Marwood family lives. They are gentry, but they don’t have any money any more, and they scrape by in their derelict mansion, barely keeping up appearances (they still have a lot of staff). The Major, a widower, is only interested in cricket, the two daughters are selfish and spoilt, the major’s young new wife is incompetent, the nurse she hires is stiff and proud… There are many other people in the “cast” and they each have their fair share of flaws. There is a comic tone at the beginning which I found most unsettling (I rarely if ever get comic books in English, something always gets lost in translation…) and I wondered if I was in a kind of tongue-in-cheek Upstairs/Downstairs comedy.

But when weeks became months, the book turned into something else, the characters started to develop and I started to like them more. I could see past their flaws and find them endearing, or with redeeming qualities. Perhaps it was just me becoming more familiar with them, but I started to feel sorry for them. The Major’s daughters had no education whatsoever, and they have no other prospect but marrying well. Both marriages end up being problematic in some respect, and the tone veers into nostalgia, melodrama, sentimental and even tragedy as everyone dreads the upcoming war. I was most interested in how the evolution of society (women working, women wanting to have a say in general) permeates a family with old Victorian or Edwardian principles.

The ending was nice, but as it is set in 1939 it made me shiver in retrospect to think of what those characters would have had to endure in the following years if the novel had continued (not that I wish for 300 pages more…)

The One with the Canadian Summer Camps

Margaret Atwood, Wilderness Tips (1991)

I meant to read this book forever. Like for decades. I used to have a copy of this book in German, back when I used to speak fluent German and when I had fooled myself into thinking that I could read fiction in German (I couldn’t, and I definitely can’t anymore).

And then came the Handmaid’s Tale’s frenzy (I haven’t watched it yet, but want to), and then this short story collection found its way into my hands again (this time in English). There’s nothing dystopian about these stories, although there’s something about men and women relations in every story that says that men are generally not nice to women, and that women should be aware and wary.

This is most glaring in “Weight”, a story in which a middle-aged single woman tells of her best friend’s fate, who got killed by her abusive husband and who decides to extort money from other philandering husbands to fund a women’s shelter.

Several stories center on adulterous women and how they compete (or not) with the wife. In “Hairball”, the story that is most full of dark humor, Kat, the fashionable British editor of a Canadian fashion magazine, takes her revenge against her lover’s wife, whose mind she describes as mind “room-by-room Laura Ashley wallpaper, tiny unopened pastel buds arranged in straight rows.” In “Uncles”, a girl grows up to become a powerful, successful journalist, helped along the way by her uncles and by some men, and yet when one of them betrays her, she ends up doubting herself and doubting her own understanding of life, as if her success and power had only been granted to her by those men and not by her own value and skills.

Two stories of these collections are set in summer camps, “True Trash” and “Death by Landscape”. Summer camps are something of an American cliché, but although the kids find their stay idyllic, we get to see how what happened back then shaped them into adulthood, with their own fears and insecurities.

With the exception of Hairball I found that the collection had a nostalgic tone. It made me think of my own turning points moments or of my own misunderstandings. Highly recommended.

The One with the Gloomy Swedish Detectives

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, Cop Killer (Swedish 1974)

Part of the fun to decide to read another Martin Beck police investigation is to search through the library shelves and try to remember how exactly both names of the writers are spelled. In my head, they are Maj and Per, which doesn’t exactly help. And you can’t really get help from the librarian if you don’t know how to pronounce them, right?

This one is Martin Beck’s ninth book, and they can be read out of order, but it’s probably best not to start with this one, because one can witness the trajectory of Martin Beck’s mood and beliefs from the beginning in the sixties to this one in the mid-seventies. In short, it’s not a spoiler to say that it doesn’t get better. Also, it’s better to have read Roseanna before, because one of the suspects of this investigation is a character from the first novel in the series.

If I was dealing with real people and if being gloomy was not part of the gumshoe’s and detective’s cliché image, I would be tempted to suggest a strong dose of Prozac to Beck and his close colleagues. Sjöwall & Wahlöö are part of the tradition that uses the conventions of the police procedural to denounce everything that goes wrong in society: miscarriages of justice, hasty judgments, unregulated use of violence by the police force, but also a country where young people struggle to find a right place, where they don’t find jobs and don’t find meaning in the jobs they may find. A country where press and politicians manipulate the news (has anything changed since?). 1974 is a time when young Swedish people are disenchanted, and except for smoking dope and having long hair, Swedish policemen such as Beck and Kollberg are just as disenchanted as they are. 1974 is the year heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped, the year Abba released Waterloo and when lots of bombings by extremists and the economic crisis worried people all over the world. The 1970s were dark and bleak and the book does reflect this mood.

Reading a Maj & Per book is not about big twists and big shockers, it’s about the work and the time policemen put in to find a killer, often without much recognition. Only dogged determination, and a part of chance too. The pace is slow and it takes more than half the book to understand why the book is titled Cop Killer, but I promise, this is all worth it.

The One with the Accident of the Train Across the Lake at Midnight

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)

Marilynne Robinson is one of these writers I have always been afraid of. Every time she’s mentioned, people speak about The Great American Novel, and I’m always convinced I won’t “get” it, and only Americans can “get” them. Another of these writers is Annie Dillard. I have started numerous times Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and never went beyond page 10. One day I’ll come back to it, I know, so many people have told me that I am missing out, but… intimidated I am.

I borrowed Housekeeping from our new library (more on that later!), and quite frankly I mistook it for Home, of which I had heard raving reviews from people who don’t only read highbrow books (I honestly don’t remember who especially). I didn’t know that Housekeeping was her first novel. I didn’t know what it was about. I didn’t know it had been published in 1980. In Modern Mrs. Darcy website, My name is Lucy Barton was recommended for people who love Marilynne Robinson, so why not try it the other way round ?

The first sentence made me pause, so pregnant it is with hidden messages :

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.

Wow. This packs so much into one single sentence. The orphans (why? how?), the absence of men, the family relationships, the formality and distances of Mrs., Misses, the conservatism (naming one’s daughter like the mother), the mystery of “when they fled”. I was hooked, and no longer intimidated!

The style is everything in this book. There are images that will stay with you for a long time, like that of a train that crashes into the cold lake, lost forever with the narrator’s grandfather in it. The pace is slow and nothing seems to happen, yet a lot goes on beneath the surface. I could never tell when the story is supposed to be set, or where it’s supposed to be. It could be in an imaginary place of fairy tales, but not the Disney version, the dark and sad ones, like Grimm or Andersen. It also reminded me of the melancholy witches of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the end of the lane.

The story is told by Ruth, and Ruth is all about her family’s past, and everything she says assumes a dreamlike quality. The writing is both simple and powerful, a bit like the Bible, so that everything happens feels like a myth or a metaphor.

At times the timeless story hit some hard places, especially when it incorporated some elements of reality, of normalcy. In particular, when Ruth’s sister Lucille decided to not follow Ruth and their quirky aunt Sylvie anymore, and when she decided to go to school and dress like a teenager and do what teenagers typically do; i.e. to conform and fit in, instead of staying on the margins of the town. When the village authorities showed up at Sylvia’s doorsteps trying to make her realize that Ruth had to lead a normal life and go to school. It was a hard landing from the dream to the reality for me, because deep down, I didn’t really “get” them and would rather identify with Lucille than with Ruth and Sylvie.

Still, the heartbreaking ending reconciled me with the whole novel when Ruth and Sylvie leave the village behind in a powerful scene and drift away across the country, hoping to find Lucille in Boston one day.

The One with the Spanish Doppelganger

Javier Marias, While the Women are sleeping (1990)

This post has been lingering in my virtual drawer since the end of June. It’s probably time for me to finish it. Don’t ask me why today, because I might end up put it off *again* another month or year. Which I hate.

I read the whole book because a. it’s a short story collection, and b. It’s one of the 10 books from our shelves that I vowed to read. Other than that? I would have probably ditched it. And probably regretted it too.

The thing is that this collection is very uneven, made of 10 stories from the 1970s to the early 1990s. It’s the first time I read Javier Marias, so I don’t know if this is typical or not. A few didn’t speak to me at all – to the extent that I didn’t understand what I was reading. A few left me cold, like the story of an antique book in a booksellers window who might be worth a lot of money. Why would I care? A few were interesting but weird, like the small talk that a majordome confided in the narrator while they were stuck in an elevator, or an older husband in love with his very young wife. Most stories had a weird, surreal or supernatural twist. Most stories had unpleasant characters, or downright unlikeable, which made the collection a tough sell.

Overall, two stories stuck in my mind: the one, “Gualta”, about a man who meets someone who looks very very much like him, is named like him, only to find him totally despicable. So what’s a man to do? He tries to change himself through and through, changing style and taste and love and life, and just about everything. But what will his doppelgänger do? Will he stay the same as the original Gualta or undergo the exact same transformation?

The other story I liked best was “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban” about a ghost in a school, which starts as one of these vague urban legends (we had one such legend in high-school, totally unfounded of course). The main character who tries to catch the ghost in the act is actually a lonely, and rather boring English teacher, a “man of little imagination” who is there on an exchange program. One of his (boring) duties is to stay late on Friday to lock up the school, but he’s warned that the ghost (who is only heard but never seen) comes every weekend to pin a resignation letter on a board. The rumor doesn’t tell who the ghost is and why he has resigned, but the English teacher seems an unlikely (if stubborn) candidate to pierce the mystery…

In the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure that this collection really lured me enough to try any of Marias’ novels in the future (for which he’s surely more famous than for short stories). But of course, should the litblog experts say otherwise… Has any of you ever read Javier Marias’ novels and found it great? Am I missing out on something?

The One with the Strong-Willed Homesteader 

Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Letters of a Woman Homesteader (1914)

I know you can’t tell, but the setting has changed dramatically between the time I started and finished this book, as we’ve moved. But don’t misunderstand, we’re still close to Paris and the move (conclusion of a 6 months real-estate affair) is just a 20 miles transfer to suburbia. Nothing really comparable to the experience of this Woman Homesteader: her daring adventures made our endeavors very small and easy in comparison.

Talking about settling down in a new environment, here’s one female writer who has a pretty hands-on knowledge about it. Elinore Pruitt Stewart decided almost on a whim (at least, that’s what she tells us) to take a job in Wyoming in a ranch. A widow and single mother working in the city (she was a housekeeper), she wasn’t afraid to leave it behind and start anew in what many people say a man’s world. The book is made of (very much edited, I’m sure) letters she sent to a friend back in town from 1909 to 1913. These letters are full of little stories, but the author’s point throughout is to convince the reader that homesteading is completely feasible for women (single ones especially) and that the life she chose would be a better option than remaining in the city and working for a meager salary.

It’s a fun and easy read, a bit like an adult Little House in the Prairie, which I adored as a child. There’s hard work for sure, but the author kind of glazes over hardships so that every anecdote and letter has a happy ending. The author is such a positive Pollyanna that I (the naturally critical and grumbling French) could not help but wonder what she held back. She married her employer but he doesn’t appear much in the letters. She had a daughter from her first marriage, but she doesn’t speak about getting her to school or giving her any formal education: the girl just kind of tags along in her mother’s adventure. She hardly ever speaks of being lonely, afraid or even doubtful. She seems to value independence and hard work above all, but then you realize that she didn’t really make it alone, as she got married a mere 6 weeks after arriving into her job, making a convenience marriage rather than a love marriage. (see a very interesting article on Jstor on the discrepancies between what she writes and what really happened: Single Women Homesteaders: The Perplexing Case of Elinore Pruitt Stewart, by Sherry L. Smith, Western Historical Quarterly 1991)

Far from convincing me that homesteading was an enviable career for any woman, the book highlighted to me how exceptional Elinore was (we’re on first name basis) and the need for comfort and convenience and community that many people choose over the freedom and risk of such an adventurous life.

The One with the doomed passion in Spain

Frédéric Dard, The Executioner Weeps (Le Bourreau pleure, 1956; Eng. Pushkin Virago 2017)

I love Pushkin Press little-known European thrillers and noirs, so I was thrilled to receive the ARC through Netgalley. Yet, the story left me a bit tepid, and I remembered that I’d tried Frédéric Dard a long time ago and not found it quite my cup of “café”.

Still, it’s maybe me (or the bad timing) who’s at fault here, because it’s still a very good noir story. The narrator, Daniel Mermet, a semi-famous painter, has gone to Spain to paint alone. One night he crashes with his car into a woman. She’s hurt but not seriously, and he looks after her. The problem is that she has lost every bit of memory. The only thing Daniel knows about her is that she’s French. It doesn’t stop them from falling passionately in love. Time is suspended, but soon reality prevails. If they want to continue their love affair in France, the young woman has to get ID papers, and therefore an identity.

The premise is quite simple and thin, and yet the mystery grows by the page. As Daniel paints her beautiful model, his painting of her tells him something different from the love he feels. What is this frightening glimmer in her eye? Who is she and what is her secret?

I didn’t quite warm up to Daniel and the woman. She’s not a Femme Fatale, because she’s so passive and pitiful (or is it an illusion?). I found the amnesia and the revelatory painting a bit tricky, and without those two, the plot scaffolding starts to unravel. Yet, Frédéric Dard does a good job entertaining and titillating the reader. He was well-known for churning out cheap popular novels by the dozen. He actually wrote more than 200 novels!

On the trivia side, I was intrigued to see a French novel set in 1950s Spain, at a time where dictator Franco was ruling the country, with high level of poverty and police. Also, Daniel’s investigation brings him to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which is precisely the town we’ve moving to in less than 2 weeks!

Jumping From Story to Story

After I finished Ellen Klages’ collection of short stories I found myself in a mood for more. After all, reading more short stories was one of my goals for 2017, and one not too difficult to reach! (Not like reading from my own shelves, or reading from a set list of books, ahem…)

At first I felt a bit rusty, because I had been reading New-Yorker-style stories where you want to read carefully and hang on to every word: the epiphany is sometimes so subtle you don’t want to miss it. Nothing bad about that, except it’s maybe a bit too highbrow for me in this sunny, busy season. Ellen Klages reminded me that some stories can be lighter, quicker on their feet (mmh, you might object to stories having feet, but I own it) and don’t take themselves so seriously.

A few weeks ago I read the 2 stories that Danielle had sent me. The first one, “The Heaviest Dress”, by Mireille Silcoff was about a complicated Jewish family story and eccentric self-aggrandizing characters: I liked it but did not love it. I couldn’t quite relate to any of the characters, but it’s probably for the best!

The second one was a lot more arresting: “Circumstances of Hatred” by Laura Trunkey started in clichés and soon took a sharp turn towards daring. It started with a newlywed couple moving from one coast of Canada to the other because of an inheritance. The first sentence of the story is very original: “I had not forgotten about my grandfather’s refrigerator, but seventeen years of absence had diminished it”. The young man had a special connection with his oddball of a grandfather and upon his death he has been bequeathed a house with a locked fridge in it, that never should go on defrost. The young woman is unhappy about the move, there is bickering and low-grade dissatisfaction in the air. Can you imagine what will come next? Can you imagine what is kept in the fridge? I bet you won’t ever guess, because at each twist and turn of the story I kept muttering: no, she can’t possibly!

At the kids library I stocked up on short stories (translated in French but it’s better than nothing): two stories by Truman Capote, “The Thanksgiving Visitor”, and “Miriam”. Both are classics, and they didn’t disappoint (although I found it weird to put the two of them together for a teen edition – and the translator did a literal translation of Thanksgiving with “day of the giving of thanks” which was awkward). Then I turned to the master of entertaining and thrilling stories, Stephen King. I grabbed a copy that was titled Mist, except that the French editor must have pulled a trick because the short story Mist (that people online rave about) was not listed inside! Talk about disappointment!

I understood later on that the original collection, Skeleton Crew, was so thick that it was not publishable as such in France, and the publisher just cut the collection in two volumes (without saying so!). It didn’t really matter because the range of stories and tones is quite wide. Some are pure horror, some fantasy, some thrillers, even a page of poetry! I didn’t relate to all of them, obviously. Well, it’s hard to relate to a story about a surgeon stranded on a desert island who decides to eat himself, right? … Right? The one I loved best was the one with the gentlest ghosts, “The Reach”. It’s set on a small Maine Island. An old resident, Stella Flanders, has never set foot on the continent, she has never seen the point of doing so, until she is dying from cancer and now that the reach is frozen she’s tempted to go see on the other side. The small-town villagers and gossips are all well portrayed and the whole close-knit community comes alive. The story was sensitive and gentle and well deserved the prize it got in… 1982. Another non-horror story was quite fun: the  “Word Processor of the Gods“. Well, it wouldn’t speak to Millenials I guess, but I do remember word processors (although I never had one, I had a mechanical typewriter that felt like heavy lifting for fingers). I love Stephen King ever since I tried 11/22/63 last year, but I will decidedly stay away from his goriest stories, now that I know that he pulls no punches.

Last, I started (yet) another short story collection by Spanish writer Javier Marias, While the Women are Sleeping. It is a collection taken from our own shelves for 2017 (more brownie points to me!). I find it weirdly satisfying to be able to finish one story in one setting: it’s even better than crossing stuff in my checklist, as I am quite goal-oriented these days with the packing and moving!