The One that Smells like a Dump in Summer

Jean-Paul Nozière, Bye-bye Betty (French 1993)

With the selfish goal of discovering more small presses or imprints that publish novellas, I continue my investigation of the noir genre in YA fiction.

I stumbled upon this one purely by chance, attracted by the dark cover and the thin back. The library shelves quickly told me that Jean-Paul Nozière is a rather prolific writer for middle-grade readers and this novel is rated for 14 years or above. But I knew nothing more.

As far as noir conventions go, this novella fits the bill to perfection. The atmosphere is oppressive, set in a French small town near the Spanish border in summer. An illegal dump has been set up in town: it stinks, literally and figuratively. The only industry there is a fruit company that uses (illegal) immigrants to pick fruits, then sells them or can them. The factory is owned by a powerful family who reigns on the town because it also owns hotels and houses that they rent out to employees. There’s something rotten in the kingdom of Pyrenees, to paraphrase someone famous, and one local girl has decided to fight it: Betty. This young girl, oblivious of local rumors and risks, wants to become a photojournalist and sends her pictures to the big media companies in Paris.

As the book starts, the narrator, Salfaro, a Parisian photojournalist deep into depression due to his wife’s departure, is sent to the small town to meet with Betty. His motivation is murky at best. He used to be a famous war reporter, but he hasn’t worked at all for a while, and this assignment is a sort of last chance given by his boss, although the job clearly is beneath him.

The atmosphere is well painted. Even deep in the winter months, I could almost feel the heat and the stink. The sense of doom and hopelessness that you often see in noir novels were pervasive too, but not in a way that would be too terrifying or harsh for a young reader. Still, I couldn’t really root for the main character. He seemed nor to care much about anyone but himself, and he seemed naive or  unobservant. It made it unbelievable that he would be a famous war photographer. It made me think about stakes.

I haven’t really though it through, but I will be looking more carefully in the next novels: what is at stake for the main character in the story? Here, I felt that the stakes were too low. My interest waned because the reason for Salfaro investigating Betty and the village seemed like only a pretext. If he had turned his back on this assignment, not much would have been lost. Sometimes, the author puts the stakes too high, and here too there is a problem of believability. If everything is a matter of life and death, the story becomes hysterical and the reader, quickly exhausted (at least in my case).

But this novella really made me want to read noir classics again, like Simenon, Dashiell Hammett or Chandler. I also could use another installment of my favorites, Philip Kerr or Michael Connelly. Who’s your favorite noir writer?

Parallel Reading

Colmar Toibin, Nora Webster (2014)

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Blank Wall (1947, Persephone reprint 2003)

No, this post is not a sneaky attempt to post about two books for the price of one, diminishing drastically the pile of books to be reviewed. Bear with me…

I blame myself that I read too many books at the same time. I’ve been known to have up to 9 books on my “currently reading” list of Goodreads. Ugh… It’s not that I have a magical power to read one book with one eye and a second with the other (I wish!). I start one book, then get distracted with another, then come back to the first for a few evenings, then start an exciting one from the library… But the advantage is that sometimes my readings collide.

Take Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, a shiny new acquisition from the library, on my left, and The Blank Wall, a Persephone shiny grey book from my own bookshelves, on my right. Apparently, not much in common. A 1940s American noir / suspense novel (that reminded me of Patricia Highsmith in part), versus an Irish contemporary psychological / literary novel. Both vying for my attention (and my limited free time!)

Where in one hand a dead body has to be dealt with in the first twenty pages, and the whole book takes place within a week, Colm Toibin’s novel in the other hand spans several years and nothing dramatic really ever happens. It’s a slow-moving book where buying new furniture for the living room carries a weight and a meaning that leaves you rooting for Nora, while in The Blank Wall, issues were more life-and-death, scandal or prison, but it took me a longer time to warm up to Lucia.

And yet, despite the differences, under my eyes, Nora began to talk to Lucia, and Lucia to Nora. These two books were really worth reading side by side!

Both features wives and mothers of teens and grown kids. They are alone and obliged to act and take decisions because of their husbands’ absence (Mr Webster died recently and Lucia’s husband is at war in the Pacific). Both women are not used to assert themselves, they express strong opinions in their mind but look proper and meek in front of others. Both are not really likeable characters at the beginning (in my 21st century eyes) because they are so limited in their thoughts and actions, and then by the end of the book they have both evolved, have discovered that they can decide, act and stand for themselves and I grew to like them.

Nora lives in a small town in 1960s Ireland and Lucia lives in a small town in 1940s outside New York. The context in both books provided in each case some new level of reading for me: the political events and the women’s movements for Nora, the war and the home front for Lucia. Both books are quiet feminist manifestos in a sense, full of delicacy and subtlety.

In both books, children are not painted under the positive light you’d expect. Lucia’s kids, Bee (around 17) and David (14-15) are selfish and spoilt. David behaves like a little master and gives orders to his mother, while Bee rolls her eyes at her mother who can’t understand anything. Nora has 4 kids, two nearly graduating daughters and two younger boys. Nora, as a typical 1960s parent, is not one to talk much about feelings or to show her love. There is a real distance between Nora and her daughters who obviously have a much more liberal, modern mentality.

Lucia’s daughter would be of Nora’s age, if I am not mistaken, but Bee is so empty-headed (the whole book comes from her poor choice of a boyfriend, this girl begs to be grounded for a few months) and Nora so provincial that they would probably have nothing to talk about together. But I’m sure Nora would have loved to have the opportunity to travel to the States, given the opportunity.

This was my first brush with Colm Toibin and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, who is deemed the Godmother of Noir. Definitely not the last I hope!

The One on the Tiny Desert Island

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book (Swedish 1972)

Goodreads informs me that I started reading the Summer Book at the end of August. It took me a semester to finish! But I hasten to add that it’s because it was so good that I took my time, not because I didn’t like it. It’s not the kind of books that you should hurry.

It’s a very atmospheric book and you should wait to be in the right mood to savour it, otherwise you’d miss all the fun. The more I stayed with the book, the more familiar I grew with little Sophia, 6-year-old, her grandmother and the tiny island on the gulf of Finland where they spend the summer.

The stories are told with a few evocative steps, the writing is fresh and simple and the reader is left to fill it in with her own comprehension. It’s easier to miss tiny changes of mood, because it’s not only about nature and the sea and the isolated island they live on, it’s more about the feeling of mortality, the inevitable change and passing of time. At the very beginning, the reader is informed that Sophia’s mother died recently, but only because Sophia notices that she doesn’t have to share her bed anymore. Not another word will be added to the gate of the mother and the grief of the family. We also guess that Sophia’s grandmother has some health problems, but neither Sophia or the grandmother seem to worry. The summer is short and soon the bad weather will return and the island will be deserted, so you’d better live one day at a time.

I wouldn’t want people to imagine that the book is full of heavy subjects. On the contrary, it’s light and witty, full of scenes where Sophia is stubborn and the grandmother is too. They both like to play and pretend, they like to create. Strong-willed and fanciful, they create worlds and adventures out of ordinary days in a tiny island. Nature is a huge presence in the book, and summer in the gulf of Finland is not like a sandy beach on the Cote d’Azur, it’s full of rocks, moss and perpetual winds.

If you know Tove Jansson from the Moomins, you will get the same sense of seriousness and fancy mixed together. You can see glimpses of Moominpappa when Sophia is full of bad faith, both philosophical and adventurous. You can see glimpses of Moominmamma in the grandmother’s practical attitude, in her open-mindedness and stubbornness. It’s a tiny, perfect gem of a book, that needs to be re-read at leisure, even in the depths of winter.

The One with the Golden Dream of the American in Paris

Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon (2000)

I can’t remember who recommended to me “Paris to the Moon”. It might be back in the spring when I was looking for books about expats in Paris for my workplace library, to stock up on English language shelves for the foreign employees. Or maybe in one of those literary  podcasts with an episode on travel writing. I thought it would be fun to see my own city through the eyes of a foreigner, especially one who comes with the reputation of the New Yorker in tow.

This collection of essays, a chronicle of tiny details or brief introductions to life in Paris (French cuisine, cafés, gyms, maternity hospitals, playgrounds, etc.) gives snapshots of his life together with his family (he had a young son, and a daughter was born in France during his stay) in Paris from 1995 to 2000.

The high point of the book is Adam Gopnik’s writing. His sentences are precise and evocative, they carry feelings as much as cultural explanations. He has a great understanding of French people, it’s not patronizing or exotic. The portrait of his kid playing in the Jardin du Luxembourg almost brought tears to my eyes. His voice makes you want to buy a ticket to go… But wait! I’m already here! Or am I?

Adam Gopnik’s Paris is more than 20 years old. I took my time reading the essays, because it was like finding pictures from the past. I know some things never change and we French people are very resistant to change, but still you should not think that the book is still valid nowadays. Yes, the Ritz is still there (but has undergone a 2 years renovation). Yes the Jardin du Luxembourg is still there, but those tiny details that are so precious in the book, well, they mostly no longer exist (just an example: gyms are pretty normalized now in Paris). The impact of globalization has made his remarks on French culture not completely false, but certainly to be taken with a grain of salt.

You might argue that it doesn’t really matter. Beyond the particulars of Paris in the late 1990s, you can see the deep love of Gopnik for all things French and Parisian, the culture shock he goes through, the misunderstandings and the progressive adaptation of the author and his family to a new culture and environment. Missing your own country while wanting to stay… This is universal and I remember all too well the contradictions of my own life as an expatriate in Asia not to relate with everything he writes.

But the thing that made me ambivalent about the book is that Adam Gopnik’s life was very privileged. I don’t know about many Americans in Paris, and I don’t remember if the exchange rate of the dollar at that time helped much, but the flat he rented, the lifestyle he had, the restaurants he patronized regularly, most of it is not within the average Parisian’s budget. The chapter where Gopnik movingly writes about the maternity ward where his daughter was born, brought tears to my eyes because it was so well written, but made me cringe at the same time, because he had selected a very exclusive private clinic, where everything, I’m sure, was perfect, because nothing was paid for by French social security. (ok, right, I might have been jealous)

This book is more literature than journalism. More personal memoir than travelogue. If Americans read it before arriving for the first time in Paris, they might be very disappointed, but it’s not my case. It’s an exquisite, pricey pair of rose-tainted glasses to look around me at the city of Lights, to remember some, to wonder and to explore some more.

The One that Missed The (Dark) Point

Pascal Garnier, The Eskimo Solution (French, 1996, English 2016)

I fell in love with Pascal Garnier last year (all the more metaphorically that the poor guy died in 2010) when I discovered “Too close to the edge” and “The front seat passenger“. So I was ever so grateful when a nice publicist at Gallic Books contacted me for another helping of my Garnier discovery. I love that they have set to make Garnier more visible and available to English readers!

Unfortunately, this particular book didn’t quite resonate with me as much as the previous ones. There was this narrator, Louis, a loser, who is a writer in Normandy trying to finish his book for the deadline. The narrator in his book, though, is another loser, another Louis, who comes up with the idea that getting rid of elderly people could be a sort of gift to humanity – especially to his friends who have problems with their elderly parents or who badly wish to inherit some money. He compares it to the Eskimos who apparently put their old ones on ice to starve to death (I didn’t it, ugh).

As you see, this theory firmly puts the book into cynical and dark humor territory, but I didn’t really manage to follow it all the way there. Perhaps it was me, but I have the feeling that this book was a bit all over the place, and switching from one Louis to the other didn’t help. Also, I learnt that this book was his first published, so it might be an explanation. As losers go, I much rather enjoyed the pathetic one from The Front Seat Passenger.

But one occasional miss doesn’t make me less enamored with Pascal Garnier’s books, and I’m just getting ready for the next one!

The Start of the Never End

It’s been a while since I was looking for a successor to Harry Potter. And I finally might have found one.

I didn’t look for myself, but for my son who is hooked (who am I kidding here? for my son and myself!). The deal for my son is that he has to read the book before he watches the movie, but I’m not sure it’s exactly an incentive, because he wants to read all of Harry Potter all the time. We started when he was 7, and I read aloud part of the book, letting him read a few pages during the day before I picked up the book again at bedtime. The second book of Harry Potter was for Christmas, and the third came with his 8th birthday in June. The book was finished midway into our trip to Scotland (bringing an anxious discussion about what should he read next, and what kind of French book for kids is available in Scotland – answer: none, so we tricked our way to downloading some titles on my Kindle!)

The road leading to the 4th tome of Harry Potter will be long, so I was looking for sagas and bestsellers appropriate for him, but then a few days ago, when I opened my internet browser at work, Google had a Doodle celebrating the 37th anniversary of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. I knew I was on to something big!

20160916_184759.jpg

a pair of chubby little hands

Anyway, I just couldn’t wait for the next trip to the library, where I grabbed a copy of The Neverending Story, and I started reading it to my boys. It was an instant hit! Dragons, boys on a quest, creatures of all kinds and dimensions (my little one was fascinated by the tiny people who ride on racing snails and beat up the other delegations – clearly a personal fantasy of revenge).

We have been reading every night, and as I don’t know the story myself it’s also fun for me to discover new adventures (I don’t know where I was in the 1980s when the movie came out… mmh, I bet I was immersed into The Hobbit). We love it so much that, before returning the book to the library tomorrow, I had to buy the book (hardback no less, since the paperback is no longer available).

A few descriptions are a bit too long for the kids and the little one often interrupts to make sure he understands which character is good and which one is evil, but my 8-year-old is riveted. He clearly projects himself into Bastian and Atreju. We’re about one third into the book and it has done miracles to our evening routines so far.

Have you read it as a child or later? Do you remember the movie?

 

Two Maigret for the Road

Georges Simenon, L’amie de Madame Maigret (1950 / Eng: Madame Maigret’s Own Case)
Georges Simenon, Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue (1950)

Coming back from holidays, I find my WordPress drawers accumulating dust and drafts. Quick, quick, I want to mention a few more books before the summer ends!

In June when I went to the writing retreat we were lucky to have a wonderful library at our disposal. They were second handbooks, old paperbacks and yellowed classics, but I found the crime shelf particularly inspiring.

I borrowed several Maigret mysteries because I wanted to study them rather than getting absorbed by the plot itself. After all, I’d come to write and not to read! Simenon may have been a not very nice person in life, but as a writer he’s certainly an impressive figure to behold. He wrote hundreds of novels and hundreds of stories, often completing a full draft of a novel within one week! He’s famous for his enormous production, but also for his very simple and straightforward style, very concise yet highly readable, and for fleshing out a character in just a few words, one sentence or two, enough to create a vivid image in the reader’s mind.

Researching this post I stumbled upon an article by Peter Foorde about the inaccurate translations of Simenon’stories into English, that demonstrated that in the 1930s and 1940s a certain amount of padding was added to Simenon’s texts because his style was deemed too simple.

How did he achieve this without characters being mere clichés? Taking random paragraphs of one novel was a very good exercise, as was the systematic comparison of first paragraphs for his short story collection “Maigret and the tail-less piglets”. I had watched the TV version of several of these stories and so the story became easily secondary compared to the characters and description. Not one word was wasted. Sometimes it is even terse, and it’s not particularly flattering for characters presented this way.

When the two books were finished, I was awed by Simenon’s craft. The stories were nuanced yet simple, the characters had depth yet were shown with few sentences. Simenon said that the most important piece of advice he received on writing was not to be literary. He sure isn’t, and yet his books are literature, not just commercial pulps.

What an inspiration! What a teacher!

 

The one in Bombed-Out Hamburg

Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, On the Other Side (1979, Persephone 2007)

This precious Persephone book is a collection of letters written from October 1940 to January 1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg to her children while she was living in Hamburg, separated from them by war (4 of her 5 children were living overseas by then, most in Allied countries). She wrote moving letters of her life under the constant air raids, especially the bombings in 1943 which practically destroyed everything in the city. She wrote letters but had no means to send them, so it actually reads like a rather down-to-earth diary, although perhaps the cool tone and the stiff upper lip are all for the sake of her children (and maybe the Nazi snitches who might have stumbled upon them, so she barely touches any political subject before the very last days of the war).

Is there anything more depressing to read that the diary of a woman who survived the massive terror bombings in Hamburg, Germany during WW2? Well, to start, I could think of a few even more depressing ones about that period, to be honest (If you want to go that way, there’s the diary of the anonymous woman from Berlin, or of course the Diary of Anne Frank). Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg wasn’t your average German citizen on any account: even without knowing anything about her, I knew, from having been to Hamburg, that there is a big street named after her family and a metro station too. Born in 1879, Mathilde was married to a university professor who was never a Nazi, but she was indeed a woman of considerable means. She had domestic help throughout the war and knew people who could help her with permits, with resources, who could secure a hospital stay when needed and sometimes a letter from the overseas children. Luckily, her home was never bombed out and she didn’t lose everything in the fires or destructions. In short, there were many people a lot worse than herself.

But still, the book is a harrowing read, because Mathilde is such a nice little old lady and she sees her life gets smaller and smaller every day. Every comfort disappear until very little is left. Parents and friends die around her. She’s never sure if she is going to come back home alive when she goes queuing up for hours to get some food. Very little food. She’s left with her memories of past family reunions, of past Christmas, of past luxury, and you can’t help but feel for her.

The quality of this writing is that it hasn’t been retouched later on with the knowledge of what was going to happen next (or at least it doesn’t feel so). Each letter is written with the mood of that day, the latest peril still fresh in mind. It’s heartbreaking to feel that at the armistice her hopes were so high that the situation is going to improve soon, and yet the state of Hamburg and the German population at that time is in such disarray that the situation actually worsened before it could improve. For an Anglophile such as Mathilde, the general distrust of the occupying British army, that often regarded the whole German population as Nazi collaborators without exceptions, was a bitter disappointment too.

I had a summer job in Hamburg once while I was a student. The city seemed very unwelcoming to me. Very unromantic, tough and cynical. There were traces of the bombings if you knew where to look: so few buildings were dated pre-1945, and so many were just ugly concrete, hastily built buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, and there was the lone spire of Nikolaikirche, an old Gothic church that was destroyed during the attacks except for its tower that is still standing as a memorial against war. The city must have changed beyond recognition within just a few years.

I guess my appreciation of the city would have improved if I’d read Mathilde’s letters back then. I’m glad that the letters were saved and published, it’s a precious testimony, both intimate and universal, from a viewpoint that rarely gets to light, especially for the immediate after-war period.

The One with Sex And The City of Hong Kong

Amy Cheung, Hummingbirds Fly Backwards (Eng. 2016, Cantonese 1995)

I don’t normally go to Netgalley to look for foreign books (which I usually read in French anyway), but when I saw the name of the author, distinctively Cantonese, and saw from the short line of bio that she was *not* Chinese-American but a popular writer in Hong Kong, I realized how few such titles are featured on Netgalley. And I also knew that it was high time I read this title and certainly, if possible, a few other Chinese books in the coming months.

I used to read a lot of Asian books but I fell off the bandwagon a few years ago, because they were harder to find and also nobody gushed about them on the Internet (in the English or French Internet, at least, and I don’t have a clue where to look for Chinese book-bloggers, if such thing exists). All this to explain how I was delighted to read this book translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie and published by AmazonCrossing. Hong Kong writers are so little known in the West, you see. Even in Asia, as other Asian capitals love to argue that Hong Kong is only a business place and not a place with soul.

Amy Cheung is apparently categorized in the romance category (see this Chinese article in English), but I’d rather put her firmly into chick-lit territory: her heroines are cheeky and spunky. They are fiercely independent and buy sexy lingerie for themselves, and if some thug tries to steal it from their balcony (imagine flats stacked by the dozens…) they aren’t afraid to hide and give him the fright of his life. They are both pragmatic and romantic and reminded me of the 4 friends of Sex in the City. I’ll let you guess you’d be the Carrie, the Charlotte, the Samantha and the Miranda (well, to start with they’re only 3, so my comparison only brings me so far), but you’ll probably have a better grasp of the book.

The lingerie bit is not a detail that I put here to attract dirty spammers, no (hell no!), it plays a role to highlight the freedom (financial, emotional) and the struggles of each of the women (insecurity about one’s body is universal). The main character, Jeoi, owns a lingerie shop, she reunites with an old friend who comes shopping there, and the story was originally published under the title 《三个A Cup的女人》(Three women who wear A-cup bras). AmazonCrossing decided that this title  in English would *not* attract the right kind of readers, and I totally see the point (I searched under this name and… oops, you don’t want to try, trust me). As other Cheung’s bestsellers, and if my Chinese skills are not too rusty (I would never manage to read novels in Chinese, but I grasp the overall meaning of Wikipedia articles), this novel has been serialized in a popular newspaper, but it doesn’t show in the final edition.

I may be biased because I had this strong nostalgia of Hong Kong places while I read it, and I don’t usually read romance books of any kind really (although my venture into Amish territory might qualify) but I enjoyed the trio of girls. Even if the book is not meant to be highbrow literature, these women may epitomize Hong Kong spirit as I understood it, a blend of Chinese and Western, and I am grateful that AmazonCrossing gave me a chance to discover that author and that book.

 

The One with the Lonely Curious Daughter

Marie-Pierre Farkas & Marianne Ratier, Françoise Dolto, L’Heure Juste (French, 2011)

I find myself a bit slow and stupid that it’s only after reading the third graphic novel that I realized that this small press, Naive, has set to publish a whole collection of famous women biographies in graphic form (I got Isadora Duncan to Mr S. and he got me Virginia Woolf). This time, it was about Françoise Dolto. Do I need to introduce her to you, reader?

In France anyone born from the 1960s on has been raised according to the principles of our “national pediatrician” Dr. Françoise Dolto (or against them). She’s a household name, maybe like Dr. Spock on the other side of the Atlantic (he’s not well-known here). In the 1960s she even had a radio show that helped spread her ideas nationwide. So nobody in France starting this biography comes with a blank slate. I haven’t read anything by her, but as every French I feel that I know something of the style of education that she advocated for: she considered that the child is to be listened to, trusted and respected, that parents need to talk to their babies and children about everything, even if they think their children are too young to understand. She was specialized in psychoanalysis for young children and was fiercely against lies and family secrets. She also defended women’s rights.

What I knew nothing about was her own education. And that’s what the book focuses on, from her very first years until 1939 when she finished her studies in medicine, a few days or months before the war. She was born in 1908 in a very traditional family. Her mother was a fervent Catholic and believed that educating women was a waste and damaged a girl’s marriage perspective. Her daughters were educated at home by a nanny and later by a governess. It was also clear from the start that the mother’s favorite was Jacqueline, Françoise elder sister. Françoise was short, plump and rather awkward, while Jacqueline was fair, graceful and perfect. Françoise asked difficult, impolite questions. So when Jacqueline died in 1920, not only did the mother sink into a deep depression, but she blamed 12-year-old Françoise for not having prayed hard enough for her sister. Even though Françoise was brilliant in her studies, her mother didn’t allow her to study, she even took away her graduation certificates so that she couldn’t register to university!

What a dysfunctional family! No wonder Françoise Dolto was so interested in Freudian psychoanalysis. Her family had nothing to envy to those of Freud’s Viennese clients suffering from hysteria. The graphic style of the book, with a fine, almost trembling line and lots of white space successfully convey the impression of loneliness and the stuffiness of bourgeois upbringing, where children are supposed to be quiet and behave.

The subtitle of the book is “L’heure juste”, the right time. During those years where Françoise had to fight her mother to win the right to study and choose her own life, she thought she was wasting precious time, that she was coming late. But when she finally got her professional license, it was exactly at the right time. Just two days after, a government decree forbade women to become physician.

A very interesting and thoughtful book where art and content go hand in hand. I can’t wait to see what are the other titles in Naive’s collection of women biographies.