The One with the Melancholy Writer in Hospital

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton (2016)

I’d loved Olive Kitteridge, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I’d read Elizabeth Strout again with her celebrated Lucy Barton, that so many book bloggers had recommended. The good news is that the opportunity came earlier than I’d thought with an ARC of the French version that will be published in the fall.

I fell into this book quicker than with Olive K., and I read this short novel in almost two evenings, a real holiday treat to have these longer uninterrupted stretches of reading! (It definitely helps that I don’t really “get” German TV). These were beautiful hours spent with Lucy Barton and her mother in the hospital, talking about little nothings,  about neighbors and extended family members. Nothing much happens, but what matters is the undercurrent of love and emotions. Lucy and her mother were estranged and the fact that she flew to New York to stay on her daughter’s bedside for 5 days and nights meant a lot.

I loved every page of this melancholy, understated novel. There’s no big bang, no showy revelation of a secret, but rather the complex texture of life and time and deep feelings. Although Lucy is a writer and words are important to her, she struggles with emotions that she can’t pinpoint exactly or things that can’t be expressed fully. The writing flows but is never flowery. The structure goes back and forth between the 1980s, Lucy’s childhood in dire poverty and her later life many years after the episode in the hospital. It’s sad but not gloomy or overwhelming; it only makes you think about your own family and relationships, about understanding people (or not), and how childhood has probably a lot more influence on your choices later in life than you’d think. It’s the perfect book to savour on a rainy day together with a hot tea (or maybe, in German fashion, a long coffee and a generous slice of cake).

Thanks to Netgalley and the French publisher Fayard for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The One with the Normandy Nurses in Love

Soraya M. Lane, Wives of War (2017)

Alright, please don’t roll your eyes just yet. I have nothing against a schmaltzy novel from time to time for a quick pick-me-up. I have been known to experiment with Amish romance and once with Nightingales romance, and I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I own it.

I can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I chose this book on Netgalley on basis of the cover mainly. I can’t say my expectations were very high in the literary realm. I wanted to be swept off my feet by good feelings, by love stories and accounts of heroism and dedication and selflessness. I certainly didn’t want to think too hard, as I was looking for the perfect easy summer read.

Well, now I can’t go and complaint that the characters lacked a bit of depth, that the writing was not flourished enough and that the plot was a tad predictable? It’s called Wives of war, so when you get to meet 3 British single girls on their way to military hospitals on the eve of the Normandy D-Day, it doesn’t qualify as spoiler to tell you that they will end up… well, married.

This is fluffy romance fiction and readers who complain about lack of perfect historical accuracy in the way those girls talk and behave, or on the way nursing is described, have simply chosen from the wrong bookshelf.

The contract has been fulfilled: it was entertaining, I cared enough for the three girls to follow their adventures (yes, all the way to the altar) and it wasn’t disturbing or stressful (very few gory details about war injuries, thank you very much). It’s not unforgettable, but it was fun, and wholesome.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher Lake Union Publishing for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The One with the Ugly Belles

Elizabeth Ross, Belle Epoque (2013)

The end of June was full of last times for our family. Last trip to the neighborhood market, last days at this school, last time we got to Parc Monceau, last times to the library. Of course it’s hard to say goodbye, especially as we were lucky to have such a good library network in Paris.

The neighborhood library I went was specialized in children and YA books (with only a small shelf for parents to get their bookish fix), so it led me to extend my interest towards the YA novels. I was looking for a sweeping period novel that would take my mind off the busy to-do list. I don’t mind foreign books set in Paris as long as research is good and characters are believable. All the more when it’s a historical novel. I love to remind myself that so many people lived in Paris in different centuries.

Belle Epoque is a novel that was inspired by a little-known Zola (very) short story. Zola imagined that wealthy upper-class families hired ugly companions for their daughters to appear even more beautiful and striking by comparison, in an effort to help them shine in society during the season. Ross used this basis to explore the fate of Maude Pichon, a 16-year-old runaway from the countryside and poor single girl in the capital, hired by such an agency because she is plain enough; and the fate of Isabelle, a wealthy débutante whose mother has chosen Maude to accompany her everywhere, both as a “faire-valoir” and as a spy, because Isabelle is not interested in marriage and would prefer studying at university and having her say in this new century. The backdrop of the story is the 1900 Universal exhibition in Paris, that saw the building of the Eiffel tower that so many back then found ugly. I didn’t care so much for Maude’s back story in Brittany and for her love interest that seemed a bit fake, but the portray of friendship and the conflicts of loyalty sounded quite right.

The concept of “repoussoir”, or “beauty foil” is such an unusual idea, although the underlying themes of inner vs. outer beauty, of the pressures of conventions on beauty, are rather common in YA. The ending tied too many bows for my taste (which made it implausible) but I guess this is part of YA conventions. I really liked that the book made Maude not exactly likeable, but oh-so-relatable, when she felt so much self-loathing about her own appearance and yet compared herself to other repoussoirs, hoping that she would look less ugly than them.

I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the themes, because the cover art had led me to expect soapy romance. Yes, I get that the girl beside the Eiffel tower has no face, but this cover art is on par with so many historical romance novels covers, isn’t it?


The One Onboard the Trans-Siberian Railway

Maylis de Kerangal, Tangente vers l’Est (French 2012)

I was determined, for once, not to let years pass before I took another Kerangal novel. After all, if I declare my love and admiration for her work, her books should bump many others on my TBR list, shouldn’t they? So when I saw this short book at the library, I jumped on it and finished it in (almost) one sitting, which is awfully rare for me.

It’s more of a novella than a novel anyway, but I was immediately sucked into Kerangal’s special style, her long sentences and inventive choice of words. The setting of the story is the Trans-Siberian Railway, this famous train line that connects Moscow to Siberia by way of Lake Baikal and many small cities in Far-Eastern Russia. The train is really a main character: we hardly leave it from page one to the end of the line, with its slow pace, days of boredom for passengers who travel for a whole week, its iconic samovar for hot water, its nasty toilets, its stops in stations where peddlers try to sell food to the passengers. Kerangal actually made the trip herself and the book was created from her experience.

As I lived in Asia, the Trans-Siberian Railway exerted its magic aura on many expats. Some French expats with no pressing business to attend to chose to return home after their stint in Asia by taking the Beijing-to-Moscow Trans-Mandchurian Railway, a variation of the Trans-Siberian. I envied them, but I’m not sure I would have been patient enough to make such a long and slow trip.

In the novella, two unlikely people meet by chance in the train. A French woman has just left her Russian lover and runs away from him, taking the opportunity to reflect on their relationship and the reasons why she came to Russia with him. A young man, almost a boy, is a conscript and the train is taking him to his military base, but he doesn’t want to go and tries to desert. Their chance encounter will impact both lives and brings a real tension in the book (I won’t spoil it here, but I hope it gets translated into English!)

Kerangal’s style is really addictive, and I can’t wait to start another one!

The One with the Cold Case Cold Beauty

Lissa Marie Redmond, A Cold Day in Hell (to be published Feb. 2018)

I found this title on Netgalley and it perfectly fitted my circumstances: I wanted a no-brainer, no-nonsense police procedural to keep me entertained while filling up boxes (96 in total, but who’s counting, right?).

Lissa Marie Redmond is a recently retired homicide detective of the Buffalo (NY) Police Department: although I don’t know much more about her, I believe from the plot minutiae and cast of characters that she has evidently applied the motto: “write what you know”.

The novel’s main character, Lauren Riley, is a 40-something sensible (yet beautiful!) female police detective in the Cold case unit of the Buffalo Police Department. She usually investigates in the D.A. team, but this time she moonlights as a private investigator on the defense side, because the lawyer has somehow convinced her to meet with the accused and that she could not believe him to be guilty. A high-school student with no previous rap sheet is accused to have strangled a wealthy woman in her car after having had sex with her, but Lauren is unconvinced.

The book read easily and it was quite entertaining, because there are many interesting people to meet. Lauren’s sidekick investigator in the office is the one I liked best, because I got a real feeling of camaraderie, office banter and the general highs and lows of the cold case investigations. But there are also Lauren’s ex-husband, who is cute and charming (but a cheat at heart?), the father of her daughters (not the same guy, this one abusive and stupid), the boss, the D.A., etc. You can tell that Redmond is building the setting for a whole series here, so it’s nice that we get all this background information, even if some stories are clearly left open at the end of this book.

The problem I had with the book is that I wasn’t really surprised by anything. It was good to remind me that trials and investigations take months in reality and don’t have necessary an ideal, clean-cut result, but I wish there would have been a quicker pace and more thrilling revelations.

Also, I don’t get the title and find it rather bland. There’s no real hell in this story, and there are so many other books with the same title. The cover art is also very nondescript and I think the book would deserve a better package. But these reservations weren’t serious enough to spoil the experience and I would be glad to follow Lauren Riley’s next adventures.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

Unfinished Business: the Self-Help Edition

It’s probably not the right time for me to read books on how to have a more balanced life, right in the middle of a house move. While I certainly need more balance in my life right now, it’s just that I can’t really pack my life’s belongings and unpack my deep thoughts and life goals in the same month.

In that spirit I decided that two books I tried in that realm weren’t probably going to make the cut and get packed with the other books. They were definitely going to find themselves other owners (I put them on the donation shelves at my workplace), and if I’m not mistaken they have found them already, as they were not on the shelf last time I passed by.

I hope that Samantha Ettus‘ book, The Pie Life has found a working woman with kids as its new owner, because the book is more for her, although Ettus claims it’s for everyone. The principle is very easy to understand: that life is very diverse and can be compared to a pie, whose slices are each very different and all taste delicious. She advocates going from one slice to the next without guilt. She is obviously a very ambitious, very driven woman and it will appeal to women who are aiming for a career equally or more successful than their partner. Although I am a full-time working mother, I didn’t resonate much with the book, probably because I have never felt any guilt about working and in France and especially in Paris this is totally normal. I believe American working mothers face a lot more criticism and feel more torn and guilty, in which case the book should help. I also didn’t resonate with the book because my career isn’t my priority at the moment.

I hope that Christine Carter‘s book, The Sweet Spot, will find an active, outspoken, laid-back, extrovert owner. I have followed Christine Carter’s newsletter and blog for a while, and I must say that I didn’t enjoy the change of format and pace. What works in short paragraphs and daily bursts of energy is too much for me when it comes in long chapters. Christine Carter introduces happiness concepts with lots of scientific backup, which is nice, but the main ideas are a bit similar to those in The Happiness Project or other that are easily found online. I must say that Christine Carter comes too much like an extrovert for my own taste, and many tips she gives are based on her personal life, which is hardly applicable to my own case. Overall still, I liked it better than the Ettus book, because she had a more laid-back approach.

The One with the London Moses

Megan Hunter, The End We Start From (2017)

Dystopian novels *normally* put me in a gloomy mood, and that is why I refrain from reading too many of them, although I’m attracted to them like a moth to a broken hurricane lantern. I can’t remember who (in the litblog world) pointed this book to me (please raise your hand!), but I had not understood it was a novella when I requested it from Netgalley, and I’m grateful for this discovery.

It reads fast and easily, but the images stuck with me. It’s very sparse, and very evocative. When the story starts, the narrator’s waters break and she gives birth. We don’t get to know full names or details, but we soon understand that nothing is normal in the world surrounding this birth. London is being flooded, there are refugees, unrest and disaster all around. The rest of the novella follows this mother and her baby for a year, until he finally walks.

The horrors of the catastrophe are muted or only alluded to, because it looks more like a fragmented diary, intercepted with quotes and poetry, than a traditional novel with dialogues and plot. In fact, because everything is about survival, much of what happens is a matter of luck (or unluck), and the main character is often quite passive, not knowing if she should stay or go. As the mother’s main focus is the progress of her baby, it also chronicles the tiny, very normal milestones of an infant.

It might leave some people cold because it is so unemotional (the British stiff upper lip, perhaps?) and provides very little information, where other writers would have waxed lyrical for paragraphs upon paragraphs. For example: “The day they don’t come back from shopping is beautiful.” But I loved this style and found it very effective.

Eventually, this is not a too disturbing or shocking read because we readers are spared the details of the horror compared to the sweetness of the baby details. We are forced to have a distanced reading, not only to guess what is missing from the page, but also to witness that confronted with unnamed horror, the narrator has retreated to her inner self and her baby, to block out the rest. The ending is hopeful and this is why I enjoyed it so much too.

Thanks to the publisher Grove Atlantic and Netgalley for the review copy.

Unfinished Business: The One with the Bad Hair Days

Sofi Oksanen, Norma (Finnish 2015, English 2017)

I’m in the middle of moving house, and I need good books to see me through this hectic time. Nothing difficult, nothing too challenging, nothing too slow, nothing too fast either (I’m exhausted and can’t follow). Something entertaining, something that takes me far away from cardboard boxes, movers, contractors, registration forms and bank statements.

I thought that magic realism would do the trick and borrowed Norma by Sofi Oksanen from the library, but I could not finish it. To be precise, I read a third of the book, then skimmed the rest. It was probably bad timing. I have read Purge and had liked it. It was not love at first sight but I appreciated Oksanen for pulling no punches and having a strong, original voice.

This novel is daring because it mixes magical realism and fantasy with a dark thriller. Without the magical realism part it would be very tough and chilling. When you add this weird ingredient, the recipe tastes different and confusing… but I’m not sure if it tastes better.

Norma’s mother, Anita, who works in a hair salon, has jumped in front of a metro in Helsinki. Norma can’t believe she committed suicide, and soon enough she discover things about her mother that she didn’t know. Those two lines would be so cliché, if Norma herself had not a very unique characteristic: her hair is growing continuously and intensely (requiring several cuts a day!). Even though the story kind of fell flat for me, I could not help but wonder how Oksanen had come up with such an idea.

Soon enough we are embarked into a plot where Norma’s very special hair has unwittingly taken part to an international traffic of hair extension. I could hear my eyes rolling. I could see Oksanen’s point of women’s body exploitation loud and clear but I couldn’t really muster the energy for caring and being outraged. It was just too weird and abrupt.

Now, I think I’m going to head back to comforting territories for my next read. An Agatha Christie or a Ann Cleeves mystery maybe…

The One with the Heartbreaking Virago

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge (2008)

All I knew when I started the book was that lots of people had praised it. And that it was about a woman in a small town in Maine. Nothing more.

Which left me with so many surprises. First, the structure. I love linked short stories but only rarely read them (any other examples you’d recommend?). Second, the main character. Olive Kitteridge is blunt and sometimes spiteful. She is often angry and rarely compassionate. She has a no-nonsense, cold approach towards her family, her husband, her son and her neighbors. She’s the epitome of the unlikeable character. I was definitely not ready for it. Third, the sadness and gloom of the subject. This is not – I repeat not – a fun read to be attempted if you’re any way depressed or thinking about your own mortality.

The edition I got had lilac calligraphy and a woman with a red raincoat walking close to the seashore. Hmm… Why is the cover art so subdued and romantic like a chicklit / romance? This is so misleading. There’s nothing subdued and romantic about Olive. The red raincoat is there to tell you about Olive’s uncompromising choices in fashion and in life. She doesn’t care what other people think of her. She watches herself grow old with the same unflinching stare, and it’s not really pretty.

There’s a lot of humor in the book, but it doesn’t cover the darkness of it. Even if you dislike Olive and get attached to the other characters, village life in Maine seems so depressing, except for little moments of grace. What saves the book are those moments, and the beautiful language and characterization. I definitely want to read more of Elizabeth Strout.

The One with the problematic Dia de Los Muertos

Raina Telgemeier, Ghosts (2016)

I love it when my oldest son and I can share a book together. As it happens I choose most books for him at the library, because a- at this hour he has a planned activity; b- I don’t trust him to read challenging books; c- he would only take home Mickey Mouse comics and mangas; d- I can browse middle grade literature shelves and I love it. I often do some night reading aloud to both boys these days, but not every night. I know I am kind of bossy but my son is only 9 (only?) and I know these times won’t last forever. Plus, don’t worry too much, he also goes to another library to fill up on Mickey Mouse to his heart’s content.

I borrowed Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier as much for me as for him. We had a great time reading the graphic memoir El Deafo by Cece Bell, and I knew I could trust my son to be open to hard subjects (with a proper treatment, that is). I have bought Telgemeier’s Smile for my workplace library but haven’t read it yet. I took a chance on her Ghosts, because my son is not yet a teenager, more like a tween, and the book deals with pretty heavy issues so that I wasn’t sure how he would receive it. The main character’s little sister has cystic fibrosis and the whole family needs to move to a new town for her sake. I didn’t know how much my son could understand about degenerative genetic disorders, but I found that Telgemeier did a good job being both sensitive with young readers and realistic with terminal illness and death and grief.

The other big theme of the book is the Mexican American tradition of Dia de Los Muertos, in an imaginary small town where friendly ghosts literally come back and mingle with the local population. Catrina and her family are Mexican-American but haven’t kept with traditions. Her new friends and neighbors enable her to reconnect with her identity. Ghosts in this story are kind and sensitive and nothing to be afraid of. Telgemeier is great with the difficult subject of death, of cultural acceptance, of sisterhood, and I was going to rate this book a whole five stars, until…

I ran into various critical reviews on Goodreads and on the internet about how her portrayal of Dia de Los Muertos and Mexican-American culture is not accurate at all. People said (I’m paraphrasing here) that the scenes set in a Spanish mission with ghosts of Native people are out-of-line because of the cruelty and oppression that Spanish Catholic missionaries used against them. It’s probably true, and I can’t be the judge of it because I know far too little about this history and this part of the world.

Call me ignorant if you want, but the whole concept of cultural appropriation was new to me. I didn’t know there was a word for that, and it’s little known in France. But I don’t like the idea that only Mexican-American people can write about Mexican-American experience. Writers should be able to write about experiences that are beyond their own lives, if they accurately portray facts upon which they base their fiction.

So my verdict? I still love the book, problematic or not. I’m grateful that people on the internet took the time to explain why and where it was wrong, but I think it’s still a worthwhile read for elementary kids.