The one that makes you double-check the locks

Librairie 16 rues Moines 75017 Paris

This is where it all started… a small comics place without a name…

Daisuke Imai, Sangsues (French 2015, Japanese “Hiru” 2011)

Here comes the post that answers the probably most suspenseful question of summer (besides “when can I be on holidays pleeease?”): “which manga did I choose?”… Offered three tantalizing options by a very professional bookseller, I went with the manga called “Leeches”.

Yes I know, yucky! Isn’t this title evocative enough? Indeed it is very creepy. So creepy that I’m effectively hooked.

I could have gone with the zombie/freedom of art one, but I am a mother of two young children, one of which is able to read on his own and interested in any comics/manga that lays around, and the art was quite explicit, so I kept the title in mind but couldn’t really buy it. A responsible mother wouldn’t do that. That’s what you call self-censorship.

Anyway I don’t regret my choice. “Leeches” is full of promises, considering that it’s the first of a 6-part series. It highlights a bizarre Japanese social phenomenon I was hardly aware of: the disappearing act of thousands of people in Japan, who simply go missing one day. The name is “johatsu” like evaporation or disappearance. Apparently the police doesn’t really try to find them, or can’t due to administrative red tape.

While preparing this post I stumbled upon an investigative book about such people, by Léna Mauger and a French (Belgian?) photographer Stéphane Remael. I didn’t read the book but his pictures from his website are quite sad and haunting, as disappeared people or their families left behind say a few words about their distress and why they chose to leave everything and go under the radar: bullying by the yakuza, debt or job loss, struggle with their spouse or family… They disappear into the anonymity of big cities, just like this manga’s heroin (but the comparison stops there).

Yoko is a young woman who has ran away from her family to go find her boyfriend in town, but had to leave him too (I don’t want to disclose too much). Without any resources or friends she hides away in plain sight, while normal people go about their lives, she sneaks into empty flats to use other people’s belongings, food, bed. Nobody seems to notice subtle changes in their home (I believed I would, but with a baby at home, if something is not exactly at the same place when I come back from work I wouldn’t pay attention). Yoko takes care to leave before the rightful owner comes back, and with a rota of several people working different schedules, she actually survives quite well, until she discovers she’s not the only one to have such a bizarre lifestyle, and that other “leeches” don’t like her to mess about.

The story set in the anonymous big Japanese megacity is quite believable to my foreign eyes. There is lots of loneliness, sadness and quite a quota of violence in it (but no zombies). Luckily for my ability to sleep at night, I like to believe that Japanese people have weird habits, that they are very private and don’t care for their neighbors, and that it wouldn’t be possible in my little Paris neighborhood where concierges (caretakers) would notice or ask questions about a new girl sneaking in and out of the building.

Or would they really?

The one at maximum velocity, too much for my tired brain

Pierre Lemaitre, Sacrifices (French 2012, Camille, English 2015)

Sometimes I’m just plain stupid. No, don’t be polite, just wait, let me explain.

When I heard about Pierre Lemaitre’s thrillers, most probably through Marina Sofia or Sarah early this year, I squirreled away a little note and added to my ongoing TBR list. I didn’t bother writing down the title, since it was so clever to have each volume named after each main protagonist. It never occurred to me that they were the titles chosen for the English translation, and that the French publisher hadn’t done the same clever choice.

Now when I visited the book donation shelves at work, I stumbled upon a thriller with a rather banal cover (a woman’s face behind broken glass) with a bland title (Sacrifices) and a bland writer’s name.

Something like Pierre Lemaitre, a name that didn’t. Ring. Any. Bell. A name like that is the French equivalent of Jack Miller, Fred Jones or John Doe. A combination of Peter Rabbit and Doctor Masters (yes, someone has been watching DVDs…). Seriously, didn’t any publisher tell him to change his name for something more memorable? It feels like a false name someone would give for a very bad alibi. Ok, that’s no excuse.

The opening scene was quite something. I would say mind-blowing if it wasn’t already a spoiler. The alternate voices, the breathless pace, the tongue in cheek, snarky glance towards the reader… It was highly addictive. I had a weird feeling of déjà vu.

Then I hit the bulge of the middle part and the pace kind of lost a little steam. Especially as the book referred to previous events in 2 books I hadn’t read. Which was just as well, because in the midst of all this violence and mystery, my brain was trying to tell me something. Like this book should remind me of… Like this writer’s kind of famous for…

Needless to say there was a rather embarrassing “aha” moment, not the Oprah kind, but that sounded more like “duh”. That unknown writer had won the highest literature prize in France, the 2013 Prix Goncourt, that is advertised possibly everywhere in France (even newspapers stands have it in train stations)… and it stood… on my nightstand since April (a slow read, but that’s a whole other story).

But I hadn’t made the connection. Yes, now you agree that I am stupid. Or very very tired.

I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in order, but it would have required a degree of intelligence that I hadn’t possessed at the time. It’s been a while since I read something as violent (the opening scene especially) and I normally don’t mind, but I think it wasn’t the best way to be introduced to Commandant Verhoeven, even if Lemaitre is a master at plotting and story-telling. I would add that Pierre Lemaitre is a writer to watch for, but I’m not fit to dole out lessons.

The one about the one-man comics shop

Finding a good bookseller is like finding a new friend. It’s a rare occurrence when it clicks.

As a principle I try to support independent bookshops when I don’t buy English books, but I rarely meet a passionate and knowledgeable seller who takes the time to find the book that I would love.

The nearest indie bookshop has a bit of everything, from art books to children’s corner, from classics to travel guides. They will push you towards bestsellers, and if you come with a title, they’ll order it for you for the next few days, which is not so bad. But they never try to put themselves into the customer’s shoes and get personal (that’s typically Parisian, you need to be there at least 3 years before you get a nod of acknowledgement).

On my way to the market on Saturday mornings I pass by a tiny bookstore specialized in comics and manga. They also have some children’s books. I shouldn’t really write “they”, because it’s all a one-man affair. For years I’d never stopped, because the store seemed a bit messy, and I mostly borrow graphic books from libraries, because I don’t really trust my choices and want to try stuff I’ll be able to return. Like that happened more than once. Also, I am prejudiced to think that this kind of shops mainly targets young nerd-ish male readers. A middle-aged mother with young kids and a stroller full of vegetables and cheeses fresh out of the market? I thought I wouldn’t exactly be welcomed.

I came in during winter to buy a picture book for Baby S and I ended up buying one for my older son as well, Chien Pourri (Rotten Dog?), a hilarious tongue-in-cheek series about a stray dog (I’ll post about it one day for sure). My son fell in love with the series: the shop owner obviously knew his stuff.

I came in again for children’s books, and then last Saturday I took the plunge and asked for advice. How to describe my taste in graphic novels? Standalone preferably to series, no fantasy or superhero, no horror and no kinky stuff but no special allergy to violence. I was looking for a shojo but nothing twee. He offered Taniguchi as a first choice, and when I said I knew a lot of his works, the conversation got going.

He said he had exactly the thing for me: Solanin. When I said I’d read it and loved it, it was like a new ping-pong game. What now? He offered a lesser-known Taniguchi centered on a detective specialized in finding lost dogs. I’d loved it too! (although I didn’t review it? It doesn’t seem to have an English translation though) We were now evolving in familiar territory.

He came up with 3 serious propositions:

– the first about an old man leaving his family behind, by Takashi Murakami. Although I loved the cover art, I was less taken by the manga design itself (you can get a sense here) and it was kind of depressing for a summer weekend… It’s a two-part manga (bonus point) and the shop owner said it was his personal choice.

– a second option is the first of a 5-part series by Daisuke Imai, about a young woman who decides to leave her life behind (is there a trend here?) and who lives by stalking other people and entering their apartment when they’re at work. She has access to several flats and thinks she’s one of a kind, but then she finds out that she’s not the only one living off other people, on the outskirts of normal life. The French title means “leeches”, so you get the idea… It really looked intriguing, but a bit scary in the realistic vein…

– the third option was quite bizarre and ventured into deeper topics (not that the previous two were light either): censorship and the limits set to the creator’s freedom. Can a mangaka write about anything, and if so, will he get published? The title is Poison City, by Tetsuya Tsutsui. Here, the artists sets out to design a ultra-realist zombies series and has to navigate publishing politics and much more. Apparently the manga alternates chapters between the zombie story and  the publishing story. I’m not fan of zombie to say the least, but the topic of this option really appealed to me.

Now, what would you have chosen? I let you guess, and I’ll give you the answer in a few days, with a proper review.

The one about growing up in a lost world

Maxim Leo, Red Love: The story of an East German family (English, 2013, German, 2009)

I am amazed how this fairly unassuming book has managed to send me reeling. You may wonder what is so interesting about an adult man in Berlin who attempts to write a memoir about his parents and grandparents by asking them hard questions. An adult who tries to recall what kind of homework he had in school, what was boring and what was exciting at recess. In a sense, the nostalgia for one’s childhood is universal. There were good stuff, bad stuff, your parents did things that didn’t make sense at the time, you were clueless, things change, get over it.

The land of your childhood has disappeared for everyone, but it takes a whole new meaning when the actual land has actually disappeared. Like, for real.

Maxim Leo’s childhood land was the German Democratic Republic (as in: on the bad side of the Berlin wall) and it has really ceased to exist overnight, the morning after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. He was 19.

The book is highly intimate and complex, but it reflects how the history of Germany during the 20th century has shaped a family through 3 generations at least. His maternal grandfather was a boy raised into a secular Jewish family when Hitler rose to power: his family flew to France in 1933 and he grew up to join the French resistance, escaping death by a hair’s breadth. His paternal grandfather wasn’t exactly a member of the Nazi party, but what happened in Germany during those years didn’t exactly disturb him, he supported them to the point that he hung swastikas flags at his own windows. While the other grandfather was in the Resistance and later on the winners’ side, this one was in the Wehrmacht and later a prisoner of war in a camp. The paternal grandfather was loyal to the Communist party that had saved him. He rose to a high level position in the party, so that Leo’s childhood was fairly protected and not deprived. The maternal grandfather did also find his place in the new Soviet country by supporting the ideology and starting anew.

Leo’s parents had a fairly more complex relationship to the regime that oversaw their own childhood’s and adult’s life in minute details. They were told what to think, what to do from an early age, but Leo’s mother had a hard time with that, trying to keep her mind free while remaining loyal. Leo’s father was a rebellious artist and didn’t follow the expected lines.

Leo himself is the product of this conflicting history and what his parents made of it, each in their own way. When he sets out to get answers from them, it is both heart-breaking and eye-opening, like an intimate tragedy. I held my breath for most of the book. I remember the 1980s and I remember the struggles and the divided loyalties. I remember those days in 1989 where we sat in front of the television and tried to make sense of those events. We were only sure of one thing: that the world would never be the same.

The book spoke to me because I am about the right age and because I found parallels with my own family’s background, but I’m sure that it would also interest anyone interested to see how a century’s worth of conflicts and ideologies translate into personal lives.

Erri de Luca, Il torto del soldato (Italian, 2012)

I read far too few Italian books and I should probably be ashamed of it. The name Erri de Luca rang a bell, and the book was short, so I figured I would give it a shot.

Imagine a country inn set in the Dolomite mountains. At the restaurant two tables next to each other: at the first a writer, a translator who translates Yiddish books to Italian, not because he’s Jewish himself but because he is fascinated by this language and its history, and at the next a 40 year old woman with her ageing father, who happens to be a war criminal. The whole interaction between both tables is reduced to a glance over the Yiddish papers by the old man, and a smile from the woman. The book is built around two parts: the first told by the translator, the second by the woman.

Erri de Luca draws parallels between the Yiddish language and the Neapolitan language, both rapid and witty. The part with the writer, who may well be de Lucca himself, is very moving and relatable, full of digressions and anecdotes. You can imagine it as a snippet of a real scene.

The second part is also full of digressions, but it’s chilly and devastating. The young woman has grownup raised by her mother and a man whom she knew as her grandfather. The day her mother left them both, she learnt that this man was actually her father, and that he was a former Nazi, gone into hiding for a long period overseas, then returned to Vienna under a false name, with a new career as a mailman, but no regrets whatsoever about what he did. His only fault was to be defeated, his reasoning goes. If Nazis had won the war the other side would have been the criminals. He has kept his repulsive paranoia against Jews and it even increased to a full-fledged mania as he tried to find in the Kabbalah a justification for the Nazi defeat.

The story is deceptively simple, but full of visual, sensual details and back stories and digressions that sprout in every direction, enriching the story with so many layers and echoes and new meanings every time you pull another thread. Another writer could have made 300 pages out of it, it’s only to the writer’s credit that he kept it to 80 pages. I’m not sure what to make of it, but it was really a great experience, and I’ll make sure to visit Erri de Luca again.

The one that made me roll my eyes and clean my cupboards

Marie Kondo, the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Japanese 2011, English 2014)

Oh my, how conflicted I am about this book!

I have no previous allergies to Japanese quirks, a mix between cute, weird, naive, formal and efficient. I like self-help books and organizing books when they inspire you and cheer you up. I should be an ideal convert to the Konmari method. Like millions of people around the world, apparently.

But this… How this book has managed to make it to the New York Times bestsellers list is beyond my comprehension. Sure, the idea of minimalism is selling like hot cakes these days, and apparently it helps when the one who tells you to do it is a smiling, foreign young woman. As if there was a secret recipe. As if there was a magic trick.

But Marie Kondo soon tells it herself: there’s not one single method, you just have to follow your heart and fill trash bags. If you don’t know what to keep, throw everything out, your heart will tell you what it misses most. A few good ideas are packaged with the weirdest recommendations (balancing them out in my mind, if not cancelling them completely), thrown together with enough episodes of the writer’s memoir to convince you that she suffers of OCD.

To reach an actual book length, things are rehashed ad nauseam, otherwise the gist of her ideas would easily get into a leaflet. The promotional information you get here and there are actually a good synthesis and saves you from the weirdest parts of the book: the pages where Marie Kondo recommends that you speak to your purse and furniture, that you thank your objects before throwing them away, and to have a little thought for the plight of your socks. I’m too much of a rational Western girl here, she entirely lost me at this point.

Halfway through I figured the writer was so completely crazy that it was a comic book rather than an organizing method. There are unintended hilarious passages, especially as she takes herself so seriously (the people who have followed her cult method have a glow and everything goes well in their lives, she says). And I certainly didn’t wait long before applying her own method to this book, that I resold as soon as I’d finished the last page.

On one hand, the book made me cringe, because it seems that her method is only suitable for single people who have a lot of time on their hand. On the other hand, her method is surely appealing, because it doesn’t need much for you to start: does this object spark any joy? Yes, it stays, no, it goes. No need for complex strategies to build a capsule wardrobe or a perfect system. Still I would have liked it better if she’d talked about recycling and reselling instead of throwing all away and being proud of a number of trash bags.

The one with the Hasidic maiden

Anouk Markovits, I am Forbidden (2012)

I borrowed this book from the library and it surprised me how fast I was taken in. I didn’t put it down nor read anything else for 2 or 3 days, and it hasn’t happened to me for quite a while. Surprised I was because the subject was not really sexy (being set in a ultra-orthodox Jewish community) nor was it particularly easy (we follow the fate of a few children from this community who’d survived the war by chance from 1939 to the end of the 20th century in Brooklyn, as they grow old and have their own family).

I think that what drew me in was the writing, and especially the visual descriptions, that only needed to focus on a few details to render a whole scene vivid with emotions. The first scene might have been gruesome and full of attention-seeking, distasteful details, but Markovits chooses to focus on what a little boy of three might notice, understand and see from a hidden place. The effect is chilling and moving at the same time and I will remember it for a long time.

Now, I knew a little about Hasidism, but had never heard of this particular community, the Satmar sect from the Romanian-Hungarian border, whose rabbi barely escaped the Holocaust by embarking onto the Kasztner train (a disputed bargain with the top Nazi Eichmann to save some 1700 prominent Zionists and community leaders to Switzerland while the others were condemned to die).

The story doesn’t really focus on the Holocaust, although we see how this trauma shapes the main characters and reinforces their clinging to their faith and rules. Instead, we see how two girls grow into different directions: one to question her faith (her father accuses her of being a Spinoza) up to the point that she has to break away, the other to respect and uphold her faith’ rules, without being totally free of her own inner religious conflict. As the title tells, the main characters are all evolving within the high walls of their religious rules, that forbid quite a lot of things, but it really is to Markovits’ credit that the rules however strict and harsh are not portrayed negatively. The girl who breaks away is not portrayed much more positively than her observant counterpart. Every time possible, it’s the beauty of the rules and traditions that is shown, and not in a derogatory or vengeful way, as you might expect from a writer who has grown up in this culture and then chosen to leave (to escape an arranged marriage).

At this point, you might wonder about my particular interest for gated communities. After the Amish, the Satmar, what’s next? will you think. Small communities are a perfect little world, like a snow globe, just at the right dimension for a book. You don’t need to look for religious minorities either, just look at Agatha Christie and her perfect British villages! They have their own rules and own vision of the world; on one hand it’s exotic and interesting to discover (especially as they live in the midst of our mainstream culture) and on the other hand many plots revolve around the classic coming-of-age model where the main character finally chooses our culture over her own limited circle.

“I am forbidden” has a lot to offer: good writing, complex characters, deep moral questions and a long view of history. She doesn’t fall into the clichés of the genre. Highly recommended.

The one with the weirdest anatomic trivia

Fred Vargas, Dans les bois éternels (French 2006), This night’s foul work (English 2008)

Did you know that a stag is the only animal to have a cross-shaped bone inside its heart (which is a muscle)?

Did you know that a tomcat is the only animal to have a bone in its penis?

Did you know that the pig has a heart-shaped bone inside his snout?

Well, me neither, but if you’re like me, you’ll be shrugging and muttering “so what?” under your breath (or any less polite variation thereof).

Now that you have stored somewhere in your brain these very important pieces of trivia, that you probably won’t be able to drop into any dinner conversation ever (if you succeed, let me know!), you are well equipped to follow the quirky plot of this Adamsberg mystery.

Do you want to know how Vargas was able to weave a story including a tomcat, a stag and a pig? Well, me too.

Do you want to know this story? You’ll have to read it yourself. The added challenge is that the story starts with a very standard, probably drug-related murder of two thugs in a poor Paris neighborhood. Adamsberg refuses to give up the case to the drug unit, because both men had mud under their fingernails, and everybody knows there’s no mud in Paris, duh. Highly suspicious.

Every single time I get to wonder how Vargas gets to learn those quirky facts in the first place. Does she spend her days reading the footnotes in dusty encyclopedia? Does she have a network of informers who report to her every time they find some funny, bizarre, really unplaceable fact? Is is a challenge for her to come up with weird, weirder and weirdest information in each book? Because the standard here are pretty high already.

Some of the events in this book refer to earlier episodes, but you know me, I’m genetically unable to read in order, so I’m here to confirm that it doesn’t matter, the main mystery being easy to follow, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. Why does it work for Commissaire Adamsberg while it didn’t work for Inspector Gamache? Yes, I know, life’s unfair, but I guess it has to do with the writing. Vargas’ voice is strong and recognizable, it peppers every sentence with fun words and literary tour de force (one is that Adamsberg’s lieutenant speaks in rhymes, and more specifically in alexandrines in the style of Racine).

Highly recommended, but I’m already a convert.

The one I found tepidly cold

Louise Penny, Dead Cold (UK), A Fatal Grace (US) 2006

Find me grumpy or just your typical French killjoy, but I have to say upfront that I didn’t enjoy this book, however hard I tried.

My reasons for trying hard were that it came recommended by Marina Sofia, that I have never read a mystery set in Quebec (Fred Vargas’ doesn’t count) and that I’d love to discover a comfortable new crime series (I have just finished Broadchurch Season 1 on DVD, and part of my grumpiness may be attributed to withdrawal symptom).

My reasons for disappointment were probably linked to a faulty translation, because the French voice of the story sounded clunky and dry. Sometimes it used French-Canadian words but it was not written in French-Canadian, which made it neither fish nor fowl. It stopped me from really enjoying the setting, a quaint little Canadian village with suitably quirky characters. I found the narrator’s voice too explanatory and the red herrings rather fat.

After a rather long setup, the murder scene is quite convoluted: an insufferable snobbish woman dies electrocuted while watching a curling game on a frozen lake. How is it only possible? I had a hard time to suspend my disbelief and I couldn’t get past that bad French aftertaste. Another stumbling block is that this book is the second in a series (it was the only one available), and a lot of characters and circumstances seem to have been introduced in the first book, so it seems almost a must to read the series in order.

One very nice point to the book was the atmosphere of coziness and warmth, and the funny jokes underlying the difference between the English-speaking and French-speaking communities. Maybe it might be worth a try in the English version.

Too bad, Inspector Gamache! I would have loved  to love you. Maybe our paths will cross once more…

Kids Lit Special: Room on the Broom (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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