The One to Get Lost in Paris

Patrick Modiano, Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (2014) / So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood (English 2015)

This draft of mine has been lingering for more than one month somewhere in a dusty WordPress drawer waiting for the right moment, or maybe waiting for the revelation?

It’s been years since I wanted to try a Modiano, but I’m afraid I’ve started with the wrong one.

An old man, Mr. Daragane, spurred by a vague but uncomfortable phone by a stranger, suddenly remembers old memories of his childhood, names that don’t really ring a bell in an old address book, places he might have been to, people who might have taken care of him as a child. Everything is quite fuzzy, his memory is vague at best, and it’s not even clear why he (let alone I) should care.

I appreciated the reflection on memory and false souvenirs (which is exactly why I picked this one in the first place) and I liked the tone but I felt as if I was missing the point of the story. Perhaps there’s no point altogether, but this was a frustrating experience nonetheless. It’s even harder when it’s a national treasure and a Nobel Prize for literature and you feel you should a. be awed or b. just shut up about your own ignorance. I therefore choose c. try another Modiano asap.

The weirdest experience was perhaps when I visited the Goodreads page for this book (in the English version), which called the book a “haunting novel of suspense from the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature”:

In the stillness of his Paris apartment, Jean Daragane has built a life of total solitude. Then a surprising phone call shatters the silence of an unusually hot September, and the threatening voice on the other end of the line leaves Daragane wary but irresistibly curious. Almost at once, he finds himself entangled with a shady gambler and a beautiful, fragile young woman, who draw Daragane into the mystery of a decades-old murder. The investigation will force him to confront the memory of a trauma he had all but buried.

I had to pinch myself to be sure we were talking about the same book. “Threatening voice” and “shady gambler”, I got them, but the mystery of a decades-old murder? I have completely missed that one. People called the book a “noir”, and I get that the book is totally atmospheric like a 1950s movie. Paris streets and buildings are right there on the page. I could almost see the grainy cliché of a beautiful woman with impeccable lipstick who would spend hours in a café staring into the void and playing with her cigarette in her (perfectly manicured) hand. But if “noir” has some components of sadness, inevitability, slow pace that are in the book, “noir” also normally has a plot and some truth to discover at the end.

Strangely, despite its title, I felt completely lost in the neighborhood. Only the familiar street names gave me some frame of references. But again, it might have been Modiano’s intention from the start. Intriguing and unsettling.

The One with Black Spots and Dark Magic

Karen Maitland,  The Plague Charmer (to be released Oct.  2016)

I am incorrigible. Yes, I love historical fiction, but I should know by now that post-apocalyptic fiction is a high danger zone for me. I raved about Station Eleven but it was the exception; it wasn’t too violent and it kind of glazed over the worst of the mass dying. I should remember that post-apocalyptic fiction not only gives me shivers and nightmares, but that I tend to withhold any critical view and believe everything that is written on the page!

So what on earth was I doing when I chose a Netgalley book centered on the plague epidemic in the Middle Ages? Did I think it would be miraculously a quiet book, soothing enough to lull me to sleep? You bet it isn’t. The Black Death wiped out one out of three people in Europe, after all. If it’s not apocalyptic non-fiction, I don’t know what is!

Historical fiction at its best makes you feel as if you were living in a different century altogether, and boy does it work. The only thing is, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed living in this era. Well, it wouldn’t have been much of a choice because between dying at birth, starving, falling prey to thugs or storms or usual sicknesses or banal accidents, I wouldn’t have survived 5 minutes. But apparently some people did manage to survive and have kids before they died, duh. But only just barely.

The book takes place in a small fishermen’s village in England and in its nearby castle in 1361. After a storm a ship is washed up on the shore, with only one survivor, a strange woman with ominous words and evil intentions. A box is taken from the ship that probably shouldn’t, because soon enough the villagers recognize the deadly signs of pestilence (because the was a previous epidemic a decade earlier or so). Who will die?  Who will be saved, and at what cost?

The book circles between half a dozen different characters who tell what happens in turn. Some are likable, some not so much. One is a castle court dwarf, one is a fisherman’s wife, one is a crazily devout woman, one is a clever lady used to courtly politics, etc. The author doesn’t romanticize or over-simplify the people lives in the Middle Ages, nor does she give them more knowledge and wisdom that what they’d have known or experienced. It’s one of my pet peeves when characters behave in a modern way in a historical novel, and I found none of it in this book. Not to say that everything was completely realistic in the plot, because there are supernatural forces in the book, but these do really well blend in into this atmospheric, superstitious period drama.

Recommended if you are not squeamish and don’t have a deadline the next morning, because you’ll probably sit up late to reach the end!

I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The One on the Sweet Power of False Memories

– Moi, reprend-il, les souvenirs que je vends deviennent de vrais souvenirs. Comme si tu les avais vécus.
– Mais comment c’est possible? je demande.
– Ah ça, bonhomme, c’est mon petit secret. Et puis franchement, quelle importance de savoir comment ça marche? Après tout, quand tu vas chez le charcutier, tu ne lui demandes pas comment il arrive à rentrer un cochon dans ses propres boyaux. Le charcutier te vend du bonheur en tranches. Enfin, si tu aimes le saucisson.
” Moi j’ai eu envie de vendre des petits bouts de bonheur à ceux qui n’en ont pas eu assez, ou pas du tout. Souvent on regrette de ne pas avoir vécu ceci ou cela. La vie nous mène par le bout du nez et pas toujours où on voudrait. Eh bien moi, j’essaie de réparer un peu les oublis de la vie.

– The memories I sell, he said, become true memories. As if you had really lived them.
– How is it even possible? I asked.
– Listen buddy, that’s my own secret. Really, is it important to know how it works? After all, when you go to the butcher, you don’t ask him how he manages to fit a pig into its own guts, do you? The butcher sells you slices of happiness. That is, if you like cold cuts.
As for me, I wanted to sell little bits of happiness for those who don’t have enough, or any at all. Often people regret not to have experienced this or that. Life has us on a string, leading us not always where we want to go. Me, I try to make up for what life misses.

Ghislaine Biondi, le Marchand de souvenirs (Oskar Editeur, 2013) (my translation)

I came across this very short, very cute book at the library on the table for middle grade / teen lit new acquisitions in genre fiction. I say cute because I’m partial to round corners and getting a nice object does make the difference when choosing a book. Depending on your nerdy inclinations, I realize you might think that its either a pretty specific or a pretty broad way to discover new books.

The library I go with my youngest son is specialized in kids lit (i.e. has a very limited adult selection) and the building they’re in is very strange (a converted space under the roof, with lots of mezzanines, nooks and crannies) so I am always surprised how they have organised their sections. There’s one “room” for teen mainstream novels, but genre fiction each has its own shelf, so that I’m easily lost and prefer to rely on new acquisitions.

This book is very short but deep and sweet, and I instantly fell for it. Antoine is a teenager on his first day of summer holidays from middle school. His mother raises him on her own and he doesn’t know his father. She works as a cleaner during the day, so they can’t afford the seaside vacation he’d love, and his best friend has gone away, so that he expects his holidays to be boring and lonely. Except he finds a new shop close-by where the owner sells fake memories, objects that give to the person who buys them the experience of memories of things that he has never experienced. The boy first tries his hand on memories of seaside vacation, and they’re so good and so real, that he soon goes back to the shop to buy more and get memories of the father he never knew.

In a few sentences the situation is firmly established and the fantastic part weaves itself into the daily routine so smoothly that you can see it and believe in it just as easily as the boy himself. It doesn’t depart too much from reality, in the sense that the boy knows which memories are real or fake, but remembering things nonetheless gives a little nudge to reality and has an influence on present situations, if only through a lighter mood, a different decision to make, etc.

I’m really impressed that the writer could pack so much into a mere 55 pages and look forward to exploring more about this small press.

The One with an ounce of happiness hidden inside

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear (2015)

I was so looking forward to reading Big Magic, and I want to say upfront that I thoroughly loved it. Yet, it might not be for everyone, and even for people who know me, it might come as a surprise.

Elizabeth Gilbert looks like a wonderfully nice person, but the thing she is definitely not is quiet, reasonable and low-key. Internet pegs her as an ENFP, and I’m an ISTJ (sorry non-MBTI people, in this very case this particular frame of personality analysis is very very apt, so Google it if needed and bear with me). The problem is right there, we don’t have even one letter in common. Where I am rational, she is emotional. Where she wants to hug you, I want to keep my distance. Where I organize and analyze, she just wings it and flashes forward. Where I follow up and feel guilty if I don’t finish, she lets go and moves on to the next dream without regret or remorse. ENFPs and ISTJs are normally a match from hell.

Except sometimes it works out fine! (albeit from a distance)

Yes, many pages made me cringe, especially when she gets all woo-hoo about divine inspiration, about the Muse jumping from one person to another via a hug (a hug of all things, how American!). It makes a fun story for my kids but I didn’t find it particularly useful for me. Yet her analysis of our Western culture that insists on being serious and passionate to the point that one must suffer alone like a martyr in order to create fascinated me. It resonates a lot with my own findings that french writers are supposed to be lonely geniuses writing their chef-d’oeuvre in their Parisian attic (it’s better to be in Paris to get published) and the distrust on any formal training in the literature art (MFAs don’t exist in France, you either have genius or you don’t). She offers an alternative model, the trickster’s, where play and fun and fearlessness and not-taking-yourself seriously are paramount. I love it.

Elizabeth (yes, something in her makes you want to be on first name basis) is such an antidote to that serious, elitist, privileged way of thinking: the way her book Eat Pray Love was a product of privilege had disturbed me before, but this one is not self-centered and more like a gentle, universal encouragement to follow one’s own creative outlet wherever it takes you.

It’s an antidote to bad mood, to self-doubt and to guilt trips. I would recommend it to anyone who suffers occasionally from these symptoms, and I bet there are quite a few of us!

PS. Good news : I have listened to her Magic lessons podcast with pleasure, and apparently a second season is coming soon!

The One with the All-Too-Obvious Secret

Fabrice Humbert, The Origin of Violence (French 2009, English 2011)

I realize that I have finished this book a while ago and not mentioned a word about it. Probably because I was a bit embarrassed not to be able to synthesize a clean, tidy opinion about it. At times I thought it was a very interesting book, at times I thought it was voyeuristic and complacent, at times I was just unimpressed. There are just so many books about the Holocaust, sadly (and horrific mass murders justified by racial or religious hatred have just continued, even more sadly); so many books about memory and family secrets.

A young high-school teacher visits the concentration camps together with his pupils, when he suddenly sees an old photograph with a Jewish inmate that bears a striking resemblance to his own father. Upon his return the young man starts to ask questions in and around his family, to discover that his father was born from an affair between his mother and the man who died in the concentration camp, his real grandfather. (This may look to you like a spoiler, but believe me, anyone can deduce that *secret* rather early in the book). The young man becomes obsessed with this grandfather and tries to confront his bourgeois upbringing to get to the bottom of the family secrets.

Maybe I have a problem with family secrets revolving around WWII, because this book reminded me of another novel, Memory by Philippe Grimbert, which didn’t work well for me either. Too bad.

The Origin of Violence is rather messy, as is my opinion about it. There are lyrical thoughts on the nature of evil (hence the title), a part set in the camp where no details of the brutality and horrors of death are spared to the reader. This part is quite difficult to read, but as the book is quite well documented, it is the most satisfactory. This is put together with a rather navel-gazing accounts of the difficult career of the young teacher in a tough neighborhood, of his romance with a beautiful German woman, of his difficulty to write the story of his grandfather. As Humbert himself is a high-school teacher turned writer, it is difficult to not wonder if any of the story is based on actual facts. The narrator is decisively unlikable, and probably untrustworthy, but it was the juxtaposition of some many random elements that made me uncomfortable.

The one with the boss from hell

Tammy Cohen, When She Was Bad (2016)

I was sold on this book when Marina Sofia mentioned with enthusiasm this newly released thriller set in an ordinary workplace:

Kudos to the author for portraying so faithfully a place where targets, egos, ambitions, rivalries all are ripe fodder for resentment and murderous intent. A new boss soon creates a toxic atmosphere in a team in a recruitment consultancy. As distrust rises and tempers flare, matters are not improved by off-site bonding events (ah, yes, those dreaded things!).

I too wonder why crime stories aren’t set more often in the office, in those open floor plans where everybody watches everybody else’s movements, is pitted against each other, where nasty pieces of gossips are exchanged at the proverbial water-cooler, with lasting damages and collateral victims. In fact, for a while I wanted to write such a mystery, but every time I built up a twisted plot full of hidden manipulations and dark secrets, I heard something even worse at the water-cooler. So my story lay in smithereens (ah!), defeated by hard, cold reality (psss… I work in one of those open floor plans too).

Tammy Cohen’s book had me sitting at the edge of my seat for a good while, because I could relate so much with the toxic work environment. The boss in the book is somehow worse than the one in “The Devil wears Prada” (a reference as far as horrible bosses go). From very early on, she wants you to know that one of the main characters is a monster capable of violence, so you can’t help but watch everyone with distrust and fear. I loved how she built up the tension and the pace, even if the characters are slightly too archetypal.

The book is built on a dual narrative line, and unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the second one as much, which revolved around a horrific case of child abuse. I hadn’t seen the final twist coming, but the resolution felt a bit rushed to my taste. Despite some reservations, the whole experience was fun and I hope to read a few more office noirs instead of the now ubiquitous domestic noirs.

I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The one with the Amelie from Liverpool

Caroline Wallace, The Finding of Martha Lost (2016)

There’s suspension of disbelief. Then there’s disbelief, suspended, put in a dark cellar at the bottom of the stairs, locked and the key thrown away. This book takes suspension of disbelief to that whole new level. So I guess it doesn’t go well with every reader or every mood. Don’t even attempt to read that book after a thriller, because it will feel flat and pointless. But if you’re in the mood for something light, fun and whimsical, you can go ahead and discover Martha Lost.

Martha Lost is a 16-year-old orphan girl living in the Liverpool train station and working at the Lost property office in 1976 (the year of the big heat wave and of the passion for all things Beatles). She doesn’t know who her birth parents are, but she has been brought up by a dreadful, harshly religious, bitter and abusive woman, Mother, who runs the lost property office and has forbidden Martha to ever leave the station at the risk of the station collapsing onto itself (if I catch you rolling your eyes by now, this book is *not* for you – it’s only going to get weirder). She has explained that baby Martha was found in a suitcase left in the train from Paris and that nobody claimed her back. Martha has grown up shy and fanciful, not really aware of the outside world’s reality, grabbing knowledge from lost books and from her friends at the station. But when Mother dies suddenly, the only way for Martha to keep her job and her home in the station is to find her birth certificate and thus discovering who she really is.

Martha reminded me a lot of Amélie Poulain from Montmartre (you know whom, right? The one with the bobbed hair, round eyes, big smile and every possible French cliché under the sun). They are both weird and sweet, naïve and likeable (not exactly relatable, I guess the author appeals to our motherly instinct) and they use a local language (the Liverpool scouse, don’t worry there’s a little glossary). I desperately wanted things to go well for Martha, but some people (for whom the book is *not* designed) might want to shake her and make her stop daydreaming and going into tunnels and meeting weird people. At the risk of turning these people off the book, I’m going to tell about the main ones in no particular order: a woman who runs a coffee-shop and dances the Mashed Potato, a man who has been hiding in the tunnels and sewers since WWII, a Roman soldier in full gear, an Australian con man who wants to make money out of the Beatlemania and funerary urns of various importance.

I’m really impressed that the author managed to get these seemingly random oddballs all together and to weave a tale that explains it all. Is it fun? Yes. Is it believable? I don’t even think it’s the point. I went along for Martha’s sake, but it is sooo far-fetched that at some point it was like watching colorful puppets, I was never really afraid for them. The tale is very sweet and endearing, but to some it might taste a tad too syrupy.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review!

The one with the missing Harry

Jo Nesbo, Police (2013)

I checked my own blog archives and I can’t believe it took me eight years to go back to a Jo Nesbo thriller. Eight years!

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the one I read nearly a decade (!) ago. My memory is hazy but I recall a very efficient plot, some twisted characters and a lot of blood. And that’s also true that the early days of motherhood are not really those where you naturally spend your limited free time reading about serial killers, gruesome murders explained in graphic details and various perversions assumed and/or proven in a vast array of suspects.

At least, this book spares us the child murders or the paedophile (how I despise this trend of the mystery genre that rather easily exploits our most contemporary fears). But that’s probably the only thing that Nesbo spares us.

As for the rest, Nesbo doesn’t disappoint the image I had of his books. I was in for a swift and efficient ride through Oslo streets. The twist on this particular thriller is that the victims are actually police officers, killed on the anniversary of an old case they never managed to solve.

And the second twist is that for a Harry Hole book, the star is very blatantly absent. For about a third of the book, I wondered if he was dead, retired, dismissed, or even worse. Because I hardly ever read a book series in order, I couldn’t really know how much I’d missed, and that was a bit troubling. The upside is that Nesbo took care to flesh out secondary characters in the investigation team, and since the police force was targeted, it really made me sit on the edge of my seat.

Scandinavian thrillers aren’t usually my cup of tea, but it’s nice to return to a writer you enjoyed years ago and to find him still at the top of his game!

The One with the Odd-Named Gumshoe

Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun…

I haven’t yet found out what kind of magical ingredient J.K. Rowling puts in her novels that hooks me even if the subject doesn’t appeal to me in the least. The spell has worked like a charm for The Casual Vacancy, where she managed to interest me in a small village council politics (in the least noble sense of the word – think rumors, backstabbing and shenanigans around the petits fours). With any other writer I would have abandoned the book after twenty pages, but instead I gulped happily the 15ish hours of audiobook.

And oops, she did it again. (I’m not really sorry to drop Britney Spears references in a so-called literary blog, after all I have been known to drop secret Frozen references in professional meetings just for the fun of it). A private investigator down on his luck taking in the  case of a supermodel’s pseudo-suicide. Yes, I have a soft spot for unlucky gumshoe à la Marlow, but supermodels? Fans and paparazzi ? I couldn’t care less.

I can’t say that the plot was riveting and that the twists and secrets the P.I. uncovers along the way took my breath away or were even watertight for the murder explanation (after all, the solving of classic whodunit revolves around some misinterpretation or some key clue that is suddenly shown under a new light, here the issues of the supermodel schedule on the day of her murder and who came in and out of the victim’s buildings dragged forever and proved quite laborious).

No, I just stuck with it because of Cormoran Strike, and let’s be real, not because of his improbable name. How did J.K. Rowling come up with such a name? I thought it was a joke at first, but I guess he’s supposed to be a regular ex-military who tries to  He’s just a very likeable character, and flanked with a young, ambitious and very efficient secretary, Robin, I loved every bit of banter they had between those two. This is far from being an original pair, but it was fair game and rather entertaining, especially if you count that I didn’t care about the main topic. I guess I’ll try her second mystery since the action seems to center on writers and publishers.

The One to Open up Your Vision

Oliver Sacks, The Mind’s Eye (2010)

Once in a while, I read a scientific book. That is, not very often. I always said I would read a book by Oliver Sacks, and sadly I didn’t do it before he died (not that he would have minded one way or the other, but I’m kind of sad / disappointed at myself whenever I start reading a book just because its author’s death notice was all over the news).

I borrowed this book by Oliver Sacks frankly because it was the only one available at the library that day. I won’t tell you that the theme of vision and blindness was of any particular concern of mine, but I learnt a lot nonetheless.

The book is a collection of case studies of some particular patients who have lost some part of their vision due to brain injuries, and also a large part related to Dr Sacks’ own eye tumor. Although this part was more personal and poignant, I somehow didn’t like it as much because of the lack of distance and the focus on symptoms observation rather than explanation of the brain’s role in different components of the vision.

I enjoyed the other case studies more. Most patients affected with some sort of brain-related blindness were extraordinarily resilient and upbeat. They adjusted to their new lives and found innovative ways to continue doing what they enjoyed despite their handicap. One man whose particular illness consisted in being unable to make sense of words still managed to write books because his hands still could do the movement of forming words. One other patient managed to live rather normally after she lost the ability to recognize objects.

The chapter I could most relate to was addressing the ability to recognize faces (prosopagnosia). I’m very very bad at recognizing faces, although not in a pathological way. On the other hand, Mr Smithereens is inordinately good at recognizing faces, so that I struggle to identify our next-door neighbors, always afraid of being very impolite, while my husband can watch a minor character in a TV series and go “isn’t he the same we saw in such and such movie ten years ago?” I used to feel guilty about this, but Sachs made clear how common this problem is, and how little we can do about it!

One tiny bit of knowledge I gained from reading the book is that babies are actually born with the ability to recognize all human faces of all races and origins. Only after a few months (I can’t find the exact number between 6 and 12 months) does the range of recognition diminish so that we get better at recognizing faces from our own cultural / racial environment and worse at recognizing other races we don’t meet so often. Which is one way of explaining the offensive but common view that people from another race all look the same to you. I always felt bad when someone said something racist like that, and it seems the perfect reply to do in a polite way to express that this view is not only wrong but also the by-product of a homogeneous education. I guess it’s just a scientific proof that children need to grow up in a diverse environment.