The One about the Two Salomes

Colombe Schneck, La Réparation (2012)

I have read this book quite soon after finishing “Dix Sept Ans” (Seventeen) last fall. This second book by Colombe Schneck, read in close succession, confirms that she likes to pack a lot of emotions, controversial questions and heavy subjects in not many pages and with an apparently breezy writing. She seems a bit superficial and egocentric, but she’s really not.

This time it’s the Shoah, or more precisely Schneck’s research on what happened to her grandmother’s sisters and their family during the Second World War. Schneck’s maternal family comes from Lithuania, a well-to-do, respected Jewish family who thought that they had nothing to fear. How wrong they were! Her grandmother’s sisters survived “somehow”, but their spouses and children didn’t. They remarried and had other children, and the first children were not talked about in Schneck’s family during her childhood.

After decades of silence, and not many questions, Schneck wants to discover what hides behind “somehow”. More precisely, she wants to discover the fate of little Salome, a 6-year-old girl who died during the Shoah, and who has the same first name than Schneck’s daughter, a name chosen at Schneck’s mother’s request years before. Schneck’s mother never explained anything to her and remained stuck in the trauma of the past. She is a character I would have loved to learn more about, yet she remains in the shadows. On the contrary, Schneck’s grandmother and her sisters are alive on the page and seem quite formidable women, each in her own style.

It’s hard to read this book in one setting. It’s hard to read this book sequentially, going from one page to the next just as the writer has planned it, because the subject is so heavy and the emotions so raw. I prefer taking a few pages here and there. There is a turning point in the middle of the book that will take your breath away, but I guess it wouldn’t be fair for me to reveal it, although the book hasn’t been translated to English.

It’s easy to compare this book negatively to Daniel Mendelsohn’s Lost. Schneck’s book isn’t as deeply researched, and many things are left unsaid, perhaps to respect the family’s privacy. The part where Schneck goes to Lithuania seems weirdly anticlimactic, but still the courage and the authenticity of the project makes the reading worthwhile.

The One that Shouldn’t have Come First

Guillaume Prévost, Cantique de l’Assassin (2016)

I have just written a post about Eve Schaub’s Year of No Clutter, for which I’d received an ARC through Netgalley, and just before posting it I realized the publisher has requested that we’d wait for the publication date (March 1st) to post reviews. It’s the first time I have seen such a request, and while I obliged, it felt weird, especially as I got the book 3 months ago, read it in November and I already thought I was a bit late. Did anyone of you have such a request?

So instead of posting what I intended (the post is now scheduled for March 1st, thanks to WordPress fancy options), here’s a short-short note on a book that only took me days to finish.

I have received Le Cantique de l’Assassin (the Murderer’s Hymn) as a present the day after Christmas, and I was done with it on January 1st. The first book completed in 2017! Yet I doubt it will leave a long impression on me. It’s a mystery set in France in 1920, but the main drawback is that it’s the fifth book in a series… that should be read in order. I guess that if I had started with the first book (La Valse des Gueules Cassées, with a title referring to the aftermath of World War I and the millions of mutilated vets with no resources or no perspectives) I would probably have warmed up to his recurring hero-detective François Claudius Simon.

But by the fifth tome, being introduced to this guy so full of back stories and mysteries, I felt as if I’d been thrown right into a Dumas serial swash-buckling saga at a random page in the middle. It was hard for me to care, and the amount of twists and turns and revelations and attacks was too much for me (perhaps I’d had too much to eat over the holidays, but I wished I could put the book plot on diet). It was a fast read, but it was soon put on the giveaway pile.

 

The One with a Danish Ghost (but Not Hamlet)

Birgit Lorentzen, Cykose (Danish 2011, French 2013)

Recently I went looking for Harper Lee’s To kill a mockingbird in the YA area of our neighborhood children library, and I discovered that our library doesn’t have it: much to my surprise, this book is not well-known over here in France, but I want to read it in 2017, so I will probably buy it… or maybe go to an adult library branch because I just can’t believe that the book is nowhere to be found.

Instead of Lee, I went for Lorentzen (the writer next up on the shelve), because I was intrigued by the idea of a Danish ghost story for teenagers. It seems quite improbable for a small press to venture into such an improbable project. And yet, I hardly could drop the book, because it was suspenseful and fresh and creepy!

Luisa would be a typical 15-year-old with a father fan of sports, an annoying little sister and a mother who hasn’t got her bearings with her daughter yet, if only she could sleep at night! Every night, a young girl visits her and terrifies her. The ghost seems so real, but Luisa is the only one to see her… until another student from her high-school, Thomas, reveals that he can see her too! Luisa isn’t sure what to do: she isn’t really into supernatural stuff, and Thomas is a weirdo everyone makes fun of, as he is in a special class for kids with mental health issues. She doesn’t want to be associated with him, and yet he seems to be the only one who can help her getting rid of the ghost. Thomas is charming and has a sweet spot for Luisa, but tracking the ghost also seems to unbalance his mental health even further, and puts his life at risk.

I enjoyed this quick read quite a lot in the last days of December. I love the way that the supernatural is weaved into real teenagers’ life, and there’s nothing woo-woo about it. It reminded me of the book with the shop that sells memories, which was targeted for middle grade readers, although this one is for readers a bit more mature. I love the way the adults around Luisa and Thomas are not bad people, but not doing a great job at parenting either. Of course, Luisa and Thomas develop some kind of relationship, but there’s nothing mushy-gushy about it either, especially in the ending. It’s great that characters, even secondary ones, get that much depth within not so many pages.

No-nonsense Scandinavian YA magical realism, I call it. If it’s a real thing, let me know, I want to read more of it! (In fact, this book is the first of a series, so I *will* probably get more of it!)

The One with Chinese Millenials in Nepal

vent-1-768x556Golo Zhao & Bao Jingjing, Au gré du Vent (French 2016) / Up in the Wind (China, 2014)

I know there’s no sense in trying to finish every book started before New Year’s eve (I’ve given up) and I know that there’s no more sense in trying to finish every book post I’ve started drafting in here… but I’m still trying. It feels good to start the year with a clean WordPress slate, and by Dec. 20 I still have the impression that I can meet this goal.

Just for the sake of trying, I want to mention an intriguing graphic novel I read a while ago, a movie tie-in apparently (I’m not clear which one came first because I haven’t seen the movie anyway), and a Chinese manga (a.k.a manhua), a genre I’ve rarely tried.

“Up in the Wind” is the story of two Chinese people traveling to Nepal, the land of happiness. But it’s not a tourist trip in the general sense, because they haven’t chosen the trip nor the destination. Yumeng, a young Chinese woman who works as a journalist in the very competitive and superficial environment of a lifestyle magazine in Beijing (or is it Shanghai?) has been sent to Nepal to write a travel report on why Nepal’s happiness index is so high despite poverty. She had hoped to be assigned to Tuscany and feels short-changed. An ambitious girl and a social climber, she still hopes that this trip and her article will land her a big professional success, but local difficulties of Nepal derail her plans. Instead, she gets a self-awakening of sorts, when she has to face who she is, her fears and her doubts.

Alongside Yumeng is a lanky young man, Wang Can, who is essentially a spoilt, arrogant rich kid, who has to travel to Nepal if he ever wants to come back into his father’s good graces after he jilted his bride-to-be at the altar.

The manhua was quite weird. On the one hand, you have the frustrations of this ambitious young woman who is often humiliated by richer and higher-ups (her boss in the big city says to her: “It’s your job to write as if you’re living it up on 25k a month, when you are just a 2k-earning nobody.” As conventional stories go, she has this coming-of-age experience of discovering deeper meaning beyond money and success, especially at the end of the book when she fails to meet her deadline and loses her job.

On the other hand, you have a conventional romantic comedy storyline where Yumeng falls for Wang Can after much bickering and many disputes. But not for one instant did I believe that those two would make a durable couple, nor did I believe that the change undergone by Wang Can would be more than superficial and short-lived. The ending was quite opened and vague, and added to the uneasiness.

On one hand, it wants to show Nepal as a more spiritual place where people are friendlier and have deeper relationships, but on the other hand we only see clichés about Nepal and the story tells more about Chinese millenials than about Nepalese people.

I liked very much the design and colors by Golo Zhao. The landscapes especially are breathtaking, even if it’s only a backdrop. I wonder which storyline the author Bao Jingjing wanted to push forward and how much of this mixup is due to editing and formatting for the big screen. It was an interesting, if not totally convincing reading experience.

The One that brings Orpheus to Italy

Laurent Gaudé, La Porte des Enfers (2008, French) / Hell’s Gate to be published in English in 2017

Laurent Gaudé’s books require a certain mood. It’s not the kind of books that you take lightly if you have a small pocket of time in-between your daily chores. It’s not the kind of books that you pick up if you want an entertaining read. No, that’s serious stuff, and you should probably sit down and turn off your phone.

Laurent Gaudé embarks you in an epic story and you cannot disembark before the next harbor. There’s nothing small and quiet in Gaudé’s stories. Emotions are heightened, people invoke the gods or fate or other super-human forces.

This time he takes us to Naples, Italy. The cliché is that Italians are hot-blooded, but here even introverted Scandinavian readers (assuming they can read it in French or English) will have a hard time staying dry-eyed with his first scene, or with the end of the book. It probably would warrant a trigger warning of sorts if it was contemplated for publication in the U.S. as it deals with the death of a child. But the death itself comes within the first few pages, so there is a lot more to it. The whole book is about grief and the consequences that this untimely death has over the child’s parents lives.

Except it goes into uncharted territories with this rather common theme. Gaudé dares to take the mythical story of Orpheus and transpose it into modern life. The child’s mother is devastated and challenges her husband to kill the child’s murderer or to bring their child back from death. And then the father meets someone who claims that in a hidden corner of the old town of Naples, a door leads to the underworld. He doubts it, but then he has to go and see for himself.

I will not reveal the secrets of this mesmerizing book. Not only are the themes powerful, but Gaude’s writing is gorgeous. I hope that the English translator will convey the rhythm of his sentences, both elegiac and violent.

The One with the Woman behind the Wild-Haired Man

Marie Benedict, The Other Einstein (2016)

I chose this book on the Netgalley shelves because it had been a while since I’d read some historical fiction, and the cover and title sounded intriguing – I got a lot more than what I’d bargained for! I learnt about the private side of the famous personality whom I really didn’t know beyond the famous photo with the tongue sticking out and the wild hair.

In that overly famous picture Einstein seems cool, old but cool, modern and fun (I’m talking of this picture, which incidentally was taken in 1951, when he was 72-year-old, four years before he died). I never even paused to wonder what Einstein was like as a young man, a student and a groom. Turns out, he wasn’t quite as cool.

He was a university student in Zürich when he met Milena Maric. He was intelligent and charming, she was intelligent and overly serious. A native Serbian from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Milena was gifted but also considered damaged goods because of a hip disability. She wasn’t considered wife material at home so instead she wanted to be a researcher and a teacher. She needed to be serious because being admitted to university, especially in physics was extra rare for girls and her reputation had to be preserved. But she fell under Einstein’s charm. She felt she had found a partner with whom life and research could be shared. But she was a woman, and the year was 1896.

After a whirlwind romance (this part of the book is very much a romance and has precious little science), Maric found herself pregnant out of marriage, which was a great cause for social shaming. The relationship never fully recovered from this point. She failed her exams and didn’t finish her physics degree. Einstein proposed only a few years later, because he wasn’t ready to commit before he’d found a job position. He wasn’t interested in children and not particularly in a hurry to do the right thing because he feared for his reputation. When they did get married, Maric was expected to take care of their home, to cook and wash his clothes. She did it without complaining, hoping that they would still work together at their common passion for physics and research.

I won’t spoil it all for you but it didn’t end well for Mileva, because I bet you didn’t know of her existence before starting to read this post, right? And it did end rather well, that’s no spoiler, for her husband.

Apparently the author did a lot of research and had access to private letters between Einstein and Maric, and Maric and some of her friends, but even after finishing the book I’m not clear what is fiction from fact in the book. I understand that might change the reading experience for some readers. This book is put in the novel category, so I’m assuming there are not many factual accounts of the relationship between husband and wife, and that Marie Benedict tells it the way she imagines it. Which is to say, Einstein comes under a very harsh light in this book and I’m not entirely sure he deserves it completely. But given I know next to nothing about the man, I’m not going to guess. Still, it was an enjoyable read (given these caveats) and it was difficult not to feel sorry for Maric.

Thanks to the Publisher and Netgalley for giving me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The One with Teenage Angst in Provence

Rebecca Bischoff, The French Impressionist (2016)

I chose this book because I thought it would be an easy read and that the French setting would be nice. You might find it plain weird, but I don’t dislike foreigners waxing poetic with colorful clichés about my own country, especially since French people are always complaining and focusing on everything that goes wrong in our country. I expected something like “A Year in Provence – the teen version”. Talk about wrong expectations.

In this novel, Rosemary is in Nice to learn painting with a French family. At least, that’s the official story, the one she told to her best friend. But not exactly the one she told to her mother, who believes she is in Arizona. And not the one she told to her mother’s boyfriend, who paid for the trip and believes she is in Paris. That much would tell you that Rosemary is not completely straightforward and has her issues.

I’m not sure if this book is sold as a middle-grade, YA or adult book, as the main character is a 15-year-old with teenage angst in full color: full of contradictions, pent-up emotions, wild impulses and lies and schemes all over. It’s hard to sympathize with her, but it’s a brutally honest portrait of a girl at a difficult time of her life, made even more difficult by an overbearing mother and a speech handicap she has. If it’s an adult book (and if you have little kids like me), you just wish that your own kids won’t be like her.

There was many, many things crammed into the story, and I would be tempted to say too many things. Rosemary has a neurological disorder called apraxia of speech, which prevents her from speaking clearly and fluently (the author is a speech therapist so she knows her stuff). There is emotional abuse, grief, theft, disability, friendship, boys, France. I wished the book was more focused, and chose its battles. The cute cover put me under the impression that it was chick-lit of sorts (I had not noticed, in my haste, that the girl has no mouth), and at the end, when all the plot lines were hastily tied up, I couldn’t help but feel that it was all too neat. Rosemary has lied and schemed her way but she had no bad consequences for all this. I couldn’t forgive an especially twisted lie that she came up with right at the end that put me over the edge.

It was a bumpy read, but at least I discovered this disorder that I never knew about and I think it made it worth the try.

PS. I received an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The One Decisively un-Tudoresque

Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014)

May I start by saying I kind of broke a personal record of the longest-standing draft of a post here? I finished the book in… ahem, July, and I dutifully wrote a beginning of a post back then… and, well, I don’t really know what happened next. Life, I suppose.

It’s not to say that I didn’t like the book. In fact, some stories are so memorable that I have no difficulty to remember them now, a mere… well, five months later. In fact, I chose one to send to Danielle as part of our short story exchange. As she posted about it today, I have no excuse left not to write about this collection now, right?

I had never read anything else by Hilary Mantel but Wolf Hall. Stupidly (yes) I thought she was into historical fiction. So you can guess that I took this collection of short stories with the wrong foot. None of these stories are historical fiction, except perhaps if 1983 Thatcher is to be considered fictional history. Marriage stories, family stories, with a hint of horror or supernatural. The stories are rather bleak and dark and there’s nothing Tudor about them for sure.

Actually, maybe the wrong foot was just the one I needed for that collection, because if there is one common feeling throughout, it’s definitely one of uneasiness. The sense of uneasiness that comes with being an expat wife in a totally foreign culture such as Saudi Arabia, not knowing how to behave and if any gesture or word can be misunderstood to create embarrassment and problems (“Sorry to disturb”). The sense of uneasiness that comes with being asked as a writer to give a speech in the most bizarre literary association (the very British female narrator keeps apologizing and the story, called “How Shall I Know You?” has superb wit). The sense of uneasiness when kids are making fun of neighbors in a most cruel way, because they don’t know better (“Comma”).

I know that British readers must have taken the title story as the most scandalous, and therefore memorable story in the book, but I was too little when Thatcher was leading the country and I didn’t really react much to this story. To me the most memorable, if disturbing read was “The Heart Fails Without Warning”, a story of a young anorexic girl as seen by her younger sister. The family dynamics and the voice of the narrating girl (who sees more clearly than others the problems, but still seems unsympathetic and quite a brat) were deftly portrayed.

I haven’t read the rest of the Cromwell trilogy (the page number frightens me), but these short stories reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s great style and I know I need to read more of her!

The One with the Marquis at the Postmortem

Jean-François Parot, L’inconnu du Pont Notre Dame (2016)

The historical mysteries from Jean-François Parot is about the only series I read in order, and eagerly wait for the next installment. With every episode, I love the plotting and the details of the historical background, the good food and the familiar characters, but the suspense lies elsewhere. Even if the murder mystery is quite deep (the book has many red herrings, different stories weaved together and a multitude of characters that come and go), as we’re getting closer and closer to 1789, we can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for them.

The book starts with an unidentifiable victim found in one of the houses built on the bridge of Notre Dame, houses that are being demolished because they are too dangerous (you can get an idea from the French paperback book cover). Commissaire Nicolas Le Floch, who is also a marquis in favor with the King and Queen, is dispatched to solve the mystery.

This story is set in 1785-1786, and the Commissaire has been working for the King’s police since 1761 (under King Louis XV, that has been replaced in 1774 by Louis XVI, his grandson, a much less self-assured character). One famous historical episode set in 1785 is the scandal of the diamond necklace, where swindlers tricked a powerful aristocrat/former ambassador / courtier / cardinal into believing that the Queen was in love with him and stole huge sums of money and a diamond necklace (I’m trying to sum it up but really it was an elaborate scheme). Even though it was proven that the Queen was rather a victim than an accomplice of the deed, the distrust and hatred against the Queen only grew as a result of the scandal and the trial. The idea that the Queen could have given secret love rendez-vous to the Cardinal de Rohan just popularized the idea that she was frivolous and unfit to lead a country. Royalties who were supposed to receive their indisputable authority from God himself were acting like the commonest people and could be fooled by confidence tricksters. This was just one more step towards the Revolution.

Parot’s characters certainly are aware of the popular gossips and know also the depth of French socio-economic problems that plague the country. Poverty grows and elites are decadent and scandalous, the state is nearly bankrupt, people are unhappy with their present situation but can’t abide changes, popular unrest sparks off at every incident. It’s no accident that Parot, a former high-level French diplomat, has chosen the 18th century as his era of choice, as so many things remind us of our contemporary times.

The Commissaire is loyal to the king and to monarchy itself, but his assistant, who has followed the events in America with interest, wouldn’t mind changing the regime altogether. Yet they don’t seem to understand what turmoil is actually getting closer to them. All this to say, this book is the perfect, clever comfort read and I can’t wait for the next installment!

The One with the Embroidery for Hope and Peace

Lois Lowry, Gathering Blue (2000)

This is the second middle grade novel I read in a row, after the Apothecary. After choosing randomly based on the cover art (which wasn’t exactly a success), I picked a name I knew: Lois Lowry seems like a dependable name to choose from the Science Fiction/Fantasy shelves at the Children Library when I don’t know where to turn. I have read the Giver a few years ago and liked it, and I didn’t even know that this book was the second volume of a trilogy quarter.

It was the idea that the heroin was a embroiderer that sold me the book. Not only that, but also a young girl with a handicap (a twisted leg at birth). It is set in a post-apocalyptic society where only the strongest, the harshest, the most powerful survive. Kindness is not part of this world, emotions are denied, no books exist, women are forbidden to learn how to read and write. Kira was allowed to live despite her physical weakness only by exception, and people aren’t kind to her or forgiving. The only art that is allowed is the one of a handful selected children who seem to have a gift. Kira has a gift for embroidery, and after her mother’s death she goes to the palace to embroider the robe of a singer who recounts every year the whole history of this world in a big ceremony. It seems at first like a safe haven for her creativity, but it also has hidden dangers and secrets.

It is a post-apocalyptical novel as we guess that this society has been built on the ruins of some major destruction in our world. I am often reluctant to read post-apocalyptical books but this one is hopeful and readable to young readers. It reads completely independantly from the Giver, only the idea that art, kindness and compassion are necessary in our world is the common thread between the two books. In a sense, the themes are a bit similar and pave the way towards Station Eleven that I loved so much (but is definitely for adult readers) The pace is slow, the ending quite open, but it’s a nice change for this genre that is often too gore and too violent for my taste.