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 Beating Heart

Maylis de Kerangal, Reparer les vivants (2014, English title: The Heart / Mend the Living)

Oh, how could this happen? I grumble, sigh and moan about all those books that weren’t great exactly, but when I finally read a great one, I forget to post about it? That’s exactly what happened with The Heart, which I finished in London, back in February! After Pawel Huelle’s stories, here is another post about a book that should not be forgotten.

After presenting my apologies to the book, its author and you all readers, I finally remember what stopped me from writing a post. After reading the Bridge back in 2011, I became an instant fan of Maylis de Kerangal, her unique style, her special literary project of fictional non-fiction, so I knew I would love The Heart.

And I sure did. I finished the book within two days (it was the holidays, after all). But why is it so difficult to explain why I did love it? It’s a collective book, so there’s not one main character, just dozen of them. The style is also very particular to Kerangal. Long, meandering sentences that often take the whole page or more. It’s not for everybody, but I happen to l-o-v-e it. It’s very inspiring, and then in the same breath, I know that I won’t ever be able to write as well as she does. (and I’m alright with it)

This book is about a heart. Young Simon is 21 and dies in a stupid car accident. But his young, healthy, precious heart can be saved to be transplanted to another person. Will his grief-stricken parents agree to the organ donation? Will everyone in hospitals across France be ready for the delicate intervention? Who will get Simon’s heart? Who will take care of Simon’s heart at every step of this process? It’s literally a question of life and death (no pun here) and the plot, although linear, is full of suspense.

More than the plot itself, the structure of the book is interesting, where the movement of death and the movement of life cross each other without fully extinguishing the other. Not only do we feel for the characters, all of them in their uniqueness and individuality: we learn (left-brain) about the surgeon’s secret dreams, the mother’s past, the nurse’s lover, the coordinator’s passion for music.  But we also learn (right-brain) about what it takes for a transplant to work and how organ donation is organized in France. All the way, the language adds beauty and depth, and helps the reader follow the fast pace of the book, that replicates the pace of a beating heart.

Exceptional.

The One with Maleficent and the Baby from Mars

Ellen Klages, Wicked Wonders (2017)

I was steered towards Ellen Klages by Kazen from Always Doing, who was recenlty raving about her Passing Strange, calling it “guaranteed to be one of my top books of the year, if not number one”. Serendipitously a collection of short stories by Ellen Klages was available on Netgalley, so I ran to get it. Which practically kills two birds in one stone, because I decided to read more short stories this year.

How does one speak about a short story collection? Of course, some stories will be great and others less so. As they are set in different genres, it’s harder to find a unifying theme without appearing vague and pointless. I will just venture to say that Klages’ main characters are often young girls and that she has a very authentic voice that adds to the charm of the story. There are often a big sense of humor in these stories, and mostly a happy ending, which makes for entertaining, light read. There are ventures into genres that I do not read usually, like fantasy or farce or SF, but most keep us readers grounded with realist details.

One of the stories I liked best is “Amicae Aeternum”, about a girl who is moving away and takes her leave from her best friend and from her little suburb. It was quietly moving, to the point of tears. Leaving your home town, especially as a kid when it’s not your own decision, had a particular resonance in this story.

One other story is “The Education of a Witch”, whose main character is a preschooler right in the princess stage, but who obsesses about Disney Maleficent instead. Having a 3-1/2-year-old at home, I know first-hand what a preschooler’s voice and mind look like and sound like, and I can vouch for Klages’ authenticity, especially as some things from the adult life seem unexplainable and that magical reasons are about as probable as others at this stage of life.

One other is “Goodnight Moons”, where a female astronaut, after a very tough selection, leaves the earth in an expedition to Mars, only to find herself pregnant, a hypothesis that the people around her, both the crew and the monitoring people on the ground, didn’t expect but now intend to fully take into account. It started as a “what if” of the silly kind, only to take a sudden turn towards something deeper and more subtle.

I also very much enjoyed “Woodsmoke”, the (longer) story of a summer spent at the summer girls camp in the 1960s and the special friendship between two tweens that was born out of it. Summer camps are quite an American traditions, although French kids have their own variation. I went to music camp and I remember how long and short, very intense and special these times were.

Some other stories felt a bit contrived and gimmicky, or perhaps it was just me who wasn’t in the mood on that given day. But the collection overall reminded me what the power of a good story is: to entertain, to put you in someone else’s shoes and to let your imagination run loose for a little while.

Thanks to the publisher Tachyon and Netgalley for a free copy in exchange for an honest review

The One with the big C in Sweden

Johanna Thydell, I taket lyser stjärnorna (Swedish 2003); In the Ceiling the Stars Are Shining (French 2010)

I continue my investigation of the YA / Middle Grade shelves at the library, and I took this one home because I wanted to try another Scandinavian novel.

Yes, I readily acknowledge that this is very vague. And probably unsatisfactory to you. There was the nice cover art (I’m sort of partial, and I hate to be). There was the glowing blurbs and the fact that the book won a national prize for YA literature in Sweden. There was also the French publisher, Thierry Magnier, that regularly publishes very intriguing YA books.

Yet as I came home and started reading, I had to wonder how come I was spending hours of my limited free time reading about a Swedish 13-year-old middle-school girl whose mother was dying of breast cancer. This is no fun.

No fun to Jenna indeed, who is having all these very normal qualms about boys, BFFs, body changes, curfew, getting invited to parties, possible alcohol drinking, possible kissing and generally growing up and becoming a young woman. All that, while her mother is getting weaker and weaker and spending more and more time in hospitals. Jenna’s mother is a single parent, which means that Jenna’s grandparents come over and start taking care of her, which is all the more difficult for her to accept.

Despite the difficult subject (things don’t magically go better, this is no spoiler), Thydell has managed to hook me and I read the whole book in a few sittings. I bet teenagers will cry buckets over it. As an adult and a mother, it was also heartbreaking to read because of course I couldn’t help but identify with Jenna’s mother.

What is the magic formula that Scandinavian writers have to pull us readers in, although I have never set a foot in Sweden? Is it the relatability? The tell-it-like-it-is approach, the one that pulls no punches? The simplicity that makes it universal? (I’m not approaching the Ikea cliché, no I won’t). Is it the noticeable absence of prudish tiptoeing around issues like sex, death, religion and body? I’m sure there must be some characteristics of Swedish culture that are very specific, exotic and not understandable to me, but this book spoke to me and made me see life through Jenna’s eyes without filter nor distance. Which is a testament to the quality of the book, and made it totally worthwhile.

The One with the Dark Princesses Fantasy

Maria Turtschaninoff, Naondel (2016)

The first book by Maria Turtschaninoff, Maresi, attracted my attention in Netgalley but I was not in the mood. When the prequel of this book was published by Pushkin Press, I was very eager to read it! I understand that Maresi is the story of a women’s abbey set in an island of a fantasy world, and that Naondel explains how the abbey came to be founded. Nonetheless, I didn’t feel that I was missing out by reading this book without the first one; they can be read totally independently.

The book is targeted for middle-grade or YA readers, and I wasn’t really sure it was appropriate. The book is mainly about prejudice, violence and unfairness against women, so there are some shocking ordeals explained in this book and I wouldn’t probably expose a young teen to so much. It’s not graphically described, but still it may be harsh, especially psychologically.

Naondel is set mainly in the kingdom of Karenoko, an exotic mix of Asian and Arabic culture. Women are subservient creatures kept in harems. When they are born princesses, their fate is to be beautiful, marry according to their father’s political alliances or business interest and bear sons. When they aren’t princesses, they’re slaves and their body doesn’t belong to them either. In this harsh world we hear the voices of Kabira, Garai, Estegi, Orseola and other women trapped in this golden cage.

Although the book presents strong female characters and how the most unfair and cruel treatments don’t break their spirit and courage, until they finally find their way out of oppression, it lacks nuance (the bad guy is a purely evil psychopath and everything is made for us to hate him through and through). It uses rape over and over (not in details), until I found it the demonstration useless and boring. Of course this book is feminist, but there is enough abuse against women in the real world and in the history not to add some more in an imaginary world.

I enjoyed the various kingdoms of this fantasy world and the various subcultures that Maria Turtschaninoff has built. The different women have each their own voice, which I found interesting, but it was not enough to convert me.

Check out Elle’s interesting take on this book, compared to another dystopian novel!

Thanks to the publisher Pushkin Press and Netgalley for a free copy of this book in exchange for a honest review.

The One with the Grief of Exile

Leonor De Recondo, Rêves Oubliés (2012)

I am going to be bold and make assumptions wild guesses (which I can’t prove or disprove): I think that this book’s author, who is also a professional Baroque violinist and who plays in orchestras led by world-class conductors, might be an INFP (or possibly an ENFP).

Yes, I can feel it. No, I never met her or even saw her. But her book is so full of feelings that I, as an ISTJ, feel a bit overwhelmed. I understand that I might have lost a good number of you readers by overtly referencing Myers-Briggs, but it’s really the first thing I thought when I finished this book.

Alright, perhaps not the first thing. This novella presents a Basque family (from the Spanish border in the Pyrenees mountains) who has to leave their home in a hurry because of the Spanish civil war in 1936. They leave so quickly, so secretly, that the meal they cooked is still on the kitchen table. They cross the border to France, and there, a life of exile awaits them, and the war in France with its dangers and suspicions, was even tougher for foreigners.

The story is told through the husband first, then through the wife. A strong love unites them both and it’s the best pages of the book. I have really not much against the book, except that it was so sentimental and I’m not used to that.

The real weakness I found was that everything was told on the same level, using the same elegiac tone. The main characters weren’t fully developed because the characters were rather introverted and didn’t show much. There was no ebb and flow between tension and release, no narrative arch. Because of its short form it was okay, but I prefer my historical novels to have more depth and more bite.

The One with the Cheeky Loner

Over the last few months our family developed a serious crush on Vincent Cuvellier. I mean, not particularly Mr. S. who seems immune to his charm, but the rest of us…

Our 3-year-old has practically robbed the library. Even the almost-9-year-old, who is practicing eye-rolling and deep-sighing before he really qualifies as a tween, quotes full sentences of several books. And I, the adult, keep finding relatable moments in my everyday life.

Before any of you starts worrying and wants to call my husband to tell him about a certain man who is leading us astray, let me clarify.

He’s not a lover, not a rock start, not a guru. Vincent Cuvellier is a kids lit author.

He has written the quite successful series Emile (well, successful in French-speaking countries, I guess). “Emile is invisible”, “Emile wants a pet bat”, “Emile takes out the trash”, “Emile invites a girlfriend”, “Emile and the boxing dance”, etc. Once you fall in love with one, you need to have them all. These are small, think books, illustrated by Ronan Badel, featuring a little boy with a very, very serious view on life. My guess is that he’s four-going-on-forty. He’s quite obstinate and a loner. He wants to decide for himself and be strong, but obviously it doesn’t really turn in his favor.

Vincent Cuvellier has also written very poetic image books (The first time I was born, or another one about a class taking a school trip to the mountains and who has a massive pillow fight in the middle of the night), and some books for middle graders. And over the weekend I also read in just one setting his autobiography “That time when I became a writer”, and I could see even more reasons to like his work.

I like how direct and straightforward his writing is. No polite words, no convoluted sentences. He writes like a kid speaks, even with some small grammar mistakes. His life hasn’t been easy, because he hated school and dropped out of school before reaching high-school. His family wasn’t wealthy at all, so he took small jobs, was broke, got on the dole, tried theater because he wanted to flirt with girls, but all the time he was writing, mainly for himself. Freedom is so important for him, and I can see it in Emile too. When he was 16, he wrote something for a contest, a very provocative text, and he got first prize. That’s “the” time when he became a writer.

It could be a bildungsroman and end on this fairy tale kind of ending, the social revenge when the high-school dropout gets noticed and famous, but no, that’s so not him. What happened next spoke to me, the adult. He struggled even more after he got published. His first success was lucky, and he took him another 15 years to write a second book.

I do think this short book should be required reading in writing retreats. Because it’s so energizing and freeing to see someone who has gotten rid of the pretense, the artificial and the guilt. Vincent Cuvellier and Elizabeth Gilbert go hand in hand.

So here you go, you have nothing to fear for my marriage. I’m in safe hands.

The One with the Fearless Dozen

Pénélope Bagieu, Culottées (French 2016)

Pénélope Bagieu is often associated in France with girly comics (Josephine, and her first bestseller called something like “my life is so very fascinating”), but she is also a feminist and she has dipped her toes in more serious work more than once. I had enjoyed her graphic novel The Blank Page that she did together with Boulet a few years back.

This book is made after a blog she published on Le Monde web page (a proof, if needed, that it was serious!), presenting a series of women who have defied conventions and have decided their own fate in times or cultures that weren’t supportive of them (which means, basically, everywhere since the beginning of times, no?).

The choice is personal and very diverse, from an Australian woman who invented the swimsuit to a Chinese empress, from a native American warrior to a Dutch woman who wanted to marry a man outside her own faith. Some are very ancient, some are still alive. Some have inspired millions of people, some have just been nearly forgotten. Some have changed the world, some have “only” changed their own life, their own gender or their own mind.

“Culottées” in French means those (females) who wear knickers, but in French it also means those who are bold, in a cheeky way, because “culottes” is now underpants but used to be breeches, worn by men, who were the bold ones as a matter of course. The subtitle is “Women who only do whatever they want to”. Pretty inspiring, isn’t it?

Bold and cheeky is the exact tone of Penelope Bagieu’s endeavor, as she finds a good balance between awfully serious subjects (sexism, prejudice, hatred, violence against women) and the light-hearted, humorous tone.

The format is the only thing that I could criticize: the blog was all about regular vignettes and the book feels like a systematic collection of them, without the added value of getting deeper into those women’s lives. For some of them, it feels dreadfully short.

The One on the Long Marriages’ Taboos

Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity (2006)

I fear any explicit explanation about this book will only get me spams and trolls, as I venture into the dangerous territory of… the erotic life of lifetime partners. At the risk of getting unwanted attention, I will  totally recommend this book. And this, no matter what goes on behind private doors at Smithereens’ house.

I first heard of Esther Perel through a podcast of Garance Doré, Pardon My French, which I am not subscribed to despite being a total podcast addict (I can’t remember whose blog steered me towards it). But this one episode was priceless: I was floored by this talk so that I ended up listening to it twice, watching her on TED talks and… buying the book. No wonder she has almost 10 millions views on her TED talk!

What I like about Esther Perel is that she has a deeply perspective that comes from  European roots, American life and practice and also, if I’m not mistaken, Freudian psychoanalytical theoretical framework. The result is that she doesn’t shy away from hard truths, and what she advises is very different from conventions or any moral judgment. For example, she rehabilitates the value of fantasy and takes a courageous stand on infidelity (as opposed to serial monogamy). She is also able to see through the moral views of puritanism that may explain some deep differences between Europe and America.

Her book’s themes revolve around the questions of desire and intimacy once two people have “settled down”. It is well-known that routine can cause boredom which can cause problems in long-term relationship. It is also well-known that babies, which are somehow the consequence of sex, don’t make it easier for the couple, now parents, to enjoy a lot more sex, but rather the opposite. Women who become mothers may struggle with this shift in their identity and that may impact their sexual life. To these commonplace issues that are everywhere in women’s magazines, Perel answers with compassionate, open-minded and rather unconventional solutions… which may start by not offering solutions per se. She is frank that there’s no one-size-for-all magical recipe and that intimacy and sex is so deeply personal that every person and every relationship must find its own balance.

The book was so interesting that I underlined many sentences, something extremely rare for me. I can’t say I’m going to read a long series of books on this topic but Esther Perel is surely a name to remember.