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?

The one where 20-somethings find a life purpose

Inio Asano, Solanin (2006)

I was searching for non-clichéd standalone mangas via Amazon (i.e. no fantasy / ultraviolence / sex / SF / Pokemon), and the algorithm found Solanin for me. I am very grateful for the Amazon algorithm, but I remained a bit suspicious of its taste, so I hope the next thing I did will not make me a total cheapskate in your eyes: I borrowed it from the library.

Solanin is about Meiko, a young 20 Japanese girl, just out of college, who hasn’t a clue what to do with her life. She’s doing the conventional, expected thing as an Office Lady (a junior clerk) and is bored to tears. Her boyfriend Taneda has a creative job that he seems to like, but it is part-time and doesn’t even pay the rent, so he always ends up crashing at her place. Together with other friends from university, Taneda play in a rock band that mostly gets to meet for rehearsals and drinks and pity party. One day on a whim Meiko quits her job, essentially because she feels inadequate and fears that she lives a passionless, lifeless dreary life. She has six months’ savings to figure out what she wants in life.

At about the same time, Mr Smithereens and I sat through a few episodes of Lena Dunham’s Girls, and we had that awkward conversation where we tried to pinpoint what people see in it, and ended up wondering if we were just too old, or too European to “get it”. I kept sighing and wanting to tell those girls to “just grow up” and I felt totally out of synch with what’s supposed to be the icon of a generation (is it?).

But weirdly enough, the manga and the series both deal with early adulthood, and figuring out who you want to be, and unsurprisingly given their respective cultures, they don’t give the same answer, although both answers must be credited with avoiding clichés and simplistic resolutions.

I had a hard time relating with Solanin’s main character at first, especially as I didn’t quite warm up to the design itself. But she kind of grew on me, especially as she starts out as meek and dreamy and ends up taking more risks and decisions than I’d expected. Quitting seems an immature reaction at first, but after a tragedy strikes the small circle of friends realizes that they can’t delay taking chances if they ever want to live their dreams. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers but I was taken completely off guard by this tragedy that occurs around the middle of the manga (end of tome 1 for those 2-volumes editions) and I totally respected the author for trying something so daring for the genre.

It reminded me of the podcast Lit-Up on that episode where they discuss what makes you an adult.  Their discussion with Meghan Daum points that having a child is not necessarily the (right) answer, and that often it’s when something bad has happened to you, the first glimpse of life’s unfairness or brutality defines adulthood. In Solanin we see characters growing up in that direction under our very eyes, and that’s very moving.

The one I didn’t get

James Salter, All That Is (2013)

I have a complicated relationship to James Salter. Not that I know him personally, but back in the days I had fallen in love with his short story collection “Last Night“, and I had professed myself a Salter fan. Then I read his memoir “Burning the days“, and I wasn’t sure anymore. That was 2008.

What seven years can do to your memory… I had forgotten everything about my bad experience of “Burning the days” and had kept intact my glowing souvenir of his stories. That’s why I was really looking forward to reading “All that is”, a new novel after a long time.

The book starts with a bang and continues with a murmur. It opens when the main character as a young man is aboard a war ship at the height of Pacific war in 1945. The battle scene is lyrical and full of promises. But peacetime is far less exciting than wartime and things go downhill from there. Main character Bowman goes to school, finds a job, marries, divorces, has adventures, finds another love, has successes and failures, is wronged and wrongs someone else as a revenge.

Everything after the first chapter is grey and muted, and soon feels completely unimportant. The sentences are carefully crafted, but then in the middle of the book I couldn’t help myself: Is that all that is? And it’s not even a pun.

Bowman is cold and unemotional. Is he supposed to be a bad guy? I’m not sure.

Perhaps it’s the whole point of a book. Replicate a life in its high and low points, in its moments of bravery and its moments of baseness. Does it make a good book? I don’t know. The writing is quite good and elegant, but without a compelling story, and a (at least slightly) relatable character, it wasn’t enough for me.

I kind of wish the same story was presented to me as a series of linked short stories. But now, all I’m left with is the question: what did I miss?

The one without maple syrup in a darker Vermont

Eric Rickstad, The Silent Girls (2014)

I have Sarah from Crime Pieces to thank for finding this book. It was quite a while since I haven’t read a book like that: a combination of noir, thriller, horror and police whodunnit. It was a good mix, but it’s difficult for me to tell a lot about the story without giving away too much. Let me try.

The hero is an ex-cop turned private investigator in the tiny Vermont town of Canaan (please pardon me, I didn’t know it was a real place just next to the border, that weird line that is totally, like, horizontal between the US and Canada. Even in real life it doesn’t seem exactly thriving).

The police needs him to look for a missing girl who is legally emancipated: they are worried but unable to launch an official investigation. Franck Rath, following the rules of the genre, has some issues of his own: he’s still rehashing his guilt over the gruesome murder of his sister, more than a decade before, which made him abandon the police force to raise his sister’s baby as if she was his own.

With a nasty backache, a recent empty nest (girl in university), and the disturbing prospect of his sister’s killer being release on parole, he soon gets convinced that not only one, but a series of young women have disappeared for years in the area. The hypothesis of a serial killer is hard to sell to the police though, as these girls are all different and no body has been discovered. Until…

I won’t go any further, but I was quite impressed by the book and some touchy issues he addresses. The main character is suitably flawed, the atmosphere is chilly and gloomy: it’s really no advertisement for Vermont (the only thing I knew about Vermont is maple syrup, and it’s not even mentioned here!), and those tourists who come to resorts for the landscape are chastised for destroying the environment and offering little to the local economy.

After a huge “bang” opening (which might be misleading as I definitely thought of Stephen King), the pace of the first half is rather slow, but I liked it. I needed some time to get acquainted with the place and people (so far removed from the American dream). The last part is sustained at a breathtaking pace, with an incursion into gothic and gore that I didn’t expect.

It has quite a potential for a series, but the ending (a twist I certainly hadn’t seen coming) make it unclear whether it’s meant to be a stand alone. Eric Rickstad is indeed a man to follow.

The one with too many twists and turns

Hélène Grémillon, The Confidant (2010)

The problem with audiobooks is that when you don’t enjoy it much you can’t make them go faster and skip chapters: it’s black or white, either you just drop them or you have to stick with them until the (bitter) end.

What about books stuck in the middle?

The truth is that I got terribly annoyed, which came at the expense of the book. The story was so suspenseful that I just couldn’t abandon it altogether, but the more I forced myself to listen, the more my disbelief and my annoyance grew. By the end I was ready to thrash the whole thing!

To tell the story of The Confident is first to explain the construction: a box within a box within a box, all full of secrets and surprises. The first story is told by Camille, a young woman who works as a publisher in 1975. She’s pregnant from a boyfriend who doesn’t want to Her mother just died, and deep into her grief she starts receiving anonymous letters from a man she doesn’t know, Louis, who tells her about a woman called Annie. At first Camille thinks it’s a ploy to sell her a manuscript, but she’s soon hooked, especially as some details hit close to home. The moment when we switch to Annie’s voice, set between 1939 and 1943 is the start of the real story.

Annie is a young girl who has befriended the wealthy Parisian woman, Elisabeth, who lives in her village’s chateau. The woman has fertility issues, and on a whim Annie tells her that she would carry her child. If that offer was serious or not, we don’t really know, but Elisabeth takes her at her word. Drama ensues as the war is approaching fast.

I won’t go any further into the story. While it may be promoted as a book about the war, it’s more of a thriller cum romance drama, with jealousy, betrayals, heartbreak and… surrogacy. The Confident is not a bad book, but not a great one either. It’s just plain manipulative, and it doesn’t even hide from its purpose. The writing is very self-explanatory (which grated on my nerves), full of definite truths and aphorisms. The same facts are turned onto themselves as we get first Annie’s view, then Louis’, then Elisabeth’s. The more twisted it gets, the less plausible it becomes. And don’t even start me on the ending.

Given that it was quite a bestseller in France, I’m sure a lot of (French) readers will disagree with me. But it was just not the right book for me.

The one for marathon runners… and others too

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (1987)

For those who know me IRL, it seems crazy that I’d ever read a book about running. Come on, I run half a block and I’m totally out of breath, begging my 7-year-old for mercy.

But Murakami got me there, and I have him to blame that Goodreads now recommends me books like “Lore of running” or “Marathon: the ultimate training guide” (algorithms beware: I’m a tough cookie to crack).

As a matter of fact I have been misled by the French title, that reads as: Portrait of the writer as a long-distance runner. It got me thinking that Murakami was doing a kind of deep metaphoric parallel between running and writing.

Yes he does, sort of, but it’s also as straightforward as the Carver-inspired English title: “what I talk about when I talk about running”. He just means business.

The book is about his passion for running, why he came to this discipline when he decided to become a professional writer (as a way to keep fit after his more physically active first career as a bar owner), and how he trains for various races and why on earth he would impose himself such an ordeal a to run an ultra marathon or a triathlon (he admittedly hates cycling).

I liked the tone of the book, decidedly humble and down to earth (no pun intended). Murakami doesn’t take himself to seriously (although he’s dead serious about never walking in a race) and he doesn’t even try to convince you that running is the best sport ever and that you have top run a marathon otherwise you’re a loser (running has become such a competitive fashion these days that I’d feared the preaching): he’s clear that not everyone is made for it and will love it. More often that not it feels like getting a peek into his private diary and running log.

It was hard for me to relate to his experience, but I enjoyed his honesty and his direct very visual sense of painting a scene (he ran in many places, among them Cambridge, Mass. where we intend to go later this year). At the end I was moved and surprised how he touched the universal subject of getting old and the ineluctable limitations of our body.

PS. The book was not enough to make me want to run, but it’s a great motivational reading for anyone who wants to get fit and develop good habits!

The one with Quaker quilts

Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway (2012)

I must admit that I used to have prejudices against Tracy Chevalier: The girl with the pearl earring (which I think I read in a previous life), The lady and the unicorn (which I’m sure I haven’t) made me think that she had found one recipe for churning out bestsellers, taking a famous piece of art and weaving any kind of romance into it.

But I stumbled upon Remarkable creatures on audio book and it was such a fun read that I decided to give her a second chance.

This time, with the role of Quakers communities in Ohio in the underground railway around 1850. As a European, I don’t know much about the historical facts, and so I enjoyed the informative part quite a lot. I also appreciated to be told the story from the point of view of a non-American, a recent immigrant, a British Quaker girl, Honor Bright, who’d come to Ohio to accompany her sister due to get married. I like that she’s not chasing the American dream, it’s just that she couldn’t stay in her community after being jilted by her fiancé.

She spends quite a while complaining about the strange way Americans behave, and I understand that out may be annoying for some readers, but to me out made sense as a rather immature girl who had led a sheltered life in a small village, brought up with high principles but who didn’t have to face any moral dilemma to put them into practice. It’s a classic coming of age story as well as a classic immigration story of finding a new home in a new country. While I don’t want to give away all the plot, it became obvious to me early on that Honor is the runaway of the title, running away from her old life and in part from herself.

I have little knowledge of Quakers at all, the little bit coming from Patrick Gale’s Notes of an exhibition. The Quaker part and the quilting part were the ones I enjoyed most. I liked that Honor, as an expert quilter compares American and British techniques and sees her new country in light of these differences in sewing and stitching. Isn’t that quite true that we judge new places we visit through tiny facts we gather and through very personal lenses of interpretation? I look forward to checking exactly how both types of quilts look like.

The one that makes you grateful to remain unpublished

Posy Simmonds, Literary Life (2003)

Posy Simmons’ art is deceptively simple, plump characters, round noses and eyes, neat little English shops and Cotswolds picture perfect countryside, beautiful doctors and nurses in uniform reminding us of 1970s photo novels.

All this little world is perfectly polite and nice, and that’s all the funnier when the bite kicks in with typical British wit.

This book is actually a collection of one page cartoons that had been previously published as a regular feature in the Guardian. In this respect reading it from cover to cover is a bit too much, it’s more pleasant to dip into the book for one our two pages at a time, especially these days when you’ve been to your favorite bookshop and come back dreaming you’d quit your job and have your own, or when you hear of indie publishers, or when you’ve received a rejection message and contemplate your manuscript gathering dust in your drawer.

Because if you follow Simmonds to the letter, you’ll just let your manuscript alone and find another activity for your free time!

She has a little something for everyone: for ageing writers with over-inflated egos, for aspiring writers who have “rustic block” in their nice thatched cottage, for writers who write badly, for children books writers who are never considered seriously (anyone can do it), for indie bookshop owners who are self righteously jealous of the bigger chain stores but secretly go there, for the YA writers who want to sell the next bestseller full of scandal, for the writer’s partner who can’t cope anymore and for the readers too!

Sometimes it is funny ah-ah, sometimes she nails it so cleverly that it makes me cringe a little, the (few) times I recognize myself in it, especially the young mother who tries to juggle writing and a baby.

I’m not knowledgeable enough to recognise if Simmonds satirizes some real-life authors and publishers (it sometimes feels like she’s settling some score, even though I’m not sure with whom), but I guess it’s fair enough.

At any case it makes a great present for aspiring writers and book lovers.

The one with the blind wizard

Ursula Le Guin, Gifts (2004)

I wanted to try young adult fantasy for a while, so I thought Ursula Le Guin was a good reference point. The truth: that’s the only name that came to mind as I walked through the young adult shelves at the library. Neil Gaiman was another, but there wasn’t any translated title available.

As a newbie in that area I noticed that young adult fantasy literature is often series of 3 books with cryptic but related titles, and heavily air-brushed cover art. Is it a convention of the genre? Ironically enough, as I am more familiar with Victorian literature than 21st century YA, I wondered if it wasn’t a strange resurgence of the Triple Decker, or just an unconscious nod to the mammoth trilogy of the Lord of the Ring.

Anyway. Gifts is the first tome of the Annals of the Western Shore, a land that resembles Middle-ages.

The book is told by Orrec, a young blind man who lives in the remotest regions of this land, a place that feels like Scotland. Clan owners there have gifts, magical powers, like being able to call animals, or make people sick, or destroy, for which they are respected and feared. But at the time the story starts, their heyday is already in the past. They retain a certain power, but their estates have faded, their wealth is over, people from the city no longer fear them as much because they don’t really believe in their gifts anymore.

The narrator is the heir of one such estate and should be proud to have a strong gift of “unmaking”, so strong in fact that he has to go around blindfolded for fear to destroy stuff (and people) unwittingly. We get to learn about Orrec’s family and childhood and how he copes with his gift. It’s a classic coming-of-age story.

It was hard for me to really connect with Orrec. I wasn’t really disturbed by the fantasy part, the imaginary land and the magical powers. In fact, I kind of liked it. But Orrec’s story was quite low-key and slow-paced. I could guess most of the story beforehand. Orrec’s girlfriend Gry was a far more interesting character in my opinion, but she didn’t get as much space in the book.

My first dip into this new-to-me genre was not a failure, but not enough for me to embark in the complete trilogy. But I’ll certainly try another Ursula Le Guin one day.

Any other YA fantasy recommendation?

The one about the atomic ripple effects

Fumiyo Kono, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (2004)

Another manga for me, but not a great success on my side. I would have loved to love it. It deals with a subject too often overlooked: the longterm consequences of the atomic bomb on people from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The book is made of 2 stories, the one set in 1955, the second a two-part novella set in 1987 and 2004. Very cleverly, the manga is not about the fateful events themselves, and we get no horrific, realistic depiction of victims and death. On the contrary, the story is about what survivors went through and how events still shape reactions and prejudices against Hiroshima people.

The first story was more straightforward and accessible to me: a young woman who survived the bombing as a little girl and lost all her family members but her mother, lives in a slum and works as a seamstress. She is quite shy, especially as a young man takes a romantic interest in her. As he declares himself, she suddenly has a flashback of the events she went through, runs away from him and soon after falls sick due to radiations.

The second story was very complex in terms of plotting, and while the characters had depth, I kind of missed a lot of the subtle hints of backstories and references and I couldn’t stay afloat with the flashbacks and all. It was totally lost on me. What I understood, though, is that Hiroshima people were treated with distrust, not compassion, and that they were “damaged goods” even decades later, not worthy of getting married with, or be friend with, just in case their mysterious illnesses would be contagious or transmitted to their children. I’m not sure if this is still the case and how the tragedy of Fukushima has had any parallel consequences in today’s Japan.

The excuse for my lack of attention is that I didn’t really enjoy the art, which looked sometimes simplistic, sometimes clumsy, sometimes cute. In my opinion, it was not nervous enough, it was barely touching the surface of the issue (yes, I know how Japanese it sounds). I can only dream what the precise pencil of a Taniguchi would make of such a story, I bet I would have needed a box of handkerchiefs close by. But here, I was just annoyed because the whole story was way too polite and didactic. Obviously the author has researched her subject at length, and I’m told there are many little details to make Hiroshima quite real on paper (geographical details, dialects, lots of end notes), but in a way her intention of showcasing a little-known story was quite heavy-handed.

Mmh, I am aware that I criticize the book for being both too polite and too heavy-handed. Perhaps it’s not the book’s fault then, perhaps it’s just bad timing on my part.

The big reference on that subject is obviously Black rain, from Masuji Ibuse. I watched the movie by Imamura as a teen, and it was a shocking experience, so I never had the courage to read the book. Did you read it?