The One to view hear loss under a new light

Cece Bell, El Deafo (2014)

I first heard of this graphic memoir through the podcast Longest Shortest Time and I was intrigued: the coming-of-age memoir of a girl who became deaf after a meningitis, translated into bunnies? Ahem, more specifically a super-hero bunny with a phonic ear apparatus plugged into her long floppy ears? I feared it might be super-sappy.

From just listening to the podcast I appreciated the purpose of the book, but I could only tell if it “worked” as a graphic novel by reading the book myself. Luckily enough it has very quickly been translated to French and I found it just a few weeks ago among the latest acquisitions at the library. In French, El Deafo has been translated into Super-Deaf. And it was awesome!

I decided to read this book along with my elder son, who is 8, because I thought it might be an interesting topic of conversation that we don’t usually cover in the family. After all, there is a deaf child in his school (who has a cochlear implant, as far as I know), but he’s not a friend of his. His grandparents have some degree of hear loss but he doesn’t know much about disability in general. I wondered how my 8-year-old would react, because I don’t know how I, as a 8-year-old, would have reacted to such a story.

First he was kind of proud that I would read the same book out of genuine interest (and not making him read a book that I’d enjoyed as a child). Then he was really worried by the illness that made Cece deaf. He wanted to know what it was and how anyone would get ill. I didn’t realize it would be scary for him! Then he was completely absorbed into the story and he liked it a lot. I wished he would express himself about his reading experience but I guess I’m expecting too much of an 8-year-old. He summed it up as “Cece’s life sucked a lot! First this sickness, then the ear thing, then his friend hurt her eye too! How unlucky she was!”. Strangely enough, the bunny translation, and the fact that she hides her phonic ear in overalls made my son unsure of Cece’s gender (he assumed she was a boy until a love interest developed during the early teenaged years).

I loved the experience of read-along and it was the perfect book for this! It really explains how hear loss impacts your life, but it is charming and positive and not gloomy at all.

The One with the Wrong Zip-Code

Olivier Norek, Code 93 (French 2014, not yet translated to English)

Ok, here is the challenge : I have 20 minutes before dinner time, do you think I can hit the Publish button with a whole post within this time frame? Perhaps, if I revive one of these half-finished drafts I have in my virtual drawer.

This book is definitely worth reviving a draft for. Actually, I’m a bit ashamed to post about it only now, since I read it at the end of… June (o.m.g!!) and was rather taken by it. But you know how it is. You’re 100% enthusiastic about a book and want the whole universe to discover this author, then days, weeks go by and you can’t quite put the finger on what made it so great.

Code 93 is a noir-cum-police procedural that deals with drug trafficking, seedy sex trafficking, thugs from the derelict housing estates around Paris, far from the nice neighborhoods and tourist places, but close enough that wealthy criminals and thugs at the bottom of the ladder occasionally cross. 93 is the zip code for this area, and believe me, everybody in France knows that it’s a badge of shame. Drivers with 93 on their license plate are insulted, job applications with address in the 93 are not considered seriously, the prejudice against 93 is real and causing deep injustices to the people who live there.

How did I come to pick up this particular book about this sad place? A conspiration, my friends. Not one nudge from the universe, not two, but three of them! After that, I could just pass it up.

The first one was a radio interview of writer Olivier Norek following his success at Lyon literary festival Quai du Polar. His voice was friendly, efficient, the kind of guy who knows what he’s talking about. Indeed, Olivier Norek was (or still is?) a police officer working in the toughest districts neighboring Paris. So you can’t deny the ring of authenticity that his novel has, which is all the more frightening as the crimes he writes about are not for the faint-hearted.

The second nudge came from Marina Sofia, who posted about this book in early June. Then I met her in real life and she praised the book once more, convincing me that I needed to check on it. The last nudge from the very persistent universe was to literally put the book into my hands when I had to shelve it at my workplace library. Duh!

The pace is impeccable, the main character, detective captain Victor Coste, is nice enough but complex enough to raise lasting interest (you can see it’s the first of a series) and the police office politics reminded me of the UK series “Scott & Bailey” or “No Offence” (with fewer female protagonists) both set in the difficult areas of Manchester. I’m not sure if anyone can make sense of the comparison between 93 and Manchester but you’ll get the feeling.

Very dark and gloomy. Compromises and corruption. Professionals trying to do their job in the worst circumstances. Amateurs of cosy crimes, this one is not for you, but for the others, Olivier Norek is someone to check out.

The One with Proper Nostalgia

Patrick Modiano, L’Herbe des Nuits (2012 French / The Black Notebook, Eng. 2016)

Allow me to wax nostalgic for a second (or two), because as I am writing this post, WordPress just reminded me that today is my tenth blogiversary! I can’t believe I have been doing this for a decade, can you? (Dear husband, always the optimist, believed it was for longer than that). I don’t remember how we did before Google, but I am starting to not remember how I did before I had this blog!

It’s quite fitting to the occasion, actually, that I was about to post about Modiano, because he is all about memory, looking back at the past to understand new meanings or distort the actual facts. His tone is definitely nostalgic – and I’m starting to get the hang of it.

I didn’t have a great experience with the first Modiano, So you don’t get lost in the neighborhood, but this one was already a lot better, although one may say that it was sort of similar.

This time, a mature writer, Jean, revisits an old notebook he kept as a student, back when he was scribbling away in notebooks, unpublished yet and dating a girl named Dannie. She is a charming, mysterious girl and holds the young man under her spell, even if he guesses that there is a lot more to her than what she lets on. They spend time in bars, meet shady characters, go to places that aren’t Dannie’s but for whom she nonetheless has the key. She has moments of guilt, of doubt, of desperation, but then she gathers her wits and carries on under Jean’s bewildered gaze. Dannie is not her real name, nor is she a real student, but still Jean can’t help but follow her across Paris, night after night, adoringly.

As the previous book the sense of place is prevalent. Characters are drifting like shadows, but real streets, real buildings, old neighborhoods of Paris that have undergone radical transformation between the 1960s and the present time (here especially Montparnasse) are all characters in the book. I love the poetic of the French title of this book, The Grass of Nights, although the English title is more precise. Modiano invites you to revisit the places you have been in your childhood and look for new meanings. I arrived in Paris in 1994, more than 20 years ago, close to Montparnasse, and certainly the city has imperceptibly changed (not so radically than Chinese cities, but still), giving the impression to stay the same while being slightly different. That’s within this tiny gap between what we remember and what really was that Modiano builds his stories that are both thin and deep.

The One with Cohorts of Chinese Serial Killers

Gang XueYin, A Devil’s Mind (English Oct. 2016)

It is quite understandable that China, having imported and adapted lots of Western concepts, would do the same for books, especially thrillers that are highly readable and quickly consumed. That is not to say that China doesn’t produce vastly original books of its own, but just to explain why I was curious to read a serial killer thriller with Chinese characteristics. Let’s say that I started out of intercultural curiosity, and that it is the sole reason that I finished this book.

Long gone is the day where writers didn’t write crime stories because crime supposedly didn’t exist in the Chinese proletarian workers’ paradise. From the several titles that Amazon Crossing has translated, I picked one at random because none seemed particularly set in a recognizable place. In that case, the main action is set in “J city of S province in southern China”, which is plain weird and highly frustrating for people like me who love settings. But I can understand. When touching with sensitive topics, Chinese writers protect themselves by making it crystal clear that it is fiction and that they don’t talk about any real bad, deviant, corrupt person.

The novel centers on Han Yin, a criminal profiler teaching within the Department of Criminal psychology at a police academy in northern China, but who, as the book opens, is asked to come and help the police team in J city. The local police has a dismembered victim that uncannily resembles a cold case of 1996: they fear that they might have a serial killer on the loose, and as the police takes a lot of flack from the public they request the analysis and assistance from professor Han Yin.

Now we all know that profilers in classic American serial killer novels are supremely intelligent and perceptive, but Han Yin is something else. Besides being handsome and charming, this guy only needs to look at a file and ask two questions before knowing who is lying and who is telling the truth. After visiting the crime scene, he often has a complete profile of the killer with age, occupation, childhood trauma, marital status, etc. You would say that with so much information it’s a shame the police isn’t capable to arrest the guy on the spot! Well, often enough they actually do! Beyond the case of the two dismembered victims, the book is littered with victims, gruesome crimes, and successful investigations. Wherever Han Yin goes, he finds a serial killer. I couldn’t decide if he was a clairvoyant or a walking disaster.

People who read this book but have never been to China will think that the country is most unsafe, but this rather over-the-top succession of crimes and resolutions is in my opinion the result of a faulty structure. The novel desperately needs some padding and some pacing, but since the author can’t put in any realist description of locations, any deep criticism of social problems (serial killers are ideal in that respect, they’re deviant and pervert due to their unique individual evil nature, not due to some wider issue), any deep introspection, then he fills the void with corpses. It becomes mechanical, and a bit ridiculous, if it weren’t so gruesome.

In short I do find the book terrible, but so terrible it becomes entertaining, at a meta level. By reading in between lines you can say that the book only confirms that lives of migrant workers are cheap and that if they disappear, nobody much cares, but that’s not really in the book. I can’t say I recommend it, but I don’t regret having read it.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for a honest review.

The One about the Legacy of Torn Lives

Sara Novic, Girl at War (English 2015)

I’m really glad of this opportunity to read Girl at War thanks to and the French publisher Fayard. Ever since the book was published in English I was curious of this book about a girl who spent her childhood in Yugoslavia, lost her parents during the war between Croatia and Serbia and was then adopted by American parents and raised as a typically American teenager.

Obviously there are many themes woven together in this story: war, trauma, grief, adoption, coming of age, cultural shock, guilt (and I won’t spill it all here), but I first came to this story because I could relate to Ana, the main character who is ten at the start of the Balkan war in 1991. I was in high school when the Balkan war broke off in 1991 and as a West European it was both shocking and senseless. We had been fed the “end of history” and universal reconciliation when the Berlin Wall had fallen two years before, and now people were killing each other on the doorsteps of the European Union. We had been brought up thinking Yugoslavia as a united country and ignoring ethnic differences and historical bad blood. Especially as a teenager, where all things are black and white, the messy war felt as if someone was taking the rug from under my feet and announced that my neighbors were very much likely to kill the people next door.

The war is seen through the eyes of Ana, a tomboyish ten-year-old Croatian from Zagreb. I like this childish perspective on events big and small, with its naivety and adaptability. Ana and her friend seem to take in their stride the sudden change of mood among adults, the food rationing and air raid alerts, the questions about ethnicity and the sudden leaving of men who are going to fight. They don’t get explanations from the adults, so it might be a bit difficult for a reader who would have not heard of the facts.

As a matter of fact, it might be a good idea to get a refresher on Wikipedia on Croatia during the Balkan war while one reads this novel, if only to clarify that Zagreb was not where the fighting was (it’s when Ana and her parents have to go to Sarajevo that things turn tragic), and that the role of Croatia in the later conflict was not completely pure. But you don’t need to know all that to feel for Ana, to understand her personal tragedy and to understand how her uprooting to the United States and her subsequent adoption by an all-American family could only be difficult.

We alternate between ten-year-old Ana and twenty something Ana who now is a brilliant student at NYU but suffers from (untreated) PTSD. Her friends and adoptive family don’t know much or anything about her past because it’s too foreign and too difficult, so she lies and fakes. At some point in the book she decides to travel back to her native Croatia to get answers – and get closure. That was another part of the book where I strongly related to Ana’s quest. We visited Croatia a few years ago, a country that is now a very touristic place for Europeans. It was an uncanny experience to realize that this beautiful place full of magnificent landscapes, beaches, historical landmarks was the same country that had suffered in the civil war. It seemed that people had put it all behind hoping to forget. No wonder that the book doesn’t tie all the plot lines neatly at the end with a bow, because there is no easy resolution for Ana.

The One in The Weird Maze of Hong Kong

Hon Lai Chu, The Kite Family (2015, Eng. 2016)

You can’t say I was lazy or fickle on this book. I tried hard, very hard. I had high hopes, because Hong Kong literature is not something that you often stumbled upon, and I have such fond memories of my years living there that I am often prejudiced in favor of any novel set in or written in Hong Kong. And this short story collection came with high credentials: it won the New Writer’s Novella first prize from Taiwan’s Unitas Literary Association and was named one of the Books of the Year by China Times in Taiwan.

Yet, I don’t do well with absurd. I don’t mind disturbing stories, I actually kind of enjoy magical realism, but I am a picky reader when it comes to surrealism. I just don’t get it, most of the times, unless I am able to care for the main characters.

I really enjoyed the book introduction by translator Andrea Lingenfelter, which highlighted some of the stories’ themes and allowed me to better understand some metaphorical meanings of the stories.

But still, few of them were really engaging to me. I had difficulties to relate to any character and to like them. One story’s main character is a guy that only finds his purpose in life as he becomes a chair. Another story features a family with a weird illness of obesity, to the point that the person will eat objects and that no room will be able to contain her body.

I was sorry to miss the point of most of these stories. Definitely this book is not for me, but probably will find other readers who are more tolerant with surrealism.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for offering me a copy in exchange for a honest review.

The one with CSI of the Song Dynasty

Antonio Garrido, The Corpse Reader (Orig. Spanish 2011, English 2013, French 2014)

This book is at times incredibly frustrating, at times very satisfying. It’s sold as a historical mystery, but I would argue that it creates its own subgenre as a crossover between a forensic procedural, heavy with scientific details and gore autopsy close-ups and a very complete manual of life in China Song Dynasty in the 12th century.

Think Kay Scarpetta, turn her into a man, into a Chinese man, make her wear a black silk bonnet, and throw her back to the Middle Ages to proceed to a postmortem autopsy. Without her fancy scientific instruments of course.

Still, there are many differences between this book’s main character and Kay Scarpetta. One of which is that the hero is probably the unluckiest man on earth at that period. Also Kay Scarpetta is likeable, whereas our hero is not really.

He’s a young man of 20, from a good, if not very wealthy family, and although he has studied medicine with a great master and is said to have a great intelligence and intuition, in everything but medicine he is so naive and stupid that you soon want to slap him. The first half of the book shows him getting more and more miserable as he loses his family, position, friends, money and dignity. He makes one stupid choice after another, and you can be sure that anyone he trusts at any time will betray him within a few hours or days. Even more frustrating, he doesn’t seem to learn from his errors. How can you then believe that he’s able to tell accurately the cause of death, thus earning himself the name of “corpse reader” and a reputation that will raise the emperor’s interest and make him an investigator to a very special and secret series of crimes committed close to the imperial palace?

If you don’t get too annoyed by the main character, the historical part of the book remains fascinating and well worth the read. Song dynasty in the 12th century was a period where China had a lot of threats but also a lot of creativity and artistic expression. Administration was very organized and it looked like quite a modern state. Garrido manages to bring this period alive and you almost can smell, feel, see what it was like back then (not all smells and sights were quite pleasant I’m afraid).

One last point: I was first drawn to this book by the French cover, that is a reproduction of a Song painting. But the English cover is totally unappealing to me and feels like a cheap B-movie from Hong Kong in the 1980s. I would never have picked up this book with the English cover! Would you?

The One where Hello Kitty Turns Angry

Risa Wataya, Kawaisoudane? (Japanese 2011) Pauvre Petite Chose (French 2015)

At first glance it’s a very light book, perhaps even a bit shallow. Julie is a Japanese young woman, employed at a department store selling luxury clothing, who is both ambitious and naive. When her boyfriend, a Japanese raised in the US, announces to her that his ex- is moving in with him, because she has no job and no money for the rent anymore, she raises her eyebrows but eventually comes round to it, because he assures that there’s nothing between them anymore, and that Westerners are cool with it.

She sure doesn’t like it, but she likes even less the prospect of rocking the boat because she loves him, or so she thinks. She doesn’t want him to think she’s uncool and a traditionally uptight, provincial Japanese girl, when he’s supposed to know the ways of the (Western) world. They each keep their own studio, but Julie still believe that he prefers her over his ex. Unless… Doubts and confusion gnaw at her until she can’t avoid confrontation anymore.

I thought I would finish reading within just a few hours, but in the middle of the novel I though “wow, it’s so clever!” and decided to slow down. Risa Wataya packs a lot within this short, short plot (142 pages). Economic uncertainty, job pressure, mindless sexist routines of female jobs, love disappointment, ambition and self-improvement at the cost of denying her own personality, self-doubt, broad cultural considerations brushed up with lots of humor.

Risa Wataya has received the Akutagawa prize when she was only 19, in 2003, and the Kenzaburo Oe prize for this very novel. While the main character is typically Japanese, the theme of the social pressure to conform is quite universal.

I don’t speak Japanese, but I saw that the original title Kawaisodane has been translated into different ideas that are slightly different. One is “isn’t she pitiful?”, which could equally refer to Julie or to the jobless ex-girlfriend. Another is “isn’t it a pity?”, and the French one is literally “Poor little thing”. In French depending on the tone the interpretation can range from pity to snarky to complete contempt. Another funny thing to contemplate is the difference between the French cover (where poor Julie is starting to find it not so funny anymore) and the original Japanese cover, where everything is just a cute (cutesy) world of girly fashion and flowers, the perfect world Julie aspires to.

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.