The one to read with a Russian map, a history book and a strong drink

Philip Kerr, The Man without Breath (2013)

This one is not for the faint-hearted, but if you have followed Bernie Gunther’s adventures so far (this is, gasp, the ninth book!), you’ll know what to expect: noir, noir, and more noir. There are times where you actually seek out the darker side of the mirror and want to send Polyanna back to La-la-land with marshmallows. Bernie Gunther is the ideal hero for these ventures into historical nightmares.

This book is set in 1943. Things are not turning out very well for the Nazis on the Eastern Front. This is the place to avoid at all costs if you’re lucky enough not to be a soldier, and Bernie Gunther has found the weirdest job possible, working as an investigator for the Wehrmacht War Crime bureau. Apparently such a Bureau existed in real life and wasn’t overly preoccupied with the Nazis’ exaction against civilians, Jews, Communists and other people who kept disappearing overnight. No, the purpose of this Bureau was to address military indiscipline within the army and trying to show that the Soviet army did commit even worse crimes than the German.

Enter the Katyn massacre, where thousands of Polish officers have been slain in a wood near Smolensk (midway between Moscow and Minsk) and left in shallow graves. Nobody local is speaking, but the Germans are glad to finally hold the proof that the Soviets are worse than themselves. They’re also aware that they need to publicize this crime very soon, because when the Soviet troops will recover this territory (people on the front line at that time don’t delude themselves about Nazi victory), they’ll likely accuse the Germans of having committed the execution themselves. Proving that the Soviets committed it, on the other hand, is likely to break the alliance between Western countries and the USSR. I guess this war crime is the height of surreal cynicism between two totalitarian regimes, and the worst part of the novel is to know that Philip Kerr is inspired by real facts and a lot of research.

As if there wasn’t enough darkness in the novel, there’s also a few other murders and a proper investigation and mystery that is solved swiftly with a bow at the end. This part is not as interesting as the historical backdrop and the struggle for Bernie to keep his integrity in a rapidly decadent landscape. But I’ll still read anything in this series, provided I’m in the right mood.

The one for the sake of Gongbao Chicken

Diane Wei Liang, The House of the Golden Spirit (French 2013)

I’m hesitant to say much about the book because I will be either too harsh or too soft. This is a mystery for which I cared little about who actually done it.

I read it because it’s about ordinary life in Beijing, especially in the eastern district of Chaoyang, that I called my home for more than two years. So every tiny allusion to a street, a building, a restaurant dish, a daily scene on the street was a sweet memory, and I can credit the writer for painting very real life snapshots of Beijing life. I also must say that the translation to French wasn’t quite as good, and I think that it must have been translated from English by someone who has never been to Beijing (some places are full of typos or have been mistaken for people’s names, but I am definitely finicky here and probably the only one to have noticed).

Wang Mei is an endearing character, a Security official turned private investigator in a dingy office, a single young woman with a thwarted love history, a daughter of a typically Chinese overbearing mother, whose love is expressed in food and who keeps asking about prospective marriage and grandchildren (Chinese mothers have a lot in common with Jewish mothers, I found out), a young woman who survived the Cultural Revolution with some untold family scars, like many people in China. She’s sometimes naive, but she knows that investigations, like any business in China moves forward thanks to guanxi, personal relationships, and she is clever enough to know when to use them.

I won’t really go into the plot, because I didn’t find that it was Ms Wei Liang’s forte, but I liked her characters well enough (especially the older policeman). She’s a Beijing parallel to Qiu Xiaolong’s mysteries who are set in Shanghai. Both writers seem to belong to the same generation of students who have left China after Tiananmen, and who have a critical view to the society’s evolutions. Common themes are corruption and making compromises with one’s values within the regime.

I’m not sure I’ll soon return to Diane Wei Liang’s remaining books in the series (this one is #3 and reads quite well as a standalone), but I sure look forward to eating some Chinese food! This book was a mouth-watering experience fueled with personal nostalgia.

The one with the eerie echo

Eric Faye, Nagasaki (French 2010, English 2014)

I have been dipping my toes back into NetGalley, where I’ve had an inactive account for years (but without a Kindle it didn’t work back then), and the first book that catches my interest is a book set in Japan written by a French author (whom I’ve never read before) on a subject that I’ve been reading just a month ago. Can we agree to call this serendipity? Let me count the ways:

  • I have a stupid prejudice against weird reluctance to try prize-winning contemporary French writers; and I need a small nudge from a translated edition to confirm that this writer’s voice has reached beyond Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the tiny district in Paris where  publishing houses all compete for drama.
  • I can’t really resist the appeal of trying new Japanese literature (although this one hardly qualifies…)
  • I’m very interested about Western writers who create a story and characters in a culture completely different from their own, and who do it convincingly in my eyes (in this respect this book reminded me of Fog Island Mountains by Michelle Bailat-Jones, who is also set in Japan).
  • The story of the novel eerily reminds me of the manga series I started reading during summer, called in French the Leeches, where a young woman lives in other people’s flats while they are at work. And it seems that the novel is inspired by a real incident.

Here, M. Shimura is a textbook salaryman, a middle-aged meteorologist of Nagasaki, single, lonely and rather boring, a tidy man probably on the verge of OCD. He notices that a few yoghurts have disappeared from his fridge (would I even notice?) and takes a ruler to check that indeed a few inches of orange juice are missing from the bottle overnight. His next step is to buy a webcam, only to discover that a middle-aged woman is living in his own home, not only by day while he’s away, but in a spare room’s closet by night (I can relax, I have no empty closet and no spare room whatsoever).

The book is very short, rather a novella. It is very approachable, although the author uses M. Shimura to tell about loneliness and existential angst in big cities. I liked the low-key melancholy of his voice and his dignity, although this incident upset his whole life. I was taken aback by the abrupt change of tone and point of view at about two-third of the book, where the voice switches to the woman’s. I didn’t quite enjoy the end that felt almost unfinished and would rather have stayed longer with M. Shimura. Nevertheless, it was an interesting discovery and I’m ready to read more by Eric Faye.

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The gloomy one that leads me back to the museum

Biographies in graphic format seem to be very trendy these days, or is it just me? I had read the huge opus about Edvard Munch earlier this year, and being in the mood for more decadent end-of-the-century Viennese Secession (to go along with my Freudian mood), I turned toward Egon Schiele.

I’m not so passionate about Egon Schiele’s art as to put his drawings or paintings on my walls. Ahem, I don’t think many people would, given that a significant part of his art is erotic. But one thing you can deny is that his art is expressive and intense. The characters often stare at you and challenge you unashamedly to look at ther body, clothed or not.

The book is a classic biopic, so the graphic designer concentrated on Schiele’s life more than on his life. The result for me was mixed feelings at best. It’s nobody’s fault if Schiele’s life was really depressing and cut short at age 28 just after World War 1 by the deadly Spanish flu. Turn-of-the-century Austrian society was torn between a small innovative and rebellious minority and a huge repressed and repressive, conservative, bigot majority. Schiele’s family was middle class, his father a train station master in a small provincial tow.  Schiele was passionate about painting and art, but he also was not a very nice young man. Self-centered, interested in sex and women but not ready for a serious relationship, interested in marriage if it can bring him money to support his art, he’s a tough one to sympathize with.

The book doesn’t quite help either, because the artist has chosen a realist style (opposed to the grotesque, almost cartoony style chosen by Kverneland for Munch) and a restricted palette of greys and sepia like old faded pictures. So the mood remains gloomy and dark all the way.

Now, maybe I shouldn’t get interested so much in his life and focus on his art instead. Is it possible to like someone’s art without appreciating his life’s choices? I hoped to understand more how Schiele came to draw provocative paintings and drawings in such an original and visceral style. I probably should head to the museum instead.

The one I confused with another

Eliette Abecassis, Un secret du Docteur Freud (French, 2014)

Eliette Abecassis is one of these female French writers I had never read before, just like Lorette Nobécourt. Except for the facts that their first names sound similar, that they are both beautiful and that they have the same age, I had no real reason to mix them up.

Yet I did. I had tried Lorette Nobécourt fictional biography of Hildegard of Bingen and had abandoned midcourse. I wanted to give her another chance… and I borrowed from the library a book… by Eliette Abecassis. Oops!

I’ve been thinking for a while that I should read some more Freud, or about Freud, so this semi-fictional account of the last days of Freud in Vienna appealed to me. The setting is 1938, and Freud remains strangely hesitant to flee the Nazis for London. Indeed, he doesn’t know in detail the murderous intent of the Nazis, but still he knows that they are violent, hateful and that Freudian psychoanalysis is a movement that goes against everything they profess. Yet, his age, his illness, his phobia of trains, his reluctance to leave his ageing sisters, his attachment to Vienna and Austria make him waver. He’s an old man who very much lives for his past and he’s no longer a man of action. His children, his friends and supporters, among which Marie Bonaparte ranks very high, all try to nudge him towards safety. But something deeper explains his reluctance to leave: he wants to recover personal letters that he wrote to his friend Fliess.

This book can work as a refresher for Freud’s theories and life history. Despite the title, there’s no big secret in this short book. But I was disturbed by the very straightforward and cold voice of the book, especially as the point of view is mainly Freud’s. There’s a little bit of everything about psychoanalysis, no name remains forgotten, so I felt it was a bit too much of a good thing, especially for such a short book.

I was going to conclude that having tried two books by the same writer that both left me cold, I could now quietly withdraw, but since it turns out that I’ve tried one book for each author, I feel I now have to give them both another chance!

But instead, I should probably go get another book by Freud himself!

The one with a Chef Extraordinaire

Christophe Blain, In the Kitchen with Alain Passard (2011)

This book is a weird crossover: part cookbook, part graphic novel. Part reverent portrait of a great chef, Alain Passard, part ironic reportage about following the chef and his assistants for 3 years and falling head over heels for his extravagance. There are recipes beginning each “chapter”, but I’m not sure if they are meant to be made at home by the reader.

Alain Passard is a French gastronomy master, but not the kind of chef that would go on TV. He’s passionate about food and creating new ways to appreciate produces, especially vegetables. He’s practically vegetarian, and keeps several gardens in France that explore old vegetables varieties and grow organically everything that will be used in Passard’s restaurants. He comes out as uncompromising about quality and technique, but as the same time a bon viveur (I love this pseudo-French)

Christophe Blain, the graphic artist, has something for great men. He’s the artist behind Quai d’Orsay, another graphic novel inspired by the memoirs of a lowly diplomat working for the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In that book, the Minister was a man bigger than life, and his assistants were fawning over him and blindly obey his whims. Passard is that kind of genius too, and nowhere is it more obvious than during a double page aside where one of Passard’s female assistant gushes over her boss with blushing cheeks as if she was in love with him.

The result is a very interesting literary and artistic experience, as Blain tries to replicate produces and techniques with his art, by showing hands and faces. His style is quite minimalist, so it’s really a challenge to represent on paper a sensory experience that was mainly based on taste (of course), smell, texture (touch), sound (the din of the kitchen, the reverent whisper of the restaurant) and only partially on sight.

But if you manage to read this book to the end without feeling hungry and wanting to try new ways to cook your usual vegetables, even if you’re not a foodie, I will be very surprised indeed!

The one that makes you double-check the locks

Librairie 16 rues Moines 75017 Paris

This is where it all started… a small comics place without a name…

Daisuke Imai, Sangsues (French 2015, Japanese “Hiru” 2011)

Here comes the post that answers the probably most suspenseful question of summer (besides “when can I be on holidays pleeease?”): “which manga did I choose?”… Offered three tantalizing options by a very professional bookseller, I went with the manga called “Leeches”.

Yes I know, yucky! Isn’t this title evocative enough? Indeed it is very creepy. So creepy that I’m effectively hooked.

I could have gone with the zombie/freedom of art one, but I am a mother of two young children, one of which is able to read on his own and interested in any comics/manga that lays around, and the art was quite explicit, so I kept the title in mind but couldn’t really buy it. A responsible mother wouldn’t do that. That’s what you call self-censorship.

Anyway I don’t regret my choice. “Leeches” is full of promises, considering that it’s the first of a 6-part series. It highlights a bizarre Japanese social phenomenon I was hardly aware of: the disappearing act of thousands of people in Japan, who simply go missing one day. The name is “johatsu” like evaporation or disappearance. Apparently the police doesn’t really try to find them, or can’t due to administrative red tape.

While preparing this post I stumbled upon an investigative book about such people, by Léna Mauger and a French (Belgian?) photographer Stéphane Remael. I didn’t read the book but his pictures from his website are quite sad and haunting, as disappeared people or their families left behind say a few words about their distress and why they chose to leave everything and go under the radar: bullying by the yakuza, debt or job loss, struggle with their spouse or family… They disappear into the anonymity of big cities, just like this manga’s heroin (but the comparison stops there).

Yoko is a young woman who has ran away from her family to go find her boyfriend in town, but had to leave him too (I don’t want to disclose too much). Without any resources or friends she hides away in plain sight, while normal people go about their lives, she sneaks into empty flats to use other people’s belongings, food, bed. Nobody seems to notice subtle changes in their home (I believed I would, but with a baby at home, if something is not exactly at the same place when I come back from work I wouldn’t pay attention). Yoko takes care to leave before the rightful owner comes back, and with a rota of several people working different schedules, she actually survives quite well, until she discovers she’s not the only one to have such a bizarre lifestyle, and that other “leeches” don’t like her to mess about.

The story set in the anonymous big Japanese megacity is quite believable to my foreign eyes. There is lots of loneliness, sadness and quite a quota of violence in it (but no zombies). Luckily for my ability to sleep at night, I like to believe that Japanese people have weird habits, that they are very private and don’t care for their neighbors, and that it wouldn’t be possible in my little Paris neighborhood where concierges (caretakers) would notice or ask questions about a new girl sneaking in and out of the building.

Or would they really?

The one at maximum velocity, too much for my tired brain

Pierre Lemaitre, Sacrifices (French 2012, Camille, English 2015)

Sometimes I’m just plain stupid. No, don’t be polite, just wait, let me explain.

When I heard about Pierre Lemaitre’s thrillers, most probably through Marina Sofia or Sarah early this year, I squirreled away a little note and added to my ongoing TBR list. I didn’t bother writing down the title, since it was so clever to have each volume named after each main protagonist. It never occurred to me that they were the titles chosen for the English translation, and that the French publisher hadn’t done the same clever choice.

Now when I visited the book donation shelves at work, I stumbled upon a thriller with a rather banal cover (a woman’s face behind broken glass) with a bland title (Sacrifices) and a bland writer’s name.

Something like Pierre Lemaitre, a name that didn’t. Ring. Any. Bell. A name like that is the French equivalent of Jack Miller, Fred Jones or John Doe. A combination of Peter Rabbit and Doctor Masters (yes, someone has been watching DVDs…). Seriously, didn’t any publisher tell him to change his name for something more memorable? It feels like a false name someone would give for a very bad alibi. Ok, that’s no excuse.

The opening scene was quite something. I would say mind-blowing if it wasn’t already a spoiler. The alternate voices, the breathless pace, the tongue in cheek, snarky glance towards the reader… It was highly addictive. I had a weird feeling of déjà vu.

Then I hit the bulge of the middle part and the pace kind of lost a little steam. Especially as the book referred to previous events in 2 books I hadn’t read. Which was just as well, because in the midst of all this violence and mystery, my brain was trying to tell me something. Like this book should remind me of… Like this writer’s kind of famous for…

Needless to say there was a rather embarrassing “aha” moment, not the Oprah kind, but that sounded more like “duh”. That unknown writer had won the highest literature prize in France, the 2013 Prix Goncourt, that is advertised possibly everywhere in France (even newspapers stands have it in train stations)… and it stood… on my nightstand since April (a slow read, but that’s a whole other story).

But I hadn’t made the connection. Yes, now you agree that I am stupid. Or very very tired.

I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in order, but it would have required a degree of intelligence that I hadn’t possessed at the time. It’s been a while since I read something as violent (the opening scene especially) and I normally don’t mind, but I think it wasn’t the best way to be introduced to Commandant Verhoeven, even if Lemaitre is a master at plotting and story-telling. I would add that Pierre Lemaitre is a writer to watch for, but I’m not fit to dole out lessons.

The one about the one-man comics shop

Finding a good bookseller is like finding a new friend. It’s a rare occurrence when it clicks.

As a principle I try to support independent bookshops when I don’t buy English books, but I rarely meet a passionate and knowledgeable seller who takes the time to find the book that I would love.

The nearest indie bookshop has a bit of everything, from art books to children’s corner, from classics to travel guides. They will push you towards bestsellers, and if you come with a title, they’ll order it for you for the next few days, which is not so bad. But they never try to put themselves into the customer’s shoes and get personal (that’s typically Parisian, you need to be there at least 3 years before you get a nod of acknowledgement).

On my way to the market on Saturday mornings I pass by a tiny bookstore specialized in comics and manga. They also have some children’s books. I shouldn’t really write “they”, because it’s all a one-man affair. For years I’d never stopped, because the store seemed a bit messy, and I mostly borrow graphic books from libraries, because I don’t really trust my choices and want to try stuff I’ll be able to return. Like that happened more than once. Also, I am prejudiced to think that this kind of shops mainly targets young nerd-ish male readers. A middle-aged mother with young kids and a stroller full of vegetables and cheeses fresh out of the market? I thought I wouldn’t exactly be welcomed.

I came in during winter to buy a picture book for Baby S and I ended up buying one for my older son as well, Chien Pourri (Rotten Dog?), a hilarious tongue-in-cheek series about a stray dog (I’ll post about it one day for sure). My son fell in love with the series: the shop owner obviously knew his stuff.

I came in again for children’s books, and then last Saturday I took the plunge and asked for advice. How to describe my taste in graphic novels? Standalone preferably to series, no fantasy or superhero, no horror and no kinky stuff but no special allergy to violence. I was looking for a shojo but nothing twee. He offered Taniguchi as a first choice, and when I said I knew a lot of his works, the conversation got going.

He said he had exactly the thing for me: Solanin. When I said I’d read it and loved it, it was like a new ping-pong game. What now? He offered a lesser-known Taniguchi centered on a detective specialized in finding lost dogs. I’d loved it too! (although I didn’t review it? It doesn’t seem to have an English translation though) We were now evolving in familiar territory.

He came up with 3 serious propositions:

– the first about an old man leaving his family behind, by Takashi Murakami. Although I loved the cover art, I was less taken by the manga design itself (you can get a sense here) and it was kind of depressing for a summer weekend… It’s a two-part manga (bonus point) and the shop owner said it was his personal choice.

– a second option is the first of a 5-part series by Daisuke Imai, about a young woman who decides to leave her life behind (is there a trend here?) and who lives by stalking other people and entering their apartment when they’re at work. She has access to several flats and thinks she’s one of a kind, but then she finds out that she’s not the only one living off other people, on the outskirts of normal life. The French title means “leeches”, so you get the idea… It really looked intriguing, but a bit scary in the realistic vein…

– the third option was quite bizarre and ventured into deeper topics (not that the previous two were light either): censorship and the limits set to the creator’s freedom. Can a mangaka write about anything, and if so, will he get published? The title is Poison City, by Tetsuya Tsutsui. Here, the artists sets out to design a ultra-realist zombies series and has to navigate publishing politics and much more. Apparently the manga alternates chapters between the zombie story and  the publishing story. I’m not fan of zombie to say the least, but the topic of this option really appealed to me.

Now, what would you have chosen? I let you guess, and I’ll give you the answer in a few days, with a proper review.

The one about growing up in a lost world

Maxim Leo, Red Love: The story of an East German family (English, 2013, German, 2009)

I am amazed how this fairly unassuming book has managed to send me reeling. You may wonder what is so interesting about an adult man in Berlin who attempts to write a memoir about his parents and grandparents by asking them hard questions. An adult who tries to recall what kind of homework he had in school, what was boring and what was exciting at recess. In a sense, the nostalgia for one’s childhood is universal. There were good stuff, bad stuff, your parents did things that didn’t make sense at the time, you were clueless, things change, get over it.

The land of your childhood has disappeared for everyone, but it takes a whole new meaning when the actual land has actually disappeared. Like, for real.

Maxim Leo’s childhood land was the German Democratic Republic (as in: on the bad side of the Berlin wall) and it has really ceased to exist overnight, the morning after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. He was 19.

The book is highly intimate and complex, but it reflects how the history of Germany during the 20th century has shaped a family through 3 generations at least. His maternal grandfather was a boy raised into a secular Jewish family when Hitler rose to power: his family flew to France in 1933 and he grew up to join the French resistance, escaping death by a hair’s breadth. His paternal grandfather wasn’t exactly a member of the Nazi party, but what happened in Germany during those years didn’t exactly disturb him, he supported them to the point that he hung swastikas flags at his own windows. While the other grandfather was in the Resistance and later on the winners’ side, this one was in the Wehrmacht and later a prisoner of war in a camp. The paternal grandfather was loyal to the Communist party that had saved him. He rose to a high level position in the party, so that Leo’s childhood was fairly protected and not deprived. The maternal grandfather did also find his place in the new Soviet country by supporting the ideology and starting anew.

Leo’s parents had a fairly more complex relationship to the regime that oversaw their own childhood’s and adult’s life in minute details. They were told what to think, what to do from an early age, but Leo’s mother had a hard time with that, trying to keep her mind free while remaining loyal. Leo’s father was a rebellious artist and didn’t follow the expected lines.

Leo himself is the product of this conflicting history and what his parents made of it, each in their own way. When he sets out to get answers from them, it is both heart-breaking and eye-opening, like an intimate tragedy. I held my breath for most of the book. I remember the 1980s and I remember the struggles and the divided loyalties. I remember those days in 1989 where we sat in front of the television and tried to make sense of those events. We were only sure of one thing: that the world would never be the same.

The book spoke to me because I am about the right age and because I found parallels with my own family’s background, but I’m sure that it would also interest anyone interested to see how a century’s worth of conflicts and ideologies translate into personal lives.