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.

The One with the Bukharan Murder in Queens

Janet Malcolm, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Anatomy of a Murder Trial (2011)

I am fond of the book for all the wrong reasons: because I am a huge fan of Janet Malcolm, because I bought this book during my February trip to London on an afternoon bookshop spree with lovely Marina Sofia, because it was quick and easy to read while retaining a pretty intelligent premise.

That said, people who haven’t read any of Janet Malcolm books should be warned not to start with this one, since it’s not her best*. Her account of a real-life murder trial that took place in the Bukharan (Russian) orthodox Jewish community of New York (in Queens to be precise) does not feel quite put together.

Janet Malcolm’s favorite themes revolve around ambiguities of people’s memories and appreciations of events, around the inherent bias that people bring to judgment. Impartial justice, presumption of innocence, fair judges are therefore ideal concepts that come  imperfectly to real life. In this case, so many things went wrong that Janet Malcolm seems to side with the accused party: the jury didn’t like the accused party because they disliked her aloofness and distance and assumed it was smugness and deceit. The judge rushed the trial. The defendant’s lawyer didn’t play his cards well.

As often in Malcolm’s books, nobody comes out particularly likeable. The Iphigenia in the story is Michelle, a four-year-old stuck in a legal dispute between her parents. Her mother is accused of being overbearing, her father of having had improper conduct and sexual abuse. As the law fails to resolve the divorce dispute, things escalate and the child is taken away from her mother. In cold-blooded revenge, the mother then convinces a relative to shoot her husband to death. At least, that’s what the prosecution said during the trial.

Janet Malcolm very much doubts that this is the whole truth. She makes it clear that the judge wasn’t fair to the accused party (the shocking bit being that he had booked a cruise to the Caribbean and hurried the defense to present their case overnight so that he could leave for holidays on time!!). But she doesn’t really come up with an alternate story for the case, so I was a bit let down and frustrated at the end of this short book.

Still, the people descriptions of Janet Malcolm are still amazing and make it a worthy read. They are quite dry and precise: you “get” someone through tiny gestures and expressions. Particularly bone-chilling is the painting of Mr. Schnall, little Michelle’s law-appointed guardian, who was strongly set against her mother from the very start, and who never seems to care for the child’s interests.

*I’d say that Janet Malcolm’s readers should probabmy start with her classic Journalist and the Assassin, or with The Silent Woman, on Sylvia Plath and her biographers.

Post-STown Hangover, or, The One with the Frozen Chosen

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)

I should be warned by now, because it happened just the same after I finished Serial Season 1. All the books paled in comparison.

A big fat case of book meh. That’s how good the podcast S-Town is. The producers said they wanted to create something like a novel, and man did they succeed in their enterprise!

Now, I am exactly in the middle of Michael Chabon’s (chapter 23 out of 46, not that I’m counting) and I have decided that I won’t go any further. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union fell victim to John B. McLemore’s maze.

Actually, I did trudge through the first half well before S-Town, and this is only the last straw. Chabon’s reputation had put this book high on my TBR list, and so many things appealed to me in theory. But I ended up liking more the idea of the book than the book itself.

A truculent book set in an alternate history, with Yiddish colorful characters set to play with the conventions of the noir genre? It should have been written for me. I liked the Yiddish part well enough, and I liked the plausibility of the alternate history. I vaguely remembered that before WW2 there were real plans to find a new place for all the Jews to resettle, as a convenient way to get rid of “this problem”. I didn’t know that Alaska had ever been a possibility. Michael Chabon’s idea to make Alaska into a Jewish land, a temporary ghetto leased by the US for 60 years, not a glorious, high-tech land, but a derelict, past-its-prime, disappointing one, is a great idea. But I couldn’t warm up to Inspector Meyer Landsman (I know, it’s a bad pun, but Chabon has so many of them, including the one I borrowed for this post’s title).

The conflagration of all these elements, together with Michael Chabon’s flourished style (in French, and I must say that the translation grated on my nerves), the geopolitical allusions, the chess references, was all too much for me. I couldn’t digest it. I’m normally not doing so well with humor books from different cultures and I didn’t really engage with the story.

I might try Chabon’s prize-winning novel another time, but if I do, I’ll certainly read it in English.

The One with the Rusalka and the Domovoy

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (2017)

It’s not often that I call a book enchanting. In fact, WordPress tells me that in more than ten years of blogging, I used this word exactly three times. But today, this word seems totally warranted, literally and figuratively.

I am very grateful to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review, and I am even more grateful to Annie from A Bookish type who steered me towards this book in the first place.

This book is a mix between history and fairy tales. It is set in the wilderness of Russian  northern territory somewhere around the 14th century. Dangers abound, people live a harsh life close to their village and close to the oven, a huge construction insuring heat and survival in the deepest months of winter. In some ways, this book reminded me of the Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland, that was also set in the early Middle ages, but the Bear and the Nightingale is less violent.

Living and sleeping on the oven with no entertainment, people spent their evenings telling fairy tales, and not of the Disney type. Russian folks tales are known to feature all kinds of wicked creatures, free spirits from the lakes and woods, but also benevolent fairies who protect humans, hearth, animals, as long as people remember to give them little offerings. This reminds me strongly of the Japanese folks tales where creatures are not particularly human friendly either. These beliefs strongly clashed with the development of orthodox faith, that saw animism as sin and traditions as a refusal of Christian redemption.

All these ideas are woven into the novel that also reads as a breathless adventure. I fell quickly into the plot and it didn’t leave me until the last page.

I am normally fearful of Russian novels. You know, War and Peace, Tolstoy, Bulgakov and Anna Karenina. My brain can’t remember all these names and… well, I know this is really prejudice. But this one, I had no problem remembering the fearless Vasilisa, even when her folks called her Vasya or Devushka. I had no problem memorizing the weird names of the various spirits, rusalka, vazila, upyr or other banniks, as if they all had cast a spell on me!

This is probably a book more suited to the winter months than the spring, but I certainly recommend it warmly!

The One with the Fall of a Decadent Aristocrat

Laura Thompson, A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan (2014)

I started this book on the wrong foot. It was a Christmas present from my husband who had been lured by the promise of true-crime-meets-Downton-Abbey… which seemed exactly right for me (damn Amazon algorithm… I hate it when I am predictable). But despite the blurb I soon felt that I wasn’t the target audience of this book.

The first pages were so confusing that I almost quit. First, the author assumes that you know all about the Lord Lucan’s case, and she assumes that you know what the media told at the time (1974, that is). In short, she writes for a British audience of a certain day and age, which I clearly am not. Her point is to counterbalance the clichés and assumptions that were made at the time about the victim, the presumed murdered, and the events and come up with a new version, but I was totally unaware of the case!

There are pages in the book that seem off-topic, like the list of all the aristocrats ever tried for murder, or the ancestors of Lord Lucan and their behaviors during the 18th and 19th century. But when she finally gets to the topic itself, I got fascinated by this peculiar milieu and their life during the 1960s-1970s, an era that I haven’t lived myself. The author went on and on about the gambling circles of that period and what the atmosphere must have been like, and tried with some success to underline the difference between the truth and the myth around it, because as soon as you write down that Lord Lucan was a professional gambler, he came out as a degenerate sinner once and for all.

The writer repeats several times that Lord Lucan was badly judged by the media and the public because he was an aristocrat, and therefore prejudiced against. I am not British, but it seems to me that Lord Lucan was both an object of fascination and hatred, and that Brits do have a complex relationship to aristocracy, to say the least. We may say that we French people have a complex relationship to our own aristocrats too, but there are relatively few left, since our complex relationship led us to kill a good number of them during revolutions (just kidding).

Anyway, I sort of muddled through the book. I didn’t quit, but it could have been a much more pleasant experience if the structure was more straightforward and a lot tighter. The part I loved best was about trying to make sense of what went between Lord and Lady Lucan, beyond the myth and the clichés, to discover a destructive and obsessive relationship. Lord Lucan was probably less guilty than what the tabloids made him to be, and Lady Lucan is certainly no innocent angel either.

I’m a newbie in the true crime genre, and I have been wanting to read more, although this one is probably not the best to start with. What other true crime books would you recommend?