The One Decisively un-Tudoresque

Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014)

May I start by saying I kind of broke a personal record of the longest-standing draft of a post here? I finished the book in… ahem, July, and I dutifully wrote a beginning of a post back then… and, well, I don’t really know what happened next. Life, I suppose.

It’s not to say that I didn’t like the book. In fact, some stories are so memorable that I have no difficulty to remember them now, a mere… well, five months later. In fact, I chose one to send to Danielle as part of our short story exchange. As she posted about it today, I have no excuse left not to write about this collection now, right?

I had never read anything else by Hilary Mantel but Wolf Hall. Stupidly (yes) I thought she was into historical fiction. So you can guess that I took this collection of short stories with the wrong foot. None of these stories are historical fiction, except perhaps if 1983 Thatcher is to be considered fictional history. Marriage stories, family stories, with a hint of horror or supernatural. The stories are rather bleak and dark and there’s nothing Tudor about them for sure.

Actually, maybe the wrong foot was just the one I needed for that collection, because if there is one common feeling throughout, it’s definitely one of uneasiness. The sense of uneasiness that comes with being an expat wife in a totally foreign culture such as Saudi Arabia, not knowing how to behave and if any gesture or word can be misunderstood to create embarrassment and problems (“Sorry to disturb”). The sense of uneasiness that comes with being asked as a writer to give a speech in the most bizarre literary association (the very British female narrator keeps apologizing and the story, called “How Shall I Know You?” has superb wit). The sense of uneasiness when kids are making fun of neighbors in a most cruel way, because they don’t know better (“Comma”).

I know that British readers must have taken the title story as the most scandalous, and therefore memorable story in the book, but I was too little when Thatcher was leading the country and I didn’t really react much to this story. To me the most memorable, if disturbing read was “The Heart Fails Without Warning”, a story of a young anorexic girl as seen by her younger sister. The family dynamics and the voice of the narrating girl (who sees more clearly than others the problems, but still seems unsympathetic and quite a brat) were deftly portrayed.

I haven’t read the rest of the Cromwell trilogy (the page number frightens me), but these short stories reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s great style and I know I need to read more of her!

The One with the Marquis at the Postmortem

Jean-François Parot, L’inconnu du Pont Notre Dame (2016)

The historical mysteries from Jean-François Parot is about the only series I read in order, and eagerly wait for the next installment. With every episode, I love the plotting and the details of the historical background, the good food and the familiar characters, but the suspense lies elsewhere. Even if the murder mystery is quite deep (the book has many red herrings, different stories weaved together and a multitude of characters that come and go), as we’re getting closer and closer to 1789, we can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for them.

The book starts with an unidentifiable victim found in one of the houses built on the bridge of Notre Dame, houses that are being demolished because they are too dangerous (you can get an idea from the French paperback book cover). Commissaire Nicolas Le Floch, who is also a marquis in favor with the King and Queen, is dispatched to solve the mystery.

This story is set in 1785-1786, and the Commissaire has been working for the King’s police since 1761 (under King Louis XV, that has been replaced in 1774 by Louis XVI, his grandson, a much less self-assured character). One famous historical episode set in 1785 is the scandal of the diamond necklace, where swindlers tricked a powerful aristocrat/former ambassador / courtier / cardinal into believing that the Queen was in love with him and stole huge sums of money and a diamond necklace (I’m trying to sum it up but really it was an elaborate scheme). Even though it was proven that the Queen was rather a victim than an accomplice of the deed, the distrust and hatred against the Queen only grew as a result of the scandal and the trial. The idea that the Queen could have given secret love rendez-vous to the Cardinal de Rohan just popularized the idea that she was frivolous and unfit to lead a country. Royalties who were supposed to receive their indisputable authority from God himself were acting like the commonest people and could be fooled by confidence tricksters. This was just one more step towards the Revolution.

Parot’s characters certainly are aware of the popular gossips and know also the depth of French socio-economic problems that plague the country. Poverty grows and elites are decadent and scandalous, the state is nearly bankrupt, people are unhappy with their present situation but can’t abide changes, popular unrest sparks off at every incident. It’s no accident that Parot, a former high-level French diplomat, has chosen the 18th century as his era of choice, as so many things remind us of our contemporary times.

The Commissaire is loyal to the king and to monarchy itself, but his assistant, who has followed the events in America with interest, wouldn’t mind changing the regime altogether. Yet they don’t seem to understand what turmoil is actually getting closer to them. All this to say, this book is the perfect, clever comfort read and I can’t wait for the next installment!

The One with the Embroidery for Hope and Peace

Lois Lowry, Gathering Blue (2000)

This is the second middle grade novel I read in a row, after the Apothecary. After choosing randomly based on the cover art (which wasn’t exactly a success), I picked a name I knew: Lois Lowry seems like a dependable name to choose from the Science Fiction/Fantasy shelves at the Children Library when I don’t know where to turn. I have read the Giver a few years ago and liked it, and I didn’t even know that this book was the second volume of a trilogy quarter.

It was the idea that the heroin was a embroiderer that sold me the book. Not only that, but also a young girl with a handicap (a twisted leg at birth). It is set in a post-apocalyptic society where only the strongest, the harshest, the most powerful survive. Kindness is not part of this world, emotions are denied, no books exist, women are forbidden to learn how to read and write. Kira was allowed to live despite her physical weakness only by exception, and people aren’t kind to her or forgiving. The only art that is allowed is the one of a handful selected children who seem to have a gift. Kira has a gift for embroidery, and after her mother’s death she goes to the palace to embroider the robe of a singer who recounts every year the whole history of this world in a big ceremony. It seems at first like a safe haven for her creativity, but it also has hidden dangers and secrets.

It is a post-apocalyptical novel as we guess that this society has been built on the ruins of some major destruction in our world. I am often reluctant to read post-apocalyptical books but this one is hopeful and readable to young readers. It reads completely independantly from the Giver, only the idea that art, kindness and compassion are necessary in our world is the common thread between the two books. In a sense, the themes are a bit similar and pave the way towards Station Eleven that I loved so much (but is definitely for adult readers) The pace is slow, the ending quite open, but it’s a nice change for this genre that is often too gore and too violent for my taste.

The One with the League of Anti-Atomic Wizards

Maile Meloy, The Apothecary (2011)

I was perhaps in need for comfort reads this fall (guess what, international news haven’t been exactly forgiving, and this is the high season at work too), as I turned towards a few middle grade novels.

Actually, I am sucker for good cover art and so many YA / middle grade novels these days have outstanding covers, that make me immediately want to pick them. I was attracted towards the Apothecary by the historical setting, London in the early 1950s, during the Cold War, but still feeling the deep scars from the war.

In this particular era, Communist spies and atomic bombs are feared everywhere, but particularly in California where Janie’s parents work as screenwriters. They are pressured to go find work in London, and 14-year-old Janie goes to a traditional English school with uniforms and Latin classes. She finds her classmate Benjamin charming, but also intriguing, and he soon brings her into crazy adventures, as it turns out that Benjamin’s father is a sort of wizard who has been abducted by Russian spies.

I liked the premises but I wasn’t quite convinced by the story. Things were a bit all over the place, and only the swift pace of actions and twists tried to make up for unexplained bits of plot. This being the first of a series, it might be due to some revelation in later episodes, but I wasn’t grabbed by Janie and the characters were too one-dimensional. Also, the figure of the Chinese chemist came out so stereotypical (kungfu moves! inscrutable stare! pseudo-Chinese pidgin French –I read in translation) that I rolled my eyes every single time she appeared. The mix between scientifical, historical, and fantasy elements seemed very clunky to me. I would have preferred that the author stick to one genre, and make it more believable and more consistent.

Well, can’t win them all! I should know by now that a nice cover does not make a good novel every single time.

The One with Iranian Blues in Black and White

marjane-satrapi-poulet-aux-prunes-img6Marjane Satrapi, Poulet aux Prunes (Chicken with Plums, French 2004)

Marjane Satrapi is super famous (at least in France) for Persepolis, her graphic memoir of growing up in the Persia of the Shah, that was overthrown by the Islamic revolution in 1979 when she was ten. I loved it, because it was both blunt and delicate.

Chicken with Plums is another graphic memoir, focused on Nasser Ali Khan, Satrapi’s great uncle and a famous musician in Iran, who died in 1958. It takes the form of a traditional tale, as it recounts the last eight days of his life, with both realist details and ironic distance, and a lyrical and poetic imagination.

During an umpteenth fight with his wife, what Nasser loves most in life gets destroyed: its precious tar, his music instrument. No other tar can replace what was lost, and finally Khan, heartbroken, lies down and awaits death. During eight days, he remembers key moments of his life, especially his thwarted love story with another woman.

It’s a deeply sad story because we discover that music is the only space of freedom that Nasser has left. Despite their mutual attraction, he was not allowed to love Irâne, and her father refused that marriage with a lowly musician. Full of sadness, regret and depression, Nasser’s music becomes the best, but the rest of his life is in shambles. He accepts an arranged marriage with Nahid, but he never loves her. What seemed a pretty straightforward story (especially through the choice of only black and white) becomes a complex web of regrets, untold emotions and missed opportunities.

It made me wonder what would be the taste of Nasser Ali’s favorite dish, this chicken with plums (with onions, tomatoes, turmeric and saffron), and what his tar’s music might sound like. So I could not resist a quick Youtube search!

 

The One that Makes the Controversial Intimate

Colombe Schneck, Dix-Sept Ans (French, 2015)

I set about to review a book about abortion today, but I don’t mean to be controversial, I just read it and I want to review it. I didn’t choose the topic especially for today either, it just sits on my pile of finished books and it was time.

But.

I can’t help but feel the weight of the recent events, namely the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Believe me, typing these words feels so weird I had to correct so many typos.

Anyway.

People make choices. Not the ones you expect. Not the ones you believe in. Not the ones you would have made if you were them. But you’re not them. They choose because of their personal circumstances. Because of their beliefs, of their education, of their knowledge or lack thereof. They choose because they think it’s best at a given time, or just because it’s the lesser of two evils. It’s hard not to judge. Not to make assumptions. But still one must try. And books certainly help wear the other person’s shoes.

Colombe Schneck’s book is intimate and political. It’s a very short memoir (less than 100 pages) of her abortion when she was 17 (in the 1980s) and how it shaped her life ever since. She was finishing high school, carefree and rather careless. She thought it could not happen to her. She was a teenager from the upper class, immature and a bit irresponsible. She was idealist, she had been taught that boys and girls were free and equal. She could not have the baby. It was just not possible, not thinkable. Her parents were quite liberal, so they didn’t blame her but they didn’t talk to her either. Doctors and other adults didn’t question her choice; it was all very cold and technical, and she didn’t get to talk it through. Nor did she get the chance to talk about it afterwards, but she says she can’t help but think about it ever since. Even if the choice felt easy to her at the time, the consequences still linger in her head and in her heart. The life she had after she made that choice was different from what it would have been otherwise. She also talks about the legalization of abortion in France, the long fight to finally reach it and the continuous challenges and doubts ever since.

Schneck is a journalist, she writes smoothly and she knows how to go deep and emotional too. Her style is without flourish. She tries to be honest about her 17-year-old self, without being nostalgic or patronizing. I really want to discover her other books (and in fact, at this hour, I have already another on my nightstand).

The One with the Laguna in a Messy War

Martin Cruz Smith, The Girl from Venice (2016)

Some places are so full of history that they seem to escape time. So much so that you can’t really imagine these places in a particular, different historical moment. Or is it just me? Such is Venice, Italy. Have you ever imagined Venice during World War 2? Mmh, me neither.

The book was recommended by Annie from A Bookish Type, and I immediately requested the book from Netgalley, because Venice. Yes, I am aware that this is not a good enough reason and that it might expose me to all kinds of disappointments, but here I am. One more title in my Netgalley queue.

I didn’t regret it, but it wasn’t what I thought. It was not Venice proper, in fact, but more of the tiny fishermen’s villages in the Venetian lagoon, and how the end of WWII played out for the people living there.

There’s the good brother, Cenzo, a widower reformed from war, who one night fishes a girl out of the water. More like a Jewish young woman who barely escaped murder in the hands of… who exactly? German Nazis, Italian fascists, scheming traitors, you name it…

There’s the bad brother, Giorgio, who is so cute and ambitious that he has become a famous actor and propagandist in Fascist Italy, and has made his career outside Venice. Except that he too sees the end of war and the defeat coming and  the scores that will be settled, and that he needs to lie low.

There’s also a third, dead brother, but he’s just a piece in a jigsaw that had far too many pieces to my liking. I was confused many times about what, who, where, and luckily the pace was brisk and the dialogues funny enough so that I just followed the motions. I didn’t care enough for the characters and there were probably too many of them.

Part of the book is set in the Venice islands, part of the book in Salo, where the last Fascists and Nazis were waiting for the final victory and clung to this belief until the very end. It is a fascinating period to write about and set an action thriller, mystery and love story, but I felt I missed something.

I received an ARC from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The One with the Nail-Biting Ticking Clock

Peter James, Dead Simple (2005)

In holidays, we mostly stay in rental apartments rather than hotels, and I immediately find myself even more at home when the place has a bookshelf. Sometimes it’s only yellowing bestsellers, but sometimes I do find something great! This summer, our rental near Glasgow was perfect for so many reasons(*), and the bookshelf was one bonus point. In addition to children books, there were thrillers set in Scotland, but the premise of Dead Simple was so riveting that I had to choose this one, even if it wasn’t set in the area!

The first few scenes are seen from the point of view of Michael Harrison, a successful young businessman who is getting married in three days. He’s having his stag night with his mates, and their idea, partly to get revenge from his previous practical jokes, is to get him drunk and passed out, then put him in a coffin (with a breathing tube, a walkie-talkie and a porn magazine) and to put the coffin into the ground. Their plan is to scare the hell out of him and to dig him up again. But… I’m not spoiling things for you if I reveal that on the way back from the deed, they have a road accident where they are killed.

Then the classic police procedural kicks in with policemen called upon to investigate the disappearance of Michael Harrison. There are secrets and twists and turns, but without the punchy head start of the buried coffin and the ticking clock, the book would be a bit on the predictable side. But the chapters of Michael Harrison are making it worthwhile and will probably the stuff of nightmare for readers prone to claustrophobia (even for the others, I guess).

This book is the first in a successful series featuring Brighton-based Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. He’s the stereotypical flawed character with a past (his wife disappeared and he has been trying anything – including psychics – to find her, to no avail), but I didn’t quite warm up to him. Often in a long series, the main character needs a few more episodes before finding his true voice, so I hope it’s the case here. I do wonder if I haven’t read another Peter James in my pre-blog life, but I wouldn’t mind trying another in the future.

(*) if you happen to go there, I’d be happy to recommend the place, e-mail me for complete references.

The one with the grotesquely enamored husband

Jean Teulé, Le Montespan (French 2008, Eng. The Hurlyburly’s Husband, 2011-2013)

If not for Annie from A Bookish Type, I would not have tried any of Jean Teulé’s books. In France, he has a scandalous reputation for being vulgar and using curse words to shock readers at a cheap price. Literary critics frown at his books but these are bestsellers indeed.

I was also intrigued by the word Hurlyburly which I had to look up in the dictionary, and I couldn’t guess what was the original French title. In fact, the English title and the French title have in common their focus on the woman’s husband. In France, everybody has heard about La Montespan in history class, so it’s a rather surprising twist for the French reader to name the book Le Montespan.

Madame de Montespan was a mistress of King Louis XIV, but of course she was not born so, she had a previous life. She was born Françoise de Rochechouart de Mortemart in 1640. In the novel (and I don’t have any sense of what is real or invented in the book) she married Mr. de Montespan as a true love match, which was rare at the time. Teulé makes no mystery of the couple’s formidable sex life, but as Mr. de Montespan was only a small nobility, they could not keep up with the court’s lavish lifestyle (and Françoise’ love for expensive things) and they soon fell into financial difficulties. But then, the all-powerful king Louis took a shine to Françoise, because she was beautiful and witty and charming, and he made her into the most powerful woman of the kingdom for more than 12 years, more powerful than the queen herself.

But the book is not about her, it’s about him, Louis-Henri de Pardaillan, Marquis de Montespan, the abandoned, cuckold husband whose rival is the most powerful man in the country, a rival who can throw him into prison or out of the country. The painful thing is that Louis-Henri sincerely loves his wife, is blind to her flaws, and still wants her back! Less enamored men and more ambitious ones would have turned this affair into a fortune, because the king was ready to pay off Louis-Henri. But he’s both passionate, stubborn and a bit of a rebel (a Gascon cliché) and he will pay it dearly.

The book is a tragicomic farce. There is sex and bawdy anecdotes, dirty jokes and risqué situations. The pace is swift and the language colorful. We laugh but we cannot help but feel sorry for the unhappy Marquis. Sometimes it veers towards the caricature, but sometimes it gives a surprisingly realistic (oh, the disgusting details on hygiene!) and larger-than-life portrait of the court society, where people were ready to do anything for the king’s favors.

I’m glad I tried Teulé and I understand better why so many people love his books. I’m not quite a convert, but I’ll certainly try another one!

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.