Erri de Luca, Il torto del soldato (Italian, 2012)

I read far too few Italian books and I should probably be ashamed of it. The name Erri de Luca rang a bell, and the book was short, so I figured I would give it a shot.

Imagine a country inn set in the Dolomite mountains. At the restaurant two tables next to each other: at the first a writer, a translator who translates Yiddish books to Italian, not because he’s Jewish himself but because he is fascinated by this language and its history, and at the next a 40 year old woman with her ageing father, who happens to be a war criminal. The whole interaction between both tables is reduced to a glance over the Yiddish papers by the old man, and a smile from the woman. The book is built around two parts: the first told by the translator, the second by the woman.

Erri de Luca draws parallels between the Yiddish language and the Neapolitan language, both rapid and witty. The part with the writer, who may well be de Lucca himself, is very moving and relatable, full of digressions and anecdotes. You can imagine it as a snippet of a real scene.

The second part is also full of digressions, but it’s chilly and devastating. The young woman has grownup raised by her mother and a man whom she knew as her grandfather. The day her mother left them both, she learnt that this man was actually her father, and that he was a former Nazi, gone into hiding for a long period overseas, then returned to Vienna under a false name, with a new career as a mailman, but no regrets whatsoever about what he did. His only fault was to be defeated, his reasoning goes. If Nazis had won the war the other side would have been the criminals. He has kept his repulsive paranoia against Jews and it even increased to a full-fledged mania as he tried to find in the Kabbalah a justification for the Nazi defeat.

The story is deceptively simple, but full of visual, sensual details and back stories and digressions that sprout in every direction, enriching the story with so many layers and echoes and new meanings every time you pull another thread. Another writer could have made 300 pages out of it, it’s only to the writer’s credit that he kept it to 80 pages. I’m not sure what to make of it, but it was really a great experience, and I’ll make sure to visit Erri de Luca again.

The one that made me roll my eyes and clean my cupboards

Marie Kondo, the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Japanese 2011, English 2014)

Oh my, how conflicted I am about this book!

I have no previous allergies to Japanese quirks, a mix between cute, weird, naive, formal and efficient. I like self-help books and organizing books when they inspire you and cheer you up. I should be an ideal convert to the Konmari method. Like millions of people around the world, apparently.

But this… How this book has managed to make it to the New York Times bestsellers list is beyond my comprehension. Sure, the idea of minimalism is selling like hot cakes these days, and apparently it helps when the one who tells you to do it is a smiling, foreign young woman. As if there was a secret recipe. As if there was a magic trick.

But Marie Kondo soon tells it herself: there’s not one single method, you just have to follow your heart and fill trash bags. If you don’t know what to keep, throw everything out, your heart will tell you what it misses most. A few good ideas are packaged with the weirdest recommendations (balancing them out in my mind, if not cancelling them completely), thrown together with enough episodes of the writer’s memoir to convince you that she suffers of OCD.

To reach an actual book length, things are rehashed ad nauseam, otherwise the gist of her ideas would easily get into a leaflet. The promotional information you get here and there are actually a good synthesis and saves you from the weirdest parts of the book: the pages where Marie Kondo recommends that you speak to your purse and furniture, that you thank your objects before throwing them away, and to have a little thought for the plight of your socks. I’m too much of a rational Western girl here, she entirely lost me at this point.

Halfway through I figured the writer was so completely crazy that it was a comic book rather than an organizing method. There are unintended hilarious passages, especially as she takes herself so seriously (the people who have followed her cult method have a glow and everything goes well in their lives, she says). And I certainly didn’t wait long before applying her own method to this book, that I resold as soon as I’d finished the last page.

On one hand, the book made me cringe, because it seems that her method is only suitable for single people who have a lot of time on their hand. On the other hand, her method is surely appealing, because it doesn’t need much for you to start: does this object spark any joy? Yes, it stays, no, it goes. No need for complex strategies to build a capsule wardrobe or a perfect system. Still I would have liked it better if she’d talked about recycling and reselling instead of throwing all away and being proud of a number of trash bags.

The one with the Hasidic maiden

Anouk Markovits, I am Forbidden (2012)

I borrowed this book from the library and it surprised me how fast I was taken in. I didn’t put it down nor read anything else for 2 or 3 days, and it hasn’t happened to me for quite a while. Surprised I was because the subject was not really sexy (being set in a ultra-orthodox Jewish community) nor was it particularly easy (we follow the fate of a few children from this community who’d survived the war by chance from 1939 to the end of the 20th century in Brooklyn, as they grow old and have their own family).

I think that what drew me in was the writing, and especially the visual descriptions, that only needed to focus on a few details to render a whole scene vivid with emotions. The first scene might have been gruesome and full of attention-seeking, distasteful details, but Markovits chooses to focus on what a little boy of three might notice, understand and see from a hidden place. The effect is chilling and moving at the same time and I will remember it for a long time.

Now, I knew a little about Hasidism, but had never heard of this particular community, the Satmar sect from the Romanian-Hungarian border, whose rabbi barely escaped the Holocaust by embarking onto the Kasztner train (a disputed bargain with the top Nazi Eichmann to save some 1700 prominent Zionists and community leaders to Switzerland while the others were condemned to die).

The story doesn’t really focus on the Holocaust, although we see how this trauma shapes the main characters and reinforces their clinging to their faith and rules. Instead, we see how two girls grow into different directions: one to question her faith (her father accuses her of being a Spinoza) up to the point that she has to break away, the other to respect and uphold her faith’ rules, without being totally free of her own inner religious conflict. As the title tells, the main characters are all evolving within the high walls of their religious rules, that forbid quite a lot of things, but it really is to Markovits’ credit that the rules however strict and harsh are not portrayed negatively. The girl who breaks away is not portrayed much more positively than her observant counterpart. Every time possible, it’s the beauty of the rules and traditions that is shown, and not in a derogatory or vengeful way, as you might expect from a writer who has grown up in this culture and then chosen to leave (to escape an arranged marriage).

At this point, you might wonder about my particular interest for gated communities. After the Amish, the Satmar, what’s next? will you think. Small communities are a perfect little world, like a snow globe, just at the right dimension for a book. You don’t need to look for religious minorities either, just look at Agatha Christie and her perfect British villages! They have their own rules and own vision of the world; on one hand it’s exotic and interesting to discover (especially as they live in the midst of our mainstream culture) and on the other hand many plots revolve around the classic coming-of-age model where the main character finally chooses our culture over her own limited circle.

“I am forbidden” has a lot to offer: good writing, complex characters, deep moral questions and a long view of history. She doesn’t fall into the clichés of the genre. Highly recommended.

The one with the weirdest anatomic trivia

Fred Vargas, Dans les bois éternels (French 2006), This night’s foul work (English 2008)

Did you know that a stag is the only animal to have a cross-shaped bone inside its heart (which is a muscle)?

Did you know that a tomcat is the only animal to have a bone in its penis?

Did you know that the pig has a heart-shaped bone inside his snout?

Well, me neither, but if you’re like me, you’ll be shrugging and muttering “so what?” under your breath (or any less polite variation thereof).

Now that you have stored somewhere in your brain these very important pieces of trivia, that you probably won’t be able to drop into any dinner conversation ever (if you succeed, let me know!), you are well equipped to follow the quirky plot of this Adamsberg mystery.

Do you want to know how Vargas was able to weave a story including a tomcat, a stag and a pig? Well, me too.

Do you want to know this story? You’ll have to read it yourself. The added challenge is that the story starts with a very standard, probably drug-related murder of two thugs in a poor Paris neighborhood. Adamsberg refuses to give up the case to the drug unit, because both men had mud under their fingernails, and everybody knows there’s no mud in Paris, duh. Highly suspicious.

Every single time I get to wonder how Vargas gets to learn those quirky facts in the first place. Does she spend her days reading the footnotes in dusty encyclopedia? Does she have a network of informers who report to her every time they find some funny, bizarre, really unplaceable fact? Is is a challenge for her to come up with weird, weirder and weirdest information in each book? Because the standard here are pretty high already.

Some of the events in this book refer to earlier episodes, but you know me, I’m genetically unable to read in order, so I’m here to confirm that it doesn’t matter, the main mystery being easy to follow, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. Why does it work for Commissaire Adamsberg while it didn’t work for Inspector Gamache? Yes, I know, life’s unfair, but I guess it has to do with the writing. Vargas’ voice is strong and recognizable, it peppers every sentence with fun words and literary tour de force (one is that Adamsberg’s lieutenant speaks in rhymes, and more specifically in alexandrines in the style of Racine).

Highly recommended, but I’m already a convert.

The one I found tepidly cold

Louise Penny, Dead Cold (UK), A Fatal Grace (US) 2006

Find me grumpy or just your typical French killjoy, but I have to say upfront that I didn’t enjoy this book, however hard I tried.

My reasons for trying hard were that it came recommended by Marina Sofia, that I have never read a mystery set in Quebec (Fred Vargas’ doesn’t count) and that I’d love to discover a comfortable new crime series (I have just finished Broadchurch Season 1 on DVD, and part of my grumpiness may be attributed to withdrawal symptom).

My reasons for disappointment were probably linked to a faulty translation, because the French voice of the story sounded clunky and dry. Sometimes it used French-Canadian words but it was not written in French-Canadian, which made it neither fish nor fowl. It stopped me from really enjoying the setting, a quaint little Canadian village with suitably quirky characters. I found the narrator’s voice too explanatory and the red herrings rather fat.

After a rather long setup, the murder scene is quite convoluted: an insufferable snobbish woman dies electrocuted while watching a curling game on a frozen lake. How is it only possible? I had a hard time to suspend my disbelief and I couldn’t get past that bad French aftertaste. Another stumbling block is that this book is the second in a series (it was the only one available), and a lot of characters and circumstances seem to have been introduced in the first book, so it seems almost a must to read the series in order.

One very nice point to the book was the atmosphere of coziness and warmth, and the funny jokes underlying the difference between the English-speaking and French-speaking communities. Maybe it might be worth a try in the English version.

Too bad, Inspector Gamache! I would have loved  to love you. Maybe our paths will cross once more…

Kids Lit Special: Room on the Broom (2001)

It’s been a long week, folks, so I’m not going to write about century-old classics tonight… Just another kind of classic: a kids’ favorite, and a favorite of mine, that I wanted to mention here after reading about other childhood books.

“I’m a dragon as mean as can be, and witch with French fries tastes delicious to me.”

This is the one quote my toddler boy (16 month old) gets every day, and we both can’t get enough of it, especially as we’re French!

The Gruffalo from Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler was a favorite at our place when the big brother started kindergarten, but we all fell into the broom story a bit later on. In fact, I am the most enamored of the three: the big boy is a tad too old, and the baby loves the rhyming sing-song and the dog, cat and “crack!”, but he sure don’t get the story in details, especially as I read it in English. (yes, I have translated to them, but it’s less fun without the rhymes)

I love the rhythm, the structural repetitions with slight changes at each round, I love the practical details (to dry the wet magic wand in the fold of the black cloak) and the tongue in cheek wit. To me, it’s a great book for fun and adventures, for team spirit, for gratefulness and generosity (take on all those friends who helped you along the way, even if you don’t think you have room for everyone!) I kind of wish I would know it by heart, and if I continue reading it every day or so, this dream will pretty soon be fulfilled!

What’s your favorite picture book for kids? If you have kids, what’s the one book you practically knew by heart?

The one where 20-somethings find a life purpose

Inio Asano, Solanin (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one I didn’t get

James Salter, All That Is (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one without maple syrup in a darker Vermont

Eric Rickstad, The Silent Girls (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one with too many twists and turns

Hélène Grémillon, The Confidant (2010)

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

What about books stuck in the middle?

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

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

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

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

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