The One that Goes Back to Lewis Island

Peter May, The Blackhouse (2009) & Lewis Man (2011)

Alright, I feel all the shame, because you can’t know it, but this post draft has been started in June, and at that time I was already late. Back in April I sat on a bench in a public park in Paris (in my previous home! in my previous town!) after finishing the second of these two mysteries and I wrote a blog post on my phone to declare my love to these two books. And even then I was already late, because I had not written about the first novel, and I read it at the beginning of the year!

WordPress apparently thought I should be punished, so it ate the April post while I wasn’t looking (too busy with real estate shenanigans), and I started over in June. Then life happened and I never got round to finish it. All the shame, I tell you.

Because these mysteries are awesome, and that is worth mentioning, even with almost-half-a-year of delay (!) [insert apologies here]. What I liked best was the atmosphere, and the suspense, and the twisty plot.

Peter May is Scottish, but he lives in France now and has been naturalized French (although I decided to keep his book in the British authors category). He has written several mysteries set in French countryside, and several mysteries set in China. I remember trying them years ago, and both settings I didn’t find 100% convincing (to my overly critical eyes), but I was fascinated by the Outer Hebrides (which I have never visited).

The investigator in this mystery series is Edinburgh police detective Finn McLeod, but he was born and raised on the island so there is a lot of back story to unravel. Finn McLeod’s childhood, relations and reasons for leaving the island make a great story line, and one book was not enough. The second book’s main character is an old man who had Alzheimer’s, whose memories are slowly going awry and whose past and childhood events are progressively taking the precedence over his adult and later years. Then a corpse is found in a peat bog, and the suspected murderer is the old man himself. Is it possible to even prove if he did it or to clear him? The credibility of this particular part was a bit stretched, but I liked it all the same. Finn McLeod is your traditional melancholy cop / gumshoe with a dark past, and his development was satisfying and interesting.

I’m quite ready to finish the trilogy in 2018, and I promise it won’t take me six months to let you know about it!

 

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The Ones on Medea’s Youth

Blandine Le Callet (story), Nancy Peña (art), L’Ombre d’Hécate (Médée #1, French 2013) – Le couteau dans la plaie (Médée #2, French 2015) – L’épouse barbare (Médée #3, French 2016)

 

Some people have strong opinions about modern retellings of traditional myths, or classics; I have disliked some, been puzzled by some, unimpressed by some and loved others. What’s for sure is that they have never left me indifferent.

At our new library I found a graphic series about Medea, which is totally amazing. I hesitate to report it because the series is still ongoing and it’s only in French, but for what it’s worth… Just like La Bouche d’Ombre which I reviewed recently, it is a cooperation between a female writer and a female graphic artist, which makes it even more interesting!

Medea is not an attractive female figure, she’s too shocking and disturbing. She is a dark witch, she is sexually active and she becomes so hysterical with jealousy that she kills her own children: who would want to identify with her?

Yet, in this retelling, we get to learn her life from her childhood on, and things take a different meaning. The Medea we know is the product of centuries of male domination and Medea is blamed because she is daring, intelligent and does not accept her fate. I have yet to read the third volume but the first two, about Medea’s childhood and her teenaged years were great. It  shows a girl with a modern mind stuck in an antique setting, whose only freedom is the one left to her by her tyrannical father because she has special skills (witchcraft!). It may annoy some readers, but it makes her so much more relatable. She meets Jason and falls in love at first sight because he’s a breath of fresh air in an oppressive palace. I can’t wait to read the third book that will likely delve into the dark, tragic side of Medea as a wife and mother in a foreign country.

The One with the Vengeful Spider

Fred Vargas, Quand Sort la Recluse (French 2017)

Of course I’m not talking about Spiderman!

I’m talking about the Brown Recluse Spider, a kind of nifty little arthropod that hides in woodpiles, sheds, dry cellars, etc. It has a necrotic venom (yes, this is apparently a word) and to weaker people it can be very dangerous (I am warning you right now: don’t – I repeat, DON’T look up images in Google, trust me. There are things you cannot unsee. If you want to know more, literary definitions are in my humble opinion more than enough!).

In North America, reported cases of recluse bites occur primarily in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas (or so I’m told on Wikipedia), but in this novel, the recluse spider has killed no less than 3 old men in bad shape in France! Is it global warming? Police refuses to get involved, scientists from the national science museum say it just can’t be, but Commissaire Adamsberg has one of his famously weird gut feelings: to him, it’s murder. So the question is: who has succeeded in taming these tiny, shy spiders to attack people, how and why?

Now, if you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I will read anything Vargas. And at our workplace library, we need to buy anything Vargas and the queuing starts right now. For the next one. So I’m not even trying to be objective in my review.

It was fantastic, as ever, period. I didn’t even mind that I guessed by the middle of the book who might have done it. I read on for the sheer pleasure of following Commissaire Adamsberg and his whimsical trains of thoughts. In French we say it’s “tiré par les cheveux” (the reader is pulled by his hair) to mean that it’s goofy and far-fetched, but it’s all for the good cause.

I have no idea when the book will be translated to English, but it will be done!

The One with the Danish Girl in L.A.

Michael Connelly, The Black Box (2012)

Thank goodness for steady writers who deliver, book after book. I get back to Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller regularly and it’s like being reunited with a long-lost friend. It takes only twenty pages to get reacquainted and then it’s like we were never apart.

This time there is a prologue set in 1992 during L.A. riots. The city police is running from crime scene to crime scene, and the cases are handled much too quickly to go really into details. Amidst the chaos, the dead body of a young female Danish journalist is found in an alley by National Guards. This case seems off but Harry Bosch, a then-young police inspector, has no time to dig deeper. Twenty years go by, and Harry Bosch now works in the cold-case unit as a veteran detective. He is now able to fulfill his promise to find Anneke Jespersen’s killer, especially now that the same murder weapon has come up in a gang killing.

The few last times I read Connelly I had chosen his Haller series which are more legal thrillers than police investigations. I had forgotten how addictive the latter are! Finding a killer after 20 years is a mix of tedious checks on cold leads, taking advantage of the progress of science and technology, and a lot of luck. Of course, people may find it hard to swallow that Bosch is able to find people who still remember what they did twenty years ago (I would be terrible! Don’t even ask me!), but Connelly doesn’t make it a rule for every character and his seemless plotting makes it believable enough.

I didn’t care much for Bosch’s perfect daughter and his taste for jazz music, but the plot! the twists! the action! Classic Connelly. He has a great recipe and doesn’t budge from it. Still, it is entertaining and dependable and I will go back to him when the taste for a meaty noir arises again.

The One with the Freudian Daughter

Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? (2012)

I tend to race through graphic novels, thin or thick ones, even if it’s not comics or mangas. But this one is really something. I needed several weeks to go through this thick memoir, and I didn’t stop thinking about it on my holidays (it was thick and heavy enough that I couldn’t bring it with us). I’m just floored at the complexity and intricacy of this book, that reflects how complex and multi-layered life is, especially when it comes to relationships, and the mother – daughter relationship in particular.

I had not heard of Bechdel, but I recently learnt that she was famous for her test on movies, that should have at least two women who talk to each other about something besides a man. Her book does pass the test easily! Her mother first comes out as a complex, rather cold and bitter woman, who has put her own dreams and ambitions aside to marry and be a mother. Yet Bechdel’s family is anything but traditional, since her father had a side business of running a funeral home and was a closeted gay.

I pause to tell you that Are You My Mother is the second memoir by Alison Bechdel, after a bestseller “Fun Home” that I wasn’t even aware of when I borrowed this book at the library. “Fun Home” is about her father, and there are many allusions to him and this book in this second graphic memoir, but it didn’t hinder my reading.

The book is a feast of references to psychoanalytic concepts, to the life and theories of Winnicott (pediatrician and psychiatrist), to Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich. Freudian theories remind me of my teenage years when I first discovered them and when I had a difficult relationship to my own mother (and father, to be fair, but less so). I had heard of Winnicott in relation to the Melanie Klein and Anna Freud disputes, but they definitely flew over my head then. The graphic form of this memoir is interesting to introduce some concepts but it was somewhat superficial (because Bechdel applied them to her own life of course). I would be interested to learn more about Winnicott’s idea of the good-enough mother (the name is catchy, but as all Freudian theories it’s a lot more complex than being against the perfect, helicopter mother), and of course Bechdel shows how Winnicott’s idea of the false self and true self applies to her own family, where her dad’s homosexuality was repressed and to herself, who seemed to discover her own sexuality after years of denial.

The book is not only highly intellectual, but also very visual and emotional. It’s intimate, as most memoirs are, and at times it feels like a lot of navel-gazing, but the intricacy of the layers make up for that. Like every self-discovery, the book is all about peeling off layer after layer of lies, pretense, shame and secrets.

The One with the Red-Headed Shadows

Carole Martinez & Maud Begon, Bouche d’Ombre (French vol.1 2014, vol.2 2015, vol.3 2017, vol.4 to be released)

I’m still in the process of finding my bearings in our new town, exploring local shops and… the library! Our new library (see how proprietary I get?) is quite nice, although it has a mandatory fee for adults (it was free in Paris except if you wanted dvds). There are several self check-in / check-out machines on each floor (the kids love them!). The ground floor is for magazines, CDs and DVDs, crafts food and gardening, and art books (it feels like a huge Miscellaneous department). The first floor is for kids books, and the second floor is for adult fiction and non-fiction, and each floor has a huge selection of comics / graphic novels.

I was lucky with the first pick I had from the adult graphic novels on display. “La Bouche d’Ombre” (“the Shadow’s Mouth”, a quote from a Victory Hugo poem I didn’t know) is an ongoing series (3 tomes are already published but it’s not complete yet) and the story is just as fascinating as the art itself. Even better, it’s a collaboration between a female writer (Carole Martinez, who got many literary awards) and a female graphic artist (Maud Begon, whose blog you can visit) and this is rare enough to be highlighted.

The first tome is set in 1985 and introduces us to Lou, a high-school junior in Paris with a large group of friends and a taste for partying and hanging out. A friend suggests a spiritualist séance to conjure up dead ghosts (because it seems fun and because they study Victor Hugo in school). The session goes only too well, and after a friend of hers commits suicide, deeply upset by the séance, Lou realizes that she can see dead people. This gift does not come kindly, and Lou struggles with what she feels and sees. There are many family secrets, and it seems that supernatural gifts have been running at various degrees in Lou’s family. Hypnosis helps Lou make sense of it, and understand what the deads want from her.

The second volume, titled Lucie 1900, focuses on the complex relations between science and the occult. The present and the past intersect under Lou’s eyes and in her dreams. We still see Lou in 1985, but when she gets obsessed with a young woman without a face, a woman named Lucie who lives at the beginning of the 20th century, a second timeline opens in the novel. The year is 1900 in Paris, when a huge international exhibition was held that showed the latest in science and art innovations. Lucie is enthusiastic about science, she gets acquainted with famous scientists Pierre and Marie Curie, but she also has a secret that is both overpowering and terrifying, and that threatens the rationals of science. Lucie is actually Lou’s grandmother! The end comes back to the present day with a shocking twist that will send the reader reeling.

In the third volume, titled Lucienne 1853, we leave science for literature. Lou still presents the contemporary framing of the story. She is devastated by the events at the end of the previous volume, but she now understand enough of her gift to decide to travel back in history to try to rectify the situation (ouch, it’s tough to avoid spoilers!). We visit Jersey island at the time when Victor Hugo and his family were in exile there. Victor Hugo is obsessed with the occult and the spiritualist movement, hoping to get in touch with his deceased daughter Leopoldine. But a mischievous, red-headed little girl-spirit messes with them.

There are so many interesting layers in this story. The art is quite atmospheric, at times romantic and scary. It is never static and conveys a deep sense of mystery. It’s girly without being one bit hokey. I can’t wait for the final volume!

The One with the German Girl who Looked the Other Way

Barbara Yelin, Irmina (German 2014, US English edition 2017)

Goodreads tells me that I’ve had Irmina on my TBR list since March 2015, when I heard about its publication in French. I’m nothing if not consistent and the title immediately caught my eyes when I saw it among standalone graphic novels at our new library.

Irmina is an ambitious young woman who wants to be free, make her own money and earn enough to be comfortable and respected and generally choose her own life. She has chosen to study at a typist school in London in order to become a translator. She comes from a good family but the money has mostly gone to fund her brothers’ studies. The only problem is that Irmina is 18 in 1934 in Nazi Germany.

The first part of the book is set in London where Irmina studies. She bristles at the prejudices that British people have against Germans, against foreigners in general, and forms an unlikely friendship with a West Indies black young man who is as ambitious as she is, as serious as she is. Their friendship turns into (almost?) love, but the practicalities of their precarious situations (no money, exams, no accommodation) keep throwing obstacles at them. Irmina returns to Nazi Germany, hoping to be back later, only to find out that it’s less and less possible.

The book is impossibly tragic. We see doors closing one after the other on Irmina’s dreams, and herself becoming a hardened, embittered version of her younger self.  The design itself becomes darker and darker. Because she is so ambitious and self-centered and wants to achieve some degree of material comfort, she gets herself into a marriage with a SS and into further compromises that change her and her life more and more. She closes her eyes on what happens around her, because what first is a question of comfort becomes a question of survival. She is not really a nazi (or is she?), she is not really a feminist (but she has dreams of her own), she’s trapped yet she’s not innocent, and the question of her guilt and her responsibility is left completely up to the reader. So many times we get to turn the pages backwards to try and see what else she could have done.

What makes it even more gut-wrenching is that Irmina is inspired by the true story of the author, Barbara Yelin’s own grandmother. The story doesn’t stop in  1945 but in the 1980s when Irmina gets to reconnect with her West Indies friend of a lifetime ago.

It’s so fascinating to see middle-aged Germans revisit the lives of their relatives under the Nazi regime and to present a balanced view of their responsibility in letting the Nazis take over and commit their crimes. It’s not a fun book but it is a very timely book when people wonder what it exactly means to stand up for their values.

The One about the Ceylan Cruise Liner

Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (2011)

I know this will sound silly, but I was attracted to this book because I love browsing through the “O” shelf. The shelf is short and very diverse, and at the library I volunteer it’s right next to the lending desk. Therefore, Michael Ondaatje, of The English Patient’s fame.

The Cat’s Table is nothing like the English Patient, but the tone is equally kind and luminous (as far as I can remember, because I read it in pre-blog times). It’s a novel, but the narrator is an adult named Michael who travelled as a child, alone, from (then) Ceylan (now Sri Lanka) to Great Britain in the 1950s aboard one of those big liners who took three weeks to cross the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. And guess what? Michael Ondaatje also did this trip as a boy.

I guess it can be classified as a bildungsroman because Michael experiences the world and grows up during these three weeks. He gets to meet very diverse people and to make his own judgment of them (wrong or right) independently from what the adults would say. We also get a glimpse of the adult Michael has become, what his life has been so far and how his whole life has been influenced, in big and small ways, by this trip. We see the freedom of plays and pranks that Michael and his two friends Cassius and Ramadhin engage into every day, and we see the inscrutable world of the adults, full of allusions and mysteries that the boys do not comprehend yet.

The boat is a capsule world in between colorful Ceylan and grey Britain, a world between his father and his mother (who are divorced), and he doesn’t know what to expect. Time is suspended. He vaguely understands the meaning of exile and that he will encounter difficulties and racism later but at this point of his journey he has no clear comprehension, which makes his later allusions to growing up as an immigrant even more gut-wrenching.

There’s a fine line in the book between breathtaking (albeit mindlessly childish) adventures, dreamlike visions of exploring the boat, nostalgia of his lost childhood and sadness and tragedy. It’s a book to savor slowly (which is a difficult pace for me in this season) and not to rush through. I must say I didn’t understand everything what happened to every passenger, so if you need all the i’s to dot and t’s to cross in stories it might be a problem, but personally I enjoyed the atmosphere nonetheless.

Unfinished Business

Marion Shepherd, Mask of Innocence (2017)

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000)

The DNF pile is by definition a mixed bag. Even if I try hard to find something, anything, there is absolutely nothing to link Mask of Innocence with David Sedaris’ short story collection, except for the fact that I didn’t finish either of these two books.

Actually I stopped trying to read these two books somewhere during the summer, but I kept some illusions to finish the Sedaris collection until recently. Until I was stuck in the middle and a gentle reader suggested I filed bankruptcy on some of my huge pile. I only post about them both together because I didn’t want to single the Mask of Innocence out. (There was an interesting discussion over at Café Society recently about what to do when one does not exactly love a book… I definitely choose to review, as is the case today)

This one was a poor choice on my side, and my excuse for it would be the great cover photo (who wouldn’t be interested to know more about this mysterious, glamorous red-head? confession: I’m a red-head myself). The novel’s subtitle promised “love, lust, loyalty and deception”, and it did deliver some, but I was annoyed by the lack of clear historical setting. We never learn exactly when the book is supposed to take place, and it’s probably just as well, because historical accuracy is neither here nor there. The main character, Francesca Merchant, lives in the big house in the Cotswolds. People ride horses, maids do curtsies a lot, mysterious events in the evening are lit by candles, but characters speak and react as 21st century people, and that grated on my nerves. I read 25% of it and then skimmed through the rest. There were twists and turns galore, but the whole adventure was not for me.

As for the Sedaris, it started great and it somehow petered out after a third of the book. There were days I could relate to the zany, dysfunctional family character Sedaris paints, but I discovered that it takes a particular mood to fit a Sedaris story. When I feel great and snarky and confident, I laugh out loud. When I feel less than great and tender and shaky, I don’t see the humor in it and sometimes it feels mean and/or pathetic. But it’s probably me.

That said, the stories about France are great and many expats will probably relate. I hope I will return to this collection one day when I feel in the right mood.

The One with Fake DVDs in Beijing

Xu Zechen, Running Through Beijing (2008)

I borrowed this book from the library because it had been so long since I read a contemporary Chinese novel. It was the first one I found, and I must say the choice was serendipitous. It was really fresh and true to my memory of living in Beijing in the early 2000s.

The French cover attracted me in the first place, it was one of those ubiquitous old walls covered with mostly handwritten ads, that lure poor people and fresh immigrants into all sorts of scams: job offers for menial, dangerous, illegal jobs, dormitory beds in cellars, rooms to rent by the hour (with or without the service of a prostitute included), fake papers, fake certificates, contraband goods “fallen off the truck”. I have made pictures of these walls myself, because the accumulation of torn, rain-soaked papers with calligraphy and just a few words and a mobile phone number are pretty aesthetic, and whole stories go untold in a few spare words, just like Hemingway devised a tragedy with the famous six words about baby shoes.

The novel is set in a particular neighborhood of Beijing, in Zhongguancun (it’s in the original title  跑步穿过中关村), which wasn’t where I exactly live although I went there sometimes. Zhongguancun is the university district, and the novel’s characters are all in the early 20s. They are mostly lonely, adrift, far from their hometown and they want to make it in the capital and not have to come back penniless home.

As the book starts, the hero Dunhuang sets foot out of prison where he stayed for the previous 3 months for selling counterfeit ID papers. His best mate and mentor in the trade, Baoding, has not yet been released. With just a few bucks in his pockets, Dunhuang drifts through the city and meets a girl who sells pirated DVDs.

You may think it’s hard to root for small-time crooks, but Xu shows their hopes, their struggles and their humanity. He never judges them harshly, even if they don’t always play fair, when they lie and curse. I loved the energy of the characters, especially in the scenes where Dunhuang discovers that he can run across the city to deliver his pirated DVDs to his customers, instead of relying on the clogged roads full of cars and bus or on easy-to-steal bikes. Running through the city is a powerful, unusual image, because nobody does that (highlighting how much of an outsider Dunhuang still is). The city is so polluted that people don’t do intense sports outside except for old people who do slow gymnastics. It’s often too hot or too cold to run, and I suspect that Chinese people don’t like running. Anyway, I have not witnessed anybody running through Beijing.

I read this book in French, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the English translator of this novel is Eric Abrahamsen, whom I briefly met in the early 2000s in the then Beijing writing group. The language of the book is slangy and popular and full of accent (not the least the fake Beijing accent that provincial immigrants take on to appear more local). It is way cheaper than a flight ticket to Beijing and it is so completely real.