The one where a German nun beats me up

Lorette Nobecourt, Clôture des merveilles (2013)

Don’t fear for my health and safety, the beating was entirely metaphorical. But still: where James Ellroy, his language and crowds of characters didn’t defeat me, a 12C German nun’s mystic visions left me searching for the nearest exit. I tell you truthfully, I didn’t go further than a third of the book (in audio version), and much of it with white knuckles.

On paper it could have been a good match. Hildegard von Bingen is a classic, a woman, and I like historical biographies that are on the fringes between fiction and non-fiction. She’s not exactly a household name but she’s been quite hyped up (her music! her sensitivity! a strong female figure in a men’s world! her natural, holistic approach to medical care! one of the few female saints doctors of the Church!), so I was eager to learn more.

But the experience was a total disaster for me. First I didn’t like the voice in the audiobook. The woman insisted on each word as if she was declaiming a tirade on stage and articulated each syllable especially the “H” of Hildegard. I am aware that the writer chose each word with lots of care, reminding me slightly of Marie N’Diaye’s Three Women. But Nobécourt’s writing is a lot of “tell” and very little “show”. We don’t see Hildegard as much as we get to hear a homily about her with lots and lots of poetic analysis.

The words were beautiful, but the sentences made absolutely no sense to me. On the best days I thought it was all my fault. I have to assume that the book written for a Christian reader, and even more specifically a Catholic one. I am none of those, and I don’t have an extensive knowledge of the Catholic theology. On the worst days, it nearly made me laugh, although it’s also my fault. I am by no means a mystic person, what I like most are books that remain with their feet firmly on the ground (although magical realism appeals to me), so that I found it all very pompous and frustrating. Frustrating because I couldn’t see beyond the big words and big concepts and couldn’t reach the real woman in her flesh and blood.

I just have to make peace with the conclusion that this book is not for me. Especially after I heard of another Hild, another Middle-ages woman who became a saint: Hild by Nicola Griffith, whose review at Eve’s Alexandria immediately convinced me to add it to my TBR list!

The one about the universal secrets lurking in small-town Canada

Alice Munro, Dear Life (2012)

In truth, I don’t know what to say. A collection of short story is a hard genre to write about, especially if they are not really thematically organized. Should I focus on one, two, all of them? Alice Munro is one of my favorite writers, and what she writes about is ordinary life, more or less, so it’s even more difficult to make a sweeping assessment beyond “I enjoyed it a lot”.

These stories can be called classic. You might even say that its characters might remind you of other stories by Munro. The ageing woman with dementia. The bored housewife tempted by adultery. The man who missed his chance at love. The girl who gets dumped. They all speak of a provincial, small-town life where people judge their neighbors on being respectable and conventional. Some are set in the immediate after-war, some even earlier in the 20th century. None seem (to me) as contemporary. Some women in Munro’s stories find this stifling and try to break away, but few manage to do it, or to do it without regrets. There’s a sadness in most of these stories, and this sadness is universal. It’s a subdued world, where epiphanies come in slow-motion, where catastrophes send ripples for many years to come.

I enjoyed all of these stories, the fictional ones as well as the four last ones that are more like memoirs, or flashbacks about Munro’s childhood in this small-town Ontario. The only drawback is that I can’t seem to identify them one by one, and to separate them for the previous collections I read. They’re a further addition to the wonderful Munro images and memories I keep in my head and in my heart, and I hope that they will be other still to come.

The one where the trader’s truth is bigger than fiction

Jérôme Kerviel, L’Engrenage, Mémoires d’un trader (French, 2010)

I’m not sure how famous (infamous) the name of Kerviel is overseas. But in France, he has become a generic name. He’s that guy who worked for the Société Générale bank and lost 5 billion euros (7b$) in 2008 at the start of the subprime crisis.

There was a lot of running jokes at the time (well, better laugh than cry, eh?) calling him the 5-Billion-Euro-Man in reference to the 1970s 6-Million-Dollar-Man, or even T-shirt announcing: “I’m Kerviel’s girlfriend”. But of course, it was no joke. The guy was accused by his employer of breach of trust, forgery and unauthorized use of the bank’s computers and arrested.

This book is his defense and memoir, published just before he was found guily and sentenced to 5 years in prison and to reimbursement of the €5b (on appeal, the prison sentence was confirmed but not the reimbursement).

A lot of people felt at the time and even now that his employer could not have been totally ignorant of Kerviel’s acts. In his book, he alleges that not only has he been tacitly authorized, but also encouraged by his managers. He was caught in a frenzy of speculation, totally disconnected from the reality of the amount he played with, and the management was okay with it as long as the bank could make a profit out of it. When the situation turned sour, everybody washed their hands of him and said that they didn’t know.

The book rather confirmed my previous opinion that Kerviel was not the only guilty party in this sad story, but it didn’t manage to convince me that Kerviel was completely innocent. It’s hard to sympathize with Kerviel upon reading his book. I don’t believe he’s a fraud, and he didn’t get rich with his extremely speculative operations. But I don’t buy his “look how normal I am” thing. He speaks a bit about the prejudices that people have against financial traders, as being greedy, workaholic sociopaths who earn millions each year, but the book didn’t manage to paint quite a different portrait.

Société Générale has been found guilty of lack of control by the banking authorities, but it’s rather light compared to Kerviel’s own fate. In French legal system, there is no legally binding wishful blindness. The company has since improved its control systems, but overall has recovered from the financial crisis unscathed, contrary to his one employee who is now in jail.

The best part of the book is to give us an insider look into the practices of these young men at the core of big banks, who are given the keys to international economy and stability, and who play with them carelessly. That alone is already frightening, validating the old movie Wall Street from the 1980s: nothing much seems to have changed since Michael Douglas played Gordon Gekko. Equally frightening are the chapters where Kerviel tells how police investigators and judges were out of their depth with financial techniques and so were fed arguments by SocGen’s legal team, rather than challenging their case.

The one with the shark-bitten victim in the rooftop pool

Heinrich Steinfest, Nervöse fische (German, 2010)

I’ll be brief and to the point: I didn’t like this book and barely skimmed to the end. I do enjoy it when Vargas chooses a quirky main character, writes slightly absurd dialogues or situations.

But there’s a limit before it all becomes ridiculous. And this limit is highly personal (and cultural). Mr. Smithereens doesn’t enjoy Vargas’ quirky Inspector Adamsberg. And I have just discovered I don’t enjoy quirky Inspector Lukastik from Austrian police in Vienna, even though I do love Vienna.

Not everything quirky is endearing, not every oddball police inspector makes a good crime novel hero. It seems to be a literary fashion of sorts, don’t you think? As much as geeks and nerds are now in fashion, inspectors in crime novels need to have some eccentric traits to justify their cleverness in discovering the most complex cases. Boring inspectors, like for example Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s inspector Martin Beck, are now a minority in fiction, whereas I am quite sure they are closer to reality than all the Adamsbergs or Lukastiks in the world. Or am I just making this up for the sake of rants?

Here I had the feeling that the writer piled high all the most bizarre situations, to begin with a shark-eaten victim found in a swimming pool at the top of a building in Vienna, added weird people with improbable backgrounds and limited social skills and threw it all together to dazzle the readers.

Dazzled I was not, but it might be German humor, which I never really get. I felt that the writer had a lot of fun and didn’t take the plot very seriously. There were many grand allusions to Wittgenstein and to music, and I might have learnt tidbits of weird information, but… If someone else reads it, I’d be glad to know what I did miss out!

**

On a completely different topic, after so many years of having a rigorous rule for post titles, I was getting bored with it and decided I’m going to try an homage to Friends. I am very forgetful of names and titles in real life (no offense to anyone, it’s all my fault), and my husband is very good at guessing and remembering (he’s like a human Imdb sometimes, but a lot more fun!). I end up naming a show “the one with the delightful dresses in the huge British manor” (that would be Downton Abbey) or “the one where the cute one plays tricks and guesses the truth” (that would be The Mentalist), and same goes with books and actors and movies I’m afraid. If you find it too confusing I’ll always add the book reference in the first lines of the post as usual. If these new titles make me even more forgetful than usual, I might revert to the basics.

Wolfgang Büscher, Hartland, on foot through America (2011)

End January I was suddenly in the mood for long-distance hiking. Don’t be afraid, my hiking boots are still gathering dust in the basement, and I didn’t suddenly change my mind about exercising. Instead, I went to the movies to see Wild, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, and I picked this book up at the library.

I wasn’t blown away by any of those two. As much as we get to learn in perhaps too much details the reasons behind the hike in Strayed’s book, Büscher’ motivation is quite elusive. Strayed’s voyage is mainly a moral and spiritual one, one of self-discovery, of redemption and healing. Büscher has no such ambition. A German professional travel writer, he is used to long and lonely trips on foot (most notably from Berlin to Moscow) and walks for the sake of discovering new places. Both are courageous and enduring, both are rather candid in their story, both had lonely days and risky adventures and intense encounters.

But both experiences were too intimate to really connect with me. They were walking for themselves, and they left me behind on the road.

Why did I pick this book at the library? The title was intriguing: Heartland, where on earth is that and what does it look like?

As much as I know by cultural impregnation of the East coast (New England and New York actually), the Pacific coast, Texas and Louisiana, I feel that I know next to nothing about the land in between those coasts. Actually, like most Europeans, I can’t really fathom a life spent so far away from any large body of water like ocean or sea. Or from any foreign country. The only thing about this place is the Little house in the Prairie which introduced me to the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Other than those, the one and only thing about Omaha, Nebraska I knew was that Danielle lives there, so it must be real. I’m not even sure I would put it on a map even if my life depended on it.

We follow Büscher along his 3500km trip from the Canadian border into North Dakota to the Mexican border out of Texas, mainly along Road 77 from Missouri to the Rio Grande. There aren’t much in terms of vistas and monuments. But there are a lot of interesting cultural references to Native Americans, and how Germans are fascinated by them since the 19th century. I had heard of Winnetou while in Germany, but I had no idea how deep this story ran.

I used to read a lot of travel writing back in my twenties when I had the opportunity to do some solo travel. My favorite writer is Nicolas Bouvier, a Swiss writer with a wonderful eye and a wonderful style who traveled the world in the 1950s. But now traveling is hardly something special. You have to do something really physically challenging, dangerous, or have other reasons behind your travel (as in Wild, but also Eat Pray Love) to be worthwhile. I wonder if blogs have ruined travel writing as a literary genre.

If you find me too blasé, perhaps it’s time I take a real hike myself?

Laurent Gaudé, Le Soleil des Scorta (The House of Scorta, French 2004)

I have discovered Laurent Gaudé with a mythological story centered on Alexander the great, “Pour Seul Cortège”. I was fascinated by his style, a poetic, rhythmic chant that immediately elevates the story to the level of the tragedy (it’s no coincidence that Gaudé also writes for the theater). In French, we say that this style “has breath”, because you can immediately imagine someone on stage reciting such an epic poem. If it withers away, short of breath, the story soon falls flat.

I wondered how it fared with a more prosaic story, or at last with a story closer to our times. The House of Scorta (English title, whereas the original title centers on the sun) is the saga of a southern Italian family set in the Puglia over five generations from the end of the 19th century. The family is dirt poor, their origin infamous, a ruffian just out of prison mistaking an old maid for the woman he used to love. The main characters are his grandchildren, Carmella and her three brothers. After trying their luck in America, they come back and set up a cigarette smuggling business in their hometown.

Yes, it “had breath”. The story is full of sun, of heat and dust. The style was straightforward and full of images, not a word too many. As with the previous book, we soon feel that Gaudé aims at something larger  than life, something like destiny.

I had some problem with this story, but as the book won the Goncourt prize I tend to think it’s my problem and not really the book’s. I couldn’t really empathize with the Scortas, because all these notions of “blood is thicker than water”, “the family is more important”, “you can’t get far away from your ancestors sacred soil” are totally foreign to me. On my family people move, go to new places, start anew elsewhere, reinvent themselves. The Scortas, in the other hand, stay put. I don’t say it’s unbelievable, or wrong. Gaudé makes a well written saga out of it, and I enjoyed it, but it just doesn’t resonate with me. Sometimes his powerful style won me over, but at times I felt like there were too many Italian clichés.

Nevertheless, I will certainly read other novels by Gaudé.

Steffen Kverneland, Munch (2013)

I confess that when my husband received this massive graphic novel as a Christmas present, I raised an eyebrow and wondered where it would fit on our crowded shelves. But I was all about giving it a chance, as Edvard Munch’s paintings are really intriguing and I am already reading the biography of another painter, Gauguin, trying to understand how these people managed to break away from the conventions of their times to try radically new painting styles.

I was eager to discover, but I can’t say the graphic style of Steffen Kverneland appealed to me at once. You can see it: very angular, and close to caricature. Even now I don’t really like it, but after finishing the book I find it fitting to Munch’s life, even though Edvard Munch’s paintings are anything but angular.

But Munch’s bohemia life had a grotesque, cartoony aspect, especially as he and Strindberg spent nights after nights drinking and partying. Munch’s manifesto was that he never wanted to painted what he saw, but what he had seen (as in, what he remembers feeling at that time, I guess).

The story of this massive book is not completely linear and cut at times by the own rendition of Kverneland himself and his mate Lars Fiske (via photos and cartoons) researching, discussing and visiting landscapes of famous paintings and other places important to Munch, trying to see what he’d seen, preferably with a little help from a strong liquor. These funny interruptions made the atmosphere lighter, less dark and deep. It was rather welcome, as Munch is not really a fun, extrovert type.

Nevertheless, I came out with a more complex, I dare even say muddled, image of Munch than the simplistic one I had before. My reference was a movie I’d watched a few years ago on DVD, a 1974 movie by Peter Watkins which centered on his childhood and coming-of-age years. It felt as if Munch was mysterious, morbid, haunted by vision and hallucinations, surrounded by death and smothered by the moral taboos of his time. Yet now I have a more down-to-earth vision of his entire life (after all, he had a long life: 1863-1944), he experimented with different painting styles and he decidedly knew how to promote and sell his art. His family had indeed known some deaths, but no more than the normal of these times. It was actually the fashion of the turn-of-the-century (and Munch following the trend) to insist so much on morbidity, darkness and decadence.

There’s a fascinating article in English by Kverneland on Eurozine, explaining his whole project.

Reading Notes: James Ellroy’s Perfidia (2013)

I remember vaguely discovering Ellroy in my late teens, with the Black Dahlia. It was a shock. Never before had I read something so dark and orchestral. The short sentences, the ellipses, the choir of characters, all navigating between violence, ambition, vices and some principles.

It was in French that I read the Black Dahlia, then the rest of the L.A. Quarter. Later on I tried another of his earlier novels, the one with the serial killer’s point of view (Killer on the Road) and it was all too much for me. I couldn’t stomach this point of view. I don’t think I even finished the book. I needed the distance of the historical setting. 1950s L.A. is like a movie background, I couldn’t (and mostly still can’t ) take it realistically.

Then a few years later, I tried American Tabloid, this time in English. It was another shock. Ellroy’s original voice was totally different from what I had imagined in French. All these words I didn’t understand. Slang? 1950s words? Invention? Cop lingo? L.A.? There were so many sentences (3 words long, but still) where I had no idea what was going on. I soon threw in the towel.

This January, I saw that my workplace library had bought Perfidia in English edition. I decided to give it a try. I decided not to be daunted by the words I didn’t understand. But I still feel out of my depth. The only comfort is that I remember some of the recurring characters from the first L.A. Quarter (but only vaguely, not in details). But it’s reasonable that reading Ellroy shouldn’t be a comforting experience.

I am barely 100 pages into this massive 700 pages thing. I am not yet sure I’ll finish it, but so far his vision of L.A. just the day before Pearl Harbor and on the days immediately following the event is haunting.

You might find me naive, but never before had I heard talking about F.D. Roosevelt in such bad terms. Now, his image is that of a brilliant war hero (at least in Europe) and in high school we’re all studying the New Deal as the most brilliant strategy to fight the Depression. But Ellroy shows me a different picture.

Likewise, my summer reading experience with The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka showed me the Japanese community in California under a globally positive light (the traditional story of the hard-working immigrants who eventually make it in America, only to be cruelly and unfairly treated during the war). With Ellroy, I’m pretty sure that the picture will be much darker.

I’m bracing for the next 600 pages. Have you read it? What say you?

Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: everyday life in Dickens’ London (2012)

Judith Flanders has been a favorite historian of mine for quite a while, as it was before I set up my blog that I read her Circle of Sisters, about 4 sisters in the Victorian era who had strong connections with the painting and artistic communities of pre-Raphaelites and Edward Burne-Jones, and one of them was Rudyard Kipling’s mother.

Moving away from biographies she seemed to have chosen to present Victorian life in its minutest details. Her huge Victorian house volume was a hoot if you enjoy all kinds of trivia on domestic life, or if you’re just curious, after reading Victorian novels who are often lofty on sentiments, to know how they were in real life.

It was just a matter of time before I continued with her depiction of Victorian life, this time focused on the city and streets of London. Let me tell you, it was a Magnus opus. So many pages full of details, references, images, notes, and names! I regretted not to know London any better and I would have loved her to do the same about Paris, which would have resonated with me a lot more. Nevertheless it was fascinating by all accounts. It’s like perusing an encyclopedia, except that Judith Flanders is so methodical that she walks you from dawn till night telling you exactly how it felt, smelt, sounded, looked like.

From what the streets were covered with, to how the sewers came to exist (a lot of people fighting against their creation, despite increasingly disgusting evidence that things had to be… well… taken care of if you wanted to avoid cholera epidemics), from what you could have to eat at any hour of the day or night to whether women were really prostitutes or were just walking among men in a disreputable street. I learnt quite a lot, but I’m not sure I’m going to use all this knowledge anytime soon. So let me share it with you, if I have managed to arouse your curiosity:

Did you know for example, that before people had watches and clocks in their home, they paid a guy to come and knock on their window at the time they were expected to wake up, so as to be on time at work?

Did you know that the streets were so noisy with horses hoofs, people’s shouts etc. that people had to turn to side streets if they wanted to talk? (especially as some road surfaces were made of wood!)

Did you know that it was possible to rent the previous day’s newspaper by the hour?

Did you know that working class families had no place to cook meals in their homes (rooms, rather), no stove or oven or open fire, so that cookshops were set up, a sort of communal oven where the meat and veggies were brought by the women and baked in their own dishes? and the women complained that the cookshops owners were always shaving off meat out of the baked dishes?

The basis of her investigation is Dickens’ life and novels, but you don’t need to have read every Dickensian novel to start on this journey. But you very well might decide to read some of his novels after finishing this book.

Michael Connelly, The Gods of Guilt (2013)

I can’t seem to be able to curb my Mickey Haller addiction. When the last one finished, the cliffhanger was so huge I could hardly wait. How do people manage it when they’re reading books fresh from publication? Luckily, I usually don’t.

I immediately went online to see if there was another one in the series. Reassured, I could wait a bit, but not too long. I could not resist the library copy, especially as it was in English. I had to know if Mickey Haller, the defense attorney whose office is a Lincoln backseat, had turned his coat as he’d announced: he was going to run for District attorney.

I’m not sure how possible or even believable it is in the American justice system, but that wouldn’t be possible at all in the French system (and I’m not even talking about the backseat office thing, what French person would trust a guy without a proper office?), because prosecutors are appointed by the Justice Ministry, not elected. They’re civil servants with jobs for life. Now, my knowledge of the American justice system is sketchy, based on novels and series (Law and Orders anyone?), which might not be the best for facts, I grant you.

But Haller a D.A.? I just couldn’t picture it (I do realize that I speak way more about the previous book than this one at hand, but that’s ok): having his hero flip sides so completely is to me the equivalent of professional suicide for a writer specialized in courtroom drama, isn’t it?

Anyway, my distress was short-lived as Connelly regained his composure and made Haller lose his campaign. Haller was back in the backseat of his car, where it suited me. Full of contradictions and racked with guilt, compounded by the fact that his ex-wife and his daughter refused to talk to him anymore.

He had helped a prostitute years back, trusting her when she’d said she wanted to leave town and start anew in Hawaii. But when Haller learns that she’s dead, it seems that he didn’t know her at all. She’s been playing the Pretty Woman in a L.A. classy hotel. He’s called to defend her alleged killer, her digital pimp, who tells him she’d recommended him. The plot is so convoluted that I won’t even try, but rest assured that you’ve got twists and turns and hair-raising scenes. Connelly is such a writing powerhouse.

I enjoyed the book a lot, the investigation part as well as the courtroom part. I’m not too sure how much of it is plausible, but at that stage I don’t really care. The guilt-ridden gumshoe is a cliché, but the guilt-ridden attorney pulls it off. He doesn’t shy away from manipulations and even theater tricks to win a lawsuit, but the one thing he’s not is crooked. He has a moral compass that inevitably puts him in dangerous situations, defending people he only regards as innocent, against all odds. He’s a bit like a modern-day knight in shining armor, except the damsel in distress would be a prostitute or a digital pimp!