Things to enjoy, Things to let go

The Best Places to See Cherry Blossoms in Paris from paradisefoundaround.com

Spring is in Paris at last! I hope it has reached you too. There’s a subtle change of mood in the air, and people are at last dropping their black feather jackets in favor of more colorful clothes. All this makes me eager to try new stuff, shiny new books and also to make a little spring cleaning of books that don’t inspire me much.

Did I mention how much I love podcasts? Oh, probably just a million times already, but you won’t escape another repetition as I absolutely need to mention Anne Bogel’s podcast “What should I read next”. I’m completely hooked, and would love to have my own literary matchmaking. Even if I don’t share her literary taste, her conversations include a variety of people with diverse literary taste, which is very dangerous as I keep adding to my wishlist after each episode. I need to add a disclaimer: listen only to your own risk.

Another recent post I most enjoyed is Marina Sofia’s post on book reviews and book ratings: Honesty, Likability and Book Reviews. You should check her very honest view and read the lively discussion in the comments! I added my two cents, but as I typed away I realized that I hadn’t thought it through, nor am I really consistent between the feeling conveyed through my blog posts (I often am more critical than I’d like to sound) and the number of stars that I liberally stick on a site like Goodreads. In Goodreads and Netgalley, my policy is to give 4 stars whenever I had a good time with a book. I don’t want to be stingy, and 3 stars seem too “average” to me. After reading this post I thought that ratings seems so much like school, and different education systems have a different view on what is a good grade or not. In France, a perfect copy at school is worth 20/20, but it’s very rarely given, many teachers prefer to give a 19/20 and don’t have a culture of encouragement and praise. Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t give many 5 stars ratings.

Inspired by spring cleaning resolutions and fortified by this call to honesty in book reviews, I realized this morning that the latest Netgalley book I tried wasn’t doing anything much for me: Sarah Painter’s In The Light of What We See. I was just not into it. It might just be me, but I’m not going to force myself to finish it with the hope that I’d warm up to it later on, because my frustration might play against the book (that happened before!). It’s a realist story with some hints of supernatural in it, which should be alright with me, except this time it just rubbed me the wrong way. Alternate chapters are my pet peeve when not really necessary in the plot, and I had no patience to see the link between the two young women I was presented with. I didn’t care enough for them, and I felt that I had some idea where all that was going. But it might just a question of poor timing, it seems like the kind of light book I could pick up again during summer holidays.

The one that starts in Dickens and ends in the bush

If you haven’t read anything by Kate Summerscale, you’re in for a surprise. I bet that you will be mesmerized by the amount of research that she packs into each of her sentences. And she manages to make her text highly readable and entertaining! If she says that the room was dark at 5pm the day the jury came back with the verdict, I challenge you to find a contrary proof: the room wasn’t dark at 4.59pm yet. But she will go on to explain that there was actually a pea-soup fog that day due to soot particles and what kind of lamp was in the Old Bailey. That’s trademark Summerscale, and it might at first feel a bit overwhelming, but if you’re anything like me it’s also fun to learn so much on a variety of nitty-gritty subjects.

But if you have read Kate Summerscale before (I read the Suspicions of Mr. Whicher and Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace and enjoyed the former a lot more), this book still comes as a surprise. I got this one through Netgalley and thought that she was staying in the vein of her two previous books: describe a true crime in Victorian England and paint in minute details the context, mentality and society of this particular event.

This time, the crime is particularly horrible: in the summer of  1895, a 13-year-old boy, Robert Coombes is found guilty of stabbing his mother to death. The public was particularly shocked to learn that the boy, together with his 12-year-old brother Nattie, spent 10 days enjoying themselves and spending money while their mother’s body lay upstairs, decaying in the heat. The big brother expressed no regret for the act, nor did he show any feelings and explain the cause of his action. People were accusing him of being a monster of depravity, a sign that modern Western civilization was decaying, especially since lower class children received mandatory primary education. These children were using their reading skills to read penny dreadfuls, cheap magazines full of horror stories and unbelievable crimes. Excitable, nervous dispositions like Coombes’ were pushed into crime. The late Victorian mentality as explained by Summerscale is fascinating in its hysteria and panic fear of death and degeneration. Luckily, because of his young age, Coombes was not condemned to be hanged but was found insane and sent to an asylum.

But the surprise lies elsewhere: when the guilty verdict comes, the book is only halfway through. What was Summerscale going to fill the rest of the pages with? I wondered.

[If you intend to read it, it might be better to stop reading now. I won’t give spoilers exactly, but…]

Also, what were the odds, that within a month’s time, I’d read two different books about late Victorian British asylums and the rather benevolent policy that managed mentally-ill people there? I didn’t even seek them out, they both fell into my lap. It was mere serendipity. Coombes was not detained in the same asylum as the one that inspired The Ballroom to Anna Hope, but a rather similar one, Broadmoor, in Berkshire. There he remained for a number of years, going from a sociopathic boy to a depressed teenager and to finally a responsible adult.

This part of Summerscale’s book is to me the most interesting. How a boy who had committed something awful and was thrashed by the press and public opinion as doomed to an early death was able to reinvent himself and lead a full, honorable life. I won’t go into details, but Coombes was 32 when the first World War started, to which he took an active part, and he emigrated to Australia, where he died in 1949. I’ll leave you at that, so that you too can wonder at the strange ways of a long, eventful life.

The one deep into Cambodia ghosts

Patrick Deville, Kampuchéa (French, 2011)

I feel myself a bit stuck in my creative writing right now, but luckily (ahem), there are quite a few books that I’ve finished and never got a chance to talk about here…

When I read my first Patrick Deville book two summers ago, a semi nonfiction about the man who had discovered the pest bacillus, I knew I wanted to read others. Still, Kampuchéa remained on my nightstand for nearly six months and it’s rarely a good sign.

But in that case, it just reflects the leisurely pace of Patrick Deville. The book feels like a travelogue,  but Deville isn’t the kind of traveler to visit a country in three days and he doesn’t let you hurry too much.

This book is an exploration of a country’s history, and the country that fascinated Deville also fascinated me, so I appreciated all the more his attempt to write about it and the difficulties of his project. Cambodia has a complex, tumultuous, multifaceted history, especially as the last centuries are intertwined with Western history and its ideologies.

Cambodia is stuck between Thailand and Vietnam, but always had its own separate identity. At its heyday, during the 12th century, the Cambodian kings built the famous temple structure of Angkor Wat , but the kingdom fell into decadence and now it’s a maze of sublime palaces lost in the jungle. Add to this geographic and ethnic uniqueness the arrival of colonial powers seeking to extend their area of influence. Cambodia was a hot prize to be taken by either the French or the British colonial empires, and the former prevailed (barely). Deville centers his book on Henri Mouhot, a French scientific explorer who discovered Angkor Wat almost by chance in 1860 and unwittingly changed the course of Cambodia’s history by putting it on the conquest trajectories of Western colonial empires.

During and after the French debacle in Indochina, Cambodia was pummeled by bombs as collateral damage of the Vietnam War. But when the communists took over Saigon, the Khmers Rouges installed a terror regime in Cambodia that makes Vietnamese regime look like Disneyland. They destroyed their very own country by indoctrinated blindness and millions of people succumbed until the Vietnamese kicked them out (not too far, just into the jungle) to conquer the land. Wikipedia says that Khmers Rouges are “responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians (Khmer), nearly a quarter of the country’s then population”

Wow, here I am, trying to cram 2000 years of history into a blog post, while I ought to talk about the book itself. Which is not that easy.

Deville is trying to make sense of this history by being there and looking for all the layers of history, contradictory and half forgotten. Cambodian population is young and doesn’t know much of its past. It’s part a  travelogue, part an investigation, part fictional re-enactment of key history moments and figures. One question throughout the book is how the rise of Khmer rouges was possible at all. Somewhere down the line, the true question is if French colonial culture was somehow responsible for breeding monsters whose crazy ideal was to create an egalitarian utopia on earth at all costs.

But that question is very difficult to answer because Khmer rouges have left precious little information about themselves. They didn’t leave many (incriminating) documents and didn’t trust the written word altogether. During this crazy regime, people who knew how to read and write were already pointed out as a dangerous intellectual who wasn’t meant to live.

I visited Cambodia too and these questions haunted me too. It’s hard to look at this country and not to ask them. I feel lucky that I was familiar with the subject already when I opened the book, and I understand that readers with no prior knowledge may feel lost at sea, because Deville’s style is to mix past and present, images from the historical documents with scenes he witnessed on the road. Still, it’s worth sticking it out even if you don’t plan a trip to Cambodia anytime soon. Another recent and fictional take on Cambodia (with allusion to the recent past and the corruption and trauma that the country still endures) was Nick Seeley’s Cambodia Noir, which I enjoyed a lot too.

The one with the crazy lemon cake’s family

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010)

Oh my, how I wanted to love that one. From the back cover, it seemed exactly like my kind of book. A girl who suddenly has the ability to taste the emotions of whoever cooked the meal she is eating. Who can read sadness in a lemon cake, anger in a cookie, or nothing at all in a bag of industrial snacks. Given that the heroine is very young (9) when she discovers her “gift” and that the family secrets she gets access to “thanks to” her ability are rather depressing and heavy, no wonder that she eats as little home-made food as possible.

It’s quirky, and a special blend between realism and surrealism that is often labelled “magical realism” -but not the Garcia Marquez kind. I liked Rose Edelstein because she is a very normal teenager despite her gift, and she doesn’t make anything special with it. Most of the time she wishes she could live without this gift. She also thinks her parents are losers, which is a totally normal view for a teenager, and she grows up to discover that they are slightly more complex than what she credited them for. I loved that part.

Where Aimee Bender lost me was with the brother. Up to that point I could have loved this book, but at that precise moment I wanted to throw it away and stop my reading. Rose’s brother also has some gift, but it doesn’t really show before half or two-third of the book. At first, we assume he might be autistic or Asperger’s or just a selfish nerd. Then I assumed he was mentally ill, or that his instability just grew worse. I was quite unprepared to the “revelation” and it was all so bizarre that I didn’t know how to handle it. I would rather have Bender go overboard and give him something really huge, like to be able to fly or something. But that? Meh. To me it looked like it was weird for the sake of being weird, without adding anything to the plot. On the contrary, it was even detrimental to the plot, because at that point it slipped into absurd and I stopped caring for any of them.

I guess I could have done with Rose being an only child and Bender delving deeper into Rose’s parents evolution, instead of just alluding to it. Still, I thought that the book had a lot of potential and I’m not against trying another book by her!

The one with too many Muggles

J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy (2012)

Back in February Mr. S. got me the audiobook of The Casual Vacancy from the library and it took me a while to fully enter the atmosphere of the book: it wasn’t before I reached the third of the 500 pages, that was cut in no less than 110 audio chapters, that I started being hooked in: I was in for the long run!

I wasn’t expecting anything like Harry Potter. I knew by reputation that Rowling has now the ambition to write for grown-ups, but I can also see why the die-hard fans of Harry Potter were unsettled and disappointed: nothing could be further away from Hogwarts than the small English town of Pagford, with its typical picturesque setting, its petty intrigues, and the feeling that you can’t escape anywhere. Here, no world to save, no extraordinary creatures, no bigger-than-life saga. And yet, when I come to think of it, I can see something of Harry Potter’s world in this book: its mean and selfish Muggle relatives, Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and the meanest boy Dudley.

How do you deal with books that are fascinating but incredibly bleak? I was in a sort of funk in the last few days, and I realized that I’d probably overindulged in The Casual Vacancy.

This book is a world in itself, a small town packed with people and rumors and back stories and tiny plots, but these people… argh, they are all so terribly depressing! If they’re not petty and violent and jealous and arrogant, it might be that they are stupid, or weak, or blind. Their children, their spouse, their neighbors and siblings… They are all on edge with secrets, scandals and rancor that threaten to spill over any instant. Sometimes the characterization verges on grotesque, but most of the times, they feel very human, with flaws and moments of redeeming aspirations.

Even if you can’t relate to any of them (I’m a city girl at heart and have never lived in a small town), you can’t escape being sucked in, because they are all living under your gaze and you’re like a semi god watching the anthill and seeing the path of one insect inescapably cross the path of another one. Rowling is so clever at creating a collective life made of tiny little seemingly random acts, a tragedy in the making. I just found the ending a bit too melodramatic, but I still enjoyed the experience: it was as if I was living in Pagford for a few months. I won’t definitely be moving in for good, knowing what I know now, but how Paris’ anonymous crowds seem alluring and comforting by comparison!

The one with stationery put to good use

Lisa Beazley, Keep Me Posted (2016)

I normally don’t so this but I feel like talking about this book midway through the novel, not even waiting for the end. To be honest, my expectations were low. I thought it was chick-lit with one-dimensional characters and a rather predictable plot. Two sisters, one a housewife in New York with her two toddlers, the other an expat wife in Singapore, decide to write each other letters in the age of Internet, Facebook and Twitter.

It could have been clichéd all around, but instead I found myself rooting for both sisters equally! Back from my years in China I still remember the expat wives who throw themselves into projects to fill their perfect days in the golden cage. I can bet that the author has some first-hand experience because it rings true! And from living in Paris I also know something of the nagging doubts about raising kids in a small apartment in the big city while others move out to the suburbs. The exhaustion of having young kids and trying to have a great marriage at the same time, while transitioning from two salaries to only one (a choice I didn’t make but that friends did) could have been the pretext to a lot of whining but she pulls it off nicely.

Of course, as a stationery lover I can fantasize about women of my age who are really making use of these cute correspondence sets instead of letting them gather dust in a drawer (ahem). Several years ago we tried a slow mail experiment with another blogger but it was way too hard, too slow and it petered out, because we didn’t know each other that much beyond what a blog can reveal. I had this blank page in front of me and I didn’t know what to fill it with. It felt like a monologue rather than a dialogue.

But of course I love the romantic idea of exchanging letters! Before I got married there were a few months where my future husband and I were separated and we exchanged real paper letters, as a supplement to e-mails (there was no Skype at the time, which will tell you a little about old that all is😉 !) Still I was quite impatient to get those envelopes and I still have them tucked away somewhere with a bow (yes, people may doubt it but sometimes I’m a romantic at heart)

I won’t tell you about the twists and turns of the plot itself, but if you look for an entertaining and quick read and if you have a thing for old-fashioned paper and pen, look no further.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the ARC!

The one with the old-fashioned nightingale

Ruth Rendell, No Man’s Nightingale (2013)

I’m sorry this blog has been a bit quiet lately, because I have finished several books already, have many drafts lying around in my virtual drawers and no energy to finish any of them! Things have been hectic on the home front and I just look forward to the long weekend.

I’m a Ruth Rendell gal rather than a Barbara Vine gal. Which means that I feel a bit lost when she’s in psychological thrillers that span a long period and often finish in an open-ended way. I prefer more straightforward, solid plots with some police procedures and a nice, clean resolution with preferably a guilty person behind bars (a bow nicely tied for each story line is not mandatory but much appreciated). Which means that I enjoyed Inspector Wexford every time we met while he was still in activity.

As he retired, things got trickier. He had no longer the legitimacy to investigate (even he still had the inclination, and surely a lot of time on his hand), and that he no longer could make sure that the guilty one was dealt with by the police. This time, it’s the small town’s vicar who got murdered. But we’re not in the Agatha Christie’s world, and the vicar is a woman, and not only that, she’s a single mother of Indian descent. Wexford’s wife being a regular church-goer, his former deputy Burden who is now a superintendent involves him into the investigation.

As a very bizarre wink, I found that I could not associate the nightingale reference in the title to anything else but the P.D. James’ novel “A shroud for a nightingale”, my probably favorite Inspector Dalgliesh mystery!

My understanding is that Ruth Rendell wanted to show how investigations are fraught with coincidences, mistakes, assumptions and errors. This made me think of the MOOC course I followed offered by the University of Queensland: The Science of Everyday Thinking, on how humans think and what usually clouds our rational minds. Wexford and Burden, with a long career behind them, still have preconceptions and prejudices that put them on the wrong track. And sometimes, the bits of discussions you have with the cleaning lady, which are normally so annoying and superficial, are really turning points into deep drama.

That said, it’s certainly not the best Wexford investigation and I would never recommend to start with this one. I think the plot itself would have been neater, tighter and with a lot more edge if the investigation had been led by some other policeman, or maybe the victim’s daughter.

 

 

The one in the insane heat wave of 1911

Anna Hope, The Ballroom (2016)

(Okay, this is not even a good pun, but I couldn’t help myself – it’s been a long week)

The fact is that the book is set in an asylum close to the Yorkshire moors at the beginning of the century. And that 1911 had more than 2 months where British temperatures didn’t go below 30 degrees Celsius without a drop of rain. Knowing how grumpy I get when there’s an official heat wave in Paris, no wonder that people were having quite a short fuse and rather erratic behaviors.

It took me a while to figure out where I first heard about this book: from Victoria from Eve’s Alexandria. She pointed out to this book that was presented on Netgalley, saying that it was one of the best she’d read in the year so far, and although I was already reading 4-5 books in parallel (depending of the mood and the time of day), I didn’t hesitate to take one more. Some do binge-watching on Netflix, I do binge-download on Netgalley, and then I feel terribly guilty not to review them timely.

What appealed to me was that the unique setting and the fact that Victoria conveyed the impression that the book was both finely crafted and not too depressing (I’m paraphrasing here). Needless to say, Victoria was right! I was totally won over by the book.

It’s centered on three people who are stuck in this weird place from Spring to Autumn 1911. The post-face states that although the particular place is fictional, Hope drew her inspiration from a real place that was called the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum and that had a grand ballroom to entertain the people locked in there. At the end of the Victorian era the middle class was looking at the working class with both fear and horror: people who were destitute were deficient and potentially dangerous. Revolt of any kind, or refusal to conform to social norms were quick to be assimilated to hysteria (for women) or mental illness.

The story is quite emotional and bleak at times, but still doesn’t bask in the gloom and misery. Every character has a personal background that lets you understand even their failures or bad actions. The plot is built on alternate points of view, and things move along at a quiet pace but there’s enough tension to sustain interest despite changing from one person to the next. The different approaches to mental illness and the individual trajectory of the self-righteous, repressed young doctor made me want to read again about Freud and Charcot. The sexist accusation of hysteria thrown against educated women was also at the center of the novel I recently read on the fire at Bazar de la Charité, but where Nohant’s novel was too black-and-white, The Ballroom achieves depth and complexity. The social commentary on women working in textile factories reminded me of North and South, and I really appreciated the balance between historical research and romance.

The one where you can’t trust your best friend

David Young, Stasi Child (2015)

As soon as Marina Sofia mentioned Stasi Child, I knew I wanted to read it. She also has a wonderful post about mysteries set in dysfunctional societies, and the German Democratic Republic was one of those.

I do remember the DDR, from which you’ll probably guess my age if you’re curious. I went there as a child (toddler?) with my parents, in East Berlin, but I have just a vague memory of the zoo and of a tiny red swimsuit with a strategically-placed apple. I remember that we were supposed to study the DDR as a model of success for the Eastern block in middle school in 1988-1989, but somehow it dropped out of the curriculum as soon as it entered the television news on a daily basis. I remember watching the Berlin wall being pushed open on television. We knew things were gray and sad on the other side, but we didn’t realize what it meant to live in a closed country under the surveillance of anyone and everyone.

This mystery rebuilds the atmosphere of ordinary life behind the wall, or should I say, the anti fascist protection barrier. The Oberleutnant Karin Müller is called to investigate the death of a teenaged girl who seems to have defected… from the West. But even as she takes the case, she is warned that it is especially sensitive and that her every move will be under scrutiny from the political police, the in-famous Stasi. If it wasn’t enough, Karin has some issues at home as well, as her marriage is put at risk by her own behavior at work (working long hours and flirting with a colleague) and the political “doubts” of her husband. It gets worse and worse when the murder case makes her question the morality of the top leaders of the country, at the exact same time as her husband gets “disappeared” by the secret political police.

The novel had quite a heavy atmosphere and really gave me goosebumps. The air was stuffy and claustrophobic in there and there was nowhere to escape. I liked that Karin clung to her beliefs, the propaganda that had been instilled in her brain, that the West was bad and corrupt, and that the communist system was best even if more frugal. Even when she had a chance to take a peek at West-Berlin for her investigation, defecting doesn’t really cross her mind. There were tidbits of real shocking information that were woven into the plot (like IKEA furniture being made by political prisoners) and it was well worth reading. The ending was suitably nerve-wracking and twisted, complete with a nice cliffhanger, so I am quite eager to follow Karin Müller wherever her investigations will take her next.

The one with the Cornish turmoil

b7i6geqcyaen2icLaura Powell, The Unforgotten (2016)

I quite enjoyed The Unforgotten, a debut psychological mystery by Laura Powell (I just made up this genre label), even if it wasn’t perfect.

One part of the story is set in 1956 in a little Cornwall village. Betty is 15 and helps her unstable mother who runs the day-to-day at the local hotel. She’s far too busy to have the usual concerns of a teen girl; her mother’s violent mood swings and often inappropriate behavior are just one of her concerns, now a string of murders of young women has turned the village on its head and a group of journalists have filled the hotel up. Villagers turn suspicious of one another and it’s not a good time for a girl to be on her own. But Betty is fifteen, and she falls in love… not with the one everyone expects her to. She’s pulled between her loyalty and love for her mother and her desire to grow up and run away. She’s attracted to one of the out-of-towner, the darkest, quietest and most mysterious of the journalists.

Another part of the story is set fifty years later, when Mary, an ageing, quiet woman, married with adult children and a recent diagnostic of cancer stumbles upon a newspaper that speaks of the “Cornish cleaver”, the man who has been convicted of the murders back then and who claims his innocence. Mary is upset and wonders if she has done “the right thing”.

Just as the rather bland title, the cover design is nice and stylish but doesn’t really prepare you for the darkness and the long-term guilt that shapes the characters’ entire lives. It’s sometimes a difficult read, especially when it comes to Betty’s mother’s mental illness and how destructive it is on her daughter’s growing up.

There was a dual time line (one of my pet peeves) and it was very clear from the beginning that Betty and Mary were the same person (no real spoiler here) and it was a bit confused at times. I didn’t quite warm up on Betty and on Mary as much as I’d thought, but the plot is really compelling and the twists and revelations at the end quite satisfying. Powell is interested in the long-term consequences of the murders and of the choices characters made early on in the story. As a debut novel, it’s quite a success and forebodes well for the future!

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the review copy!