The one with the blind wizard

Ursula Le Guin, Gifts (2004)

I wanted to try young adult fantasy for a while, so I thought Ursula Le Guin was a good reference point. The truth: that’s the only name that came to mind as I walked through the young adult shelves at the library. Neil Gaiman was another, but there wasn’t any translated title available.

As a newbie in that area I noticed that young adult fantasy literature is often series of 3 books with cryptic but related titles, and heavily air-brushed cover art. Is it a convention of the genre? Ironically enough, as I am more familiar with Victorian literature than 21st century YA, I wondered if it wasn’t a strange resurgence of the Triple Decker, or just an unconscious nod to the mammoth trilogy of the Lord of the Ring.

Anyway. Gifts is the first tome of the Annals of the Western Shore, a land that resembles Middle-ages.

The book is told by Orrec, a young blind man who lives in the remotest regions of this land, a place that feels like Scotland. Clan owners there have gifts, magical powers, like being able to call animals, or make people sick, or destroy, for which they are respected and feared. But at the time the story starts, their heyday is already in the past. They retain a certain power, but their estates have faded, their wealth is over, people from the city no longer fear them as much because they don’t really believe in their gifts anymore.

The narrator is the heir of one such estate and should be proud to have a strong gift of “unmaking”, so strong in fact that he has to go around blindfolded for fear to destroy stuff (and people) unwittingly. We get to learn about Orrec’s family and childhood and how he copes with his gift. It’s a classic coming-of-age story.

It was hard for me to really connect with Orrec. I wasn’t really disturbed by the fantasy part, the imaginary land and the magical powers. In fact, I kind of liked it. But Orrec’s story was quite low-key and slow-paced. I could guess most of the story beforehand. Orrec’s girlfriend Gry was a far more interesting character in my opinion, but she didn’t get as much space in the book.

My first dip into this new-to-me genre was not a failure, but not enough for me to embark in the complete trilogy. But I’ll certainly try another Ursula Le Guin one day.

Any other YA fantasy recommendation?

The one where dandruff is poetry too

Judith Viorst, It’s Hard to Be Hip over Thirty (1968)

I found this unfinished post among my drafts, as I read this collection late last year. No wonder I kept it aside, as it’s always very difficult for me to find anything to write about poetry.

I have been taught to take poetry with deference, to keep it at arm’s length and to over-analyze every word for an obscure and deep meaning. Witty poems is something I discovered very recently indeed, thanks to blogs, one day when someone (may s/he be thanked again!) pointed me toward Taylor Mali’s Typography.

Wow, a poem can actually makes you laugh out loud! (I haven’t found French comic poets yet, but I’m not trying too hard to be honest)

I discovered Judith Viorst with her witty poem collection about being in your forties, and I loved it so much that I had to get the earlier decade as well! (well, now you have a rough idea of how old I am… so much for anonymity). I felt particularly lucky that Persephone has republished this short volume, and this is a very chic addition to my little grey collection (and don’t let me start about the matching bookmarks).

In this collection, she deals with the adjustments that come after getting married, from the single, dating young professional to the classic role of a stay-at-hom wife and mother in the suburbs. Some of her references have become dated but she managed to make me laugh out loud several times, especially on divorce, which isn’t the funniest subject per se.

I can’t say I recognized myself in every poem, which often portray the American clichéd perfect desperate housewife. Some of the poems are tinged with lost ideals (those lofty ideas of a 1960s feminist clashing against ordinary life) and a bit of cynicism, but to me they mostly ring true! Getting older is something universal, making compromises in marriage is unavoidable. What I loved is that none of these poems pretend to be chefs d’oeuvre, yet they manage to be both witty and hard to forget.

Here is one excerpt about motherhood:

Last year I had a shampoo and set every week, and
Slept an unbroken sleep beneath the Venetian chandelier of
our discerningly eclectic bedroom, but
This year we have a nice baby,
And Gerber’s strained bananas in my hair,
And gleaming beneath the Venetian chandelier,
A diaper pail, a portacrib, and him,
A nice baby, drooling on our antique satin spread
While I smile and say how nice. It is often said
That motherhood is very maturing.

And another, my favorite:

…It’s true love because
When he went to San Francisco on business while I had to stay home with the painters and the exterminator and the baby who was getting the chicken pox,
He understood why I hated him,
And because
When I said that playing the stock market was juvenile and irresponsible and then the stock I wouldn’t let him buy went up twenty-six points,
I understood why he hated me,
And because
Despite cigarette cough, tooth decay, acid indigestion, dandruff, and other features of married life that tend to dampen the fires of passion,
We still feel something
We can call
True love.

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?

Reading Aloud with My Oldest: The Day I Started Being Read To

Back when I had to read every single day the same board-book, there were times when I wondered when it would stop.

When I started the new series about Read aloud books, I wasn’t even aware how soon the day would come when my oldest would read independently.

But he’s firmly 6.5 now, and he’s reading! Alone! (Every scrap of paper and cereal box!!)

Then one evening came when I felt a bit tired or overwhelmed and when my son said: “My turn! Tonight I am reading to you!”. Let me tell you, it was awesome.

I feared it would be twaddle, but I even enjoyed the book, picked by my son from the class bookshelf: The Monster Series by Ellen Blance and Ann Cook. Published in the 1970s, it is as old as I am and I love the illustrations by Quentin Blake! They’re deliciously quaint and easily recognizable.

The sentences are very short and straightforward, but there is a real plot and a real voice. It’s amazing how little is necessary to build a story. It took my son 10-15 minutes to read the whole book word by word, and he even took the time to ponder on the watercolour images.

It took me a while to track down this book, because there’s precious little on the internet about Ellen Blance (yes, there are still people who are mostly unknown on the web, isn’t it reassuring somehow?) and Monster in France is known as Dinomir (which sounds a bit Russian or Slavic, together with a hint of dinosaur) and my son’s school edition has no name on the cover (isn’t that mandatory?)

I didn’t grew up learning to read with Monster/Dinomir, but I’m happy that my son did.

Do you remember what book you first read cover to cover?

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!

Interrupted: Carol Goodman, The Lake of Dead Languages (2002)

I’m sure that ten years ago, I would have been right in the target readership of this book: the setting in a secluded all-girl boarding school in Upstate New York, with Gothic tones and plenty of ominous foreboding. It is Gothic chick-lit, centered on the Latin teacher, a divorced mother of a preschooler, who returns to teach at her alma mater. She had left school under dark circumstances, after two of her roommates had committed suicide (or so it seems). I can’t imagine a man being drawn to this kind of plot. My younger self certainly was.

Yet, more than hundred pages into the story, my interest slightly waned. There were too much foreboding, too much back and forth between the present and the past, and the symbols were quite heavy-handed (a frozen lake! midnight skinny dipping! brooding teenagers! self-mutilation and drugs! disappearing journals full of secrets!). I knew that  this book wasn’t going to be the kind I’d be proud of finishing. Some things are just bad for you, like too much ice cream.

Guess what? Perhaps I’m a grown-up now, even for books. Or perhaps it’s the effect of good resolutions. I skimmed the rest, just out of FOMO. Misplaced FOMO, as it turned out. The amount of coincidences necessary to tie all loose ends was just beyond all plausibility.

But now, after this mild disappointment, I would love to immerse into a good atmospheric Gothic novel, something truly excellent. I have always been a big fan of Bram Stocker’s Dracula, it might be time for a re-read? Or do you have any other suggestion?

Joan Didion, Blue Nights (2011)

I read this book in December and I was deeply moved and impressed. All the more as I remembered that I hadn’t felt the same about The Year of Magical Thinking.

At first view, it is about the same. After suddenly losing her husband Gregory Dunne in 2003, Didion did lose her daughter Quintana twenty months after, aged 39. Talk about rotten luck! In fact, she had been admitted into hospital even before Dunne’s death due to a pneumonia that had turned into something nasty and eventually fatal. Didion was stunned by her husband’s death, but her daughter’s progressive fading is quite another level of tragedy.

In Blue Nights, we get the clarity, the detachment, the rambling of the other book, but somehow softened. She says it herself: writing no longer gets naturally to her, she’s often at a loss for words. I haven’t read any other Didion but those two, but I kind of like this one better.

She doesn’t concentrate as much on the medical details this time, she dwells on her own age, her grief and on to fleeting memories of her daughter’s life. It’s a desperate attempt to cling to the past, while she’s well aware that it’s useless. She writes as a mother who wants to know her daughter and who knows she might never had understood her enough, or shown her enough love.

The issue is particularly sensitive as Quintana is an adopted daughter and Didion herself doesn’t seem, from what we get to read, very motherly (at least in traditional terms, but she has never led a traditional life either). It was mere luck that Quintana was given to them (I’d say “bestowed”), and it must have felt double bad luck that she was taken away from her again.

What I enjoyed most is that she knows how to counter our own objections before they appear. She knows that we will be judgemental about her privileged life, about Quintana’s sheltered childhood. She doesn’t shy away from naming celebrities (from the 1970s), luxury brands and classy hotels because they certainly were part of her life. But the tone of her writing is really heart-breaking. She knows we will find her self-centered, but she still does what she knows best, trying to make her see things through her eyes.

There were other moments when the magic got somehow interrupted and more ticklish questions appeared: how can she not speak of Quintana’s husband at all? Why does she come out so cold with her own daughter, why does she not (dare to) go deeper into her daughter’s analysis instead of into her own? It might be because it was too painful, too private or too difficult. But because of this we get the feeling that her daughter only existed in relation to herself, which is of course very flawed.

What I’m so clumsily trying to express here is that I liked her writing very, very much, even if I’m not sure I would like her in person. I feel as if I’m just at the tip of the iceberg here, and perhaps the tip is not representative of the rest, so I sure want to read more of Didion. It is quite strange that she’s not known in France but for the Year of magical thinking. Any advice where I should turn next?

Kathy Reichs, Bones of the Lost (2012)

A long time ago, I said here that I would try harder and not fall back on comfort reads, especially crime and thrillers for which I have little illusions on quality even before I start one.

If I were to look for an excuse, I’d say that I didn’t buy this book, it was left for free on the shelves at my workplace where people are supposed to drop books off for recycling. And I needed something easy because the baby hasn’t been sleeping so well for a few days (apparently so excited he is from learning to walk).

Back in 2012, I had a disastrous experience with a Patricia Cornwell – Kay Scarpetta forensic mystery, and it was enough to make me stop this series altogether. But apparently I wasn’t tired of forensic-cum-formulaic mysteries once and for all.

Checking on my own blog archives, I see that I haven’t read a Kathy Reich – Tempe Brennan forensic anthropology mystery since 2010. I had foggy memories of the heroine hesitating between two men and between two workplaces, one in Canada and one in North Carolina. I didn’t seem to have missed much character development because I find her at the same place again.

It’s lucky that it read very fast because it was so formulaic that it sometimes felt written by a machine. Not to mention the cardboard characters, the series operate with so many plot constraints that any new episode can’t stray too far away from the earlier ones, because there’s no way in real life that a forensic anthropologist would be involved in direct police investigation.

To justify Tempe as an active heroine, we get contrived circumstances where the police doesn’t pay as much attention to a crime as they should, and Tempe feels personally involved / deeply moved by a case, and so she decides to act on her own. There’s the part that really makes my eyebrows rise in disbelief where she finds a decisive clue or makes a breakthrough of some sort, so she calls the police… who is temporarily on voicemail, so she goes alone on the tracks of the bad guys… without her own phone… in the middle of the night.

At that point, Reichs had lost me. I put myself on voicemail permanently.

There’s a section of the book set in Afghanistan where Brennan needs to testify in military trial. Apparently Reichs went on a trip to American bases there to get first-hand materials for her books (or the other way round, I don’t know). The way this plot somehow manages to find its way back to the original Jane Doe case in United States is another example of too much stretching of my patience and my voluntary suspension of disbelief.

Usually these stories really redeem themselves on the science and forensics, but this one was weak on that part too. So I can safely say I’m off Tempe Brennan for good. Within 48 hours the book returned to its recycling shelf.

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (2011)

I listened to this short book / long novella during summer, and at first the form unsettled me. I was thrown aside by the repetition, the anonymity of the collective narrator (“we” is a very peculiar, little-used point of view in novels, isn’t it?), the poetic rhythm. I thought it was a kind of beautiful prologue before a more traditional story would focus on one character in particular. But it never came. It hadn’t really occur to me that a whole book could be structured like that, a bit like an ancient chant.

Then I got used to it and learnt to enjoy it, in part thanks to the French audiobook’s voice, actress Irene Jacob, whom you might know from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s movies “The Double Life of Véronique” and “Three Colors: Red” back in the 1990s.

Some people might find this kind of writing too repetitive, lacking a true plot or character development. Some might even call it a literary trick to weave all kinds of bits and pieces together in an artificially coherent unity. I can understand their reservations, but to me it worked.

The French title is “Some had never seen the sea”, and it really changes the focus of the story and makes me judge the book under a different light. With the French title, the focus was on the collective experience of the Japanese brides, who arrived in California after World War I to marry Japanese men they had never met.

Young and inexperienced, they’d imagined their married life based on what they’d known in Japan, or under better circumstances in the land of the American dream, not ready for the culture shock and the deceit that they were victims of. Most men were not as young and wealthy as their letters had described, and they were in for a life of harsh labor in the U.S. The writer describes vignettes of their new lives in their diversity, but the common experience is years of toil: cleaning for wealthy families, washing laundry, picking fruits, becoming prostitutes, seeing all kind of hardships and racism before getting more or less acclimatized to their new family and country.

But after a generation, once they have given birth to children who are growing up more American than Japanese and often despise their mothers for their foreign manners, they get a huge backlash when they are seen with suspicion and called “traitors” and sent away in camps during World War 2.

The English title, “The Buddha in the Attic” actually shifts the focus of the whole book to its latter part, when the narrator voice, the “we” abruptly (yet imperceptibly, as I was listening to an audiobook and therefore unable to pinpoint the exact place) shifts from the Japanese women’s voice, to that of the Americans who are left behind. The last section portrays a California empty of Japanese, briefly wondering where they disappeared before getting on with its routine, with very few remnants that they ever lived there.

I understand the struggle of the writer at that point, because following the Japanese women to the internment camp would have broken the unity of place (California) that is very important in the book, and would have made for a wholly different story. Yet I wasn’t very comfortable with that latter part, because I thought that the voice lost a bit of focus and balance anyway.

Despite this slight reservation, I quite enjoyed the book, especially as I knew little about Japanese-American heritage. It may be read as a tribute to this particular community, but from a European point of view it can also be read as a collective memoir for many female immigrants.

An Interview with Michelle Bailat-Jones (Part 2)

Here is the second part of my interview with Michelle, who has a book out on the first days of November: Fog Island Moutains. I’m so glad she agreed to this!

After explaining how she came to write a book set in a small village of Southern Japan, a place close to her heart, I asked her about her writing process.

Q. How did you manage to write a whole novel on top of your job and your family life? That’s a pretty generic question, but really I admire that you could “do it all”.

This is going to sound very cliché, and so I secretly hate myself for answering in this way, but I have never been able not to write, no matter how busy the rest of my life has become. So I don’t feel like I have much of a choice, even if I only manage 500 words a day. (The great thing about 500 words a day is that in 6 months you actually have something resembling a novel).

However, since my daughter’s birth in 2009, it has been a real struggle to keep a balance on things and I considered giving up fiction more than a few times – especially when it seemed that no one was interested in any of my novels. It began to be very hard to justify the time I was taking to write. Switzerland – although a lovely place – doesn’t have a very strong structure in place for working moms, and this hasn’t helped. But to juggle everything, I’ve gotten rather adept (as most writers, I suspect) at writing whenever I get a chance – during the 45 minutes of my daughter’s dance class, while commuting to my teaching job, I’ve even used a dictaphone clipped to my jacket while walking my dog in the forest. I feel silly, yes, but I can get a lot done.

One thing I’ve always done – and this predates having a family – is wake up early in the mornings to get an hour or two of work done before the day begins. I’m a morning person, and I love this quiet time. It also means that I can go into a day of commercial translation work knowing that my fiction writing is already done. (This does mean however, that by nine o’clock in the evening I’m pretty useless). I’ve also had to prioritize in ways that make me frustrated sometimes. I write more poetry and flash fiction now than short stories – mostly because these are things I can actually finish and feel good about in a shorter time span. And for the last two years, I’ve had to scale back much of the non-fiction writing that I also really love (you’ll see that my once-busy reading blog Pieces has fallen to the side, and I write far fewer book reviews than I’d like) to focus on fiction and literary translation. But I should also mention that my “day job” as a translator gives me a lot of flexibility. I can fit paid work into those randomly created moments as well. I don’t have to worry about commuting or going into an office, and so I manage in ways that other writers with “fixed hour” day jobs cannot.

Q. To keep yourself on track and motivated, did you set yourself a daily target of x words? Did you find a (local or virtual) writing community to support you? On the techie side, you mentioned a dictaphone and writing during commute, did you use some app or any other trick of the trade?

I used to have a daily target, but that has just gone haywire for the last few years. I try to make sure that I write or revise my fiction at least every day. This helps me feel like I am moving forward. Unfortunately, I do not have any technology tricks only notebook preferences. I write more quickly with a computer, but I try to write longhand as often as I can. It makes me approach things differently, and I think there’s a benefit in that for my work. I outline a lot. A ton. When I’m working on a novel, I am constantly outlining and re-organizing how the larger story will work. I’m maybe even too focused on structure, and re-arranging bits and pieces, but for now this has been my process.

Q. I’m really impressed by your strong will and dedication, and it pays! I have gone through many times of doubts about my own writing, especially as I juggle between French and English: I sometimes feel that my “voice” in English is different from my French one to the point of not knowing which one is more authentic. How did you find the right voice to write a novel in English about people thinking and talking Japanese? (I remember your Japanese is quite fluent).

I really admire your bilingualism – it’s so flawless. I’ve often wanted to write in French, especially since it is now my “linguistic home” but I haven’t managed yet. So yes, for Fog Island Mountains, this was a huge question for me. There is something incredibly false about a book being narrated by an elderly Japanese woman in English. I couldn’t get around this and it was a concern for me. I wanted something fluid, but also with echoes of the Japanese language. I have had someone tell me that the book reads a little bit like it was a translation from Japanese. I’m not sure whether this was meant as a compliment, but it made me deliriously happy. I think that readers will have varied reactions to Azami’s voice and how it works to tell the story, but I think, for me, she gave me the filter that I needed to work through all that was happening to Alec and Kanae and the town. I needed an outsider who was also an insider. And I just hope she makes it meaningful for readers as well.