The One with the Heartbreaking Virago

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge (2008)

All I knew when I started the book was that lots of people had praised it. And that it was about a woman in a small town in Maine. Nothing more.

Which left me with so many surprises. First, the structure. I love linked short stories but only rarely read them (any other examples you’d recommend?). Second, the main character. Olive Kitteridge is blunt and sometimes spiteful. She is often angry and rarely compassionate. She has a no-nonsense, cold approach towards her family, her husband, her son and her neighbors. She’s the epitome of the unlikeable character. I was definitely not ready for it. Third, the sadness and gloom of the subject. This is not – I repeat not – a fun read to be attempted if you’re any way depressed or thinking about your own mortality.

The edition I got had lilac calligraphy and a woman with a red raincoat walking close to the seashore. Hmm… Why is the cover art so subdued and romantic like a chicklit / romance? This is so misleading. There’s nothing subdued and romantic about Olive. The red raincoat is there to tell you about Olive’s uncompromising choices in fashion and in life. She doesn’t care what other people think of her. She watches herself grow old with the same unflinching stare, and it’s not really pretty.

There’s a lot of humor in the book, but it doesn’t cover the darkness of it. Even if you dislike Olive and get attached to the other characters, village life in Maine seems so depressing, except for little moments of grace. What saves the book are those moments, and the beautiful language and characterization. I definitely want to read more of Elizabeth Strout.

The One with the Artists Retreat

Alison Lurie, Real People (1969)

Wow. I had finished a string of books that left me between “meh” and “blah”, and I was starting to fear that it had something to do with me. And then, luckily, a book that grabs me and within days makes me feel and think at the same time. So unexpected! (Somehow, despite Alison Lurie’s reputation, I had feared that this book had aged… not at all)

Real People is set in the fictional artists colony of Illyria in New England (apparently very much inspired by famous Yaddo, near Saratoga), where Janet Belle Smith, a mid-range short story writer, has been admitted again for the summer. We readers get to read her diary.

I had read things by Alison Lurie in the late 1990s-early 2000s, pre-blog obviously, so I don’t remember what. But this book, short, highly readable, perceptive and funny, made me want to read her all over again.

It talked to me at so many levels. It’s both deep and funny, and when you start to wonder if it’s not a bit too cliché she surprises you with an abrupt switch or a deep observation. Obviously, I could not help but identify with the main character, the struggling short story writer, mother and wife. She brings her own insecurities and doubts and snobbery and naivety to the plot. She is forced to ponder how honest she can be in her writing, how honest about herself, and to wonder if she hasn’t been “too nice” in her writing as in her life. But at the same time she has this moral superiority about her that makes situations both witty and awkward for the reader, and that will certainly bring her comeuppance at the end.

Artists colonies are so fascinating, and I’d been wanting to attend one forever. I was lucky enough to go to one last year in June, with a small group of supportive women, and I wish I can go there again next year. I could not help but compare what goes on at Illyria and what I experienced last year. In Illyria, there’s a covert spirit of competition and a sexual tension. Artists in Illyria went there with something to prove, if not to themselves, but to the other artists and the retreat’s organizer. It might be okay for some people, but don’t think it’s quite the atmosphere I personally would need to create. I guess you go to an artist colony to be removed from the world, and if the colony recreates the usual stress of the world, it’s not worth going.

On a lighter note, it reminded me of another novel set in a writing retreat, an Ann Cleeve’s mystery, the Glass Room. And of course, there’s a body in the library…

The One with Maleficent and the Baby from Mars

Ellen Klages, Wicked Wonders (2017)

I was steered towards Ellen Klages by Kazen from Always Doing, who was recenlty raving about her Passing Strange, calling it “guaranteed to be one of my top books of the year, if not number one”. Serendipitously a collection of short stories by Ellen Klages was available on Netgalley, so I ran to get it. Which practically kills two birds in one stone, because I decided to read more short stories this year.

How does one speak about a short story collection? Of course, some stories will be great and others less so. As they are set in different genres, it’s harder to find a unifying theme without appearing vague and pointless. I will just venture to say that Klages’ main characters are often young girls and that she has a very authentic voice that adds to the charm of the story. There are often a big sense of humor in these stories, and mostly a happy ending, which makes for entertaining, light read. There are ventures into genres that I do not read usually, like fantasy or farce or SF, but most keep us readers grounded with realist details.

One of the stories I liked best is “Amicae Aeternum”, about a girl who is moving away and takes her leave from her best friend and from her little suburb. It was quietly moving, to the point of tears. Leaving your home town, especially as a kid when it’s not your own decision, had a particular resonance in this story.

One other story is “The Education of a Witch”, whose main character is a preschooler right in the princess stage, but who obsesses about Disney Maleficent instead. Having a 3-1/2-year-old at home, I know first-hand what a preschooler’s voice and mind look like and sound like, and I can vouch for Klages’ authenticity, especially as some things from the adult life seem unexplainable and that magical reasons are about as probable as others at this stage of life.

One other is “Goodnight Moons”, where a female astronaut, after a very tough selection, leaves the earth in an expedition to Mars, only to find herself pregnant, a hypothesis that the people around her, both the crew and the monitoring people on the ground, didn’t expect but now intend to fully take into account. It started as a “what if” of the silly kind, only to take a sudden turn towards something deeper and more subtle.

I also very much enjoyed “Woodsmoke”, the (longer) story of a summer spent at the summer girls camp in the 1960s and the special friendship between two tweens that was born out of it. Summer camps are quite an American traditions, although French kids have their own variation. I went to music camp and I remember how long and short, very intense and special these times were.

Some other stories felt a bit contrived and gimmicky, or perhaps it was just me who wasn’t in the mood on that given day. But the collection overall reminded me what the power of a good story is: to entertain, to put you in someone else’s shoes and to let your imagination run loose for a little while.

Thanks to the publisher Tachyon and Netgalley for a free copy in exchange for an honest review

The One on the Long Marriages’ Taboos

Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity (2006)

I fear any explicit explanation about this book will only get me spams and trolls, as I venture into the dangerous territory of… the erotic life of lifetime partners. At the risk of getting unwanted attention, I will  totally recommend this book. And this, no matter what goes on behind private doors at Smithereens’ house.

I first heard of Esther Perel through a podcast of Garance Doré, Pardon My French, which I am not subscribed to despite being a total podcast addict (I can’t remember whose blog steered me towards it). But this one episode was priceless: I was floored by this talk so that I ended up listening to it twice, watching her on TED talks and… buying the book. No wonder she has almost 10 millions views on her TED talk!

What I like about Esther Perel is that she has a deeply perspective that comes from  European roots, American life and practice and also, if I’m not mistaken, Freudian psychoanalytical theoretical framework. The result is that she doesn’t shy away from hard truths, and what she advises is very different from conventions or any moral judgment. For example, she rehabilitates the value of fantasy and takes a courageous stand on infidelity (as opposed to serial monogamy). She is also able to see through the moral views of puritanism that may explain some deep differences between Europe and America.

Her book’s themes revolve around the questions of desire and intimacy once two people have “settled down”. It is well-known that routine can cause boredom which can cause problems in long-term relationship. It is also well-known that babies, which are somehow the consequence of sex, don’t make it easier for the couple, now parents, to enjoy a lot more sex, but rather the opposite. Women who become mothers may struggle with this shift in their identity and that may impact their sexual life. To these commonplace issues that are everywhere in women’s magazines, Perel answers with compassionate, open-minded and rather unconventional solutions… which may start by not offering solutions per se. She is frank that there’s no one-size-for-all magical recipe and that intimacy and sex is so deeply personal that every person and every relationship must find its own balance.

The book was so interesting that I underlined many sentences, something extremely rare for me. I can’t say I’m going to read a long series of books on this topic but Esther Perel is surely a name to remember.

The One with the Bukharan Murder in Queens

Janet Malcolm, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Anatomy of a Murder Trial (2011)

I am fond of the book for all the wrong reasons: because I am a huge fan of Janet Malcolm, because I bought this book during my February trip to London on an afternoon bookshop spree with lovely Marina Sofia, because it was quick and easy to read while retaining a pretty intelligent premise.

That said, people who haven’t read any of Janet Malcolm books should be warned not to start with this one, since it’s not her best*. Her account of a real-life murder trial that took place in the Bukharan (Russian) orthodox Jewish community of New York (in Queens to be precise) does not feel quite put together.

Janet Malcolm’s favorite themes revolve around ambiguities of people’s memories and appreciations of events, around the inherent bias that people bring to judgment. Impartial justice, presumption of innocence, fair judges are therefore ideal concepts that come  imperfectly to real life. In this case, so many things went wrong that Janet Malcolm seems to side with the accused party: the jury didn’t like the accused party because they disliked her aloofness and distance and assumed it was smugness and deceit. The judge rushed the trial. The defendant’s lawyer didn’t play his cards well.

As often in Malcolm’s books, nobody comes out particularly likeable. The Iphigenia in the story is Michelle, a four-year-old stuck in a legal dispute between her parents. Her mother is accused of being overbearing, her father of having had improper conduct and sexual abuse. As the law fails to resolve the divorce dispute, things escalate and the child is taken away from her mother. In cold-blooded revenge, the mother then convinces a relative to shoot her husband to death. At least, that’s what the prosecution said during the trial.

Janet Malcolm very much doubts that this is the whole truth. She makes it clear that the judge wasn’t fair to the accused party (the shocking bit being that he had booked a cruise to the Caribbean and hurried the defense to present their case overnight so that he could leave for holidays on time!!). But she doesn’t really come up with an alternate story for the case, so I was a bit let down and frustrated at the end of this short book.

Still, the people descriptions of Janet Malcolm are still amazing and make it a worthy read. They are quite dry and precise: you “get” someone through tiny gestures and expressions. Particularly bone-chilling is the painting of Mr. Schnall, little Michelle’s law-appointed guardian, who was strongly set against her mother from the very start, and who never seems to care for the child’s interests.

*I’d say that Janet Malcolm’s readers should probabmy start with her classic Journalist and the Assassin, or with The Silent Woman, on Sylvia Plath and her biographers.

Post-STown Hangover, or, The One with the Frozen Chosen

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)

I should be warned by now, because it happened just the same after I finished Serial Season 1. All the books paled in comparison.

A big fat case of book meh. That’s how good the podcast S-Town is. The producers said they wanted to create something like a novel, and man did they succeed in their enterprise!

Now, I am exactly in the middle of Michael Chabon’s (chapter 23 out of 46, not that I’m counting) and I have decided that I won’t go any further. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union fell victim to John B. McLemore’s maze.

Actually, I did trudge through the first half well before S-Town, and this is only the last straw. Chabon’s reputation had put this book high on my TBR list, and so many things appealed to me in theory. But I ended up liking more the idea of the book than the book itself.

A truculent book set in an alternate history, with Yiddish colorful characters set to play with the conventions of the noir genre? It should have been written for me. I liked the Yiddish part well enough, and I liked the plausibility of the alternate history. I vaguely remembered that before WW2 there were real plans to find a new place for all the Jews to resettle, as a convenient way to get rid of “this problem”. I didn’t know that Alaska had ever been a possibility. Michael Chabon’s idea to make Alaska into a Jewish land, a temporary ghetto leased by the US for 60 years, not a glorious, high-tech land, but a derelict, past-its-prime, disappointing one, is a great idea. But I couldn’t warm up to Inspector Meyer Landsman (I know, it’s a bad pun, but Chabon has so many of them, including the one I borrowed for this post’s title).

The conflagration of all these elements, together with Michael Chabon’s flourished style (in French, and I must say that the translation grated on my nerves), the geopolitical allusions, the chess references, was all too much for me. I couldn’t digest it. I’m normally not doing so well with humor books from different cultures and I didn’t really engage with the story.

I might try Chabon’s prize-winning novel another time, but if I do, I’ll certainly read it in English.

The One with the Rusalka and the Domovoy

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (2017)

It’s not often that I call a book enchanting. In fact, WordPress tells me that in more than ten years of blogging, I used this word exactly three times. But today, this word seems totally warranted, literally and figuratively.

I am very grateful to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review, and I am even more grateful to Annie from A Bookish type who steered me towards this book in the first place.

This book is a mix between history and fairy tales. It is set in the wilderness of Russian  northern territory somewhere around the 14th century. Dangers abound, people live a harsh life close to their village and close to the oven, a huge construction insuring heat and survival in the deepest months of winter. In some ways, this book reminded me of the Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland, that was also set in the early Middle ages, but the Bear and the Nightingale is less violent.

Living and sleeping on the oven with no entertainment, people spent their evenings telling fairy tales, and not of the Disney type. Russian folks tales are known to feature all kinds of wicked creatures, free spirits from the lakes and woods, but also benevolent fairies who protect humans, hearth, animals, as long as people remember to give them little offerings. This reminds me strongly of the Japanese folks tales where creatures are not particularly human friendly either. These beliefs strongly clashed with the development of orthodox faith, that saw animism as sin and traditions as a refusal of Christian redemption.

All these ideas are woven into the novel that also reads as a breathless adventure. I fell quickly into the plot and it didn’t leave me until the last page.

I am normally fearful of Russian novels. You know, War and Peace, Tolstoy, Bulgakov and Anna Karenina. My brain can’t remember all these names and… well, I know this is really prejudice. But this one, I had no problem remembering the fearless Vasilisa, even when her folks called her Vasya or Devushka. I had no problem memorizing the weird names of the various spirits, rusalka, vazila, upyr or other banniks, as if they all had cast a spell on me!

This is probably a book more suited to the winter months than the spring, but I certainly recommend it warmly!

The One with Icelandic Dementia and the Waterless World

Olivia Clare, Disasters in the First World (publication date: June 2017)

First of all, I am grateful to Grove Press, Black Cat and Netgalley for the chance to read the advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. It is my choice to challenge myself by reading more short stories this year, of new-to-me authors, and this book was right up my (g)alley.

Challenged I was indeed: not that those stories were really disturbing (not like Joyce Carol Oates’, another collection I finished recently), but I must say that some of the stories of this collection made me feel that I was in over my head and that I was missing something.

Not all of them, luckily. The first story, Petur, grabbed my attention from the get-go:

Ash fell from the wind. She began to take long walks. Before breakfast, after lunch, she walked the weed-pocked path to the lake. White ash turned the lake’s surface to desert and the tops of the fjalls invisible.

An old woman travelling to Iceland with her son might feel like the kind of once-in-a-lifetime trip à la Oprah, but when you learn that the son thinks his mother has dementia, that the mother is slightly disappointed that her son would be so utterly banal, and that they are both stuck in Iceland countryside by the eruption of the volcano, you realize that Olivia Clare has a vision of her own, where nothing is black and white (or rather ash-grey). I read the online magazine version (in Ecotone), and I noticed definitely some slight modifications between the book version and the magazine version. The magazine version is more explicit, the book one is more elusive (which might explain why I could have the feeling to miss hidden meaning here and there), but I liked the latter better.

The next short story, Olivia (which I had to wonder, is or is not related to the author), is seen through the eyes of a rather meek and very anxious housewife who resents the arrival of a friend’s son in their home. The young man is looking for a job in the city, but his presence in the house upsets the delicate balance of things in the household and he’s not your typical polite house-guest. After a few stories that resonated less with me, the last story of this collection, Eye of Water, felt extraordinary. It could be classified as science fiction but is quite intimate, set in a time where a drought in California and Utah has turned water into something more precious and more expensive than drugs and alcohol. This one story was probably the saddest, and yet there are unforgettable images.

Olivia Clare’s writing is all in subtlety and nuances. The title of her collection seems self-deprecating but somehow sets the right tone. Her characters’ problems are huge but intimate yet their lives are rather privileged. It would be easy to dismiss the magnitude of the emotions they experience but they are nonetheless of the heartbreaking sort. Her style is neat and concise. Even though not all stories were right for me, her voice made me stick to it and I would be glad to read more of her.

Parallel Reading

Colmar Toibin, Nora Webster (2014)

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Blank Wall (1947, Persephone reprint 2003)

No, this post is not a sneaky attempt to post about two books for the price of one, diminishing drastically the pile of books to be reviewed. Bear with me…

I blame myself that I read too many books at the same time. I’ve been known to have up to 9 books on my “currently reading” list of Goodreads. Ugh… It’s not that I have a magical power to read one book with one eye and a second with the other (I wish!). I start one book, then get distracted with another, then come back to the first for a few evenings, then start an exciting one from the library… But the advantage is that sometimes my readings collide.

Take Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, a shiny new acquisition from the library, on my left, and The Blank Wall, a Persephone shiny grey book from my own bookshelves, on my right. Apparently, not much in common. A 1940s American noir / suspense novel (that reminded me of Patricia Highsmith in part), versus an Irish contemporary psychological / literary novel. Both vying for my attention (and my limited free time!)

Where in one hand a dead body has to be dealt with in the first twenty pages, and the whole book takes place within a week, Colm Toibin’s novel in the other hand spans several years and nothing dramatic really ever happens. It’s a slow-moving book where buying new furniture for the living room carries a weight and a meaning that leaves you rooting for Nora, while in The Blank Wall, issues were more life-and-death, scandal or prison, but it took me a longer time to warm up to Lucia.

And yet, despite the differences, under my eyes, Nora began to talk to Lucia, and Lucia to Nora. These two books were really worth reading side by side!

Both features wives and mothers of teens and grown kids. They are alone and obliged to act and take decisions because of their husbands’ absence (Mr Webster died recently and Lucia’s husband is at war in the Pacific). Both women are not used to assert themselves, they express strong opinions in their mind but look proper and meek in front of others. Both are not really likeable characters at the beginning (in my 21st century eyes) because they are so limited in their thoughts and actions, and then by the end of the book they have both evolved, have discovered that they can decide, act and stand for themselves and I grew to like them.

Nora lives in a small town in 1960s Ireland and Lucia lives in a small town in 1940s outside New York. The context in both books provided in each case some new level of reading for me: the political events and the women’s movements for Nora, the war and the home front for Lucia. Both books are quiet feminist manifestos in a sense, full of delicacy and subtlety.

In both books, children are not painted under the positive light you’d expect. Lucia’s kids, Bee (around 17) and David (14-15) are selfish and spoilt. David behaves like a little master and gives orders to his mother, while Bee rolls her eyes at her mother who can’t understand anything. Nora has 4 kids, two nearly graduating daughters and two younger boys. Nora, as a typical 1960s parent, is not one to talk much about feelings or to show her love. There is a real distance between Nora and her daughters who obviously have a much more liberal, modern mentality.

Lucia’s daughter would be of Nora’s age, if I am not mistaken, but Bee is so empty-headed (the whole book comes from her poor choice of a boyfriend, this girl begs to be grounded for a few months) and Nora so provincial that they would probably have nothing to talk about together. But I’m sure Nora would have loved to have the opportunity to travel to the States, given the opportunity.

This was my first brush with Colm Toibin and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, who is deemed the Godmother of Noir. Definitely not the last I hope!

The One with the Weak and the Cruel

Joyce Carol Oates, Dis Mem Ber and Others Stories of Mystery and Suspense (2017)

Alright, folks. What screams “scatterbrained” more than 9 abandoned blog posts drafts about so many finished books? I think of something, I write a paragraph (or two), and then my to-do list catches up with me…

But not tonight. I am determined to do justice to… Joyce Carol Oates’ latest short story collection, that will be published in the coming months.

Does Joyce Carol Oates need me to do her justice? Erh, well… probably no. She is so prolific and I feel that many people know what to expect when they start one of her stories. Which might sound like they’re boring and repetitive, but… hell no.

I was so grateful for the publisher and Netgalley to send me a free copy of her latest collection, but when their routine feedback questionnaire asked me if I would consider buying the book for a friend, I didn’t know what to answer.

Joyce Carol Oates is a consummate storyteller and a master of the craft, so of course the stories were well written and spun their web around the reader so that they are vivid and unputdownable. But they are very dark and disturbing, and would I really offer that to my best friends? More like a poisonous gift to my ennemies, I’d say.

There’s only 7 stories in the collection, but plenty of food for thought. The title story is about a young girl who is fascinated by a cousin of hers, a Rowan Billet who has a bad reputation (for good reasons?) and who takes a weird interest in her young relative. The girl is not only paralyzed by fear of danger and the ominous sense of dread, but she’s also like hypnotized, like the proverbial mouse in front of the snake. Another story is about a young university student who gets more and more obsessed about the suicide / murder of another student. Witnessing the downward spiral of this young woman is not a pretty read. Two other stories’ main characters are widows, the second one more striking with the apparition of a Great Blue Heron as a vengeful, cruel and bloody monster. The last story is a pearl of dark humor taking its inspiration in the always-perky safety messages you get when you are on an airplane.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the stories about widows were somehow a reflection of Joyce Carol Oates on her own grief. But I believe she is too much of a storyteller to make too obvious connexions. I could give it a warm recommendation, but it’s more icy cold and chilling…