The One with the Accident of the Train Across the Lake at Midnight

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)

Marilynne Robinson is one of these writers I have always been afraid of. Every time she’s mentioned, people speak about The Great American Novel, and I’m always convinced I won’t “get” it, and only Americans can “get” them. Another of these writers is Annie Dillard. I have started numerous times Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and never went beyond page 10. One day I’ll come back to it, I know, so many people have told me that I am missing out, but… intimidated I am.

I borrowed Housekeeping from our new library (more on that later!), and quite frankly I mistook it for Home, of which I had heard raving reviews from people who don’t only read highbrow books (I honestly don’t remember who especially). I didn’t know that Housekeeping was her first novel. I didn’t know what it was about. I didn’t know it had been published in 1980. In Modern Mrs. Darcy website, My name is Lucy Barton was recommended for people who love Marilynne Robinson, so why not try it the other way round ?

The first sentence made me pause, so pregnant it is with hidden messages :

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.

Wow. This packs so much into one single sentence. The orphans (why? how?), the absence of men, the family relationships, the formality and distances of Mrs., Misses, the conservatism (naming one’s daughter like the mother), the mystery of “when they fled”. I was hooked, and no longer intimidated!

The style is everything in this book. There are images that will stay with you for a long time, like that of a train that crashes into the cold lake, lost forever with the narrator’s grandfather in it. The pace is slow and nothing seems to happen, yet a lot goes on beneath the surface. I could never tell when the story is supposed to be set, or where it’s supposed to be. It could be in an imaginary place of fairy tales, but not the Disney version, the dark and sad ones, like Grimm or Andersen. It also reminded me of the melancholy witches of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the end of the lane.

The story is told by Ruth, and Ruth is all about her family’s past, and everything she says assumes a dreamlike quality. The writing is both simple and powerful, a bit like the Bible, so that everything happens feels like a myth or a metaphor.

At times the timeless story hit some hard places, especially when it incorporated some elements of reality, of normalcy. In particular, when Ruth’s sister Lucille decided to not follow Ruth and their quirky aunt Sylvie anymore, and when she decided to go to school and dress like a teenager and do what teenagers typically do; i.e. to conform and fit in, instead of staying on the margins of the town. When the village authorities showed up at Sylvia’s doorsteps trying to make her realize that Ruth had to lead a normal life and go to school. It was a hard landing from the dream to the reality for me, because deep down, I didn’t really “get” them and would rather identify with Lucille than with Ruth and Sylvie.

Still, the heartbreaking ending reconciled me with the whole novel when Ruth and Sylvie leave the village behind in a powerful scene and drift away across the country, hoping to find Lucille in Boston one day.

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The One with Miss Marple’s Yankee Grandma

Anna Katharine Green, The Affair Next Door (1897)

Alright, this blog post is so long overdue it’s starting to be ridiculous. I can’t even remember when I read this book, but I’m pretty sure I was living in another house and wearing T-shirts: somewhere during spring (I mean this year, still).

My memory is fuzzy now, but I think it’s Danielle who mentioned a while back Girlebooks, a site with a lot of well-edited free ebooks. How could I resist? I loaded up on Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels, on Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s homesteading memoir, but then I was tempted by one of these old school mysteries, The Affair Next Door. I’ve tried the site again today, but there seems to be a problem with it now. Yet it’s not difficult to find a copy of this book elsewhere, it’s in the free domain.

While perusing through the oldies, I took a wrong turn. The name of Anna Katharine Green vaguely spoke to me. It reminded me of some classic sleuth story I’d read years ago. I thought she was the author of the Circular Staircase, a whodunit that had its fair share of implausibilities, but still readable and entertaining. Had I properly checked my own blog (insert eye roll here), I would have known that The Circular Staircase had been written by Mary Roberts Rinehart, while the one I read by Anna Katharine Green was the investigations of Violet Strange, which I had not really enjoyed.

Sometimes being wrong has its advantages, since I started the book with a positive prejudice, not the memory of the insufferable debutante that made me roll my eyes so much I’d got a headache. Instead, I discovered a nosy, busybody spinster with a high opinion of herself, who still managed to help the police with a complicated mystery involving a woman crushed under a bookshelf in an empty house.

Miss Amelia Butterworth could be the grandmother of Miss Jane Marple, but she’s not as cute and  likeable. She’s not your typical mousy grandma with her needlework, she’s a pompous, self-important old woman whose neighbors actively avoid her (shouldn’t it tell you something about her?). She has moments of doubts but most of the time she’s annoyingly proud of her sleuthing talents. Which are okay, but nothing spectacular. I mean, she still needs a real man to solve this mystery, ahem (Anna Katherine Green was probably progressive for her time, but not too much ahead of it). It’s 1897 after all, but if you’re annoyed by patronizing remarks coming from men, you should definitely pass.

I’m very sure that if Miss Amelia Butterworth was living next door I would avoid her too, but as a  fictional character she’s fun, because the writer treats her with kind irony. The mystery holds up and the pace isn’t slack. In terms of literary history, Anna Katherine Greene is born in 1846, which puts her one and half generation older than Agatha Christie. It’s possible that Christie read Greene’s mysteries and was influenced by it, although I don’t know if she would have cared about American novels.

Unfinished Business

Marion Shepherd, Mask of Innocence (2017)

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

The One with Shakespeare in 6th Grade

Tracy Chevalier, Black Boy (2017)

With some determination and patience, I have come out of the Middles… by finishing some books, and dropping others (the short story collections, which I may always come back to anyway). And because I don’t want to forget my train of thoughts, I’m skipping over a dozen of book reviews to address the question: was Tracy Chevalier right to transpose Othello to an elementary school?

To be frank, I was rather unconvinced. Yes, it was a daring move. Othello is Osei Kokote, a diplomat’s son from Ghana, arriving in an all-white elementary school of D.C. (in the 1970s). He’s in 6th grade, which makes him 11 years old. Desdemona is Dee, a blond angel and teacher’s pet who is loved and admired all around the playground. The whole tragedy unfolds within a day, from first bell to recess to lunch to after-school. I found myself torn between two different attitudes:

If you start this book knowing it’s a retelling, it becomes rather obvious and the pieces of the tragedy click together without much surprise. You appreciate the subtle nods to Shakespeare here and there, but you’re just here for the performance, not really for the story itself.

If you don’t know about Othello, then the story seems a bit weird. I don’t quite believe that  11-year-olds are able of such passion and manipulation within such a short period of time. They don’t sound like kids that age, but rather maybe 15 or more? I couldn’t help but check repetitively what age are 6th graders in the US, because I couldn’t really place the characters’ thoughts and feelings and actions with their supposed age (especially as I have a 9 almost 10-year-old at home). Osei’s reactions to Iago (sorry, Ian) lies and manipulations are a bit implausible because he’s the son of a diplomat and has had many experiences of changing schools and meetings new (and probably equally prejudiced) classmates.

I was in the middle, because my knowledge of Othello is shaky at best. I appreciated the force of the tragedy and the race aspect that Tracy Chevalier chose to highlight. Osei is the new boy in school, but he’s also the only black boy, and the way teachers and kids react is so cruel and racist, that it is the real trigger of the tragedy, rather than jealousy.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

The One with the Perfect Daughter

Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You (2014)

I’m not sure how much I should say about the story, but let’s assume you have either read it already, or read the summary on Goodreads (I’ll remain spoiler-free as much as possible). “Everything I Never Told you” is the story of the disappearance of Lydia Lee, a mixed-race teenager (father Chinese, mother Caucasian) in 1977 in small town Ohio. The book looks at the beginning like a thriller (murder? suicide?) but it is misleading: in fact, it’s rather a social and psychological study of a particular family.

I expected to be wowed because a few years ago everyone was raving about this book (Amazon’s book of the year!), but instead I had rather mixed feelings, which is ironic in a way because this novel is so much about expectations (parental expectations, racial, social, gender expectations…)

But first let me reassure you, I’m not a heartless, cruel Frenchie. Yes, this story about a family where everyone is misunderstanding everyone, where nobody says plainly what they feel and think and the terrible price they pay for it, almost made me cry. Of course my heart went for every member of the Lee family, for their regrets and disappointments and mistakes, for the racism they had to face, and the pressure. Pressure to perform, pressure to conform, pressure to be someone they are not.

But I also got annoyed by several things and by 90% of the book I couldn’t wait for the story to be over. I found it sad and a little bit systematic that everyone misread all. the. signs all. the. time. And that we readers are told the true meaning of actions and thoughts systematically. A lot of times I could connect the dots by myself. Another thing that felt gimmicky is that by giving us readers the prescience, we are bound to find meaning in everything; by starting with the death, we are bound to sympathize with (aka feel sorry for) the girl and her family. Instead, if I had approached the exact same story in chronological order, I would probably have found this girl and her family downright annoying. Annoying and cliché. Yes, they have nuances and complex motivations for their actions, but I was rarely surprised. I felt sorry for the parents and their poor choices of parenting, but I felt that the author tricked me into passing a judgment on them (“see what they have unknowingly set off?”).

I can’t tell if the racism the family faced in 1977 is accurate, or how much things have changed in the US of 2017. The story seems such a (preventable?) tragedy. I bet that the longing to belong still exists. I loved the themes that the book handled more than the final story but it’s alright. I’m still glad I read it.

Story: Kavitha and Mustafa, by Shobah Rao

I hardly ever read Indian fiction or fiction set in India (well, Rao is Indian-American), and I don’t remember how I came upon this story, except that it got a prize (the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction) and it was listed in a blog list of stories to consider. It has also been chosen by TC Boyle for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories 2015. It was thrilling and deep, and made me want to read the whole collection!

In less than 15 pages Rao delivers both a thriller and a psychological analysis, and although I wasn’t quite clear about what went on in some of the action, it was compelling and gave me lots to think about.

Kavitha is a 26-year-old Pakistani wife travelling on a train with her husband Vinod. Their ten-year marriage is a loveless arranged match, Kavitha is bored but at the same time she knows that it could be worse. From the first sentence we learn that something out of the ordinary is happening, but we don’t know:

The train stopped abruptly at 3:36pm, between stations, twenty kilometers from the Indian border on the Pakistani side. […] She knew what this meant.

Kavitha realizes that the crowded train they have boarded seven hours before is being robbed, and the robbers are usually violent and merciless with the passengers. She remains calm and silent, but the reader is thrown from the get-go into a thrilling suspense: will she survive? what will happen to the train? what will happen to Kavitha’s husband? And who the hell is Mustafa, by the way?

When the action moves along (it’s hard not to spoil anything), Kavitha becomes a lot less passive. There’s a boy in the berth she’s stuck in, and this boy seems to have a message for her. She is given a choice, and this choice might be good or disastrous to her. There are several interpretations left open to what happens in the end, but it didn’t bother me.

From Rao’s website I understand that the action takes place during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and I missed this point entirely. I don’t know if that changes anything to a reader’s understanding, and I would be glad to learn more if I had the chance.

The collection is titled: An Unrestored Woman

The One with the Melancholy Writer in Hospital

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton (2016)

I’d loved Olive Kitteridge, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I’d read Elizabeth Strout again with her celebrated Lucy Barton, that so many book bloggers had recommended. The good news is that the opportunity came earlier than I’d thought with an ARC of the French version that will be published in the fall.

I fell into this book quicker than with Olive K., and I read this short novel in almost two evenings, a real holiday treat to have these longer uninterrupted stretches of reading! (It definitely helps that I don’t really “get” German TV). These were beautiful hours spent with Lucy Barton and her mother in the hospital, talking about little nothings,  about neighbors and extended family members. Nothing much happens, but what matters is the undercurrent of love and emotions. Lucy and her mother were estranged and the fact that she flew to New York to stay on her daughter’s bedside for 5 days and nights meant a lot.

I loved every page of this melancholy, understated novel. There’s no big bang, no showy revelation of a secret, but rather the complex texture of life and time and deep feelings. Although Lucy is a writer and words are important to her, she struggles with emotions that she can’t pinpoint exactly or things that can’t be expressed fully. The writing flows but is never flowery. The structure goes back and forth between the 1980s, Lucy’s childhood in dire poverty and her later life many years after the episode in the hospital. It’s sad but not gloomy or overwhelming; it only makes you think about your own family and relationships, about understanding people (or not), and how childhood has probably a lot more influence on your choices later in life than you’d think. It’s the perfect book to savour on a rainy day together with a hot tea (or maybe, in German fashion, a long coffee and a generous slice of cake).

Thanks to Netgalley and the French publisher Fayard for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The One with the Ugly Belles

Elizabeth Ross, Belle Epoque (2013)

The end of June was full of last times for our family. Last trip to the neighborhood market, last days at this school, last time we got to Parc Monceau, last times to the library. Of course it’s hard to say goodbye, especially as we were lucky to have such a good library network in Paris.

The neighborhood library I went was specialized in children and YA books (with only a small shelf for parents to get their bookish fix), so it led me to extend my interest towards the YA novels. I was looking for a sweeping period novel that would take my mind off the busy to-do list. I don’t mind foreign books set in Paris as long as research is good and characters are believable. All the more when it’s a historical novel. I love to remind myself that so many people lived in Paris in different centuries.

Belle Epoque is a novel that was inspired by a little-known Zola (very) short story. Zola imagined that wealthy upper-class families hired ugly companions for their daughters to appear even more beautiful and striking by comparison, in an effort to help them shine in society during the season. Ross used this basis to explore the fate of Maude Pichon, a 16-year-old runaway from the countryside and poor single girl in the capital, hired by such an agency because she is plain enough; and the fate of Isabelle, a wealthy débutante whose mother has chosen Maude to accompany her everywhere, both as a “faire-valoir” and as a spy, because Isabelle is not interested in marriage and would prefer studying at university and having her say in this new century. The backdrop of the story is the 1900 Universal exhibition in Paris, that saw the building of the Eiffel tower that so many back then found ugly. I didn’t care so much for Maude’s back story in Brittany and for her love interest that seemed a bit fake, but the portray of friendship and the conflicts of loyalty sounded quite right.

The concept of “repoussoir”, or “beauty foil” is such an unusual idea, although the underlying themes of inner vs. outer beauty, of the pressures of conventions on beauty, are rather common in YA. The ending tied too many bows for my taste (which made it implausible) but I guess this is part of YA conventions. I really liked that the book made Maude not exactly likeable, but oh-so-relatable, when she felt so much self-loathing about her own appearance and yet compared herself to other repoussoirs, hoping that she would look less ugly than them.

I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the themes, because the cover art had led me to expect soapy romance. Yes, I get that the girl beside the Eiffel tower has no face, but this cover art is on par with so many historical romance novels covers, isn’t it?

 

The One with the Strong-Willed Homesteader 

Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Letters of a Woman Homesteader (1914)

I know you can’t tell, but the setting has changed dramatically between the time I started and finished this book, as we’ve moved. But don’t misunderstand, we’re still close to Paris and the move (conclusion of a 6 months real-estate affair) is just a 20 miles transfer to suburbia. Nothing really comparable to the experience of this Woman Homesteader: her daring adventures made our endeavors very small and easy in comparison.

Talking about settling down in a new environment, here’s one female writer who has a pretty hands-on knowledge about it. Elinore Pruitt Stewart decided almost on a whim (at least, that’s what she tells us) to take a job in Wyoming in a ranch. A widow and single mother working in the city (she was a housekeeper), she wasn’t afraid to leave it behind and start anew in what many people say a man’s world. The book is made of (very much edited, I’m sure) letters she sent to a friend back in town from 1909 to 1913. These letters are full of little stories, but the author’s point throughout is to convince the reader that homesteading is completely feasible for women (single ones especially) and that the life she chose would be a better option than remaining in the city and working for a meager salary.

It’s a fun and easy read, a bit like an adult Little House in the Prairie, which I adored as a child. There’s hard work for sure, but the author kind of glazes over hardships so that every anecdote and letter has a happy ending. The author is such a positive Pollyanna that I (the naturally critical and grumbling French) could not help but wonder what she held back. She married her employer but he doesn’t appear much in the letters. She had a daughter from her first marriage, but she doesn’t speak about getting her to school or giving her any formal education: the girl just kind of tags along in her mother’s adventure. She hardly ever speaks of being lonely, afraid or even doubtful. She seems to value independence and hard work above all, but then you realize that she didn’t really make it alone, as she got married a mere 6 weeks after arriving into her job, making a convenience marriage rather than a love marriage. (see a very interesting article on Jstor on the discrepancies between what she writes and what really happened: Single Women Homesteaders: The Perplexing Case of Elinore Pruitt Stewart, by Sherry L. Smith, Western Historical Quarterly 1991)

Far from convincing me that homesteading was an enviable career for any woman, the book highlighted to me how exceptional Elinore was (we’re on first name basis) and the need for comfort and convenience and community that many people choose over the freedom and risk of such an adventurous life.

The One with the Cold Case Cold Beauty

Lissa Marie Redmond, A Cold Day in Hell (to be published Feb. 2018)

I found this title on Netgalley and it perfectly fitted my circumstances: I wanted a no-brainer, no-nonsense police procedural to keep me entertained while filling up boxes (96 in total, but who’s counting, right?).

Lissa Marie Redmond is a recently retired homicide detective of the Buffalo (NY) Police Department: although I don’t know much more about her, I believe from the plot minutiae and cast of characters that she has evidently applied the motto: “write what you know”.

The novel’s main character, Lauren Riley, is a 40-something sensible (yet beautiful!) female police detective in the Cold case unit of the Buffalo Police Department. She usually investigates in the D.A. team, but this time she moonlights as a private investigator on the defense side, because the lawyer has somehow convinced her to meet with the accused and that she could not believe him to be guilty. A high-school student with no previous rap sheet is accused to have strangled a wealthy woman in her car after having had sex with her, but Lauren is unconvinced.

The book read easily and it was quite entertaining, because there are many interesting people to meet. Lauren’s sidekick investigator in the office is the one I liked best, because I got a real feeling of camaraderie, office banter and the general highs and lows of the cold case investigations. But there are also Lauren’s ex-husband, who is cute and charming (but a cheat at heart?), the father of her daughters (not the same guy, this one abusive and stupid), the boss, the D.A., etc. You can tell that Redmond is building the setting for a whole series here, so it’s nice that we get all this background information, even if some stories are clearly left open at the end of this book.

The problem I had with the book is that I wasn’t really surprised by anything. It was good to remind me that trials and investigations take months in reality and don’t have necessary an ideal, clean-cut result, but I wish there would have been a quicker pace and more thrilling revelations.

Also, I don’t get the title and find it rather bland. There’s no real hell in this story, and there are so many other books with the same title. The cover art is also very nondescript and I think the book would deserve a better package. But these reservations weren’t serious enough to spoil the experience and I would be glad to follow Lauren Riley’s next adventures.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.