The one that reminded me of serial

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)

It’s Rebecca who put me on track with this book, Rebecca whom I had the pleasure to meet in real life during my holidays! Those who know me know how I love all things Serial (I’m still mildly obsessed and I recently binge-podcasted Undisclosed on the plane) and I love all things Janet Malcolm ever since I read The Silent Woman (again at Rebecca’s recommendation), but I don’t know how I didn’t make the connection between those two. Sometimes, things right under my nose escape me (like that recent example).

The Journalist and the Murderer is basically what happens when a man accused and convicted of having murdered his wife and kids (Jeffrey McDonald) is approached by a journalist (Joe McGinniss) in order to write a book about his story. The accused allows him inside his place, inside his defense team, all with the idea that the journalist’s book will cast a positive light on him as he tries to appeal his sentence. They get very close and apparently friendly. But when the book comes out (in 1983), McDonald discovers that he is described as a psychopath who is surely guilty of the murder. The weirdest part is that the murderer then sues the journalist for breach of trust, saying that he has been misled. A jury has then to decide if it’s morally defensible for a journalist to be friendly with the subject of his investigation in order to get more information.

Needless to say, my first reaction to all this was: only in America!

My second reaction was to compare it point by point to the odd relation that developed during the podcast season between convicted murderer Adnan  Sayed and radio journalist Sarah Koenig. Not that Koenig, as an excellent professional, seemed ever too friendly or misleading with Sayed from what we got to hear. She kept a critical eye, but at times she herself warmed up at the idea that Sayed is such a nice guy that he couldn’t have done it. I don’t really remember how she came to learn about this particular case, but wasn’t she called out by the defense team?

I have enjoyed Serial a lot, not only for the suspense of who really killed Hae min Lee, but also for the quest of trying to establish the truth of a situation and the truth about anything. The deeper into the investigation, the closer Sarah Koenig comes to the realization that you can’t ever know for sure what happened. Even phone towers don’t scientifically tell you for sure where a person was. A phone booth may or may not have been in a supermarket, a butt dial may or may not have been received by a phone. When you move to people and their memory and feelings, things get even blurrier. In the end, like in all noir movies or in a Philip Kerr thriller, you get away slightly shaken by this doomed quest.

As for McGinniss, his intentions weren’t nice, even if he probably didn’t deserve the harsh opinion that the jury got on him (the case was settled out of court as McGinniss paid McDonald a rather huge amount). He desperately needed this book to be successful in order to keep his career afloat, and his book had better be full of dirty revelations (these were the 1980s, but I don’t think it has changed much, or for the better). Malcolm tries to remain neutral while she is herself the journalist investigating McGinniss, but the result is still that McGinniss looks pretty sly (which is better than being a sociopath, I guess). She casts some harsh moral judgment on journalism in general, as being indefensible (no wonder that some journalists rose in fury). The relation between the subject and his writer is that of a confession where the subject tries to make himself as interesting as possible, while having no control over the final result. In principle, I believe she nails it, but some journalists still do a pretty good job at trying to keep a moral clarity.

This made me think about what Sayed might think of Serial’s huge success, to what extent he tried to manipulate Koenig, and to what extent she fell prey to it or was aware of it. Needless to say, the podcast’s success certainly helped pushing his attempts at revision of his conviction (I’m not quite sure where things are right now). But it could have gone both ways, and in fact Koenig concluded herself that she couldn’t be sure of Sayed’s innocence, admitting that there was a chance that he was indeed guilty.

Like every time I read Malcolm, there was much to think about, and I look forward to reading another of her books! Any recommendations?

The one that made me pause and bow down

Raymond Carver, Trois Roses Jaunes (French 1988), Stories from the collection Where I’m Calling From

I knew I was going to love it, and I won’t pretend I really saved it for any special occasion. But everything and everyone had told me that the day I would finally start reading Raymond Carver I would love it.

To add to the confusion, apparently the French publishers picked and chose in the short story collection and just published 7 stories out of the 37. How they did this choice, I have no idea, there’s no pre- or post-face. My hope is that they published the remaining 30 under a different name, as my husband reported that the library has several collections. The only drawback is that they’re all in French. I’m still struggling to identify the corresponding stories in English.

Sometimes an American author’s voice get lost in translation, because the short sentences become dry and blunt and banal. That’s why I always prefer reading in the original text if possible. Here, it took me a while to get used to Carver’s style, but I was immediately at ease, because I could so relate with his intention. Understated feelings and despair, untold pain, ordinary situations and struggles, very short pieces, realist settings but not particularly set in time and place.

It was a treat to read a short story every day, although it was often with a heavy heart that I parted from the main character. A heavy heart when we left the man whose ageing mother was once again moving and making endless petty difficulties in “Boxes”. A heavy heart when we left the man whose whole family sucked money out of him until he could no longer care for himself in “Elephant”. A heavy heart when we left Chekhov on his deathbed while all the bell boy could only think of was what to do with a champagne cork, missing the big event entirely. Some main characters are unpleasant and/or downright pathetic, like the cheating husband in “Menudo”, or the husband who pretends to have an excellent memory and to understand everything about his wife, only to see her leave him under the police’ protection in “Blackbird pie”.

Although it was sometimes hard to follow Carver in seemingly trite stories full of tacky characters, I found myself in a familiar writing environment. These are my kind of stories. Not that I really can write those, I wouldn’t pretend that, but I walk along those lines. And I hope the journey with Carver will be very long.

The one with the Hasidic maiden

Anouk Markovits, I am Forbidden (2012)

I borrowed this book from the library and it surprised me how fast I was taken in. I didn’t put it down nor read anything else for 2 or 3 days, and it hasn’t happened to me for quite a while. Surprised I was because the subject was not really sexy (being set in a ultra-orthodox Jewish community) nor was it particularly easy (we follow the fate of a few children from this community who’d survived the war by chance from 1939 to the end of the 20th century in Brooklyn, as they grow old and have their own family).

I think that what drew me in was the writing, and especially the visual descriptions, that only needed to focus on a few details to render a whole scene vivid with emotions. The first scene might have been gruesome and full of attention-seeking, distasteful details, but Markovits chooses to focus on what a little boy of three might notice, understand and see from a hidden place. The effect is chilling and moving at the same time and I will remember it for a long time.

Now, I knew a little about Hasidism, but had never heard of this particular community, the Satmar sect from the Romanian-Hungarian border, whose rabbi barely escaped the Holocaust by embarking onto the Kasztner train (a disputed bargain with the top Nazi Eichmann to save some 1700 prominent Zionists and community leaders to Switzerland while the others were condemned to die).

The story doesn’t really focus on the Holocaust, although we see how this trauma shapes the main characters and reinforces their clinging to their faith and rules. Instead, we see how two girls grow into different directions: one to question her faith (her father accuses her of being a Spinoza) up to the point that she has to break away, the other to respect and uphold her faith’ rules, without being totally free of her own inner religious conflict. As the title tells, the main characters are all evolving within the high walls of their religious rules, that forbid quite a lot of things, but it really is to Markovits’ credit that the rules however strict and harsh are not portrayed negatively. The girl who breaks away is not portrayed much more positively than her observant counterpart. Every time possible, it’s the beauty of the rules and traditions that is shown, and not in a derogatory or vengeful way, as you might expect from a writer who has grown up in this culture and then chosen to leave (to escape an arranged marriage).

At this point, you might wonder about my particular interest for gated communities. After the Amish, the Satmar, what’s next? will you think. Small communities are a perfect little world, like a snow globe, just at the right dimension for a book. You don’t need to look for religious minorities either, just look at Agatha Christie and her perfect British villages! They have their own rules and own vision of the world; on one hand it’s exotic and interesting to discover (especially as they live in the midst of our mainstream culture) and on the other hand many plots revolve around the classic coming-of-age model where the main character finally chooses our culture over her own limited circle.

“I am forbidden” has a lot to offer: good writing, complex characters, deep moral questions and a long view of history. She doesn’t fall into the clichés of the genre. Highly recommended.

The one starring Mary Pickford in black and white

Miriam Michelson, In the Bishop’s Carriage, 1904

I didn’t know at first that Mary Pickford played the heroine Nancy Olden in a 1913 silent movie from which only a few pictures remain. Apparently it was so popular that it was remade in 1920 into yet another silent movie that got lost too. On my part it was pure luck: I just picked this title up from the Librivox free audiobook library because the writer was a woman and I thought it a bit unusual for the adventure/mystery genre.

Once I knew about Mary Pickford, an imaginary movie started playing in my mind. The heroine would have a slightly stilted walk, her long blond curls rolling around her and bouncing at her every move, all the more as Nancy Olden gets to run away from the police a lot at the start of the book. She would wear those nice shoes and dresses we all admired in the first season of Downtown Abbey. She would make exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions, her mouth open (oh my good I will be discovered!) and her eyelashes fluttering (can I flirt my way out of prison?).

It was a nice discovery. The plot is a fast-paced, first-person account of a cute, sassy, spunky girl who grew up in a harsh, miserable orphanage. She has become a professional pickpocket, using her beauty and apparent innocence to play tricks together with a young crook, Tom Dorgan, whom she loves. Despite her dark background and her controversial choice of career, she’s not one to whine. She has a quick tongue and lots of nerve. Nancy Olden grabs every life line that gets thrown towards her by chance encounters (the eponymous bishop is only the first, she enters his carriage under disguise to escape the police and plays a schoolgirl in full breakdown).

It has gotten a bit outdated at times, and the writing is clumsy at other times, but by most accounts it has well stood the test of time, as the heroine is quite resourceful and independent-minded, making her a very modern American girl.

No wonder that Mary Pickford made a huge success with it. Nancy Olden is an unconventional girl. She doesn’t wait for the Prince Charming, she even saves her own very Charming Prince!

The one that reopens the nature vs nurture debate

Robert Barnard, Out of the Blackout (1984)

I jotted down the name of this book ages ago after reading a blog post about WWII Britain (don’t remember where) and it took years before a bruised copy arrived from Bookmooch. Indeed, it starts in 1941 during the London blitz. But it all is rather misleading.

The book actually spans from 1941 to the late 1970s, and the blackout in the title is rather the main character’s quest for his own past. So what I thought was a classic whodunnit set during the war turned rather unexpected, in the vein of a psychological mystery à la Barbara Vine (but shorter).

Imagine a little boy of about 5, Simon, who find himself among other children refugees sent away from London by their parents to seek safety in the British countryside. The only thing is, this boy isn’t on any list and the name he gave is fake. Who is he? To the family who welcomed him, it doesn’t matter much. They raise him as their own, and when at the end of the war nobody comes to fetch him, they adopt him and give him their own name.

To the boy, who becomes a young man then a mature one, his adoptive family is paramount and his love for them genuine, but he still wonders and the mystery of his origins nags him as he finds himself in familiar surroundings around Paddington Station. The story moves by jumps to 1964 as he has managed to identify his birth family and to move in incognito with them as a boarder.

The Simmeters, his birth family, are not a nice bunch indeed, so you shouldn’t wait a teary reunion scene. Greedy, dishonest, lazy, uneducated, racist and antisemitic, who would want a birth family like that? Unexpectedly, Barnard evoke that part of the British population that was rather sympathetic to the Nazis and who had to keep low-key during the war lest they’d get arrested. Of course, Simon could have left it at that point, but he was convinced that his mother had been murdered by his violent, pro-Mosley husband. So he wants to get to the bottom of it.

The book is weird, because not much happens and Simon is rather detached, although there’s no question he takes his quest to heart. And his quest takes him nearly a lifetime, amidst a marriage, a divorce, a career, another marriage and family life. Simon is a nice chap, a good guy through and through, and yet his birth family couldn’t be more different.

In classic novels, or Victorian ones, there are often cases of mistaken identities or orphans from a different social backgrounds brought up in lower classes or the reverse. The Victorian answer is the triumph of nature over nurture: Oliver Twist stays a nice boy despite his hardships, etc.. But here, at the end of the puzzle, we’re left with a nice, satisfying twist that leaves no doubt as to Barnard’s position: nurture has won over nature in Simon’s life.

The one where I try a bonnet ripper as medicine

Beverly Lewis, The Shunning (1997)

Back in March when things went a bit hectic-tragic, I found myself in need of serious comfort read. I mean, not even a cozy mystery set in an English garden would have done it. I wanted sugar and good feelings and wholesome people having not-so-difficult difficulties… and the promise of a happy end.

So I returned to one of my weirdest acquired taste: Amish novels.

I don’t know a single other European person reading those, or even aware of their existence. (After a quick Kindle search, indeed Amish novels have been translated into Dutch and German, duh!) But apparently it’s a thriving niche market, and so far it has always worked its magic for me with previous titles by Wanda Brunstetter and Beverly Lewis, taking me faraway to another world with its own rules, a world more caring and more gentle and more quiet than my own. I bet that’s the whole point.

Now already you’re shaking your head at my Amish romance taste, and I’m just going to confess something even weirder: I didn’t read it in order. Like, I did start at page 1, but as soon as the pace slacked a bit I shuffled the pages forward to any sentence that grabbed my attention, only to return to a few pages backward if I had the sense that I’d missed a key plot point.

Obviously that was the result of my short attention span in stressful times, and it was also the reflect of the… ahem… rather formulaic and the… ahem… rather predictable story. But even consumed not exactly as the author prescribed it, the effect of this particular medicine remained efficient: within a few hours I was less stressed-out, a bit sedated perhaps, but certainly less gloomy.

The injection can be repeated every day for a few days until the patient is fully recovered, but beware of overdose, lest the patient would start wearing bonnets and refuse to use any electric appliance or car.

This one novel is about a young woman who struggles to find her true place within the Amish community, wonders about the outside world and (slightly, gently) rebels against the rules (don’t expect her to smoke something illegal and to try one night stands: she sings outside the church and refuses to throw away her guitar). and gets the strictest punishment that the Amish can design for their own: she’s shunned, which means that none including her own family and friends is allowed to interact with her, they look through her and don’t talk to her: a kind of very efficient social death in tight-knit communities.

This book is the first of a trilogy, but I won’t bother reading the others. The plot is sweet and the characters very attaching (if not quite relatable to my own experience), and rest assured that noone does anything remotely unproper in the whole book, but I’m already convinced that the gentle heroin will find her happy ending and her prince charming.

The one I didn’t get

James Salter, All That Is (2013)

I have a complicated relationship to James Salter. Not that I know him personally, but back in the days I had fallen in love with his short story collection “Last Night“, and I had professed myself a Salter fan. Then I read his memoir “Burning the days“, and I wasn’t sure anymore. That was 2008.

What seven years can do to your memory… I had forgotten everything about my bad experience of “Burning the days” and had kept intact my glowing souvenir of his stories. That’s why I was really looking forward to reading “All that is”, a new novel after a long time.

The book starts with a bang and continues with a murmur. It opens when the main character as a young man is aboard a war ship at the height of Pacific war in 1945. The battle scene is lyrical and full of promises. But peacetime is far less exciting than wartime and things go downhill from there. Main character Bowman goes to school, finds a job, marries, divorces, has adventures, finds another love, has successes and failures, is wronged and wrongs someone else as a revenge.

Everything after the first chapter is grey and muted, and soon feels completely unimportant. The sentences are carefully crafted, but then in the middle of the book I couldn’t help myself: Is that all that is? And it’s not even a pun.

Bowman is cold and unemotional. Is he supposed to be a bad guy? I’m not sure.

Perhaps it’s the whole point of a book. Replicate a life in its high and low points, in its moments of bravery and its moments of baseness. Does it make a good book? I don’t know. The writing is quite good and elegant, but without a compelling story, and a (at least slightly) relatable character, it wasn’t enough for me.

I kind of wish the same story was presented to me as a series of linked short stories. But now, all I’m left with is the question: what did I miss?

The one without maple syrup in a darker Vermont

Eric Rickstad, The Silent Girls (2014)

I have Sarah from Crime Pieces to thank for finding this book. It was quite a while since I haven’t read a book like that: a combination of noir, thriller, horror and police whodunnit. It was a good mix, but it’s difficult for me to tell a lot about the story without giving away too much. Let me try.

The hero is an ex-cop turned private investigator in the tiny Vermont town of Canaan (please pardon me, I didn’t know it was a real place just next to the border, that weird line that is totally, like, horizontal between the US and Canada. Even in real life it doesn’t seem exactly thriving).

The police needs him to look for a missing girl who is legally emancipated: they are worried but unable to launch an official investigation. Franck Rath, following the rules of the genre, has some issues of his own: he’s still rehashing his guilt over the gruesome murder of his sister, more than a decade before, which made him abandon the police force to raise his sister’s baby as if she was his own.

With a nasty backache, a recent empty nest (girl in university), and the disturbing prospect of his sister’s killer being release on parole, he soon gets convinced that not only one, but a series of young women have disappeared for years in the area. The hypothesis of a serial killer is hard to sell to the police though, as these girls are all different and no body has been discovered. Until…

I won’t go any further, but I was quite impressed by the book and some touchy issues he addresses. The main character is suitably flawed, the atmosphere is chilly and gloomy: it’s really no advertisement for Vermont (the only thing I knew about Vermont is maple syrup, and it’s not even mentioned here!), and those tourists who come to resorts for the landscape are chastised for destroying the environment and offering little to the local economy.

After a huge “bang” opening (which might be misleading as I definitely thought of Stephen King), the pace of the first half is rather slow, but I liked it. I needed some time to get acquainted with the place and people (so far removed from the American dream). The last part is sustained at a breathtaking pace, with an incursion into gothic and gore that I didn’t expect.

It has quite a potential for a series, but the ending (a twist I certainly hadn’t seen coming) make it unclear whether it’s meant to be a stand alone. Eric Rickstad is indeed a man to follow.

The one with Quaker quilts

Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway (2012)

I must admit that I used to have prejudices against Tracy Chevalier: The girl with the pearl earring (which I think I read in a previous life), The lady and the unicorn (which I’m sure I haven’t) made me think that she had found one recipe for churning out bestsellers, taking a famous piece of art and weaving any kind of romance into it.

But I stumbled upon Remarkable creatures on audio book and it was such a fun read that I decided to give her a second chance.

This time, with the role of Quakers communities in Ohio in the underground railway around 1850. As a European, I don’t know much about the historical facts, and so I enjoyed the informative part quite a lot. I also appreciated to be told the story from the point of view of a non-American, a recent immigrant, a British Quaker girl, Honor Bright, who’d come to Ohio to accompany her sister due to get married. I like that she’s not chasing the American dream, it’s just that she couldn’t stay in her community after being jilted by her fiancé.

She spends quite a while complaining about the strange way Americans behave, and I understand that out may be annoying for some readers, but to me out made sense as a rather immature girl who had led a sheltered life in a small village, brought up with high principles but who didn’t have to face any moral dilemma to put them into practice. It’s a classic coming of age story as well as a classic immigration story of finding a new home in a new country. While I don’t want to give away all the plot, it became obvious to me early on that Honor is the runaway of the title, running away from her old life and in part from herself.

I have little knowledge of Quakers at all, the little bit coming from Patrick Gale’s Notes of an exhibition. The Quaker part and the quilting part were the ones I enjoyed most. I liked that Honor, as an expert quilter compares American and British techniques and sees her new country in light of these differences in sewing and stitching. Isn’t that quite true that we judge new places we visit through tiny facts we gather and through very personal lenses of interpretation? I look forward to checking exactly how both types of quilts look like.

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?