The One with an ounce of happiness hidden inside

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear (2015)

I was so looking forward to reading Big Magic, and I want to say upfront that I thoroughly loved it. Yet, it might not be for everyone, and even for people who know me, it might come as a surprise.

Elizabeth Gilbert looks like a wonderfully nice person, but the thing she is definitely not is quiet, reasonable and low-key. Internet pegs her as an ENFP, and I’m an ISTJ (sorry non-MBTI people, in this very case this particular frame of personality analysis is very very apt, so Google it if needed and bear with me). The problem is right there, we don’t have even one letter in common. Where I am rational, she is emotional. Where she wants to hug you, I want to keep my distance. Where I organize and analyze, she just wings it and flashes forward. Where I follow up and feel guilty if I don’t finish, she lets go and moves on to the next dream without regret or remorse. ENFPs and ISTJs are normally a match from hell.

Except sometimes it works out fine! (albeit from a distance)

Yes, many pages made me cringe, especially when she gets all woo-hoo about divine inspiration, about the Muse jumping from one person to another via a hug (a hug of all things, how American!). It makes a fun story for my kids but I didn’t find it particularly useful for me. Yet her analysis of our Western culture that insists on being serious and passionate to the point that one must suffer alone like a martyr in order to create fascinated me. It resonates a lot with my own findings that french writers are supposed to be lonely geniuses writing their chef-d’oeuvre in their Parisian attic (it’s better to be in Paris to get published) and the distrust on any formal training in the literature art (MFAs don’t exist in France, you either have genius or you don’t). She offers an alternative model, the trickster’s, where play and fun and fearlessness and not-taking-yourself seriously are paramount. I love it.

Elizabeth (yes, something in her makes you want to be on first name basis) is such an antidote to that serious, elitist, privileged way of thinking: the way her book Eat Pray Love was a product of privilege had disturbed me before, but this one is not self-centered and more like a gentle, universal encouragement to follow one’s own creative outlet wherever it takes you.

It’s an antidote to bad mood, to self-doubt and to guilt trips. I would recommend it to anyone who suffers occasionally from these symptoms, and I bet there are quite a few of us!

PS. Good news : I have listened to her Magic lessons podcast with pleasure, and apparently a second season is coming soon!

The one with the crazy lemon cake’s family

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

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

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

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

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

The one with stationery put to good use

Lisa Beazley, Keep Me Posted (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the ARC!

The one that links all tragedies together

Gudrun Mouw, From Ashes into Light (2016)

I may not be the right person to tell you about this book. I got interested in this book on Netgalley because the writer had such an incredible life journey. Gudrun Mouw was born in East Prussia during the war and emigrated to the US at age 7 in the 1950s as a refugee. I figured the book would draw on her personal experience that seemed quite unique.

But I had also ignored little bits of information that didn’t converge with my expectations: that she calls herself a Yogic writer, that she lives in California as a yoga and meditation teacher, that the book’s themes are about transcendence and mystical resonances between people’s sufferings across centuries and continents. Not exactly my cup of tea.

Three narrative threads run in parallel: Ruth, a Jewish girl from Austria during World war 2, who is sent to Auschwitz, Saqqapaya, a Native American who lives through the Spanish conquest, and Friede Mai, a young girl born in East Prussia during the war who later emigrates to the United States. The voice that unites these three tragedies is that of a phoenix, all-seeing, all-feeling creature who is able to be reborn from ashes (hence the title). Each of the three main characters have sudden visions of the other two characters’ experience and suffering. The tone is that of a Buddhist magical realism that really perplexed me, being a very rational European sort of person.

While I’ve read Buddhist memoirs and non-fiction before, I’ve never read a novel that tries to weave Buddhist concepts of suffering, of compassionate awareness, of transcendence into the plot itself. While it’s not badly written at all, I’m not comfortable with the accumulation of personal, intimate tragedies and suffering per se. I know that I might seem insensitive, but too many tragedies in this book sort of cancelled each other out. I know some historians and philosophers insist that the Holocaust was a unique tragedy because of the political project to annihilate completely a race. This position has been widely discussed because the 20th century had its fair share of other mass murders (Cambodia springs to mind, but unfortunately it wasn’t the only one). Here the novel takes quite the opposite view that all the tragedies are the same. And I can see that at a personal level, for the victim, they really might be so.

As you can see, this novel is both intensely emotional and touches very deep questions. While I’m not totally convinced by it, it was an interesting reading experience.

I received this book on Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The one with the post-apocalyptic Shakespeare

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

To say that I’m ambivalent about post-apocalyptic novels is the major understatement of 2015 (I read it last year). I’m fascinated by them but they make me so very anxious and depressed (especially when done well, with any hint of realism) that I often prefer to abstain altogether.

I started the Road and stopped after a few dozens pages, not that it wasn’t good, on the contrary, but because it was way too depressing. I said I would come back to it on a very sunny and fun day, but then who opens The Road on a fun day?

I only heard very positive things about Station Eleven, and I asked around to trusted bloggers if it was depressing. Short answer: it isn’t. I took my sweet little time to listen to them but they were right. The tone is one of sadness and elegy over a disappeared world. Just as characters mourn the world they knew in their childhood. The book is surprisingly mellow: most of the gore and violence happens off stage, and the focus is on survivors of the flu 15 years later, so that the edge of the apocalypse has had time to soften and dust to settle over the few remnants of humanity.

I often object to books built with alternating timelines because it’s often just an excuse to build up density and structure. But here I liked it because alternating between the events leading to the mass epidemic wiping most of humanity off and the survivors’ new life allowed sadness to seep into the reading and to let us understand all that was lost. Some reviewers found it not cruel enough, too soft (I’m thinking of Janet Maslin of the NYT for example), but it kind of reconciled me with this genre.

Not to say I’m quite read for the Road yet, but I think that Station Eleven will remain in my memory for a while. Until the end of the world? I hope not.

The one with the button-eyed parents

Neil Gaiman, Coraline (2002)

I’ve finished reading this book in November, and I have this unfinished post draft for more than one month, so what’s been stopping me from hitting the “publish” button until now?

It’s not really as if you were eagerly waiting for my review to discover what Coraline is all about. But the fact that there are about 10,000 reviews (not, actually, 11,044 reviews and counting) on Goodreads for this book make me wonder if anything I’ll write hasn’t been already written 11,044 times before.

Once I’d dipped my toe into Neil Gaiman’s weird world, I knew I wouldn’t stop at just one novel, because the depth and the wealth of this author’s imagination made me crave for more.

The local library had nothing else by him but Coraline. I’d loved the Ocean, but I was still reluctant about Coraline. I thought it was too childish for my taste. Childish it is in a sense, but rather in a good way. I found the portrayal of the young narrator of the Ocean more complex, but Coraline is still an amazing, plucky little girl. I found myself rooting for her parents, because of course they are terribly busy and don’t pay enough attention to their daughter’s whereabouts, but I’m sure that it isn’t an easy task to keep her engaged and close by. I’m sure that she wouldn’t content herself with playing with her big box of Legos for the afternoon. (I chose to not read this book as a guilt trip for parents who don’t spend all their time with their kids – but it still lurked at the back of my mind… talking about a nightmare).

But then what child hasn’t pretended that his parents aren’t really his and that other parents were waiting for him elsewhere?  Like in the best fairy tales, an alternate world just coexists next to ours and it just needs one step aside… How Gaiman develops this fantasy of sorts is quite creepy, and he has the skills to never fully define the horror that awaits Coraline on the other side of the house. It reminded me of Roald Dahl, where kids’ adventures are never sugar-coated and that even nice happy ends can’t make up for unknown dangers still lurking in the corners.

In short, Coraline couldn’t match the sense of wonder and dread that The Ocean at the end of the lane opened for me, but it was pretty close. It’s the kind of book that I’d love my son to read one day, but I think I have still a few years to wait, otherwise he will have nightmares for sure!

The one to read with a bowl of ramen noodles and a Miyazaki movie

Kathryn Tanquary, The Night Parade (To be published Jan. 2016*)

Saki is a normal 13-year-old, more interested in her phone than in her environment, more interested in spending her holidays with the girlfriends clique in Tokyo than with her grandma and her family in the mountains, more interested in being cool than in respecting traditions. But at the beginning of Obon, the festival where Japanese people honor their ancestors, Saki makes a mistake: she unwittingly receives a death curse by trespassing into an old temple and she has to undo it by venturing into the spirits’ world, guided by three spirits.

It’s a middle-grade book, so I must keep that in mind before complaining that the plot line and character development are a tad too predictable for my taste. Saki goes from being rather obnoxious to finding her own voice to stand up against bullies and monsters. Each night she has to fight some monsters and rise up to some challenges, which was reminiscent of a video game and will certainly appeal to young readers.

My understanding is that the writer is an American living and working in Japan: while she draws a convincingly sulky teenager complete with eye rolls and little white lies, it sometimes seemed to me as if Saki was more Japanese-American than from Tokyo.
But the spirits world she encounters in the mountains is really fun and authentic. The Night Parade (Hyakki Yagyo) is a folk tale that says that each year the spirits go out into the world for a few nights and may take any human who ventures into the crowd of various demons. The book reminded me of Studio Ghibli animations, especially of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) and Pompoko, where the tanuki change themselves in traditional Japanese monsters.

I don’t know how much middle-graders know about Japan, but this book is a very refreshing adventure into the world of traditional myths and tales from Japan, without being too heavy on back-story explanations, side notes and being smug with its exoticism. They sure will enjoy the ride and ask for more animes and mangas after turning the last page. And I did too!

*I was sent this book’s ARC through Netgalley in exchange for a honest review.

The one with the darkest fairy tales

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013)

I was told several times by fellow friendly bloggers and commentators that I should try Neil Gaiman, and my best guess is that Emily recommended him to me first. It took me ages to listen, because he’s not really well-known in France and the only name that he’s known for is the movie Coraline which I wrongly pegged as another version of The nightmare before Christmas. I can almost see you shake your head in disbelief, but I must blame either a very wrong timing or a very wrong marketing campaign for this old mistake.

Anyway, I stumbled upon this book at the library and the detail that made me try it is that it won an adult literary prize. I wasn’t particularly in the mood for a YA, but I’d say some magical realism would make this fall more alluring. I was in for a wild and  fast ride! I literally fell into the book and couldn’t let it go.

The voice was really what kept me in: that of an adult looking back at his own self as a 7-year-old child with wide-opened eyes, nothing rosy or nostalgic. It reminded me of the little girl from A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok who read about myths larger than life to understand her troubled daily life during WWII. Here the hero’s daily life is grim and tragic, but soon turns into a horror larger than life too. The boy’s parents take a lodger who kills the boy’s cat upon arrival, and soon after commits suicide. The boy looks up at his parents and the adults around him but soon discovers how powerless they really are, how frail and messed up they can be, even those who have magical powers like the Hempstock women who live in the farm next door.

I loved how Gaiman puts magic and dark powers lurking beneath the daily routine as if they were entirely normal. As a 7-year-old, many things are a given, unexplained and unquestioned. As readers we are treated the same; we may read the story as a fantasy tale but also as a realist story misunderstood and distorted by the fantasy books that the boy read and by the bad memory of the adult he’s become. We’ll never know for sure, but that too is okay. Some things are better left that way. We’re not told everything, and it feels like Gaiman could have written a book twice longer without exhaust the full history of the Hempstock women, who they really are and what they are fighting against exactly.

I’m not sure where his inspiration comes from, and I feel like he has absorbed lots of traditional tales and myths, but I was surprised to feel immediately comfortable in his world, not that I was reassured. There are a few harrowing scenes, and other rather heartbreaking. This book will stay with me for a while.

The one that breaks another Sherlock taboo

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994)

I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes when I was in middle school, so early in fact that my mother had to ask a special derogation for me to borrow books from the library that were not meant for my age. (I wonder if such a distinction still exists these days, in that period you had to climb behind the librarians desk to a mezzanine, so that they couldn’t miss who went there unauthorized).

The problem is that Sherlock didn’t seem to love me back. He didn’t seem to hold his fellow countrymen in high esteem, even when he condescended to solve their problems, and I don’t even start about his fellow countrywomen. Sherlock doesn’t like women except for Irene Adler, everybody knows that.

Yet Laurie King dared to write the most shocking hypothesis of all (not the one where he’s gay, which wouldn’t disturb anyone these days): the version where he finally meets his female match. A woman so intelligent that they can see eye to eye on such idiosyncrasies as identifying muds origins, playing with their deductive skills, various fight techniques, etc.

This book is the first of a series, and although I read it during our trip to the US this summer and am awfully late at mentioning it here, I have been looking forward to reading more of it ever since.

What I loved about the book is the entertaining and easy prose, the fast pace and the plot with cases and villains in the good old-fashioned late Victorian way. There was deduction, investigation but also hot pursuit, exotic adventures overseas, bombs and conspiracy.

What I didn’t like so much was that Mary Russell herself isn’t really a believable character: she’s so mature at 15 that I mistook her several times for a 25 years old. She’s too perfect in… well in everything. And she just pushes aside poor dear uncle Watson in a shameful way. I understand that it couldn’t really become a trio but I wish Watson wasn’t made into such an old fool as he is. After all, he’s not as clever as Holmes and Russell, granted (who can?), but he was a doctor and a soldier so he’s far from being naive and stupid.

But the few reservations I spelled out here don’t weigh much compared to the fun I had reading the book. My most favorite Sherlock’s continuation remains to this day the BBC series, but since the next season won’t come soon, there’s not much that will stop me from buying the next Mary Russell book when I’ll want some light comfort read.

The one that added beauty to the darkest hours

Delphine Hirasuna, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946

I love when the books I read accidentally collide. Of course, you can always argue that it’s not completely serendipity, but that I do search them out and that I am obsessed with a certain subject. I prefer to think that this particular subject is following me.

The latest occurrence happened this summer, but you need to rewind a little more to understand. It started last summer when I read the novella-slash-incantation-slash-historical novel by Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic. It followed a group of Japanese mail order brides from the moment they left Japan for America to the day they had to abandon their American homes in California for internment camps inland in 1942 following Pearl Harbor’s attack. I was enchanted by this book and it gave a memorable voice to a very singular slice of history. The sudden switch of perspective at the end from the choir of Japanese women to the choir of the communities emptied out of all their Japanese members was quite moving.

The second encounter with this particular theme was quite unexpected with James Ellroy’s Perfidia, that explore California in 1941-1942, following the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. If anything, James Ellroy is known for not avoiding painful and controversial subjects and the issue of anti-Japanism racism was quite glaring in the first part of the book that I read (I had to give it back to the library and haven’t taken it again so far), and it showed without ambiguity that some people had seen quite early their own interest in having their Japanese neighbors removed, willingly or not. Both books have a collective view of events, but as much as Otsuka was emotional and focused on women, Ellroy’s tone is male-dominated, cynical and brutal.

The third encounter is this book, which looks like a coffee book table but is really a lot more. The pictures present art objects that were designed by Japanese people while living in the internment camps. The book is bittersweet, because these objects are so beautiful and yet made with scraps and bits of reclaimed materials they saved from their already grim daily routine: twine, bits of wood, shells, rocks… Japanese families were allowed only a few bare necessities and they had to endure a harsh environment for years. They organized arts and crafts classes and groups to beautify their surroundings.

The title word of Gaman means “enduring what seems unbearable with dignity and grace”. The author’s parents and grandparents were detained in these camps and this book is a tribute to their ingenuity and spirit. These traumatic events of being singled out, detained and imprisoned despite their U.S. nationality, are a big taboo in Japanese families and in American schools, so I hear, and I guess that this kind of initiative, along with exhibitions and conferences associated with it, are a big step forward for those who want to know their family history in full and break the silence and shame around it.