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.

Unfinished Business: the Self-Help Edition

It’s probably not the right time for me to read books on how to have a more balanced life, right in the middle of a house move. While I certainly need more balance in my life right now, it’s just that I can’t really pack my life’s belongings and unpack my deep thoughts and life goals in the same month.

In that spirit I decided that two books I tried in that realm weren’t probably going to make the cut and get packed with the other books. They were definitely going to find themselves other owners (I put them on the donation shelves at my workplace), and if I’m not mistaken they have found them already, as they were not on the shelf last time I passed by.

I hope that Samantha Ettus‘ book, The Pie Life has found a working woman with kids as its new owner, because the book is more for her, although Ettus claims it’s for everyone. The principle is very easy to understand: that life is very diverse and can be compared to a pie, whose slices are each very different and all taste delicious. She advocates going from one slice to the next without guilt. She is obviously a very ambitious, very driven woman and it will appeal to women who are aiming for a career equally or more successful than their partner. Although I am a full-time working mother, I didn’t resonate much with the book, probably because I have never felt any guilt about working and in France and especially in Paris this is totally normal. I believe American working mothers face a lot more criticism and feel more torn and guilty, in which case the book should help. I also didn’t resonate with the book because my career isn’t my priority at the moment.

I hope that Christine Carter‘s book, The Sweet Spot, will find an active, outspoken, laid-back, extrovert owner. I have followed Christine Carter’s newsletter and blog for a while, and I must say that I didn’t enjoy the change of format and pace. What works in short paragraphs and daily bursts of energy is too much for me when it comes in long chapters. Christine Carter introduces happiness concepts with lots of scientific backup, which is nice, but the main ideas are a bit similar to those in The Happiness Project or other that are easily found online. I must say that Christine Carter comes too much like an extrovert for my own taste, and many tips she gives are based on her personal life, which is hardly applicable to my own case. Overall still, I liked it better than the Ettus book, because she had a more laid-back approach.

Jumping From Story to Story

After I finished Ellen Klages’ collection of short stories I found myself in a mood for more. After all, reading more short stories was one of my goals for 2017, and one not too difficult to reach! (Not like reading from my own shelves, or reading from a set list of books, ahem…)

At first I felt a bit rusty, because I had been reading New-Yorker-style stories where you want to read carefully and hang on to every word: the epiphany is sometimes so subtle you don’t want to miss it. Nothing bad about that, except it’s maybe a bit too highbrow for me in this sunny, busy season. Ellen Klages reminded me that some stories can be lighter, quicker on their feet (mmh, you might object to stories having feet, but I own it) and don’t take themselves so seriously.

A few weeks ago I read the 2 stories that Danielle had sent me. The first one, “The Heaviest Dress”, by Mireille Silcoff was about a complicated Jewish family story and eccentric self-aggrandizing characters: I liked it but did not love it. I couldn’t quite relate to any of the characters, but it’s probably for the best!

The second one was a lot more arresting: “Circumstances of Hatred” by Laura Trunkey started in clichés and soon took a sharp turn towards daring. It started with a newlywed couple moving from one coast of Canada to the other because of an inheritance. The first sentence of the story is very original: “I had not forgotten about my grandfather’s refrigerator, but seventeen years of absence had diminished it”. The young man had a special connection with his oddball of a grandfather and upon his death he has been bequeathed a house with a locked fridge in it, that never should go on defrost. The young woman is unhappy about the move, there is bickering and low-grade dissatisfaction in the air. Can you imagine what will come next? Can you imagine what is kept in the fridge? I bet you won’t ever guess, because at each twist and turn of the story I kept muttering: no, she can’t possibly!

At the kids library I stocked up on short stories (translated in French but it’s better than nothing): two stories by Truman Capote, “The Thanksgiving Visitor”, and “Miriam”. Both are classics, and they didn’t disappoint (although I found it weird to put the two of them together for a teen edition – and the translator did a literal translation of Thanksgiving with “day of the giving of thanks” which was awkward). Then I turned to the master of entertaining and thrilling stories, Stephen King. I grabbed a copy that was titled Mist, except that the French editor must have pulled a trick because the short story Mist (that people online rave about) was not listed inside! Talk about disappointment!

I understood later on that the original collection, Skeleton Crew, was so thick that it was not publishable as such in France, and the publisher just cut the collection in two volumes (without saying so!). It didn’t really matter because the range of stories and tones is quite wide. Some are pure horror, some fantasy, some thrillers, even a page of poetry! I didn’t relate to all of them, obviously. Well, it’s hard to relate to a story about a surgeon stranded on a desert island who decides to eat himself, right? … Right? The one I loved best was the one with the gentlest ghosts, “The Reach”. It’s set on a small Maine Island. An old resident, Stella Flanders, has never set foot on the continent, she has never seen the point of doing so, until she is dying from cancer and now that the reach is frozen she’s tempted to go see on the other side. The small-town villagers and gossips are all well portrayed and the whole close-knit community comes alive. The story was sensitive and gentle and well deserved the prize it got in… 1982. Another non-horror story was quite fun: the  “Word Processor of the Gods“. Well, it wouldn’t speak to Millenials I guess, but I do remember word processors (although I never had one, I had a mechanical typewriter that felt like heavy lifting for fingers). I love Stephen King ever since I tried 11/22/63 last year, but I will decidedly stay away from his goriest stories, now that I know that he pulls no punches.

Last, I started (yet) another short story collection by Spanish writer Javier Marias, While the Women are Sleeping. It is a collection taken from our own shelves for 2017 (more brownie points to me!). I find it weirdly satisfying to be able to finish one story in one setting: it’s even better than crossing stuff in my checklist, as I am quite goal-oriented these days with the packing and moving!

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 problematic Dia de Los Muertos

Raina Telgemeier, Ghosts (2016)

I love it when my oldest son and I can share a book together. As it happens I choose most books for him at the library, because a- at this hour he has a planned activity; b- I don’t trust him to read challenging books; c- he would only take home Mickey Mouse comics and mangas; d- I can browse middle grade literature shelves and I love it. I often do some night reading aloud to both boys these days, but not every night. I know I am kind of bossy but my son is only 9 (only?) and I know these times won’t last forever. Plus, don’t worry too much, he also goes to another library to fill up on Mickey Mouse to his heart’s content.

I borrowed Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier as much for me as for him. We had a great time reading the graphic memoir El Deafo by Cece Bell, and I knew I could trust my son to be open to hard subjects (with a proper treatment, that is). I have bought Telgemeier’s Smile for my workplace library but haven’t read it yet. I took a chance on her Ghosts, because my son is not yet a teenager, more like a tween, and the book deals with pretty heavy issues so that I wasn’t sure how he would receive it. The main character’s little sister has cystic fibrosis and the whole family needs to move to a new town for her sake. I didn’t know how much my son could understand about degenerative genetic disorders, but I found that Telgemeier did a good job being both sensitive with young readers and realistic with terminal illness and death and grief.

The other big theme of the book is the Mexican American tradition of Dia de Los Muertos, in an imaginary small town where friendly ghosts literally come back and mingle with the local population. Catrina and her family are Mexican-American but haven’t kept with traditions. Her new friends and neighbors enable her to reconnect with her identity. Ghosts in this story are kind and sensitive and nothing to be afraid of. Telgemeier is great with the difficult subject of death, of cultural acceptance, of sisterhood, and I was going to rate this book a whole five stars, until…

I ran into various critical reviews on Goodreads and on the internet about how her portrayal of Dia de Los Muertos and Mexican-American culture is not accurate at all. People said (I’m paraphrasing here) that the scenes set in a Spanish mission with ghosts of Native people are out-of-line because of the cruelty and oppression that Spanish Catholic missionaries used against them. It’s probably true, and I can’t be the judge of it because I know far too little about this history and this part of the world.

Call me ignorant if you want, but the whole concept of cultural appropriation was new to me. I didn’t know there was a word for that, and it’s little known in France. But I don’t like the idea that only Mexican-American people can write about Mexican-American experience. Writers should be able to write about experiences that are beyond their own lives, if they accurately portray facts upon which they base their fiction.

So my verdict? I still love the book, problematic or not. I’m grateful that people on the internet took the time to explain why and where it was wrong, but I think it’s still a worthwhile read for elementary kids.

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