The One with the Embroidery for Hope and Peace

Lois Lowry, Gathering Blue (2000)

This is the second middle grade novel I read in a row, after the Apothecary. After choosing randomly based on the cover art (which wasn’t exactly a success), I picked a name I knew: Lois Lowry seems like a dependable name to choose from the Science Fiction/Fantasy shelves at the Children Library when I don’t know where to turn. I have read the Giver a few years ago and liked it, and I didn’t even know that this book was the second volume of a trilogy quarter.

It was the idea that the heroin was a embroiderer that sold me the book. Not only that, but also a young girl with a handicap (a twisted leg at birth). It is set in a post-apocalyptic society where only the strongest, the harshest, the most powerful survive. Kindness is not part of this world, emotions are denied, no books exist, women are forbidden to learn how to read and write. Kira was allowed to live despite her physical weakness only by exception, and people aren’t kind to her or forgiving. The only art that is allowed is the one of a handful selected children who seem to have a gift. Kira has a gift for embroidery, and after her mother’s death she goes to the palace to embroider the robe of a singer who recounts every year the whole history of this world in a big ceremony. It seems at first like a safe haven for her creativity, but it also has hidden dangers and secrets.

It is a post-apocalyptical novel as we guess that this society has been built on the ruins of some major destruction in our world. I am often reluctant to read post-apocalyptical books but this one is hopeful and readable to young readers. It reads completely independantly from the Giver, only the idea that art, kindness and compassion are necessary in our world is the common thread between the two books. In a sense, the themes are a bit similar and pave the way towards Station Eleven that I loved so much (but is definitely for adult readers) The pace is slow, the ending quite open, but it’s a nice change for this genre that is often too gore and too violent for my taste.

The One with the League of Anti-Atomic Wizards

Maile Meloy, The Apothecary (2011)

I was perhaps in need for comfort reads this fall (guess what, international news haven’t been exactly forgiving, and this is the high season at work too), as I turned towards a few middle grade novels.

Actually, I am sucker for good cover art and so many YA / middle grade novels these days have outstanding covers, that make me immediately want to pick them. I was attracted towards the Apothecary by the historical setting, London in the early 1950s, during the Cold War, but still feeling the deep scars from the war.

In this particular era, Communist spies and atomic bombs are feared everywhere, but particularly in California where Janie’s parents work as screenwriters. They are pressured to go find work in London, and 14-year-old Janie goes to a traditional English school with uniforms and Latin classes. She finds her classmate Benjamin charming, but also intriguing, and he soon brings her into crazy adventures, as it turns out that Benjamin’s father is a sort of wizard who has been abducted by Russian spies.

I liked the premises but I wasn’t quite convinced by the story. Things were a bit all over the place, and only the swift pace of actions and twists tried to make up for unexplained bits of plot. This being the first of a series, it might be due to some revelation in later episodes, but I wasn’t grabbed by Janie and the characters were too one-dimensional. Also, the figure of the Chinese chemist came out so stereotypical (kungfu moves! inscrutable stare! pseudo-Chinese pidgin French –I read in translation) that I rolled my eyes every single time she appeared. The mix between scientifical, historical, and fantasy elements seemed very clunky to me. I would have preferred that the author stick to one genre, and make it more believable and more consistent.

Well, can’t win them all! I should know by now that a nice cover does not make a good novel every single time.

The One with the Laguna in a Messy War

Martin Cruz Smith, The Girl from Venice (2016)

Some places are so full of history that they seem to escape time. So much so that you can’t really imagine these places in a particular, different historical moment. Or is it just me? Such is Venice, Italy. Have you ever imagined Venice during World War 2? Mmh, me neither.

The book was recommended by Annie from A Bookish Type, and I immediately requested the book from Netgalley, because Venice. Yes, I am aware that this is not a good enough reason and that it might expose me to all kinds of disappointments, but here I am. One more title in my Netgalley queue.

I didn’t regret it, but it wasn’t what I thought. It was not Venice proper, in fact, but more of the tiny fishermen’s villages in the Venetian lagoon, and how the end of WWII played out for the people living there.

There’s the good brother, Cenzo, a widower reformed from war, who one night fishes a girl out of the water. More like a Jewish young woman who barely escaped murder in the hands of… who exactly? German Nazis, Italian fascists, scheming traitors, you name it…

There’s the bad brother, Giorgio, who is so cute and ambitious that he has become a famous actor and propagandist in Fascist Italy, and has made his career outside Venice. Except that he too sees the end of war and the defeat coming and  the scores that will be settled, and that he needs to lie low.

There’s also a third, dead brother, but he’s just a piece in a jigsaw that had far too many pieces to my liking. I was confused many times about what, who, where, and luckily the pace was brisk and the dialogues funny enough so that I just followed the motions. I didn’t care enough for the characters and there were probably too many of them.

Part of the book is set in the Venice islands, part of the book in Salo, where the last Fascists and Nazis were waiting for the final victory and clung to this belief until the very end. It is a fascinating period to write about and set an action thriller, mystery and love story, but I felt I missed something.

I received an ARC from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The One to view hear loss under a new light

Cece Bell, El Deafo (2014)

I first heard of this graphic memoir through the podcast Longest Shortest Time and I was intrigued: the coming-of-age memoir of a girl who became deaf after a meningitis, translated into bunnies? Ahem, more specifically a super-hero bunny with a phonic ear apparatus plugged into her long floppy ears? I feared it might be super-sappy.

From just listening to the podcast I appreciated the purpose of the book, but I could only tell if it “worked” as a graphic novel by reading the book myself. Luckily enough it has very quickly been translated to French and I found it just a few weeks ago among the latest acquisitions at the library. In French, El Deafo has been translated into Super-Deaf. And it was awesome!

I decided to read this book along with my elder son, who is 8, because I thought it might be an interesting topic of conversation that we don’t usually cover in the family. After all, there is a deaf child in his school (who has a cochlear implant, as far as I know), but he’s not a friend of his. His grandparents have some degree of hear loss but he doesn’t know much about disability in general. I wondered how my 8-year-old would react, because I don’t know how I, as a 8-year-old, would have reacted to such a story.

First he was kind of proud that I would read the same book out of genuine interest (and not making him read a book that I’d enjoyed as a child). Then he was really worried by the illness that made Cece deaf. He wanted to know what it was and how anyone would get ill. I didn’t realize it would be scary for him! Then he was completely absorbed into the story and he liked it a lot. I wished he would express himself about his reading experience but I guess I’m expecting too much of an 8-year-old. He summed it up as “Cece’s life sucked a lot! First this sickness, then the ear thing, then his friend hurt her eye too! How unlucky she was!”. Strangely enough, the bunny translation, and the fact that she hides her phonic ear in overalls made my son unsure of Cece’s gender (he assumed she was a boy until a love interest developed during the early teenaged years).

I loved the experience of read-along and it was the perfect book for this! It really explains how hear loss impacts your life, but it is charming and positive and not gloomy at all.

The One about the Legacy of Torn Lives

Sara Novic, Girl at War (English 2015)

I’m really glad of this opportunity to read Girl at War thanks to Netgalley.fr and the French publisher Fayard. Ever since the book was published in English I was curious of this book about a girl who spent her childhood in Yugoslavia, lost her parents during the war between Croatia and Serbia and was then adopted by American parents and raised as a typically American teenager.

Obviously there are many themes woven together in this story: war, trauma, grief, adoption, coming of age, cultural shock, guilt (and I won’t spill it all here), but I first came to this story because I could relate to Ana, the main character who is ten at the start of the Balkan war in 1991. I was in high school when the Balkan war broke off in 1991 and as a West European it was both shocking and senseless. We had been fed the “end of history” and universal reconciliation when the Berlin Wall had fallen two years before, and now people were killing each other on the doorsteps of the European Union. We had been brought up thinking Yugoslavia as a united country and ignoring ethnic differences and historical bad blood. Especially as a teenager, where all things are black and white, the messy war felt as if someone was taking the rug from under my feet and announced that my neighbors were very much likely to kill the people next door.

The war is seen through the eyes of Ana, a tomboyish ten-year-old Croatian from Zagreb. I like this childish perspective on events big and small, with its naivety and adaptability. Ana and her friend seem to take in their stride the sudden change of mood among adults, the food rationing and air raid alerts, the questions about ethnicity and the sudden leaving of men who are going to fight. They don’t get explanations from the adults, so it might be a bit difficult for a reader who would have not heard of the facts.

As a matter of fact, it might be a good idea to get a refresher on Wikipedia on Croatia during the Balkan war while one reads this novel, if only to clarify that Zagreb was not where the fighting was (it’s when Ana and her parents have to go to Sarajevo that things turn tragic), and that the role of Croatia in the later conflict was not completely pure. But you don’t need to know all that to feel for Ana, to understand her personal tragedy and to understand how her uprooting to the United States and her subsequent adoption by an all-American family could only be difficult.

We alternate between ten-year-old Ana and twenty something Ana who now is a brilliant student at NYU but suffers from (untreated) PTSD. Her friends and adoptive family don’t know much or anything about her past because it’s too foreign and too difficult, so she lies and fakes. At some point in the book she decides to travel back to her native Croatia to get answers – and get closure. That was another part of the book where I strongly related to Ana’s quest. We visited Croatia a few years ago, a country that is now a very touristic place for Europeans. It was an uncanny experience to realize that this beautiful place full of magnificent landscapes, beaches, historical landmarks was the same country that had suffered in the civil war. It seemed that people had put it all behind hoping to forget. No wonder that the book doesn’t tie all the plot lines neatly at the end with a bow, because there is no easy resolution for Ana.

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.