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.

The one in the whirlwind of Black history

Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman (1981)

I didn’t know what to expect from Maya Angelou. My only knowledge of her, being a Caucasian French woman, is through Oprah Winfrey (whose fame crossed the ocean, but by name only). I heard of long and adventurous life, but I didn’t know that this book was just a part in her memoir, and a small part indeed.

This book packs a lot of history and a lot of names within just a few years of her life. It starts in 1957 when she moves from the West Coast to New York with her son and joins the Harlem Writers Guild. She then proceeds to explain how she came to work for Martin Luther King, then to almost marry someone, then to actually fall for a South African freedom fighter in exile who brings her and her son to Africa (Cairo) but soon disappoints her with his philandering and domineering behavior. The final pages of the book are set in Ghana in the early 1960s, but it ends so abruptly that I was somehow frustrated for lack of a better editing and closure.

I was impressed by Angelou’s voice, her strength, self-reliance and wisdom. I was floored by her sense of freedom. She never stops moving forward, and setbacks, grief and sadness are just brief intervals before she picks herself up again and goes for the next thing. Her life (or the glimpse on just 5 years of it!) is so full of life-changing decisions that I was riveted, but also exhausted. She offers a very large perspective on events happening around her in America and Africa at the same period, and with so many portraits, it’s really a collective history as well as a deeply personal one.

My weird feeling is that Angelou seems both deeply rooted in a community, culture, historical moment, as well as a whirlwind of emotions, reactions taken at the spur of the moment (why did she agree to marry a man she didn’t really love? why did she suddenly turn her back and decide for Africa?). I admired her, but I couldn’t really understand her.

As a European reader, the experience of reading this book is nothing short of an eye-opener, because I don’t think I have read anything so blatant about what it means to be a Black, African-American woman in mid-20th century and to hear it from her own voice. We don’t talk about races in France, so I wasn’t comfortable reading that she distrusted white people and visibly thought that white people could not understand Black people. I may have misunderstood that part myself, and that was probably the result of her times and her heightened political conscience. It is really fascinating to see how African and African-American activists rubbed shoulders, influenced one another (I’m really treading lightly because my knowledge of it is very limited), and how the early 1960s with the new independent states in Africa raised hopes for so many (and not only in Europe and white America). More than half a century later, we are so far from that wind of freedom and optimism that we have mostly forgotten about it.

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.