The one that reopens the nature vs nurture debate

Robert Barnard, Out of the Blackout (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one where I try a bonnet ripper as medicine

Beverly Lewis, The Shunning (1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one I didn’t get

James Salter, All That Is (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one without maple syrup in a darker Vermont

Eric Rickstad, The Silent Girls (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one with Quaker quilts

Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

The one with the blind wizard

Ursula Le Guin, Gifts (2004)

I wanted to try young adult fantasy for a while, so I thought Ursula Le Guin was a good reference point. The truth: that’s the only name that came to mind as I walked through the young adult shelves at the library. Neil Gaiman was another, but there wasn’t any translated title available.

As a newbie in that area I noticed that young adult fantasy literature is often series of 3 books with cryptic but related titles, and heavily air-brushed cover art. Is it a convention of the genre? Ironically enough, as I am more familiar with Victorian literature than 21st century YA, I wondered if it wasn’t a strange resurgence of the Triple Decker, or just an unconscious nod to the mammoth trilogy of the Lord of the Ring.

Anyway. Gifts is the first tome of the Annals of the Western Shore, a land that resembles Middle-ages.

The book is told by Orrec, a young blind man who lives in the remotest regions of this land, a place that feels like Scotland. Clan owners there have gifts, magical powers, like being able to call animals, or make people sick, or destroy, for which they are respected and feared. But at the time the story starts, their heyday is already in the past. They retain a certain power, but their estates have faded, their wealth is over, people from the city no longer fear them as much because they don’t really believe in their gifts anymore.

The narrator is the heir of one such estate and should be proud to have a strong gift of “unmaking”, so strong in fact that he has to go around blindfolded for fear to destroy stuff (and people) unwittingly. We get to learn about Orrec’s family and childhood and how he copes with his gift. It’s a classic coming-of-age story.

It was hard for me to really connect with Orrec. I wasn’t really disturbed by the fantasy part, the imaginary land and the magical powers. In fact, I kind of liked it. But Orrec’s story was quite low-key and slow-paced. I could guess most of the story beforehand. Orrec’s girlfriend Gry was a far more interesting character in my opinion, but she didn’t get as much space in the book.

My first dip into this new-to-me genre was not a failure, but not enough for me to embark in the complete trilogy. But I’ll certainly try another Ursula Le Guin one day.

Any other YA fantasy recommendation?

The one where dandruff is poetry too

Judith Viorst, It’s Hard to Be Hip over Thirty (1968)

I found this unfinished post among my drafts, as I read this collection late last year. No wonder I kept it aside, as it’s always very difficult for me to find anything to write about poetry.

I have been taught to take poetry with deference, to keep it at arm’s length and to over-analyze every word for an obscure and deep meaning. Witty poems is something I discovered very recently indeed, thanks to blogs, one day when someone (may s/he be thanked again!) pointed me toward Taylor Mali’s Typography.

Wow, a poem can actually makes you laugh out loud! (I haven’t found French comic poets yet, but I’m not trying too hard to be honest)

I discovered Judith Viorst with her witty poem collection about being in your forties, and I loved it so much that I had to get the earlier decade as well! (well, now you have a rough idea of how old I am… so much for anonymity). I felt particularly lucky that Persephone has republished this short volume, and this is a very chic addition to my little grey collection (and don’t let me start about the matching bookmarks).

In this collection, she deals with the adjustments that come after getting married, from the single, dating young professional to the classic role of a stay-at-hom wife and mother in the suburbs. Some of her references have become dated but she managed to make me laugh out loud several times, especially on divorce, which isn’t the funniest subject per se.

I can’t say I recognized myself in every poem, which often portray the American clichéd perfect desperate housewife. Some of the poems are tinged with lost ideals (those lofty ideas of a 1960s feminist clashing against ordinary life) and a bit of cynicism, but to me they mostly ring true! Getting older is something universal, making compromises in marriage is unavoidable. What I loved is that none of these poems pretend to be chefs d’oeuvre, yet they manage to be both witty and hard to forget.

Here is one excerpt about motherhood:

Last year I had a shampoo and set every week, and
Slept an unbroken sleep beneath the Venetian chandelier of
our discerningly eclectic bedroom, but
This year we have a nice baby,
And Gerber’s strained bananas in my hair,
And gleaming beneath the Venetian chandelier,
A diaper pail, a portacrib, and him,
A nice baby, drooling on our antique satin spread
While I smile and say how nice. It is often said
That motherhood is very maturing.

And another, my favorite:

…It’s true love because
When he went to San Francisco on business while I had to stay home with the painters and the exterminator and the baby who was getting the chicken pox,
He understood why I hated him,
And because
When I said that playing the stock market was juvenile and irresponsible and then the stock I wouldn’t let him buy went up twenty-six points,
I understood why he hated me,
And because
Despite cigarette cough, tooth decay, acid indigestion, dandruff, and other features of married life that tend to dampen the fires of passion,
We still feel something
We can call
True love.

Reading Notes: James Ellroy’s Perfidia (2013)

I remember vaguely discovering Ellroy in my late teens, with the Black Dahlia. It was a shock. Never before had I read something so dark and orchestral. The short sentences, the ellipses, the choir of characters, all navigating between violence, ambition, vices and some principles.

It was in French that I read the Black Dahlia, then the rest of the L.A. Quarter. Later on I tried another of his earlier novels, the one with the serial killer’s point of view (Killer on the Road) and it was all too much for me. I couldn’t stomach this point of view. I don’t think I even finished the book. I needed the distance of the historical setting. 1950s L.A. is like a movie background, I couldn’t (and mostly still can’t ) take it realistically.

Then a few years later, I tried American Tabloid, this time in English. It was another shock. Ellroy’s original voice was totally different from what I had imagined in French. All these words I didn’t understand. Slang? 1950s words? Invention? Cop lingo? L.A.? There were so many sentences (3 words long, but still) where I had no idea what was going on. I soon threw in the towel.

This January, I saw that my workplace library had bought Perfidia in English edition. I decided to give it a try. I decided not to be daunted by the words I didn’t understand. But I still feel out of my depth. The only comfort is that I remember some of the recurring characters from the first L.A. Quarter (but only vaguely, not in details). But it’s reasonable that reading Ellroy shouldn’t be a comforting experience.

I am barely 100 pages into this massive 700 pages thing. I am not yet sure I’ll finish it, but so far his vision of L.A. just the day before Pearl Harbor and on the days immediately following the event is haunting.

You might find me naive, but never before had I heard talking about F.D. Roosevelt in such bad terms. Now, his image is that of a brilliant war hero (at least in Europe) and in high school we’re all studying the New Deal as the most brilliant strategy to fight the Depression. But Ellroy shows me a different picture.

Likewise, my summer reading experience with The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka showed me the Japanese community in California under a globally positive light (the traditional story of the hard-working immigrants who eventually make it in America, only to be cruelly and unfairly treated during the war). With Ellroy, I’m pretty sure that the picture will be much darker.

I’m bracing for the next 600 pages. Have you read it? What say you?

Reading Aloud with My Oldest: The Day I Started Being Read To

Back when I had to read every single day the same board-book, there were times when I wondered when it would stop.

When I started the new series about Read aloud books, I wasn’t even aware how soon the day would come when my oldest would read independently.

But he’s firmly 6.5 now, and he’s reading! Alone! (Every scrap of paper and cereal box!!)

Then one evening came when I felt a bit tired or overwhelmed and when my son said: “My turn! Tonight I am reading to you!”. Let me tell you, it was awesome.

I feared it would be twaddle, but I even enjoyed the book, picked by my son from the class bookshelf: The Monster Series by Ellen Blance and Ann Cook. Published in the 1970s, it is as old as I am and I love the illustrations by Quentin Blake! They’re deliciously quaint and easily recognizable.

The sentences are very short and straightforward, but there is a real plot and a real voice. It’s amazing how little is necessary to build a story. It took my son 10-15 minutes to read the whole book word by word, and he even took the time to ponder on the watercolour images.

It took me a while to track down this book, because there’s precious little on the internet about Ellen Blance (yes, there are still people who are mostly unknown on the web, isn’t it reassuring somehow?) and Monster in France is known as Dinomir (which sounds a bit Russian or Slavic, together with a hint of dinosaur) and my son’s school edition has no name on the cover (isn’t that mandatory?)

I didn’t grew up learning to read with Monster/Dinomir, but I’m happy that my son did.

Do you remember what book you first read cover to cover?

Michael Connelly, The Gods of Guilt (2013)

I can’t seem to be able to curb my Mickey Haller addiction. When the last one finished, the cliffhanger was so huge I could hardly wait. How do people manage it when they’re reading books fresh from publication? Luckily, I usually don’t.

I immediately went online to see if there was another one in the series. Reassured, I could wait a bit, but not too long. I could not resist the library copy, especially as it was in English. I had to know if Mickey Haller, the defense attorney whose office is a Lincoln backseat, had turned his coat as he’d announced: he was going to run for District attorney.

I’m not sure how possible or even believable it is in the American justice system, but that wouldn’t be possible at all in the French system (and I’m not even talking about the backseat office thing, what French person would trust a guy without a proper office?), because prosecutors are appointed by the Justice Ministry, not elected. They’re civil servants with jobs for life. Now, my knowledge of the American justice system is sketchy, based on novels and series (Law and Orders anyone?), which might not be the best for facts, I grant you.

But Haller a D.A.? I just couldn’t picture it (I do realize that I speak way more about the previous book than this one at hand, but that’s ok): having his hero flip sides so completely is to me the equivalent of professional suicide for a writer specialized in courtroom drama, isn’t it?

Anyway, my distress was short-lived as Connelly regained his composure and made Haller lose his campaign. Haller was back in the backseat of his car, where it suited me. Full of contradictions and racked with guilt, compounded by the fact that his ex-wife and his daughter refused to talk to him anymore.

He had helped a prostitute years back, trusting her when she’d said she wanted to leave town and start anew in Hawaii. But when Haller learns that she’s dead, it seems that he didn’t know her at all. She’s been playing the Pretty Woman in a L.A. classy hotel. He’s called to defend her alleged killer, her digital pimp, who tells him she’d recommended him. The plot is so convoluted that I won’t even try, but rest assured that you’ve got twists and turns and hair-raising scenes. Connelly is such a writing powerhouse.

I enjoyed the book a lot, the investigation part as well as the courtroom part. I’m not too sure how much of it is plausible, but at that stage I don’t really care. The guilt-ridden gumshoe is a cliché, but the guilt-ridden attorney pulls it off. He doesn’t shy away from manipulations and even theater tricks to win a lawsuit, but the one thing he’s not is crooked. He has a moral compass that inevitably puts him in dangerous situations, defending people he only regards as innocent, against all odds. He’s a bit like a modern-day knight in shining armor, except the damsel in distress would be a prostitute or a digital pimp!