The one with the eerie echo

Eric Faye, Nagasaki (French 2010, English 2014)

I have been dipping my toes back into NetGalley, where I’ve had an inactive account for years (but without a Kindle it didn’t work back then), and the first book that catches my interest is a book set in Japan written by a French author (whom I’ve never read before) on a subject that I’ve been reading just a month ago. Can we agree to call this serendipity? Let me count the ways:

  • I have a stupid prejudice against weird reluctance to try prize-winning contemporary French writers; and I need a small nudge from a translated edition to confirm that this writer’s voice has reached beyond Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the tiny district in Paris where  publishing houses all compete for drama.
  • I can’t really resist the appeal of trying new Japanese literature (although this one hardly qualifies…)
  • I’m very interested about Western writers who create a story and characters in a culture completely different from their own, and who do it convincingly in my eyes (in this respect this book reminded me of Fog Island Mountains by Michelle Bailat-Jones, who is also set in Japan).
  • The story of the novel eerily reminds me of the manga series I started reading during summer, called in French the Leeches, where a young woman lives in other people’s flats while they are at work. And it seems that the novel is inspired by a real incident.

Here, M. Shimura is a textbook salaryman, a middle-aged meteorologist of Nagasaki, single, lonely and rather boring, a tidy man probably on the verge of OCD. He notices that a few yoghurts have disappeared from his fridge (would I even notice?) and takes a ruler to check that indeed a few inches of orange juice are missing from the bottle overnight. His next step is to buy a webcam, only to discover that a middle-aged woman is living in his own home, not only by day while he’s away, but in a spare room’s closet by night (I can relax, I have no empty closet and no spare room whatsoever).

The book is very short, rather a novella. It is very approachable, although the author uses M. Shimura to tell about loneliness and existential angst in big cities. I liked the low-key melancholy of his voice and his dignity, although this incident upset his whole life. I was taken aback by the abrupt change of tone and point of view at about two-third of the book, where the voice switches to the woman’s. I didn’t quite enjoy the end that felt almost unfinished and would rather have stayed longer with M. Shimura. Nevertheless, it was an interesting discovery and I’m ready to read more by Eric Faye.

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The gloomy one that leads me back to the museum

Biographies in graphic format seem to be very trendy these days, or is it just me? I had read the huge opus about Edvard Munch earlier this year, and being in the mood for more decadent end-of-the-century Viennese Secession (to go along with my Freudian mood), I turned toward Egon Schiele.

I’m not so passionate about Egon Schiele’s art as to put his drawings or paintings on my walls. Ahem, I don’t think many people would, given that a significant part of his art is erotic. But one thing you can deny is that his art is expressive and intense. The characters often stare at you and challenge you unashamedly to look at ther body, clothed or not.

The book is a classic biopic, so the graphic designer concentrated on Schiele’s life more than on his life. The result for me was mixed feelings at best. It’s nobody’s fault if Schiele’s life was really depressing and cut short at age 28 just after World War 1 by the deadly Spanish flu. Turn-of-the-century Austrian society was torn between a small innovative and rebellious minority and a huge repressed and repressive, conservative, bigot majority. Schiele’s family was middle class, his father a train station master in a small provincial tow.  Schiele was passionate about painting and art, but he also was not a very nice young man. Self-centered, interested in sex and women but not ready for a serious relationship, interested in marriage if it can bring him money to support his art, he’s a tough one to sympathize with.

The book doesn’t quite help either, because the artist has chosen a realist style (opposed to the grotesque, almost cartoony style chosen by Kverneland for Munch) and a restricted palette of greys and sepia like old faded pictures. So the mood remains gloomy and dark all the way.

Now, maybe I shouldn’t get interested so much in his life and focus on his art instead. Is it possible to like someone’s art without appreciating his life’s choices? I hoped to understand more how Schiele came to draw provocative paintings and drawings in such an original and visceral style. I probably should head to the museum instead.

The one I confused with another

Eliette Abecassis, Un secret du Docteur Freud (French, 2014)

Eliette Abecassis is one of these female French writers I had never read before, just like Lorette Nobécourt. Except for the facts that their first names sound similar, that they are both beautiful and that they have the same age, I had no real reason to mix them up.

Yet I did. I had tried Lorette Nobécourt fictional biography of Hildegard of Bingen and had abandoned midcourse. I wanted to give her another chance… and I borrowed from the library a book… by Eliette Abecassis. Oops!

I’ve been thinking for a while that I should read some more Freud, or about Freud, so this semi-fictional account of the last days of Freud in Vienna appealed to me. The setting is 1938, and Freud remains strangely hesitant to flee the Nazis for London. Indeed, he doesn’t know in detail the murderous intent of the Nazis, but still he knows that they are violent, hateful and that Freudian psychoanalysis is a movement that goes against everything they profess. Yet, his age, his illness, his phobia of trains, his reluctance to leave his ageing sisters, his attachment to Vienna and Austria make him waver. He’s an old man who very much lives for his past and he’s no longer a man of action. His children, his friends and supporters, among which Marie Bonaparte ranks very high, all try to nudge him towards safety. But something deeper explains his reluctance to leave: he wants to recover personal letters that he wrote to his friend Fliess.

This book can work as a refresher for Freud’s theories and life history. Despite the title, there’s no big secret in this short book. But I was disturbed by the very straightforward and cold voice of the book, especially as the point of view is mainly Freud’s. There’s a little bit of everything about psychoanalysis, no name remains forgotten, so I felt it was a bit too much of a good thing, especially for such a short book.

I was going to conclude that having tried two books by the same writer that both left me cold, I could now quietly withdraw, but since it turns out that I’ve tried one book for each author, I feel I now have to give them both another chance!

But instead, I should probably go get another book by Freud himself!

The one with a Chef Extraordinaire

Christophe Blain, In the Kitchen with Alain Passard (2011)

This book is a weird crossover: part cookbook, part graphic novel. Part reverent portrait of a great chef, Alain Passard, part ironic reportage about following the chef and his assistants for 3 years and falling head over heels for his extravagance. There are recipes beginning each “chapter”, but I’m not sure if they are meant to be made at home by the reader.

Alain Passard is a French gastronomy master, but not the kind of chef that would go on TV. He’s passionate about food and creating new ways to appreciate produces, especially vegetables. He’s practically vegetarian, and keeps several gardens in France that explore old vegetables varieties and grow organically everything that will be used in Passard’s restaurants. He comes out as uncompromising about quality and technique, but as the same time a bon viveur (I love this pseudo-French)

Christophe Blain, the graphic artist, has something for great men. He’s the artist behind Quai d’Orsay, another graphic novel inspired by the memoirs of a lowly diplomat working for the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In that book, the Minister was a man bigger than life, and his assistants were fawning over him and blindly obey his whims. Passard is that kind of genius too, and nowhere is it more obvious than during a double page aside where one of Passard’s female assistant gushes over her boss with blushing cheeks as if she was in love with him.

The result is a very interesting literary and artistic experience, as Blain tries to replicate produces and techniques with his art, by showing hands and faces. His style is quite minimalist, so it’s really a challenge to represent on paper a sensory experience that was mainly based on taste (of course), smell, texture (touch), sound (the din of the kitchen, the reverent whisper of the restaurant) and only partially on sight.

But if you manage to read this book to the end without feeling hungry and wanting to try new ways to cook your usual vegetables, even if you’re not a foodie, I will be very surprised indeed!

The one with my middle-school swashbuckling crush

Michel Zévaco, Le chevalier de Pardaillan (French, 1907)

$_35I don’t really know what takes me to revisit some of the books I loved as a child or a teenager. Because, people, when I think about it reasonably, I can’t really see the benefit:

  • I am a grownup now, so I know better. I read better too (at least I hope so)
  • it’s not as if I had nothing to read (insert huge TBR pile here)
  • it’s very likely that I will end up disappointed by the book, by the hero I cherished, by my teenaged self, or all of the above.

It’s not so say I read a lot of crap as a child, but the reasons why some books stuck with me well into adulthood are that they resonated with me at a certain age, not really because of their literary brilliance.

Anyway, I’ve done it again. Sherlock Holmes last summer, Pardaillan this time (before the summer break). And the good news is, it was fun. I had no problem swallowing the 544 pages of heroic adventures where the shiny Chevalier defends damsels in distress under the reign of French king Charles IX during the civil war between Catholics and Protestants. Pardaillan refuses to take sides, falls in love, fights left and right, always to defend the innocent, the unfairly accused, the weaker party. He crosses the path of many historical figures especially as this book (part of a long series) tries to explain how the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre came to happen (in 1572), the same events Dumas evokes in his Reine Margot.

I guess I couldn’t help but introduce the name of Dumas in my post. Pardaillan is highly inspired by Dumas’ D’Artagnan. Indeed, it is hard as an adult to read a chapter without comparing with the other book (I hadn’t read it as a child). And I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t quite measure up. Yes, the hero is dashing and the plot is romantic and highly convoluted. But Zevaco’s text first appeared as a daily series in a newspaper, and obviously there was little editing and a lot of repetition, lyrical flights of fancy, rhetoric questions to the reader, digressions etc. Dumas is a chatterbox, but Zevaco manages to beat him at it.

I can tell very precisely when I started reading this book: 1988. That was the year the TV series was released in France (thank you, weird internet trivia). Its main actor, Patrick Bouchitey, is pictured in the photo above. Isn’t he dashing? (in the late 1980s way, that is) I was starting middle-school and got a serious crush on the series actor. Plus, I got to learn a lot more on a particular history period that the history teacher ever explained to us. And I wasn’t afraid to read huge tomes from the grownup shelves! So you see, I’m not really disappointed with my old tween self.

The one at maximum velocity, too much for my tired brain

Pierre Lemaitre, Sacrifices (French 2012, Camille, English 2015)

Sometimes I’m just plain stupid. No, don’t be polite, just wait, let me explain.

When I heard about Pierre Lemaitre’s thrillers, most probably through Marina Sofia or Sarah early this year, I squirreled away a little note and added to my ongoing TBR list. I didn’t bother writing down the title, since it was so clever to have each volume named after each main protagonist. It never occurred to me that they were the titles chosen for the English translation, and that the French publisher hadn’t done the same clever choice.

Now when I visited the book donation shelves at work, I stumbled upon a thriller with a rather banal cover (a woman’s face behind broken glass) with a bland title (Sacrifices) and a bland writer’s name.

Something like Pierre Lemaitre, a name that didn’t. Ring. Any. Bell. A name like that is the French equivalent of Jack Miller, Fred Jones or John Doe. A combination of Peter Rabbit and Doctor Masters (yes, someone has been watching DVDs…). Seriously, didn’t any publisher tell him to change his name for something more memorable? It feels like a false name someone would give for a very bad alibi. Ok, that’s no excuse.

The opening scene was quite something. I would say mind-blowing if it wasn’t already a spoiler. The alternate voices, the breathless pace, the tongue in cheek, snarky glance towards the reader… It was highly addictive. I had a weird feeling of déjà vu.

Then I hit the bulge of the middle part and the pace kind of lost a little steam. Especially as the book referred to previous events in 2 books I hadn’t read. Which was just as well, because in the midst of all this violence and mystery, my brain was trying to tell me something. Like this book should remind me of… Like this writer’s kind of famous for…

Needless to say there was a rather embarrassing “aha” moment, not the Oprah kind, but that sounded more like “duh”. That unknown writer had won the highest literature prize in France, the 2013 Prix Goncourt, that is advertised possibly everywhere in France (even newspapers stands have it in train stations)… and it stood… on my nightstand since April (a slow read, but that’s a whole other story).

But I hadn’t made the connection. Yes, now you agree that I am stupid. Or very very tired.

I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in order, but it would have required a degree of intelligence that I hadn’t possessed at the time. It’s been a while since I read something as violent (the opening scene especially) and I normally don’t mind, but I think it wasn’t the best way to be introduced to Commandant Verhoeven, even if Lemaitre is a master at plotting and story-telling. I would add that Pierre Lemaitre is a writer to watch for, but I’m not fit to dole out lessons.

The one that was so terribly short it got lost

Balzac, An Episode under the reign of Terror (1830)

I just realized I totally forgot to write here about a terribly short book I read… back in March (awful pun, I know, but I have a 7yo who laughs at the mere mention of fart and a toddler who laughs at anything his brother does… yeah, boys…).

I just realized it as I did a small spring cleaning of my Kindle, deleting finished books and transferring a new large bounty from (ah, free books…!)

I read this novella by Balzac after I read the account of the royals fleeing Paris during the Revolution. Back then, I was kind of curious to learn more about what normal people went through during that very disturbed time. Balzac’s story is not really about normal people, but about people from the clergy who have been forced into hiding by the new regime, because it required them to swear obedience to the state (and basically renounce their faith, later on). The new regime forced the convents open and disrobed nuns and priests.

Not to excuse anything, but you’ve got to know that the new state deeply distrusted religious establishment because they sided with the nobility, the king and the traditionally God-approved old structure of the country. It was civil war, and it’s never pretty. But things got out of hand in France because of a bunch of extremists, and during a number of months there were massacres and lots of nobility or any suspect people were beheaded (I never understood everything in details, because their interpretation is very much influenced, still today, by the historian’s liberal or conservative stand).

Anyway, the novella starts with a very suspenseful scene where a frail old woman walks in a snowy street and thinks she’s being followed. It’s really a modern stalking scene! The paranoia is very well portrayed, people couldn’t trust each other and it’s an atmosphere akin to that described in books about the Stalinist regime or the Nazi regime, where people guarded their words, their looks and gestures in order to avoid betraying any genuine thought or emotion.

Of course, Balzac being Balzac, it can’t be all contained, and there’s a grand finale full of emotion at the end, centered on the trauma and guilt for the king’s death.

But how was life for ordinary people during the French revolution? I have made little progress in my quest.

I’m not even sure whether the memoir or book I’m looking for exists at all. Maybe people didn’t write about their own thoughts and feelings during historical events with such a modern sensibility, the kind that would make me understand “what it was like”. I’ve heard recently about Abigail Adams’ letters during the American revolution, perhaps I’ll try in that direction. What do you think?

The one with the weirdest anatomic trivia

Fred Vargas, Dans les bois éternels (French 2006), This night’s foul work (English 2008)

Did you know that a stag is the only animal to have a cross-shaped bone inside its heart (which is a muscle)?

Did you know that a tomcat is the only animal to have a bone in its penis?

Did you know that the pig has a heart-shaped bone inside his snout?

Well, me neither, but if you’re like me, you’ll be shrugging and muttering “so what?” under your breath (or any less polite variation thereof).

Now that you have stored somewhere in your brain these very important pieces of trivia, that you probably won’t be able to drop into any dinner conversation ever (if you succeed, let me know!), you are well equipped to follow the quirky plot of this Adamsberg mystery.

Do you want to know how Vargas was able to weave a story including a tomcat, a stag and a pig? Well, me too.

Do you want to know this story? You’ll have to read it yourself. The added challenge is that the story starts with a very standard, probably drug-related murder of two thugs in a poor Paris neighborhood. Adamsberg refuses to give up the case to the drug unit, because both men had mud under their fingernails, and everybody knows there’s no mud in Paris, duh. Highly suspicious.

Every single time I get to wonder how Vargas gets to learn those quirky facts in the first place. Does she spend her days reading the footnotes in dusty encyclopedia? Does she have a network of informers who report to her every time they find some funny, bizarre, really unplaceable fact? Is is a challenge for her to come up with weird, weirder and weirdest information in each book? Because the standard here are pretty high already.

Some of the events in this book refer to earlier episodes, but you know me, I’m genetically unable to read in order, so I’m here to confirm that it doesn’t matter, the main mystery being easy to follow, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. Why does it work for Commissaire Adamsberg while it didn’t work for Inspector Gamache? Yes, I know, life’s unfair, but I guess it has to do with the writing. Vargas’ voice is strong and recognizable, it peppers every sentence with fun words and literary tour de force (one is that Adamsberg’s lieutenant speaks in rhymes, and more specifically in alexandrines in the style of Racine).

Highly recommended, but I’m already a convert.

The one that got redeemed thanks to Leonard Bernstein

Voltaire, Candide (1759)

I wish I knew how teachers should teach classics so that teenagers are not definitely turned off by them for life.

I mean, how often does that happen that a perfectly good book gets ruined because you’ve read it at too early an age, where the average response to great literature is to roll your eyes, say “whatever” and wait for the bell announcing the break? Or because you had to dissect half a paragraph for hours and you got a bad grade?

I’m afraid there’s so magic formula, but I wish there were. Because you would then avoid the embarrassment as an adult of trying one of those classics again, just on a whim or because you have the faint feeling that you missed out on something, and then, bam, you “discover” a really great book. And you wish you hadn’t lost all these years.

That’s the literary equivalent of your mother’s “I told you so”, except that your literary class teacher had a moustache and handed out bad grades by the dozen (French education isn’t really about giving encouragement).

Anyway, back to Candide. I won’t go into details of the plot (sorry, won’t help anyone copy-paste their book report), but let me tell you I had no idea it was so explicit and blunt. I thought Voltaire was prim and proper, if not exactly wholesome and bland. I thought its irony was in the polite form of 18th century royal court flourished language (just like this cover: they kiss, wink wink, but they’re not in an X-rated movie). Anyway I was wrong. I still wonder how the teacher managed to find a paragraph to dissect that wouldn’t be explicit. Voltaire’s Candide is not politically correct at all.

I wondered if it did translate well into English and if American readers weren’t offended by all this. This touches slightly to the current debate about whether Charlie cartoons are offensive, to which the American answer seems to be a resounding “yes”, while the French answer ranges from “no” to “maybe, but get over it ah ah”. But I’m digressing.

Is Voltaire offensive? Well, it’s a satire, not subtle wit or irony, so you shouldn’t expect anything but a caricature. Is it modern and readable? Absolutely. The best proof is what sparked my renewed interest in that novella: Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, whose famous aria by Cunegonde “Glitter and Be Gay” is a favorite in our home.

I recently watched the opera in DVD and wanted to compare with the original text, believing that Bernstein had modernized the story. But the version I watched is true to the text and quite fun. And the American audience doesn’t seem offended.

The one with too many twists and turns

Hélène Grémillon, The Confidant (2010)

The problem with audiobooks is that when you don’t enjoy it much you can’t make them go faster and skip chapters: it’s black or white, either you just drop them or you have to stick with them until the (bitter) end.

What about books stuck in the middle?

The truth is that I got terribly annoyed, which came at the expense of the book. The story was so suspenseful that I just couldn’t abandon it altogether, but the more I forced myself to listen, the more my disbelief and my annoyance grew. By the end I was ready to thrash the whole thing!

To tell the story of The Confident is first to explain the construction: a box within a box within a box, all full of secrets and surprises. The first story is told by Camille, a young woman who works as a publisher in 1975. She’s pregnant from a boyfriend who doesn’t want to Her mother just died, and deep into her grief she starts receiving anonymous letters from a man she doesn’t know, Louis, who tells her about a woman called Annie. At first Camille thinks it’s a ploy to sell her a manuscript, but she’s soon hooked, especially as some details hit close to home. The moment when we switch to Annie’s voice, set between 1939 and 1943 is the start of the real story.

Annie is a young girl who has befriended the wealthy Parisian woman, Elisabeth, who lives in her village’s chateau. The woman has fertility issues, and on a whim Annie tells her that she would carry her child. If that offer was serious or not, we don’t really know, but Elisabeth takes her at her word. Drama ensues as the war is approaching fast.

I won’t go any further into the story. While it may be promoted as a book about the war, it’s more of a thriller cum romance drama, with jealousy, betrayals, heartbreak and… surrogacy. The Confident is not a bad book, but not a great one either. It’s just plain manipulative, and it doesn’t even hide from its purpose. The writing is very self-explanatory (which grated on my nerves), full of definite truths and aphorisms. The same facts are turned onto themselves as we get first Annie’s view, then Louis’, then Elisabeth’s. The more twisted it gets, the less plausible it becomes. And don’t even start me on the ending.

Given that it was quite a bestseller in France, I’m sure a lot of (French) readers will disagree with me. But it was just not the right book for me.