The One with the Beating Heart

Maylis de Kerangal, Reparer les vivants (2014, English title: The Heart / Mend the Living)

Oh, how could this happen? I grumble, sigh and moan about all those books that weren’t great exactly, but when I finally read a great one, I forget to post about it? That’s exactly what happened with The Heart, which I finished in London, back in February! After Pawel Huelle’s stories, here is another post about a book that should not be forgotten.

After presenting my apologies to the book, its author and you all readers, I finally remember what stopped me from writing a post. After reading the Bridge back in 2011, I became an instant fan of Maylis de Kerangal, her unique style, her special literary project of fictional non-fiction, so I knew I would love The Heart.

And I sure did. I finished the book within two days (it was the holidays, after all). But why is it so difficult to explain why I did love it? It’s a collective book, so there’s not one main character, just dozen of them. The style is also very particular to Kerangal. Long, meandering sentences that often take the whole page or more. It’s not for everybody, but I happen to l-o-v-e it. It’s very inspiring, and then in the same breath, I know that I won’t ever be able to write as well as she does. (and I’m alright with it)

This book is about a heart. Young Simon is 21 and dies in a stupid car accident. But his young, healthy, precious heart can be saved to be transplanted to another person. Will his grief-stricken parents agree to the organ donation? Will everyone in hospitals across France be ready for the delicate intervention? Who will get Simon’s heart? Who will take care of Simon’s heart at every step of this process? It’s literally a question of life and death (no pun here) and the plot, although linear, is full of suspense.

More than the plot itself, the structure of the book is interesting, where the movement of death and the movement of life cross each other without fully extinguishing the other. Not only do we feel for the characters, all of them in their uniqueness and individuality: we learn (left-brain) about the surgeon’s secret dreams, the mother’s past, the nurse’s lover, the coordinator’s passion for music.  But we also learn (right-brain) about what it takes for a transplant to work and how organ donation is organized in France. All the way, the language adds beauty and depth, and helps the reader follow the fast pace of the book, that replicates the pace of a beating heart.

Exceptional.

The One with the Temptation of Nostalgia

7cavaliersT3Jean Raspail, Jacques Terpant, Sept Cavaliers (French 1993 novel; graphic version 2009-2010)

I have started a post a while back, an enthusiastic one. Then I added a few sentences, a bit more reserved. And then nothing for a while. Now this post is nowhere to be found on WordPress, but that’s not that bad. Because I don’t quite know how to put this in writing.

I have discovered this graphic novel at my workplace library, an adaptation of a novel whose title is really unique: “Seven riders left the town at dusk by the Western gate that wasn’t guarded anymore”. Have you ever seen a book whose title is a full sentence?

The graphic story is set in 3 volumes and the art is exquisite, using the traditional French-Belgian “ligne claire” (clear line design). Except for the clear line, nothing is clear in this story. We discover a dying kingdom, a beautiful country of mountains, countryside and seaside where the population has died or disappeared. There has been a civil war, one guesses, but we aren’t told whom against whom. Except, by hearsay, we gather some evidence of terrible destructions and deaths. Children have broken loose and turned against their families. The few survivors hide and attack the passer-by in fear of new exactions. No trains arrive at the station, no boats follow the lighthouse’s indications and there are few supplies left anyway. The king commits suicide just after the seven riders leave the town, so I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler. They are a band of loyal men, young and old, who decide to try to reach a bridge on the other side of the country, both by desperation and bravado. What else can they attempt?

This story is really fascinating and charming, but it works like a spell. You can’t stop reading, and your judgment is suspended, and then when you close the book (in my case, the three books), you don’t quite know what happened.

7cavaliers-1What is the writer’s purpose? Is it only fantasy? In some moments I was really reminded of Lord of the Rings’ saga, especially the feeling that the great kingdoms of the Elves or Rohan have passed their heydays and now only doom and gloom remain. The feeling that Frodo and Sam try to do their duty even if their quest seems hopeless at some point. Not a particularly uplifting mood, but a very powerful one nonetheless.

Those seven riders are the last remnant of civilization, they stand for loyalty, aristocracy, Christian faith and moral values. It felt nice, until it started to feel icky, especially when bands of ennemies started attacking and they were distinctly African or Arabic clichés.

There was greatness to serve among the last to the rear-guards of a finished world. (my translation)

I won’t say that the graphic novel is overtly racist, but it is promoting a reactionary philosophy to say the least. When I looked up the author, Jean Raspail (born 1925), I discovered that he was indeed a deeply conservative, old-Catholic, pro-monarchy, controversial journalist, novelist and adventurer. Not really my cup of tea at all.

It’s quite worrisome when those ideas are presented with muted colors, elegant sentences and impeccable grammar rather than the yelling abuse of some recent political meetings we have grown used to. Because they seem so fine at first. Then you can understand their lure of nostalgia for some people who are taking refuge in the extreme.

Still, the end of civilization is not yet at our gates, with 65% voting for Macron yesterday. Whew!

 

 

The One with the Grief of Exile

Leonor De Recondo, Rêves Oubliés (2012)

I am going to be bold and make assumptions wild guesses (which I can’t prove or disprove): I think that this book’s author, who is also a professional Baroque violinist and who plays in orchestras led by world-class conductors, might be an INFP (or possibly an ENFP).

Yes, I can feel it. No, I never met her or even saw her. But her book is so full of feelings that I, as an ISTJ, feel a bit overwhelmed. I understand that I might have lost a good number of you readers by overtly referencing Myers-Briggs, but it’s really the first thing I thought when I finished this book.

Alright, perhaps not the first thing. This novella presents a Basque family (from the Spanish border in the Pyrenees mountains) who has to leave their home in a hurry because of the Spanish civil war in 1936. They leave so quickly, so secretly, that the meal they cooked is still on the kitchen table. They cross the border to France, and there, a life of exile awaits them, and the war in France with its dangers and suspicions, was even tougher for foreigners.

The story is told through the husband first, then through the wife. A strong love unites them both and it’s the best pages of the book. I have really not much against the book, except that it was so sentimental and I’m not used to that.

The real weakness I found was that everything was told on the same level, using the same elegiac tone. The main characters weren’t fully developed because the characters were rather introverted and didn’t show much. There was no ebb and flow between tension and release, no narrative arch. Because of its short form it was okay, but I prefer my historical novels to have more depth and more bite.

The One with the Cheeky Loner

Over the last few months our family developed a serious crush on Vincent Cuvellier. I mean, not particularly Mr. S. who seems immune to his charm, but the rest of us…

Our 3-year-old has practically robbed the library. Even the almost-9-year-old, who is practicing eye-rolling and deep-sighing before he really qualifies as a tween, quotes full sentences of several books. And I, the adult, keep finding relatable moments in my everyday life.

Before any of you starts worrying and wants to call my husband to tell him about a certain man who is leading us astray, let me clarify.

He’s not a lover, not a rock start, not a guru. Vincent Cuvellier is a kids lit author.

He has written the quite successful series Emile (well, successful in French-speaking countries, I guess). “Emile is invisible”, “Emile wants a pet bat”, “Emile takes out the trash”, “Emile invites a girlfriend”, “Emile and the boxing dance”, etc. Once you fall in love with one, you need to have them all. These are small, think books, illustrated by Ronan Badel, featuring a little boy with a very, very serious view on life. My guess is that he’s four-going-on-forty. He’s quite obstinate and a loner. He wants to decide for himself and be strong, but obviously it doesn’t really turn in his favor.

Vincent Cuvellier has also written very poetic image books (The first time I was born, or another one about a class taking a school trip to the mountains and who has a massive pillow fight in the middle of the night), and some books for middle graders. And over the weekend I also read in just one setting his autobiography “That time when I became a writer”, and I could see even more reasons to like his work.

I like how direct and straightforward his writing is. No polite words, no convoluted sentences. He writes like a kid speaks, even with some small grammar mistakes. His life hasn’t been easy, because he hated school and dropped out of school before reaching high-school. His family wasn’t wealthy at all, so he took small jobs, was broke, got on the dole, tried theater because he wanted to flirt with girls, but all the time he was writing, mainly for himself. Freedom is so important for him, and I can see it in Emile too. When he was 16, he wrote something for a contest, a very provocative text, and he got first prize. That’s “the” time when he became a writer.

It could be a bildungsroman and end on this fairy tale kind of ending, the social revenge when the high-school dropout gets noticed and famous, but no, that’s so not him. What happened next spoke to me, the adult. He struggled even more after he got published. His first success was lucky, and he took him another 15 years to write a second book.

I do think this short book should be required reading in writing retreats. Because it’s so energizing and freeing to see someone who has gotten rid of the pretense, the artificial and the guilt. Vincent Cuvellier and Elizabeth Gilbert go hand in hand.

So here you go, you have nothing to fear for my marriage. I’m in safe hands.

The One with the Fearless Dozen

Pénélope Bagieu, Culottées (French 2016)

Pénélope Bagieu is often associated in France with girly comics (Josephine, and her first bestseller called something like “my life is so very fascinating”), but she is also a feminist and she has dipped her toes in more serious work more than once. I had enjoyed her graphic novel The Blank Page that she did together with Boulet a few years back.

This book is made after a blog she published on Le Monde web page (a proof, if needed, that it was serious!), presenting a series of women who have defied conventions and have decided their own fate in times or cultures that weren’t supportive of them (which means, basically, everywhere since the beginning of times, no?).

The choice is personal and very diverse, from an Australian woman who invented the swimsuit to a Chinese empress, from a native American warrior to a Dutch woman who wanted to marry a man outside her own faith. Some are very ancient, some are still alive. Some have inspired millions of people, some have just been nearly forgotten. Some have changed the world, some have “only” changed their own life, their own gender or their own mind.

“Culottées” in French means those (females) who wear knickers, but in French it also means those who are bold, in a cheeky way, because “culottes” is now underpants but used to be breeches, worn by men, who were the bold ones as a matter of course. The subtitle is “Women who only do whatever they want to”. Pretty inspiring, isn’t it?

Bold and cheeky is the exact tone of Penelope Bagieu’s endeavor, as she finds a good balance between awfully serious subjects (sexism, prejudice, hatred, violence against women) and the light-hearted, humorous tone.

The format is the only thing that I could criticize: the blog was all about regular vignettes and the book feels like a systematic collection of them, without the added value of getting deeper into those women’s lives. For some of them, it feels dreadfully short.

The One that Smells like a Dump in Summer

Jean-Paul Nozière, Bye-bye Betty (French 1993)

With the selfish goal of discovering more small presses or imprints that publish novellas, I continue my investigation of the noir genre in YA fiction.

I stumbled upon this one purely by chance, attracted by the dark cover and the thin back. The library shelves quickly told me that Jean-Paul Nozière is a rather prolific writer for middle-grade readers and this novel is rated for 14 years or above. But I knew nothing more.

As far as noir conventions go, this novella fits the bill to perfection. The atmosphere is oppressive, set in a French small town near the Spanish border in summer. An illegal dump has been set up in town: it stinks, literally and figuratively. The only industry there is a fruit company that uses (illegal) immigrants to pick fruits, then sells them or can them. The factory is owned by a powerful family who reigns on the town because it also owns hotels and houses that they rent out to employees. There’s something rotten in the kingdom of Pyrenees, to paraphrase someone famous, and one local girl has decided to fight it: Betty. This young girl, oblivious of local rumors and risks, wants to become a photojournalist and sends her pictures to the big media companies in Paris.

As the book starts, the narrator, Salfaro, a Parisian photojournalist deep into depression due to his wife’s departure, is sent to the small town to meet with Betty. His motivation is murky at best. He used to be a famous war reporter, but he hasn’t worked at all for a while, and this assignment is a sort of last chance given by his boss, although the job clearly is beneath him.

The atmosphere is well painted. Even deep in the winter months, I could almost feel the heat and the stink. The sense of doom and hopelessness that you often see in noir novels were pervasive too, but not in a way that would be too terrifying or harsh for a young reader. Still, I couldn’t really root for the main character. He seemed nor to care much about anyone but himself, and he seemed naive or  unobservant. It made it unbelievable that he would be a famous war photographer. It made me think about stakes.

I haven’t really though it through, but I will be looking more carefully in the next novels: what is at stake for the main character in the story? Here, I felt that the stakes were too low. My interest waned because the reason for Salfaro investigating Betty and the village seemed like only a pretext. If he had turned his back on this assignment, not much would have been lost. Sometimes, the author puts the stakes too high, and here too there is a problem of believability. If everything is a matter of life and death, the story becomes hysterical and the reader, quickly exhausted (at least in my case).

But this novella really made me want to read noir classics again, like Simenon, Dashiell Hammett or Chandler. I also could use another installment of my favorites, Philip Kerr or Michael Connelly. Who’s your favorite noir writer?

The One with the BFFs Going South

Agnès de Lestrade, Il faisait chaud cet été là (2013, French, 60 pages)

Going on with my investigation on YA short novels or novellas, this one stood out between noir and mainstream. The story is told by Blanche, a rather shy and sensible 14-year-old who has the rare chance to go on holidays with her best friend. Violette has invited her to spend the summer together in the South of France, in Provence, at Violette’s grandmother’s. Blanche comes from a less privileged background, with many siblings, her parents own a restaurant and often ask her to help out. Violette’s father is a surgeon, she is an only daughter used to be the center of attention. At the middle school she has an aura that fascinates all her classmates, including Blanche, who is in awe of her and feels clearly inferior.

Blanche feels lucky to have been chosen by Violette, but once they have settled down in the grandma’s house, the mood turns darker and more oppressive. Violette is no longer the sunny, funny, generous girlfriend. She has sudden flashes of temper, jealousy, violent rage, and then she calms down and begs Blanche to stay. Blanche is unsettled and afraid. The threat becomes bigger and bigger until Blanche’s life is at stake.

It’s a psychological thriller for middle-grade readers, but the writer hasn’t oversimplified or toned down any of the strong emotions and the dark situations. The story is told by Blanche talking to Violette, which makes it more straightforward and powerful. We readers are not quite clear about the exact nature Violette’s mental illness. The tone of the book is rather pessimistic for middle-grade conventions, as Violette doesn’t seem to heal and the ending is quite dark.

I quite enjoyed the novella, and I borrowed it from the library especially because it was a novella, but weirdly enough, I almost wish there was more of it. I found that the story would have benefited from a bit of back story on the girls’ friendship, and the ending seemed a bit abrupt.

The One with the Four or Five Sisters

Malika Ferdjoukh, Cati Baur, Quatre Soeurs. Tome 1: Enid (2011). Tome 2: Hortense (2014)

les5verdelaine-731877A few weeks ago when I said that I was stressed out and in a bookish rut, Stefanie suggested a graphic novel, and she was right! I grabbed the second part of Cati Baur’s graphic adaptation of a French middle-grade bestsellers “Four sisters” like I would grab a comforting blanket and a hot cocoa. Then I realized that somehow I hadn’t blogged about the first tome, which I discovered by chance last December, and it’s high time that I correct this oversight.

To be honest I wasn’t even aware that these were bestsellers in France, I was only attracted by the cute, watercolor-style designs, but the librarian soon convinced me that there are actually throngs of Sisters fans who have read it in novels (it’s a series of 4 books for each season) and who were eagerly waiting for the graphic version to be released. Don’t go imagining something like Hunger games or like a girly Manga. There is some  supernatural involved and some romantic cuteness, but Four Sisters is very French.

Who are these sisters and how many of them are they exactly? Like the Three Musketeers who are actually 4, these Four Sisters are really 5. You could find parallels with the famous March sisters, but Ferdjoukh’s characters are so endearing and girly and modem that it would be a shame to deny their originality.

There’s Enid (9) who loves solitary adventures in the garden or near the sea, and has a sweet spot for animals that are despised. There’s Hortense (11) who never goes anywhere without her secret diary. She’s shy but in this volume she’s challenged to take drama classes. There’s red-headed Bettina (14) who’s lovely except when she gets on everybody’s nerves. She has 2 BFFs and spends her time plotting with them. There’s Genevieve (16) with highly developed homely and mothering instincts. She’s so sweet and takes care of everyone, but her way to let off stream is to take secret thai boxing classes. There’s Charlie (23) who has dropped out of med school when their parents died in a car accident to become the bread-winner and head of the family.

The five “four sisters” live by themselves in a derelict mansion by the sea, in a place that looks like Brittany or Normandy. They are orphaned, but their parents still visit them as friendly ghosts. The little world created by Ferdjoukh is also full of friends, relatives, boyfriends and pets (even if only the house rat).

What clicked with me was the language. It’s hard to describe here, but Ferdjoukh uses original metaphors and funny names that are so endearing that I couldn’t wait to read all these dialogues. It’s poetic and light and witty and was perfectly suited with the graphic treatment, these four red-cheeked, wavy-haired, round girls with pointed noses and pastel watercolors. Although I have never read any of Ferdjoukh’s numerous middle-grade novels, what I discover here reminds me of Susie Morgenstern or Judy Blume.

I can’t wait to read the two remaining tomes, and also to discover more of Malika Ferdjoukh’s novels!

The One about the Two Salomes

Colombe Schneck, La Réparation (2012)

I have read this book quite soon after finishing “Dix Sept Ans” (Seventeen) last fall. This second book by Colombe Schneck, read in close succession, confirms that she likes to pack a lot of emotions, controversial questions and heavy subjects in not many pages and with an apparently breezy writing. She seems a bit superficial and egocentric, but she’s really not.

This time it’s the Shoah, or more precisely Schneck’s research on what happened to her grandmother’s sisters and their family during the Second World War. Schneck’s maternal family comes from Lithuania, a well-to-do, respected Jewish family who thought that they had nothing to fear. How wrong they were! Her grandmother’s sisters survived “somehow”, but their spouses and children didn’t. They remarried and had other children, and the first children were not talked about in Schneck’s family during her childhood.

After decades of silence, and not many questions, Schneck wants to discover what hides behind “somehow”. More precisely, she wants to discover the fate of little Salome, a 6-year-old girl who died during the Shoah, and who has the same first name than Schneck’s daughter, a name chosen at Schneck’s mother’s request years before. Schneck’s mother never explained anything to her and remained stuck in the trauma of the past. She is a character I would have loved to learn more about, yet she remains in the shadows. On the contrary, Schneck’s grandmother and her sisters are alive on the page and seem quite formidable women, each in her own style.

It’s hard to read this book in one setting. It’s hard to read this book sequentially, going from one page to the next just as the writer has planned it, because the subject is so heavy and the emotions so raw. I prefer taking a few pages here and there. There is a turning point in the middle of the book that will take your breath away, but I guess it wouldn’t be fair for me to reveal it, although the book hasn’t been translated to English.

It’s easy to compare this book negatively to Daniel Mendelsohn’s Lost. Schneck’s book isn’t as deeply researched, and many things are left unsaid, perhaps to respect the family’s privacy. The part where Schneck goes to Lithuania seems weirdly anticlimactic, but still the courage and the authenticity of the project makes the reading worthwhile.

The One that Shouldn’t have Come First

Guillaume Prévost, Cantique de l’Assassin (2016)

I have just written a post about Eve Schaub’s Year of No Clutter, for which I’d received an ARC through Netgalley, and just before posting it I realized the publisher has requested that we’d wait for the publication date (March 1st) to post reviews. It’s the first time I have seen such a request, and while I obliged, it felt weird, especially as I got the book 3 months ago, read it in November and I already thought I was a bit late. Did anyone of you have such a request?

So instead of posting what I intended (the post is now scheduled for March 1st, thanks to WordPress fancy options), here’s a short-short note on a book that only took me days to finish.

I have received Le Cantique de l’Assassin (the Murderer’s Hymn) as a present the day after Christmas, and I was done with it on January 1st. The first book completed in 2017! Yet I doubt it will leave a long impression on me. It’s a mystery set in France in 1920, but the main drawback is that it’s the fifth book in a series… that should be read in order. I guess that if I had started with the first book (La Valse des Gueules Cassées, with a title referring to the aftermath of World War I and the millions of mutilated vets with no resources or no perspectives) I would probably have warmed up to his recurring hero-detective François Claudius Simon.

But by the fifth tome, being introduced to this guy so full of back stories and mysteries, I felt as if I’d been thrown right into a Dumas serial swash-buckling saga at a random page in the middle. It was hard for me to care, and the amount of twists and turns and revelations and attacks was too much for me (perhaps I’d had too much to eat over the holidays, but I wished I could put the book plot on diet). It was a fast read, but it was soon put on the giveaway pile.