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.

 

The One that brings Orpheus to Italy

Laurent Gaudé, La Porte des Enfers (2008, French) / Hell’s Gate to be published in English in 2017

Laurent Gaudé’s books require a certain mood. It’s not the kind of books that you take lightly if you have a small pocket of time in-between your daily chores. It’s not the kind of books that you pick up if you want an entertaining read. No, that’s serious stuff, and you should probably sit down and turn off your phone.

Laurent Gaudé embarks you in an epic story and you cannot disembark before the next harbor. There’s nothing small and quiet in Gaudé’s stories. Emotions are heightened, people invoke the gods or fate or other super-human forces.

This time he takes us to Naples, Italy. The cliché is that Italians are hot-blooded, but here even introverted Scandinavian readers (assuming they can read it in French or English) will have a hard time staying dry-eyed with his first scene, or with the end of the book. It probably would warrant a trigger warning of sorts if it was contemplated for publication in the U.S. as it deals with the death of a child. But the death itself comes within the first few pages, so there is a lot more to it. The whole book is about grief and the consequences that this untimely death has over the child’s parents lives.

Except it goes into uncharted territories with this rather common theme. Gaudé dares to take the mythical story of Orpheus and transpose it into modern life. The child’s mother is devastated and challenges her husband to kill the child’s murderer or to bring their child back from death. And then the father meets someone who claims that in a hidden corner of the old town of Naples, a door leads to the underworld. He doubts it, but then he has to go and see for himself.

I will not reveal the secrets of this mesmerizing book. Not only are the themes powerful, but Gaude’s writing is gorgeous. I hope that the English translator will convey the rhythm of his sentences, both elegiac and violent.

The One with the Marquis at the Postmortem

Jean-François Parot, L’inconnu du Pont Notre Dame (2016)

The historical mysteries from Jean-François Parot is about the only series I read in order, and eagerly wait for the next installment. With every episode, I love the plotting and the details of the historical background, the good food and the familiar characters, but the suspense lies elsewhere. Even if the murder mystery is quite deep (the book has many red herrings, different stories weaved together and a multitude of characters that come and go), as we’re getting closer and closer to 1789, we can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for them.

The book starts with an unidentifiable victim found in one of the houses built on the bridge of Notre Dame, houses that are being demolished because they are too dangerous (you can get an idea from the French paperback book cover). Commissaire Nicolas Le Floch, who is also a marquis in favor with the King and Queen, is dispatched to solve the mystery.

This story is set in 1785-1786, and the Commissaire has been working for the King’s police since 1761 (under King Louis XV, that has been replaced in 1774 by Louis XVI, his grandson, a much less self-assured character). One famous historical episode set in 1785 is the scandal of the diamond necklace, where swindlers tricked a powerful aristocrat/former ambassador / courtier / cardinal into believing that the Queen was in love with him and stole huge sums of money and a diamond necklace (I’m trying to sum it up but really it was an elaborate scheme). Even though it was proven that the Queen was rather a victim than an accomplice of the deed, the distrust and hatred against the Queen only grew as a result of the scandal and the trial. The idea that the Queen could have given secret love rendez-vous to the Cardinal de Rohan just popularized the idea that she was frivolous and unfit to lead a country. Royalties who were supposed to receive their indisputable authority from God himself were acting like the commonest people and could be fooled by confidence tricksters. This was just one more step towards the Revolution.

Parot’s characters certainly are aware of the popular gossips and know also the depth of French socio-economic problems that plague the country. Poverty grows and elites are decadent and scandalous, the state is nearly bankrupt, people are unhappy with their present situation but can’t abide changes, popular unrest sparks off at every incident. It’s no accident that Parot, a former high-level French diplomat, has chosen the 18th century as his era of choice, as so many things remind us of our contemporary times.

The Commissaire is loyal to the king and to monarchy itself, but his assistant, who has followed the events in America with interest, wouldn’t mind changing the regime altogether. Yet they don’t seem to understand what turmoil is actually getting closer to them. All this to say, this book is the perfect, clever comfort read and I can’t wait for the next installment!

The One with Iranian Blues in Black and White

marjane-satrapi-poulet-aux-prunes-img6Marjane Satrapi, Poulet aux Prunes (Chicken with Plums, French 2004)

Marjane Satrapi is super famous (at least in France) for Persepolis, her graphic memoir of growing up in the Persia of the Shah, that was overthrown by the Islamic revolution in 1979 when she was ten. I loved it, because it was both blunt and delicate.

Chicken with Plums is another graphic memoir, focused on Nasser Ali Khan, Satrapi’s great uncle and a famous musician in Iran, who died in 1958. It takes the form of a traditional tale, as it recounts the last eight days of his life, with both realist details and ironic distance, and a lyrical and poetic imagination.

During an umpteenth fight with his wife, what Nasser loves most in life gets destroyed: its precious tar, his music instrument. No other tar can replace what was lost, and finally Khan, heartbroken, lies down and awaits death. During eight days, he remembers key moments of his life, especially his thwarted love story with another woman.

It’s a deeply sad story because we discover that music is the only space of freedom that Nasser has left. Despite their mutual attraction, he was not allowed to love Irâne, and her father refused that marriage with a lowly musician. Full of sadness, regret and depression, Nasser’s music becomes the best, but the rest of his life is in shambles. He accepts an arranged marriage with Nahid, but he never loves her. What seemed a pretty straightforward story (especially through the choice of only black and white) becomes a complex web of regrets, untold emotions and missed opportunities.

It made me wonder what would be the taste of Nasser Ali’s favorite dish, this chicken with plums (with onions, tomatoes, turmeric and saffron), and what his tar’s music might sound like. So I could not resist a quick Youtube search!

 

The One that Makes the Controversial Intimate

Colombe Schneck, Dix-Sept Ans (French, 2015)

I set about to review a book about abortion today, but I don’t mean to be controversial, I just read it and I want to review it. I didn’t choose the topic especially for today either, it just sits on my pile of finished books and it was time.

But.

I can’t help but feel the weight of the recent events, namely the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Believe me, typing these words feels so weird I had to correct so many typos.

Anyway.

People make choices. Not the ones you expect. Not the ones you believe in. Not the ones you would have made if you were them. But you’re not them. They choose because of their personal circumstances. Because of their beliefs, of their education, of their knowledge or lack thereof. They choose because they think it’s best at a given time, or just because it’s the lesser of two evils. It’s hard not to judge. Not to make assumptions. But still one must try. And books certainly help wear the other person’s shoes.

Colombe Schneck’s book is intimate and political. It’s a very short memoir (less than 100 pages) of her abortion when she was 17 (in the 1980s) and how it shaped her life ever since. She was finishing high school, carefree and rather careless. She thought it could not happen to her. She was a teenager from the upper class, immature and a bit irresponsible. She was idealist, she had been taught that boys and girls were free and equal. She could not have the baby. It was just not possible, not thinkable. Her parents were quite liberal, so they didn’t blame her but they didn’t talk to her either. Doctors and other adults didn’t question her choice; it was all very cold and technical, and she didn’t get to talk it through. Nor did she get the chance to talk about it afterwards, but she says she can’t help but think about it ever since. Even if the choice felt easy to her at the time, the consequences still linger in her head and in her heart. The life she had after she made that choice was different from what it would have been otherwise. She also talks about the legalization of abortion in France, the long fight to finally reach it and the continuous challenges and doubts ever since.

Schneck is a journalist, she writes smoothly and she knows how to go deep and emotional too. Her style is without flourish. She tries to be honest about her 17-year-old self, without being nostalgic or patronizing. I really want to discover her other books (and in fact, at this hour, I have already another on my nightstand).

The One with the French Sherlock Holmes Next Door

Emile Gaboriau, Le Petit Vieux des Batignolles (1876) – The Little Old Man of Batignolles

Back in July I read this very slim novel by the pioneer of detective fiction, Emile Gaboriau. It was supposed to be a middle grade book for kids at school, so there were lots of footnotes on context and vocabulary, but it read quite well. I read it on a whim because I live in the neighborhood of Batignolles, where the victim is found dead. I would have loved to find a description of the place, but the book took it for granted and rather focused on the characters.

In 1867 Gaboriau created Lecoq, a policeman interested in criminal psychology and in scientific methods of investigation, who is supposed to be a strong inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, created just 20 years later.

I could see the parallel between the two heroes, two men with an acute sense of observation, a bit eccentric (Lecoq a lot less so than Holmes), proud, self-assured and aloof in the self-awareness of their unique approach. They both have a sidekick, the narrator, who looks bewildered on the sidelines ( Lecoq’s neighbor in the present case). They both see the truth when other policemen and judges all fall for the red herring.

But the link between Lecoq and Holmes remains thin and there’s no denying that Conan Doyle created a completely original hero. [That’s one reason why it took me so long to post about this book. I thought I’d muster the courage / energy to make a proper comparison grounded in fact and literary analysis. My November self is laughing at my July self so hard. Nah, sorry, not gonna happen. You’re stuck with my gut feelings, and keep in mind that they might well be wrong. Caveat : I’m a huge Sherlock fan so nobody could ever hold the candle to him. ]

Where Holmes feels upper class to me (maybe it’s only the British BBC accent and the fact that I grew up watching Jeremy Brett playing Sherlock), Lecoq is an employee, firmly middle-class. He has a nice wife who worries about his husband’s job. And he’s so weirdly defensive, where Holmes would just shrug it off!

I am one of those lost sentinels of civilization,  losing sleep and risking my life, I keep society safe and I should blush of that? That would be a hoot. You’d say there are against us policemen lots of stupid prejudices inherited from the past. I don’t care!

The book is still highly readable and the mystery is alright (by which I mean that you couldn’t guess immediately the solution, but don’t expect too much, that’s 1876 after all). It certainly is more of an interesting read when you compare it with modern or classic mysteries.