Parallel Reading: Girls at the brink of the 1970s

Don’t think that I’m doing a catch-all post to quickly get rid of reviews that are long overdue… On the contrary, writing a post for each book would be easier for me, while trying to link books together is a bit of a challenge, to be honest. But that’s in that spirit that I read them, so here is my experience of parallel reading.

To start, even though it’s harder for me to report, the reading experience is so, so fun! I love when books talk to each other. Over the last 3 months I read 3 books that clearly had a lot of common ground: “America”, by Joan Didion, is a French collection of 11 essays taken from several of her best-known collections: “The White Album” (1979), “Slouching towards Bethlehem” (1968) and “After Henry” (1992). The second book was Emma Cline’s “The Girls”, an oblique retelling of the Manson murders, but also a coming of age story of a 14-year-old angsty girl in 1969 California. The third book, “Mercy, Mary, Patty” by Lola Lafon is a French take on the Patty Hearst kidnapping, told obliquely by a French young woman in the present day and a young girl with her American teacher at the time of the trial.

The first obvious parallel is the end of 1960s and 1970s, when the summer of love has turned sour, when drugs and violence have taken the high ground over idealism and peace and love. I haven’t witnessed it first hand, but I was born at the end of the 1970s when the mood was dark and hopeless and I have never fully understood what was in the air to shift so much from the hopeful days of the 1960s.

The second obvious parallel is young women and girls, as main characters written by female authors. None of these female voices in the three books are exactly likeable. They’re angsty, a bit whiny, both entitled and so unsure of themselves. Violaine in “Mercy Mary Patty” is the pet student of an American exchange teacher in high-school, she’s been chosen to help the teacher with the Hearst material to prepare for trial. She’s highly persuadable and in awe of these exotic characters (both Patty Hearst and the teacher), highly out-of-place in small town 1970s France. Evie Boyd in “The Girls” is lonely and lost, also in awe of Suzanne, the wild, dark (“feral”) young woman in an exotic cult that rejects everything Evie was taught in her upper class, ordinary family. Joan Didion does not quite use the same voice but she doesn’t hide how lost she felt. Although older at the time, a professional journalist whose mission is to observe the people she meets, I can’t help but think that she was strangely fascinated by these weird people in Height Ashbury (and perhaps in Manson’s ranch too, as we see her buying a dress for cult member turned trial witness Linda Casabian). And she was very close to a nervous breakdown.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Emma Cline read Joan Didion (required research reading, isn’t it?), and the result is that in my mind, Evie could very well have crossed paths with Joan in one of these dingy, decaying places where people did drugs all the time, or that Joan could have been invited to a polite party organized in California by Evie’s parents. Violaine, on the other side of the Atlantic, could very well have befriended Evie. She could have been fascinated by Manson or another guru if gurus were roaming the French countryside at that time (not that I know of… California is a far cry from the French Atlantic coastlines). Violaine is taken by the radical protest that her teacher introduces her to, she sees an authentic, pure idealistic woman in Patty Hearst, a young girl like herself who has gone beyond the lies of the civilized society and stifling, conventional parents. Violaine has a massive girl crush in Patty, similar to Evie who has massive girl crush on Suzanne, but doesn’t seem to be as fascinated by Manson. What adults see is that Violaine and Evie are taken into a cult, but what we see from the inside is the adolescent fascination for something different, whatever the discourse (political or spiritual) it takes. Joan Didion, as an adult (she is 35 in 1969, after all), looks at those drifting adolescents and younger with dismay, the same way Evie’s parents and her father’s girlfriend look at her.

The last parallel I’ll draw between the 3 books is the way the writer has addressed her stories and her characters. In the 2 novels, the writer has chosen an oblique approach, with the narrator speaking from the wisdom of her later years, a narrator is contemporary to the reader. Evie has not joined the cult herself but kind of drifts on the periphery (which saves her when things turn dark). Her life afterwards is basically a huge failure. Violaine has not joined any protest group and she has nothing to link her to Patty Hearst herself. Her life afterwards is basically… well, nothing much either. The oblique approach of “Mary, Mercy, Patty” and “The Girls” is what caused my reservations about both books. I didn’t care so much about the present timeline plot, I wanted to be with the girls and experience things firsthand. And I found that it was a bit too easy to make Violaine’s et Evie’s adult lives dull and empty.

Of course, Joan Didion didn’t choose such an oblique way for her essays, but she still starts the White album with this very famous sentence that looks back to the end of the 1960s from the end of the 1970s, in a failed attempt to make sense out of it.  In some ways, even after three books, the era will keep its mystery.


The One with the Bastille Before and the One on the other side

Jean-François Parot, Le Prince de Cochinchine (French 2017)

Well, this might look like a catch-up post to you but truly I don’t think I can be objective with this book, and as I don’t want to give spoilers either, what can I say? I’m too deep into Jean-François Parot’s mysteries by now, and this is the 14th… so it’s practically family by now. Like most fans I enjoy meeting again and again all these familiar characters, and to see how all of them are evolving or staying true to themselves.

The year is now 1787 (the previous one was set one to two years before that), and it’s only 2 short years before the well-known Bastille events (well-known to us readers, of course, not to the oblivious characters). To say that the characters are dancing on the brink of disaster is the biggest understatement of the whole series. Mystery plots aside, I guess it’s what makes Parot so hugely popular. And of course, Parot plays with our nerves when he alludes to the weaknesses of King Louis 16th, to the mounting dissatisfaction and unrest in the countryside and the cities. The hero gets thrown into the Bastille prison for a short while, and you can almost see Parot wink at us. The research is impeccable as always, but it’s not really a leisurely read because Parot likes to mix several plot lines together, from the petty crime to the international high-level treason and it’s sometimes tough to follow (at least, to my exhausted mind).

Now I want to contrast and compare briefly with another novel that is set on the other side of the Channel during the very same period: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. I got it as an ARC through Netgalley, but I’m totally stalling at 10%. The book is just as rich with research and period details as Parot’s, but the pace is so slow that I’m going to take a break (a long one, possibly forever?). I was first charmed by the beautiful cover art and then I thought that I would learn a lot about people living and breathing at the same time of Commissaire Nicolas Le Floch but not having the same concerns. So far I have met Mr. Hancock and also the high-class prostitute Angelica Neale and it made me think of characters with similar ambitions and prospects on the Paris scene of the 1780s. Both writers adopt a very different point of view. Gowar switches points of view between different characters but remains at their level, while Parot remains firmly behind Le Floch’s back but give us an occasional head up on what it means nationally, politically or socially, or even at international level. I am a bit disappointed because The Mermaid… is gorgeous in writing and seemed right up my alley, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the characters so far. Am I missing out on something? Should I salvage the book or let it gather dust on my digital shelves?

The One with Rebel Chinese-French Teens

Chloé Cattelain, Ma Vie à la Baguette (French, 2015)

Mr. Smithereens gave me this book last year… and I wished I had started it earlier, because it was such a delight!

The narrator and main character is Kevin, 17, a first generation French-Chinese teenager full of contradictions. He’s born in a French town, but classmates and teachers always highlight his Chinese identity (or mistake him for Korean, in a hilarious, awkward scene where the popular girl in class, a big K-pop fan, invites him over to her party and hopes to make out, until he reveals his country of origin). He wants to have a girlfriend, have fun, but his father wants him to get good grades and study all the time. Kevin’s father is a sort of “Tiger dad”, who demands a lot because he loves his boys but doesn’t know about to speak to them.

Kevin, his little brother Michael (14) and their father are forever in-between China and France, both culturally and literally. The boys get to spend all their holidays in Beijing, with his father’s family relatives, while their father meets local contacts and takes them to no-end of business dinners for his trading company. They are stuck in awkward silence and misunderstanding, especially since the boys’ mother passed away a year before.

Clearly, there is an elephant in the room, and I will spoil it a bit for you (given that the book is in French only): it deals with the June 1989 events on Tiananmen Square.

I was suspicious at first, because it’s a middle grade / YA novel and the tone and voice is often off when dealing with big subjects. I was also suspicious, because the writer is French (she’s a teacher of Chinese language from what I understand) and I didn’t trust how much she could create the realistic voice of a Chinese family.

I was weary of clichés, but I was totally wrong! The boys seem totally real in their own struggles, and their relatives in France and China behave, talk and think like real people to me. Kevin is shy and ballsy in turn, the adults around him are clammed up with grief, fear, regret and other reasons. No one is black and white in this story and readers of all age will get food for thoughts.

The title has a lot of double entendre: “baguette” is both Chinese chopsticks and your typical French bread, but to live under the “baguette” means to be ruled hard, as per Kevin’s father exacting education standards.

I love this publisher, Thierry Magnier, and it surprises me over and over with its teenaged / YA novels.

The Ones on Medea’s Youth

Blandine Le Callet (story), Nancy Peña (art), L’Ombre d’Hécate (Médée #1, French 2013) – Le couteau dans la plaie (Médée #2, French 2015) – L’épouse barbare (Médée #3, French 2016)


Some people have strong opinions about modern retellings of traditional myths, or classics; I have disliked some, been puzzled by some, unimpressed by some and loved others. What’s for sure is that they have never left me indifferent.

At our new library I found a graphic series about Medea, which is totally amazing. I hesitate to report it because the series is still ongoing and it’s only in French, but for what it’s worth… Just like La Bouche d’Ombre which I reviewed recently, it is a cooperation between a female writer and a female graphic artist, which makes it even more interesting!

Medea is not an attractive female figure, she’s too shocking and disturbing. She is a dark witch, she is sexually active and she becomes so hysterical with jealousy that she kills her own children: who would want to identify with her?

Yet, in this retelling, we get to learn her life from her childhood on, and things take a different meaning. The Medea we know is the product of centuries of male domination and Medea is blamed because she is daring, intelligent and does not accept her fate. I have yet to read the third volume but the first two, about Medea’s childhood and her teenaged years were great. It  shows a girl with a modern mind stuck in an antique setting, whose only freedom is the one left to her by her tyrannical father because she has special skills (witchcraft!). It may annoy some readers, but it makes her so much more relatable. She meets Jason and falls in love at first sight because he’s a breath of fresh air in an oppressive palace. I can’t wait to read the third book that will likely delve into the dark, tragic side of Medea as a wife and mother in a foreign country.

The One with the Vengeful Spider

Fred Vargas, Quand Sort la Recluse (French 2017)

Of course I’m not talking about Spiderman!

I’m talking about the Brown Recluse Spider, a kind of nifty little arthropod that hides in woodpiles, sheds, dry cellars, etc. It has a necrotic venom (yes, this is apparently a word) and to weaker people it can be very dangerous (I am warning you right now: don’t – I repeat, DON’T look up images in Google, trust me. There are things you cannot unsee. If you want to know more, literary definitions are in my humble opinion more than enough!).

In North America, reported cases of recluse bites occur primarily in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas (or so I’m told on Wikipedia), but in this novel, the recluse spider has killed no less than 3 old men in bad shape in France! Is it global warming? Police refuses to get involved, scientists from the national science museum say it just can’t be, but Commissaire Adamsberg has one of his famously weird gut feelings: to him, it’s murder. So the question is: who has succeeded in taming these tiny, shy spiders to attack people, how and why?

Now, if you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I will read anything Vargas. And at our workplace library, we need to buy anything Vargas and the queuing starts right now. For the next one. So I’m not even trying to be objective in my review.

It was fantastic, as ever, period. I didn’t even mind that I guessed by the middle of the book who might have done it. I read on for the sheer pleasure of following Commissaire Adamsberg and his whimsical trains of thoughts. In French we say it’s “tiré par les cheveux” (the reader is pulled by his hair) to mean that it’s goofy and far-fetched, but it’s all for the good cause.

I have no idea when the book will be translated to English, but it will be done!

The One with the Red-Headed Shadows

Carole Martinez & Maud Begon, Bouche d’Ombre (French vol.1 2014, vol.2 2015, vol.3 2017, vol.4 to be released)

I’m still in the process of finding my bearings in our new town, exploring local shops and… the library! Our new library (see how proprietary I get?) is quite nice, although it has a mandatory fee for adults (it was free in Paris except if you wanted dvds). There are several self check-in / check-out machines on each floor (the kids love them!). The ground floor is for magazines, CDs and DVDs, crafts food and gardening, and art books (it feels like a huge Miscellaneous department). The first floor is for kids books, and the second floor is for adult fiction and non-fiction, and each floor has a huge selection of comics / graphic novels.

I was lucky with the first pick I had from the adult graphic novels on display. “La Bouche d’Ombre” (“the Shadow’s Mouth”, a quote from a Victory Hugo poem I didn’t know) is an ongoing series (3 tomes are already published but it’s not complete yet) and the story is just as fascinating as the art itself. Even better, it’s a collaboration between a female writer (Carole Martinez, who got many literary awards) and a female graphic artist (Maud Begon, whose blog you can visit) and this is rare enough to be highlighted.

The first tome is set in 1985 and introduces us to Lou, a high-school junior in Paris with a large group of friends and a taste for partying and hanging out. A friend suggests a spiritualist séance to conjure up dead ghosts (because it seems fun and because they study Victor Hugo in school). The session goes only too well, and after a friend of hers commits suicide, deeply upset by the séance, Lou realizes that she can see dead people. This gift does not come kindly, and Lou struggles with what she feels and sees. There are many family secrets, and it seems that supernatural gifts have been running at various degrees in Lou’s family. Hypnosis helps Lou make sense of it, and understand what the deads want from her.

The second volume, titled Lucie 1900, focuses on the complex relations between science and the occult. The present and the past intersect under Lou’s eyes and in her dreams. We still see Lou in 1985, but when she gets obsessed with a young woman without a face, a woman named Lucie who lives at the beginning of the 20th century, a second timeline opens in the novel. The year is 1900 in Paris, when a huge international exhibition was held that showed the latest in science and art innovations. Lucie is enthusiastic about science, she gets acquainted with famous scientists Pierre and Marie Curie, but she also has a secret that is both overpowering and terrifying, and that threatens the rationals of science. Lucie is actually Lou’s grandmother! The end comes back to the present day with a shocking twist that will send the reader reeling.

In the third volume, titled Lucienne 1853, we leave science for literature. Lou still presents the contemporary framing of the story. She is devastated by the events at the end of the previous volume, but she now understand enough of her gift to decide to travel back in history to try to rectify the situation (ouch, it’s tough to avoid spoilers!). We visit Jersey island at the time when Victor Hugo and his family were in exile there. Victor Hugo is obsessed with the occult and the spiritualist movement, hoping to get in touch with his deceased daughter Leopoldine. But a mischievous, red-headed little girl-spirit messes with them.

There are so many interesting layers in this story. The art is quite atmospheric, at times romantic and scary. It is never static and conveys a deep sense of mystery. It’s girly without being one bit hokey. I can’t wait for the final volume!

The One on the Murky Aftermath of Revolution

Balzac, Une Ténébreuse Affaire (French, 1841 ; Eng. The Gondreville Mystery, a.k.a. A Murky Business)

I always finish the year complaining on how few classics I read… and yet, when I try to be intentional and read one, it’s not that easy!

Although it’s a short novel, This Murky Business (there are many different translations of the title) is so rich that it’s difficult to summarize. It starts awkwardly but then after 50 pages the action and the twists of events made me turn the pages until the end. It’s gripping and surprising and well worth the effort, but…

The BIG warning to potential readers (French and foreigners alike), is that a preface AND a postface would certainly be necessary to understand the context and make sense of it all. I just read the Wikipedia page and it wasn’t nearly enough. To Balzac in 1841 the revolution and the reign of Emperor Napoleon were still fresh in everybody’s mind, but to me, I struggle to remember what I learnt in freshman college history. And I can’t imagine what it means for English readers…

Let me try, even if I might make a mess of it.

The beginning of the novel is especially… murky (you can’t say that Balzac didn’t warn us in the title, right?). It’s set in 1803 in rural France, and the power of Napoleon isn’t set yet. People still remember who was responsible for the local guillotine killings. Aristocrats who want to get the king’s family back on the throne are in exile and it’s forbidden to help them. Still, a daring, beautiful young heroine, Laurence de Cinq Cygnes, an heiress whose parents were killed during the Terror, rides her horse across the countryside, seemingly because she’s wild and lonely, but really to help her two cousins, two twin young men who are desperately in love with her and illegally back from exile. The police suspects her and shows up at her castle, but she’s warned by a faithful servant and the cousins escape. The policemen know that they have been fooled and develop a strong grudge against both families.

The second part is set a few years later when the trio are quietly living in their domain under the reign of Emperor Napoleon. They dislike the Emperor and more or less put up with the situation, until they try to retrieve the family money that has been hidden during the Revolution. A complicated conspiracy get them arrested (along with the faithful servant of the first part) and tried for the abduction of a senator. They will barely escape with their lives.

The third part is set many years later when in a Parisian high society gathering, we recognize an old lady as Laurence de Cinq Cygnes and we get to understand the deeper meaning of the conspiracy.

The book offers a fascinating portrait of France at a very complex time. We often learn history by the large political, international events and our teachers lead us from one period to the next as we turn the page of a textbook. But true life events are not so clean-cut, and people don’t know that they are living through the end of the Revolution, or the beginning of the Empire. In the countryside, they might not even know who is in power in Paris. Sometimes even, they are pawns on a larger scale, just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, or because they have irked the wrong guys.

Laurence de Cinq Cygnes is a tragic heroine. She’s idealistic and still wants the king’s family to return to power instead of compromising with Emperor Napoleon. She will undergo a full 360 but at a very high personal cost. I liked her a lot, and looking things through her eyes made up for the intricate shenanigans I couldn’t fully understand. People who were of her generation lived under kings, emperors, tyrants, revolutions and wars and it must have been so tough.

The One with the Family Secrets in Pink and Lilac

Camille Jourdy, Juliette (French 2016)

Oh, how big a difference one day makes! When I started to read this graphic novel I was stressed out by some ongoing renovation project and I was annoyed by the main character of the book, an anxious, meek, slightly depressed, slightly aimless young woman named Juliette, who takes a break from her life and job in Paris to rest for a while in her family.

I was annoyed by the naive design of this graphic novel, all in pink, lilac, pastel tones. I feared it would be too schmaltzy, a real tear-jerker. I was innerly boiling at her passivity. Get a grip, girl! Stop your idle navel gazing! You can’t possibly have a good reason to be so anxious! In brief, I was being stupid, because if Juliette had been real, none of what I’d say would have put her out of her funk. Existential crisis doesn’t solve itself in minutes with a bullet-point epiphany over lunch.

The next day, the renovation was going well, and I was in a better mood for Juliette. Yes, she’s the meek one, but what a family! She has a big sister, Marylou, who works cleaning and caring for elderly people. She is a strong, big woman who takes care of all matters in her family, but secretly she has a lover. Juliette’s and Marylou’s parents are divorced and don’t get on with each other whenever they get together.

Short daily scenes full of humor or sadness show the tiny dramas, struggles, and quests for love and happiness. We never know exactly why Juliette has come back, but we still get to empathize with her, her friend and her whole family. She is slightly hypochondriac, clearly highly sensitive, and she’s not the dynamic super heroine à la Wonder Woman but after a few pages I had totally forgotten how annoyed I had been!

It’s a quiet, melancholy book, with no big tension but true big questions hidden behind the small details, the few words and the poetic tone. Who plays what role in a family and can one change? How do you position yourself with adult, ageing parents? What can you do with family secrets? The story is left open-ended but I liked it that way.

Camille Jourdy is the author of another graphic trilogy, Rosalie Blum, that has been made into a movie this year. I haven’t seen it, but she reminds me of Malika Ferdjoukh Four Sisters graphic novel series.

The One with the Birth of Orlando

Christine Orban, Virginia et Vita (French, 2012)

I’m getting better at stopping a book I started because I dislike it, but I’m not there yet when I am ambivalent about a book: I still want to give it a fair chance, and I always have the hope that the book will redeem itself in the end.

I was attracted to this novel by the hyped-up image of the lesbian affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. I’d known about it, but I didn’t know the details, and yes, it was probably a voyeuristic move from me to borrow this book. Similar to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf has become such a pop-culture figure in our literary world. She’s revered, not only because she wrote great novels, but because she was a rebel, she was misunderstood, she was depressed and repressed, and because she was in a close circle of equally fascinating people.

This book (that is never quite clear about which part if fiction, which part is fact, but we should probably get used to this in our era – sigh) introduced me to another Virginia. A jealous, possessive, egoist, often unlikeable Virginia. And Leonard! [deep sigh] In fact, most characters in the book are rather unlikeable, which is not really a problem if they were like that in real life, but if you tell a love story, it makes it a tough sell. We see the bitter throes of passion, but we do not see the joy of it. The gap between Vita’s upper-class standing, way of life and education, and Virginia’s middle-class situation is obvious, as is the gap between Vita’s good enough literary success and Virginia’s deeper quest for literary creation. But I missed the spark of an emotional connection.

The book gave us an intimate view on the literary creation of Orlando, and that was the best part of it, but the whole experience was sadly a bit disappointing because it was too slow and too detached. I would perhaps have been better inspired to re-read Orlando (which I read during highschool but completely misunderstood), or another Woolf novel and her biography by Hermione Lee, which I only read in part (900 pages, people!)

Have you read books on Woolf that you enjoyed?

The One with the Sadly Vicious Maid

Octave Mirbeau, Le Journal d’une Femme de Chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1900)

It’s not a good sign when you pass the 25%, then the 40% mark of a book and you don’t really know why you’re reading it, right? Well, I wanted to read a classic that I had not read in class, because there’s always a good reason that they have withstood the proverbial test of time, and after reading Belle Epoque, I was in the mood for more turn-of-the-century upstairs/downstairs drama.

Now, if upstairs/downstairs drama makes you think of Downton Abbey, think again. This is about sex (not feelings), and Célestine, the maid, is having a lot of it. It’s about hypocrisy, and Celestine is not the least of the hypocrites, even if the masters are the champions. Everybody in this book is vicious, both upstairs and downstairs. Of course, it’s a sad tale, very dark and cynical. Célestine has had an unhappy childhood, then she was trained as a maid and she got an opportunity to find a position in Paris, among bourgeois wealthy families. Bourgeois pretend to be wholesome, faithful, honest people and demand the same from their servants, but they’re mean, lying, ungenerous and vicious. The servants in turn hate and envy their masters, both when these are too strict or too lax.

The sex part is not even fun, because all the characters are such caricatures. Not only is the social criticism not very subtle (Mirbeau is rather one to underline everything twice with a yellow highlighter, if those had existed in 1900) but the political context is also important: all the evil bourgeois and servants are violently antisemitic and anti-Dreyfusards (pro-Army and pro-Catholics), in reference to the French Antisemitic scandal (l’affaire Dreyfus) that made one half of France clash against the other between 1894 and 1906. I didn’t know much about Mirbeau’s personal life or convictions before reading the book, but it is obvious that he was an anarchist. I just wished he could make his point quicker.