Simon Spruyt, Le Tambour de la Moskova (2021)

This graphic novel was an impulse pick at the library. The cover was so aesthetically pleasing and a bit naive that it almost seemed like a children’s book, but indeed it is not! These two characterics are exactly what the author wants us to think about.

Vincent Bosse is a cute young man in a French village at the beginning of the 1800s. He’s serving at the church’s altar, which could save him from conscription, but after a dubious incident he is enlisted a soldier in Napoleon’s wars across Europe. His beauty helps him secure a rather safer position as a drummer for the troops that are merely cannon fodder. He marches to Moscow with his battalion and witnesses the unglamorous victories, with all the plundering and massacres that they entail, and the defeats with even more massacres. He’s merely a lost man in the middle of the turmoil, or so he wants us to think.

The story of the boy Vincent is actually told by an old man who looks like the ideal Russian grandfather on a farm with a large family. The story is told to the benefit of a rather distinguished guest whose identity we learn at the end in a rather unexpected twist. Now, it is clear that the boy may not have committed war crimes himself (or has he?), but we are led to question his reliability as a narrator and his innocence as a young man from early on.

Graphically the artist has used watercolors and colored pencils or pastels. Vincent’s face is white with cherry lips like a doll, and on the cover he almost looks like a saint in a Russian orthodox painted icon. Some images reminded me of the Nutcracker soldiers, but when the story goes into the bloodiest parts of the war campaigns, the images take a dream-like quality and much happens outside the frame.

This graphic novel won several prizes. The author is Dutch-speaking Belgian, but it’s a long, long way from the traditional Belgian comics like Tintin. If you want to see the artist at work and how he painted one of the pages of the book, you can see a short video here.

Dona Tartt, The Secret History (1992)

I can safely say that without the podcast Once Upon a Time at Bennington College, I would not have read this novel and I would have missed out on a great read. Would I have enjoyed it as much without the podcast? Surely not. It is also entirely possible that the story of a group of snobbish students in classical studies, inspired by a morally dubious, equally snobbish professor, might have made me roll my eyes.

Equipped with the back story on the university years of Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis and others during the 1980s at an exclusive university campus in Vermont, where eccentricities were the norm, I feel closer to the book and its intentions. I understand better the parallels with Brideshead Revisited which fascinated some students at the time (I haven’t read the novel, and Mr S. claims I have seen the movie version with him but frankly I have no recollection whatsoever 🙄). The podcast draws parallels between fictional characters and real students of Tartt’s class at Bennington, but it takes us readers only so far because we don’t know them, but it serves to highlight the peculiar, decadent and slightly pernicious atmosphere on campus (which might have fostered creativity for some, but didn’t go well in the 1990s when one could say relations between students and professors were normalized).

Now, is it the best novel ever as some claim on Goodreads? I don’t think so, although I understand the appeal for younger readers because of the dark charm of the campus novel with brilliant minds where not all is at it seems (see the recent trend of #darkacademia). It could easily be edited down, and sometimes it comes out as pompous with not much substance behind it (the evil influence of Professor Julian Morrow is alluded to, but he’s so barely present along the novel that one might wonder if it isn’t yet another lie). It’s interesting to compare and contrast with The Prime of Miss Brodie where the teacher is front and center (I feel that I should reread it). Also I was a bit disappointed that Camilla, Francis and Charles weren’t as developed as they could be, given the size of the book, but of course it can also be blamed on the unreliable, selfish narrator.

Let’s not deny that it was a great entertainment and lots of fun! Yes it’s big but after 100 pages or so I simply could not put it down and the pages flew by. Now, should I read Brideshead Revisited or investigate this #darkacademia trend? Or should I try the other Donna Tartt’s bestseller, The Goldfinch? Any recommendations?

Michael Connelly, Fair Warning (2020)

I have a hidden TBR list, not in Goodreads, not in my computer, not in my notebook or bullet journal. It’s actually in my phone, a folder in my camera app where are all the pictures of books taken at the library. I’m that crazy woman who sees a brand new book on a shelf… holds it with adoring eyes… take a picture of it… and bravely puts it down back on the shelf. This is the trick I devised to avoid bringing too many books back home… And this one is a book I’d photographed back in October 2021 (picture time stamp) and eventually borrowed to read in June 2022.

Fair Warning is not a Harry Bosch book, nor is it a Mickey Haller book, or even a Renee Ballard book. I took it without really paying attention but in fact, who is this James McEvoy? (Not to be confused with James McAvoy of Hollywood fame, although the other one lives in LA too). James McEvoy is a journalist (who apparently appeared in 2 previous books I haven’t read, this book can be read as a standalone but I think it might be better to know the background). This time, he had a drink with a woman, and soon after, after she is found murdered, he has no choice but to get involved in the investigation, because he is a suspect! McEvoy gets rather lucky with his discoveries, and he opens a full Pandora box.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but I was really floored by the topics that Connelly addressed in this book. It interested me not only for the plot itself, full of great twists and turns, but for our daily life. (If I say anything more, I’ll ruin the surprise) Added bonus: McEvoy is supposed to work in a non-profit consumer protection news agency, Fair Warning, which exists in real life!

I’m really glad to have discovered this new main character, and I’d love to backtrack and read the previous two books!

Daphne Du Maurier, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (1960)

I was surprised to see that my library had this (non fiction) book among the translated novels of Daphne du Maurier (I rather think it’s a mistake as far as classification goes, but a chance for me since I wouldn’t have found it otherwise). As it totally fitted my goal to read more by Du Maurier and more non-fiction (two birds one stone yada yada), I decided to read it, thinking that I already knew a lot on Branwell Brontë. Or did I?

My understanding of Branwell Brontë came from Charlotte Bronte’s biography by Elizabeth Gaskell (read about 15 years ago, and probably skipped a lot) and from a lot of BBC documentaries and movies. I saw him as a useless alcoholic and madman next to his famous sisters, and that they spent way too much money, time and mental energy on him. Now, after reading Du Maurier’s biography, my understanding is a little more nuanced. I never took the time to see the world from his perspective. The brother and the sisters actually all started off in the same creative atmosphere, and they diverged due to… what? Bad luck or lack of stamina? To be pampered and cherished as a precocious genius during childhood, and then failing over and over at any job he could get, and then see his sisters succeed next to him? (Literally next, as they all worked and lived together in a rather small parsonage). No wonder he drank!

Patrick Brontë, the father, chose to not send Branwell to school, because he was too sensitive. That decision seems to have had a disproportionate impact on his whole life, because as much as it protected Branwell and enabled his imagination to run wild, it also cut him from the realities of the world. Yet he was expected as a boy, and a man, to make a living for himself, contrary to his sisters who were destined to be dependent, and therefore inherited money from their aunt.

The irony is that the sisters were better equipped to work and earn a living than he was. In the book we feel (and share) Du Maurier’s frustration at Branwell’s failures and immature behaviors, and then lying his way back to Haworth. It’s like he never grew up, and he seemed to hate this too. It’s not fiction, so I won’t spoil anything in writing about the false affair that Branwell pretended to have had with the wife of his one-time employer. I was really shocked that Branwell’s sisters really believed this and he probably believed his own lies too. He died at age 31, followed very soon by his closest sister Emily, then Anne.

After finishing this book, I’d love to rewatch the historical movie To Walk Invisible, and pay more attention to the brother’s character.

Patrick Modiano, Suspended Sentences (1988)

Reading a book by Patrick Modiano is immersing oneself in an atmosphere with a strong sense of place (Paris and its suburbs) and history (the post-war period and the 1950s). I feel that the experience is even better when you can have an uninterrupted immersion, which is why I enjoy his short books like this one.

Suspended sentences is about the childhood memories of a man named Patrick. Whether this is actually Patrick Modiano “for real” is open for debate but I personally don’t care. 10-year-old Patrick and his younger brother have been entrusted by their parents to several women who are… well… out of the ordinary. There’s a former circus horsewoman whose career was stopped short by an accident. There’s her mother and a pale young woman that they’re calling Snow-White. They live on the outskirts of a small suburban village and the villagers shun them, perhaps for good reasons.

The boy’s daily life is simple: school, playing with local boys and with his brother, roaming the countryside and in particular an abandoned palace owned by some aristocracy that fled at the end of the war due to some unsavory dealings with the Nazi occupants. He listens to the adults speaking but he doesn’t understand. He finds them mysterious, and he’s probably right, but some clues he’ll only piece together as an adult.

There’s a lot of “perhaps” in this tale, and if you like to have a neat resolution at the end of a novel you should skip this one. Fragments of memories, fragments of clues, shady people meeting at night in a suburban house, Patrick will never get to the bottom of what he witnessed as a child. As a mother I had to wonder about this weird arrangement found by the parents who could not take care of their two boys for an extended period (several months at minimum, more like a school year).

As a reader and Modiano lover I just saw that some serious people are actually researching if those events took place and what characters are actually real. I find it fascinating (and also a bit weird and obsessional to be honest). But it makes me happy that I’ve planned another Modiano for the summer!

Emily St. John Mandel, The Singer’s Gun (2010)

When it comes to British or American writers, I try to read as much as possible in the original language. Sometimes I settle for the translation, but I always wonder how faithful it is in tone and style. That’s what happened with this book by Emily St. John Mandel.

After falling in love with Station Eleven, and again with The Glass Hotel last year, one of my bookish resolutions was to read more of her books. But Kindle versions were rather expensive, no second-hand book available from my trusted source and no paperback in new versions? My library, on the other hand, has perfectly available copies of most of her books in French… So, I have read “On ne joue pas avec la mort” (One shouldn’t play with death), aka The Singer’s Gun. Weird title choice, right? That’s where my nagging doubts kicked in. Did I miss out on something? I suspect I did, because regardless of the skills of the translator, I couldn’t find the usual dashes of brilliance of the writer’s style, and I missed it.

Still, the story and characters were quite good. It’s a thriller, and a mystery, and a family drama, and a character study all tied together. Here the main character is Anton Walker, whom we first meet alone on an Italian island. He is a newlywed but his wife has left him. He doesn’t seem to have a job. How he came and what he’s doing there will take 200 pages to clarify, but nothing is as it first appears. And as soon as you have peeled off one layer of explanations (often half truths) then another layer starts to appear. Any other way of telling the story would have made me despise or hate Anton, but on the contrary I feel his tragedy and his lack of options and bad decisions. He is weak, but so human.

It is of course a standalone novel, but I can find echos of other books by St. John Mandel. A chorus of people whose fate is intertwined in complex ways. People who lie for good reasons (or not), the get-rich-fast scams (The Glass Hotel), flawed relatives, people who start over and invent a new identity for themselves some place else…

Just like the other books it’s very hard to sum up and to do it justice in a blog post. It’s an experience you have to get immersed in. And it confirmed me in my wish to read all of Emily St John Mandel’s books!

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (2018)

When this novel came out I knew that at some point I would read it, but I waited for quite a long time. It was because I’d worked on a short story / novella on the same premises: rewrite one of the Greeks classic myths (the Illiad and Aeneid) taking the point of view of one of the anonymous women mentioned in passing (those stories are full of names and details). I loved working on that story, but I didn’t finish it. Having a famous writer write and publish something similar was incredibly validating and somehow frustrating… But now my feeling is that thanks to the attention and time I devoted to the original Greek story, I enjoyed the novel even more!

The tragedy of Troy defeated by the Greeks is here told by Briseis, a woman who used to be a wealthy queen of a neighboring town but was enslaved by Achilles. She is mentioned many times in the Illiad because she’s a disputed war prize between Achilles and Agamemnon. But the Illiad doesn’t let her speak or act, she’s mere chattel and she of course has no say whether she is raped by one or the other glorious hero.

Pat Barker gives her an inner voice and the gift of observation and survival. Briseis has feelings and opinions and she is an actor of her life at different points of the book. Pat Barker also gives a reality of the fate of countless women that were enslaved to male warriors and whose lives depend on them. She describes the camps where soldiers lived and waited for the battle with rats and drunken parties and women in shacks doing chores. This is brutal and violent and does a great job counterbalancing Homer’s epic poetry (his chants are full of blood but the pictures are glorious and beautiful still).

The book is stunning and full of complexity, characters are multilayered and attaching, nothing is black-and-white, even in disturbing places, like when some women end up being in love with their master. But Briseis understand that even though women are basically invisible, their children (born out of rapes from Greeks) will still fondly remember their Trojan mothers. The descendants of the victors are also the descendants of the Troyan women somehow (probably a big difference with modern extermination wars where it was not possible for victors obsessed with racial purity to have kids with their concubines and still acknowledged as their own).

This is not a fun book but indeed a memorable one. I see that Pat Barker went on to write more about the fate of the Trojan women but given how gruesome this might be, I’ll prefer to wait before trying it.

Patrick Modiano, In the Café of Lost Youth (2007)

Now, that’s more like it… After the distasteful / disastrous encounter with Place de l’Etoile, Modiano’s first book, this more recent novel is what most people expect for this author, and it’s a good (albeit melancholy) story.

The focus of the book is Louki, a young woman who used to be a regular patron of a café in Paris, and who died after throwing herself from a window. The book is an attempt to understand her, but also the impossibility to really know who Louki was.

We’re not sure who the narrator is at first, and then once I thought I’d nailed it (a shy young man in the café, probably Modiano’s alter-ego, who many years later will remember Louki), then the voice changes. Sometimes it’s Louki herself, sometimes it’s a private investigator who has been hired by Louki’s husband. Not only does the point of view change, but also the time setting. At some moment we’re in an undefined past (the 1960s maybe?), sometimes we’re in the present and looking back at the past events. One of the good points of this book is the experience of feeling lost (as the title mentions), but it’s probably not for everybody.

The tone of the book is nostalgic but it’s not to say that the past is all rosy. Louki grew up with a single mother who worked at night at the Moulin Rouge and in her absence she took to walking alone in the streets, being arrested for vagrancy. Louki later belongs to a group of friends, but this is very vague, and there’s also some drug addiction involved, contributing to her general despair and loneliness.

The Café of Lost Youth is to me a reference to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. Modiano could actually borrow Proust’s title in its entirety. Louki is lost to the now adult narrator, as is the group of people she was with and many buildings and streets of Paris. As the song goes “Paris sera toujours Paris” with its Moulin rouge, landmarks, streets and cafés, but it’s also never the same.

One could also say that Modiano is always telling the same story about the past, but it’s also never the same. And I love it!

Modiano, La place de l’étoile (1968)

I was recently reminded that one of my goals for 2022 was to read more books by Patrick Modiano (and also, randomly, by Emily St John Mandel, Claire Keegan, Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Townsend Warner). Modiano seemed appropriate for a mellow mood, and I borrowed several from the library, to read together during the same period. But I was in for a shock: this book is nothing like typical Modiano, and in fact, I checked several times that he was the author on the cover, instead of controversial writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

This novel is the first Modiano published. I have no idea how young he was (I checked and he was 22), but he must have been one troubled young man. Having read several of his later works I can now trace in this chaos some of his obsessions: World War II, French Nazi collaborators, Jewish identity, Paris locations… But it’s also bizarre, utterly unlikeable, made to shock readers with strong Antisemitic language (coming from a self-loathing Jew). I really struggled to finish it (more like, get rid of it as fast as possible) and I wouldn’t recommend it, especially as a first taste for Modiano.

I understand that it’s the first book of his Occupation Trilogy for which I had already unwittingly read the second, The Night Watch, which was published a year later. The Night Watch is better in my opinion, because both are chaotic, but where the second seem the result of an increasing frenzy, the first only seems random, neurotic and outrageous. I’m not sure what kind of reaction Modiano expected from the reader, but it didn’t make me laugh.

As I researched Modiano’s age, I found an interesting analysis in the New Yorker by Alexandra Schwartz in 2015 (when several of his books were translated):

Modiano never wrote another book like “La Place de l’Étoile.” That’s a good thing. The novel burns out on the high heat of its own aspiration; its frenetic, syncopated style is as deafening as that of Schlemilovitch’s play. (You want to applaud the translator, Frank Wynne, for sheer endurance.)

I’m glad that I’d already decided to read several books in parallel by Modiano and that I had two others on my nightstand ready to use as a palate cleanser, so I wouldn’t stay for long on a bad impression. I wonder what the reception of the book was and what the Nobel prize team thought of this one.

Flore Vesco, D’Or et d’Oreillers (2021)

I’ll confess that the first thing that attracted me in this book was the cover art. It is aesthetically pleasing (inspired by the famous Kiss by Gustav Klimt, and designed by Mayalen Goust) and also mysterious (I hadn’t noticed the black form around the sleeping girl’s head until much later). I knew Flore Vesco was a best-selling French author for young readers and I just picked the book at the library without any further information. It was indeed a lucky discovery!

The story is told in a fictional 19th British countryside, where wealthy aristocracy wants to marry off their daughters to the richest party around. The heir to Blenkinsop Castle, Lord Handerson, is the focus of attention, but his condition is that each prospective fiancée spends a night, unchaperoned, at the castle, alone in a bedroom with a huge pile of mattress. The ambitious Mrs. Watkins is ready to send her daughters Margaret, Martha and May there, together with their maid Sadima, but all 3 get turned back in the morning with no explanation.

This is the most unexpected rewriting of a classic tale (Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea”) that I’ve read. From the prologue we are warned that the original tale is sort of ridiculous: to check the nobility of a future wife based on her extreme sensitivity, or rather frailty, had always seemed to me like a weird choice even for a patriarchal logic. You’d think that a powerful lord would need a solid young woman with a stiff upper lip to bear his children, not a girl who’d whine about a pea. Anyway, here we’re in fantasy territory and not everything is supposed to be historically accurate. But it is also transgressive and positive!

I will spoil a little bit: Sadima the maid is the true heroine of this tale and she is strong, resourceful and daring. She’s not shy about her body, her skills, her intelligence and her dreams! She’s also not shy about exploring feelings and sex (after all, a bedroom with lots of mattress is not really about a lost pea, right?), although nothing is explicit in the book (the publisher suggest readers from age 14). The book takes many twists and turns, getting into romance territory to veer off towards supernatural and even horror. It might be a bit confusing to younger readers (especially the very metaphorical allusions to sex) but to me it was fun and liberating.

Flore Vesco is a French lit teacher and it shows, in the way she plays with words and levels of language (from casual to poetic, from formal to puns). My 13yo was not really attracted by the girly premises of the book, but I’m sure he’d have enjoyed it. This book was part of a selection by our librarians of books that have all participated to a particular YA / kids literary prize, the Prix Sorcieres (Witches). Now I’m really curious about other winners of these prizes!