Chang Kuo-Li, The Sniper (2019)

I have a confession to make: I’ll always have a weakness for books or movies coming from Taiwan (and Hong Kong, but that’s a story for another day). Add to this a police investigation and some food, and I just can’t say no! Let’s just say that I had positive prejudices about that book.

I feel that the English title of the book is quite bland and doesn’t do it justice. Even worse, it might set up the wrong expectations. The original title is The Fried Rice Sniper, the French one is The sniper, his wok and his rifle, and the German one is The sniper who grills. Mmh, looks like the English publisher seriously lacked imagination. So from the start you know that this is not a pure noir. A Taiwanese sniper who moonlights as a cook in a small Italian village (or rather the other way round) is called to do a hit on a fellow countryman in Rome. Always the efficient professional, the sniper leaves his wok behind, grabs his rifle to complete the assignment. But things don’t go as expected (or there wouldn’t be a book, right?)

The plot is loosely based on a real scandal that happened in Taiwan in the 1990s around corruption involving warfare deals (with France) and Taiwanese army officials, and some shady intermediaries. There are two plot lines, one more of the thriller sort, following the eponymous sniper, and the other more like a police investigation, with a seasoned detective approaching retirement (by just a few days). It’s the first of a series, which I’d love to follow.

But for real, guys, this book opened up my appetite. It’s been such a long time since I had no real Chinese food, and the description of fried rice dishes was tantalizing. Chang Kuo-Li gives away a few tips to cook it to perfection, but my own version is far from satisfactory.

Victoria Mas, The Madwomen’s Ball (2019)

This book was a real bestseller in France, and was made into a movie starring Mélanie Laurent and Lou de Laage. I haven’t seen it, but a review of the movie in a cinema magazine made me curious to read the book. Set in Paris in 1885, most of the action takes place in a famous hospital called La Salpétrière, the place where mad women were locked up under the supervision of “good doctor” Charcot. Charcot is a precursor and influence on Sigmund Freud because he developed many theories and experiments around female hysteria and its treatment (Freud does not appear in this book).

Dr Charcot is not the focus of the book, or rather, he shows up in the novel as one of the many men who abuse, belittle, ignore or neglect women. We follow different female characters, nurses but mostly inmates. Victims of rape or physical abuse from their husbands, prostitutes, homeless girls, but also any woman who would rebel against social conventions. Eugénie is one of those: the daughter of a wealthy man, driven by her father and brother to be locked up because she contradicted him and dared to say that she was able to see ghosts. The authority of men over independent girls is terrifying.

I was disappointed because I didn’t find much nuance in the book: all men are evil and heartless, and if they’re not directly (emotionally or physically) violent, they’re just spineless. On the other hand, the writing is easy and you can read the book in just a few hours. I was also disappointed because the ball of the madwomen that is the title of the book is just a short scene in the last part of the book. I’d hoped it would go deeper into the contradiction of this yearly event (real fact) where the upper class came to gawk at the insanes, with all the voyeurism and sadism that is implicit. It reminded me of The Ballroom by Anna Hope, but this French version doesn’t measure up. It also failed to convince me because it veered into paranormal territory and I thought it robbed the novel of the strength of its denunciation of historical facts. By opposing the men who are rational to the women who are emotional and sensitive to the spiritual world, I felt that I was in a bad version of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.

Hubert, Peau d’Homme (A Man’s Skin, 2020)

This book’s basic plot could easily a tear-jerker. Bianca, a young woman living in Renaissance Italy, will marry a man she has never met, because that’s what her wealthy parents have decided for her. Then she discovers that her future husband likely will never love her, because he’s gay. The end. But no… Bianca is given by her godmother a man’s skin, that is passed from generations, a magical artifact that she can wear to become a man and live another life for a few hours. Bianca discovers how different lives of men are, and this has many unintended consequences.

I really loved the idea of this man’s skin, which clearly sets the story into fairy tale territory like the famous donkey skin. I like how weirdly specific the object is, but also, no one questions where it comes from. This graphic novel won so many prizes in France and was such a bestseller that I had very high expectations. The simple, naive drawings are really pleasant and give to the story a smooth, joyful pace, despite having some dark moments. The story touches of course gender, feminism, freedom from social conventions and from religious rules. It doesn’t shy away from joyful sex and readers should be aware that it’s not for kids, but should probably be okay for teens from 14-15 (in my personal, French opinion). The ending (which I won’t spoil here) celebrates the unconventional ways individuals can express themselves in relationships (which is probably very, very far from what happened for real for most people in Renaissance Italy). For sure it’s a fairy tale (and should certainly not be mistaken for anything historically accurate), but…

I was ready to be blown away, but eventually I found that it was rather superficially provocative (unless you count seeing naked characters in bed having fun – in a cartoonish way, as provocative). The denunciation of misogyny and homophobia are all very well meaning, but nothing out of the ordinary, and the solution to get rid of one single religious extremist to solve the problem is the territory of kids books, not adult books. I thought that the man’s skin would open up allusions to trans identity, but the heroine remains cis- and heterosexual, and doesn’t seem to question it all that much. Last point, I’d love to know what gay readers think of the book because I was a little perplex about the way gay identity is portrayed by the author. Still, I can’t deny that I enjoyed reading it and wanted to know how our spunky heroine Bianca would find her own way towards a happy life.

Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day (2022)

I continue to explore Claire Keegan’s writing, whom I discovered last year in November. It’s a new trend of mine that I want to read in rapid succession several novels by a writer I enjoy: now I don’t want to lose time and move on, promising to get back to her but much too often not making good on my promises.

This is a short story that was published in France as a standalone. (French publishers and short stories have a complicated relationship). The title in French is Misogyny, which threw me off balance when I saw the original English title. Why do publishers deliberately take different directions? The French title for Foster was The three lights, which made the whole situation unclear. This time, instead of a mysterious situation and a progressive reveal of the main character’s mindset, the title shoves it in our face even before we get to know him. We start with a preconception about him which we wouldn’t have with the original title. Did the publishers think we would be too dumb to understand the situation?

I was surprised that Claire Keegan set this story in our present times. All the other novels and stories that I’d read were set in the near or distant past. She centers on a man, Cathal, who goes about a seemingly ordinary day. Seemingly because he is distracted and his colleagues seem a bit uncomfortable around him. He finishes his work, takes the bus and gets home. We follow his train of thought in a stream of consciousness manner (although a pretty sparse way) – and it’s not pretty being in his head. Keegan shows what he thinks, but what we notice is the negative space, what’s missing in his thoughts and his actions (the same approach as in Small Things Like These). It’s quietly disturbing. Although the story is quite short, I wouldn’t want to spend much more time with that decidedly unlikeable character.

From what I see in Goodreads, the only book by Claire Keegan that I haven’t read so far is her debut short story collection, Antartica, published in 1999. Judging from this short story, I’m eager to see what other surprises she has in store.

Mary Lawson, Crow Lake (2002)

I first heard of Mary Lawson just over a month ago through Simon of Stuck in a Book, who reviewed A Town called Solace. About every commenter said that they loved her and couldn’t get enough of her books… I knew that I was missing out on something. A quick check of my library’s catalogue told me that they had 2 books by her (translated though, but I’m not fussy) and a few days later I had my hands on Crow Lake. What a great discovery!

Crow Lake is a tiny village in northern Ontario in Canada (I’m just learning that it is a real place, but even under a fictionalized disguise you can see that Lawson knows and loves this region). Just a few farms, a few houses, one general shop and a school at the end of the pot-holed road. Life is tough but villagers help one another. Tragedy strikes early in the book when Mr and Mrs Morrisson both die in a freak car accident. They leave behind Bo, 18 months, Kate, 7, Matt, 17 and Luke, 19. The parents had gone to buy a suitcase (they didn’t own one) for Luke who’d won a scholarship for teacher’s college far away. The novel is told by Kate in her mid-twenties, now a successful professor at university and a researcher in zoology, a specialty that directly comes from her love of observing nature and insects on the banks of Crow Lake.

You shouldn’t read Crow Lake if you’ve lost a parent recently, because it is heart-wrenching, but if you’re no stranger to grieving you will recognize the emotions and devastation it causes. The family, now entirely comprised of the children, struggles to survive and has to make hard choices. But it’s not only about grief. It’s also the relationships between the siblings, then and now, and what they project onto one another, and how they build their own life in relation to the others. From the start Kate has considered her brother Matt as a gifted scientist that would have a successful career, and she also wants to be worthy of him. How the family dynamics play well into adulthood is also a strong theme, and I was reeling at the end of the book from the epiphany. I also enjoyed how the Morrissons don’t live in a vacuum: every member of the small community, neighbors, teacher, relative, plays a role.

I read this book in French, but I wish I’d have access to the original language. I can tell that her writing must be delicate and precise. The book reminded me of Elizabeth Strout and Marilynne Robinson, authors that I would want to read again soon too! I can’t believe Mary Lawson only wrote 4 novels so far (the latest only last year)! I sort of wish there would be more of them, but I now really want to be a Mary Lawson completist, and as it stands it seems (sadly?) quite manageable.

Akiko Higashimura, Blank Canvas 5 (2015)

I can’t deal with those never-ending manga series: I find they lose their focus and become artificial and bland. But for this one, I almost wished it was a bit longer! The fifth volume of this autobiographical manga is the last one, and I almost ended up in tears!

The grown-up and successful mangaka reflects on her younger self and how she was shaped by her unconventional art teacher Mr Hidaka. He taught her not only art techniques (although he was into painting and mangas clearly ate a lesser art form in his perspective), but most of all he taught his students the tenacity and mental strength to pursue their art whatever the difficulty, the lack of inspiration and the poor results.

Higashimura doesn’t shy away from showing herself (as Hayashi) under a bad light, how selfish and insensitive she was even though her sensei was sick with cancer and didn’t have long to live. She put her career as a mangaka first and left him, but I think she was too immature to know how to deal with this and be honest about her feelings towards that extraordinary man. Only later does she come to terms with what he really meant to her and how important his influence remained for her.

I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Hidaka’s students get together again, as well as the moving finale when Hayashi is now an adult.

Jacqueline Kelly, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (2009)

Due to my health issues I was looking for a comfort read, and so I borrowed this middle grade one from the library. It turned out to be a perfect choice! I lay in bed, forgot all about fall here and was transported to the sweltering hot summer of Texas, far from the pandemic and tumults of 2022 to the turning point of the century (not the last one, the one before)…. 1899! It was the perfect blend of hopeful, heart-warming characters and historical, social setting. I fell in love with spunky little Calpurnia!

Set in rural Texas in 1899, the book is told by Calpurnia Virginia Tate, 11, also known as Callie Vee. She is the only girl of a well-to-do family, with 6 brothers. Her mother would love her to be lady-like and enjoy cooking, stitching and becoming the perfect little debutante and future housewife, but she is having none of it. She’s a bit of a tomboy with a hefty dose of curiosity. And what she’s curious about are plants, animals and science around her. Things she’s not actually taught in school where she’s supposed to stand straight and walk around with a book on her head.

Luckily, she has a grandfather. He’s a bit of a loner and an original, and because he made the family fortune and then left it to manage to Callie’s father (his son), he can pretty much do whatever he likes. A veteran of the Secession war and a naturalist, Calpurnia’s grandfather is at first not really close to his grandchildren at all, indeed, he doesn’t have even their first names right. But Callie demonstrates that she’s serious about learning, and she becomes his companion.

Calpurnia is a spunky heroine that reminded me of Laura Ingalls, Francie Nolan from A Tree Grow in Brooklyn and a lot of others. She has a great inquisitive mind and her logic makes her challenge the social conventions of her family and her time. Why wouldn’t she learn science? Why are her brothers allowed to do things she can’t do? The great “trick” of the book is that the author makes us read Callie’s adventures and thoughts through the prism of Charles Darwin. Every chapter starts with a quote, and the book is supposed to be a highlight of the grandfather’s library, and a science book that Callie really wants to read but can’t get from the library. For older readers, of course, there’s a lot to think about related to determination, evolution, and being different.

I enjoyed the light tone and also the little world that it opened up to me. The ending is a bit vague, but I guess the writer wanted to bridge to a second volume. I personally don’t need it, but I enjoyed this lovely time with Calpurnia and her grandfather.

Ben Macintyre, The Spy and the Traitor (2018)

I can’t believe I tore through this thick non-fiction book in just a few days. It was just as nail-biting as a novel… except that everything was true! It reminded me of John Le Carré’s novels with spy master Smiley, books that my father lent to me in the 1990s, much to my delight.

This book centers on Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian KGB spy who started to work for the British in the 1970s, was successful as a double agent for a decade and then fled to the West in a daring rescue operation in 1985. Gordievsky was born in 1938 in a family where everyone worked for the KGB, but the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 tipped him over: he hated the Communist system and wanted to support Western values (especially the British, for some reason). So he was a traitor, but out of convictions. In the title, there’s little doubt that Gordievsky is supposed to be the spy, and the traitor is rather the American spy who revealed his identity to the KGB. (Mmh, you following? This book assumes some prior knowledge of the period and of the spying world)

We follow Oleg Gordievsky in every move and see the web of lies and deceptions that he built, including with those he loved. Macintyre doesn’t make spying especially glamorous but highlights the paranoia of the Soviet culture, and especially the KGB people, but also the mediocrity of many agents. It is a cliché to have KGB agents being the embodiment of evil, but some were just lazy, stupid and interested in staying under the radar and enjoying privileges. Gordievsky was able to spy for that long and to escape thanks to a combination of courage, luck and failings of a dictatorial system (his flight was not reported for 2 days because his surveillance team was fearing punishment, etc.)

Beyond the spying itself, I appreciated to get a chance to understand better the mood of the early 1980s. I’m a child of the late 1970s, so I can remember the last decade of the Cold War, except that it was no longer freezing but rather tepid. I was in middle school when the Berlin wall fell, Gorbi was cool, the history was supposed to end (because we were so Western centric that once the USA / USSR confrontation was over, nothing left could happen, right? Right?? 🙄). I knew that life behind the iron curtain was not fun but it was supposed to be a lot better than in the 1950s, right? Right?? 🙄 This book really shows how people lived under the regime, and I certainly didn’t understand that before.

Now I stand undecided: should I try to read one of the other non fiction books that MacIntyre wrote on spying, or should I check if there are any Le Carré spy novels I haven’t read?

Manga Updates

Mangas are not a good financial investment for me: much like the morning lattes that millenials are blamed for throwing their money at, a manga for me is just one evening of happy reading, never to be opened again. That’s why I mostly source my mangas from the library (in another lifetime, in another continent, I had a subscription to a manga library, where you paid a few cent for each borrowed book – happy memories 🧧)

When I knew I had some medical treatment ahead, I stocked up on fluffy mangas: namely The Apothecary Diaries, which I’d started during springtime. Girly drawings, costume drama at the imperial court, a murder mystery thrown on top of intrigues, what’s not to love? It really worked a charm to take my mind off my current situation.

Speaking of libraries, may I rant a few minutes about the purchasing policy regarding mangas? It happened already with Theseus’ Ship, and now once again with The Golden Sheep, which I also started during spring. My library buys the first few volumes in the series, but then… Nothing!?? Highly frustrating, especially as I’d noted that the third and final volume is actually available in bookshops. Shall I give in and buy it? Last time I did it, the remaining volumes magically appeared at the library a few weeks after I’d bought them…

Now the middle volume of The Golden Sheep is a bit less angsty than the first one. After hitting a big crisis in their small village, the two teenagers Tsugu and Sora have ran away to Tokyo. They get hired by a quirky old man who owns a bakery, where they live and work. The volume is filled with jokes and also a budding romance. I can’t wait to read the last volume!

Lastly, I finished volumes 3 and 4 of The Apothecary Diaries, and I feel I need a (long) pause before taking this series again. The mysteries are rather repetitive, and the competition between the imperial concubines is not my cup of tea, I do not care enough to avoid mixing them all together. Time for me to recognize that I’m just probably too old to get invested in such a series! But I would recommend it to tween or teens who enjoy Detective Conan, with a girly twist.

Patrick Modiano, Rue des Boutiques Obscures (1978, Eng: Missing Person)

I don’t remember exactly where I read that this book was considered one of Modiano’s best, on par with Dora Bruder. I’m not always in agreement with these ratings but here I totally agree! It also won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, the most prestigious book prize in France. I’m at this stage where I enjoy reading more and more by the same authors, to contrast and compare, and Modiano is particularly adapted to this approach, as his favorite themes are the traces of memories.

Contrary to other of his books where we’re not sure if it’s fiction or non-fiction, this book is a story told by his fictional narrator Guy Roland. We follow Roland in search of his own past and his own identity. A victim of amnesia, Roland was employed in a PI agency in Paris but when his boss retires, he turns his investigation skills towards himself.

The beginning is quite vague, as Roland only follows intuitions (for lack of any concrete lead) and ends up following the guests at a Russian wedding in Paris. He stares at names, at faces in old photos, every time wondering: is it me? what if it was me? Or someone who knows me? The approach is puzzling to the reader too, as we get a bit lost among those names and addresses. Roland meets people and gets vague answers that then take him to new people and new hypothesis. At moments it seems to be getting nowhere, but it actually creates a memory landscape by accumulation of details.

About halfway through we start to see people and circumstances emerge from the fog. It has to do with the war (the second world War in France, the Nazi occupation and the persecution of Jews and foreigners). No wonder people might have had several identities, changing addresses and jobs, making dubious answers or ignoring what happened to their friends.

It is probably easier to read than other Modiano books because it’s a mystery of sorts, with a PI, a quest, leads and red herrings, but it opens up on the reconstruction of a certain wartime atmosphere, and at its widest it even interrogates memory itself, what is left behind after a person or a place has disappeared. It has the trademark Modiano melancholy and style, and more of something approaching a resolution than his other books.

A very interesting analysis of the book (in French, but on Youtube) can be found here