Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club (2020)

The Thursday Murder Club is not a club where murderers meet on Thurdays to commit their crimes. It’s a weekly appointment for 4 members of Coopers Chase Retirement Village in Kent, all fast approaching 80 years of age, to put their skills and brains together to investigate cold cases. The story is told by Joyce Meadowcroft, a very proper retired nurse, who has been recently invited by Elizabeth, the group leader, to join the club, as Elizabeth’s best friend Penny is now in hospice care. In a retirement community, it is expected that some members will die. But it would be from illness or old age, and not from being murdered. Soon the group of friends is thrilled (!) to learn that the village property developer has been found murdered, and of course they are very keen to provide help to the local police.

This has the perfect recipe for a great cozy mystery: quirky and endeading characters (imagine Miss Marple who would have joined forces with other nosy old people; the bonus would be that each of them used to have a career or skills that would come handy to unmask criminals). I adored Joyce, and Elisabeth. I liked that the book has a really comedic quality, but also it can venture into a more melancholy tone.

I didn’t know that Richard Osman is a British TV celebrity, and frankly, I couldn’t care less, because the mystery, setting and characters are all delightful. I understand that this is his first novel, and at some points it shows a little, as the pace is rather uneven and there are too many characters and backstories crammed between the covers. But it is a resounding success, and a great entertaining read, and I’m sure to be looking to the next mystery that our friends of the Thursday Murder Club will be investigating.

Nathalie Léger, Suite for Barbara Loden

Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden (French 2012, English 2015)

I discovered Nathalie Léger thanks to Rebeccah Hussey’s newsletter and I loved the first book I tried well enough to want to try another of her “trilogy”. I can’t say that I fell in love with her books, because these are not so easy to love, and they are clearly out of my usual comfort zone, but I found in them something very original and a subtlety of feelings that made me want to dig deeper. Both are short and non-fiction and utterly difficult to classify.

The White Dress was about a performance artist. This book is about another visual artist, an American filmmaker who was also an actress and the wife of Elia Kazan. I had not heard of her before this book, and although her husband’s name and movies’ names are familiar to me, I haven’t watched them myself. Barbara Loden has made a very unique film, Wanda, which is about a woman who is drifting away. In Léger’s book it is sometimes difficult to separate Wanda from Barbara Loden, and also from Nathalie Léger herself.

Just as the previous book, the story is meandering and fragmentary. Léger is given the job to write a biographical notice about Barbara Loden for a film encyclopedia, something brief and to the point, and she finds it unable to achieve this goal. To describe the life of any individual in a few sentences is an impossible task. Instead she dives deep into the tenuous traces of Loden’s life, the few memories gathered here and there from people who knew her (some refuse to talk altogether). So Léger obsessively watches Loden’s movie Wanda, with the hope to understand the woman behind it. The movie, starring Loden as the main character, is based on real events, where a woman participated against her will to a bank robbery.

The tone of the book is melancholy. Wanda is helpless and unloved, she follows a tragic path on her own, she’s not the strong heroine that we would love to see. Barbara Loden will make only one movie in her life, will not meet success and recognition, and will die of cancer in 1980. Ultimately it is about loneliness and freedom, but it is still mysterious to me what Léger wanted to achieve with this series of books. We also get to read a bit more about Léger’s mother and her disastrous marriage and divorce. I still preferred the book White Dress because I felt more connected with both the narrator and the subject than in this book. I guess my reaction would have been different if I had watched the movie itself. I will gladly read the third book about yet another female artist: the Countess of Castiglione.

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019)

I could lie and pretend that I’d picked this book at the library because I had heard of this up-and-coming poet or because of a glowing review in the New York Times. But the truth is that my son said that the cover art was so beautiful (the one with the golden leaves) and so I said I’d borrow it and report to him how the book was. Yeah, it was a bit random.

The story is told by a young Vietnamese-American man in his mid-twenties, who writes to his mother and reflects on his childhood. The boy is born in the U.S. but Vietnam and the war is still very much sending shockwaves into this family. There’s the trauma of war and the high cost of surviving and escaping Vietnam. But there’s also the poverty and menial jobs (the mother works at a salon doing mani and pedi) and having to deal with racism and prejudices.

Little Dog, which is the endearment name of the young man, grows up very close to his grandmother, whose mind is still stuck in Vietnam. Little Dog’s mother is not without love but she can’t read and she doesn’t speak much and she’s mostly exhausted from her job scrambling to make ends meet. There’s brutality also, and it might be tough to read because Vuong is very good at describing raw emotions. Little Dog grows up into an introvert gay young man, who falls head over heels for an All-American man, a redneck living in a trailer and working on a tobacco farm during the summer.

The best thing about this book is the language itself. It shows that Ocean Vuong is a poet. I really wanted to hold on to those beautiful sentences and images. But I didn’t really care for Little Dog. It was tragic but there wasn’t much of a compelling story. I cared about his grandmother and his mother but I learnt too little about them both. It was frustrating, and a bit embarrassing, because all along I wondered how autobiographical the story was and I felt guilty to want more. It made me think of a Vietnamese-American short story collection by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees. The language was not as gorgeous but the characters and stories packed a lot more punch.

Els Beerten, Allemaal willen we de hemel (2008)

French Title: Nous voulons tous le paradis (2015) – Paradise is what we all want

Now it’s clear that I miss a system that tells me easily where I’ve first heard about a book, but it’s safe to say that this book has been in my TBR list for years, since 2017 actually (that’s when I added it on Goodreads): a book about war in Belgium is not that common. This is a young adult novel, but I’d say it has enough complex situations and all sorts of nuances to suit most adult readers. In France it is published in two volumes but the author originally published it as one. And by the way, after having researched my blog and my notebooks for hours, I’m officially reverting to using the title of the book as the post title, because it’s just way easier. It’s probably for the best if I spare the blog world my silly puns…

The story is told in short chapters that switch narrators and timeline. The shtick is that it never says who is speaking, you have to deduce it. There are 4 characters speaking in turn: Jef – a teenager in 1942, whose family believes that if they keep their head down and steer clear from the German (Nazi) occupying forces, they will be ok, and so they don’t want to have anything to do with resistance against the Nazis either. Ward, Jef’s best friend, whose father committed suicide before the war, and whose mother manages the village’s grocery shop. Renée, Jef’s sister, is secretly in love with Ward. And last, Rémi, Jef’s little brother, who is fed up with being always “the little one”. Ward plays the saxophone like nobody else, and all are united by music and friendships, until something happens that makes even the name of Ward taboo in the family and the whole village. As we dive deeper into the story of this broken friendship, we understand that Ward has been lured into the Nazi ideology and has volunteered to join the ranks of the Flemish troops on the Eastern front, to fight against the Soviet Union alongside the German Nazis.

At the end of the war, scores are settled. Jef is the village’s hero for having helped the resistance on one special occasion, and Ward has disappeared. When he returns in 1947, after having passed as a German for years, he will be judged and sentenced for treason and collaboration with the Nazis. But nothing is as clear as it seems. Why did Ward go away? Why didn’t his friends stop him? What happened between them? Ward was heavily influenced by the local schoolmaster and the Catholic priest to enlist in the Nazis troops; they appealed to his faith and his willingness to defend his people. But he was not the only one under influence, and lies and naivety have tragic consequences all around.

Flanders is the part of Belgium that doesn’t speak French (Wallon), they speak Flemish, which is not Dutch either (don’t go and vex people all around!). Nazis considered Dutch and Flemish as almost Aryans, so that they held both countries under their direct leadership and tried to foster nationalism to enlist people into the Nazi ranks (as second class citizens nonetheless). Which worked to a certain extent, especially as Flemish had been despised by French-speaking Wallons for decades. And as a full disclosure, my husband’s family is Flemish from the French border.

The novel is a tragedy of many layers and nuances. It is really heart-wrenching and I couldn’t wait to turn the pages to understand each of the characters’ choices and destiny. It’s too bad it’s not available in English, because I feel that it would be such a good book club choice.

The One of the Last Minute Before

Florian Illies, 1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts (German 2012, English: The Year before the Storm, 2013)

This is a funny book about a time that was all too serious. It borrowed it on a whim from the library, and I must say that I went in and out of it rather than reading it from the first page to the last. The premises of the book are easy: to recap month by month, day by day, what happened to people (famous ones, or people who would have some reasons to be famous later) on that innocent year of 1913, a bit more than a century ago. Of course, this is a literary ploy, as the book was ready to be read in 2013 exactly. But even if I missed the mark by… 8 years (!), it’s still very interesting.

We see Marcel Proust writing La Recherche du temps perdu, but we also see some guy learning to play the trumpet, a boy named Louis Armstrong. We see Kafka being miserable after a failed marriage proposal. We see a guy named Hitler painting rather badly. It’s a lot of anecdotes, some silly, or mundane, some marked by melancholy and a sense of foreboding. The tone is ironic and the anecdotes pivot from one to the next on a pun or a mere coincidence. And coincidences run aplenty. Famous people cross each other’s path, they go to famous painting exhibitions, react to scandalous new art performances (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), admire each other or insult each other.

It is a geological section of the world on any given year… and what a year! To enjoy this book, you need some knowledge about German writers and painters from that particular period, otherwise I’d say that it would seem rather mundane and even pointless… or you’d need to spend a lot of time on Wikipedia (well, that might be a choice for the weekend, but consider yourself warned). At that period, everyone was keeping a detailed journal, or so it seems, and so some famous writer’s toothache is reported alongside an intellectual dispute over the meaning of life, since they happened the same week of 1913. It really sent me down a rabbit hole of thoughts. In 1913, there was only 1,6 billion people on earth, now we humans are probably 7,8 billions, what kind of a book could be written about 2020, or rather 2019, if we take the same approach? What anecdotes would make it to a book written in 50 years’ time with perfect hindsight? I wonder…

The weakness of the book is that it’s awfully Germano-centric. The whole world of 1913 happens between Berlin, Vienna, Prag, and Paris. America is seldom mentioned, and Africa, Asia, South America, the Pacific are not mentioned at all. But still, it was a lot of fun.

If you want an audio companion to this book, try Radiolab’s episode: Dispatches of 1918, which looks at a special year across the globe (in Germany, but not only there), to see the aftermath of the war and of the flu epidemic. To think that this episode happened only 5 years later than the book sent me to a whole other rabbit hole… 🐰

The One with the Artist Bride

Nathalie Leger, La robe blanche (French, 2018; English Title: The White Dress, 2020)

I first heard of this writer and this book from Reading Indie’s newsletter, and I was sort of piqued that I’d never even heard of a French writer.

The White Dress is the sort of book that resists categorization. It’s probably an essay, although it could also be a novel intercepted with real facts. The narrator may be Nathalie Léger herself but I can’t say for sure, even though I will assume so in this post. She hears about the artist Pippa Bacca through the news and becomes obsessed with her. Pippa Bacca is a young performance artist, who left her native Italy in early 2008 wearing a bride’s white gown to travel across Europe depending on people hospitality and kindness. It was an artistic gesture of hope and trust, trying to meet people along the road from Italy to Jerusalem crossing the Balkans (just a few year after a terrible war) and Turkey. She hitch-hiked from place to place, and wherever she stopped, she met with local people and midwives and explained her artistic endeavor for peace, filming herself to document her trip.

Unfortunately, after a few months, Pippa Bacca meets a tragic death in Turkey, raped and murdered by a man who has taken her for a ride. Her idealist quest for peace has ended in senseless violence. Even worse, the murderer stole her video camera and filmed the wedding of one of his own relatives. It is both shocking and senseless, and Nathalie Léger never tries to give definite answers to all the questions that this event raises. What was Pippa trying to demonstrate? What about this wedding dress? Was she naive, religious or something else? Léger refers to a lot of other female performance artists and interrogates what is performance art and what are female artists attempting with these quests. I am personally fascinated by Marina Abramovic‘s performances, and I am aware that for most of these pieces, artists don’t provide a ready-made explanation of what they want to do, so as a reader you’re left with the mystery, even more so as Pippa is no longer alive.

The book has a second story line about the narrator’s own mother and her attempt to come to terms with a fault divorce. Léger’s father sued her mother for divorce, humiliating her publicly, and she never could defend herself. Along the book, we see the daughter and the mother getting closer to one another. It’s a bit confusing at first because the two lines of the book are apparently nothing to do with each other, but when I finished the book I could see it as an exploration of different aspects of violence against women.

I really enjoyed this book, even though it is very different from what I’m used to read. I find similarities with Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder, which is a personal inquiry into a real person, dead a long time ago, and how mysterious the life of others can remain despite our attempts. The White Dress is a part of a trilogy; I look forward to read the two other parts.

PS. The White Dress is available in English from the Dorothy Project, as are the two other books in the trilogy.

The One with Obsessive Journalism

David Grann, The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness & Obsession (2010)

This book was among the new acquisitions at the library and the name Sherlock Holmes was enough to make the book jump into my arms. Since my teens I’ve been a sucker for all things Sherlock, and while I’m very aware that this is totally fiction (I know that some die hard fans may not be aligned) the idea that these were real investigations related to Sherlock Holmes was fascinating to me.

In truth, the title is rather attention-seeking and even misleading. Only one story is related to Sherlock Holmes and the others stray rather far away. The common link is about quirky, often intense people stuck in weird, life-engaging situations. And the author dives into each case with an engagement bordering on obsession.

There’s the scientist who wants to find the giant squid (or raise its babies) even if it means fishing nights and days in a storm and getting bankrupt. There’s the Haitian military leader in exile who has committed violent terror against its fellow countrymen, but has been supported by the US and even allowed to settle down in the US. There’s an arson expert who might save or damn a prisoner on death row. There’s an astonishing case of faked identity. There’s this Manhattan firefighter who miraculously survived 911 but who is consumed by guilt and grief because he can’t remember how he saved his life. There’s this group of workers and engineers who work underneath New York to keep the water network flowing (engineering stories may seem boring from the outside but this one is positively hair-raising – also, claustrophobic please abstain). There’s this Polish man who might be a genius avant-garde writer, or just a sociopath killer who could not resist writing the story of his crime into a book.

Not all stories sucked me in but most did have a page-turner quality: it was a great new reading experience for me, as I read little non-fiction and that such in-depth investigations printed in tiny fonts in The Atlantic or the New Yorker or similar periodicals where they were initially published can’t sustain my attention.

Make no mistake, when the subtitle speaks of tales of murder, madness, and obsession, the obsession is as much for the journalist himself as for the subject of his investigation. All in all, I found that David Grann could well be a modern day Sherlock Holmes. I will certainly look into investigative journalism with a lot more interest.

The One with the Swedish Anonymous Killer

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man on the Balcony (1967)

It was only one month ago that I finished reading #8 in the series and that I resolved to be more intentional if I wanted to complete the whole series. And I do want it very much! (all the more as the last series I’d completed was not a huge success, in a whole other genre). But within a few weeks, what a change of tone! The book I read in March was a lot of fun with literally LOL moments, this one is chilling and rather stark.

The book starts with a daily, ordinary scene in Stockholm. While people go about their daily business and kids go out to school or to the park, a man just looks down at the street from his balcony. Nothing more. But as we know we’re reading a police investigation, we just wonder where the blow will come from and expect the worse from any ordinary character.

And so we should. In this rather short book, Beck and his colleagues are confronted with a senseless murder and no clues whatsoever. Someone has attacked, raped and murdered a little girl in a park, and nothing can point to the murderer. The police are clueless and can only resort to the feeblest attempts by rounding up the usual suspects, by making more rounds in the various parks of the city, but they’re really looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. The worst is that police can only secretly hope that there will be another murder to find more clues. Martin Beck’s colleagues, who seemed so stupid and grotesque in the book I read before (and which is a later installment of the series), are now tragic figures who are all too aware of their powerlessness. They sift through telephone calls in search for the tiniest clue, and we witness how ungrateful this effort is and how little it yields. Just like Roseanna which I read many years ago, the resolution will come by a combination of sheer luck and good memory. Which is not very comforting.

This book, which is rather early in the series, is less politically-heavy handed than the later ones and it was nice. The authors clearly want to denounce the Swedish society from the 1960s where people live in anonymous large buildings without knowing, or caring for their neighbors, and where petty crime is growing. But to me people in this book, besides the tension created by the plot itself, seemed rather carefree and reasonably content. Is it the Swedish character? I’m not sure, but I look forward to reading the rest of the remaining books.

The One with the Unrecognized Heroines

Svetlana Alexievich, War’s Unwomanly Face (Russian, 1983)

I was curious to read this book because I had heard of Svetlana Alexievich for her Nobel Prize in literature in 2015 and I had no clue what kind of books she had written. I was surprised to find it in the History shelves at my local library, slightly by chance, as I had mistakenly believed that she was writing fiction. How wrong I was! This is a very powerful book of oral history, by hundreds of women who have talked to Svetlana Alexievich and confided to her with their private memories of the war, many of which had never been shared with others before.

The Nobel prize motivation is “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” It is very accurate of my own reading experience, which is quite unlike what I’ve read before. I have read poliphobic books before, but not that big and not that raw. I am claiming this book as read, but to be completely honest, I read a bit more than half the book. These memories are very harrowing and the accumulation makes it even more difficult. I could only read it in short spurts. So much hardship! So much blood and tears!

The thing that made me come back to the book again and again was the feminist vision of war. Women are often seen as civilian victims, but not fighters, and the book shows an often ignored part of the Second world war in the Soviet union: girls and women enlisted and fought next to the men. They were as brave if not braver, having to fight prejudice among their fellow fighters first before getting to the front lines. But the Soviet union was so desperate in its defense against the Nazis that beggars can’t be choosers.

When I saw that the book was originally published in the early 1980s, I was reminded of the kind of Communist literature about wars, that insists on sacrifices for the great motherland, on strong men and women fighting the ennemy side by side. But this book goes well beyond that, as it shines a light on the not-so-glorious behavior of the Soviet men, and never ever glorifies war, even when some women speak strongly of fraternity and courage under fire.

The bitter part of these memories is to see that these courageous, even fearless women were not recognized as such as the end of the war: contrary to their fellow fighters they didn’t get medals but suspicion and distrust instead. They had transgressed some tabu and they were no longer marriage material, even tainting their younger sisters by association. The women who had left kids in the care of family to fight had difficulties to get them back because they were deemed unfit mothers. And countless others preferred to stay silent over their experience of the war when their husbands, male colleagues were flaunting theirs.

I can’t say that you’ll love reading that book, but you won’t forget it anytime soon.

The One with the Traitor’s Turmoil

Patrick Modiano, La Ronde de Nuit (The night watch, 1969)

I’m not sure it was the best decision to read this book so soon after Dora Bruder, which I had totally loved. This one pales in comparison, but really, it’s not bad at all. It is fiction, and it is unsettling because it’s not linear and it’s hard to find your bearing at first. It’s short (150 pages), but the first third of the book is a whirlwind of people and scenes and snippets of conversation, that seem to make no sense at all. I understand that some readers might be put off by this, especially as characters are not of the likeable kind. They are shady characters, thugs, corrupt ex-policemen, prostitutes, con men, and all have a very unpleasant common point: they’re friendly with the Nazi forces occupying France, because they are the real winners of the French debacle. They steal, they live in rich villas whose owners have fled, they do black-market and gorge themselves with high class alcohol or food that aren’t accessible legally. This book is really the mirror view of Dora Bruder, and what it shows is not pretty.

I had indeed chosen this book at the library because it is set in the same historical period (the war is one of the common themes of many of Modiano’s books anyway), but it surprised me to see that it was published in 1969, almost two decades before Dora Bruder. It is very clearly fiction, but as in other Modiano’s works real places in Paris are very important. I learnt in between that this is the second book published by Modiano and that he later worked as co-writer for the movie “Lacombe Lucien”, which has a similar story of a traitor during Second world war.

I have been watching a few classic movies lately about the Second world war: Mr. Klein (1976) by Joseph Losey, about a shady art dealer who is mistaken for a hunted Jew, and L’Armée des ombres (1969) by Jean-Pierre Melville, about ordinary French members of the Resistance, and how traitors and doubts were with them every step of the way. Modiano’s book, which is highly atmospheric and almost like a trance, was a good complement to those movies, and I intend to continue with this theme, as I bought Pierre Bayard’s book: Would I have been a résistant or an executioner?

The French title “La Ronde de nuit” has many meanings. The English title chose “The Night watch”, just like the famous Dutch painting by Rembrandt, and it’s true that the thugs that help the Gestapo and hunt Resistance members are mostly active by night, cruising the dark and empty streets of Paris to make suspects “disappear”. (There are haunting scenes in Mr. Klein about this). But “Ronde” in French is also a round dance, like the kind small kids play and sing in the courtyards with nursery rhymes. The first part of the book replicates the whirlwind of a waltz, and the repetitive, obsessive rhythm of a merry-go-round, one that would be anything but childish and innocent. The narrator is like in a nightmare, and the writing is particularly effective, but also dizzying to the reader who is suddenly thrown among dangerous strangers and in shady situations one doesn’t quite understand.

The narrator might be fictional, but among his bleak friends I recognized one name at the end of the book: Léon Sadorski, which I’d discovered in an eponymous noir thriller. Sadorski, for one, was a real corrupt and collaborator police inspector during the war, so it gave me second thoughts about everything I’d thought as fictional in the rest of the book. I normally enjoy when books speak to one another, but this coincidence is rather chilling!