Inventory: a Bullet Point Post

I’m I was in full moving mode right now last weekend as I wrote this post:

I’m not sure I can write a proper box post instead of filling yet another box, but it’s nice to take a break. I’m not quite sure how long our internet connection will be working, so here’s a little bookish inventory:

  • Books I have set aside for the moment: David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day. Some stories made me laugh hysterically, but I’m usually pretty bad with foreign humor and I’m not in the mood for satire and self-parody right now. But I’ll return to it as soon as the summer is over, because reading a few pages at a time feels refreshing.
  • Books I need to review here for about… three or four months? I can’t seem to be able to sit down and write about Black House and Lewis Man by Peter May. Why? No reason at all. They’re great and entertaining. Perhaps you’ll know about them whenever I’ll finish the trilogy (with The Chessmen)
  • Books in paper that lay around here: less than 10 as of tonight for the whole flat. Sigh… Therefore…
  • Last minute bookish impulse purchase on Kindle: 3 – as if I was anywhere near deprivation, I stocked up on free Kindle classics in the form of two Balzac novellas, and I was grateful (for once) that Amazon had my credit card number stored as I bought a Michael Connelly’s thriller with defense lawyer Mickey Haller teamed up with Harry Bosch in The Crossing.
  • Last minute impulse download from Netgalley: 2 – A Cold Day in Hell by Lissa Marie Redmond and Mask of Innocence by Marion Shepherd, because I need some comfort read. Classic police procedural and a historical fiction seem to tick all the boxes (sorry for the pun)
  • Books in my Kindle that I have started: 5 – A Cold Day in Hell, out of curiosity, then a Balzac, called A Historical Mystery and I have 3 others: The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau; a short story collection by Chekhov, and Letters of a Woman Homesteader, by Elinore Pruitt Stewart. From Russia to France, from Wyoming to Buffalo, New York (I had to check where it is exactly), from the French revolution to the present time!

Edited to Add: The move went smoothly and we are settling down into our new home. You’ll be relieved to learn that I’ve been reunited with my tons of precious paper books (otherwise my Kindle would have exploded soon). As you can see, the internet got fairly quickly reconnected too. More soon!

Six Degrees of Separation: July

I had so much fun last month, so I’m taking a few moments off from filling up boxes to think about book titles (always better than wasting time on Instagram or Pinterest, right?). The meme is hosted by Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest and picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps.

866451-HangingRockThis month’s pick is Picnic at Hanging Rock, a Joan Lindsay novel set in Australia, in a stifling all girls’ boarding school. (Unless last month’s novel which I didn’t know at all) I read the novel and saw the movie waaay too early as a teenager, and it was very striking and memorable to my young self. I remember the frilly dresses (completely inappropriate for the rocky wilderness) and the heated atmosphere. I have a thing for novels set in boarding school and so I thought of…

76817-LittlePrincess1. Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the first novel I read about boarding school. The Japanese anime series was totally addictive when I was a kid, and I reread many times the book. Another gloomy view of boarding school that marked me as a teenager was of course…

10210-JaneEyre2. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, that starts with some memorable chapters set in Lowood charity school. Jane’s indomitable character, both unflinching and idealist, made me think of another girl on the cusp of adulthood, but seen this time from a cynical, satirical point of view:

581559-CharlotteSimmons3. Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but Charlotte Simmons is portrayed as a naive, idealist, pure girl from a small-town highschool entering an elite university, and I can’t help but think that Jane Eyre, if not for her Victorian moral backbone, could easily have turned out into a Charlotte Simmons. At any case, that was exactly what Jane was determined not to become.

9844-Prep4. Another outsider thrown into a cut-throat school environment is Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. I read it a few years ago, back to back with Charlotte Simmons, and I must confess my memory is a bit hazy. It’s set in a boarding school so we definitely stay in the same setting. Still I remember loving more…

6185835-AmericanWife5. American Wife, by the same author Curtis Sittenfeld, on a banal, bookish, rather conventional Midwestern middle-class girl who ends up marrying the future President of the United States (not Trump, obviously, but a fictional Bush). I remember liking this soft-spoken main character who teaches elementary school and works as a school librarian a lot. The presidential train of thought was a tough one to follow, so the best association for this book would be…

11806495-SummerWithoutMen6- A Summer without Men, by Siri Hustvedt, for the recurrent setting in the Midwest. Many books by Hustvedt reference her native Minnesota, but I chose this one because, well, an all-female cast of characters was a nice allusion to Hanging Rocks’ school, and the main character in this novel also teaches girls during the summer.

From Australia, to London, to Yorkshire, to New York and the Midwest, hopping from one girls school to the next, I have somehow come full circle, haven’t I?

Six Degrees of Separation

I first heard of the Six Degrees of Separation meme through Marina Sofia of Finding Time to Write. And then I noticed that Elle played too ! It seemed so much fun that I had to try. The meme is hosted by Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest and picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps.

This month’s pick is Shopgirl by Steve Martin, a title I had absolutely no clue about. All I knew about it was Marina Sofia’s short description, about a satire of life in Los Angeles. But it was enough to let my bookish imagination run wild as I immediately thought of…

 

1- Bret Easton Ellis’ Letters from L.A. It’s a short story / novella that I read years ago (like 10 years!) but memorable, because I don’t usually read about L.A. and I don’t really enjoy satire, which I often mistake for grotesque tragedy (oh, wait, maybe that’s what it is about?). Letters from L.A. is one story from the collection The Informers. Of course this is not his best-known book nor is it the most shoking one…

2- American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis was a book that shocked me as I read it in my early 20s. I didn’t read graphic violence or porn or gore, or anything in the horror genre, and it was physically hard for me to read on. I was sure it was going to be an important book, although maybe for the wrong reasons.

3- Which led me to The American Pastoral by Philip Roth, another title claiming to be the “Great American Novel”. Especially as a non-American, these titles always seem daunting and I waited way too long before starting this novel which proved engrossing and sensitive. But after one Roth I couldn’t stop, so I had to pick…

4- Philip Roth’s Plot against America, an alternate history novel that imagines what would have happened if anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh had won the US elections over Roosevelt, stopping the US from entering the war against Nazi Germany. Of course, it made me think of another alternate history bestseller…

5- 11/22/63 by Stephen King, that left me breathless and reeling after 30 hours on audiobook last year! To a French person of my generation, the series of numbers of the title doesn’t automatically mean J.F.K., but once my mind was set on the 1960s and the Kennedys, I thought of another one…

6- Black Waters, by Joyce Carol Oates, is the retelling of a famous deadly event of the late 1960s, in which a girlfriend of Ted Kennedy’s drowned in a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts near Martha’s Vineyard.

In 6 steps, I moved from the West Coast to the East Coast, and from light satire to dark psychological terror! It was so much fun, I might want to try taking another detour… What about you, what are your 6 degrees?

Monday List

I know I have finished many, many books that I should write about first, but… this Monday being one of these days, where nothing goes exactly as planned, I just have the energy for book lists.

These are the books that dear Mr. Smithereens spoilt me with for Mother’s Day:

Agatha Christie, Absent in the spring. Published in 1944 under the name of Mary Westmacott. Mr. S read it from the landlord’s bookshelf at our rental in London back in February and declared it great. The back cover says that it is among her “six bittersweet novels with a jagged edge, as compelling and memorable as the best of her work”. I wish there were some undiscovered Miss Marple’s for me to read, but this is the next best thing. I’m quite intrigued!

Chloé Cattelain, Ma vie à la baguette. (My life with a rod of iron, which in French sounds like a baguette bread, or a chopstick) Two Chinese-French teenagers (born in the north of France from Chinese parents) have to deal with family secrets and intercultural adjustments. I had noticed this one (from the publisher Thierry Magnier – did I mention how great this publisher is?) at the YA library, and apparently Mr. Smithereens had noticed it too! The weird thing is that I was born in the north of France too, and during my childhood there were very few Chinese immigrants there!

F.R. Tallis, The Voices. Mr. S and I both had loved Frank Tallis Viennese mysteries, but Tallis had grown fed up of this particular era and genre (or so I interpret), because he launched himself into a totally new genre: a terrifying ghost story! I don’t read horror, but now that I have dipped my toes into Stephen King, I can’t say never. It’s set during the 1976 heat wave, and Paris has been very very hot these last few days… Should I wait for October to start this one? Or maybe Mr. S. wants me to run hiding into his arms?

Yang Liu, East Meets West. This one is a tiny design book full of simple infographics, the left page for Western culture, the right page for Eastern culture. I had loved the Paris / New York book by Vahram Muratyan, this is the same principle. Of course, it’s full of clichés, but it should be a lot of fun too!

I also got a piece of “pencil art” from my 3-year-old and a poetry with lots of glitter from my almost 9-year-old! Wow, despite Monday woes and stress, I am indeed lucky!

How Books Come To Us

P1020096 - xsIn one particular episode of the popular podcast What Should I Read Next (episode 64: “The next best thing to reading”), Anne Bogel from Modern Mrs. Darcy asked around how people kept track of the books they read. This is a bit of a cliché question for booklovers, but one idea stuck with me until now: one woman recorded books by who or where she had heard of them in the first place.

How clever! I so often wish I’d remembered how I came to hear about one particular title. Let’s try this little exercise for the books I’m currently reading:

  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon: I’m quite convinced that I first heard about this book on a blog, but which one? Stefanie’s from So Many Books? Rebecca’s from Of Books and Bicycles? Perhaps, but I can’t seem to find a trace of this title on their blogs now… If you’re reading this post and have reviewed it with glowing terms a few years ago, that’s probably you!
  • Moving House & Other Stories by Paweł Huelle : This one’s easy, my parents gave it to me ages ago (like probably 5 years ago).
  • The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine : This is a book we own, and I bet my husband bought it, probably from W.H.Smith in Paris. He said it was good but that I might find it slow. Guess what? I’m about 70 pages in and I’m finding it slow. Am I that transparent?
  • The Blackhouse (Lewis Trilogy, #1) by Peter May : This is an e-book a good friend recommended to me, going as far as sending me the file. I have had it on my Kindle for probably more than one year, or even two, and I started it in a sudden case of Scottish nostalgia, needing a good, dependable mystery.

This list is somewhat uncharacteristic of my reading habits, or rather characteristic of this particular period in my life, as I am trying to reduce the number of books from Netgalley and from the library.

It’s not that I don’t take books home when they call me with their nice covers and enticing blurbs and tempting titles… I am no superhuman and I have a weak heart. So I do take them home, … and mostly take them back (almost) unread. Let’s call it a short break for books, just the time to see a new environment and breathe some polluted Paris air before going back on shelf.

I have a post coming up about Esther Perel and her bestseller Mating in Captivity. I know I bought the book after hearing an amazing conversation between her and Garance Doré, but I can’t for the life of me remember where I’d heard about this podcast episode in the first place. Oh, my poor brain… no wonder I first started this blog to try remember all the books I read!

Taking a Ticket for the Rollercoaster by way of London

Vélo, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, dep78, France, Yvelines Tourisme

Photo credit: J. Damase 2013

2017 is starting with lots of things on our plate at the Smithereens home, hardly any of which related to writing and reading.

We are putting our home on the market and moving to the suburbs! (That’s not really as dramatic as I write it: it’s still a real city with libraries and movie theater and museums… and not too far from the Eiffel Tower!) Real estate stuff are both exciting and stressful, and it has taken a toll on my writing and reading. I find that I have less mental space to dream up fancy stories, and a lot less concentration to focus on stories dreamt up by other people.

I have started one story by Polish writer Pawel Huelle and haven’t really got too far: Polish hardships in the immediate postwar, newly Communist regime is not really the exotic entertainment I was looking for. Let’s just say I was not in the right mood. I have started Maylis de Kerangal’s novel on heart transplant while in the commuting train and it was tough! I had totally forgotten her peculiar style of very long, meandrous sentences. The first “chapter” is only one breathless sentence with so many detours that I could hardly keep my attention on the page. I know that it takes some getting used to, but that her writing is so visual and flowing that I should soon be won over. Anyway Kerangal and Huelle are both on my list of books I own and want to really read this year, so no way I’m going to throw the towel in January!

Yet, given the general level of stress and exhaustion, I might also add some comforting and easy reads to my diet. I want to finish a few books started last year before adding a mystery or two, or, perhaps… another tome of Outlander. Last year Outlander had taken my breath away because it was so quick to read and so entertaining, so I’m really keeping that one close by in store for difficult times.

I also went to the YA & Children’s library of our neighborhood and couldn’t resist and few graphic novels/ mangas. I also saw that they have Sophie Kinsella’s latest YA novel Finding Audrey. My first impulse was to take it, but then, I’m not sure I want to add any anxiety to the situation.

Also, we have a family trip planned for February and we are going to… London! I really want to visit Persephone bookshop and the British Library. So perhaps I should be reading a Persephone book to put me in the right mood. Do you have any suggestions of literary places to visit there? Or of any delightful book set in London?

 

Danielle’s Stories: Sylvia Townsend Warner Edition

Danielle’s enveloppe was waiting on our doorstep just before New Year’s Eve. How wonderful that she had chosen stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner! I’ve only ever read her novel Lolly Willowes but I adored the book and always vowed I should reread it. But it’s even better to discover something new by her.

I kind of saved these three stories for a special occasion. I had a business trip and to be able to go out to eat (even in a run-of-the-mill, train-station type of chain restaurant) by myself and read while eating was a good moment. To eat alone is not very funny, but with Sylvia Townsend Warner, it’s instantly better.

These three stories really reminded me why I’d loved Lolly Willowes. They feature quirky characters, banal, mundane situations that suddenly turn whimsical, defiant young women who seem prim and proper until they let you guess their feelings and thoughts. They seem so very British. Witty and warm, a bit like one of the first Harry Potter volumes. And sometimes it’s downright comic, like this part, in “Love”:

[Dinnie and Avery are viewing a cottage, to possibly rent it from a young couple]

“What rent-” began Dinnie. […]

At the same moment a door opened, a coffee tray was put down with a clatter, and the short stout young man said, “I hope you’ll excuse me, but the house in on fire.”

He darted away, leaving the door open behind him. The young woman hurried after him. A waft of flame came down the wide chimney like a goblin, flared, vanished. Avery shut the door and the window opening on the calm landscape.

Dinnie was on her feet. She had emptied a log basket and was filling it with their Staffordshire chimney ornaments.

“You get down the pictures, Avery. We can’t just sit here fiddling. We’ll take everything we can outside, the poor creatures!”

I don’t know about you, but I could so visualize the scene that I nearly broke in a peal of laughter (all by myself in the restaurant). The story is seen through Avery’s eye and is a great portrait of marriage, where two people may love each other deeply yet remain strangers to one another (at least to some degree).

In “Tebic”, Sylvia Townsend Warner tosses an unknown object in front of our eyes, refusing by all means to define what it is, and just letting us see how a simple thing can create tensions within two people and can highlight many aspects of their personality. It’s quite clever really, and if I have now my own opinion of what a Tebic really is, I wish other Tebic-lovers would show up to discuss the matter in depth.

In “Flora”, a young woman is introduced by her boyfriend to an eccentric, pompous scholar who lives as a recluse in the moor. He treats her disdainfully and her reaction is both subdued and whimsical: “I was sufficiently tired by my walk to feel chilled, and, from feeling chilled, to feel intimidated. To rouse my spirits, I began to nurse rebellious thoughts”. The second visit by Flora to this old misogynist snob is both comic and sad.

After finishing these three stories, I had only one thing left to do: order the whole collection from Amazon Marketplace! With luck, I’ll have the book in hand within a few weeks, with seventeen more stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner!

 

In which I break the conventions by following them

In a decade of blogging, I have learnt a few things about myself: that I enjoy reading memes but not joining them, that reading challenges are not for me (pressure, guilt trips and all… no thanks), and that my reading plans mostly get derailed by random choices and nice covers of new acquisitions at the library.

That is why I usually refuse to set any precise good resolutions regarding my reading. At most, I did vague intentions. On the other hand, I am surrounded by shelves full of books that I own (jointly with Mr. S., that is) that I’ve never read. In the face of an impeding house move (mmh, not really soon, but keeping me busy), I can’t really live with the idea that I’ll move boxes after boxes of unread books just so that they will gather dust in another home.

It seems only logical that 2017 would be the year I start reading the books that are at arm’s length, instead of those from the bookshop and the library. (I swear, it’s not my first purpose to weed out our shelves, I don’t hope to read disappointing books that will get donated – but surely once I’ve read them I’ll take a decision).

Knowing my tendency to be distracted by shiny new literary objects that cross my path, I don’t want to set a number that I will surely fail (more guilt trips? no-no). I have only the objective to read a certain number of books according to a list, and not the majority of my yearly reading.

That’s where I come full circle and find myself back where everyone is traditionally in these few first days of the year: making book lists for 2017. I have pondered over my overcrowded shelves and here’s my 10 books for a start:

  • Javier Marias short story collection: While the women are sleeping (1990)
  • Dorothy Whipple, The Priory (1939) – the Persephone bestseller
  • Wallace Stegner, Crossing to safety (1987) – I must have read the first few pages ten times already, it’s high time I follow through.
  • Maylis de Kerangal, Réparer les vivants (2014) – I have loved Kerangal book about bridge building, everything indicates I should love this one, but I couldn’t get to it, even though it was made into a movie
  • Emmanuel Carrère, le royaume (2014) – I am a self-professed Carrère fan
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, the White Guard (1926) – why am I afraid of Russian literature?
  • Alison Lurie, Real People (1969) – because Lurie + writing retreat…
  • Pawel Huelle Short story collection in French “Rue Polanski”
  • Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, Deconstructing penguins – it’s about talking books with the kids, and go beyond “was it good?” and “did you like it?”. I bought it in the US but I could use some good idea now.
  • Barbara Vine, the Child’s Child (2012) – Vine’s beginnings are always slow but normally the ending leaves me bedazzled and quite proud to have persisted.

I finally left out big names that I still hope to read this year, like Chandler, Simenon and others, for whom I’ll go to the library and do some research. I hope I can at least stick to that list and if I do I’ll be able to be more ambitious next time! Which one should I start with in your opinion?

The Day of my Inner Nerd

stats-thumb-290x217-264I let my inner nerd persona out in the open only once a year (or so I hope, but if you see her roaming on this blog during the rest of the year, please stop her, muffle her and drop me a line): today is the day where my inner nerd is allowed to compute stats about my reading (and writing too). So let her gloat for five minutes, and if you’re not into these kind of things, come back tomorrow where I will discuss books for their quality, not their sheer quantity.

Nerdish Smithereens is happy to report that we (the nerd and I) have read 76 books in 2016, a bit more than last year. My reading is about equally shared between French writers (30%), American writers (21%), British (22%) and the rest of the world. I read mostly contemporary books, because Netgalley books are a big, and growing share of my reading (21 books this year, vs 6 last year when I started for real). Still, I can see that I requested fewer books in the later part of the year, and I want to keep that trend down and be more selective about ARC books that require my time and attention. In 2016, I read almost no audiobook (because podcasts took up most of my listening time), at the notable exception of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 that was more than 30 hours long!

I’m glad to see that I seem to have tamed the mystery monster (the one that makes you read one thriller or murder mystery after the other until you have only read from that genre!), at least in paper form (that genre only accounts about 20% of my reading). Alas, Mr. Smithereens can attest that I have *not* tamed the mystery monster hidden in the TV and DVD player, because he would like to watch other shows than murder mysteries, which he only gets to do when I am busy… writing for the evening.

Speaking of the writing front, I have managed to keep the momentum that started in 2015. My resolution is to write every single day, blog or no blog, fiction or diary or book posts. Some days are tough, some days words are pouring (hmm, perhaps not so much). The threshold of 50 words minimum was low enough to make me stick to it (it’s the principle of Tiny Habits, and apparently, yes, it’s a thing). Every month, I missed 3 to 5 days, but overall the word count added up. I wrote 318 days out of 365, and this year even holidays and family time didn’t completely derail my plans.

Of course, going to a writing retreat for the first time in my life was a major motivation, but almost as important is the accountability that this blog gives me. So I owe you, reader, for your continuous encouragement along the way!

So now, let me lock my inner nerd up once more and throw her calculator away. Enough about the past, let me turn to this brand new year and send you, reader, my warmest wishes for 2017!

Christmas Literary Bounty

20161229_203714The short interruption wasn’t really planned, ahem, but family visits took us across France and time and wi-fi weren’t exactly aplenty. On the other hand, we had plenty of food (foie gras, buche and the like), plenty of sweet moments… and plenty of presents of the literary sort as well!

My husband surprised me with books that I know little about and would not have selected myself!

  • a biography of Philip Sassoon
  • a biography of 6 society ladies in the Roaring twenties and before the Second World War
  • a philosophical novel about marriage
  • a venture into true crime with a nanny killed in Belgravia (it’s been a long time since I wanted to try something in the true crime genre)
  • a murder mystery with a secret mission to Moscow in 1920
  • another murder mystery based on the true story of a catholic priest who ran a huge fraud and inspired some theories of the Da Vinci code
  • (not in the picture, a book about Hamilton, the musical!)

Now, with the poorly lit picture of the book pile, can you guess (without checking on Goodreads) which is which? Bonus point if you can guess which book I have already started… I hope your bookish wishes were fulfilled during the holidays!