Alexandre Dumas’ Fancy Castle

Do you think I’d get to all those books I’ve finished reading by now? How wrong!

Don’t worry, I’ll get there in due time, but not today… Instead, I’m quite excited to tell you about a famous writer’s home I visited: Alexandre Dumas’ fancy palace.

Dumas6The Chateau de Monte Cristo is close to our new place and on the banks of the Seine, in Port-Marly. Alexandre Dumas has spent most of his fortune to have it built according to his dreams in 1844. He bought a plot after the successful publication of the Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo. His friends came to the housewarming party in 1847, but he was soon bankrupted and had to sell this fabulous estate just two years later in 1849, and that wasn’t nearly enough.

Dumas7The park is romantic (think streams, ponds, waterfalls, fake grotto…) and the house itself is twofold. The main residence is a Renaissance palace with famous writers in sculpture above each window. Above the main entrance, we are greeted by a sculpture of Dumas himself! (Humility was certainly not his main quality) Just across the manicured lawn, a Gothic little fancy house was built as his private writing study. Long before Woolf talked about the famous “room of one’s own”, Dumas wanted a “palace of one’s own”, where he could be alone to write his famous bestsellers.

As we approach the Gothic study called “Chateau d’If”, we were baffled by the unique features that Dumas chose for his place. This guy didn’t know the meaning of “humble-brag”, it certainly is a shrine to Dumas’ own success. All his books’ titles are carved onto the Chateau stones, and there are many sculptures to admire. We couldn’t enter the study itself but peering through the door we could see the desk where he used to sit and write.

The visit was very interesting for adults and kids alike. It put me in the mood for a Dumas novel (most of them are in the public domain), I remember how much fun it was to read The Musketeers, and Twenty Years Later. If you’re in Paris area and want to escape the city center for a great afternoon outing, this would be a nice choice for book lovers. Added bonus: I found a leaflet about other writers’ home in the area!


The One with Anxiety as your Game Opponent

Reid Wilson, Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry (2016)

I don’t have O.C.D. or any diagnosed anxiety disorder, but I like to think myself as a rather cautious person, and with many things on my plate last year, I found myself worrying more than usual. A book title focused on anxiety would have discouraged me, but by talking about noise in my head and worry, I felt right in the apparent target.

I was first surprised by the tone of the book, then I grew to like it, although it felt a bit repetitive and patronizing at times and could have been edited of many pages in my opinion. It seems more relevant to people with serious anxiety, panic attacks and OCD than the average worrier like me. Reid Wilson’s tone is direct and straightforward (and a bit too verbose to my taste) and his take on anxiety is that it’s a game opponent, a cunning adversary that feeds off your fear and that plays a lot of tricks to have your fears flare up.

By personalizing anxiety as if it was an evil character, Wilson (who is a PhD clinical psychologist) makes it something separate from our own head and our own past experience. He makes it possible to prepare a strategy to beat this opponent at its own game. The strategy includes trying to separate noise from signal, i.e. baseless worry from justified need to learn more or be alert about something, and seeking out a frequent exposure to the cause of anxiety (the more the better, and Wilson even devises a point system to score every time you get anxious, acknowledge and still moves forward).

I read slowly because it’s a bit short of 400 pages (I guess it could be half that size with a good editor) and I wanted to apply his tips before posting about it here. I didn’t follow the whole step-by-step approach but I had his guiding principles as I recently traveled by plane (I’m a nervous flier) and I think I handled it better than usual. A few points to score for Wilson’s method!

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher HCI Books for the ARC.

The One with the Somali Juliet

Fartumo Kusow, Tale of a Boon’s Wife (2017) 

It feels like a first novel, and it feels like something close to the author’s heart so I don’t want to be overly critical.

There are many things I liked about this novel: it taught me stuff about Somalia, that there is a cast system like in India and that people are discouraged to marry across cast boundaries. That there was some prosperity and peace in this country somewhere in the 1970s or 1980s and that the government tried to abolish the cast system. I liked Idil, the main character of this novel, and I liked her pluckiness as a girl, her fidelity to her beliefs and her love as a grown woman and as a wife and mother, her courage in front of the ever darkening adversity. She does not mop around, she picks herself up and moves forward.

It is a very emotional book and while some things go as wrong as you would predict it, some things go even worse. Most readers will be drawn to Idil early on, because she is so relatable to our Western thoughts and she doesn’t understand why she should be inferior to men and marry according to their wishes and to the cast system instead of marrying for love. She is from the upper class / aristocratic caste (Bliss) and she falls in love with a young man from the lowest class possible, the Boons. We get to care about her and it’s tough to read all the hardships she goes through. It felt too much, but I guess it’s only fair game given the recent Somali history. The most heartbreaking characters are those of Idil’s mother and Idil’s sister-in-law, who have internalized the traditions and prejudices and who are blaming other women for men infidelities, or justifying decisions that are detrimental to themselves with fatalism. I wish these two characters would have been portrayed with more subtlety.

The biggest weakness of the book is in the ending, in my opinion, that feels hurried and rather illogical. Baddies in this book are really evil, and it makes no sense that Idil would fall into every trap of theirs. Despite these few problems, I still wanted to read until the last page and that’s a good enough sign.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher Second Story Press for the review copy.

The One with the Twisted Sisters

Nicholas Blake, The Dreadful Hollow (1953)

I confess that I was going to thrash the book: knowing that this is a reprint from 1953 and that the author is dead since 1972, I thought I wouldn’t do much personal harm. But then I learnt that Nicholas Blake is actually the pseudonym of poet Cecil Day-Lewis, and I was so perplex that I stopped writing this post altogether.

Nicholas Blake apparently wrote a whole series of rather cosy mysteries featuring amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways from the 1930s to the 1960s. This one is the 10th, and maybe not the best (or at least I hope so). I chose it on Netgalley because I wanted to read a classic British mystery and it seemed to fit the bill. Unfortunately it has quite aged and not like a good wine.

In short, I could not suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy this story. There are many characters, but the crux of the mystery revolves around two sisters, one crippled after the discovery of their dead father’s body and one who has dedicated her life to helping her sister. There are also two brothers (one of them falls in love with the second sister) and a religious maniac. It starts as a poison pen mystery, but soon graduates into assault and then murder, but the pace remains a bit too leisurely for my taste.

How does this rather dull story fit into the writing list of a Poet Laureate? I am still scratching my head, especially as Nigel Strangeways is supposed to be modelled on Auden. Maybe Day-Lewis needed that to pay the bills. It’s hard to resist the pun, and declare that the book was just what it promised : dreadful and hollow, but it wasn’t really that bad. The atmosphere rang true, but not the characters, and the plot was too convoluted for its own good, ending in total implausibility.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC (although I’m not sure they’ll thank me for this post)

Hello March!

I don’t know about you, but I can’t say enough how much I look forward to Spring this year. The first winter in our new house has been (still is) pretty cold and I have the (false) impression to have spent the last two months going from home to work and not much else.

Yet there has been many, many books during these commutes and at the edge of these busy days! If I haven’t posted about them much, it’s because I have started them all simultaneously (up to 8 at the same times on Goodreads, yes, it’s that bad!) and so progress on each of them has been slow and not decisive.

Here’s a little recap of books that I will be talking about soon (hopefully):

First, the finished books:

  • The Skies of Tokyo, by Takizawa Seihô: a historical manga in 2 volumes
  • Ma vie à la baguette, by Chloé Cattelain, a YA novel about Chinese-French second generation teenagers stuck between two countries and two cultures, with family secrets galore. Loved it!
  • Mercy, Mary, Patty, by Lola Lafon, obliquely talking about the Patty Hearst abduction in the 1970s. I finished it this morning, nearly abandoned it, and I remain unconvinced.
  • The prince of Cochinchine (Nicolas Le FLoch, #14), by Jean-François Parot. I’m a fan and will read whatever he writes in this series. You’re warned.
  • America, by Joan Didion: a collection of essays (actually a mismatch from several of her best-known essay collections, because she’s not that well-known in France). Finished it early January, but I want to couple it with The Girls, so it’s gonna wait a while more.
  •  The Dreadful Hollow, a 1950s British mystery by Nicholas Blake, featuring detective Nigel Strangeways: it’s a Netgalley book chosen quite randomly, I wasn’t really into it.
  • Jo Witek, Daughter of a…, a YA novella about being the daughter of a prostitute and owning it. Yes, YA can do tough stuff, in case you doubted it.

Second, the books in (slow) progress:

  • Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, by R. Reid Wilson. It’s a self-help ARC, and it took me ages to get to 80%. The technique is good (as far as I can judge) but it’s overwritten.
  • Dragonfly in Amber, Outlander #2, by Diana Gabaldon: because a girl loves some comfort reading, and I can’t seem to resist a certain handsome Highlander (don’t tell Mr. Smithereens, he will roll his eyes!)
  • The Girls, by Emma Cline: started great, but got interrupted because it was due back at the library and I had to wait for another person to finish reading it before getting it back.
  • Based on a true story by Delphine de Vigan. My latest book crush, I have to recommend it to anyone I meet. So meta, so clever, so… good. I actually slow down so that I don’t finish too soon.
  • To the Edge of the Sky, by Gao Anhua: a Netgalley ARC because I wanted to read some Chinese book, but it’s such a tear-jerker…
  • Tale of a Boon’s Wife, by Fartumo Kusow: another Netgalley ARC by a Somali writer (who lives in Britain), just because I’ve never read anything about Somalia. It did sound intriguing and it’s starting well (for me), but dark things are surely coming for the main character and I am bracing for impact.

Well, that’s more than enough, right?

By the way, do you know the Pomodoro method? I’m trying it to be more focused in my writing and to finish posts quicker (instead of letting them gather dust for weeks on end, half-finished but for a conclusion and the editing / formatting). So far it’s working great, and I don’t think you’ll complain if it makes me post here more often, won’t you? Let me know if you have tried it and what you think about it!


Six Degrees of Separation: February Game

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which is the start of the February meme launched by Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, came only recently into my radar, and I haven’t read anything by George Saunders. I confess my utmost ignorance of American presidents before 1945 (I always get them all mixed up), and the Bardo didn’t evoke anything except a Tunisian museum, and I am pretty sure I haven’t read any books by Tunisian authors, so the first thing that sprang to my mind was…

The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly, that introduced cunning defense attorney Mickey Haller. It’s definitely not as highbrow as any Saunders book, as this one is deemed “compulsively readable legal thriller”. I’m pretty sure it’s a world away from Lincoln in the Bardo. But as I didn’t know at that time that Lincoln was actually a car make, I confess that I was puzzled for a long time why Connelly was referencing to an American president, all the more as nothing in the plot referred to anything presidential. Anyway, I am addicted to Michael Connelly’s thrillers and police procedurals, so it’s only fair game that I jump to…

Harry Bosch’s first mystery The Black Echo, which I read probably 20 years ago. I don’t think I read them in order, but this one stuck in my memory because of the anxiety-inducing scenes in the sewer tunnels. I now know that Connelly likes to anchor his plot in L.A. geography, but to me it was totally abstract and the stuff of nightmares. In this thriller Bosch has flash-backs from his stint in Vietnam, and it made me think of…

Ru, by Kim Thuy, one of the few Vietnamese writers I have read (and technically, she is Canadian, so I should be ashamed…) The Vietnam war is always lurking in the background of this book, but strangely enough I have read more about the Cambodian conflict and the terrible Khmer Rouges regime, which I first heard about when I read…

The Killing Fields, by Christopher Hudson, a book that was on my grandmother’s bookshelves. My grandmother didn’t read much, and I bet this was the movie tie-in, but as a teenager the book was probably traumatizing, all the more as it was clear that those events were real. I had no difficulty recognizing the cover of the French book edition, which is the one I read 25 years ago.

I found the difficult questions of the origins of Khmer Rouge totalitarian madness addressed in Patrick Deville’s Kampuchea once again, where the long and complex history of this small country is painted without shying away from explaining French role and influence.

It was a surprising echo to be found in the latest Nicholas Le Floch historical mystery, set in Paris in 1787 (less than 2 years before the Revolution!): Prince de Cochinchine, by Jean-François Parot (I’m currently finishing the book so a post should come soon!). Cochinchine is the old word for South Vietnam. I knew that France has conquered Indochina during the 19C, but little did I know that French people (especially religious authorities) were already trying to weave their influence at the court of these Asian princes.

Well, I told you I didn’t know the first thing about Lincoln, so don’t be surprised that my 6 steps took me far, far away from him!


Seeing Pairs Everywhere

Ever since I retraced my steps to what had “brought me joy” in 2017 books (to borrow from Konmari, but don’t worry, I’m not culling my shelves, I’ve culled quite enough before moving) I wanted to do more “parallel readings” or books that share some common ground (in the loosest sense because it’s highly personal) and that reverberate in one another. I want to keep my definition as loose as possible so that it remains open to my most personal interpretations all along the year.

gradyThe easy way to do it is to read together books set in the same period, and/or on the same theme. It’s quite fun and invigorating for me because it gives me a direction and leaves me not so overwhelmed in front of the huge number of interesting books available. It gives me an easier way to reject books (I always need a little nudge on that matter even at my age).

My first parallel reading has started in the first days of January, with a 1970s theme. I had been meaning to read The Girls by Emma Cline (a variation on the Manson family) and I jumped on the opportunity to read some iconic Joan Didion essays on the 1970s too. I’ve just finished this French-edited collection with Slouching Towards Bethlehem, On the Morning After the Sixties and The White Album. A post is due soon, but I needed to interrupt my reading of the Girls midway because the book was due at the library. I’m queuing up again to get it back soon! I’ve also started a French novel Mercy, Mary, Patty by Lola Lafon that’s loosely based on the Hearst kidnapping, but is also a portrait of young women under influence in the 1970s.

I have also started a French bestseller on audiobook, Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a true story, about an exhausted writer whose life gets “hijacked” by a new friend (I’m just starting the book so I might not be totally accurate – but it has been a called a perverse thriller about a toxic friendship). Guess who Delphine de Vigan has chosen as a quote on the first page of her book? Stephen King’s Misery of course! Perfect book pairing, especially if the writer points it out herself!

If you have recommendations of books about a toxic friendship (with or without writers involved), I’m all ears.

Six Degrees of Separation: January Game

January is already halfway through, and although I have been known to wait until the last minute to play along, it’s high time to join Kate’s meme from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.  This month’s starting book is No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith.

I don’t think I have ever read one of the mysteries of this series on paper, but I have listened to them all, as they were dramatized and broadcast by BCC Radio 4 extra, the British literary radio (for lack of better definition), back before podcasts became the thing to listen to. I used to be an avid listener of this radio online, and somewhere in 2016 I kind of lost the habit. I loved the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency light mysteries, they’re the epitome of cozy, entertaining mysteries. Nothing stressful, and easy exoticism. This might be a good as well as a bad thing, depending on your mood and degree of seriousness.

Which makes me jump to another series, even lighter if possible, and also dramatized by BBC Radio 4 Extra, Agatha Raisin, by M.C. Beaton. For some reason, the title of the first mystery, Agatha and the Quiche of Death, never fails to make me smile. This is my kind of humor, I guess. It didn’t spoil anything that Agatha was played by Dame Penelope Keith, who is the quintessence of a British lady. I read a few, listened to a few more, until they all mixed happily together in my brain like British mushy peas.

Of course, Agatha Raisin made me think of Agatha Christie, and Penelope Keith was indeed the main character in a 1980s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play The Spider’s Web, which I watched recently, but it was not a book so I chose The Body in the Library instead, because if you go the cozy way, dead bodies have to be found in the library, where else? This one is a Miss Marple’s early mysteries, published in 1942 and set in one of those quintessentially British manor.

Which made me think of another British manor and a book published right before the war, The Priory by Dorothy Whipple, published by Persephone Books. To say that it is one of my favorite books is a vast exaggeration, but it is a great reading experience, although it seems such a small and banal story from the outside that it’s hard to explain.

My next book has to be a Persephone Book too, my favorite of those, the short story collection Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, written between 1939 and 1944. War worries, food restriction, fear and evacuations are underlying themes, but just as Dorothy Whipple, Mollie Panter-Downes excels at taking tiny, mundane details to highlight her point.

I could have continued with some wartime diary, but instead I choose to remain very British and to go with Sylvia Townsend Warner and her novel Lolly Willowes. In fact, I have a short story collection of hers that I have to finish this year. Lolly Willowes starts all prim and proper, with a spinster that could be friends with Miss Marple, until her love for nature, her rebellion against conventions turns her into a witch (revealing her true self, and unleashing her deep power, of course). I absolutely loved it.

To stay on British soil until the end, with dark and powerful forces revealed through innocuous-looking women, I think of Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane. Neil Gaiman lives in the US but he was born in the UK, and this story is reminiscent of old fairy tales and magic tales woven through Celtic traditions or classics such as Lord of the Ring. It is a fairy tale for adult, because it’s scary and dark. It’s quiet a departure from Alexander McCall Smith and Mma Ramotswe, but I guess strong women with lots of wisdom is the common ground of these books.

What’s your take on this game? Where will Mma Ramotswe take you?


2017 in Retrospect

book-2911140_640For some practical reasons I only started computing stats about my reading on Tuesday and got interrupted (sigh). I’m not going to bore you to tears with analytics, but I definitely surprised myself by reading more than I expected. I thought 2017 would be busy and stressful, and that I would have less time and energy to read. On the contrary I needed the distraction and the release of stress and I read more than ever! And it’s not that I only read short novellas, I read big novels and novellas and graphic novels too.

What worked for me in 2017 (and will go on in 2018):

  • short story collections. It was actually a relief to know what I should choose in priority in front of crowded library shelves and massive new release tables in bookshops. I very often feel paralyzed in bookshops. This focus gave me the freedom to say “I’m trying it, but just for one bite”. Of course, more than once I ended up licking off the plate.
  • parallel reading. I did it only once, but it was so much fun. Reading two novels with similar main characters, or themes, gave me plenty to think about. If you have suggestions for book pairings, I’m all ears!
  • reducing the number of Netgalley books. I tried to be more moderate and I don’t regret it. I usually read in full those books I have downloaded, and I don’t want to just go “DNF” on titles, so I owe myself to be more selective and arbitrary.
  • going back for second helpings (can you see the food metaphor once again? I apparently haven’t eaten enough during the holidays, ahem). When I discover a great book, I always say that I want to read more of that author, but I rarely do. Whenever I have done this in 2017 (Elizabeth Strout, Michael Connelly, Maylis de Kerangal), I have never regretted it. So 2018 will probably be the year of the backlist, like Ann of Café Society sets about to do.

What didn’t work for me in 2017:

  • A definite book list as a goal. I’m notoriously bad at reading challenges, I’m bad at planning ahead what I shall read, but I shan’t feel guilty about it and I won’t apologize. I’d said I would read 10 books, and I read nearly 80 in total last year, but I still couldn’t bring myself to read 4 out of 10, and some of those 6 I didn’t really enjoy.
  • Javier Marias short story collection: While the women are sleeping (1990) – yes
  • Dorothy Whipple, The Priory (1939) – yes (although nearly quit!)
  • Wallace Stegner, Crossing to safety (1987) – no, although I should try again
  • Maylis de Kerangal, Réparer les vivants (2014) – yes
  • Emmanuel Carrère, Le royaume (2014) – no
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, the White Guard (1926) – started 30 pages
  • Alison Lurie, Real People (1969) – yes
  • Pawel Huelle Short story collection in French “Rue Polanski” – yes
  • Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, Deconstructing penguins – no
  • Barbara Vine, the Child’s Child (2012) – yes

So in 2018, I won’t give myself any deadline or pressure. Instead I will have a list of writers to pick from and keep that list close by for when I visit libraries and bookshops.

Without further ado, my few favorite books of last year:

Happy reading everyone!


Season of Stories Roundup

season-of-styories-logo-fall17One of my goals in 2017 was to read more short stories. I was indeed intentional in selecting short stories collection whenever possible, but I was also helped by the fantastic e-mail list “Season of Stories”, sponsored by Penguin Random House, which started mid-September, sent out stories in 4 daily installment every week and ran until yesterday! (Or so I believe, maybe they will go on sending out their good stuff forever and ever…).

It was very diverse and eye-opening for me. Even if I didn’t enjoy every story, I enjoyed discovering them all! So here is a little roundup from the latest to the first.

1 – “Crocodile Shoes” by Jojo Moyes from her collection, Paris for One and Other Stories: the only one I had previously read (and reviewed just recently). Such a heart-warming, glowy story.

2 – “Plague of the Firstborn”, by Etgar Keret from his collection, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God. I know Etgar Keret through This American Life, I own a collection of stories of his. This one was about the Bible plagues, but viewed from an interesting angle. Funny, but with an emotional twist.

3 – “Best of All Possible Homes” by Annabelle Gurwitch from her collection, Wherever You Go, There They Are. This one remains unread in my mail box. Perhaps discouraged by the story of the previous week, I had no time that week or since, sorry!

4 – “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” by Denis Johnson from his eponymous collection. This one I didn’t get. at. all. I tried, and tried, but I threw the towel on day 3. It’s a loose collection of memories, but I didn’t get into any of them.

5 – “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah from his eponymous collection. Set in a dark futuristic Africa (somewhat post-apolyptical), it was a stunner. Totally heart-wrenching and full of images and sensations.

6 – “Babies in Limbo”, by Patricia Lockwood from her collection, Priestdaddy. I read it through but couldn’t relate to this weird, dysfunctional family

7 – “The Christmas Dance”, by James McBride from his collection of short stories, Five-Carat Soul. Loved it. Set in New York with a young PhD candidate trying to interview Black WW2 veterans, only to unearth a deeply moving old story that still reverberate to this day.

8 – “Reindeer Mountain” by Karin Tidbeck from her collection of short stories, Jagannath. Impressed and so wanting to know more about Tidbeck’s world, full of Swedish myths!

9 – “Yeoman” by Charles Yu from his book of short stories, Sorry Please Thank You. It was plain fun. I don’t normally do SF, but I didn’t exactly know comic SF was a subgenre.

10 – “Everyone talks”, by Lee Child from his collection, No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories. I know of Lee Child but have never read him. Crime and police procedurals are hardly ever short story material, so I was doubly impressed. Suspense and twists galore in such a short format.

11 – “But Also Bring Cheese” by Kate Tellers, from the collection The Moth Presents: All These Wonders. A daughter faces her mother’s death, but I didn’t quite relate to it.

12 – “The Plastic Surgeon” by Josh Barkan from his collection Mexico. The hero of the story is an ambitious American plastic surgeon in Mexico, who suddenly as a gangster in his surgery waiting room, requesting a total makeover, with difficult consequences.

13 – “Why Were They Throwing Bricks” by Jenny Zhang from his collection Sour Heart. Chinese American kids (the narrator hits puberty) confronted to their Chinese mainland grandmother with her intrusive and demanding love. I found it so, so true (I know some Chinese grandmas just like this character), and yet so disturbing.

14 – “Dreaming in Polish” by Aimee Bender from her collection of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. A confirmation that Aimee Bender’s stories are not my thing.

15 – “Prom” by Hasan Minhaj from the collection The Moth Presents: All These Wonders. An awkward coming-of-age story heavy with race prejudices but still so funny.

Happy holidays to you all and merry Christmas!