Library Haul

You might think I have abandoned the library at my workplace because I rarely mention it. No, I still volunteer there every week! But I have been so busy with the real estate snafu in the first semester that I didn’t find the time to order any new books in English for the library.

And believe it or not, people have been noticing! “Oh, you actually don’t have the latest [insert writer / title]?” “Well, I have read all the [writer / title] available…” Still, I have a budget envelope to use up, so I have started to catch up!

Without further ado, here is the latest delivery of books in English (sorry about the poor quality photo!). I have tried to focus on bestsellers with a rather straightforward language, because most readers have English as a second language and they are easily spooked by specialized vocabulary and stylistic flourishes. Still, I find it very hard to judge a book by its vocabulary level. The ones on the far left are Snoopy and Peanuts collections, because people are less impressed by short comic strips. I have also ordered a whole bunch of bilingual editions (left page in English, right page in French), but they are not in yet.

Can you guess which book went out first?

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The State of the Nightstand

from decoist (not from my place…)

The thing is, I’ve been rather restless with my reading and blogging since the beginning of the month. I don’t want to blame it all on social media (actually more on personal and professional upheavals), but my attention span is really reduced to… well, I won’t say a figure because the moment I tried to compute it I was already turning to another subject. Let’s say that one minute (sixty full seconds!) is the extent of my focus time these days.

Oh well. I do have a million things to do, and a million books are crying out loud for my attention too. It’s true that September is the new January, and I go to a new library now, with so many tempting shelves!

Of course, the more books I start in parallel, the less progress I make on any of them at any given time, which makes me even more restless. And makes my nightstand ever so crowded. So, in no particular order, I give you all those books that I hope to finish some day soon:

  • Balzac: A Mysterious Affair (also known as A Historical Mystery). It’s set in the first years of Napoleon, just after the revolution, and the beginning was mysterious indeed, because I know next to nothing to this period and Balzac doesn’t make it easy.
  • Xu Zechen, Beijing Pirate. the murky business of small-time crooks in contemporary Beijing. I’ve wanted to read more Chinese novels for quite a while. It makes me a bit nostalgic on Beijing though.
  • Dorothy Whipple, The Priory. Everybody in the blog world praises Dorothy Whipple, and it’s a Persephone bestseller, so I had to try. I’m slow to warm up to it because I don’t “get” British humor very easily at first read, but everyone is lovely in there so I might stay until scones and tea are served.
  • Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table. A memoir of travelling from Colombo to England as a boy alone on a ship. Many anecdotes and coming-of-age revelation. The atmosphere is so warm and tender.
  • Tracy Chevalier, New Boy. Which is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello at a grade school in the 1970s in the US. The problem is that I’ve never read Othello, I’m relying on having watched the classic movie with Orson Wells one or two decades ago. And I keep trying to figure out the grade system in the US (how old are these kids exactly?). It doesn’t make for a smooth reading. But I will persevere.
  • Fun Home, the first tome of the graphic memoir of Alison Bechdel who grew up in a dysfunctional family in the 1960s-1970s. Her father worked in a Funeral Home (hence “Fun. Home”) and was a closeted gay man. Things didn’t exactly work well. It’s dark and funny and oh so clever. I started with her second memoir and am working my way backwards, but it’s not a quick read.

Oh, I also kind of forgot… I started a collection of short stories by Chekhov but didn’t finish. And started a collection of short stories by David Sedaris and didn’t finish. Really Checkhov and Sedaris don’t have much in common, and yet… Both stuck.

And, just because it was so tempting, I have just started a crime mystery by the Swedish duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö… [Shaking my head] I have no good reason, I know, but… Lucky for me, Goodreads doesn’t roll its virtual eyes when I add yet another title to the Currently Reading category.

What about you? How high is your pile these days?

 

Six Degrees of Separation: August

I have a lot of blog posts to catch up, but one post by Marina Sofia reminded me that I had not contributed to the fun meme hosted by Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest for this month… yet. Technically, it’s still August, so I can still play, right?

Especially as this month’s pick is no other than Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Who am I to resist another attack of Mr. Darcy’s wet shirt? But funnily enough, the first thought I had about Pride and Prejudice was not for the dashing gentlemen, but for the Bennett household full of five sisters!

There are so many novels with sisters, and somehow I skipped the most obvious one that would be Little Women, to go right to another set of favorite sisters of mine: Mary, Laura and Carrie Ingalls from The Little House on the Prairie. I know, that’s a bit of a stretch to come from British reception rooms to the great outdoor of the American prairie, but besides the obvious point that there’s a lack of money in both books, the second sister is in both books the spunky main character who achieves unexpected things!

Once I was outdoor, there was no going back indoors! Minnesota’s frontier and Ma Ingalls’ nerves and resourcefulness made me think of Elinore Pruitt Stewart, another homesteader who was determined to make it on her own in the empty territories of the West. I recently read her Letters of a Woman Homesteader, that she wrote in Wyoming at the beginning of the century (from 1909 to 1913). She was determined to show that a woman had it better in the wilderness than if she remained in poverty in the city slums.

And I can believe that living in city slums was quite hard when I remembered the fate of young Francie Nolan growing up in Brooklyn in the same period (The book starts when she’s 11 in 1912). Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn doesn’t sugar-coat the life in tenements, but her main character is resourceful and always positive, and I’d like to think that she and Elisabeth Bennett would get along fine together. I read this book several years ago as an adult, and I can see why this is a classic.

Francie Nolan is Irish-American, her parents are immigrants of the first generation, and although New York tenements weren’t great, they probably were a step up from dire poverty in Ireland. That’s how I crossed back the Atlantic to reach…

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. It’s ironic that I give this book’s title in this meme because I didn’t like the book. At. All. It was a real tear-jerker and I didn’t like being emotionally manipulated into feeling sorry and depressed over little Frank. But it is so full of whiny clichés for Irish poverty memoirs that it is a reference and a jumping-board to define what you don’t want when it comes to poverty novels, and books about Ireland in general…

And so I leave this book behind to turn to Tana French’s Faithful Place, the one book that introduced me to Tana French in the first place. Another Frank, another dysfunctional Irish family, another case of sordid poverty, but a lot more nuances than in Angela’s Ashes. In Faithful Place, the move that Frank and his girlfriend Rosie want to attempt is not to get to America like Francie Nolan’s parents and Franck McCourt, not to settle down into new territories like the Ingalls or Elinore Pruitt, they just want to go to London (like one of the Bennetts sisters?).

Another spunky Irish girl who wants to go to England and whose fate is dark and mysterious is April Latimer, a friend of Dr Quirke’s daughter Phoebe in The Silver Swan, the third Dublin mystery by Benjamin Black, aka John Banville. I loved reading those books and I quite enjoyed the series with Gabriel Byrne. April is supposed to have crossed over to London, and just like Rosie, no one has heard from her ever since. Benjamin Black’s 1950s mysteries are filled with atmosphere, dripping with rain and Catholic repression and guilt. A whole different tone from Jane Austen, but the language is just about as refined.

Well, the game didn’t make me travel far geographically, but the last book is about as far from the first in terms of genre and tone and period as you can get!

 

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!