The One with the French Cakes on the Eurostar

Emma Beddington, We’ll Always Have Paris (2016)

If I’d known the book was yet another a blogger’s memoir, I wouldn’t have picked it, but it came warmly recommended by my friend Danielle, and so I was curious. I was expecting fearing British clichés about life in France, possibly halfway between A Year in Provence and A Year in the Merde.

Emma is a British young woman obsessed with France for her whole life. Even before going to university she crosses the Channel, finds a job in France (assistant language teacher in a gloomy Normandy high-school), promptly falls in love with a great French man and has two sons. She works as a lawyer in London for a time, but as soon as the opportunity arises her family moves to Paris… where they lived happily ever after, living in a macaroon-filled bliss.

Not so! Her arrival in Paris, in one of the wealthiest neighborhood (but not the most children-friendly, I know it, I lived nearby), was a bumpy one. People were not exactly friendly and welcoming, and she managed to make exactly… one friend, another British expat mom in culture shock. So after descending in full-blown depression, fueled by grief, loneliness and a tad of eating disorder (French pastries, here she comes!), she crossed the Channels a few times, picked herself up and transplanted her whole family to… Brussels. (Which makes the book a bit misleading because she effectively didn’t live in Paris that long)

I won’t tell you all about Emma Beddington’s life story, but I did appreciate her honesty and her impeccable British witticism. I never read her blog before, but I bet people liked her writing. Contrary to (some) US bloggers’ memoirs this one is not sanitized and not a one-way road to any kind of self-discovery and redemption. Yes, there is an epiphany and a happy end, but by a hair’s breadth (or so I felt). It’s a lot darker than what I expected (which is good, in that case). I hope you’ll pardon me if I confess I felt for her husband, and boy did he go through a hell of a roller coaster.

Pod Review June 15-21

CaptureThis week I finished the podcast mini-series The Caliphate, which was a punch in the gut. I also listened to some interesting China interviews, before plunging head-first into lighter personal development shows.

  • Caliphate #8 The Briefcase; #9 Prisoners (2 parts); #10 One Year Later
  • Sinica Podcast June 6 episode Wuer Kaixi on Tiananmen uprising and subsequent massacre
  • Sinica Podcast April 9 Sulmaan Wasif Khan on China’s grand strategy
  • Longest Shortest Time #200 I’m pregnant (pretty meh imo)
  • ♥ Longest Shortest Time #201 Artificial Wombs, Space Babies and Robot Nurses… oh my! – it’s been a long time since I’ve heard such original content; I give them the prize this week because it’s not pessimistic.
  • Spilled Milk #383 Washing Dishes – my mind was blown when I learnt that some people wash and rinse their dishes before putting them into the dishwasher. Say whaaat?
  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin #224 Design your summer (again) How to handle the challenge of transitions; I was glad to return to this beloved podcast
  • Sorta Awesome #200 Hidden strengths, big awesome (a group show)
  • The Simple Show with Tsh Oxenreider #198 Body image & Sabbaticals

The One with the Neglected Kid

Hanne Ørstavik, Love (Norwegian 1997, English 2018)

Spoiler ahead, I guess. Well, maybe.

Well, I tried. With clenched teeth and a heavy heart, but I did try. For the sake of #unreadshelf challenge, mostly, and also because Marina Sofia did love it and it got me wondering what I was missing.

But despite my best efforts I didn’t enjoy the ride. So may I quit now, please? I read halfway through and skimmed through the rest.

This book is plain weird and I guess people have reacted to it in various ways. Some people call it a revelation that reminds them why they love reading, some find it thrilling, haunting, deeply moving. Well, I mostly felt… puzzled.

A single mother and her 9 year old boy live in a small Norway town. Tomorrow is the boy’s birthday but the mother couldn’t care less. She is busy, distracted and self-centered to the point that she ignores that her boy is going out in the evening, lured by the prospect of a carnival passing through the town. The mother also goes out but they never cross paths. The boy meets with people in situations that are clearly dangerous for a boy that age alone in the dark, but despite the foreboding nothing much happens.

Well, that pretty much sums it up, it’s both boring and alarming. But I couldn’t help judging the mother under an unfavorable light, because I was full of pity for the birthday boy. The rest felt random and ominous, with no plot to speak of.

I wondered where the sense of dread comes, given that the writing is very matter of fact and linear. The only peculiar technique is that the story jumps from the mother to the son from one sentence to the next without warning. It takes a while to get used to it but it effectively highlights the distance between the mother’s and the son’s thoughts and actions.

A last thing: I read the British edition with the cover I showed at the top of this post. I wonder if my first impression would have been the same if I’d chosen the French edition with that pink cover. Weird discrepancy, ugh?

The One with the Sisters at Odds

Margaret Drabble, À Summer Bird-Cage (1963)

A lot of respected book bloggers have recently praised Margaret Drabble, and this one was the one and only available at our local library. All the more, the back cover says that it is her “first, landmark novel, which established her as one of the finest observers of women on the brink of liberation.”

I loved the witty, self-deprecating and typically British observations. The book follows Sarah, a young woman from middle class, recently graduated from Oxford. As she makes her first steps into adult life in swinging London (getting a job, a flat, waiting for her boyfriend), she observes the choices her beautiful sister Louise has made (marrying someone wealthy she doesn’t seem to love), and the life choices other young women make around her (marrying penniless artist boyfriends), and she wonders about her own prospects (or lack thereof, this being the early 1960s). Which includes a lot of self-doubt and grumbling and FOMO, but since French people are natural grumblers I didn’t mind. To me it was a nice portrait of adulting anxiety before the Millenials era (and before “adulting” was even a word). It made me feel old because I wanted to hug Sarah or shake her (depending on moments) and tell her “it will be alright” (especially since the end of the 1960s would come soon). The book is Margaret Drabble’s first book, and I’m not sure it’s her best (some parts are dragging, there are way too much focus on what people wear at dinner parties, and Sarah comes out as much too judgey to be totally likeable)

A few remarks on Goodreads made me realize that 1- Margaret Drabble is A.S. Byatt’s sister (sorry if you knew, I’m the newbie here and as a public service I’d like to share by two cents of knowledge) and 2- that there is no love lost between the sisters. I learnt that at about one third of the book and after that discovery, I could not stop wondering how close to reality this book really is. (I sort of think it spoiled a bit my experience, but I suppose it would have been the same if I’d learnt it at the very end of the book). Still, I’d love to read another of her novels. Which one would you recommend?

Pod Review June 8 – 14

CaptureThis week I alternated between rather shallow topics (drugstore beauty products, anyone?) and very deep ones.

  • Ten things to tell you by Laura Tremaine #18 10 thoughts on anxiety – I wasn’t really convinced
  • Sorta Awesome #197 Awesome birthday parties, #198 The best parenting advice with Karen McVey (I loved her tips on dealing with big kids!), #199 Drugstore Beauty Challenge
  • Multilinguish by Babbel The Sexiest Accents – I expected more
  • Change Ma Vie by Clotilde Dusoulier #102 The Confirmation Bias; #103 How to change your Beliefs?; #104 the Imposter Syndrome
  • Radiolab # Bitflip – this one flew way above my head
  • This American Life #676 Here’s Looking at You Kid; a bit uneven episode: I didn’t care much for the depressed football player (yeah, I’m heartless like that), but there’s a jaw-dropping interview of a scientist who did (imo) stalk a person for a paper and published it despite the obvious refusal of consent.
  • Sinica by Kaiser Kuo : Howard French On How China’s Past Shapes Its Present Ambitions (May 9 episode)
  • ♥ Caliphate #3 The Arrival; #4 Us vs. Them; #5 The Heart; #6 The Paper Trail; #7 Mosul; this New York Times podcast is really breathtaking, even though it’s not for the faint of heart. You have to listen in order.
  • Before Breakfast with Laura Vanderkam: Use bits of time for bits of joy (June 7th)

The One with the Type-A Nightmare

Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives (1972)

I seem to remember that a post by Danielle from A Work in Progress made me download The Stepford Wives into my Kindle more than one year ago (quick fact-check… OMG October 2017! I can’t believe it, where did time go??), but I didn’t start it right away.

Of course, I knew the basics about the story, even though I haven’t seen the movie. After all, a Stepford wife has become a common name. So I’m not going to sum it up, but only to say how much I rooted for the main-character Joanna, who is independent-minded, creative, slightly messy and ambivalent about full-time motherhood.

I was surprised how short the novel was (144 pages!) and how effective it was. Even though I knew where it was going it kept me up at night! I won’t spoil much by saying that I was really impressed how the revelation is handled, both real and unreal, and I doubt that it could achieve this level of ambiguity on screen. If you only read the words, nothing horrific is really described, but the implications… it still gives me goosebumps.

I remember how much I’d loved the book Rosemary’s Baby, and now I want to read another Levin. Any recommendation for me?

#UnreadShelf Project June

49304967_411823712689749_2472884066192988807_nI’m not cheating, I swear! But if I announce my selection at one third of a given month, you can imagine that I have already had more than one peak into the selected books, and I have already formed an impression of them.

This month, Whitney Connard announced on her Instagram page:

Your goal this month is to pick a book off your unread shelf and do some armchair travel this month! Pick any book that features a place you’d love to visit or a travel-themed story. Finish it or get rid of it by the end of June!

I chose to interpret it as choosing a destination I have never visited yet. So, forget about all those lingering books set in China, Japan or America! I decided to go for two obscure places I’m not quite sure I’d like to visit one day, but that I’ve never been to:

> The deep forests of India, as in Aranyak: Of the Forest by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (I don’t even attempt to pronounce it); it’s a classic, and its readers have given raving reviews, but… I’m totally intimidated by the book and if it wasn’t for the challenge, I would be happy for it to gather even more dust at the back of my shelves.

> The north of Norway, as in Love, by Hanne Ørstavik – this is the one book I was alluding when I spoke about impression. My first impression (at about 40 pages in, on a total of 180 pages) is very, very cold. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s not really a pleasant experience for now.

Both books were selected by the Asymptote book club, and both would have totally escaped me if I had been by myself in a bookstore. So I’m glad to try, and give them a fair chance, even if at the end, I decide not to finish them.

The One with the Unexpected Civil War Romance

Alyssa Cole, A Hope Divided (The Loyal League #2; 2017)

This time, I know exactly where I first heard of this book: Kazen from Always Doing blogged about it and praised it in… December 2017. At that time, I was intrigued but the Amazon Kindle copy available here was over 10$. Ouch! Since I don’t read that many romances, I didn’t want to fork out that much for something I wasn’t sure to love. I have been known to indulge in sugary, clean Amish romances from time to time (downloaded for free on Netgalley, I confess), but an interracial romance set during the Civil War with some (mild-to-me, but still) bedroom action? I had never tried it before. (When I was a student, I had access to a bookcase full of romance novels, so I’m not quite that innocent about the genre, but those were typically badly written and full of Prince-Charming-awaiting silly princesses)

I can’t tell if this book is very typical of Regency romances, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. The book centers on Marlie, a free black woman who has led a sheltered life as a relative in the Lynch family estate, uses her time to provide sick people with herbal medicines of her own devise regardless of the color of their skin and of their uniform. She also helps the cause by carrying coded messages, but no further. When she crosses the path of an escaped prisoner, Ewan McCall, and when a cruel Confederate general decides to settle down in the Lynch family home, life becomes more complicated, dangerous… and interesting.

Although I haven’t written about it yet, I read this book after finishing  Kindred, by Octavia Butler, and I was glad to have read this in order because the topic of race (and interracial relations) in the South before or during the Civil war is rather new to me. Since racism, slavery and war are heavy topics to say the least, I was glad that this book was firmly within romance territory, and that I was guaranteed a happy end of sorts.

Compared to the clichés and implausibilities that I remember of my old romance days, I was glad that the historical setting seemed well-researched and that the female character was intelligent, resourceful and independent. I am totally sold to this new-to-me author, Alyssa Cole, and I will certainly check out if there are any Kindle bargains on #1 and #3 of the series!

Podcast Review June 1-7

This week, I alternated extra-heavy episodes with light ones:

  • The Big One #6 The Buildings / #7 The Plan / #8 The Lessons / #9 The Perfect World
  • Spilled Milk #385 The Dishwasher – it’s been ages since I listened to this show and I needed something definitely light after The Big One.
  • This American Life #675 I’m on TV?
  • Reply All by Gimlet Media #142 We didn’t start the fire; I can’t exactly say why the banter between Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt always puts me in a good mood, even when I have absolutely no clue what they’re speaking about.
  • Caliphate – prologue The Mission, Chapter one: the Reporter, Chapter two: Recruitment
  • ♥ The Simple Show by Tsh Oxenreider #195 Friendships and Habits
  • Ask a Clean Person the podcast #136 Laundry School, the “Yup, that can be washed” episode – I learnt that… I’m a pretty clean person myself already
  • Change Ma Vie, by Clotilde Dusoulier #101 En Creux ou en Volume, because as she says French people are very prone to understatement, to criticism, to sarcasm and antiphrasis rather than saying things directly.
  • Radiolab, “The Good Samaritan”, on opioids

Caliphate and The Big One were all very, very good, but The Simple Show made me want to call my best friends and schedule some self-care in this busy end-of-school-year season, so it wins the prize this time!

The Last One in the Lewis Island

Peter May, The Chessmen (Lewis Trilogy #3; 2012)

This book is the last volume of the Lewis trilogy. I had loved the first and second volumes back in 2017, and I said at the time that I wanted to read the third one in 2018, but in truth, I was in no hurry to finish. On the contrary, I kept it voluntarily aside, waiting for a moment when I would be looking for a bit of Northern crime and comfort, and for the pleasure to return to characters and settings that I’d loved previously.

In this book, we return to the weather-beaten island and its hot-blooded men of few words. The book picks up a few months after the end of the second book, and it was a bit tough for me to remember the details (this is obviously one of those books you have to read in order).

Fin McLeod, who has turned his back to his police career has found a job as security on a wealthy private estate, but he discovers that it means stopping a local poacher who is a very old friend of his, Whistler Macaskill, a gruff hermit who saved Fin’s life more than once when they were teenagers. As they meet again, they stumble upon a sinister discovery and a long-kept secret between them. The book returns to the teenage years of Fin McLeod, between the time he finished school and before he started working in Edinburgh. It was a dark and troubled time for him, when he worked as a roadie for a Gaelic folk music band, and relations were complicated by a sexy female vocalist, strong jealousies and lots of alcohol.

In this story, the murder itself moved further away from Fin and introduced new characters and new friends that Fin had never mentioned before. While this was a bit unsettling, it sure adds yet another layer to the character and completes his life trajectory from childhood to adulthood. Even if  I had more difficulty to relate to the music band’s shenanigans, this book brings a kind of closure to the trilogy (without tying all the bows too nicely) and I enjoyed it a lot.