Parallel Reading

Colmar Toibin, Nora Webster (2014)

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Blank Wall (1947, Persephone reprint 2003)

No, this post is not a sneaky attempt to post about two books for the price of one, diminishing drastically the pile of books to be reviewed. Bear with me…

I blame myself that I read too many books at the same time. I’ve been known to have up to 9 books on my “currently reading” list of Goodreads. Ugh… It’s not that I have a magical power to read one book with one eye and a second with the other (I wish!). I start one book, then get distracted with another, then come back to the first for a few evenings, then start an exciting one from the library… But the advantage is that sometimes my readings collide.

Take Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, a shiny new acquisition from the library, on my left, and The Blank Wall, a Persephone shiny grey book from my own bookshelves, on my right. Apparently, not much in common. A 1940s American noir / suspense novel (that reminded me of Patricia Highsmith in part), versus an Irish contemporary psychological / literary novel. Both vying for my attention (and my limited free time!)

Where in one hand a dead body has to be dealt with in the first twenty pages, and the whole book takes place within a week, Colm Toibin’s novel in the other hand spans several years and nothing dramatic really ever happens. It’s a slow-moving book where buying new furniture for the living room carries a weight and a meaning that leaves you rooting for Nora, while in The Blank Wall, issues were more life-and-death, scandal or prison, but it took me a longer time to warm up to Lucia.

And yet, despite the differences, under my eyes, Nora began to talk to Lucia, and Lucia to Nora. These two books were really worth reading side by side!

Both features wives and mothers of teens and grown kids. They are alone and obliged to act and take decisions because of their husbands’ absence (Mr Webster died recently and Lucia’s husband is at war in the Pacific). Both women are not used to assert themselves, they express strong opinions in their mind but look proper and meek in front of others. Both are not really likeable characters at the beginning (in my 21st century eyes) because they are so limited in their thoughts and actions, and then by the end of the book they have both evolved, have discovered that they can decide, act and stand for themselves and I grew to like them.

Nora lives in a small town in 1960s Ireland and Lucia lives in a small town in 1940s outside New York. The context in both books provided in each case some new level of reading for me: the political events and the women’s movements for Nora, the war and the home front for Lucia. Both books are quiet feminist manifestos in a sense, full of delicacy and subtlety.

In both books, children are not painted under the positive light you’d expect. Lucia’s kids, Bee (around 17) and David (14-15) are selfish and spoilt. David behaves like a little master and gives orders to his mother, while Bee rolls her eyes at her mother who can’t understand anything. Nora has 4 kids, two nearly graduating daughters and two younger boys. Nora, as a typical 1960s parent, is not one to talk much about feelings or to show her love. There is a real distance between Nora and her daughters who obviously have a much more liberal, modern mentality.

Lucia’s daughter would be of Nora’s age, if I am not mistaken, but Bee is so empty-headed (the whole book comes from her poor choice of a boyfriend, this girl begs to be grounded for a few months) and Nora so provincial that they would probably have nothing to talk about together. But I’m sure Nora would have loved to have the opportunity to travel to the States, given the opportunity.

This was my first brush with Colm Toibin and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, who is deemed the Godmother of Noir. Definitely not the last I hope!

The One with the BFFs Going South

Agnès de Lestrade, Il faisait chaud cet été là (2013, French, 60 pages)

Going on with my investigation on YA short novels or novellas, this one stood out between noir and mainstream. The story is told by Blanche, a rather shy and sensible 14-year-old who has the rare chance to go on holidays with her best friend. Violette has invited her to spend the summer together in the South of France, in Provence, at Violette’s grandmother’s. Blanche comes from a less privileged background, with many siblings, her parents own a restaurant and often ask her to help out. Violette’s father is a surgeon, she is an only daughter used to be the center of attention. At the middle school she has an aura that fascinates all her classmates, including Blanche, who is in awe of her and feels clearly inferior.

Blanche feels lucky to have been chosen by Violette, but once they have settled down in the grandma’s house, the mood turns darker and more oppressive. Violette is no longer the sunny, funny, generous girlfriend. She has sudden flashes of temper, jealousy, violent rage, and then she calms down and begs Blanche to stay. Blanche is unsettled and afraid. The threat becomes bigger and bigger until Blanche’s life is at stake.

It’s a psychological thriller for middle-grade readers, but the writer hasn’t oversimplified or toned down any of the strong emotions and the dark situations. The story is told by Blanche talking to Violette, which makes it more straightforward and powerful. We readers are not quite clear about the exact nature Violette’s mental illness. The tone of the book is rather pessimistic for middle-grade conventions, as Violette doesn’t seem to heal and the ending is quite dark.

I quite enjoyed the novella, and I borrowed it from the library especially because it was a novella, but weirdly enough, I almost wish there was more of it. I found that the story would have benefited from a bit of back story on the girls’ friendship, and the ending seemed a bit abrupt.

The One with the Weak and the Cruel

Joyce Carol Oates, Dis Mem Ber and Others Stories of Mystery and Suspense (2017)

Alright, folks. What screams “scatterbrained” more than 9 abandoned blog posts drafts about so many finished books? I think of something, I write a paragraph (or two), and then my to-do list catches up with me…

But not tonight. I am determined to do justice to… Joyce Carol Oates’ latest short story collection, that will be published in the coming months.

Does Joyce Carol Oates need me to do her justice? Erh, well… probably no. She is so prolific and I feel that many people know what to expect when they start one of her stories. Which might sound like they’re boring and repetitive, but… hell no.

I was so grateful for the publisher and Netgalley to send me a free copy of her latest collection, but when their routine feedback questionnaire asked me if I would consider buying the book for a friend, I didn’t know what to answer.

Joyce Carol Oates is a consummate storyteller and a master of the craft, so of course the stories were well written and spun their web around the reader so that they are vivid and unputdownable. But they are very dark and disturbing, and would I really offer that to my best friends? More like a poisonous gift to my ennemies, I’d say.

There’s only 7 stories in the collection, but plenty of food for thought. The title story is about a young girl who is fascinated by a cousin of hers, a Rowan Billet who has a bad reputation (for good reasons?) and who takes a weird interest in her young relative. The girl is not only paralyzed by fear of danger and the ominous sense of dread, but she’s also like hypnotized, like the proverbial mouse in front of the snake. Another story is about a young university student who gets more and more obsessed about the suicide / murder of another student. Witnessing the downward spiral of this young woman is not a pretty read. Two other stories’ main characters are widows, the second one more striking with the apparition of a Great Blue Heron as a vengeful, cruel and bloody monster. The last story is a pearl of dark humor taking its inspiration in the always-perky safety messages you get when you are on an airplane.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the stories about widows were somehow a reflection of Joyce Carol Oates on her own grief. But I believe she is too much of a storyteller to make too obvious connexions. I could give it a warm recommendation, but it’s more icy cold and chilling…

Writing ’17: February Status

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February wasn’t a bad month when it came to writing. I managed to write every single day but for 3 days, considering I was away with the kids for almost a week (which is typically not conducive of writing). I didn’t focus on any single project and felt a bit scatterbrained: a few words on a story here, a few diary entries there, one or two unfinished blog posts. I finished quite a few books that I’d read for the last 2 months, so my drawer is full of book blog drafts (that you will get to read soon enough!).

On the fiction side, I have received a rejection for my novella. I had sent it to a small French press specialized in novellas back in December. The market for short stories in France is quite limited (there are no literary journals publishing fiction), but there is a market for short novels. This small press was looking for novellas exactly the size of mine, so I had to try!

At the same time, browsing through their back list gave me an inkling that their published novellas were probably too high-brow / experimental / literary compared to my noir-ish / realist story. Which was confirmed to me last weekend.

The rejection e-mail was detailed enough to let me know that the person has read my story (in full or not, I can’t tell). It still stings, because it criticizes the lack of formal creativity and such. It’s a bit hard to hear said so bluntly, especially as genre fiction is not meant to be formally creative (I don’t mean to say that genre fiction is badly written, but genre fiction means that there are some conventions, by definition). I appreciated that the person took the time to tell me exactly why though.

If it’s not a good fit, at least it has encouraged me to look elsewhere and find another small press that would be interested in genre fiction and short novels. I have found a few names where I could send my manuscript in March.

The One for the Digestively Challenged and all those with Gut Feelings

Giulia Enders, Darm mit Charme (German 2014, English title : Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, 2015)

There was a period two years ago when this book was mentioned in every copy of every woman’s magazine I picked up in every waiting room I was sitting. The writer is a beautiful young woman, very far from the cliché of the German scientist or doctor. The book is full of cute little doodles, very far from the expected dryness and complexity of a science book. And since everyone is born equipped with a digestive system that is put to (good?) use every single day, this book has a universal potential audience.

It is informative and fun, but it was too much for me. So much so, that my eyes glazed over soon after I passed the halfway mark and that I only skimmed the rest. This book is an easy target for bad puns, still I’m going to venture there: I could not digest the mass of information. Joking aside, I was slightly annoyed by the constant use of human metaphors to describe the “motivation” and “behavior” of diverse bacteria in our digestive system. It certainly helped understanding complex notions to laypeople like me, but it also felt infantilizing.

Still, I can’t deny that I learnt lots of stuff, especially on the structure of the digestive system. She is quite persuasive on the benefits of having bacteria inside our body, which explains why we shouldn’t use antibiotics but for the most acute illnesses and not for simple colds. The part where I was disappointed not to get more information about is the link between the digestive system and the rest of the body (brain, or other). I wish there would have been more about that topic, which was only alluded to.

Ms. Enders is very enthusiastic and endlessly fascinated by her subject, but it left me a bit cold. It might seem trite, but I couldn’t find a good timing to read this book. Reading it at night seemed too hard, reading it before mealtime made me hungry, and after mealtime made me way too self-absorbed in my own digestion.

The One that Makes Me a Neat Freak

Eve Schaub, Year of No Clutter (To be published March 2017)

When I chose this book on Netgalley, I hadn’t heard the first thing about Eve Schaub at all and therefore had no preconception whatsoever. As it was an ARC, it didn’t have the definitive cover, lest I would have stared and… passed.

I didn’t know she was a blogger mostly known for her yearly project on living without sugar. If I had known it, I may have not requested the book because I’m a bit tired of these yearly projects landing a book deal. I’m totally game when stumbling upon a blog that makes real-time updates of such a project, but translated into a book it’s often clunky and uneven.

So I came to the Year of No Clutter without prejudices to this book and I’m glad I did. I was looking for some versions of  Americanized Konmari and it wasn’t that at all, but it was fun and gentle and the perfect comfort read. It is not a how-to book full of magical methods to achieve minimalism. It is a memoir of a person who has hoarding tendencies, but who comes to terms with her own personality quirks and why she might have a thing for… things. The style is witty and fun and you soon feel that Eve is like your next-door neighbor. With a serious case of TMI.

Except she would never be my neighbor. This book is light and fun (and at times not so light, because hoarding comes from anxiety and deep issues and loneliness and insecurities, which is not the best topic for banter) – yet it’s such an American problem. I don’t say there aren’t any hoarders in France, but I can’t think of even a word for it. And for a typical Parisian, this book (by the sheer amount of stuff she owns and the number of square feet involved) feels a bit like Schadenfreude. Marie Kondo was a bit too woo-woo for my taste, but she as a Japanese has the same issues I face with far too few square feet to put my stuff.

Ultimately the book was a comfort read, even though perhaps for the wrong reasons. I have some clutter in my home, but I realized it wasn’t due to the quantity of stuff but to the scarcity of space. Eve Schaub made me understand that I am no hoarder whatsoever, because she seemed to live on a different planet than mine. It was fun visiting her planet, but I was glad returning to mine.

The One with the Four or Five Sisters

Malika Ferdjoukh, Cati Baur, Quatre Soeurs. Tome 1: Enid (2011). Tome 2: Hortense (2014)

les5verdelaine-731877A few weeks ago when I said that I was stressed out and in a bookish rut, Stefanie suggested a graphic novel, and she was right! I grabbed the second part of Cati Baur’s graphic adaptation of a French middle-grade bestsellers “Four sisters” like I would grab a comforting blanket and a hot cocoa. Then I realized that somehow I hadn’t blogged about the first tome, which I discovered by chance last December, and it’s high time that I correct this oversight.

To be honest I wasn’t even aware that these were bestsellers in France, I was only attracted by the cute, watercolor-style designs, but the librarian soon convinced me that there are actually throngs of Sisters fans who have read it in novels (it’s a series of 4 books for each season) and who were eagerly waiting for the graphic version to be released. Don’t go imagining something like Hunger games or like a girly Manga. There is some  supernatural involved and some romantic cuteness, but Four Sisters is very French.

Who are these sisters and how many of them are they exactly? Like the Three Musketeers who are actually 4, these Four Sisters are really 5. You could find parallels with the famous March sisters, but Ferdjoukh’s characters are so endearing and girly and modem that it would be a shame to deny their originality.

There’s Enid (9) who loves solitary adventures in the garden or near the sea, and has a sweet spot for animals that are despised. There’s Hortense (11) who never goes anywhere without her secret diary. She’s shy but in this volume she’s challenged to take drama classes. There’s red-headed Bettina (14) who’s lovely except when she gets on everybody’s nerves. She has 2 BFFs and spends her time plotting with them. There’s Genevieve (16) with highly developed homely and mothering instincts. She’s so sweet and takes care of everyone, but her way to let off stream is to take secret thai boxing classes. There’s Charlie (23) who has dropped out of med school when their parents died in a car accident to become the bread-winner and head of the family.

The five “four sisters” live by themselves in a derelict mansion by the sea, in a place that looks like Brittany or Normandy. They are orphaned, but their parents still visit them as friendly ghosts. The little world created by Ferdjoukh is also full of friends, relatives, boyfriends and pets (even if only the house rat).

What clicked with me was the language. It’s hard to describe here, but Ferdjoukh uses original metaphors and funny names that are so endearing that I couldn’t wait to read all these dialogues. It’s poetic and light and witty and was perfectly suited with the graphic treatment, these four red-cheeked, wavy-haired, round girls with pointed noses and pastel watercolors. Although I have never read any of Ferdjoukh’s numerous middle-grade novels, what I discover here reminds me of Susie Morgenstern or Judy Blume.

I can’t wait to read the two remaining tomes, and also to discover more of Malika Ferdjoukh’s novels!

The One for Old Bookshop Lovers

Anne Perry, The Scroll (2011; French 2014)

The French title is quite misleading, as it means “Mystery on High Street”, and I got the idea that it was a crime short story set in London.

All wrong! It’s a supernatural short story set in Cambridge. But it doesn’t really matter because I got over my disappointment soon enough: it’s a short read that you can finish under half an hour, an easy, entertaining read. Not the book you’ll remember in a few years, but still nothing to be ashamed of.

I was surprised to see Anne Perry venture into supernatural stuff with heavy religious undertones à la Da Vinci Code. The mystery centers on a scroll dating from Jesus’s time, found among old books and containing earth-shattering secrets.

To be honest the earth-shattering secret wasn’t that innovative, it was more a sketch rather than a fully-drawn plot. The best part is the atmosphere. Anne Perry manages to convey the threat of darkness, the sudden change in the quality of silence, in only a few sentences. Then the mystery dispels itself as suddenly and as easily as it came, just like a summer storm.

The One with the Shenzhen Chicks

Lijia Zhang, Lotus, 2017

Thanks to the publisher Henry Holt and Netgalley for sending me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

The book is set in China’s fastest developing industrial city of the South, Shenzhen, between Canton and Hong Kong, in the early 2000s, which is exactly the time I lived there (in Hong Kong and Beijing). Shenzhen had the reputation of an eldorado, a place where fortunes could be made, a place where laws didn’t really apply. Millions of young people from the countryside, destitute and without much opportunity at home, were attracted to Shenzhen with the dream of making it in the big city, only to find themselves stuck in low-paying jobs akin to slavery (living in dorms, locked-up in dangerous, unsanitary workshops). Many young women saw in prostitution an easy way out, a way to send more money back home too. They are the infamous ji (hens/chicks).

Lotus is one of those many girls working in “massage parlors”. It’s notable that the novel bears her name as if to focus on her personal history and her character, while the Chinese government prefers turning a blind eye to these girls, whose business is strongly linked to corruption and to the “entertainment” industry, or periodically cracking down on the girls without giving them any other perspective. To male businessmen who frequent those girls, it doesn’t really matter who they are.

It is a novel full of social criticism, almost a documentary disguised as a novel, but the main characters, Lotus the prostitute and Bing, the photographer with a political conscience, are not entirely clichés. Lotus is not entirely an innocent victim, and the importance of her Buddhist faith in her trajectory is an interesting, new angle, because the rest of her background story is not fully original. Bing is a middle-aged man torn between ambition and his youth’s political idealism. Bing was in Beijing in June 1989, escaping the military crackdown only because his wife gave birth of their daughter. Bing’s wife is ambitious enough for them both, they have divorced because of her manipulative tricks and because Bing’s journalistic immersion into the world of low-class prostitutes was shocking and offensive, but now that he has won prizes and recognition for his work, she’s willing to reconnect, not only for herself but for their 12-year-old spoilt daughter. Bing’s motivation, a sort of romantic idealism without any apparent sexual attraction, is not quite explored in the book.

I was bracing for a tale of misery and a tragedy at the end, or a kind of unrealistic happy end à la Pretty Woman, but the ending was more subtle than that, even if it doesn’t tie every bow nicely. The book is rather straightforward in its writing and there are some language clichés that feel a bit annoying, but it’s worthwhile to get past these weaknesses to learn more about these women.

The One on the Tiny Desert Island

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book (Swedish 1972)

Goodreads informs me that I started reading the Summer Book at the end of August. It took me a semester to finish! But I hasten to add that it’s because it was so good that I took my time, not because I didn’t like it. It’s not the kind of books that you should hurry.

It’s a very atmospheric book and you should wait to be in the right mood to savour it, otherwise you’d miss all the fun. The more I stayed with the book, the more familiar I grew with little Sophia, 6-year-old, her grandmother and the tiny island on the gulf of Finland where they spend the summer.

The stories are told with a few evocative steps, the writing is fresh and simple and the reader is left to fill it in with her own comprehension. It’s easier to miss tiny changes of mood, because it’s not only about nature and the sea and the isolated island they live on, it’s more about the feeling of mortality, the inevitable change and passing of time. At the very beginning, the reader is informed that Sophia’s mother died recently, but only because Sophia notices that she doesn’t have to share her bed anymore. Not another word will be added to the gate of the mother and the grief of the family. We also guess that Sophia’s grandmother has some health problems, but neither Sophia or the grandmother seem to worry. The summer is short and soon the bad weather will return and the island will be deserted, so you’d better live one day at a time.

I wouldn’t want people to imagine that the book is full of heavy subjects. On the contrary, it’s light and witty, full of scenes where Sophia is stubborn and the grandmother is too. They both like to play and pretend, they like to create. Strong-willed and fanciful, they create worlds and adventures out of ordinary days in a tiny island. Nature is a huge presence in the book, and summer in the gulf of Finland is not like a sandy beach on the Cote d’Azur, it’s full of rocks, moss and perpetual winds.

If you know Tove Jansson from the Moomins, you will get the same sense of seriousness and fancy mixed together. You can see glimpses of Moominpappa when Sophia is full of bad faith, both philosophical and adventurous. You can see glimpses of Moominmamma in the grandmother’s practical attitude, in her open-mindedness and stubbornness. It’s a tiny, perfect gem of a book, that needs to be re-read at leisure, even in the depths of winter.