The One with the Bukharan Murder in Queens

Janet Malcolm, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Anatomy of a Murder Trial (2011)

I am fond of the book for all the wrong reasons: because I am a huge fan of Janet Malcolm, because I bought this book during my February trip to London on an afternoon bookshop spree with lovely Marina Sofia, because it was quick and easy to read while retaining a pretty intelligent premise.

That said, people who haven’t read any of Janet Malcolm books should be warned not to start with this one, since it’s not her best*. Her account of a real-life murder trial that took place in the Bukharan (Russian) orthodox Jewish community of New York (in Queens to be precise) does not feel quite put together.

Janet Malcolm’s favorite themes revolve around ambiguities of people’s memories and appreciations of events, around the inherent bias that people bring to judgment. Impartial justice, presumption of innocence, fair judges are therefore ideal concepts that come  imperfectly to real life. In this case, so many things went wrong that Janet Malcolm seems to side with the accused party: the jury didn’t like the accused party because they disliked her aloofness and distance and assumed it was smugness and deceit. The judge rushed the trial. The defendant’s lawyer didn’t play his cards well.

As often in Malcolm’s books, nobody comes out particularly likeable. The Iphigenia in the story is Michelle, a four-year-old stuck in a legal dispute between her parents. Her mother is accused of being overbearing, her father of having had improper conduct and sexual abuse. As the law fails to resolve the divorce dispute, things escalate and the child is taken away from her mother. In cold-blooded revenge, the mother then convinces a relative to shoot her husband to death. At least, that’s what the prosecution said during the trial.

Janet Malcolm very much doubts that this is the whole truth. She makes it clear that the judge wasn’t fair to the accused party (the shocking bit being that he had booked a cruise to the Caribbean and hurried the defense to present their case overnight so that he could leave for holidays on time!!). But she doesn’t really come up with an alternate story for the case, so I was a bit let down and frustrated at the end of this short book.

Still, the people descriptions of Janet Malcolm are still amazing and make it a worthy read. They are quite dry and precise: you “get” someone through tiny gestures and expressions. Particularly bone-chilling is the painting of Mr. Schnall, little Michelle’s law-appointed guardian, who was strongly set against her mother from the very start, and who never seems to care for the child’s interests.

*I’d say that Janet Malcolm’s readers should probabmy start with her classic Journalist and the Assassin, or with The Silent Woman, on Sylvia Plath and her biographers.

Post-STown Hangover, or, The One with the Frozen Chosen

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)

I should be warned by now, because it happened just the same after I finished Serial Season 1. All the books paled in comparison.

A big fat case of book meh. That’s how good the podcast S-Town is. The producers said they wanted to create something like a novel, and man did they succeed in their enterprise!

Now, I am exactly in the middle of Michael Chabon’s (chapter 23 out of 46, not that I’m counting) and I have decided that I won’t go any further. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union fell victim to John B. McLemore’s maze.

Actually, I did trudge through the first half well before S-Town, and this is only the last straw. Chabon’s reputation had put this book high on my TBR list, and so many things appealed to me in theory. But I ended up liking more the idea of the book than the book itself.

A truculent book set in an alternate history, with Yiddish colorful characters set to play with the conventions of the noir genre? It should have been written for me. I liked the Yiddish part well enough, and I liked the plausibility of the alternate history. I vaguely remembered that before WW2 there were real plans to find a new place for all the Jews to resettle, as a convenient way to get rid of “this problem”. I didn’t know that Alaska had ever been a possibility. Michael Chabon’s idea to make Alaska into a Jewish land, a temporary ghetto leased by the US for 60 years, not a glorious, high-tech land, but a derelict, past-its-prime, disappointing one, is a great idea. But I couldn’t warm up to Inspector Meyer Landsman (I know, it’s a bad pun, but Chabon has so many of them, including the one I borrowed for this post’s title).

The conflagration of all these elements, together with Michael Chabon’s flourished style (in French, and I must say that the translation grated on my nerves), the geopolitical allusions, the chess references, was all too much for me. I couldn’t digest it. I’m normally not doing so well with humor books from different cultures and I didn’t really engage with the story.

I might try Chabon’s prize-winning novel another time, but if I do, I’ll certainly read it in English.

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!

Writing ’17: March Status

P1020366My original plan for March was to progress in the French version of a story I’d written in English originally and to resubmit my novella in March immediately.

I did neither, but I don’t feel bad. Quite the contrary.

I have looked at my novella with fresh eyes and found that if I wanted to submit it as a very short novel (there is a market for that in France, both in literary fiction and in YA / middle-grade fiction), it should be structured in chapters, and it should be a bit longer.

So I am working again on my novella, structuring it and fattening it up. I read novellas recently, and every single time I felt a bit frustrated and wished there had been more, so I definitely am applying this conclusion to my own text now.

P1020358Otherwise, my writing routine had some highs and lows this month. I have been missing 5 days in the month, which is more than usual, because the upcoming move (with its legal, financial and practical parts) is taking up most of my energy.

I have learnt that a good friend of mine has won a short story competition and will be published. How thrilling! There are just a few literary journals that publish short stories in France, but short story competitions do work. I didn’t feel inspired to write on a given subject up to now but I should definitely look more into it. I also received a nice email from an author I had written about here on the blog, and it felt quite nice that this person had taken the time to write personally.

The One with the Rusalka and the Domovoy

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (2017)

It’s not often that I call a book enchanting. In fact, WordPress tells me that in more than ten years of blogging, I used this word exactly three times. But today, this word seems totally warranted, literally and figuratively.

I am very grateful to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review, and I am even more grateful to Annie from A Bookish type who steered me towards this book in the first place.

This book is a mix between history and fairy tales. It is set in the wilderness of Russian  northern territory somewhere around the 14th century. Dangers abound, people live a harsh life close to their village and close to the oven, a huge construction insuring heat and survival in the deepest months of winter. In some ways, this book reminded me of the Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland, that was also set in the early Middle ages, but the Bear and the Nightingale is less violent.

Living and sleeping on the oven with no entertainment, people spent their evenings telling fairy tales, and not of the Disney type. Russian folks tales are known to feature all kinds of wicked creatures, free spirits from the lakes and woods, but also benevolent fairies who protect humans, hearth, animals, as long as people remember to give them little offerings. This reminds me strongly of the Japanese folks tales where creatures are not particularly human friendly either. These beliefs strongly clashed with the development of orthodox faith, that saw animism as sin and traditions as a refusal of Christian redemption.

All these ideas are woven into the novel that also reads as a breathless adventure. I fell quickly into the plot and it didn’t leave me until the last page.

I am normally fearful of Russian novels. You know, War and Peace, Tolstoy, Bulgakov and Anna Karenina. My brain can’t remember all these names and… well, I know this is really prejudice. But this one, I had no problem remembering the fearless Vasilisa, even when her folks called her Vasya or Devushka. I had no problem memorizing the weird names of the various spirits, rusalka, vazila, upyr or other banniks, as if they all had cast a spell on me!

This is probably a book more suited to the winter months than the spring, but I certainly recommend it warmly!

The One that Smells like a Dump in Summer

Jean-Paul Nozière, Bye-bye Betty (French 1993)

With the selfish goal of discovering more small presses or imprints that publish novellas, I continue my investigation of the noir genre in YA fiction.

I stumbled upon this one purely by chance, attracted by the dark cover and the thin back. The library shelves quickly told me that Jean-Paul Nozière is a rather prolific writer for middle-grade readers and this novel is rated for 14 years or above. But I knew nothing more.

As far as noir conventions go, this novella fits the bill to perfection. The atmosphere is oppressive, set in a French small town near the Spanish border in summer. An illegal dump has been set up in town: it stinks, literally and figuratively. The only industry there is a fruit company that uses (illegal) immigrants to pick fruits, then sells them or can them. The factory is owned by a powerful family who reigns on the town because it also owns hotels and houses that they rent out to employees. There’s something rotten in the kingdom of Pyrenees, to paraphrase someone famous, and one local girl has decided to fight it: Betty. This young girl, oblivious of local rumors and risks, wants to become a photojournalist and sends her pictures to the big media companies in Paris.

As the book starts, the narrator, Salfaro, a Parisian photojournalist deep into depression due to his wife’s departure, is sent to the small town to meet with Betty. His motivation is murky at best. He used to be a famous war reporter, but he hasn’t worked at all for a while, and this assignment is a sort of last chance given by his boss, although the job clearly is beneath him.

The atmosphere is well painted. Even deep in the winter months, I could almost feel the heat and the stink. The sense of doom and hopelessness that you often see in noir novels were pervasive too, but not in a way that would be too terrifying or harsh for a young reader. Still, I couldn’t really root for the main character. He seemed nor to care much about anyone but himself, and he seemed naive or  unobservant. It made it unbelievable that he would be a famous war photographer. It made me think about stakes.

I haven’t really though it through, but I will be looking more carefully in the next novels: what is at stake for the main character in the story? Here, I felt that the stakes were too low. My interest waned because the reason for Salfaro investigating Betty and the village seemed like only a pretext. If he had turned his back on this assignment, not much would have been lost. Sometimes, the author puts the stakes too high, and here too there is a problem of believability. If everything is a matter of life and death, the story becomes hysterical and the reader, quickly exhausted (at least in my case).

But this novella really made me want to read noir classics again, like Simenon, Dashiell Hammett or Chandler. I also could use another installment of my favorites, Philip Kerr or Michael Connelly. Who’s your favorite noir writer?

The One with the Fall of a Decadent Aristocrat

Laura Thompson, A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan (2014)

I started this book on the wrong foot. It was a Christmas present from my husband who had been lured by the promise of true-crime-meets-Downton-Abbey… which seemed exactly right for me (damn Amazon algorithm… I hate it when I am predictable). But despite the blurb I soon felt that I wasn’t the target audience of this book.

The first pages were so confusing that I almost quit. First, the author assumes that you know all about the Lord Lucan’s case, and she assumes that you know what the media told at the time (1974, that is). In short, she writes for a British audience of a certain day and age, which I clearly am not. Her point is to counterbalance the clichés and assumptions that were made at the time about the victim, the presumed murdered, and the events and come up with a new version, but I was totally unaware of the case!

There are pages in the book that seem off-topic, like the list of all the aristocrats ever tried for murder, or the ancestors of Lord Lucan and their behaviors during the 18th and 19th century. But when she finally gets to the topic itself, I got fascinated by this peculiar milieu and their life during the 1960s-1970s, an era that I haven’t lived myself. The author went on and on about the gambling circles of that period and what the atmosphere must have been like, and tried with some success to underline the difference between the truth and the myth around it, because as soon as you write down that Lord Lucan was a professional gambler, he came out as a degenerate sinner once and for all.

The writer repeats several times that Lord Lucan was badly judged by the media and the public because he was an aristocrat, and therefore prejudiced against. I am not British, but it seems to me that Lord Lucan was both an object of fascination and hatred, and that Brits do have a complex relationship to aristocracy, to say the least. We may say that we French people have a complex relationship to our own aristocrats too, but there are relatively few left, since our complex relationship led us to kill a good number of them during revolutions (just kidding).

Anyway, I sort of muddled through the book. I didn’t quit, but it could have been a much more pleasant experience if the structure was more straightforward and a lot tighter. The part I loved best was about trying to make sense of what went between Lord and Lady Lucan, beyond the myth and the clichés, to discover a destructive and obsessive relationship. Lord Lucan was probably less guilty than what the tabloids made him to be, and Lady Lucan is certainly no innocent angel either.

I’m a newbie in the true crime genre, and I have been wanting to read more, although this one is probably not the best to start with. What other true crime books would you recommend?

The One with the Dutch Dinner

Herman Koch, The Dinner (2009)

Oh boy do I need a palate cleanser after such a dinner!

When Marina Sofia recommended this Dutch book as part of her Euro27 Challenge, I knew I needed to investigate. I’m not one to shrink from a disturbing book, and one that is so cleverly built and with that much suspense and tension makes for a quick, addictive read.

The book is built around a dinner night at an upscale restaurant with four guests: Paul, the narrator, a history high school teacher in sabbatical and his wife Claire, Serge, Paul’s big brother, a famous politician expected to be soon elected as Prime Minister and his wife Babette. The book starts in dark humor and social satire, but very soon you find that there isn’t much to laugh about.

Small-talk makes way for more difficult and tense exchanges between the four people, as we gradually discover that both sets of parents have agreed to meet to discuss some horrifying act that their teenage sons have committed. The back story brings about the violent jealousy between the two brothers, the secrets and lies in each marriage, and Paul’s beliefs and thoughts.

It is not a nice and pleasant read, and the characters are not likeable, especially Paul who is clearly unreliable from the beginning. In the murky waters of moral conundrums, you cannot help but wonder where things have veered off course. Whose fault is it? What would you have done in their position? Who is innocent and who is guilty? Koch gives us precious few information to work with, so that our assumptions are little by little shaken and challenged and forced toward a new configuration.

The ending is full of twists and turns and shocking revelations, but I felt it was a bit over the top. I could not quite swallow the theory that bad behavior and violence were due to a genetic factor at all, and the whole nature vs. nurture question felt forced from that point on. I have seen on Goodreads someone analyzing the characters in this book as fascists and I felt it was quite an interesting angle (dehumanizing other people, believing in the superior value of the strong against the weak), rather than just another book about evil psychopaths.

I would not recommend it to anyone looking for a pick-me-up, but it looks like a fabulous fodder for book group discussions.

The One with Icelandic Dementia and the Waterless World

Olivia Clare, Disasters in the First World (publication date: June 2017)

First of all, I am grateful to Grove Press, Black Cat and Netgalley for the chance to read the advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. It is my choice to challenge myself by reading more short stories this year, of new-to-me authors, and this book was right up my (g)alley.

Challenged I was indeed: not that those stories were really disturbing (not like Joyce Carol Oates’, another collection I finished recently), but I must say that some of the stories of this collection made me feel that I was in over my head and that I was missing something.

Not all of them, luckily. The first story, Petur, grabbed my attention from the get-go:

Ash fell from the wind. She began to take long walks. Before breakfast, after lunch, she walked the weed-pocked path to the lake. White ash turned the lake’s surface to desert and the tops of the fjalls invisible.

An old woman travelling to Iceland with her son might feel like the kind of once-in-a-lifetime trip à la Oprah, but when you learn that the son thinks his mother has dementia, that the mother is slightly disappointed that her son would be so utterly banal, and that they are both stuck in Iceland countryside by the eruption of the volcano, you realize that Olivia Clare has a vision of her own, where nothing is black and white (or rather ash-grey). I read the online magazine version (in Ecotone), and I noticed definitely some slight modifications between the book version and the magazine version. The magazine version is more explicit, the book one is more elusive (which might explain why I could have the feeling to miss hidden meaning here and there), but I liked the latter better.

The next short story, Olivia (which I had to wonder, is or is not related to the author), is seen through the eyes of a rather meek and very anxious housewife who resents the arrival of a friend’s son in their home. The young man is looking for a job in the city, but his presence in the house upsets the delicate balance of things in the household and he’s not your typical polite house-guest. After a few stories that resonated less with me, the last story of this collection, Eye of Water, felt extraordinary. It could be classified as science fiction but is quite intimate, set in a time where a drought in California and Utah has turned water into something more precious and more expensive than drugs and alcohol. This one story was probably the saddest, and yet there are unforgettable images.

Olivia Clare’s writing is all in subtlety and nuances. The title of her collection seems self-deprecating but somehow sets the right tone. Her characters’ problems are huge but intimate yet their lives are rather privileged. It would be easy to dismiss the magnitude of the emotions they experience but they are nonetheless of the heartbreaking sort. Her style is neat and concise. Even though not all stories were right for me, her voice made me stick to it and I would be glad to read more of her.

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!