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?

 

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The One with the Perfect Daughter

Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You (2014)

I’m not sure how much I should say about the story, but let’s assume you have either read it already, or read the summary on Goodreads (I’ll remain spoiler-free as much as possible). “Everything I Never Told you” is the story of the disappearance of Lydia Lee, a mixed-race teenager (father Chinese, mother Caucasian) in 1977 in small town Ohio. The book looks at the beginning like a thriller (murder? suicide?) but it is misleading: in fact, it’s rather a social and psychological study of a particular family.

I expected to be wowed because a few years ago everyone was raving about this book (Amazon’s book of the year!), but instead I had rather mixed feelings, which is ironic in a way because this novel is so much about expectations (parental expectations, racial, social, gender expectations…)

But first let me reassure you, I’m not a heartless, cruel Frenchie. Yes, this story about a family where everyone is misunderstanding everyone, where nobody says plainly what they feel and think and the terrible price they pay for it, almost made me cry. Of course my heart went for every member of the Lee family, for their regrets and disappointments and mistakes, for the racism they had to face, and the pressure. Pressure to perform, pressure to conform, pressure to be someone they are not.

But I also got annoyed by several things and by 90% of the book I couldn’t wait for the story to be over. I found it sad and a little bit systematic that everyone misread all. the. signs all. the. time. And that we readers are told the true meaning of actions and thoughts systematically. A lot of times I could connect the dots by myself. Another thing that felt gimmicky is that by giving us readers the prescience, we are bound to find meaning in everything; by starting with the death, we are bound to sympathize with (aka feel sorry for) the girl and her family. Instead, if I had approached the exact same story in chronological order, I would probably have found this girl and her family downright annoying. Annoying and cliché. Yes, they have nuances and complex motivations for their actions, but I was rarely surprised. I felt sorry for the parents and their poor choices of parenting, but I felt that the author tricked me into passing a judgment on them (“see what they have unknowingly set off?”).

I can’t tell if the racism the family faced in 1977 is accurate, or how much things have changed in the US of 2017. The story seems such a (preventable?) tragedy. I bet that the longing to belong still exists. I loved the themes that the book handled more than the final story but it’s alright. I’m still glad I read it.

The One with the Spanish Doppelganger

Javier Marias, While the Women are sleeping (1990)

This post has been lingering in my virtual drawer since the end of June. It’s probably time for me to finish it. Don’t ask me why today, because I might end up put it off *again* another month or year. Which I hate.

I read the whole book because a. it’s a short story collection, and b. It’s one of the 10 books from our shelves that I vowed to read. Other than that? I would have probably ditched it. And probably regretted it too.

The thing is that this collection is very uneven, made of 10 stories from the 1970s to the early 1990s. It’s the first time I read Javier Marias, so I don’t know if this is typical or not. A few didn’t speak to me at all – to the extent that I didn’t understand what I was reading. A few left me cold, like the story of an antique book in a booksellers window who might be worth a lot of money. Why would I care? A few were interesting but weird, like the small talk that a majordome confided in the narrator while they were stuck in an elevator, or an older husband in love with his very young wife. Most stories had a weird, surreal or supernatural twist. Most stories had unpleasant characters, or downright unlikeable, which made the collection a tough sell.

Overall, two stories stuck in my mind: the one, “Gualta”, about a man who meets someone who looks very very much like him, is named like him, only to find him totally despicable. So what’s a man to do? He tries to change himself through and through, changing style and taste and love and life, and just about everything. But what will his doppelgänger do? Will he stay the same as the original Gualta or undergo the exact same transformation?

The other story I liked best was “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban” about a ghost in a school, which starts as one of these vague urban legends (we had one such legend in high-school, totally unfounded of course). The main character who tries to catch the ghost in the act is actually a lonely, and rather boring English teacher, a “man of little imagination” who is there on an exchange program. One of his (boring) duties is to stay late on Friday to lock up the school, but he’s warned that the ghost (who is only heard but never seen) comes every weekend to pin a resignation letter on a board. The rumor doesn’t tell who the ghost is and why he has resigned, but the English teacher seems an unlikely (if stubborn) candidate to pierce the mystery…

In the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure that this collection really lured me enough to try any of Marias’ novels in the future (for which he’s surely more famous than for short stories). But of course, should the litblog experts say otherwise… Has any of you ever read Javier Marias’ novels and found it great? Am I missing out on something?

Writing ‘017: August Status + Update

To be fair, I’m not sure where I’m going with these monthly recaps. I feel that I’m writing the same every single month. August was not great for fiction writing but I kept a regular regimen of diary and book posts writing.

I didn’t expect much. August is always a break in my routine because that’s the month when many (most?) French people take their annual leave, and since the kids are not at school the daily rhythm is irregular even when I’m working. And this year with the new house it was even more disrupted.

I can’t see myself *not* writing, but my fiction projects have been on hold for a while. Is it only due to the house move or is it a new season? I have had other periods in my life where I didn’t write stories at all. What’s for sure is that the coming weeks and months will be busy with establishing a new routine in our new town, with  improving our new home, with trying to make new contacts (new friends?), and I’m not sure what’s left for story writing.

I have found great comfort in the last few months in journaling (I even tried an idea that I heard on the Sorta awesome podcast: the 5 minutes diary, where you write with a timer, a mix between free write and writing with a constraint). And of course, the blog is here to stay. I have no less than 9 drafts (other than these posts) that are lingering, and I do want to share my reading experiences!

In the past, I have always experienced that the more I was looking for story ideas, the more they eluded me. On the contrary, when my mind was free (carefree?) and daydreaming aimlessly, the weirdest ideas were popping up like mushrooms after the rain. That’s the reason why I’ll keep my writing recaps private until further notice.

The One with the Birth of Orlando

Christine Orban, Virginia et Vita (French, 2012)

I’m getting better at stopping a book I started because I dislike it, but I’m not there yet when I am ambivalent about a book: I still want to give it a fair chance, and I always have the hope that the book will redeem itself in the end.

I was attracted to this novel by the hyped-up image of the lesbian affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. I’d known about it, but I didn’t know the details, and yes, it was probably a voyeuristic move from me to borrow this book. Similar to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf has become such a pop-culture figure in our literary world. She’s revered, not only because she wrote great novels, but because she was a rebel, she was misunderstood, she was depressed and repressed, and because she was in a close circle of equally fascinating people.

This book (that is never quite clear about which part if fiction, which part is fact, but we should probably get used to this in our era – sigh) introduced me to another Virginia. A jealous, possessive, egoist, often unlikeable Virginia. And Leonard! [deep sigh] In fact, most characters in the book are rather unlikeable, which is not really a problem if they were like that in real life, but if you tell a love story, it makes it a tough sell. We see the bitter throes of passion, but we do not see the joy of it. The gap between Vita’s upper-class standing, way of life and education, and Virginia’s middle-class situation is obvious, as is the gap between Vita’s good enough literary success and Virginia’s deeper quest for literary creation. But I missed the spark of an emotional connection.

The book gave us an intimate view on the literary creation of Orlando, and that was the best part of it, but the whole experience was sadly a bit disappointing because it was too slow and too detached. I would perhaps have been better inspired to re-read Orlando (which I read during highschool but completely misunderstood), or another Woolf novel and her biography by Hermione Lee, which I only read in part (900 pages, people!)

Have you read books on Woolf that you enjoyed?

Story: Kavitha and Mustafa, by Shobah Rao

I hardly ever read Indian fiction or fiction set in India (well, Rao is Indian-American), and I don’t remember how I came upon this story, except that it got a prize (the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction) and it was listed in a blog list of stories to consider. It has also been chosen by TC Boyle for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories 2015. It was thrilling and deep, and made me want to read the whole collection!

In less than 15 pages Rao delivers both a thriller and a psychological analysis, and although I wasn’t quite clear about what went on in some of the action, it was compelling and gave me lots to think about.

Kavitha is a 26-year-old Pakistani wife travelling on a train with her husband Vinod. Their ten-year marriage is a loveless arranged match, Kavitha is bored but at the same time she knows that it could be worse. From the first sentence we learn that something out of the ordinary is happening, but we don’t know:

The train stopped abruptly at 3:36pm, between stations, twenty kilometers from the Indian border on the Pakistani side. […] She knew what this meant.

Kavitha realizes that the crowded train they have boarded seven hours before is being robbed, and the robbers are usually violent and merciless with the passengers. She remains calm and silent, but the reader is thrown from the get-go into a thrilling suspense: will she survive? what will happen to the train? what will happen to Kavitha’s husband? And who the hell is Mustafa, by the way?

When the action moves along (it’s hard not to spoil anything), Kavitha becomes a lot less passive. There’s a boy in the berth she’s stuck in, and this boy seems to have a message for her. She is given a choice, and this choice might be good or disastrous to her. There are several interpretations left open to what happens in the end, but it didn’t bother me.

From Rao’s website I understand that the action takes place during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and I missed this point entirely. I don’t know if that changes anything to a reader’s understanding, and I would be glad to learn more if I had the chance.

The collection is titled: An Unrestored Woman

The One with the Sadly Vicious Maid

Octave Mirbeau, Le Journal d’une Femme de Chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1900)

It’s not a good sign when you pass the 25%, then the 40% mark of a book and you don’t really know why you’re reading it, right? Well, I wanted to read a classic that I had not read in class, because there’s always a good reason that they have withstood the proverbial test of time, and after reading Belle Epoque, I was in the mood for more turn-of-the-century upstairs/downstairs drama.

Now, if upstairs/downstairs drama makes you think of Downton Abbey, think again. This is about sex (not feelings), and Célestine, the maid, is having a lot of it. It’s about hypocrisy, and Celestine is not the least of the hypocrites, even if the masters are the champions. Everybody in this book is vicious, both upstairs and downstairs. Of course, it’s a sad tale, very dark and cynical. Célestine has had an unhappy childhood, then she was trained as a maid and she got an opportunity to find a position in Paris, among bourgeois wealthy families. Bourgeois pretend to be wholesome, faithful, honest people and demand the same from their servants, but they’re mean, lying, ungenerous and vicious. The servants in turn hate and envy their masters, both when these are too strict or too lax.

The sex part is not even fun, because all the characters are such caricatures. Not only is the social criticism not very subtle (Mirbeau is rather one to underline everything twice with a yellow highlighter, if those had existed in 1900) but the political context is also important: all the evil bourgeois and servants are violently antisemitic and anti-Dreyfusards (pro-Army and pro-Catholics), in reference to the French Antisemitic scandal (l’affaire Dreyfus) that made one half of France clash against the other between 1894 and 1906. I didn’t know much about Mirbeau’s personal life or convictions before reading the book, but it is obvious that he was an anarchist. I just wished he could make his point quicker.

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!

 

Reading Aloud with my boys: the (attempted) Summer classics

I’m baaack! I hope your summer was nice and not too hot (I know it’s still technically summer, but in the office there’s no real season), and that you could enjoy a little break from the routine. How was your summer read? Of course I didn’t get to read and write as much as I had hoped, but it’s the same every year, so I’m not even disappointed.

For the holidays with the boys I wanted to reinstall some read-aloud moment in our evening routine, especially as the boys will have separate rooms in our new home and that they won’t get that time together anymore.  My selection criteria were :

  • a book that would be long enough to be read for at least one week
  • interesting enough to a 3-1/2 and a 9-year-old boys (in various degrees)
  • a classic tale but no fairy tale that would be too obvious
  • no fluff. I have nothing against letting the big boy read by himself about Pokemons from time to time, and I increasingly resist reading aloud Lightning Mc Queen adventures to my little one (call me cruel if you want), but I can’t read mindless kids fluff aloud night after night on *my* holidays.
  • easy to find and thin (cheap would be a bonus)

The problem was that I had about 10 minutes to choose in a bookshop I wasn’t familiar with (in our new town). So I grabbed two classics: Sindbad of the Seas (a.k.a. Sindbad The Sailor, in a new, modern French translation), from the 1001 Nights Tales, and a Middle Ages novel from Chretien de Troyes, because I remember another of his had gone down well when my elder boy was 4 (I wasn’t exactly sure which I had read, but if I could not remember, he would not either).

I expected that Sindbad would be a breeze (why on earth did I have these kind of expectations?) because, well, even Disney has done the 1001 Nights (remember Princess Jasmine?), so how hard could it be?

Well, after I stumbled upon one too many people getting drowned, and beheaded, or impaled, and that I had to find another fate for these poor guys off the top of my head in one second, I started to regret my choice.

I know it’s no advanced literary criticism, but even my boys noticed that every single journey of Sindbad was essentially the same, and that at the end of every tale he had dinner with his mate Sindbad the Porter, said goodbye and see you tomorrow. It’s *not* the kind of suspense that keeps you awake at night. (Maybe it was the point, but the awful shipwrecks and monsters didn’t help putting them to sleep either).

The moment I decided to drop Sindbad (into the sea) was his Fourth Journey [*Spoiler alert* / *Gore details ahead* / *don’t say I didn’t warn you*], when he discovered an unfortunate local custom to bury alive the spouse of a dead man or woman, with only a few days’ worth of food. In that case, Sindbad’s local wife died and he was buried alive in a mountain with her. He only survived because a few days later a wife whose husband had died was also buried in the same cave, and Sindbad bludgeoned her to death, to get her ration of food. Sindbad goes on with this charming method and kills subsequent spouses (male and female, just to be fair) as long as he doesn’t find the exit of this cave. (oh, and there was a picture too! how fun!)

Of course, I didn’t read that part aloud. I think my jaw dropped a little, and I skipped the page entirely. On to the part where Sindbad returns to Bagdad alive and well (without an ounce of guilt), even richer than before, and then he finishes his dinner with his mate Sindbad the Porter, thank you very much. Disney didn’t make that tale into a movie for some good reason, after all.

I’m not sure what is the moral of the Sindbad tale is, but the moral of our summer read-aloud is: beware of hasty choices! make sure you know what classics are made of before you starting to read aloud to your kids!

PS. I was so scared that we didn’t even start Chretien de Troyes. By then the summer holidays were almost over anyway.

The One with the Melancholy Writer in Hospital

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton (2016)

I’d loved Olive Kitteridge, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I’d read Elizabeth Strout again with her celebrated Lucy Barton, that so many book bloggers had recommended. The good news is that the opportunity came earlier than I’d thought with an ARC of the French version that will be published in the fall.

I fell into this book quicker than with Olive K., and I read this short novel in almost two evenings, a real holiday treat to have these longer uninterrupted stretches of reading! (It definitely helps that I don’t really “get” German TV). These were beautiful hours spent with Lucy Barton and her mother in the hospital, talking about little nothings,  about neighbors and extended family members. Nothing much happens, but what matters is the undercurrent of love and emotions. Lucy and her mother were estranged and the fact that she flew to New York to stay on her daughter’s bedside for 5 days and nights meant a lot.

I loved every page of this melancholy, understated novel. There’s no big bang, no showy revelation of a secret, but rather the complex texture of life and time and deep feelings. Although Lucy is a writer and words are important to her, she struggles with emotions that she can’t pinpoint exactly or things that can’t be expressed fully. The writing flows but is never flowery. The structure goes back and forth between the 1980s, Lucy’s childhood in dire poverty and her later life many years after the episode in the hospital. It’s sad but not gloomy or overwhelming; it only makes you think about your own family and relationships, about understanding people (or not), and how childhood has probably a lot more influence on your choices later in life than you’d think. It’s the perfect book to savour on a rainy day together with a hot tea (or maybe, in German fashion, a long coffee and a generous slice of cake).

Thanks to Netgalley and the French publisher Fayard for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.