The One from the Pacifist in Exile

Erich Maria Remarque, Eight Stories: Tales of War and Loss (Washington Mews Books 2018; original 1930-1934) 

Of course I knew Erich Maria Remarque. Everyone in middle school and again in high school has 20C history class and you can’t avoid reading a few pages of his bestseller about the First World War: All Quiet on the Western Front. And so I did like millions of French teenagers, and I did not feel the need to read the whole book, because I got the idea. And so is Remarque’s name forever associated with the trenches, the gas attacks, the murderous deadlock between several nations at war for years on end.

Of course I guessed that these short stories were about the First World War, from a pacifist standpoint, and after reading a few of them I came to expect these vignettes of soldiers who had survived the war itself but still lived with the fallout. Wasted lives, missed opportunities, physical trauma, emotional trauma, isolation, loss of family and friends, loss of jobs and status. None really stood out, but the collection painted a rather complete landscape of the defeat’s aftermath. Except for one disturbing point: people didn’t seem angry or vengeful. Not the kind of anger and hatred that would explain how people came to see Hitler as the one man who could give the country its honor back.

I was grateful to read the invaluable introduction to the book by Maria Tatar and Larry Wolff, that was probably the most memorable part of the book. These eight stories’ publication spanned originally from 1930 to 1934 in American magazines, and I must say that this lone fact was highly disturbing to me. Remarque left Germany in 1933, just a day before Hitler was named chancellor. He went first to Switzerland, then to the US in 1939 right before the war broke out. So it’s weird (let’s put it mildly) that none of these were mentioned in any of the stories. As if Nazi violent ideology was not born out of the previous war’s defeat and resentment. As if Remarque could detach his present circumstances from the past.

I don’t quite understand what his intent was. Was he a blind pacifist? He wasn’t so blind as to remain in Germany, at any rate. His books were banned and tossed into bonfires. Did he think that the US readers were not ready for a more contemporary rereading of the previous war? Was he worried that people forget the previous war? Was he just cashing in on his bestseller, that was made into a movie in Hollywood in 1930, or did he think that American readers needed to be reminded that Germans were victims too? The collection doesn’t answer any of these questions, but it was intriguing to read and wonder.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.


The State of the Nightstand

writing-828911_640 (Pixabay)I wish I could add a few hours to each day, so that I wouldn’t have to choose between writing for the blog and writing for my side projects. I’m quite happy with the progress made on the latter, which means that I sadly neglect the former. But tomorrow morning I’ll be on my way to a writing retreat where I’ll be able to write all day long!

In the meantime, here’s a little list of books that will sooner or later appear on this space:

Books I’ve finished for ages and started a post about but never got round to finish:

  • Chicagoland, a graphic novel in French based on a 3-part noir novella by R.J. Ellory
  • Une double famille, by Honoré de Balzac: a surprisingly fresh novella from the 19th century master of sharp society and family situations.
  • The Mitford Murders (Mitford Murders #1), by Jessica Fellowes: disappointing, and that’s why I’m not very motivated to finish this blog post.

Books I’ve finished a while back but don’t quite know what to write about:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions: I could underline every single line of this thin book and say “right!”, but this does not make a blog post, right?
  • Erich Maria Remarque, Eight Stories: Tales of War and Loss: a Netgalley copy. Really, I wasn’t quite convinced by this book, even though Remarque is so famous for his pacifist novels.
  • Les Apprentissages de Colette, by Annie Goetzinger: a graphic novel about Colette’s coming of age and marriage with Willy. Interesting but something’s missing and I don’t quite know what…
  • D’après une histoire vraie, by Delphine de Vigan: I was fascinated throughout and loved every minute of it… I finished it in April, slowing down my reading to enjoy it more. How come I’ve not yet written about? I wanted to pair it with Misery by Stephen King, but it’s not happening in the near future because King’s book is just too big…

Books I’ve finished recently:

  • The Air Raid Killer (Max Heller, Dresden Detective, #1) by Frank Goldammer: a Netgalley copy – the pages flew by, this thriller is responsible for a few late nights!
  • Marie-Aude Murail, Auteur Jeunesse, Comment Le Suis Je Devenue, Pourquoi Le Suis Je Restée?: a very short memoirish book about a YA novelist. Quite eye-opening on the French YA publishing industry (but admittedly not for every reader).

Books on my nightstand or in my luggage:

  • Starlings by Jo Walton (Netgalley): short story mix and match
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo: a non-fiction recommended in various places (Anne Bogel, Sinica podcast)
  • How Hard Can It Be? (Kate Reddy #2) by Allison Pearson: the sequel to the 2001 bestseller How does she do it, and it starts with a bang!

Have you read any of them?

The One with Batgirl on Instagram

Cameron Stewart, Batgirl, Vol. 1: Batgirl of Burnside (2011)

I read this graphic series in March as a readalong with my boy, and two months later, I don’t quite know what to tell you about this experience… yet.

I’m not a super hero fan, I’m sure you have noticed by now. But after having found my own way in the vast genre of European comics, and in the also vast but quite different world of manga, I felt that I was missing out if I didn’t ever try a US comics.

That’s how I came to borrow this Batgirl comics at the library, from the kids shelves. I wouldn’t even have tried a US comics from the adult section because they seem so violent and ugly, and… Ugh, as you can see, I was being intentional here, it was not a natural fit.

I know of Batgirl, but I don’t know Batgirl. I didn’t give it a second thought before I started reading, but I didn’t know anything about franchises, reboots, etc. I don’t even understand her past relationship with secondary characters like her friend Black Canary and her roommates (it said volume 1 on the cover, but it is misleading). She also never got to meet with Batman, and I don’t know if that’s normal (aren’t they related? are they estranged?)

I was clearly missing out on basic information, and so was my boy. It’s also highly disturbing for me to enter a world where different graphic artists contribute episodes of a same story with the same characters, but each with their own style and interpretation. It is just mind-boggling to me. When French or Belgian comics are a long-standing success, the author usually goes on, and on, until they die or retire, and then another artist will continue with exactly the same style.

In this book there were several episodes, and more than once I raised my eyebrow because it did seem rather like YA situation and not kids comics? Overall I was confused about who the readership is supposed to be. Apparently, if Goodreads is a good indication, I’m not the only one here. But it wasn’t too violent and Batgirl was kinda cool. Or is she? I don’t think the creators had mothers over 40 in mind when they wrote this, so I’m not even sure. My boy liked her but I’m not completely sure he “got” her completely either.

So, if I believe Goodreads readers, it seems that this Batgirl is not her usual self here, and I can believe it. To me, she seems barely out of teenage years and not yet fully an adult. She goes to parties, drinks too much, sleeps late, has hangovers, take selfies (the book came out before Instagram).

Batgirl kicks ass and has a smartphone, that much I can tell you. As for the rest, it would clearly require an investment in time and energy to catch up on all the backstory, so I’m going to politely drop out.

The One with the Tough Daughter

Jo Witek, Fille de (2017)

I’m under the impression that in English, the insult “sonofab…” is only for boys and that no similar insult exists for the daughters… In French, gender equality has reached verbal abuse (but not other more positive areas…) and both daughters and sons may be equally insulted, although on the receiving ends, it’s supposed to be worse for boys. But to be the daughter of a prostitute is a heavy burden indeed, and one that Hannah tackles head on.

She’s a tough one, is Hannah. She is a teenager whose passion is running. She trains tirelessly and as she runs, mile after mile (kilometer as it is set in France), she lets her feelings and her anger drains away. Running is a way for her to be a champion, to protect herself and to keep others at bay. In the eyes of others, Hannah is Olga’s daughter, an Ukrainian prostitute who arrived in France because of sex traffickers  and who has slowly reclaimed a precarious freedom from her exploiters. Olga and her best friends dote on Hannah but the young woman walks a fine line between shame, lies, prejudices and distrust. Because of her mother’s work, will she be able to trust and love a man? She has learnt early on how people despise her mother but how many men still secretly visit her. Will a young man love her?

This is a YA novella (an oddity in publishing terms) told directly by Hannah, in one breath almost, and it packs a punch. It reads in one sitting, but you cannot easily shake the inconvenient truth that Hannah confronts. I loved that it wasn’t sordid and hopeless, and I definitely look forward to discover other novellas in this collection.

The One with Cross Over Murder Party

Jo Walton, Farthing (2006)

I took a short story book by Jo Walton on Netgalley because the name sounded familiar to me, although I could not tell a precise book title. But I must have mistaken for someone else because I don’t know much about fantasy / scifi books. Then I was browsing the library’s murder and mystery shelves and a Jo Walton novel was on display. A coincidence, really?

I thought that clearly the universe was pointing me in a certain direction so I borrowed it, only to find out that yes, it was a murder mystery, but it was actually on the scifi shelf (just the next row) because it was a mystery set in an alternate history.

It is set in a 1949 Britain where Britain and Nazi Germany have signed a peace treaty in 1941, but it starts off as a quasi normal Agatha Christie / Dorothy Sayers murder in a British manor after a dinner party. All the classic ingredients are checked off one by one: motives like family feuds, infidelity, jealousy, lies, snobbery, prejudice. People lying about when they last saw the victim. Impossible crime scenes, wrong time of death, etc.

But then it veers off in two directions simultaneously: one being antisemitism in a context of Hitler having successfully conquered most of Europe and part of Russia. The other being homophobia in a context where gays and lesbians are everywhere in this plot but are illegal and banned from open conversation. When you mix every ingredient and shake well, you end up with a political conspiration to overthrow democracy and quietly install a fascist government in Britain. Wow.

It was quite a quick, entertaining read because the pace was quite fast and chapters alternated between the Lancashire police inspector (a closeted gay) and the daughter of the lady of the manor, who had married a Jewish banker despite the firm disapproval of her parents and of the press, and both were nice characters to root for.

But still the book let me a feeling of not enough: not enough exploration of this alternate world (I still have goosebumps when I think about other alternate books set in this period, like Fatherland or The Plot against America by Philip Roth, while the cozy setting and the feel-good characters make this impossible in this one), a plot rendered too obvious by underlining the red herrings and the clue with a yellow Stabilo pen, a bit too many clichés in the manor murder party turning it into almost satire (the only exception is that the victim was not found in a locked library).

I thought that the author maybe tried to kill too many birds with one stone. But I see that this book is the first of a trilogy and my interest is piqued.

The One with the Cute Scott before Culloden

Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2, 1992)

This is my winter’s small guilty pleasure, but in fact I’m not even feeling guilty and with 743 pages it’s not small by any standards!

After I’d finished Outlander #1 I knew that sooner or later I would be returning for a second helping, the day I needed a comfort read of the escapist kind. I had a sort of reading slump (and a cold) and I took this opportunity. They’re back: Claire Randall and James Fraser, and this time no Frank Randall but Claire’s daughter Brianna. The year is 1968, oops, no, wait, 1744, well, you know what I mean…

It’s bewildering how easily I have come to accept this sci-fi / time-travel / historical romance that would have made my eyes roll a few years ago if I had only heard of the premises. I am impressed how Gabaldon can pull it off and make it somehow plausible, but make no mistake : Claire’s research for Jamie’s grave and Brianna’s doubts aside, I don’t really care for the contemporary story line, I only waited for the 18C epic story to start again. I love how Gabaldon mixes real historical facts with her fictional characters and details about random period stuff (medical plants? check. merchant navy? check. French royal court manners? check. Potato farming? check. When I told you these were detailed and random…).

The only thing is that I knew too little about the real facts to make sense of the political intrigue of the big part when Claire and Jamie are in Paris to try to convince Bonnie Prince Charlie not to start the war that would end up in disaster at Culloden. This part would qualify as dragging if the plot didn’t have twists and turns every five minutes or so, and if the writing didn’t flow so easily.

The first volume was definitely better and more tightly pulled together, but I will probably continue the series one day when looking for an escapist read. At the same time, I guess that with every further volume the rationalization of this whole sci-fi / time-travel / historical romance will become harder and harder to justify, so I’m not too sure if I should persist. Any advice?


The One with the Belgians in Phoney War Britain

Jacqueline Winspear, In This Grave Hour (2017) (Maisie Dobbs #13)

I have been known to routinely read series *not* in order. But I’m taking it a bit (too?) far with Maisie Dobbs, starting her books with the thirteenth. Is 13 unlucky? Not by any means with Maisie, because I enjoyed this mystery very much, and it makes me want to know more about her.

To be truthful, I wish I had started in order, but the first books in the series were not available from the book importer I use to purchase books for my workplace library, so I had to get the most recent, because it was the only one he had. (Which is the original reason why I rarely respected series order, back in the years before Amazon existed). While this mystery was clearly standing up on its own, there was so many updates about characters that were familiar to other readers that I felt that I’d missed out on much of the fun.

But it was fun indeed, as promised by Danielle from A Work in Progress who had first put me on the scent of Maisie’s adventures. She has been following the series in order since the beginning I think. I should have followed her advice earlier! In this mystery, the year is 1939, in those September days when the war has been officially declared in Britain, but nothing is happening just yet. People are carrying gas masks around, children are sent away far from the cities, but no enemy plane has yet entered the British skies. Maisie is a private investigator with many friends, employees and family (being new to the scene, I didn’t quite manage to remember who is who and how they came to know her) and she gets embroiled in the case of a Belgian man murdered at the train station where he worked. Police being too busy with war preparation, she steps in.

Now, it was very interesting to me to witness the atmosphere of this particular period, the Phoney War, with characters solidly in middle-age, which means that they remember all too well the previous war and that they have difficulty to imagine going to battle again, or facing the tragedies and hardships ahead once more. For someone born with the century, it must have been indeed a terrible rollercoaster. An interesting setting of this book is that the victim belongs to the Belgian community that came over to Britain with the first world war as refugees. Some went back to Belgian at the end of the war, others stayed, assimilated and created a home and family. But in that particular story, they remain haunted by what they went through on the other side of the Channel, as Germans invaded and destroyed their villages.

As I am born very close to Belgium, I can vividly imagine this particular predicament. In the street next door to my family house, there was a memory plaque about a woman who had been a spy when Germans came to occupy the town, and who was found and executed. It’s been decades since I thought of this detail. This is not central to Maisie Dobbs’ plot itself, but it’s a very interesting and little-known part of history.

If this one is typical, Maisie Dobbs mysteries are very charming, clean and cozy. The heroine is sometimes a bit too perfect and nice, but that comes with the territory, and it’s so pleasant sometimes to indulge in well-researched, tied-up-with-a-satin-bow storyline!

The One with the Boring Bureaucrat

Seicho Matsumoto, A Quiet Place (1971)

Oh, I totally get the appeal, and I think you might too: the case of the ordinary guy. The case where some nobody gets mixed up with something bigger and more exciting or dangerous than his usual routine and how he gets out of his depth and rises to the occasion (or not). After all, this is the basis for so many mysteries and thrillers.

But the thing is that it’s truly hard to make a novel exciting if your main character is dull by essence. Like, a banal civil servant working at the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture. I don’t know anything about the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, but apparently these guys have (or used to have, this being published in the 1970s) a whole lot of meetings and a whole lot of business trips, with speeches and applauses and dinners and geisha involved (this being Japan, I guess it’s to be expected). Also, a whole lot of brown-nosing to step up the corporate ladder, which is not only limited to Japan and to the 1970s, sadly.

Tsuneo Asai is a tough main character to love. It’s hard to empathize with someone who is so deeply into his professional career at the ministry of whatever. I’m sorry he doesn’t come from money, I’m sorry he hasn’t the right connections and the right diplomas, but I don’t really care. Still, he’s a bit obsessive, and he has put in the necessary hours, and has studied hard until he has achieved this expert reputation in his field. Well, good for him, but not good for the book. The main character is plodding, and at some point the pace of the novel threatens to be plodding too.

The point where we start to care is when it becomes obvious, early on, that his career is much more important to him than his wife. He’s a callous husband, a cold guy. He has married because he needs someone at home to take care of him and because of social conventions. But he sure doesn’t love his wife. So when he gets the news, while in business trip, that his wife died from her well-known heart weakness, he doesn’t bowl over with grief. If anything, he seems numb, cancels the rest of his trip after lots of apologizing to his boss, and goes through the motions of funeral arrangements.

Then things veer off his routine, because he can’t shake the idea that there’s no good reason why his wife died where she did, in a beauty shop in a neighborhood far from their home. The rest of the novel is his obsession to get to the truth, whatever the cost. Not even because he respects truth out of principles (he can lie his way to a promotion), but because he’s a relentless bureaucrat and bureaucrats don’t leave stones unturned. Of course, there’s more to it. Of course his wife was not just what he thought she was. Where will it stop? Everything is in his head, and not much in his heart, until he loses his bearings.

It is a very curious and interesting mystery. I could compare it, in opposite terms, to Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s Blank Wall. An ordinary housewife gets embroiled with something dark and dangerous, clearly out of her depth. Where Asai reacts with his cold logic, Lucia reacted with warm gut feelings. But both stories are outside of the genre conventions, and make me want to find more about their authors.

Alexandre Dumas’ Fancy Castle

Do you think I’d get to all those books I’ve finished reading by now? How wrong!

Don’t worry, I’ll get there in due time, but not today… Instead, I’m quite excited to tell you about a famous writer’s home I visited: Alexandre Dumas’ fancy palace.

Dumas6The Chateau de Monte Cristo is close to our new place and on the banks of the Seine, in Port-Marly. Alexandre Dumas has spent most of his fortune to have it built according to his dreams in 1844. He bought a plot after the successful publication of the Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo. His friends came to the housewarming party in 1847, but he was soon bankrupted and had to sell this fabulous estate just two years later in 1849, and that wasn’t nearly enough.

Dumas7The park is romantic (think streams, ponds, waterfalls, fake grotto…) and the house itself is twofold. The main residence is a Renaissance palace with famous writers in sculpture above each window. Above the main entrance, we are greeted by a sculpture of Dumas himself! (Humility was certainly not his main quality) Just across the manicured lawn, a Gothic little fancy house was built as his private writing study. Long before Woolf talked about the famous “room of one’s own”, Dumas wanted a “palace of one’s own”, where he could be alone to write his famous bestsellers.

As we approach the Gothic study called “Chateau d’If”, we were baffled by the unique features that Dumas chose for his place. This guy didn’t know the meaning of “humble-brag”, it certainly is a shrine to Dumas’ own success. All his books’ titles are carved onto the Chateau stones, and there are many sculptures to admire. We couldn’t enter the study itself but peering through the door we could see the desk where he used to sit and write.

The visit was very interesting for adults and kids alike. It put me in the mood for a Dumas novel (most of them are in the public domain), I remember how much fun it was to read The Musketeers, and Twenty Years Later. If you’re in Paris area and want to escape the city center for a great afternoon outing, this would be a nice choice for book lovers. Added bonus: I found a leaflet about other writers’ home in the area!

The One with the Sad Husbands

Raymond Carver, Short Cuts (1993)

I’ll assume that you have read some Carver stories and that you know how well written they are. Not one word is misplaced, not one is too much, and the atmosphere is set in a few sentences that are enough to build a whole world.

But oh my, what a world. I have read Carver before and he’s a master, but the experience of reading Carver is a post- #metoo world is that you cannot avoid noticing what a harsh this world is for women (a blue-collar world of the 1960s or 1970s?), how much abuse they get, how little consideration they get from their husbands and other men, how they’re supposed to stay quiet and follow the men’s orders. Many stories’ characters are husband and wife, ignoring each other, misunderstanding each other, cheating and lying when they are not hiding even darker secrets or suspecting their significant other of it, and there is a deep pessimism about marriage in general.

One could argue that the men don’t get a better treatment and that Carver’s pessimism is about life in general, not just marriage. He exposes people’s empty lives and dirty little secrets with a cold irony (at most), and he leaves the judgment to us readers. Beneath the simple surface emotional (or real) violence is lurking.

I know that these 9 stories have been made into a choral movie by Robert Altman but I haven’t watched it, and most probably won’t, as I enjoyed each of these perfect little, sad bubbles on their own, and I don’t want to have artificial, random links built between them. I’ll surely read some more Carver, but I guess I need a pink and sweet palate cleanser before the next collection.