The One with the doomed passion in Spain

Frédéric Dard, The Executioner Weeps (Le Bourreau pleure, 1956; Eng. Pushkin Virago 2017)

I love Pushkin Press little-known European thrillers and noirs, so I was thrilled to receive the ARC through Netgalley. Yet, the story left me a bit tepid, and I remembered that I’d tried Frédéric Dard a long time ago and not found it quite my cup of “café”.

Still, it’s maybe me (or the bad timing) who’s at fault here, because it’s still a very good noir story. The narrator, Daniel Mermet, a semi-famous painter, has gone to Spain to paint alone. One night he crashes with his car into a woman. She’s hurt but not seriously, and he looks after her. The problem is that she has lost every bit of memory. The only thing Daniel knows about her is that she’s French. It doesn’t stop them from falling passionately in love. Time is suspended, but soon reality prevails. If they want to continue their love affair in France, the young woman has to get ID papers, and therefore an identity.

The premise is quite simple and thin, and yet the mystery grows by the page. As Daniel paints her beautiful model, his painting of her tells him something different from the love he feels. What is this frightening glimmer in her eye? Who is she and what is her secret?

I didn’t quite warm up to Daniel and the woman. She’s not a Femme Fatale, because she’s so passive and pitiful (or is it an illusion?). I found the amnesia and the revelatory painting a bit tricky, and without those two, the plot scaffolding starts to unravel. Yet, Frédéric Dard does a good job entertaining and titillating the reader. He was well-known for churning out cheap popular novels by the dozen. He actually wrote more than 200 novels!

On the trivia side, I was intrigued to see a French novel set in 1950s Spain, at a time where dictator Franco was ruling the country, with high level of poverty and police. Also, Daniel’s investigation brings him to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which is precisely the town we’ve moving to in less than 2 weeks!

The One with the London Moses

Megan Hunter, The End We Start From (2017)

Dystopian novels *normally* put me in a gloomy mood, and that is why I refrain from reading too many of them, although I’m attracted to them like a moth to a broken hurricane lantern. I can’t remember who (in the litblog world) pointed this book to me (please raise your hand!), but I had not understood it was a novella when I requested it from Netgalley, and I’m grateful for this discovery.

It reads fast and easily, but the images stuck with me. It’s very sparse, and very evocative. When the story starts, the narrator’s waters break and she gives birth. We don’t get to know full names or details, but we soon understand that nothing is normal in the world surrounding this birth. London is being flooded, there are refugees, unrest and disaster all around. The rest of the novella follows this mother and her baby for a year, until he finally walks.

The horrors of the catastrophe are muted or only alluded to, because it looks more like a fragmented diary, intercepted with quotes and poetry, than a traditional novel with dialogues and plot. In fact, because everything is about survival, much of what happens is a matter of luck (or unluck), and the main character is often quite passive, not knowing if she should stay or go. As the mother’s main focus is the progress of her baby, it also chronicles the tiny, very normal milestones of an infant.

It might leave some people cold because it is so unemotional (the British stiff upper lip, perhaps?) and provides very little information, where other writers would have waxed lyrical for paragraphs upon paragraphs. For example: “The day they don’t come back from shopping is beautiful.” But I loved this style and found it very effective.

Eventually, this is not a too disturbing or shocking read because we readers are spared the details of the horror compared to the sweetness of the baby details. We are forced to have a distanced reading, not only to guess what is missing from the page, but also to witness that confronted with unnamed horror, the narrator has retreated to her inner self and her baby, to block out the rest. The ending is hopeful and this is why I enjoyed it so much too.

Thanks to the publisher Grove Atlantic and Netgalley for the review copy.

Writing ‘017: June Edition

P1020554Can you believe that the first half of the year is already gone? Well, I can’t, unless I consider all the boxes clogging our living room, for our coming move to a new house that we hadn’t started looking for at the beginning of this year.

On the writing front, as you can imagine, there’s nothing glorious to report. I have tried to maintain a regimen of writing something (a blog post or my diary – 45 words minimum) every day; and I mostly managed it thanks to my commute and the WordPress app on my phone. But I can’t say that I have written a word of fiction. I wish I could try escapist fiction, but it’s very difficult for me to be creative right now. As a minimalist exercise, I have taken to the “6 words diary”. I’ve never tried poetry but trying to find the most memorable moment of the day with a strict literary constraint is fun (and saves me from spiraling on and on about to-do lists).

On the reading front, I think the first semester has been quite interesting with a good number of awesome books. These are my favorites for the first part of the year:

I had set a few goals for this year: read more short stories, read more from our bookshelves (now in boxes!) and so read less from Netgalley, and read from a list of 10 pre-selected books I’ve owned for years and never came round to start. You could think 10 books would be nothing, but I am so, so bad at sticking to book lists! I have indeed read more short stories, and I want to read even more of them. I have been better at managing Netgalley this year, because I’m less impulsive with my choices. From my 10 pre-selected list, I have read 4 1/2 titles (and 2 of them are in the above list of favorites), which could be taken as a positive if you didn’t know that I started with the easier ones and left the heftier and more difficult ones aside. I have started Bulgakov’s White Guard and I can’t say I “get it”… yet?

In June I was lucky enough to get to see (nearly) all my friends from last year’s writing retreat. We had a fantastic dinner in Paris near Notre Dame and the bookshop Shakespeare & Co. It was so refreshing to get out of my to-do list and into a more creative and literary discussion!

Jumping From Story to Story

After I finished Ellen Klages’ collection of short stories I found myself in a mood for more. After all, reading more short stories was one of my goals for 2017, and one not too difficult to reach! (Not like reading from my own shelves, or reading from a set list of books, ahem…)

At first I felt a bit rusty, because I had been reading New-Yorker-style stories where you want to read carefully and hang on to every word: the epiphany is sometimes so subtle you don’t want to miss it. Nothing bad about that, except it’s maybe a bit too highbrow for me in this sunny, busy season. Ellen Klages reminded me that some stories can be lighter, quicker on their feet (mmh, you might object to stories having feet, but I own it) and don’t take themselves so seriously.

A few weeks ago I read the 2 stories that Danielle had sent me. The first one, “The Heaviest Dress”, by Mireille Silcoff was about a complicated Jewish family story and eccentric self-aggrandizing characters: I liked it but did not love it. I couldn’t quite relate to any of the characters, but it’s probably for the best!

The second one was a lot more arresting: “Circumstances of Hatred” by Laura Trunkey started in clichés and soon took a sharp turn towards daring. It started with a newlywed couple moving from one coast of Canada to the other because of an inheritance. The first sentence of the story is very original: “I had not forgotten about my grandfather’s refrigerator, but seventeen years of absence had diminished it”. The young man had a special connection with his oddball of a grandfather and upon his death he has been bequeathed a house with a locked fridge in it, that never should go on defrost. The young woman is unhappy about the move, there is bickering and low-grade dissatisfaction in the air. Can you imagine what will come next? Can you imagine what is kept in the fridge? I bet you won’t ever guess, because at each twist and turn of the story I kept muttering: no, she can’t possibly!

At the kids library I stocked up on short stories (translated in French but it’s better than nothing): two stories by Truman Capote, “The Thanksgiving Visitor”, and “Miriam”. Both are classics, and they didn’t disappoint (although I found it weird to put the two of them together for a teen edition – and the translator did a literal translation of Thanksgiving with “day of the giving of thanks” which was awkward). Then I turned to the master of entertaining and thrilling stories, Stephen King. I grabbed a copy that was titled Mist, except that the French editor must have pulled a trick because the short story Mist (that people online rave about) was not listed inside! Talk about disappointment!

I understood later on that the original collection, Skeleton Crew, was so thick that it was not publishable as such in France, and the publisher just cut the collection in two volumes (without saying so!). It didn’t really matter because the range of stories and tones is quite wide. Some are pure horror, some fantasy, some thrillers, even a page of poetry! I didn’t relate to all of them, obviously. Well, it’s hard to relate to a story about a surgeon stranded on a desert island who decides to eat himself, right? … Right? The one I loved best was the one with the gentlest ghosts, “The Reach”. It’s set on a small Maine Island. An old resident, Stella Flanders, has never set foot on the continent, she has never seen the point of doing so, until she is dying from cancer and now that the reach is frozen she’s tempted to go see on the other side. The small-town villagers and gossips are all well portrayed and the whole close-knit community comes alive. The story was sensitive and gentle and well deserved the prize it got in… 1982. Another non-horror story was quite fun: the  “Word Processor of the Gods“. Well, it wouldn’t speak to Millenials I guess, but I do remember word processors (although I never had one, I had a mechanical typewriter that felt like heavy lifting for fingers). I love Stephen King ever since I tried 11/22/63 last year, but I will decidedly stay away from his goriest stories, now that I know that he pulls no punches.

Last, I started (yet) another short story collection by Spanish writer Javier Marias, While the Women are Sleeping. It is a collection taken from our own shelves for 2017 (more brownie points to me!). I find it weirdly satisfying to be able to finish one story in one setting: it’s even better than crossing stuff in my checklist, as I am quite goal-oriented these days with the packing and moving!

Unfinished Business: The One with the Bad Hair Days

Sofi Oksanen, Norma (Finnish 2015, English 2017)

I’m in the middle of moving house, and I need good books to see me through this hectic time. Nothing difficult, nothing too challenging, nothing too slow, nothing too fast either (I’m exhausted and can’t follow). Something entertaining, something that takes me far away from cardboard boxes, movers, contractors, registration forms and bank statements.

I thought that magic realism would do the trick and borrowed Norma by Sofi Oksanen from the library, but I could not finish it. To be precise, I read a third of the book, then skimmed the rest. It was probably bad timing. I have read Purge and had liked it. It was not love at first sight but I appreciated Oksanen for pulling no punches and having a strong, original voice.

This novel is daring because it mixes magical realism and fantasy with a dark thriller. Without the magical realism part it would be very tough and chilling. When you add this weird ingredient, the recipe tastes different and confusing… but I’m not sure if it tastes better.

Norma’s mother, Anita, who works in a hair salon, has jumped in front of a metro in Helsinki. Norma can’t believe she committed suicide, and soon enough she discover things about her mother that she didn’t know. Those two lines would be so cliché, if Norma herself had not a very unique characteristic: her hair is growing continuously and intensely (requiring several cuts a day!). Even though the story kind of fell flat for me, I could not help but wonder how Oksanen had come up with such an idea.

Soon enough we are embarked into a plot where Norma’s very special hair has unwittingly taken part to an international traffic of hair extension. I could hear my eyes rolling. I could see Oksanen’s point of women’s body exploitation loud and clear but I couldn’t really muster the energy for caring and being outraged. It was just too weird and abrupt.

Now, I think I’m going to head back to comforting territories for my next read. An Agatha Christie or a Ann Cleeves mystery maybe…

The One with the Heartbreaking Virago

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge (2008)

All I knew when I started the book was that lots of people had praised it. And that it was about a woman in a small town in Maine. Nothing more.

Which left me with so many surprises. First, the structure. I love linked short stories but only rarely read them (any other examples you’d recommend?). Second, the main character. Olive Kitteridge is blunt and sometimes spiteful. She is often angry and rarely compassionate. She has a no-nonsense, cold approach towards her family, her husband, her son and her neighbors. She’s the epitome of the unlikeable character. I was definitely not ready for it. Third, the sadness and gloom of the subject. This is not – I repeat not – a fun read to be attempted if you’re any way depressed or thinking about your own mortality.

The edition I got had lilac calligraphy and a woman with a red raincoat walking close to the seashore. Hmm… Why is the cover art so subdued and romantic like a chicklit / romance? This is so misleading. There’s nothing subdued and romantic about Olive. The red raincoat is there to tell you about Olive’s uncompromising choices in fashion and in life. She doesn’t care what other people think of her. She watches herself grow old with the same unflinching stare, and it’s not really pretty.

There’s a lot of humor in the book, but it doesn’t cover the darkness of it. Even if you dislike Olive and get attached to the other characters, village life in Maine seems so depressing, except for little moments of grace. What saves the book are those moments, and the beautiful language and characterization. I definitely want to read more of Elizabeth Strout.

The One with the problematic Dia de Los Muertos

Raina Telgemeier, Ghosts (2016)

I love it when my oldest son and I can share a book together. As it happens I choose most books for him at the library, because a- at this hour he has a planned activity; b- I don’t trust him to read challenging books; c- he would only take home Mickey Mouse comics and mangas; d- I can browse middle grade literature shelves and I love it. I often do some night reading aloud to both boys these days, but not every night. I know I am kind of bossy but my son is only 9 (only?) and I know these times won’t last forever. Plus, don’t worry too much, he also goes to another library to fill up on Mickey Mouse to his heart’s content.

I borrowed Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier as much for me as for him. We had a great time reading the graphic memoir El Deafo by Cece Bell, and I knew I could trust my son to be open to hard subjects (with a proper treatment, that is). I have bought Telgemeier’s Smile for my workplace library but haven’t read it yet. I took a chance on her Ghosts, because my son is not yet a teenager, more like a tween, and the book deals with pretty heavy issues so that I wasn’t sure how he would receive it. The main character’s little sister has cystic fibrosis and the whole family needs to move to a new town for her sake. I didn’t know how much my son could understand about degenerative genetic disorders, but I found that Telgemeier did a good job being both sensitive with young readers and realistic with terminal illness and death and grief.

The other big theme of the book is the Mexican American tradition of Dia de Los Muertos, in an imaginary small town where friendly ghosts literally come back and mingle with the local population. Catrina and her family are Mexican-American but haven’t kept with traditions. Her new friends and neighbors enable her to reconnect with her identity. Ghosts in this story are kind and sensitive and nothing to be afraid of. Telgemeier is great with the difficult subject of death, of cultural acceptance, of sisterhood, and I was going to rate this book a whole five stars, until…

I ran into various critical reviews on Goodreads and on the internet about how her portrayal of Dia de Los Muertos and Mexican-American culture is not accurate at all. People said (I’m paraphrasing here) that the scenes set in a Spanish mission with ghosts of Native people are out-of-line because of the cruelty and oppression that Spanish Catholic missionaries used against them. It’s probably true, and I can’t be the judge of it because I know far too little about this history and this part of the world.

Call me ignorant if you want, but the whole concept of cultural appropriation was new to me. I didn’t know there was a word for that, and it’s little known in France. But I don’t like the idea that only Mexican-American people can write about Mexican-American experience. Writers should be able to write about experiences that are beyond their own lives, if they accurately portray facts upon which they base their fiction.

So my verdict? I still love the book, problematic or not. I’m grateful that people on the internet took the time to explain why and where it was wrong, but I think it’s still a worthwhile read for elementary kids.

The One with the Beating Heart

Maylis de Kerangal, Reparer les vivants (2014, English title: The Heart / Mend the Living)

Oh, how could this happen? I grumble, sigh and moan about all those books that weren’t great exactly, but when I finally read a great one, I forget to post about it? That’s exactly what happened with The Heart, which I finished in London, back in February! After Pawel Huelle’s stories, here is another post about a book that should not be forgotten.

After presenting my apologies to the book, its author and you all readers, I finally remember what stopped me from writing a post. After reading the Bridge back in 2011, I became an instant fan of Maylis de Kerangal, her unique style, her special literary project of fictional non-fiction, so I knew I would love The Heart.

And I sure did. I finished the book within two days (it was the holidays, after all). But why is it so difficult to explain why I did love it? It’s a collective book, so there’s not one main character, just dozen of them. The style is also very particular to Kerangal. Long, meandering sentences that often take the whole page or more. It’s not for everybody, but I happen to l-o-v-e it. It’s very inspiring, and then in the same breath, I know that I won’t ever be able to write as well as she does. (and I’m alright with it)

This book is about a heart. Young Simon is 21 and dies in a stupid car accident. But his young, healthy, precious heart can be saved to be transplanted to another person. Will his grief-stricken parents agree to the organ donation? Will everyone in hospitals across France be ready for the delicate intervention? Who will get Simon’s heart? Who will take care of Simon’s heart at every step of this process? It’s literally a question of life and death (no pun here) and the plot, although linear, is full of suspense.

More than the plot itself, the structure of the book is interesting, where the movement of death and the movement of life cross each other without fully extinguishing the other. Not only do we feel for the characters, all of them in their uniqueness and individuality: we learn (left-brain) about the surgeon’s secret dreams, the mother’s past, the nurse’s lover, the coordinator’s passion for music.  But we also learn (right-brain) about what it takes for a transplant to work and how organ donation is organized in France. All the way, the language adds beauty and depth, and helps the reader follow the fast pace of the book, that replicates the pace of a beating heart.

Exceptional.

Pawel Huelle, Moving House and other stories (Polish 1991, English 1996, French; Rue Polanki et autres nouvelles, 2000)

Confession: I started typing this blog post on my (3 year old) phone and the WordPress app got all weird on me. Also, I have come to the conclusion that a post draft I started in April disappeared into the ether, so I’m trying to catch up on book reviews for those I have finished ages ago, before they disappear too!

So let’s stick to the facts (mmh, who am I kidding): this short-story collection was very interesting and I’m so glad : a- that this Polish writer got translated into French and English; b- that my parents gave me this book several years ago; c- that my 2017 “read-from-my-own-shelves challenge” finally made me pick it up; d- all of the above.

Anyway, I bet that you’ll want something a bit juicier than that. And the book is largely worth it. It is set in Gdansk, the Polish town that used to be German up to 1945 (under the name of Danzig). No, strike that, it’s much more complicated! Gdansk has forever alternated between German and Polish rulers and even became a “free harbor” with some autonomy. At the end of the WW2 it suffered a massive population exode (Germans from Danzig, but also from Eastern Prussia and beyond, making for hundreds of thousands of civilians desperately making their way west, under heavy air raids and the threat of Soviet army). Gdansk is also the place where, in the 1980s, the Solidarnosc movement was born, a rebellious force against the Communist ruling party, so strong that it led to its demise.

This bit of history is fascinating to me, but imagine what it means for someone to be born in this place! In many stories by Huelle, Polish characters have to live with the past and linger in a weird nostalgia. The stories are all set in the postwar, Communist era and several are in fact coming-of-age stories.

The title story made me sigh: a little boy is soon moving away from a house shared by several households. This house used to belong entirely to an old German woman, Madame Greta, who has been dispossessed by the Communist regime and only has one room now, filled with her piano and memories. The boy’s parents forbid him to go there, because they hate and distrust everything German, but as the parents are preparing to move the boy is attracted by the music and he gets to meet with Madame Greta.

There’s a story about a table, a household object that the narrator parents got from a displaced German who left Gdansk at the end of the war. The narrator of another story, “Snails, Puddles, Rain” goes with his father to chase snails. We get to learn that his father has only found this odd job after being kicked from several more qualified jobs, because he doesn’t toe the Communist party’s line.

I have a feeling that the French collection does not have the exact same stories as the English collection, but if you have a chance to read it, don’t be intimidated by Polish names and by the obscure history of this small part of Eastern Europe! This is probably the first Polish writer I’m reviewing in this blog (in 10 years, can you believe it?), but I hope not the last.

The One with the tender music of old Europe

The One with the ripple effect along the Canal

Barbara Vine, The Child’s Child (2012)

It took me mere days to finish Alison Lurie’s book, while it took me months to finish this one!

This book was on my list of 10 for 2017, picked from my own shelves and my long TBR, so I really, really wanted to finish it, but otherwise I’m not sure I would have. I know that Barbara Vine’s books are slow, so I gritted my teeth, waiting for the reward at the end, but none came. Or I missed it, which is entirely possible.

This book is a story within a story, and I must say that I found the inside story, a supposed novel taking place from 1929 to 1947 (which makes for the bulk of the volume) less interesting (if more historically researched) than the other one which is contemporary and frames the other plot like two bookends.

Both stories have parallels and explore the themes of homosexuality and of children born out of wedlock. Both events were deeply shameful in the past and led to people hiding their true nature for years and years, basically their whole lives. In both stories a young single woman gets pregnant and lives together with her homosexual brother. Ruth Rendell shows how society stigmatises gays and single mothers and how it has grown a bit more tolerant but not much more throughout the century. Well, it’s not really big news, or is it? There is a very strange discussion in the book about which fate is worse, and I couldn’t make sense of this strange tug-of-war.

It didn’t help that the main characters of the 1930s plot are deeply unsympathetic. The single mother, especially, is so self-centered that it was hard to feel sorry for her. I bet this is what Ruth Rendell had in mind, especially as the meek 15-year-old who finds herself pregnant and ostracized by her very rigid family turns into a very rigid adult who condemns her gay brother and rejects her own daughter who seems more open and modern. Of course, making her so judgmental and so rigid made her gay brother’s life even more of a burden, but it makes for a dreary read.

It was quite interesting to see the long-standing effects of guilt and shame and how it shapes the relations of people around the main characters. It was also interesting to see a crime that goes unpunished for years only to find a solution by chance.

I would have been interested to know more about Grace, the contemporary PhD candidate who finds herself pregnant while writing her thesis about Victorian single mothers. The dialogues between this young woman, her gay brother and his lover, supposedly set right now, were really stiff and formal, but still the conflict of emotions was quite real. I would also have been interested to learn how a young woman could continue her PhD studies despite being pregnant, given that the glass ceiling in academia is only too real. Alas, that’s not at all what Ruth Rendell had in mind.

It’s probably not one of her best, and I think I’ll stick to Inspector Wexford’s investigations now.