The One for Old Bookshop Lovers

Anne Perry, The Scroll (2011; French 2014)

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

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

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

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

The One with the Shenzhen Chicks

Lijia Zhang, Lotus, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

The One on the Tiny Desert Island

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book (Swedish 1972)

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

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

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

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

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

The One with the Twisted Neighbors

Cass Green, The Woman Next Door (2016)

This one is a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”, those kinds of sad love stories where it could have worked, should have worked, but for circumstances, bad timing or missed opportunities.

I think I heard of this book through Marina Sofia, and I bought it on Amazon Kindle for a song. The premises are just right up my alley: two neighbors with different life circumstances and dark secrets of their own, get embroiled together in a suspenseful journey.

The book is built around alternating points of view between the young and wealthy Melissa with her perfect house and perfect husband and her dowdy, bitter, lonely, creepy old neighbor Hester. The thing is, it’s a slow burner and both women aren’t really likeable. I could have been interested in other circumstances, but these days, I need either likeable characters, or a good pace to keep focused on the page.

Moreover, we have had some dispute with our own neighbors recently (again, who hasn’t?) and I’m not feeling particularly neighborly these days. I reached 40% of the book, but the pace didn’t seem to pick up so I called it a day. It doesn’t mean that plenty of people may find it perfectly alright!

The One with Antique Torments Galore

Hey, what is this draft that I wrote on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, last year and never got round to finish it? It’s rainy and grey here in Paris, the perfect weather for the subject. Let me blow off the dust…

It’s not that often that I get to read a book from the Middle Ages, and even if I didn’t quite enjoy it, you might be interested to know what it was all about.

So I give you… The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (or to be more precise a short version of it published in contemporary French, so as to be more readable)

I started reading it not because it was All Saints day but because it was the thinnest book I could tuck into my purse before heading out to the park, and bonus point: it was a book I owned (you’ll understand soon enough why I use the past tense).

The Golden Legend is a huge collection of saints stories collected by an important Dominican friar from Italy and compiled during the 13th century. The name was familiar because it is often cited as an inspiration for Medieval painters (who were only allowed to paint religious scenes), and I have grown up visiting European museums full of these scenes and those Saints. So I knew already that most saints are better known by their deaths than by their lives. Most are martyrs and painters liked to represent them by the instrument of torture of choice so that they would be instantly recognized by illiterate people.

Anyway I thought I was blasé but I was not ready. How can the written word be worst than the image? I don’t know but it actually is, trust me. These stories are gore and more gore (and I won’t go into graphic details) and I was thankful that I only had a selection. Various methods to torture people (especially women) and put them to death don’t make for a fun read. There’s not even any suspense because we readers know they are saints and martyrs so it’s not as if they would change their mind at the eleventh hour, right? I can’t make up my mind if the editor has picked up the worst or just an average. As one member of Goodreads soberly reviewed “I had no idea Saints were so crazy”.

It’s really difficult to realize what medieval people saw in these stories. I, as individual-minded, westernized, secularized European, recoil in horror. I can’t see it as a teachable moment, I can’t see how these women could be held as models to follow. I would just want to run in the opposite direction! (and add the book to the recycling pile, to be honest, which I did). It was a sobering experience to see the cultural gap between Europeans of the 13th century and now. I can’t say I’ll reread it, but at least I gained some insight.

Writing ’17: January Status

20170113_164830If you’ve read my post a few days ago, you’ll have guessed that I don’t have wondrous news to share about my January writing. I have written tons of … emails to the various professionals involved in selling and buying homes; it requires some writing skills indeed, but very little creative imagination.

I still want to stand by my resolution to write every day, because I know that if I lose the habit, it will be a hassle and a struggle to return to it. So I wrote everyday (but 4 days), mostly blog posts drafts, and a few more paragraphs on ongoing stories. I don’t think it’s any good, but it’s there, a little deposit into the writing bank, a few words here and there, and I’ll revisit them one day (perhaps).

Last weekend I got to the point where I wrote down all the books I am currently reading, because I feel that I’m doing no progress on the reading front as well. A bad case of startitis that began in December and got out of control in January. Here’s the status as of last Sunday (don’t panic! please! this is not contagious!)

  • Réparer les vivants by Maylis de Kerangal – p.54/299
  • The Woman Next Door by Cass Green – 38%
  • Lotus by Lijia Zhang – 56%
  • The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding – p.122/231
  • Gut: Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders p.108/335
  • Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic + the Domestic by Esther Perel – p.152/220
  • The Summer Book by Tove Jansson – 30%

Isn’t it a sad picture? I don’t quite want to abandon any of them, but I have to make hard choices. Plus, I learnt in this stressful season that reading non-fiction before bed is a definite no-no. It leads to hour-long ruminations about to-do-lists and finances and …

Stop. Time for some fun read! What do you suggest?

 

The One with the Fukushima Girls

Reiko Momochi, Daisy (2 volumes, Japan 2012; French 2014)

I stumbled upon this two-volume manga at the YA & Children library. It was in the kids’ manga shelf and belonged clearly to the Shojo genre: the one for young girls, with cute design, big-eyed, long-limbed heroines whose primary concerns normally revolve around boyfriends, BFFs, pop culture idols and pets (from my adult perspective I guess). It has a pink cover and a flower’s title. But it is not what it seems.

This one is indeed different, since the four heroines, Fumi, Moe, Aya and Mayu, are high-school seniors in Fukushima, where in March 2011 the tsunami caused the nuclear plant to explode and contaminate the whole area. Set at the end of 2011, they struggle with the aftermath of the catastrophe. Not only do they have exams looming and university choices on their mind, but anxiety, displaced or separated families, radioactivity, prejudice and feeling of powerlessness. Not your typical shojo indeed.

Reiko Momochi is a manga artist who is not afraid to address big subjects, and she has visited several high-school classes in Fukushima to prepare the manga. She has chosen four ordinary girls, not victims or refugees themselves, but Momochi’s political denunciation of the situation is all the more chilling and moving. The invisible threat of radioactivity lurks everywhere and gnaws at every family,  every person. Small kids are forbidden to play outside, but how long can they live this way? The older refugees miss the homes they won’t ever return to. Those who leave the region feel as if they are letting down their neighbors and friends. Yet when they are outside of their province other Japanese people look at them with distrust, they refuse to accept them, to buy food grown in the area, to marry women from the area. And the government says everything’s fine.

I challenge anyone to read both tomes with dry eyes. It’s the first time I read such a political manga and I can imagine (and hope) that it’s very effective to transform young people’s attitudes and make them understand with nuance other people’s hardships. Even while talking about deeply tragic and complex situations, the manga still manages to be positive and hopeful.

The One with the Locked-in Ballerina

Nova Ren Suma, The Walls Around Us (2015)

Unreliable narrators, switching viewpoints, double plot-lines, all these are not usually YA fiction’s trademark, because YA is supposed to be “easier”: more linear and straightforward. It’s supposed to be cleaner and safer. It’s supposed to be more about plot and action and less about characters and psychology. But I think that now YA has blurred the lines and gone up a notch or two. At least, that’s what I felt reading The Walls Around Us.

The Walls Around Us tells of Amber, a girl convicted for her stepfather’s murder and living in a juvenile detention center with 40ish other female inmates. It tells of Violet, a young ballerina who will soon leave her small town to study ballet at Juilliard. It tells of Orianna, who used to be Violet’s best friend but ended up in the same detention center as Amber. We hear Amber’s voice and Violet’s voice, and both are kind of dark and disturbing, but we never get to hear Orianna’s.

Disclosure: I have followed Nova Ren Suma’s blog, Distraction 99, since… well, over a decade now. It was one of the first blogs I read, and at that time she hadn’t yet published a single novel. How far she has gone! I bought this one on Kindle during a special Amazon offer (which extended to Amazon France!, a rare occurrence)

Ballerinas are a bit clichéd when it comes to YA literature. They’re the perfect type-A dressed in pink tutus, and most people know they are supposed to be good, but are also very competitive. This book reminded me of the movie Black Swan, that presented the dark side of ballerinas, both neurotic, self-centered and dangerous.

It’s a Gothic tale with bleak moments, but I didn’t find it too shocking, because surprises are anticipated with clever clues (that a YA reader might miss or pick up, I’m not sure). Both closed worlds, the ballerinas world and the prison world, with their own quirks and mentality, are very well painted. There is some supernatural, but not too much, so that it makes for a much-needed engrossing read.

Taking a Ticket for the Rollercoaster by way of London

Vélo, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, dep78, France, Yvelines Tourisme

Photo credit: J. Damase 2013

2017 is starting with lots of things on our plate at the Smithereens home, hardly any of which related to writing and reading.

We are putting our home on the market and moving to the suburbs! (That’s not really as dramatic as I write it: it’s still a real city with libraries and movie theater and museums… and not too far from the Eiffel Tower!) Real estate stuff are both exciting and stressful, and it has taken a toll on my writing and reading. I find that I have less mental space to dream up fancy stories, and a lot less concentration to focus on stories dreamt up by other people.

I have started one story by Polish writer Pawel Huelle and haven’t really got too far: Polish hardships in the immediate postwar, newly Communist regime is not really the exotic entertainment I was looking for. Let’s just say I was not in the right mood. I have started Maylis de Kerangal’s novel on heart transplant while in the commuting train and it was tough! I had totally forgotten her peculiar style of very long, meandrous sentences. The first “chapter” is only one breathless sentence with so many detours that I could hardly keep my attention on the page. I know that it takes some getting used to, but that her writing is so visual and flowing that I should soon be won over. Anyway Kerangal and Huelle are both on my list of books I own and want to really read this year, so no way I’m going to throw the towel in January!

Yet, given the general level of stress and exhaustion, I might also add some comforting and easy reads to my diet. I want to finish a few books started last year before adding a mystery or two, or, perhaps… another tome of Outlander. Last year Outlander had taken my breath away because it was so quick to read and so entertaining, so I’m really keeping that one close by in store for difficult times.

I also went to the YA & Children’s library of our neighborhood and couldn’t resist and few graphic novels/ mangas. I also saw that they have Sophie Kinsella’s latest YA novel Finding Audrey. My first impulse was to take it, but then, I’m not sure I want to add any anxiety to the situation.

Also, we have a family trip planned for February and we are going to… London! I really want to visit Persephone bookshop and the British Library. So perhaps I should be reading a Persephone book to put me in the right mood. Do you have any suggestions of literary places to visit there? Or of any delightful book set in London?

 

The One about the Two Salomes

Colombe Schneck, La Réparation (2012)

I have read this book quite soon after finishing “Dix Sept Ans” (Seventeen) last fall. This second book by Colombe Schneck, read in close succession, confirms that she likes to pack a lot of emotions, controversial questions and heavy subjects in not many pages and with an apparently breezy writing. She seems a bit superficial and egocentric, but she’s really not.

This time it’s the Shoah, or more precisely Schneck’s research on what happened to her grandmother’s sisters and their family during the Second World War. Schneck’s maternal family comes from Lithuania, a well-to-do, respected Jewish family who thought that they had nothing to fear. How wrong they were! Her grandmother’s sisters survived “somehow”, but their spouses and children didn’t. They remarried and had other children, and the first children were not talked about in Schneck’s family during her childhood.

After decades of silence, and not many questions, Schneck wants to discover what hides behind “somehow”. More precisely, she wants to discover the fate of little Salome, a 6-year-old girl who died during the Shoah, and who has the same first name than Schneck’s daughter, a name chosen at Schneck’s mother’s request years before. Schneck’s mother never explained anything to her and remained stuck in the trauma of the past. She is a character I would have loved to learn more about, yet she remains in the shadows. On the contrary, Schneck’s grandmother and her sisters are alive on the page and seem quite formidable women, each in her own style.

It’s hard to read this book in one setting. It’s hard to read this book sequentially, going from one page to the next just as the writer has planned it, because the subject is so heavy and the emotions so raw. I prefer taking a few pages here and there. There is a turning point in the middle of the book that will take your breath away, but I guess it wouldn’t be fair for me to reveal it, although the book hasn’t been translated to English.

It’s easy to compare this book negatively to Daniel Mendelsohn’s Lost. Schneck’s book isn’t as deeply researched, and many things are left unsaid, perhaps to respect the family’s privacy. The part where Schneck goes to Lithuania seems weirdly anticlimactic, but still the courage and the authenticity of the project makes the reading worthwhile.