The One with the Breakdown in the Desert

Mary Westmacott (aka Agatha Christie), Absent in the Spring (1944)

[This is the first in a series of posts related to books read in 2017, because my reading pace completely outran my blogging time. No reason to forego a blog post, right?]

I don’t remember how I came to think that Agatha Christie wrote romance novels under the name of Mary Westmacott… This is SO entirely wrong! There’s nothing romantic in this book, on the contrary!

Now, I remember that I read somewhere that the novels written under this pen name dealt with “crimes of the heart”, whatever that means. I took it to mean romances (as in agonizing over heart issues), but I am now sorry I didn’t even try to make sure I was right.

It’s obvious that I misread and that “crimes of the heart” meant psychologically heavy subjects, because this book is about what happens when a woman suddenly bares her soul and finds there something not totally appealing. This is such a departure from the usual Agatha Christie characters, who are often archetypal and whose psychology is described in broad strokes. (I’m a fan, so I don’t mean to say that they are uni-dimensional cardboard characters, but I’m aware some people say so).

Mrs Joan Scudamore is the proud wife to a country notary and the self-satisfied mother to three adult children, all apparently very successful. She is returning to London after visiting her daughter who lives with her husband in Baghdad as expats, when she finds herself unexpectedly stranded on her own waiting for a train. It’s the first time she is alone and has nothing to distract herself with, so after a few days the only thing she has is her memories, her doubts and her feelings. Something is rotten in the state of the Scudamores, and Joan, with all her British stiff upper lip, is close to having a full-blown mental breakdown. Her perfect life has big cracks in it, and the truth is not so pretty. People have been lying to her, and she lied to herself too.

I guess Agatha Christie’s goal was to make the reader uncomfortable and she succeeded all too well! Her main character is not very likeable; and she grows worse by the minute as we get to read her thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. The book is called by the publisher “bittersweet with a jagged edge”, and I do see what they mean. For people used to Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, you know you’re onto something dark and raw when within the first dozen pages, someone casually says to Mrs. Scudamore: “You know, you’re the sort of woman who ought to be raped. It might do you good.” How shocking! Not your typical body in the library indeed. Likewise, the resolution of this “crime of the heart” does not tie neatly every strand, we are left wondering how much the desert episode has really changed Mrs. Scudamore.

I’m sorry that it took me that long to try Agatha’s “crimes of the heart”, but it won’t be the last for me.

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The One with the Great Elopement Scheme

Georgette Heyer, Snowdrift and Other Stories (1960, 2016)

Of course, I had heard of Georgette Heyer, but I had never read anything by her until this December. I am not a big romance reader, although I have been known to indulge in some heavily sugary treat before. The first time I remember reading romances was during college, when I found some in the recreation room of the boarding house I lived (managed by Catholic sisters, of all things! I bet they never opened the second-hand books that gathered dust there!). It made sense to me to try Georgette Heyer’s short stories to close 2017 when I tried to read all kinds of short stories.

You won’t be surprised that Georgette Heyer’s stories are very clean and witty, and provide light-hearted entertainment with lots of costumes and a happy ending guarantee (I have just finished Downton Abbey, so I was in the right mood for it). I didn’t take them very seriously because most were quite short, so that the plot line between the 2 people meeting and them falling in each other’s arms at the last minute wasn’t developed enough. There are a lot of love at first sight, a lot of funny misunderstandings, a lot of elopement schemes (so many couples running to Gretna Green that they likely were stuck in traffic!), a lot of dashing young men with shiny Hessian boots. They were a bit interchangeable (once again due to the format), but I enjoyed the light banter between the characters and the overall feeling was playful and charming.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher Sourcebooks Casablanca for the review copy.

2017 in Retrospect

book-2911140_640For some practical reasons I only started computing stats about my reading on Tuesday and got interrupted (sigh). I’m not going to bore you to tears with analytics, but I definitely surprised myself by reading more than I expected. I thought 2017 would be busy and stressful, and that I would have less time and energy to read. On the contrary I needed the distraction and the release of stress and I read more than ever! And it’s not that I only read short novellas, I read big novels and novellas and graphic novels too.

What worked for me in 2017 (and will go on in 2018):

  • short story collections. It was actually a relief to know what I should choose in priority in front of crowded library shelves and massive new release tables in bookshops. I very often feel paralyzed in bookshops. This focus gave me the freedom to say “I’m trying it, but just for one bite”. Of course, more than once I ended up licking off the plate.
  • parallel reading. I did it only once, but it was so much fun. Reading two novels with similar main characters, or themes, gave me plenty to think about. If you have suggestions for book pairings, I’m all ears!
  • reducing the number of Netgalley books. I tried to be more moderate and I don’t regret it. I usually read in full those books I have downloaded, and I don’t want to just go “DNF” on titles, so I owe myself to be more selective and arbitrary.
  • going back for second helpings (can you see the food metaphor once again? I apparently haven’t eaten enough during the holidays, ahem). When I discover a great book, I always say that I want to read more of that author, but I rarely do. Whenever I have done this in 2017 (Elizabeth Strout, Michael Connelly, Maylis de Kerangal), I have never regretted it. So 2018 will probably be the year of the backlist, like Ann of Café Society sets about to do.

What didn’t work for me in 2017:

  • A definite book list as a goal. I’m notoriously bad at reading challenges, I’m bad at planning ahead what I shall read, but I shan’t feel guilty about it and I won’t apologize. I’d said I would read 10 books, and I read nearly 80 in total last year, but I still couldn’t bring myself to read 4 out of 10, and some of those 6 I didn’t really enjoy.
  • Javier Marias short story collection: While the women are sleeping (1990) – yes
  • Dorothy Whipple, The Priory (1939) – yes (although nearly quit!)
  • Wallace Stegner, Crossing to safety (1987) – no, although I should try again
  • Maylis de Kerangal, Réparer les vivants (2014) – yes
  • Emmanuel Carrère, Le royaume (2014) – no
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, the White Guard (1926) – started 30 pages
  • Alison Lurie, Real People (1969) – yes
  • Pawel Huelle Short story collection in French “Rue Polanski” – yes
  • Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, Deconstructing penguins – no
  • Barbara Vine, the Child’s Child (2012) – yes

So in 2018, I won’t give myself any deadline or pressure. Instead I will have a list of writers to pick from and keep that list close by for when I visit libraries and bookshops.

Without further ado, my few favorite books of last year:

Happy reading everyone!

 

Danielle’s Stories

mail-1707817_640John Burnside, The Bell Ringer & Peach Melba (from the collection Something Like Happy, 2013)

Is it still time to wish you all an awesome start of 2018? I hope so.

I normally start of the year with making stats and choosing my favorite books for the previous year, but we’re having a slow start after a hectic end-of-year over here, so I’m just pushing the “Publish” button today for the first time of 2018 to praise 2 shorts stories sent by Danielle.

One of the few 2017 resolutions that I was able to keep was reading more short stories, and Danielle contributed to my discovering new stories and new (to me!) authors. I’m so grateful. I have never heard of John Burnside before and couldn’t even tell when these stories were written.

I could tell that they are definitely British (there’s a stiff upper lip factor, and the witty replies are quite distinctive), but they are timeless and could have been written in the 1930s or 1950s. There’s a nostalgic tone that appealed to me and the writing was exquisite.

“Peach Melba” was about an old man reminiscing his meeting with a woman when he was a boy, a chance encounter that shaped him throughout his life in quiet ways. But the real stunner was “The Bell-Ringer”, that portrayed a middle-aged wife stuck at home in a lonely marriage (her husband works abroad and rarely comes home, only to bully her or ignore her). I loved the images of wintry countryside, with snow and quiet, interrupted by the church bells reminder of history and traditions. It’s a classic short story in style and form, with its understated hints left throughout the story and the epiphany at the end, and it’s really a gem. It reminded me of Raymond Carver’s stories, only on the other side of the Atlantic.

I felt really lucky to start the year this way by discovering a new story and a great writer. Stats and best of the year will come soon!

The One with the Cycle of Grief

Joyce Carol Oates, Missing Mom (2005)

Ahem, I was supposed to be gone for a few days for Christmas, but we had a car crash just when we were leaving, so we are home… and I have unexpected time to blog after all. Don’t worry, the kids are alright, the presents weren’t broken, Christmas wasn’t cancelled and I have only minor concussion (but no car any more!).

I have several unfinished posts and I don’t know where to start, but somehow Joyce Carol Oates’ book appeals to me especially after this traumatic event.

When you have already read some Joyce Carol Oates you expect something raw, unapologetic, subversive and probably some violence. You expect misfits and upstate New York and people who are a bit lost. To some degree I found all that in Missing Mom, but what I didn’t expect was a softness that some people will surely find melodramatic.

I read that she wrote this book after the death of her own mother, which makes this atypical tone understandable, but I also believe that Oates likes to be unexpected, and I can’t say I have been very surprised by the story, so it’s safe to say it’s probably not her best. The book is told by Nikki, the rebel daughter of a conventional housewife. Nikki is 31, she wears her hair purple, she dates married men, and finds her (widowed, retired, church-volunteering, bread-baking) mom rather boring. But when Nikki discovers her mother dead in her house in gruesome circumstances, she embarks upon a long period of grief.

Nikki starts out as self-absorbed and immature, and discovers that her mother was not as boring as she thought. That could be, well, boring, but it’s Joyce Carol Oates, and she has an eye for telling details, for finding meaning in tiny mundane details (baking bread, checking a calendar) and her scenes feel so true and so relatable. I guess everyone who has known grief will understand the book, although it might reopen certain personal wounds. So it’s not to put in everyone’s hands, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Season of Stories Roundup

season-of-styories-logo-fall17One of my goals in 2017 was to read more short stories. I was indeed intentional in selecting short stories collection whenever possible, but I was also helped by the fantastic e-mail list “Season of Stories”, sponsored by Penguin Random House, which started mid-September, sent out stories in 4 daily installment every week and ran until yesterday! (Or so I believe, maybe they will go on sending out their good stuff forever and ever…).

It was very diverse and eye-opening for me. Even if I didn’t enjoy every story, I enjoyed discovering them all! So here is a little roundup from the latest to the first.

1 – “Crocodile Shoes” by Jojo Moyes from her collection, Paris for One and Other Stories: the only one I had previously read (and reviewed just recently). Such a heart-warming, glowy story.

2 – “Plague of the Firstborn”, by Etgar Keret from his collection, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God. I know Etgar Keret through This American Life, I own a collection of stories of his. This one was about the Bible plagues, but viewed from an interesting angle. Funny, but with an emotional twist.

3 – “Best of All Possible Homes” by Annabelle Gurwitch from her collection, Wherever You Go, There They Are. This one remains unread in my mail box. Perhaps discouraged by the story of the previous week, I had no time that week or since, sorry!

4 – “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” by Denis Johnson from his eponymous collection. This one I didn’t get. at. all. I tried, and tried, but I threw the towel on day 3. It’s a loose collection of memories, but I didn’t get into any of them.

5 – “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah from his eponymous collection. Set in a dark futuristic Africa (somewhat post-apolyptical), it was a stunner. Totally heart-wrenching and full of images and sensations.

6 – “Babies in Limbo”, by Patricia Lockwood from her collection, Priestdaddy. I read it through but couldn’t relate to this weird, dysfunctional family

7 – “The Christmas Dance”, by James McBride from his collection of short stories, Five-Carat Soul. Loved it. Set in New York with a young PhD candidate trying to interview Black WW2 veterans, only to unearth a deeply moving old story that still reverberate to this day.

8 – “Reindeer Mountain” by Karin Tidbeck from her collection of short stories, Jagannath. Impressed and so wanting to know more about Tidbeck’s world, full of Swedish myths!

9 – “Yeoman” by Charles Yu from his book of short stories, Sorry Please Thank You. It was plain fun. I don’t normally do SF, but I didn’t exactly know comic SF was a subgenre.

10 – “Everyone talks”, by Lee Child from his collection, No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories. I know of Lee Child but have never read him. Crime and police procedurals are hardly ever short story material, so I was doubly impressed. Suspense and twists galore in such a short format.

11 – “But Also Bring Cheese” by Kate Tellers, from the collection The Moth Presents: All These Wonders. A daughter faces her mother’s death, but I didn’t quite relate to it.

12 – “The Plastic Surgeon” by Josh Barkan from his collection Mexico. The hero of the story is an ambitious American plastic surgeon in Mexico, who suddenly as a gangster in his surgery waiting room, requesting a total makeover, with difficult consequences.

13 – “Why Were They Throwing Bricks” by Jenny Zhang from his collection Sour Heart. Chinese American kids (the narrator hits puberty) confronted to their Chinese mainland grandmother with her intrusive and demanding love. I found it so, so true (I know some Chinese grandmas just like this character), and yet so disturbing.

14 – “Dreaming in Polish” by Aimee Bender from her collection of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. A confirmation that Aimee Bender’s stories are not my thing.

15 – “Prom” by Hasan Minhaj from the collection The Moth Presents: All These Wonders. An awkward coming-of-age story heavy with race prejudices but still so funny.

Happy holidays to you all and merry Christmas!

The One with the Heart-Warming Clichéd Paris

Jojo Moyes, Paris for One and Other Stories (2016)

I don’t think my IRL friends call me sentimental, nor do my family or coworkers. And yet, I have been known to be brought to tears by some silly things, unexpectedly. The one that still baffles my husband is the movie I wept through during my pregnancy, but you know, those hormones…

So it may surprise some people that I read and quite enjoyed Jojo Moyes’s collection of sentimental and romantic short stories. This is the first try I read Jojo Moyes, but I keep recommending her to the people who come to my workplace library, and they return their books saying lost of great things and sometimes even thanking me (one big perk of the job!), so it was first taking my own medicine so to speak.

I didn’t have very high expectations, except that I wanted heart-warming stories and happy ends every. single. time. Because 2017 wasn’t all roses and sunshine, was it? The collection I read has 11 stories, but I read reviews that say 10 stories, and it seems that the 11th one that has been omitted in some editions is “Margot”. It’s a story I appreciated a lot because it is so uplifting, even as it acknowledges those lemons that life gives you sometimes. Margot is the old woman whom Em meets while stranded in an airport, crying over a failed marriage. She has some important lessons to offer. The Christmas list is a bit on the same vein, when a married woman meets a cabby while shopping for her insufferable mother-in-law.

Moyes’ heroines are ordinary women, rather shy and full of doubts, women who are taken advantage of or taken for granted, and with the traditional British stiff upper lip, they don’t say what they think, they endure in silence until the breaking point where they unburden their souls in front of strangers. It reminded of an expression by Gretchen Rubin, the “obliger rebellion”, when some people meet expectations for quite a while until they snap and refuse to do anything anymore. I somehow relate to that feeling, so that’s why those stories by Jojo Moyes spoke so much to me.

I also enjoyed seeing Paris as a totally romantic and idealized place. I still struggle with my new identity as a suburban woman rather than a Paris city girl. Now that we live outside Paris, the city of lights seems at the same time shinier and shabbier. When I lived in town I didn’t find it glamorous but with a bit of distance, I am now able to see Paris through the rose-tinted glasses of Jojo Moyes.

Six Degrees of Separation: December Edition

I missed several months, but the game is always so fun, as Marina Sofia reminded me in a recent post! This meme is hosted by Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest and this month’s starting book is Stephen King’s It. I’m going to take an easy route, because December is a hectic month and we all need a bit of comfort. So it’s all so natural that I want to get away from “It” as quickly as I can!

I don’t have anything personal against clown, but I have plenty against books that give you trepidation for years. I never read this one, and I don’t think I ever will, because I am so a chicken with horror books, but I can say that I read some Stephen King after all. Last year I read 11/22/63 and I loved it!

Much to my surprise, I was sucked in by the characters and the plot line. I would never have bet anything on a time travel story.

This guy knows how to write! Well, I never doubted that, because quite a number of years ago I read On Writing, and it is such a good reference book. Along the years I pared down my collection of books on writing, but this one remained in my mind…

Along with my beloved hardcover edition of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, which I found on a “Take One Leave One” shelf in the Beijing Bookworm Café, many years ago. Anne Lamott and I are very, very different and I’m not sure I relate to anything in her world (San Francisco, hippie Christian faith, single motherhood, addiction and alcoholism are typically not my cup of tea) but her voice is so friendly, her pep-talk so effective that I return to this book regularly, just to turn a few pages and be reminded that I can write shitty first drafts as long as I show up to write a few more words on the story that matters to me.

Another warm voice that comes to mind whenever I doubt my writing is Elizabeth Gilbert, whose book Big Magic I read during the writers retreat I joined in 2016. I wanted to highlight so many pages in the book (that was from the library!), and the book remained in my mind a long time thanks to the podcast she released.

I have been quite conflicted with her book “Eat Pray Love”, and rather more interested in her follow-up book on marriage “Committed” (which I now find equally problematic following Gilbert’s divorce), but I want to finish with a fun twist and not give you yet another self-help non-fiction geared towards women.

What does Big Magic’s subtitle “Creative Living beyond Fear” and “Committed” inspire me? I give you Stephen King’s Misery, which I haven’t read. I understand that both main characters are equally (but not in the same way) committed to the creative process, and it is a reference when it comes to writer’s block and how to overcome it, right? So here I come full circle, and who knows, perhaps I’ll try another Stephen King in 2018?

The One with the Down-At-Heel Mansion

Dorothy Whipple, The Priory (1939)

Wow, it took me about 6 months to read this book. Yes it’s a big book (536 pages, and I’m not counting…), but still, I’m not generally afraid of big books (Outlander? 11/22/63?) Actually, it was a tough read for me, and there were many times when I wanted to give up on it.

It’s only because this book was on my shortlist of 10 titles I wanted to read in 2017 that I stuck with it (more on this resolution another day). There were times when I did wonder why everybody had such a glowing opinion of the book. There were long weeks where I didn’t even crack the spine open and it sat there, collecting dust.

Is it any good? Now that I’m on the other side, I can say “yes” and I finally “get” why this book was a publishing success during Dorothy Whipple’s life, and why Persephone Books has it on its bestseller list, and why it has a 4.18 average on Goodreads at the time I write this post. But for the first half of the book (probably 250 pages in), I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t get the characters, I didn’t warm up to any of them. And there are many of them.

The Priory is a mansion where the Marwood family lives. They are gentry, but they don’t have any money any more, and they scrape by in their derelict mansion, barely keeping up appearances (they still have a lot of staff). The Major, a widower, is only interested in cricket, the two daughters are selfish and spoilt, the major’s young new wife is incompetent, the nurse she hires is stiff and proud… There are many other people in the “cast” and they each have their fair share of flaws. There is a comic tone at the beginning which I found most unsettling (I rarely if ever get comic books in English, something always gets lost in translation…) and I wondered if I was in a kind of tongue-in-cheek Upstairs/Downstairs comedy.

But when weeks became months, the book turned into something else, the characters started to develop and I started to like them more. I could see past their flaws and find them endearing, or with redeeming qualities. Perhaps it was just me becoming more familiar with them, but I started to feel sorry for them. The Major’s daughters had no education whatsoever, and they have no other prospect but marrying well. Both marriages end up being problematic in some respect, and the tone veers into nostalgia, melodrama, sentimental and even tragedy as everyone dreads the upcoming war. I was most interested in how the evolution of society (women working, women wanting to have a say in general) permeates a family with old Victorian or Edwardian principles.

The ending was nice, but as it is set in 1939 it made me shiver in retrospect to think of what those characters would have had to endure in the following years if the novel had continued (not that I wish for 300 pages more…)

The One with the Canadian Summer Camps

Margaret Atwood, Wilderness Tips (1991)

I meant to read this book forever. Like for decades. I used to have a copy of this book in German, back when I used to speak fluent German and when I had fooled myself into thinking that I could read fiction in German (I couldn’t, and I definitely can’t anymore).

And then came the Handmaid’s Tale’s frenzy (I haven’t watched it yet, but want to), and then this short story collection found its way into my hands again (this time in English). There’s nothing dystopian about these stories, although there’s something about men and women relations in every story that says that men are generally not nice to women, and that women should be aware and wary.

This is most glaring in “Weight”, a story in which a middle-aged single woman tells of her best friend’s fate, who got killed by her abusive husband and who decides to extort money from other philandering husbands to fund a women’s shelter.

Several stories center on adulterous women and how they compete (or not) with the wife. In “Hairball”, the story that is most full of dark humor, Kat, the fashionable British editor of a Canadian fashion magazine, takes her revenge against her lover’s wife, whose mind she describes as mind “room-by-room Laura Ashley wallpaper, tiny unopened pastel buds arranged in straight rows.” In “Uncles”, a girl grows up to become a powerful, successful journalist, helped along the way by her uncles and by some men, and yet when one of them betrays her, she ends up doubting herself and doubting her own understanding of life, as if her success and power had only been granted to her by those men and not by her own value and skills.

Two stories of these collections are set in summer camps, “True Trash” and “Death by Landscape”. Summer camps are something of an American cliché, but although the kids find their stay idyllic, we get to see how what happened back then shaped them into adulthood, with their own fears and insecurities.

With the exception of Hairball I found that the collection had a nostalgic tone. It made me think of my own turning points moments or of my own misunderstandings. Highly recommended.