Akiko Higashimura, Blank Canvas 2 (2013)

Original title: かくかくしかじか 2 / French Translation 2020

I’m always on the lookout for mangas that are not typically for young men (seinen) with lots of muscle and violence, or for young girls (shojo) with cutesy love stories. Luckily, a sliver of the manga market is for other artistic endeavors. This one is categorized as a josei, a manga for adult female readers, but I guess it could talk to anyone who has struggled as a student, which makes for a lot of people! It is also an autobiography, which is pretty unusual for mangas.

In the first volume, which I read in December last year, young Akiko managed to pass the very competitive university of arts by cramming for the exams with a very unconventional teacher. She’s now at university far from her family, her teacher and her usual environment (she’s from the tropical beaches and she got a northern university). It’s really hard for her to adjust and to get back to work, all the more as painting is not really what she wants: her secret dream is to be a mangaka.

Akiko is a very frustrating, annoying older teenager, and I totally reacted to the book as a mother of a young teenager (and future college student?). She does everything wrong: drink too much, spend her allowance, skip her classes, flunk her exams, lie to her parents and her teacher. The book is both honest and humorous. She also tells the story as an adult Akiko who knows better and reflects on her mistakes. The ending of this volume, when her former teacher comes to visit, is quite moving. I can’t wait to read the next volumes to see how Akiko manages to turn her bad habits around.

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit (2003)

Mr. S. bought me this book for my birthday after he saw it on my Goodreads wishlist for years (2017 to be precise). In retrospect, I’m surprised how much of a reference this book is. I didn’t know Twyla Tharp’s choreographic work before I started reading, I had never seen her dance or any of her shows. I knew that her book was universally recommended on creativity, and sometimes assigned in courses. I was expecting something similar to Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, one of my favorite books, because they are often listed together.

This was different from what I expected. It was more like an autobiography and an explanation of Twyla Tharp’s own method to keep creating new shows year after year, decade after decade. She sure does give examples and some exercises at the end of each chapter but it’s really not a how-to guide. The subtitle “Learn it and use it for life” is clearly misleading. But the title itself is very meaningful: creation is not seen as the produce of miraculous inspiration (where’s the muse?), but the result of hard work and ingrained habits. Conclusion which I wholeheartedly believe in, but it wasn’t really ground-breaking for me.

I appreciated that Twyla Tharp gave examples from a wide range of arts and creators. I much too often limit myself to writers, and I’d never thought about creative habits when it comes to visual arts or physical arts like choreography. I also liked the idea of “spine” that would support a whole creative project (to find what the spine is would help to build the rest of the work).

But I didn’t really fall in love with the book, in the way that other books about creativity seemed to reveal themselves to me. I believe that’s because I didn’t really learn much, which I’d be able to use for myself. And secondly, the tone of the book was a bit harsh and condescending to my taste – probably because dance is a very exacting discipline. The tone of the book wasn’t full of kindness and compassion. For that, I’d refer you to my two favorite books: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Elly Griffiths, The Postscript Murders (2020)

Is there a part of me that’s bemoaning the start of fall? Certainly, but that’s no reason to hang to summer, and especially to the reviews of the books I read in August for the 20 Books of Summer challenge. Especially when I enjoyed those books! I’ve discovered Elly Griffiths earlier this year and I really liked the two books I read from her series with Ruth Galloway, a Norfolk archaeologist who always gets embroiled into murder investigations. I was happy to see that she has another series underway, with police detective sergeant Harbinder Kaur.

Harbinder Kaur is a 30-something Sikh woman who still lives with her somewhat meddling, ageing parents who hold a grocery shop. Harbinder can’t really tell her family that she’s gay, but it is clear to all that she’s gutsy and ambitious. Although she’s a great character, she hardly takes center stage in this cosy mystery, there’s a large cast and they are all good!

The Postscript Murders take place in a retirement home on the seaside. Now, didn’t I read just another murder mystery set in a retirement community in England? Yes, it was The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, which I’d liked a lot. It is rather an unfortunate publishing coincidence to have those two out almost at the same time, because it leads readers to play the comparison game and that’s not fair.

In both books, a group of mismatched amateur investigators are trying to discover the truth alongside the official police work. In both books, one of the old people clearly has some past linked to secret services. In both books, the “invisible” people who provide care to the retired people have a lot more back story and complex motivations than what one generally expect. In both books, you have elements of romance and a very sweet and perfectly British tone that makes my heart melt. Don’t make me choose one, I actually loved them both!

What I liked most is probably the tongue-in-cheek writing. Elly Griffiths is having fun, and knows that her readers share a lot of knowledge of classic murder mysteries and of Miss Marple tropes. Some dialogues are priceless and really made me laugh. She also pokes some fun at writers and publishers and writing conventions. This book is the second in a series, but it really holds well as a standalone. Still, I might go back and read the first one next time I need a dose of British cozy mystery.

Georges Simenon, La Rue aux Trois poussins (1963)

In the big volume of Simenon that I took with me in our family trip, I discovered that there was a short story collection. I had fond memories of another Simenon’s short story collection (I read “Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue” five years ago already!) and it made me pick that one, which don’t feature Maigret at all. “La rue aux trois poussins” is a translator’s nightmare. It should be easy enough: “the street with the three chicks”, but you would picture three young women, whereas we are speaking here of three preschoolers. Chicks in French is an endearing term for small kids or toddlers (rather gender-neutral or boys, I have given the book back to the library, but I sort of remember that one of the three is a girl). So what would this story title be? “The street where the three buddies play?” Can you propose anything better?

In this story, three young kids play outside while their mothers are busy with chores, and their older siblings are at school. One of them listens to what a mean older boy says about his father, and repeats it at home to his mother. A long-reaching, life-altering tragedy follows this bit of gossip and that bit of misunderstanding.

Overall, I didn’t quite enjoy this collection. The stories show Simenon in a dark mood, his characters are often pitiful and mean, and it shows the women under an overwhelmingly harsh light. They’re bitter nags, superficial airheads, scheming adulterers, gossips and liers. Only Mélie the fishmonger has a proverbial heart of gold, and it was my favorite story of the whole book. One could still argue that Mélie might be very business-savvy, but if she continues to bail her ne’er-do-well husband out, she might end up badly too.

Simenon still writes with great skills, as he can draw a street scene or a café scene in a few sentences and still render it vividly. His characters are people of little money and few prospects. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but most of these stories were first published during the war between 1939 and 1941, and it might have contributed to the gloomy, hopeless and closed atmosphere of those stories. They were published in the magazine Gringoire, which was a very nationalistic, violently anti-Communist and conservative newspaper (it also published Irene Nemirovski, so it’s not all black-or-white).

It led me into the rabbit hole of Simenon’s attitude during the war. My understanding is that he was no big hero or traitor either. He very prudently retired to the countryside where he led a wealthy and relatively worry-free life, which is already a lot better than most people in the country. His passivity and lack of support for the Resistance made him suspicious at the end of the war. Even as he was blamed for collaboration, it was a late and light condemnation that occured in 1948 and it didn’t stop him from staying at the top of the bestsellers lists. It still made me wince to learn that he was so loaded while so many of his books and stories center on poor people.

Liu Xinwu, The Wedding Party (2021)

Original title: 钟鼓楼 Zhong Gu Lou (1985), translated by Jeremy Tiang

The cover of the book looks like it could be a children’s book or a comics. But that is totally misleading, this is a sprawling novel of 400 pages, full of humor, people, events and considerations on life and history. I don’t know if the title of Wedding Party has been chosen by the publisher or the translator, but it is an English choice. It is obviously the focus of the main action, as we follow a group of people who are gathering on that day for a wedding celebration. Yet, the Chinese original title refers to the location of the action: the Bell and Drum Towers in Beijing. These historical buildings are towering the action and acting as eternal landmarks compared to the agitation and constant changes of the humans that live in their shadows.

The book is set in the winter of 1982 in Beijing, which is a bit of a low-key period in Chinese history. The struggles and upheaval of Maoist era are over, people are coming back slowly from being sent away by the Cultural revolution. Yet, it is not the booming economy and wealth that we now know, or rather, it is the first moments of the dawn. People are just starting to have their basic needs covered and they can start to buy some things for pleasure, and even buy fancier wedding presents and wedding food. Some even have Japanese brand watches and install electric bells on their door, instead of letting people drop by unannounced. The Bell and Drum Towers are not a wealthy neighborhood, people live in hutong and siheyuan, which are courtyard houses split between lots of families. This make for rather… ahem… rambunctious relations, when people with various interests, wealth, status, culture and prospects are obliged to rub shoulders every day and share water taps and more.

A wedding is a stressful day for the bride and groom and their families, and it was as true in 1982 in Beijing as it is today. The mother of the groom is hosting, and her aim is to have all the guests fed with delicacies and properly impressed. The bride is a young materialistic saleswoman who basically measures her happiness to the amount of wedding gifts and especially a much awaited gold watch. The wedding will be all but serene and auspicious when dozens of neighbors and guests, including people who aren’t quite welcome (a drunkard and a thief) go through the courtyard and share this day of excitement.

The novel is full of humor and humanity. Liu Xinwu has so much empathy for his large cast of characters, and he takes the time to explain the origins of many misunderstandings and disputes that erupt on that day. Liu Xinwu is the author who is credited for inventing the scar literature, a literary form who presents the suffering of the victims of the Cultural Revolution. It is visible in this novel as more than one character alludes to their past and how they have endured the previous decade, but not in a tragic, heavy tone.

This book was awarded the Mao Dun prize at his publication in 1985, which is the equivalent of the Booker prize for China. It’s not meant to be a direct criticism of the regime, but it is quite direct in showing cases of injustice, cronyism, hypocrisy and incompetence. Liu Xinwu also shows how the parents and grandparents of those living in the siheyuan had a miserable life before 1949 as Communists came to power. Because we also see the younger generation more interested in achieving success for themselves than proclaiming any Communist ideal, we can only reflect how these havej grown up and probably turned into the wealthy generation of the 2000s.

I was in Beijing in the early 2000s and the neighborhood of the Bell and Drum Towers was a favorite place with trendy, shabby cafés and run-down siheyuan. Many younger and wealthier families had long since moved to the high-rises in the suburbs or near the fifth ring road. Older and poorer people still lived there in the shadows of the towers, a glimpse at eternal Beijing. When we visited again in 2018, it felt like the towers had not changed much, however different the rest of the city was.

I enjoyed this novel a lot because it was linked to a lot of personal memories, but I believe it might appeal to Western readers who’d like a fun glimpse into old China daily life.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Ann Cleeves, Cold Earth (2016), White Nights (2008)

I’m woefully behind in posting about books (10!! I don’t think I’ve been that bad in a long, long time), so I’m going to lump these two up. I’ve recently read a Vera mystery by Ann Cleeves, and it proved just as good as the TV series, so that I decided to continue in the same vein for the Summer Book challenge. I’ve watched several seasons of Shetland on TV with Douglas Henshall as detective Jimmy Perez, but had never tried the books before. A lot of the appeal of these mysteries are the beautiful landscapes of the Shetland islands, but not only… (If you don’t want to be sitting in front of this blog post forever, don’t start me on Douglas Henshall… Some people have Brad Pitt or Bradley Cooper… 😊 To each their own…). So I came to the book with high expectations (and also a bit disappointment that I wouldn’t see… Douglas Henshall… but I digress)

Following my own rule of being totally unrully when it comes to series, I had #2 and #8 in the Shetland series (that’s Amazon special offers for you), and I started with… the late one. My reasoning was that the #2 might have had a TV adaptation which I’d seen. Which proved actually wrong (or I am becoming even more forgetful than usual). Jumping back from #8 to #2 was indeed a little spoilery, but having followed the TV series I’m pretty much all spoilt already 😏. But for the sake of clarity I’ll report on them in chronological order.

In White Nights, the action takes place in summer, when the Shetland islands have long days because the sun never sets on those Northern latitudes. People do all sorts of wild things during this period, we’re told, especially as they want to enjoy this period before storms, rains and darkness come back for the rest of the year. The book opens with tourists getting down the boat in Lerwick. An art opening is taking place at an upscale gallery on the beach, organized by famous painter Bella Sinclair, and also presenting some paintings by Fran Hunter, who happens to be… Jimmy Perez’ girlfriend. During the gathering a man with an English accent, whom nobody can really place, makes a bit of a scandal and Jimmy Perez escorts him outside. But the next day, the man is found dead, hanging from a rafter in a nearby shed. As it happens, it’s not suicide, but finding who this man is proves to be a challenge, as is the rest of this investigation. If nobody seems to know the victim, why would anyone want to kill him?

I really enjoyed the story and its quiet pace. Every character is well developed and full of his/her own faults and story, even people you hardly see for more than a few pages. For example, one woman on the island is a shopkeeper who reads novels and is very shy, I’m glad Cleeves took the time to develop her, although one feels that Perez never considers her a suspect. The person in England who knows the victim has her own backstory too. Shetland has small communities where everybody knows everything from their neighbors, and so you wouldn’t think it possible to have so many lies, treasons, bitterness and heavy feelings hidden from one another (and from the police) for years. My only reservation is that the resolution seemed to come out of the blue; although it made sense in terms of motive and opportunity, I still found it a bit unrealistic.

Cold Earth takes place years after White Nights, and let’s cut the chase to state that a lot has happened since then and Jimmy Perez’ girlfriend is no longer Fran Hunter. The opening scene is formidable: a burial on a rainy, winter day in Shetland triggers a landslide, which engulfs the road and a nearby house and kills a woman. A woman in a red silk dress in a cottage that everyone thought empty. Who was she? Perez is obsessed, especially as he learns that she was in fact killed before the landslide. The landslide’s scene struck me, especially as I have recently watched the Crown (season 3) covering the Aberfan disaster in 1966 (I had no idea of this historical event and it is presented in a very powerful way). Here the cemetery is literally pushed by the mountain and the rain into the North Sea, and the mental image is sure to leave a mark.

Perez works on this case with a Scottish police chief detective named Willow, and there’s definitely a spark (and more) between them. That’s the thing about reading books out of order. Now I have to tell you that Fran Hunter is, in fact, dead, and Jimmy Perez is still grieving, and also taking care of Fran’s little girl (in the TV series, the daughter is a lot older, so I was confused for awhile). Will he be able to get over his grief to allow himself all the feelings for Willow? Don’t worry, Ann Cleeves steers clear of the romance territory, we’re still very much in the cozy mystery/ thriller genre and the pace is rather more gripping than in the White Nights. Once again, I have a tiny bit of reservation with the resolution, but I’m totally ok to follow along whatever Douglas Henshall… erh, Ann Cleeves has in store for me.

I enjoyed this one even more than White Nights, and I might get back to read the books in-between, if during the colder months I’m in urgent need of rainy, windswept landscapes, Scottish accent, and Douglas Henshall.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, English Climate: Wartime Short Stories (2020)

I don’t know about fellow book bloggers, but in my experience it’s so much easier to write about a book one dislike than a beloved book, and to add another layer of complexity, it’s way easier to write about novels than short story collections. All this to say that I’m sorry to write only now about this collection I read and enjoyed in early July (!). If I delayed writing this post many times, it’s because the book is really good and I don’t want to mess it up!

This collection presents 22 stories written between 1940 and 1946, many of them published in the NewYorker for American readers. Of course, as this collection is published by beloved Persephone, it begets questions and comparisons with other women-centric short stories of the same period, such as Goodnight Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes (which I loved). Both collections focus on women’s daily experience on the home front (more often than not the quintessential British village or the upperclass mansion – think Midsommer Murders) and what goes in their hearts and minds beyond the official “Keep Calm and Carry On”: hopes and fears, tragedies, disappointments and tiny intimate upheavals. But Mollie Panter-Downes’ stories are a bit more emotional and kind, while these stories often have a darker undertone, although often tinged with enough humor to make it more palatable.

Even though I read them two months ago now, I still have fresh memories of these vivid scenes. Evacuee children from London to the countryside don’t react to their new surroundings like the adults expect them to. Tobacconists have few cigarettes left: which customers will they favor with their treasure? Wealthy homemakers contemplate the potentially liberating destruction of the home they’ve been restricted to. Women learn to use weapons in the perspective of a potential Nazi invasion, but perhaps they shouldn’t be trusted to have such powerful tools. Burrial ceremonies – and the ensuing family reunions – get disturbed by the impromptu falling of a bomb. Women in the absence of men make unconventional lodging arrangements. And so many other stories… We get to see a bit of everything, from wealthy to poor people, from Londoners to country people, and every time Sylvia Townsend Warner takes an unusual perspective.

I don’t know why Sylvia Townsend Warner is so little known and so little read. She’s been already a favorite writer of mine since Lolly Willowes, but I have neglected her for too long. This collection convinced me to try and find more books by her, either stories or novels. I’m writing this up for the winter!

Karen Maitland, Company of Liars (2008)

The book was pushed into my hands by Mr. S. himself, who encouraged me not to give up. Well I didn’t, although I was tempted more than once. I was squeamish about the pandemic setting (it’s set in 1348 during the Black Plague), but that wasn’t the problem. The thing is, it’s awfully slow. I might have enjoyed it more edited of a few hundreds pages.

I had understood that it was 1. a retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales 2. a mystery. Both are rather misleading. It compares to Chaucer to the extent that a group of different people travel together due to the plague and nothing more. The cover and the blurbs already announce that each of the travellers hide some secrets about themselves from the others, and then they die one by one. I’d supposed that some would die of the plague, but that’s not the case. And the first death actually occurs past the half mark of the book!

The book is actually part historical fiction, part thriller, part supernatural. I found the mix interestingly unusual but it is not my favorite. The question is not really whodunnit but why, and I didn’t care much for each person’s secret. The ending left me frustrated as well.

Still, I enjoyed the research on people’s everyday life and beliefs in the Middle Ages, which is rather unusual. I get that people back then had a lot of supernatural beliefs, but the supernatural part of the plot itself was rather distracting to me. It made me doubt the historical part.

I have a lot of great memories of Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders regarding the 1666 Plague and it should not compare… Any recommendations on good historical novels set in the Middle Ages?

Georges Simenon, Maigret Loses his Temper (1963)

Original title: La Colère de Maigret

As the novel starts, Maigret is huffing and puffing against bureaucracy and writing useless reports. He’s way more interested when someone informs him that the boss of several nightclubs has gone missing for several days. The man is by all means respectable, his competitors (who may or may not be as law-abiding as he is) call him “the grocer” behind his back (with the meaning of “bean counter”). Something is not right.

Indeed, three days after he’s disappeared, his body is found, strangled, near the Cimetière du Père Lachaise. Maigret and everybody else scratch their heads: it is not unexpected for nightclubs regulars to get killed, but gangsters don’t strangle, nor do they keep a dead body for days before disposing of it. Who had the man an appointment with, on the evening he walked away from his nightclub?

Now, I really don’t want to spoil anything (more) but the twist of the last 10 pages is a big one, and explains the title. Otherwise it would almost be a misnomer, as Maigret is slow, a bit impatient maybe, and his investigation is decisively low-key. But those last few pages almost take the book into a different genre, and I found that Simenon hurried things a bit too much. It’s common for Simenon not to tie nice bows on everything but in this case I felt that he could have made Maigret’s decisions or thoughts a bit clearer (especially in contrast with the investigation where he basically explains his method step by step). Anyway the conclusion will leave me thinking about it for some time…

Beyond the plot and the detective work itself, I enjoyed getting glimpses on Maigret’s personal life and what it tells of this era. Maigret goes home for lunch, and Madame Maigret is really expected to have every meal ready, except when her husband decides on a whim to not show up for dinner. Investigations continue on Saturdays, but everyone takes a break for Sunday and Maigret decides to go on a weekend break, for which Madame Maigret has to pack at one hour’s notice. Madame Maigret reads magazines and looks at her husband ironically as he goes fishing and doesn’t catch much. Madame Maigret is really a saint who hasn’t heard of women’s rights yet (this is 1963 for sure, and Simenon is annoyingly patronizing to women – if not worse, in other books). I wonder if Pierre Bayard would write an alternate version where Madame Maigret wasn’t so subservient and shallow.

Right now, I’m trying to imagine if it would be feasible in 2021 to decide on a Saturday at 5pm to hop on a train before dinner, book a hotel about 2 hours away and plan a last minute weekend getaway… (no app and just a landline). That certainly would be very expensive.

(ps. Sorry for the clumsy layout, I’m currently publishing from my phone)

Pierre Bayard, Aurais-je été résistant ou bourreau ? (2013)

Would I have been a member of Resistance or a henchman? (French, no English translation)

I continue my explorations of Pierre Bayard’s unconventional non-fiction books. In this one, he tries to answer in the most rational way (shall I say scientific?) the question that everyone (?) has wondered when watching movies about WW2: what would I have done if I had lived at that period? I always find it way too convenient and optimistic when people assume they would of course have done the “right thing” and joined the Resistance. Indeed, hindsight is always 20:20. But in reality? I personally do believe most people are in the middle and wait it out.

Pierre Bayard creates an alternate life for himself where he would have been born in the 1920s rather than after the war. He models some of his options on his father’s and assumes he would have fled to the south of France at the start of the war like so many people. He doesn’t see himself as having enough convictions and awareness to join De Gaulle in London in 1940. He also highlights how luck played a decisive role in many people joining the early Resistance. Sometimes doing what now is “the right thing” was just crazy. Sometimes it was totally out of character for those who did it. He rather guesses that he would have followed his studies in a similar way that he did in his real life, but would the Nazi regime and the French collaborationists have made him angry enough to actually do something?

Along the way he cites the Milgram experiment, the French village of Chambon-sur-Lignon that saved many Jews during the war as well as the most recent genocides where a few dissenting voices rose to defend the victims: Rwanda and Yugoslavian war. I expected those examples but they still taught me many things in trying to find a common thread among those few courageous people (many of which refuse to consider themselves as heroes). Bayard also refer to Louis Malle’s movie “Lacombe Lucien” (the script was written by Modiano, which I didn’t know), where a man turns into a collaborationist just through an unfortunate random event.

If you come to the book expecting a clear-cut answer to the title question, you might be disappointed. The path that Bayard imagines for himself is rather weak and average, not glorious nor infamous, but it is statistically possible, I’ll grant him that. He explains that from 1943 Resistance gained much more traction as people calculated that the odds of the Nazis winning the war were now really low, which explains a lot (even if it didn’t make resisting the Nazis any less dangerous)

The book’s intention is laudable, but I still believe that you can’t know how you’d react by thinking about it rationally and abstractly like Bayard does. Like 2020 showed us, you can’t tell how you’d react to a global pandemic before living through one every day for more than a year (and WW2 was 6 years long!). The friends or neighbors who took risks, the first ones who wore masks, the ones who were prudent at first but then who could bear another round of confinement, the ones who confessed that they’d washed down all the groceries and the ones who couldn’t be bothered, the ones who cheated to get the vaccines first and the ones who waited until the last minute… They were certainly not the ones I’d expected. I can also say that I’m rubbish at reading people or that I didn’t know them intimately enough, but I still wonder if 2020 would make Pierre Bayard think twice about his book’s theories.

Well, what about writing an alternate version to Pierre Bayard’s alternate life? 😜