The One in 1937 Beijing

Paul French, Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (2012)

I sadly don’t remember exactly where I first heard of this book, but I suspect that it might be on the Sinina podcast. Someone spoke of or wrote about this book in glowing terms, and I’m quite grateful that it put me on the scent of this true-crime-meets-history-book. I rarely read true crime books (as you may know that I read little non-fiction anyway), but this one fascinated me, not by the criminal aspect per se, but for the historical and social depth it provided. It made 1937 Peking alive again, and it’s no small feat. You can hear the noises, smell the street food and see the fancy hotels as well as the most sordid slums and bars.

I lived in Beijing (that’s how we’re supposed to spell Peking) for several years in the early 2000s and I never even heard of the foreign legation quarters. (That I didn’t hear about this particular murder is not surprising, given that’s it’s more of a footnote of history). It’s not that the Chinese capital is totally oblivious of its past… it’s rather that it’s very selective about it. The Forbidden Palace, yes, the Temple of Heaven, yes. Everything that celebrates the grandiose past of the Chinese capital is preserved. Some carefully preserved old neighborhoods where tourists can do tours, as well. In the Old Summer palace, there are signs in front of ruins reminding that the French and British troops are responsible for this destruction in 1860 and in 1900. But the fact that foreigners did live in Peking in an enclosed neighborhood as late as 1937? I’d never even thought about it. A short note at the end of the book mentions that the cemetery for foreigners, where the young girl at the center of this investigation was buried, has been replaced by the Second ring road: I believe it says a lot, and I can only credit the writer for his thorough investigation.

Pamela Werner was a British high school student who studied at a boarding school for foreigners in Tientsin, but she came back to her father’s home in old Peking for the winter break. On one night in January, as the Chinese are preparing for the Chinese New Year celebrations and the Russians celebrate their own festival, she goes to the skating ring to meet with friends, but fails to come back home. Her body will be found the next morning in an awful state.

The murder of a foreigner, and a young girl at that, was a shock for the foreign community in Peking and was a nightmare for the Chinese police who had to deal with diplomacy as well as the investigation, which was led conjointly with a British policeman sent from Tientsin. The investigation didn’t lead to any arrest, and Pamela’s father later launched into his own investigation and arrived to his own conclusion, based on very dubious confessions by very dubious people. Whether you believe it or not is entirely your choice, and I don’t think that I was 100% convinced by French’s theory, even though he presented it convincingly.

1937 Beijing was on the brink of disaster. The Japanese forces were increasingly present and arrogant (the murder occurred a mere 6 months before the Marco Polo bridge incident which marked the beginning of the war). Countless Russian refugees who had fled the Soviets at the onset of the 1917 Revolution were at the end of their tethers and lived in abject poverty, prostitution and drug trafficking. One single dead girl, however horrific were her circumstances, soon weighed little when war started and most foreigners left the country.

This book highlighted my selective ignorance of some part of the history of China and Beijing. I’m even more curious to find some social history of 20th China, which would counterbalance my knowledge which is far too centered on very high-level events.

The One with the Oyster Attraction

Georges Simenon, Maigret Goes to School (1954)

Last time I wrote about choosing a book for all the wrong reasons (well, not exactly wrong, but shallow at best), and today I want to tell about this weird investigation that Maigret chooses for all the shallowest reasons. It is spring in Paris (a timely book if any!), the temperatures are up, the birds are chirping, and Maigret wants to take some fresh air. He stops on his way to the police quarters to have a drink, and when he comes back, a weird guy waits for him in the waiting area. A poor guy who has run from home in rural France, taken the last train to Paris, not slept a wink the whole night in order to appeal to the famous Commissaire Maigret: only Maigret would save him, because all the villagers are convinced that he committed a murder and the local police won’t listen to him.

In truth Maigret doesn’t really care for the man, who isn’t really convincing or fascinating, but the suspicious death of a retired postmistress is set in a small village near the sea, and because Maigret remembers he had excellent oysters and white wine there, he takes a few days off to look into the case. When he arrives on site, he learns that the postmistress was universally hated because she was a gossip and a blackmailer, but that the local community hates even more the teacher who has arrived from Paris in disgrace and doesn’t fit into this village of wine merchants, farmers and tradesmen.

I tend to prefer Maigret stories set in Paris, but Simenon is also very good when describing tight-knit villages and the boredom and gossip there. I really enjoyed the slow methods of Maigret, and the care he takes to interrogate the kids who were in class at the time of the murder. The teacher got out for some admin duties just then and the kids were doing anything but studying, including looking outside… but there are as many lies as witness accounts.

As a 2021 reader I was rather shocked by the amount of alcohol that is consumed almost on every page. From morning till night, every time someone has to tell Maigret any secret, they do it sharing a glass of wine, a shot of strong spirit or even some alcohol-laced coffee. I’m just surprised that Maigret can discover the truth and not get to bed with a massive hungover. There’s a running joke about those coveted oysters and white wine that decided Maigret to take up the case: because of neap tide, he won’t even have any for the whole duration of the investigation!

The One with the Three Kopp Sisters of Pennsylvania

Amy Stewart, Girl Waits with Gun (2015)

I chose this book to go with the February prompt of the Unread Shelf challenge: a book I got for free, as I got it from a dear friend, but it could have also met the January prompt: a book with high expectations. This novel is a typical case of high expectations… which were not entirely met. (Luckily for the books I chose in January, my expectations then didn’t let me down). My high expectations came with the Elizabeth Gilbert’s blurb, calling it “smart, romping, hilarious”, and with the stylish cover art showing a short hair girl with a gun.

I should have known better than to trust blurbs, and a quick read of the back cover informs me that the action takes place in 1914, which is not at all the style of hair and hat that the book cover presents. (Yes, I am a stickler with historical fashion faux-pas, and all sorts of anachronisms). I’m sorry for the author, but the publisher’s choices are plain misleading. The book is smart, but romping and hilarious it is not. I found it rather slow-going, which is also fine except when one expects romping. The book sticks closely to the historical facts, and realistic history is rarely romping and hilarious per se. And because the author takes her research seriously enough to provide source materials at the end, I’m sure she is as sorry as I am about poor hair choices of the cover art.

I am surprised that the novel was published in 2015, because it seems that I have heard a lot of glowing reviews about it in 2019 and last year, and I had not noticed it so much when it first came out. Anyway. The book had attracted my attention by being presented as a historical crime fiction based on the little-known but true facts of the first female deputy sheriff. I was therefore disappointed that the book was more about the three sisters Kopp, who led a dull and isolated life on a small farm of New Jersey with no professions of their own. The bulk of the book does not feature a deputy sheriff at all, this is actually what the next book might well be about.

Still, there’s a lot of good things about this book. The research I already mentioned makes living in New Jersey in 1914 very true to life. We see how few prospects respectable girls had, and how any straying from the rightful path might be punished socially for years. We see three girls who have been raised by a very strict immigrant mother from Austria, who defined rules and behaviors and limited her daughters’ choices so much that even beyond the grave the girls can’t really decide for themselves how they want to lead their life. Constance Kopp’s slow awakening from these rigorous Victorian rules is interesting: the fact that only an unlucky close encounter with thugs and crime opens her eyes to who she wants to be makes her an endearing character, one who has a lot of potential for new adventures. I’ve just checked and it seems that there are now 7 books in the series (!!), I’m just not patient enough to follow it through.

Unread Shelf Challenge March Update

Sorry to hit you with the bad news first, there might be something like “reading challenge fatigue” just like Zoom fatigue or Covid fatigue. I’m not feeling so inspired by the challenge and the prompts. Don’t worry, I still want to stick to it because frankly, why buy books and let them gather dust on our (very small by US standards) home? Objectively I didn’t fare all that bad in February. I had picked 2 books I got for free. I read one of them fully (review soon), and I skimmed the other.

“Le Mystère Sherlock” by J.M. Erre is a laugh-out-loud kind of book, with OTT situations and zany characters all around. In a Swiss hotel called “Baker Street” is held a university convention of the top French Sherlock Holmes specialists. They have been all invited by the senior head of the university department who will designate his successor among the guests. But when the novel starts, a snow avalanche has been blocking all access, and when the firefighters get into the hotel, they discover all 10 guests dead.

Of course, this is a parody of Christie’s “And there were none”. We know what to expect from the start. It was fine to begin with, but the humor was a bit too much for me. A bit too… schoolboyish, even by French standards. I have already mentioned that humor books are a tough sell for me, and this one proved no different. I could take it in small quantities, but not for 300+ pages. The book is full of puns and jokes, and witty remarks on Sherlock Holmes fandom and university, but after a while it was bit repetitive, and each voice of the characters (who take turn to tell the story) was not very different from the others. I skimmed the second half of the book and I felt content with just that.

What about March? Whitney invites us to some (much-dreamed-about) travelling, she wants us to read a book we bought on a trip. Oh my, it made me so nostalgic about travel! I haven’t been traveling much or at all for more than one year, and the last book I bought on this last trip has been read and accounted for a while back. In the last few years I have purchased fewer books during our trips because either we didn’t find any bookshop in the small towns we went, or I had packed a full Kindle and I didn’t need any new reading material during our trip. With two kids and often no car, we have to keep our bags quite compact and paper books are a bit too cumbersome.

So, Whitney’s challenge left me in a quandary, and I decided to partially respect the prompt, and to ad-lib the rest: if she wants us to travel, I’d choose a book with a faraway destination. Here’s what I choose:

Maigret Goes to School by Georges Simenon, which is a book I bought on a whim last summer while we were visiting my parents on a socially distanced basis (and we were on a road trip to be independent, so no luggage worry, therefore the impulse purchase). It was one of these books you get for free when you buy a magazine, and Simenon always seemed like a good idea. Of course I haven’t even cracked the spine open yet. After Fécamp, where will Simenon take me this time?

My second book is Midnight in Peking, by Paul French, a book which sat on my wishlist for quite a while, since 2015 actually, and which I recently bought (more about that later). Peking in 1937 seems distant enough in time and geography to make me forget for a while our own present troubled times. The subtitle runs: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. I’m quite ready to be haunted!

Do you enjoy buying books while on a trip? (Remember trips?) What faraway destination do you like reading about?

The One with the Pre-War Ennui

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (1930)

Of course I knew of Vita Sackville-West, because of her romantic relationship with Virginia Woolf. I had read about her, her wealth and eccentricity (in a French sort of biography), I had watched the movie Vita and Virginia (I appreciated the aesthetics but didn’t really enjoy the movie), but somehow I hadn’t read her best-selling novel. My own blog reminds me that I have indeed read a novella / short story of hers: The death of Noble Godavary, a decade ago (!) but it has hardly marked my memory. I expected something in the vein of Nancy Mitford or in Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for a wedding. There was wit indeed, and some piercing views of the British upper class made me laugh out loud: “Lucy laughed her silvery laugh, the laugh that had made several men believe that she understood what they said.

The Edwardians is the portait of a young charming duke, Sebastian, who will one day inherit a large fortune and a large estate, and who is weighted down by the traditions and the hypocrisy of the British upper class. He has been brought up to conform, but he despises the people he has to mingle with. He is torn between his sincere love for his estate and his clarity for the emptiness and meaninglessness of the aristocracy. It has clearly the ambition to portrait a whole generation and to allude to particular scandalous cases, as the writer warns that “no character in this book is wholly fictitious“.

As readers (of no particular wealth), we are, like Sebastian, both fascinated by these grand estate à la Downton Abbey, with countless staff and weekly lavish parties for dozen of guests, and repulsed by loveless marriages, dating schemes, serial lovers and vapid conversations. But what got to me most in the book is the feeling of nostalgia for a world that is doomed. Sebastian is bored and forlorn, but Sackville-West and us readers all know what lay ahead for him. I will not disclose the plot ending, but the book ends with the coronation of King George in 1910, just a few years before the start of World War 1. If not for this bitter-sweet feeling, Sebastian, with all his privilege, self-centeredness and lack of understanding for the way real people live, would have been insufferable.

In a sense, my reading of this novel was marked by the one huge book I read this year, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Brittains was not an aristocrat, she belonged to the upper-middle class, and her view of the Edwardian era was so rosy. Sebastian’s world is very far from Brittain’s, and Sebastian’s sister Viola (probably modelled on Vita herself?) would probably have been envious of Vera’s education and sense of freedom. I enjoyed the novel but I preferred Vera’s firm grasp on the realities and her courageous choices.

The One with Wise French Adults

Pamela Druckerman, There Are No Grown-ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story (2018)

I bought this book (at a train station, of all places) because I was intrigued. The 40s are not an age many people write about. Coming-of-age novels are about twenty-somethings, right? I can’t think of many novels or movies heroines that are in that age bracket (I hate this term). And now that (personal disclosure alert) I have reached the said bracket, I was looking for some guidance, some empathy, or some humor about its particular challenges. I did find all three, so the book did the job, right? It’s a bit of a mixed bag, and as many readers on Goodreads have been rather harsh in their reviews, I’m inclined to defend it.

Pamela Druckerman is well known for singing the praise of French education to anxious American mothers. I haven’t read that particular book (Bringing up Bébé), I just leafed through it. I tend to be too harsh with books that take the cultural traits of some people of a particular (exotic) country and generalize it, because it’s way too easy to find counter examples. Perhaps I’m getting mellower, but I enjoyed this one.

I expected a book about how well French women do their forties (and get fat in the process? no, Druckerman advocates for wisdom and balance instead), I didn’t expect the memoir-ish side of the book. The author comes from a Jewish family in Florida, who chose to keep her away from harsh realities (especially in social interactions) while she was growing up, so that she later felt that the truth was always escaping her. She chose the right career for this proclivity (journalism), and also married a man who seemed to provide all the answers to her questions. I really enjoyed the way she explained her upbringing and wrote about her vulnerabilities. I didn’t relate to her particular anxiety, but I really felt for her.

The French women she talks about are very privileged, as she seems to mainly socialize with the Parisian upper-middle class and expat crowd, but she really nails down some of the cultural traits of my fellow country people, and it was good fun, and highlighted some aspects of the American culture that remain very foreign to me. Here’s the time when she was asked to deliver a commencement speech at a private university in Paris:

French universities usually don’t even have a ceremony; they just mail your diploma. A professor at one of the top schools in Paris tells me that she once showed her class Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. Jobs describes how he dropped out of college and studies calligraphy, which seemed pointless at the time but later became the basis for the font of Apple computers. He concludes that when you follow your passion, all your strange choices gradually make sense, and the great narrative of your life emerges. Her French students were unmoved by the speech, calling it “completely disconnected from reality” and “so Californian”.

That puts me in a tricky spot. The whole point of a commencement speech is to say something encouraging. Most of the ones I watch boil down to: Yes you can. Here’s how. But I’ll be in Paris, speaking to a graduating class that’s only a quarter American […]. If I say something too uplifting, I’ll seem deluded. The message of a French commencement speech would probably be: No you can’t. It’s not possible. Don’t even try.

It’s not a ground-breaking book, but it’s entertaining, moving and a quick read, proving that 40-something people are definitely fun to be around!

The One with the Surfing Night Cop

Michael Connelly, The Late Show (2017)

I’m a fan of Connelly, so I am biased and I don’t even hide it. But reading this book with a completely new heroine was so invigorating that Bosch paled a little in comparison. You can feel a new energy in Connelly having the freedom to develop a whole new character without being encumbered by the 20+ books that have come before and that he must remain faithful to.

Renée Ballard is quite a fresh and energetic protagonist, and also very different from Bosch. A young female detective on the night shift for the LAPD, she has an interesting backstory. Ambitious and driven, she used to be promised for great things, but a few years’ back she was sexually harassed by her boss and she publicly complained against him. The complaint didn’t go through and he made her pay. She’s supposed to just go from one case to the next and transfer everything to the daytime investigators, but Renée is determined to keep some cases for herself to investigate.

I couldn’t believe how fast I got into this new character, she’s just as good as Bosch in a completely different way. The idea of the night shift provides a lot of very different cases and plot twists to the stories, and Connelly doesn’t shy away from putting his new character in the most dangerous circumstances. The awesome thing about this bad-ass heroine is that she’s inspired by a real-life person, whom Connelly thanks at the end of the novel. More info here for the fans.

It’s the third Connelly I read in 2020, because I have really embraced comfort reads and self-care in book form. But I’m so glad to have several Ballard books ahead of me already!

The One with the War Trauma

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (1933)

I really wish I could remember where I had first heard of this book (a blog post, most probably) and why I had put it on my wishlist in the first place. When I bought it, I was intimidated by the sheer weight of these 600+, single-spaced pages in tiny font. It went to gather some dust on my shelves for a few years (?), until I resolved to read it during this spring lock-down, because what better times to launch into an ambitious read?

Ahem, I don’t know about you, but to me at least, lock-down is not a good time to read such a big book, in a genre (autobiography) that I’m not familiar with, in a style (1920s-1930s) that is not marked by short sentences and straightforward syntax. Also, I feared very much that it would be gloomy and gore (trenches and all), and I didn’t want to add this to my own worries. So it gathered some more dust. I really required some kick in the butt to get to it.

So, come October and #Unreadshelf challenge: I decided that the book was scary enough, lingering for months on my nightstand and filling me with guilt and dread. I knew it was a good book, and I wanted to achieve something (anything?) in this infamous year. 688 pages later, I’m so proud I’ve done it! (and also to have finished it before the new lock-down, where I will safely turn to comfort reads).

I’ve learnt a lot about the evolution of life between the beginning of the century and the late 1920s, and it put me in the shoes of a young, very courageous girl set with difficult choices. I took the book without any prior knowledge of Brittain, and I didn’t know that she was feminist, a writer and that she had lived into the 1970s. I just knew of her war experience as a V.A.D. and of her friendship with Winifred Holtby (without having read anything by any of them). It was also heart-breaking, as Vera Brittain essentially lost not only her fiancé, but also her brother and all of her male friends to WWI, making her feel like the best men of a generation have completely disappeared and leaving the country without any future elite.

The book shows also Vera Brittain’s fortitude as she refuses to sit by the war and do nothing. She had first to fight her way through Victorian and Edwardian bourgeois conventions to be allowed to pass exams for Oxford University, but she was there for only one year when the war started. She decided to put her studies on hold and to volunteer as V.A.D., which was not an enviable job despite the official patriotic talk. She had led a privileged, sheltered life, and the choice she made confronted her to circumstances very different and tough.

Her autobiography reads like a coming-of-age novel, like a doomed love story, like a survival story. The war chapters were really captivating after the first few chapters. Brittain’s skills as a novelist are not lost. The postwar chapters, on the other hand, were more difficult, because we’re not familiar with the League of Nations, the peace negotiations and diplomacy of the interwar era anymore. I do believe that in 1933 the book was very novel and shocking in matter-of-factly describing a woman’s individual war experience, in a post-war period that largely chose amnesia and nationalist propaganda over any questioning about the war trauma and the changes that the world war brought on for young men and women.

The few pages at the armistice of 1918 are really gut-wrenching, when Vera almost loses her sanity and will to live after so many blows, and the knowledge that the war was essentially useless. She’s wrecked with disillusions and grief, but as was current in the period, she doesn’t really acknowledge her own trauma but in passing.

If you’re interested to see if Brittain speaks about the 1919 pandemic of Spanish flu, you’d be surprised that there is no allusion about it at all. The book finishes with her decision to turn to a new, brighter future, but as the book came out in 1933, it was hard for me not to worry about the gathering storm that was just around the corner.

The One with the Projects Kids in the Mansion

Elizabeth Taylor, The Devastating Boys (1972)

Short stories collection are tough to speak about especially when they are so different, so this time I’m just going to tell you about the most memorable ones in the book. Yet I feel that I should start with a sort of warning, because among these stories, several central characters are Black, and the way she writes about them is quite dated and awkward to read nowadays, although she clearly condemns the racism of other people for these characters.

“The Devastating Boys”: A university don’s wife with an empty nest receives, upon her husband’s insistance, two underprivileged kids from London for a fortnight, supposedly to offer them a holiday but also to give herself a project as she feels a little adrift. The two boys are very boisterous, not instantly loveable but they do settle in. We don’t quite know how the boys will or won’t be changed by this short vacation, but we see the influence on their hosts and this is quietly moving. I felt that this self-effacing character had so much potential!

“The Fly-paper”: A girl has to take the bus to go to her weekly music lesson across town. This does not go as planned. This short story is very, very creepy, and could well feature in a Halloween collection. I won’t say more because Taylor is a master of “less is more”.

“In and Out of Houses”: a girl on a school break visits all her neighbors in her village. She thinks she does it out of kindness and charity, but what she does is actually spread gossips from one house to the next and break havoc in the village. This one is laugh-out-loud material.

“Miss A. and Miss M.”: well, I loved this story, but I had totally forgotten that I had read it 13 years ago and reviewed it on this very blog! How embarrassing… yet I still fully agree with what I wrote back then, at least.

“Sisters”: Mrs Mason is a banal, respectable ageing woman busy with tea and cards with her friends. Nobody knows that Mrs. Mason’s sister is Marion, a famous and scandalous (dead) writer, until a journalist comes knocking at Mrs. Mason to ask questions and write Marion’s bio. Once again, Taylor is so good at taking an unexpected direction.

Actually, I could tell you about most of those 11 stories, because Taylor is such a talented writer! I want to explore Virago collections to see what else I have missed.

The One with the Old Young Ladies

Georges Duby, Dames du XIIe: Héloise, Aliénor, Iseut et Quelques Autres (French 1995, English 1997)

I must have slept during the lessons on the XIIth century at school, because quite frankly, I wouldn’t really name any big event happening then. It’s all muddled under the vague umbrella of Middle Ages, which is often a synonym for Those-Backwards-Times-we-care-little-about. Am I right? And I’m just talking about the French school curriculum, not even about the American curriculum…

And yet, when I hear the names of Héloise, Iseut or Aliénor, I feel that I am familiar with who they are (I probably have a teacher to thank for this bit of knowledge, but who? Sorry…). Heloise is the intellectual abbess who received love letters from Abelard, Iseut is the fictional princess for whom the knight Tristan falls, and Alienor was a powerful queen married once to the King of France and once to the King of England. But do I really know them? I know what people have told us, which means actually: what old white male have written about them, and they didn’t really look at them with loving eyes. There are no other information about them except for highly doctored accounts, and this book is no attempt at a real biography.

Georges Duby’s ambition with this thin book is to show through a few famous female figures how the male view on women pivoted in this 12th century. Before that, they were just chattel and sex objects and nothing to write (home) about. Duby explains, in a very readable way, that suddenly men have a little more time and wealth to care about other things than just war and survival, and that in this perspective they got more interested in women, their feelings and sensibility. As if we were witnessing the birth of the idea of love… Not to the point of listening to their women’s desires and respecting their opinion yet! Of course they are still supposed to obey their father, lord and husband and produce heirs…

But at that point, it became possible for a queen to be powerful or a simple merchant’s daughter to find strategies to avoid marriage (by becoming a nun…). Of course men didn’t like it and their reputation was slandered. But the fact that they existed proved that things were slowly changing. Another driving force of the 12th century was the rise of the church as an establishment that set rules for the whole of society. Marriage was one of those new rules, and monks and priests clearly defined what was possible or forbidden for a woman to do, for many centuries to come.

This book (one of my September #Unreadshelf challenge and non-fiction picks) was very interesting and I learnt so much in less than 200 pages! I’m always fearful and intimidated by big history books, but perhaps I can find some more accessible ones on some special topics. I’m particularly interested to explore French history authors like Mona Ozouf (specialized in the social history of the Revolution) and Michel Pastoureau (specialized in cultural symbols). Any other random and highly readable history books that have stuck in your memory?